Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The New World

Terence Malick seems to exist in sort of a timewarp. Because he didn't do any films between 1978 and 1998, he seems to have missed the fall that most of the 70s new Hollywood filmmakers took during the 80s. So, he never had a One From the Heart, New York, New York, Heaven's Gate, The Sorcerer, etc. What that means is that unlike the good, but rather passionless films you'll see today from Scorsese today, Malick is still making bold, incredible films. The New World is a stunning piece of cinema that more than any other film gives me a real sense of knowing what it would be like for the both the European explorers arriving in America and the natives who were already there. Much like Fellini used a sci-fi template for studying the past in Satyricon, The New World feels almost like an alien invasion story, a clash of two completely different cultures, struggling to find a way to work together.

The first really notable thing about this movie is how gorgeous it is. Watching a film like King Kong, all the visuals that should be stunning feel compromised by shoddy greenscreen work and the knowledge that it isn't real. That may be a bit ridiculous, it's all just light projected on a screen, but at the same time, there's something that feels so real about this movie. It's difficult to imagine that there's fifty people standing behind the camera, that our world exists behind the camera seems impossible because the film so thoroughly inhabits this past world. It's like Malick not only went on location to a different space, it's like he went on location in a different time. No greenscreen here, no CGI, or if there is, it's not noticable, and that's part of what makes the film so successful. You're completely immersed in this world.

The film has very little dialogue, it's almost all visuals, music and voiceover. The score is by James Horner, who's previous work isn't particuarly notable, but here, he takes it to another level. The score reminds me a bit of Koyaanisqatsi, in the way that it feels like a substantial piece of music on its own, not just something to disappear into the film.

The voiceover isn't about conveying narrative information, it's designed to waft over you, creating a mood, and in that respect it's very successful. It reminds me of Wong Kar-Wai's stuff in the way that the voiceovers on their own aren't particularly significant, but combined with the visuals and music, they're very powerful, creating a world to drift through. It also allows the film to keep the characters true. While he's in the Natives' camp, Smith wouldn't really be able to talk to someone about his feelings for Pocohontas, so the voiceover tells us instead.

My favorite part of the film was when Smith and Pocohontas were together in the camp. All of Malick's stuff is about the corruption of edenic existences, and in this case, the Eden is amazing. The connection between them is purely emotional and through the fantastic cinematography and editing, the viewer is completely drawn into the their world. In these fleeting moments, we get a sense of a perfect world, a fusion of two cultures, even as we're aware of the impending destruction of the peace between races. For the rest of the film, you want them to return to this edenic existence, this perfect love. I like the fact that rather going with a blanket condemnation of European colonization, Malick instead makes his points through this relationship, thus we feel the point rather than merely hear it.

One of the major things that makes those scenes so effective is Q'Orianka Kilcher's performance. This is her first major role, but she completely owns the screen, in a way I haven't seen since Faye Wong's work in 2046. Right from the opening frames, you can sense an energy about her, the joy she takes in her freedom. Watching her running through the fields or staring out into a rainstorm, she conveys the experience that she is feeling directly to the viewer, so it's like you're there with her, caught up in her world. As the film proceeds, we watch her changing, losing the fire and becoming more practical, ultimately bidding farewell to the old ways when she lets Smith go and instead chooses the practicality of Rolfe.

You could read the entire film as an allegory of what happened to the Americas, the gradual change over of cultures eventually leading to a rejection of the devotion to nature that used to define the continent, instead it is remade in the image of the old world. It also works on the personal level, it's difficult watching Pocohontas have to compromise the identity she had, but she is one of only two characters in the film who can cross the boundary between worlds. At the beginning of the film, Smith crosses from the European world to the natural world, but he ultimately has to return. Pocohontas crosses from the native world to the European and recognizes that assimilating into their world is the only way for her to survive. That's ultimately why she chooses Rolfe over Smith, he's the safe choice, the one who's always been loyal to her and can protect her.

I thought the final moments where she's running through the hedge garden with her son were incredibly powerful, watching someone who'd once run through the real wilderness now trapped in this artificial, modulated version of nature. However, in the end she finds that the spirit, life, is still present in her son, who has the same enthusiasm for existence that she once had. In him, she sees the purity she was searching for earlier in the film.

This is a long film, but because it isn't so much a narrative movie as an atmosphere, a world you travel to, so just existing there is interesting. I've heard that Malick was contemplating cutting 10-20 minutes, but I would strongly advise against that. I checked my watch at one point in the film and was shocked to find that I was 2:15 into the film, I thought it was no more than 1:30. I could see why someone would find it slow paced, but I think it's elegaic and glorious. It reminds me a lot of Wong Kar-Wai in that way, every frame is such a gorgeous combination of content, visual and music that it's always enjoyable.

So, definitely check this film out. It's very rich thematically, but more importantly it's an enveloping film experience, one I'm looking forward to having again.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

2005 Screening Log: Part II

This is a list of all the films I've seen in the second half of the year, 138 in total, all ranked on a five star scale. Now, one note on this. The scale is comparative among the films here, not film in general. I do like most of the films here, even most of the ones had something decent. So, a two is a good movie, three is really good, four is great, five is transcendent genius. The star indicates it's a film I've seen before this year.

Five Star
Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
The Shining (Kubrick)*
Batman Returns (Burton)*
Infernal Affairs (Lau)*
Last Life in the Universe
Safe (Haynes)*
Magnolia (Anderson)*
Revenge of the Sith (Lucas)*
Oldboy (Park)*
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch)*
The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson)*
Elephant (Van Sant)
Fallen Angels (Wong)*
Irreversible (Noe)*
3-Iron (Kim)
Punch Drunk Love (Anderson)*
Velvet Goldmine (Haynes)*
Ghost World (Zwigoff)*
American Beauty (Mendes)*
Domino (Scott)
The Big Lebowski (Coens)*
Casablanca (Curtiz)*
Mysterious Skin (Araki)
Barry Lyndon (Kubrick)*
Samaritan Girl (Kim)
The Hours (Daldry)*
Bad Guy (Kim)
The Matrix: Reloaded (Wachowskis)*
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park)
The New World (Malick)

Four Star
Bonnie and Clyde (Penn)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Burton)
Once Upon a Time in America (Leone)
Hustle and Flow (Brewer)
Coffee and Cigarettes (Jarmusch)
Charade (Donen)
Love Actually (Curtis)*
Flirting with Disaster (Russell)
Bad Education (Almodovar)
Network (Lumet)
Amadeus (Forman)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise)
Hard Eight (Anderson)
The Godfather (Coppola)*
Evil Dead II (Raimi)
Poison (Haynes)
Labyrinth (Henson)
One Hour With You (Lubitsch)
Serenity (Whedon)
A History of Violence (Cronenberg)
Mirrormask (McKean)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)*
Last Days (Van Sant)
Shanghai Triad (Yimou)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg)*
A Snake of June
The Dreamers (Bertolucci)*
Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Meyer)
The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)
Days of Heaven (Malick)
Heavenely Creatures (Jackson)
Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (Besson)
Man on Fire (Scott)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (Coppola)
Munich (Spielberg)

Three Star
Branded to Kill (Suzuki)
In Good Company (Weisz)
The Island (Baby)
Laura (Preminger)
She Hate Me (Lee)
Dead Man (Jarmusch)
Five Easy Pieces (Raefelson)
Birth (Glazer)
Don't Look Now (Roeg)
The Big Sleep (Hawks)
Rosemary's Baby (Polanski)
Pistol Opera (Suzuki)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Roeg)
The Motorcycle Diaries (Salles)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Nichols)
The General (Bruckman)
Lady Windemere's Fan (Lubitsch)
Videodrome (Cronenberg)
The Miracle at Morgan's Creek (Sturges)
Good Night and Good Luck (Clooney)
Stranger than Paradise (Jarmusch)
Jarhead (Mendes)
Night of the Hunter*
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The Great Escape
The Long Goodbye (Altman)
Ichi the Killer (Miike)
Dogma (Smith)*
King Kong (Jackson)

Two Star
Forrest Gump (Zemeckis)
A Fistful of Dollars (Leone)
Wedding Crashers
Jules et Jim (Truffaut)
Bad News Bears (Linklater)
Jacob's Ladder (Lyne)
The Piano Teacher (Haneke)
High Fidelity
Army of Darkness (Raimi)
Corpse Bride (Burton)
Blonde Venus (Von Sternberg)
Detour (Ulmer)
The Reckless Moment (Ophuls)
X-Men (Singer)*
The Bad and the Beautiful (Minelli)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuaron)
X2: X-Men United (Singer)*
Expect the Unexpected
The Man with the Golden Arm (Preminger)*
The Chronicles of Narnia (Adamson)
Naked Lunch (Cronenberg)

One Star
Phantom of the Opera (Schumacher)
Made (Favreau)
Farewell My Concubine (Kaige)
Amarilly of Clothesline Alley
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
Grand Hotel
Now Voyager
Force of Evil
Forty Guns (Fuller)
The Producers (Strohman)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Best of 2005: Film

The time has come for my top ten list for 2005. A few days ago, I would have said this was a very weak year for film, however, in the last two days, I've seen two absolutely phenomenal movies that pretty much redeem the year. It's annoying that the release structure means that all almost all the quality films are released at the end of the year, meaning that I'm not able to get to all of them, while for most of the year you're struggling to find a decent film. However, at least they're out there and being in New York right now, I'm able to see the stuff I want.

Another note on this list, back when I was young, I was would always read the critics' top ten lists and be annoyed that they never had any movies I'd actually heard of or seen. Well, time has past and now I've got a list where only two of the films actually made it to theaters outside NY or L.A. and three of the films weren't even released theatrically here this year.

And one final note before we begin. I had 2046 and Oldboy on last year's list, they've been turning up on a lot of critics' list this year, and they would have been two and three respectively on this year's list. However, I'm not going to put films on the list two years in a row, they were films I saw last year, so they're on that list.

Anyway, onto the list...

10. Last Days - Van Sant followed the brilliant Elephant with a film in the same style, but a bit more challenging. Elephant used the archetypal high school types as a shortcut to easily make us understand what was going. Last Days is tougher because it is largely reliant on pre-existing knowledge of Kurt Cobain for its meaning. If you didn't know anything about Kurt, it would be a truly baffling film, but knowing about the man's life, it's a great antidote to the traditional biopic, exploring the person himself rather than the events that occurred to him. I love how the film builds incredible drama out of very small moments, even just eating macaroni and cheese helps to build the character, and while I could see how one could consider it a pointless, boring exercise, give it a chance and you'll learn a lot more about this guy than you could in a film saturated with plot. There may have been films I enjoyed more than this, but it's got the spot on the list because it's something that uses the medium in a very unique way.

My Review

9. Mirrormask - Like Last Days, this is a film with some issues, the second act drags and some of the CG is exhausting, but there are moments in the film that are so exciting and unique that it earns its place here. This film takes the 80s fantasy template, but adds in a really strong emotional undercurrent, with a lot of real world relevance. Watching the Dark Helen in the real world is wonderful on a solely visual level, but is also full of thematic complexities and the process of growing up. It's a film where the good parts are so good that they overwhelm the weaknesses.

My Review

8. Mysterious Skin - This film touches on some very dark and gritty subject matter, and is shot so that the dark stuff is certainly disturbing, but within the darkness there are moments of incredible beauty, both in terms of narrative and just visually. I'm thinking the opening and ending in particular, the image of the falling cereal sending sugar all around is one of the most striking openings I've ever seen. It's one of the rare American films that deals with serious subject matter in a contemporary setting. Normally, you only see big issues in historical films, this actually reminds me a lot of the tone of the films of Kim Ki-Duk...

My Review

7. Samaritan Girl - This is the first of two Kim Ki-Duk films on the list, and the second to deal with the issue of teenage prostitution. While it's not really a huge issue here, it's apparently a very big concern in Korea. This film, like most of Kim's work, is beautifully shot, with some great music choices. The reason this film is higher than Mysterious Skin is because the emotions are a bit more relatable. Also, despite being a relatively small scale film, it takes you on a huge journey, with a bunch of really strong plot twists. It's a film that would seem designed to shock with its subject matter, but instead turns out to shock because of how much you care about the characters.

My Review

6. Domino - This is certainly one of the more controversial selections on here, a Hollywood action film amongst a bunch of indie stuff, however, watching this movie, it's clear that it's anything but conventional. Tony Scott basically destroys the action genre, reducing it to isolated images of violence edited together at hyper-speed. It's a film where the filmmaking is the real highlight, you don't really care about the characters, it's the images, music and how they're put together that makes this fun to watch. The film somehow manages to take the energy that a great trailer has, but extend it to feature length, always building on what came before, leading up to a massive finale that pushes the violence and crazy filmmaking to its limit. Give this one a look, it's the craziest film to come out of the Hollywood machine in years.

My Review

5. Clean - Maggie Cheung is arguably the world's greatest actress, and with this role she moves away from her traditional regal roles into a gritter, more realistic film. Watching the film is watching her journey and it's riveting. I really wanted her to succeed in getting her life together, and as things did progress, the results were never sappy, but still very emotional. It's a really well made film, with some strong use of music, particularly Maggie's own singing. Like a lot of the films on here, it's a simple story that uses character rather than narrative as the driving force, and as a result, is a very strong emotional experience.

My Review

4. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance - I had a lot of trouble placing this and the number 3 film. I've seen them both so recently that it's tough to get perspective. However, at 4, this is still a high ranking, and the film is a worthy successor to Oldboy. What put it so high is the joy I had watching it, each shot in the film was beautifully composed, there are very few people who can shoot a film like Park. By the end of the film, I was emotionally drained, but still exhilirated that such a powerful film exists.

My Review

3. The New World - As I mentioned before, in the past two days, I've seen two of the top films on this list. I'm going to do a full writeup of The New World later, but to sum it up, this movie takes you to another world. It not only recreates the physical space of early America, it puts you in the mental space too. The film is unbelievably beautiful, and the use of voiceover combined with great music creates a really unique space. Particularly in the early part of the film, where Smith is in the Indian camp, the images contain so much power. My primary gauge in making this list is my emotional reaction to the film, and watching this, particularly O'Orianka Kilcher's lead performance, was to be completely caught up in the feeling of the film. She gives one of the best lead performances I've seen in years, the joy in her face is just infectious. It's Malick's best.

2. 3-Iron - This was Kim Ki-Duk's year. 3-Iron is a modern day fairy tale about the power of love to transform the lives of two broken people. However, Kim's stark style keeps it from being sappy, and even though the occasional bursts of violence are disquieting, it's ultimately the feeling of peace and serenity that sticks with you. There's one moment that makes the movie for me, and it's pictured below. Everything you need to know about the movie is in that one image, that one moment. The whole movie has a feeling about it, and it's something I love to feel.

My Review

1. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith - Reaching the end, another potentially controversial choice. The thing about this film is that it has a lot of problems, I wouldn't want to insult phones by saying that Natalie Portman was phoning it in, but the film's faults are eclipsed by one of the most ambitious stories in film history. I've never seen an entire universe falling apart, and the entire film has an apocalyptic feeling. Rather than go on and on about what worked, I'm just going to say that for the entire prequel trilogy, the thing I wanted to see was Jedi getting killed, and Darth Vader, and I don't think I was alone in this. And yet, the montage of the jedi getting killed was tragic, and when the Vader mask was finally put on, it was a devestating moment. This wasn't about finally getting to see the guy we'd all been waiting for, it was the death of someone who'd been so thoroughly broken and used by everyone around him. I liked the fact that Lucas didn't make it black and white, the Jedi were corrupt and clueless, the destruction was needed to pave the way for a new order in the next trilogy. This was my most anticipated film of all time, one that I'd been looking forward to for over fifteen years, and at the end of it, I was completely satisfied. Living up to that expectation alone makes it the best film of 2005.

My Review

So, following this, I'm going to post my star ranking of all the films I've seen this year, and my Academy Award nominations, and that will close out the year in film. I cracked on the stuff coming out this year quite a bit, it certainly wasn't at the level of last year, where there were five or six all time masterpieces, but things came back at the end, and we're left with enough really good movies to make things memorable.

1. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas)
2. 3-Iron (Kim Ki-Duk)
3. The New World (Terence Malick)
4. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chanwook Park)
5. Clean (Olivier Assayas)
6. Domino (Tony Scott)
7. Samaritan Girl (Kim Ki-Duk)
8. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki)
9. Mirrormask (Dave McKean)
10. Last Days (Gus Van Sant)