Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sans Soleil (1983)

Directed by Chris Marker.
In a Nutshell: A montage of videos from cultures across the world.

Sans Soleil is one of the most poetic and rich films I have seen in a very long time. But in writing this review, how on earth do I describe it? The simplest explanation I have is this. Sans Soleil is a collection of videos taken worldwide, organized like a travel log. Much of the focus placed on the impoverished Guinea-Bissau and the technologically advancing Tokyo. Also included is Paris, a shot of Iceland from the 60’s that bookends the film, and a detour to San Francisco that indulges in seeing the locations Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was filmed. The movie is narrated by an unseen woman, revealed at the end to be a man named Sandor Krasnar, who is actually Chris Marker’s alter ego. That is the film, but at the same time nowhere near what the film “is”.

It has little structure and little concreteness to hang a summation on. One of the clearer ideas that surfaces is its analysis of Vertigo. Narrative-wise, it drops in apropos of nothing but is not entirely random. Vertigo is a film about the dangers of memory and the past’s destructive influence on the present. Sans Soleil is wed to the similar idea that the true resonance of the past cannot be captured and even the simple photograph or recorded video cannot hold truth. At the odd moment, the film will enter into “The Zone” where a Japanese computer scientist (again, a Marker alter ego) turns the film into dichromatic, flat images. It captures the image, but renders it unrecognizable. One image that survives this deconstruction is the idyllic shot of the girls in Iceland. Even though neither Marker nor the audience knows the true nature behind the girls, but the film keeps it as an untouched emblem of purity.

There is no way I can make a concrete statement to summarize this film. I imagine some who are reading this still have no idea what this is about. I believe San Soleil does not wish to trick the viewer into the somewhat altered views of Marker’s travelogue but revel in how the power of the subjective human memory. It is a film with no set context or aim, but let’s the assemblage of video and narration shape its own interpretation for each viewer. This is a film you just need to experience for yourself.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano.
In a Nutshell: A ruthless prospector’s quest for wealth during America’s oil boom.

Leaning shamelessly on the hyperbolic, I will boldly pronounce There Will Be Blood to be American filmmaking at its very finest. It completely immerses into its universe; every scene meticulously crafted into its own masterpiece. But enough indiscriminate fawning, to what degree is this film so masterful? To begin, the rise and fall of oil baron Daniel Plainview (a soon-to-be iconic performance by Daniel Day-Lewis) is a microcosm on the sweeping themes that define our American history. Community versus the individual, capitalism versus religion, ruthless self-assertion mixed with ambition, and the self-made American’s empire built on lies, opportunism and misanthropy. Both Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson say these with a glorious embellishment, but TWBB never resembles self-parody.

Despite the film’s grandiose themes playing front and center, TWBB never loses sight of its main focus, the corruption of Plainview. Formally a shrewd businessman raising the orphaned son of one of his workers, his volcanic rise into oil poisons his soul beyond salvation. The quiet displays of humanity quickly burn up in Plainview’s uncontrollable greed and anger, culminating in a horrifying, nearly inhuman monster. Day-Lewis is simply transcendent, a ferocious intensity barely restrained by his assured, taciturn delivery. Paul Dano as an equally opportunistic preacher displays a childish petulance that is wholly indicative of the character, and was unfortunately mistaken by some to be overripe acting.

There Will Be Blood is no less a culmination of laudable scope and beautiful execution. Robert Elswit’s haunting cinematography turns the American West into a harsh, alien landscape. Not just for our experience, but for Plainview’s; eyeing the burgeoning civilization and its inhabitants as simple exploitation. Jonny Greenwood’s unique score supplies a foreboding resonance to Plainview’s story and is strong enough as a standalone masterpiece. As the story unfolds, tragedy comes by hand of God and man and Plainview’s growing success further robs him of his ties to humanity. The finale scene shocks not by its animalistic nature of its actions, but of the way ambition coupled with materialistic hunger has damaged Plainview beyond repair. Anderson has masterfully constructed his own tale of brutal success and comeuppance, a truly American tale sparing no spilled drop of blood. True cinema excellence.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Directed by John Huston.
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston.
In a Nutshell: Three men find themselves at odds after a successful excavation of gold.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an unflinching, black humored parable on the greed of men. For a studio film carrying some serious matinee appeal, it unabashedly strikes at the moral complexes that would leave us to sell our humanity for some buried treasure. The film stars Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt as Dobbs and Curtin, drifters caught up in a quest for gold by the seasoned Howard (Walter Huston, John’s father). They make their way to Mexico and, sure enough, find plenty of gold to abolish any future job worries. It is keeping the gold that ends in downfall.

While there is some zesty adventure to be had, it is the characterizations of the three protagonists and the fates that ascribe for themselves that drive TTotSM. Bogart plunges fearlessly into his role as the pitiful, desperate Dobbs. Devoid of any movie star charm, Bogart teeters on self-destruction, never letting go of his prize. Huston is the old-time prospector and has a few amusing moments with that character. But Huston gives Howard a quiet sensibility to his surroundings, knowing all too well the cost of their success. Holt is also effective as a good heart tested by his situation. The plot unfolds into false pretenses, murderous bandits, and the cruelty of Mexico’s heat (photographed in scorching detail by Ted McCord) as the men hold onto their remaining sanity.

By the end, each man gets what he deserves, to varying severity and Huston has given an uncompromising look at the crumbled ruins of men’s souls. The screenplay (also written by Huston) does not wallow in analytical probing, but shows us through every action, gesture and line the pathos of each man’s struggle. Shot on location, there is a haunting, rugged beauty to the sparse plantation and arid sun that complements the film’s realistic focus. A perfectly competent adventure film, but an even more powerful depiction of the material hunger that can comprise even the purest of consciences.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Straw Dogs (1971)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George.
In a Nutshell: A newlywed couple face the harassment of a rural England town.

Sam Peckinpah, despite his well-earned reputation as “Bloody Sam,” is an incredibly underrated director in his depiction of humanity versus life’s cruelty. Though with Straw Dogs, it’s questionable whether his nihilism got the better of him. Straw Dogs involves two young newlyweds, meek mathematician David (Dustin Hoffman) and childish flirt Amy (Susan George). They move to Amy’s hometown where David’s American ways immediately irks the townspeople. David also hires one of Amy’s old beaus as a handyman, and Amy does not miss an opportunity to flaunt herself before the workers. Amy defines herself as a woman who can control others with her sexuality, though her teasing finds herself raped by her ex. That she ends up succumbing to the rape, evokes an adolescent confusion between both men and whatever uncontrolled feelings that follow. But when David takes in a man wanted for murder, he summons up enough muscle to defend his home from the mobbing townspeople in a lengthy, unrestrained bloodbath. And this was where the film lost me.

That is not to say the scene of David defending his home is what undermines the movie (though its excessiveness is borderline pornography). But it compromises what the movie could have been about. Throughout the movie, David is a wimp; a portrait of man pushed and kicked around by the crude townspeople. His marital conflicts with Amy never come to closure and the tension she creates just ends up being more fuel for David’s fire. If everything about this film is presented exactly as Peckinpah intended, I can only infer that he intended to show the animalistic capacity of civilized men within placed in the most barbaric of settings (That sounds offensive to small-town British folk, but given Peckinpah’s portrayal, I have no apologies). There is the meditation on violence. David is left unsure of his own murderous tendencies, but the film’s events can only apply to David. As a commentary on our own capacity for violence, its presentation is too extreme to resonate. It seems like Peckinpah had the seeds of a good idea, but too much broad characterization and plot elements leave it a blood-soaked mess.

For the basic gist of Straw Dogs at only a fraction of the running time, I advise watching this. Believe me, it is no less ridiculous.