Saturday, June 26, 2010

8½ (1963)

Directed by Federico Fellini.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale.
In a Nutshell: A film director struggles to find inspiration for his next project.

Has there ever been a movie more in tune with life than Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8½? Bursting with Fellini’s inventive style and essayist human turmoil, it has remained unequaled as the top movie about moviemaking. As a landmark in Fellini’s career, it displays a confidence and grace that eluded his later, overly-flourished work. 8½ tells the story of celebrated director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), consumed and bored by his vices, searching for meaning in his latest movie. Unbeknown to his financers, actors, and confidents, Guido has yet to overcome his crippling director’s block. As he buckles under the strain, Guido’s psyche is explored through his reality, memory and dreams.

To uncover the neurosis of ambition and human anxiety is a daunting task, one that Fellini ironically has no issues rising to. Fellini and his camera glide through 8½’s many famous set pieces, blending memory with fantasy. Even Guido’s real life (played like a crumbling aftermath to La Dolce Vita’s hedonistic Hell) bustles with an infectious rhythm, aided by the many musicians and bands that float into view. That the film ends in a parade is only too perfect, a vision of Guido’s relief. Guido has his troubles (surely a reflection of Fellini’s own), but why settle for dourness? He delights in the baroque, fashioning outsize sets and colorful characters to illustrate Guido’s mind. Even regarded as simple visuals, it is a triumph of cinematic expression.

This sounds like a celebration of a man’s creative strife, and perhaps it is. Guido/Fellini is not asking for forgiveness, but to embrace the chaos. Guido/Fellini leave space to ponder the meaning their ambitions have on their lives, the poignancy that stops 8½ from becoming an inert pile of whimsy. The real beauty is how real Guido is to our own selves. He hides, lies, romanticizes and repeatedly yearns for his carefree days as a child. 8½ is less about director’s block (or Fellini’s invention) than the measure of one’s life and the roles we play. A searing introspection, diffused with the visual flair of purest escapism. A masterstroke of cinema, encapsulating life at its most turbulent.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Uma Thurman and David Carradine.
In a Nutshell: An assassin seeks to confront her would be-killer/ex-lover.

More talky than violent, Volume 2 of Quentin Tarantino’s saga is an admirable attempt to rein in the first volume’s chop-socky brutality for a quieter resonance. Loftier goals to be sure, but Tarantino’s indulgences work more against his aims for Volume 2. A few footnotes on the first volume are sufficient to catch any viewer up to Volume 2; The Bride (Uma Thurman) has defeated half of the Assassination Squad that massacred her wedding (seen in flashback). On the way towards defeating the rest, she will reunite with her daughter (presumed dead before birth) and Bill (David Carradine), her ex-master, ex-lover, father of her child, and orchestrator of her would-be murder.

Tarantino clearly loves his characters and treats the Bride and Bill’s relationship with care. Thurman and Carradine give toughened, subtle performances to illustrate a deeper history and dimension. Expected of any Tarantino film, there is dialogue, heavy with faux-Eastern burnishes. Though with a film with a clear need for momentum, long passages of talk only sandbag and lack the bite of his earlier features. Volume 1 may have been a thin update of trash, but had the kinetic skills to flirt with its own origins. Now, Tarantino’s portrayal of motherly anguish and betrayal spills out in turgid, self-mocking passages of “sophisticated” geek-speak. The production of Kill Bill suggested that this dissonance between the two volumes was organic. Both productions are still overly indulgent, one livelier than the other. Volume 2 is a worthy effort, but exists in a different universe than its first volume, where Tarantino’s bracing love of films can shatter its boundaries.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu.
In a Nutshell: An assassin, left for dead by her former allies, seeks revenge.

Perhaps the most forceful element of Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge drama is not the geysers of blood, or the Girl Power, or the eclectic, genre-bridging soundtrack. Kill Bill may be the purest expression of cinema love from the industry’s top cinema geek. Tarantino famously loves his movies without irony and affectionately uses Kill Bill to distort and pay homage to “trash” genres (kung-fu, spaghetti western, giallo, etc). Volume 1 (occurring between Volume 2’s events) has little going for it besides fight scenes and bursts of lavish storytelling. This can come off as self-indulgent, but Tarantino is having too much fun with his toys to care. Ultra-violent to be sure, though Kill Bill arguably does not glorify its violence. It glorifies cinematic glorifications of violence with enough sense to not be gruesome.

Despite being produced as one film, Volume 1 carries a starkly different presence. Free of any backstory or conclusion, it is just gleeful exercises of cinematic embellishment. Kill Bill’s relentless flourishes can leave the emotional base (a mother’s anger over her child) out of Tarantino’s grasp. Though that may be beyond the “point” of Volume 1’s ambitions to honor excess cinema. Any narrative incoherence, cartoonish consequence or stilted acting free becomes instantly free from criticism with Tarantino’s imagination left to run amok. Too many scenes of geek worship (e.g. a cameo by martial arts legend Sonny Chiba) or sickening subtext (some business with a slimy male nurse) detract from the film’s spryness. But overall, Kill Bill Vol. 1 remains unfettered with a skilled command of cinematic joy. Undeniably self-indulgent, but fun nonetheless.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.
In a Nutshell: A prostitute searches for his mother with his unrequited crush.

An odd blend of storytelling, My Own Private Idaho is a loose reworking of Shakespeare’s Henry IV framed inside its own tale of lost love. Like its narcoleptic protagonist Mike Waters (a puppyish River Phoenix), the movie is detached from ordinary conventions, making life an abridged, waking dream. His condition is detrimental to his life as a prostitute, but finds companionship with fellow hustler Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves). Scott’s prostitution serves to defy his parents, knowing he can reclaim his wealth at the right time. Mike falls hopelessly in love with the confident Scott, and the two make a trip to find Mike’s mother in Idaho.

The film was released during the height of the AIDS hysteria, but decides to ignore this and forgo condemnation of male prostitution. Stripping the environment of this criticism, Gus Van Sant can bury into the aimless of street youths and Mike’s longing for Scott. Employing the Shakespeare concept is an inspired touch, Scott playing Prince Hal with the grungy mentor Bob (William Richert) as Falstaff. Besides the role-playing, some of Shakespeare’s language is garnished to fit Scott and Bob’s life. Though it only amounts to a cute parallel with Reeves’ hollow delivery underlining the (albeit amusing) artifice.

When the film centers on Mike, it becomes tender and visually poetic. Sped-up shots of desolate landscape and grainy home-movie flashbacks convey the surrealism of Mike’s inner thoughts. His travels with Scott have a truncated, episodic nature to fit his narcoleptic state, which fail to drive any story momentum. The shapeless narrative swirls around Phoenix’s deeply felt portrayal of innocent yearning, the only anchor among Van Sant’s abrupt style shifts. When Van Sant is not enamored with his Shakespeare parallels, My Own Private Idaho perfectly adopts Mike’s sadness. Mike’s unconscious and reality become one; we do not move with him, but drift. Van Sant may have made an aimless film, but its melancholy resonates.