Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Dog Eat Dog

Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night

I'm conflicted about the Dardenne brothers' latest film, Two Days, One Night (2014).

On the one hand, I think that in spite of the Dardennes' reputation as observational realists, they've constructed a film that is best understood as a moral fable. Oh, it's clearly the work of social realists. Its portrait of late capitalism has the kind of clear-eyed brutality that only comes from a long hard look at the world. Its structure and plot, on the other hand, seem like a trap built to produce a specific result for its characters. It's a gross manipulation, so if the intent is to make a film that indicts the current criminal economy, then it fails. You cannot arrive at "truth," even in fiction, if you rig the game. One of my correspondents calls the plot of Two Days, One Night "bullshit," and he's not exactly wrong.

On the other hand, Two Days, One Night features another astonishing performance by Marion Cotillard. You might expect that a movie star of Cotillard's magnitude would demolish the Dardennes' carefully cultivated observational aesthetic, but in Cotillard's case, she's a star of that magnitude in the first place because she's the most gifted actress of her generation. That is on full display in this film. She gives the Dardennes exactly what they want from a lead performance: natural, heartbreaking, without a hint of artifice. Would that the brothers tended their own garden as carefully.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Monstrous Feminine

Mia Wasikowska in Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg has always included a strain of horror toward women and female sexuality in his films. The monstrous feminine often manifests itself in birth in Cronenberg's films, but the very idea of the vagina itself is a figure of horror, to say nothing of the idea that women might actually want to use them for pleasure. Unease with feminine bodies and sexuality is behind images like the birth scenes in The Brood and The Fly, the vaginal slit in James Woods's belly in Videodrome, the psychosexual dysfunctions in A Dangerous Method, the sexual possibilities of open wounds in Crash, the many faces becoming one face in Spider, the Mantle brothers' profession and inventions in Dead Ringers, and so on. Throughout his career and with only rare exceptions, Cronenberg has framed the monstrous feminine from the point of view of men. Confronting the feminine is often what knocks Cronenberg's protagonists out of their comfortable, sensible realities into the chaos beneath them. The critic, Robin Wood, once described Cronenberg's view of sex as both reactionary and infantile for this very reason. Though I think Cronenberg's approach more nuanced and more...um...perverse than that, I can see Wood's point.

Maps to the Stars (2014), the first of Cronenberg's films in forty years to center itself specifically on women, is a departure. It's a view of the monstrous feminine from the point of view of women. As such, it's a writhing chaos of sexual horrors. Or something. Its about movies and fame, too, and about Cronenberg's movies, in particular. It's a perverse film. Of course it's a perverse film! You expect that of Cronenberg even after all this time.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Backward Glances

Maika Monroe in It Follows

Horror movies are going through one of their periodic revivals right now. The last eighteen months or so have been particularly fertile for the genre. Part and parcel of this revival is a backward look at the horror films of the 1980s. Throwbacks like The Guest and Starry Eyes might have been dumped into video stores in 1988 or discovered late at night on HBO in 1983, ornamented as they are by minor-key synth scores and prowling, Dean Cundey-ish widescreen cinematography and a chaos of horrors hiding just behind the curtain of a particularly mundane suburban reality. These films often use their borrowed elements better than the films from which they are taken. Add It Follows (2014, directed by David Robert Mitchell) to this list. It Follows, more than any of these films, internalizes the eighties horror film and transforms it into something modern and nasty and relentless.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Blogorama: 2015 edition

I'll be joining two blogathons in the next month or so. Both of them are old friends. The first one is the periodic For the Love of Film blogothon, which is a fundraiser for film preservation. This year's theme is science fiction, which will put me back in touch with my roots. The other is the annual White Elephant blogathon. I probably went easy on the recipient of my film again, this year. I just don't have the instinct for the jugular some of the other participants have.

I'll get back to documentaries and other stuff shortly.

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Sunday, April 05, 2015

True/False 2015: Across the Rio Grande

Western (2015)

Cartel Land (2015, directed by Matthew Heineman) and Western (2015, directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross) are so thematically similar that you could be forgiven for believing that they were programmed by True/False to play as apposite experiences. Both confront the "problem" of the United States/Mexico border. Both are steeped in the politics and violence of drug trafficking. Both of them are foregrounded by violence and the response to violence. Both of them cultivate an air of resignation and futility. For all that, they are very different films.