Friday, June 28, 2013

Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter is an all-out open assault on pulp cinema, less an exemplar of low-budget B-movie craft than a savage rebuke of tough-guy gangster films and pop culture in general. Seijun Suzuki, the avant-trash auteur, elevates the material through his sheer contempt for it. The pop-art gloss of the film is beauty with an edge, the seductive shine of a glittering blade or polished bullet. Every frame exhudes tension, from the disjointed editing and flattened compositions to the hysterical shrieking of the colours. Money and power rule everything while honour is dead, and presumably Suzuki is talking about modern capitalism and not just his day job (he was just two years away from being bounced from Nikkatsu Studios for making one too many incoherent pop-art provocations like this). In this world of violence and neon, titular drifter Tetsu risks self-destruction through an old-fashioned sense of loyalty. Duly chastised, he swings so far the other way that he severs all human connection rather than risk being hurt again, or as he sneeringly tells his lover, he can’t walk with a woman at his side. Commerce corrupts all human bonds, and pop culture provides a front for the sick system. A secretary giggles at comic books while mobsters wheel and deal around her. Teenagers dance continually in a frenzied bebop delirium as bullets whizz by. People are never happier than when discussing their hair dryers.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Angels' Share

There are cringe comedies where you feel embarrassed for the characters, and those where you feel embarrassed for the director. The Angels’ Share is one of the latter. Despite adding a touch of grimy realism to the early scenes, Ken Loach quickly falls in line with the dull plot of this rote comedic caper. There’s a distressing lack of humour or personality in this tale of four petty criminals plotting to buy a better life with a few pilfered bottles of rare whisky, and the stakes remain so low that a toddler could vault over them with ease. Group leader Robbie is given some depth through a vivid, pained reconciliation with the victims of his criminal days, but the rest of his gang remain interchangeable cyphers, adding little more than a chorus of bodily functions in the background. The comedy finds no footing in either the setting or the people; the film’s unfunny gags would be just as home in any Hollywood bro-comedy as they are on these grey Glaswegian streets. As the title suggests, the film hinges on a series of metaphorical transactions: the uncompensated suffering of Robbbie’s victims, the unbreakable blood bond between two rival families, and the irredeemable debt to society held by those who can least afford the payments. Of course, this being a comedy—albeit more in theory than in practice, if we’re going by laughs—all accounts are settled with minimal effort, burying the numerous shortcomings of the underdeveloped script. Loach, more accountant here than filmmaker, dutifully cooks the books.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

To The Wonder

The Tree of Life may have been messy, confused and pompous, but there was at least a great film buried somewhere in that bloated carcass. To The Wonder, Terrence Malick’s follow-up, is pure rot. The director’s characteristic flourishes have deteriorated into self-parody: the camera constantly drifting through the world like a drunken ghost, the narrators whispering sweet nothings in our ears, and light forever flickering on the lens. Frankly, the most surprising thing about this uninspired film is that everyone isn’t blind from the sun constantly shining in their eyes.

Consider the plot, such as it is: Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris, fall in love, move to America, split up, get back together and marry after Neil frolics with Rachel McAdams for a while, break up again after Marina cheats on him, and a priest loves god and Marina’s daughter loves the supermarket and love is love is love love love, to paraphrase the film’s hushed, faux-poetic narration. (Mumble, mumble, says Ben Affleck.) “What is this love that loves us?” Marina actually says at one point. Indeed, and what is this hate that hates us? What is this dog that dogs us? And what is that bison that bisons us? Only Terrence Malick or his understudy, God, knows the answer.

For all his dreamy obscurity, Malick is rarely a very subtle filmmaker, and his limitations are piercingly clear in To The Wonder. So much of the film is spent watching the characters dance over lawns, toss leaves into the air, twirl in the magnificent light and gawp at the world in a state of uninhibited joy. But when these people aren’t drunk on the intoxicating beauty of life, the universe, and Bumfuck, Idaho (or wherever the film is set), they’re staring blankly at nothing as the pain of existence chews up their souls. Malick’s manic-depressive style oscillates between exaltation and sorrow with little time for everything in between, which is unfortunate since that is where most of life is actually lived. Between his lean, stolid men and willowy, petite women, the director’s vision of humanity is little more nuanced than a perfume ad.

Mere life can hardly stand up under the self-conscious gravity of the film. Javier Bardem—who is surely as confused about his role here as the rest of us are—plays a priest going through a rather lackadaisical spiritual crisis. Poverty and pain shake the man’s faith; helping the impoverished and suffering restores it. As far as theological threats go, this is DEFCON four, at best. The film’s environmental concerns are similarly sketchy, amounting to little more than Malick frowning at pollution. Neil takes readings at industrial sites and talks to people living in the shadow of smoke-belching refineries, because these are apparently things he is paid to care about, but that’s about it. (Mumble, mumble, says Ben Affleck.) The director is so divorced from earthly matters most of the time that he’s ill-equipped to say much about the planet. However, the film does offer one powerful, if unintentional statement: against the banality of the modern city, the blandness of the suburbs, and the numbing uniformity of the supermarket, even the poetic ecstasies of Terrence Malick have become feeble and trite.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Upstream Color

If Primer came from the left side of Shane Carruth’s brain, then Upstream Color is from the right. Both films showcase their creator’s puzzle-box approach to narrative, but the former is austere and antiseptic while the latter is sensuous and dreamy. Carruth has moved from the cool intellectualism of his first film to a more sentimental strain of science fiction, and the difference is as stark as the contrast between Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick. Brooding over the ethics of science, Primer explored how new discoveries illuminate not the world, but our own moral failings. In his latest, Carruth’s fantasies grow more elaborate as he strives to reveal—and finally, perhaps, even heal—the gnawing sickness of life in a numb world where no one loves each other and everyone’s spirit animal is a pig. For all of Primer’s oblique twists, one suspected the film’s secrets were neatly laid out somewhere in a spreadsheet. Whatever mysteries can be glimpsed in Upstream Color will more likely be catalogued in a pile of paper scraps at Carruth’s bedside table, written in an illegible midnight scrawl.

Is it strange to admire a film that cannot be summarized without eliciting embarrassed laughter? It can be hard enough to simply describe what you’ve seen on screen, never mind digging into its deeper meanings. “And then they drank the, um, worm-tea, and those kids we never see again auditioned for the Happy Hands Club, I guess, or something, and there’s the director going for a jog, and did that lady just stab herself?” So simply accept that this is what a sci-fi B-movie would look like if Terrence Malick directed it, and focus on the damaged couple at the heart of the film, Jeff (Carruth) and Kris (a particularly strong Amy Seimetz). Both are victims of a white worm that burrows into the body and takes control of the mind, or something like that (let’s not get too science-y, please). The two combine the ruins of their lives and slowly dissolve into each other until they can no longer tell where one’s memories end and the other’s begins. Like two cleaned-up junkies, they lean on each other as they hobble down a steady path towards obliteration.

High-concept weirdness draws the viewers in—just ask anyone who has seen Primer—but it often exacts its own toll on the film. In constructing this arcane mythos, Carruth forces the audience to enter the film on his terms, to trust that he actually understands the rules of his own game and isn’t simply making it all up as he goes along. He throws away anything that might anchor the film to a set time and place. Cut loose from the particular, we drift into the universal, where Carruth’s ideas on free will and nature are supposedly floating free in some kind of Platonic intellectual paradise, unsullied by distracting, earthbound details. But the mechanics of a world populated by brainwashing thieves and pig-farming foley artists will invariably demand more attention than the themes uniting it all. Viewers are apt to spend as much time parsing the significance of the telepathic worm-tea as they will actually working through the emotional effect of the film on them.

That would be a shame, because there is something deeply affecting buried withinin this hollow world Carruth has deliberately crafted. The bond between Jeff and Kris exists in a vacuum, unhindered by any relationships beyond their lonely pairing. Where are their families? Where is the rest of the world? Where is life? The film takes place on a planet seemingly constructed by aliens who read a book about humans once but got bored before the last chapter. Absence defines this place: the absence of nature, of society, and of humanity. In the end, Kris cradles a piglet as if holding the child her damaged body will never produce, caring for this animal with a tenderness missing from most of the human interaction in the film. This is either the first step towards learning to feel again, or the final cold delusion that proves everything is already lost. The beatific lighting and uplifting score gild the scene, suggesting either redemption or deeply sarcastic mockery. There is a faint sense of euphoria, or perhaps madness. This is a shining dead world.