March 13, 2008

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Rothemund, 2005)

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days belongs with the class of refined, pedigreed historical cinema that Europe seems to churn out to such a degree that it has become a "brand" of sorts here in the United States, patronized by art-house theaters from coast to coast. And though it attempts nothing radical within the confines of this particular type of film, it is nevertheless a potent, artful achievement. Culled from testimonies and long-buried historical documents, it is an examination of the last six days in the life of the German anti-Nazi heroine. And though the action (in this case not quite the appropriate word) is confined mostly to a handful of rooms and a couple of characters, it is a gripping example of cinema as historical document, as well as a showcase for a handful of fantastic, carefully calibrated performances (especially Julia Jentsch, who plays Sophie). Rothemund has crafted a work of powerful restraint that manages to be staid and verbose without ever being tedious, a work that derives considerable emotional momentum not from moments of unbridled fury, but from moments of quiet control. IMDb listing.

March 11, 2008

The Ten Best Films Of 2007

1.   There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, United States)
2.   The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, United States)
3.   No Country For Old Men (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, United States)
4.   Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany)
5.   I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, United States/Germany)
6.   Zodiac (David Fincher, United States)
7.   The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, France/United States)
8.   Into The Wild (Sean Penn, United States)
9.   Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, United States/France)
10. The Man From London (Béla Tarr, Hungary/France/Germany)

February 21, 2008

The Molly Maguires (Ritt, 1970)

Ritt's bleak portrait of working class immigrants chasing liberty and the American dream belongs to the golden age of American cinema that began with Bonnie & Clyde, and is far more intelligent and artfully crafted than it is given credit for. James Wong Howe's incredible scope photography of the coal mines and Tambi Larsen & Darrell Silvera's Oscar nominated art direction lend the film a sooty authenticity, and the wordless nearly 15-minute long opening sequence immediately calls to mind P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood. As in his best work, Ritt doesn't allow his fondness for tackling social problems to overpower the narrative. A film in serious need of critical reappraisal. IMDb listing.

February 20, 2008

Killer's Kiss (Kubrick, 1955)

Stanley Kubrick's lean B noir, only his second feature length film, provides a revealing glimpse of his emerging personal style. And though Killer's Kiss is a relatively simple exercise, running a trim 67 minutes, it is fascinating how Kubrick chooses to tell this pulpy story of l'amour fou with images rather than dialogue. The final chase sequence is a thing of beauty.

February 19, 2008

Flash Point (Yip, 2007)

The cinema of Hong Kong has always been defined primarily (at least in an international sense) in terms of its action films. From the martial arts films of the Shaw Brothers in the 60’s and 70’s (Come Drink With Me, Five Deadly Venoms), to the pioneering work of Jackie Chan (Police Story) and John Woo (Hard Boiled) in the 80’s and 90’s (to name but a few, the list could go on and on…), Hong Kong has often been at the vanguard of action cinema, constantly innovating and redefining the look and feel of the genre and just as constantly being imitated.

With Flash Point, director Wilson Yip and star/fight choreographer Donnie Yen once again attempt to push the action genre to more extreme heights, though the results are quite mixed. From a narrative standpoint, the film is rather perfunctory. Taking place in 1996, just before the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, it deals with the efforts of a police operation, headed by Yen’s Inspector Ma, to take down a Vietnamese crime family. All of the requisite beats one would expect from such a plot are present. And though Yip broaches the interesting theme of “returning home” – many characters comment on their migrant status – it isn’t developed beyond a superficial level. Anyone even remotely acquainted with Hong Kong policiers will find themselves on familiar ground.

Given this, it would be quite understandable to dismiss Yip and Yen’s film as yet another formulaic entry from a stagnating contemporary Hong Kong film industry, though such an assessment wouldn’t be completely fair. Yes, the plot is hackneyed, the acting is exaggerated, and the dialogue is mechanical and sometimes nonsensical (though I assume something was lost in translation), but to judge this film predominantly on these elements would be to miss the point almost entirely. For though it grinds to a halt in its quieter moments, Flash Point positively explodes during its louder ones, especially when Yen is in the spotlight.

At its core, Flash Point is an outlet for Donnie Yen’s continuing obsession with MMA (mixed martial arts), something he utilized to great effect in his first collaboration with Yip, Sha Po Lang. This particular approach (which blends styles as diverse as Muay Thai and submission grappling) would seem to be a direct reaction to the graceful bloodletting of Woo’s The Killer, or the wire-fu spectacles Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. The action feels organic, the fights gritty, brutal, and unpredictable. Every punch is felt. In the current homogeneous action film landscape, Yip and Yen have created something fierce and angry, something that feels like the logical next step.

There is far too much banality in Flash Point for it to be considered a complete success, yet for all of its shortcomings, it still succeeds as a pure adrenaline rush. This is the action film as performance art, pushed to an almost abstract level, where the emphasis is on the technical beauty of the action, regardless of plot and characterization, and pleasure is derived from the sounds of bones crunching, and above all else the athletic prowess on display.

Direct Cinema Is Back!

...not that it was ever really gone, but... you get my point.

Hello to all of my readers. I realize that it has been quite a while since I last updated my blog, and longer since I last updated it regularly, and trust me, it wasn't without reason. I have been quite busy with other things for the past couple of months, but I just wanted to let all of you who have been reading know how much I appreciate your support, and also how much I love running this blog. Film is something I wake up for in the morning. It is something I breathe, something I bleed. And I wanted to use this post to state that starting today, Direct Cinema will return to being a regularly updated blog.

I just finished folding the reviews I did for last year's 1st annual "Shocktober Horrorfest" into my regular review directory, so there won't be a Shocktober sidebar anymore. Anyone looking for those reviews, you can find them all under the general "reviews" sidebar. October '07 is past and I felt I needed to do some cleaning and maintenance of the blog so, that's that.

Anyways, all of the old columns (The Trailer Compendium, the Best of Lists) will be back, along with film news and of course my reviews, and I have some ideas for a couple of new weekly/monthly columns. I'm aiming to have my Best Of list for 2007 up before the Oscars. I hope that you all continue to check out Direct Cinema, and again, please leave comments! I love reading them and having critical discussions about the film's I highlight is one of the reasons that I do this, so don't be shy. Also, if you enjoy the blog, spread the word!

-R.A. Naing

January 15, 2008

Bob le Flambeur (Melville, 1956)

A quiet fatalism runs throughout Bob le Flambeur, slowly revealing itself in the rain slicked streets, the nightly routine of boozing and gambling, the overcast dawns, and especially Bob Montagné's face, his furrowed brow, muscles constantly contracted, always staring down. The rain, try as it might, can't seem to wash away the sins of the many who roam Paris by night, and fate, no matter how much one might try, cannot be altered. And so Bob goes about, losing his money, over and over again.

An undeniable stylistic precursor to the Nouvelle Vague, Melville's film is the type that will always seem modern and fresh, no matter how many decades pass. There is a languid vitality to the film that is impossible to do justice to through words alone. This is a film that must be seen.

January 11, 2008

Juno (Reitman, 2007)

This year's Little Miss Sunshine. That seems to be the label of choice for all of the award season pundits when discussing Juno. And though the comparisons are apt to a certain degree (this sort of hip, colorful, American indie filmmaking has become a genre unto itself) Juno does a remarkable job of toeing the line. On occasion, it comes close, but director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody never quite allow the film to implode into the realm of cloying quirkiness. Juno's cheekiness may be annoying at times, but it feels quite true to her emotional and physical maturity. Ellen Page is sure to be the beneficiary of much praise, but the performance to savor is J.K. Simmons, who imbues his role as Juno's father with humor and a wonderfully confused but unwavering love. Certainly not the year's best, but funnier, if quite a bit lighter, than last year's indie sensation.

January 9, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War (Nichols, 2007)

Charlie Wilson's War is a product that looks like an Oscar contender, smells like and Oscar contender, and has the pedigree of an Oscar contender, but once finally revealed, is nothing more than nicely polished fluff. Let me clarify that in no way do I abhor Mike Nichols' film. It's just that any talk of this film as one of the year's best is quite baffling to me. There is certainly much to enjoy. Yet, there is something about Nichols' film, its inherent simplicity, the pandering nature of the entire exercise, that I can't quite get past.

This is pop history, nothing more, nothing less. A simplistic exploration of a complex period of recent US history that nevertheless feels strangely pretend. Too refined to be considered proper farce, the film also lacks the subversiveness and vitriolic energy that the best satire requires. And Nichols' filmmaking, while polished and professional, feels strangely hollow. Gone is his feel for the contours of human behavior, and the vitality, that marked much of his early work. So while Sorkin's script crackles and pops in all the right places (done exceptional service by Hoffman's perfectly mannered and hilarious turn as CIA man Gust Avrakotos), it does so in the service of nothing particularly meaningful. Unless of course, you are the type who would confuse lazy, obvious, finger-pointing, for something clever and meaningful.

In the end, when the entire aftermath of Wilson's clandestine campaign is reduced to a single minutes long scene in a conference room (and capped by a punchline quote), it becomes clear what Nichols' real intentions are. Charlie Wilson's War is a breezy comedy that one can enjoy for a brisk 97 minutes and forget nearly as quickly. For truly inspired satire, check out Nichols' Catch-22 instead.