Month: March 2014

Netflix Instant Movie of the Week – “Somm”

somm-7Somm (2012; Dir.: Jason Wise)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

Of the many different subgenres of documentary that have surged over the last few years, one of the most popular has been the “subculture travelogue.”  These films tend to study quirky people in small groups that are somewhat marginalized, even people who may seem ripe for satire: high-stakes Scrabble competitors (Words Wars), children overwhelmed in an absurd contest (Spellbound), or middle-aged men who obsess over arcade video games (King of Kong).  These documentaries expose and humanize their subjects, often while exploiting readymade suspense that leads to an inevitable climax.  Jason Wise’s Somm, released in 2012, may not be the most nuanced example of the genre, but it is a worthy addition to the pack.

The film follows four brilliant sommeliers in the months leading up to their Master Sommelier exam, a test that has a frighteningly low pass rate.  If they pass, they will join an incredibly exclusive club – there have been less than 150 Masters in the world, ever.  Unprecedented opportunities, the film tells us, await those who pass, but the cost of success seems to be an obsessive, single-minded dedication.  Wives and girlfriends are ignored, outside pleasures evaporate, and there is no such thing as free time.

Like other films of its genre, Somm does its best to legitimize the importance of its subject, as though there is some special essence of wine that we interlopers wouldn’t know about.  Some experts predictably reference Biblical stories about wine, while others manufacture romantic elegies about nature and perfection.  Only the most grounded student of the group points out, “When you think about it, it’s just grape juice.”

To be fair, Somm works through that hazard relatively quickly, shifting the focus to the four men and their practice sessions.  The most interesting and exciting moments in the movie occur during practice tastings, when the four men blindly sip wine and, at a miraculous speed, run through a gamut of categories in order to eventually identify the type, region, year, and label of the drink.  With a jarring incongruity, they taste wine and spew out their conclusions with machine-like precision, less like James Bond sipping sherry than Rain Man counting toothpicks.

As the test draws near, the film easily lulls us into tacit cheerleaders, for there is no shortage of footage of these young men unraveling.  They are tutored by Master Sommeliers who delight in intimidating their students, throwing nearly impossible curveballs (so much so that one student insists that his test wine was mislabeled).  They even begin to annoy each other, and an interesting competitive/helpful dynamic develops among some of them.  The students are determined to pass, but like soldiers, they do their best to leave no one behind.  As one tester candidly explains, “The worst case scenario would be that everyone passes except one of us.”

Somm and other films like it work so well because it is simply awe-inspiring to watch people who are so good at what they do.  It is sort of wondrous to see these men decipher the wine they are blindly drinking, and marvelous to understand just how much they know about wine.  It reminds me of something Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) says in The Hustler: “Anything can be great… bricklaying can be great, if a guy knows – if he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.”  Somm is an airy, easy film to watch, and it’s the better for it.  Sitting down and watching it with a nice glass of wine may make it better still.

March Up All Night Movies – ESFS Classic

imagesThe Exterminating Angel (1962; Dir.: Luis Bunuel)

GRADE: A

By Daniel Barnes

NOTE: On the original 2008-10 blog incarnation of ESFS, one of my favorite programs was the Bunuel festival, in which we watched L’Age d’Or, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and my personal favorite, The Exterminating Angel.  This is a combination of two different reviews written in March 2009, which sort of explains the reference tZack Snyder’s Watchmen.

Watching all three of these Bunuel films in such a short time span, you can see the common threads that run through fifty years of filmmaking – a compulsive urge to belittle piety, conformity, and bourgeois society; a penchant for the shocking, inexplicable moment; and the constant intermingling of dream life, waking life, and movie life, the last of which Bunuel would probably consider a combination of the first two.

If, as I’ve said earlier, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is like hearing someone talk about their dream (turgid, rambling), then The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is like seeing a performance of someone’s dream (clever, mannered), and The Exterminating Angel and L’Age d’Or are like peering into someone’s head and watching their dreams (paranoid, strange). In the latter two films, the action, however ridiculous, proceeds from a demented sort of coherence, just as dream narratives are usually compelled by a mysterious urgency.

Bunuel tended to pile gags on top of gags, almost like silent comedians or the Marx Brothers; he was as influenced by Groucho and Buster Keaton as by any other filmmakers. There is almost a self-aware acknowledgment of this method at the dinner party in The Exterminating Angel – a waiter trips and spills the food before serving, and all but one the upper-class guests applaud and laugh uproariously, thinking the pratfall was a joke. At first, we assume the nobs are being callous and juvenile towards the servant class, but when the waiter returns to the kitchen, we find out that it WAS a joke, and the man who DIDN’T laugh was the jerk. However, this explanation only muddles the logic of the situation further.

Shot in France after a long tenure in Mexico, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is by far the drollest of the three pictures, but you can see the same anarchic, gag-heavy comedy in the film’s best sequences. It’s consistently playful and fascinating, although perhaps a bit rote and formal compared to the other two movies. Discreet Charm… FEELS like the career-capping work of a great director, a little safer and more familiar, so naturally it won Bunuel his only Oscar.

The Exterminating Angel is the real apex of Bunuel’s brand of anarchic, surrealist satire, a genuine masterpiece that springs uncannily to life with every succeeding scene. The plot is razor thin, but with endless variations – a blabbering group of aristocrats convenes for a dinner party, only to find that all of the servants have fled, like forest creatures supernaturally aware of an impending disaster. This leads to one of my favorite scenes from the film, in which the well-dressed mob, with no servants to guide them, wanders into the same room over and over again.

Bunuel’s style is deceptively simple – almost all of the action takes place in one room, but the movements within the frame have the rigorous, hilarious, and almost poignantly beautiful choreography of great slapstick.  As the evening winds down, the guests grow outrageously weary and find that they cannot leave the parlor, even though there is nothing physically impeding their exit. It’s as though even the mildest diversion in the master/servant social order leads them directly into madness, despair, and a complete loss of faith.

Eventually, the nobs form a makeshift refugee camp in the lavishly decorated parlor (fittingly, paintings of angels gaze at these damned creatures from the wall), and within a few hours revert to drug use, savagery, and paganism. The layers of civility peel away to expose both petty fears and existential dread, and as the partygoers start dying of some unnamed plague, there are intimations of a great extermination bearing down upon them all.

While the motivations in The Exterminating Angel are mysterious and the situations are ridiculous, they are propelled by a queer inner logic that makes the film utterly dreamlike. Of course, the puckish Bunuel can’t resist undercutting and deflating this dream “logic”. Just as it starts to seem like the trapped party guests are engaged in mass delusional hysteria (one has a vision of a detached hand), we get a peek outside the mansion, and see that crowds and police have gathered. The “spiritually/morally trapped” guests are actually in a tangible but unresolvable hostage-like situation – no one can get inside the house, either.

The Exterminating Angel is like watching Bunuel’s subconscious unspool before our eyes, and the ending sequence is one of the most toxic satires of religion I’ve ever seen. Every black-and-white image in the film is saturated with a feverish immediacy; many scenes have the anything-goes self-awareness of the Marx Brothers or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker; and the performances are bizarrely pitch-perfect.

It’s especially bizarre because we never get to “know” any of the characters; no one ever emerges into a complete or even remotely sympathetic figure, and yet Bunuel has a buried empathy for them that almost matches their latent savagery. For the image-conscious bourgeois partygoer, it’s a savagery that only seems to emerge deep into the night.

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ESFS Festival #3 – Silent Sirens

Curated by Daniel Barnes

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For my next ESFS Festival, I wanted to explore some of the silent film actresses who are unfamiliar to me, especially those who embodied their era’s ideal of cinematic sexuality.  Since titans such as Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson seemed like potential subjects of their own future festivals, I left them out of consideration.  I also excluded an actress like Lillian Gish, whose popular persona depended more on virginal purity than moral-draining vampish-ness.

Ultimately, I decided to dig a little deeper and focus on three iconic films from three very different actresses:

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FILM #1: A Fool There Was (1915; Dir.: Frank Powell) [Daniel Barnes review on April 7]

FILM #2: It (1927; Dir.: Clarence G. Badger) [Mike Dub review on April 14]

FILM #3: Pandora’s Box (1929; Dir.: G.W. Pabst) – available on Hulu Plus/Criterion [Daniel Barnes review on April 21]

The Silent Sirens festival starts here on Monday, April 7, with my review of A Fool There Was, but look for a full festival intro next week.

Criterion/Hulu Plus Movie of the Week

download (1)The Most Dangerous Game (1932; Dir.: Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

Based on a widely adapted 1924 short story by Richard Connell, the 1932 chiller The Most Dangerous Game is the film that producers Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper made right before King Kong.  There are suggestions of that more famous jungle-kink adventure flick in The Most Dangerous Game, and a number of the same performers as well, including Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong.

However, this story of a rich psycho who hunts humans is more of a creepy chamber drama than an action adventure, and the final third dominated by the hunt is the least interesting part of the picture.  A film that compares more directly with the lusty and violent The Most Dangerous Game is Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, right down to the “exotic” foreign villain who equates bloodletting with sexual virility.

The villain here is Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks, in a mesmerizing display of overacting), a Cossack who escaped the Russian Revolution with his fortune intact.  Zaroff elected to use his wealth in the way that most of would if we’re being totally honest – he bought some nice clothes, a sweet motorboat, and a centuries-old Portuguese island fortress where his mute henchmen help him hunt shipwreck victims like wild game (be honest!).  Zaroff claims that “Providence” made his island a magnet for shipwrecks, and at times the place has the feel of a purgatory, with the leering Zaroff playing host and satyr-in-chief.

Joel McCrea is the hero of the piece, a world-famous safari hunter (ah, the early 1930s!) travelling on the boat of his rich benefactors, where they wear high-waisted slacks with wide ties while discussing “the inconsistency of civilization”.  McCrea argues that hunting is sport for the prey as well as the human predators, and offers this ominous self-jinx: “This world’s divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I’m the hunter. Nothing can change that.”  Cue ironic shipwreck.

At only 63 minutes, The Most Dangerous Game doesn’t have time for wasted space, and as with many films of this era, the story moves so fast that it acquires its own inner logic.  Exaggerated gestures, such as the way Zaroff rubs his head scar whenever he gets a thirst for the kill, become the language of the film’s manufactured world, and only add to the eerie atmosphere.

Even so, some of the most unsettling moments are almost throwaways, like when one of Zaroff’s unwitting victims laughs maniacally, as though he were the hunter instead of the impending prey.  I also could not get enough of Banks’ succulent line readings, including the possessed and slightly pleased manner in which he says, “I shall hunt you like a leopard.” Even if it takes far too long to get to the “twist” that we all see coming from the first five minutes, the pre-Code brutality and sexual deviance of The Most Dangerous Game makes it a fascinating watch, right down to that sick and satisfying final shot.

ESFS FESTIVAL 2, FILM 3 – “Burn!”

queimada-burn-marlon-brando-sir-william-walkerBurn!  (1969; Dir.: Gillo Pontecorvo)

Grade: B+

by Mike Dub

Throughout the 1960s, Marlon Brando became increasingly active in social issues.  Though his popularity was plummeting, he sought to make art that was relevant to the changing cultural landscape.  The Ugly American (1963) is a well-intentioned (though drab) warning against imperial practices in Asia.  Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) despite its drawbacks, is at least a noteworthy early example of an explicitly homosexual character in a mainstream Hollywood film.  Brando’s supporting appearance in Candy (1968), a notoriously unwatchable satire based on Terry Southern’s novel, may have missed the mark, but still shows Brando’s intellectual sympathy to the counterculture.

At least, that commitment was true when he wasn’t just grabbing a paycheck – this time period is wrought with almost as much vapidity as “important” work.  However, after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Brando vowed to make only important, socially conscious films that could help change the world.

That was also the moment at which he completed his long-term contract with Universal.  He was finally free from the constraints of the conservative studio and could embark on personal projects again.  Just a short time earlier, Brando saw Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s politically radical The Battle of Algiers, an incendiary and widely lauded chronicle of the French/Arab conflict.  It was just the kind of film Brando wanted to make, now that he had the freedom to make such decisions.

The result of their collaboration is Burn!, a violent, difficult, passionate screed against Western colonialism in South America.  The film tells the story of a fictional Caribbean island named Queimada (Queimada is the original, Italian title of the film) during the mid-19thcentury.  As the film begins, Queimada is under the control of the Portuguese – we are told that when they conquered the island, they burned it completely to quell the insurrection of the natives.  However, there remains a murmur of unrest among the African slaves who have been producing sugar for generations.

Enter Sir William Walker (Brando), an upper-class Englishman who arrives to the country just in time to see an old acquaintance, a rebel, killed by Portuguese military.  Alternately hobnobbing with sugar barons and training and arming a rebel militia (led by handpicked General Jose Delores (Evaristo Márquez)), Walker becomes almost single-handedly responsible for overthrowing the Portuguese and providing freedom to the slaves of Queimada.

Obviously influenced by the Marxist cinema of Eisenstein, Pontecorvo shoots with a bold style, using handheld, documentary-style camerawork and editing with jagged, elliptical cuts that are powerful in what they choose to reveal or hide.  One such cut takes us from Walker teaching a group of rebels how to load a musket to a shot of the aftermath of their first battle, a pile of dead Portuguese soldiers on the ground with the rebels celebrating in the background.

In other scenes, Pontecorvo’s use of the documentary style creates a disturbing verisimilitude to the plight of the freedom fighters.  Villages are burned in calculated fashion, men are gunned down in front of their families, babies are captured and taken prisoner, and military officers callously argue whether hanging or shooting is a more effective form of public execution of political prisoners.  Even as the government feeds them, they are reminded that to receive their bread, everyone must “stay in your places.”

While the first half of the film spends much of its time devoted to Delores and his ascent to popular hero (there must be three long scenes of him walking proudly, surrounded by his people), the second half focuses more on Walker, whose always dubious motives for helping the people of Queimada become horrifically clear.  In William Walker we can see an antecedent to Brando’s Colonel Kurtz ofApocalypse Now.  Walker, a capitalist mercenary for the English corporations who control England’s foreign policy of exploitation and terror, is practically a young version of Kurtz.  “I don’t know what I believe or what I should do,” he explains after a particularly brutal massacre, “but whatever I do, I do it well.”

Like pure capitalism itself, the film argues, Walker must evade morality at all costs in order to ensure his success.  He is a purely rational machine, and winning is his only desire.  Even a final display of decency toward Delores, the man he molded into a hero, is at best a cynical ploy to satisfy his conscience after a job well done.

Burn! received a lukewarm critical reception upon its initial release.  Critics lauded Brando for his terrific performance, but did not respond much to the film, many rolling their eyes at what they believed to be a simple political message.  Perhaps it was a bit ahead of its time.  As Western imperialism rages on, with oil replacing sugar as the standard bearer of our economy, the allegory of Burn! feels as relevant today as it surely did thirty-five years ago.  Perhaps the film is merely attacking an evil we already knew existed, and delves into what Stefan Kanfer calls “Marxism 101.”

But there is also prescience in the film’s sermon, an unsettling reminder that whether it is South America in the mid-19th century, Asia in the mid-20th century, or the Middle East in the early 21st century, the spirit of William Walker remains alive and well.

In Theaters – “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

indexThe Grand Budapest Hotel (2014; Dir.: Wes Anderson)

GRADE: A-

By Mike Dub

The Grand Budapest Hotel will likely be considered the film in which Wes Anderson reaches his full potential as an adult filmmaker.  Throughout his seven films and almost twenty years as a director, Anderson has vacillated between near-great milestones like Rushmore and self-absorbed (though always very pretty) grime like The Life Aquatic.  In Budapest Hotel, though, Anderson absorbs us in a world far weightier than his typical quest for post-adolescent self-discovery.  As someone once said of Woody Allen in the final shot of Annie Hall, “It’s as though he can finally conceive of a world outside of himself.”

That being said, Budapest Hotel does reiterate typical Anderson themes of young love, surrogate family, and absolution through forgiveness.  You will also find Anderson’s typically precocious, stone-faced on-screen inner child, this time in the form of Zero (Tony Revolori), a lobby boy in a posh Turkish hotel in 1932, who forms a strong bond with his boss and mentor, Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the finest concierge of his time.

However, even Anderson’s usual tropes are nuanced.  Incorporating the period between world wars as a backdrop for most of the action, the film develops a deep resonance, greater than any of his previous nostalgic fantasies.  What might have been somewhat breezy emotional manipulations in previous films are grounded by a palatable sense of doom and a melancholic empathy for men who weren’t made for the times in which they live.

Anderson has always delighted in showing off his incredible imagination, but he has never been more dedicated to the awe-inspiring perfection of every facet of a film than he is here.  He designs the world of Budapest Hotel with Kubrick-like precision and virtuosic flair, a dizzying explosion of brilliant colors, playful visual effects, and disruptive editing.  Actors anachronistically use their own voices instead of ones more appropriate to their characters (Edward Norton, for instance, uses his soft-spoken, All-American accent while playing a German Army officer).  Practically every frame contains a visual joke or a reference to other films.  Wes Anderson has always been in love with cinema, and you can practically feel what a joy it was to create this movie.

The script, too, sparkles with the same impeccable energy.  By far, this is the most polished, well-crafted and beautifully written work of Anderson’s career.  Sometimes painstakingly poetic, other times endearingly profane, the crackling wit and banter of this film (particularly in the first half) stands alongside the best of the Howard Hawks screwball comedies that seem to have, in part, inspired the script’s style.  Accordingly, the dialogue is delivered at a blistering pace, a sort of Shakespearean screwball rapidity that is almost exhaustively energetic.  Proudly displaying such intelligence and respect for the audience, Budapest Hotel should make standard Hollywood comedies ashamed of their own stupidity.

If Budapest Hotel it is not Anderson’s best movie (it’s hard to tell if Rushmore is better or if Anderson’s sense of nostalgia is so profound that it’s infectious), it is certainly his most mature.  Still, there are some predictable road bumps for folks who don’t typically favor Anderson.  A recurring bit may go on too long, his penchant for cartoonish fancy takes over more than once, and one choice of actors felt a little too obvious for a film that casts every other role so idiosyncratically.  These are all minor points that, to Anderson fans, may even serve more as high marks rather than demerits.

I must admit that I have not been the biggest fan of Wes Anderson, but Budapest Hotel is a wonderful experience, and, for the first time in a decade, I look forward to his next film.  Hopefully this is a signal that he has exorcised some of the more vain conflicts he has repeatedly investigated in his movies.  Budapest Hotel is the work of a director who is self-assured, not self-absorbed.  It is the work of a man who conceives a world outside himself.