A 2021 Film Journey: Day 150

For today’s viewing, I once again returned to my wall of Criterion releases with the numerous unwatched films that mock me. While there are numerous single releases that I still need to watch, what mocks me the most are the boxsets that I picked up during various flash sales from Criterion of which I have watched no films. With that in mind, I chose today’s film to start one of those sets and to watch my first film from an important director.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

The Marriage of Maria Braun

The first film in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s thematic (as opposed to narrative) BRD Trilogy, The Marriage of Maria Braun, uses the story of Maria Braun – a woman who attempts to put her life together in the years after World War II after her husband of two days is conscripted and then does not return home after the war ends – to depict West German in the years after World War II.

The opening moments of The Marriage of Maria Braun border upon farcical. Maria (Hanna Schygulla) and Hermann (Klaus Löwitsch) are so desperately in love with each other that even as the building they are getting a marriage license from is being bombed, they prevent the notary from fleeing so that they can be married without delay and kiss consummating the marriage while lying in the rubble remains of the building. While this humor is not devoid from the rest of the film, the film deals with a much darker subject matter than these initial moments would indicate. These initial seconds of the film represent both the happiest narrative and lightest tonal moments in the film. Immediately after, Hermann is sent away to fight in the war, and Maria is forced to fend for herself as a single woman in a country that is struggling to pick up the pieces of the military loss.

While the film does not deliver on the uproarious comedy that the initial seconds portend, what it does offer is an incredibly complex narrative about a woman whose fight to survive in a hostile environment leaves her a changed and broken woman even if her undying love for her husband never wavers. Schygulla’s transfer from giddy newlywed to cutthroat businesswoman makes for a devastating watch, but her immediate regression to lovesick puppy upon reuniting with her Hermann keeps a level of humanity in Fassbinder’s tale.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 149

I really do not know what it is about this month that has made this project so much more difficult. I think that part of it has honestly been the onset of summer. Seattle is extremely far north, so as we approach the equinox, sunset becomes increasingly late. My normal movie watching is after dinner which I do not tend to think of until it is dark, but as sunset is not until nine these days, that has been making fitting in movies more difficult. That combined with some unhealthy brain juices has made everything difficult, but I am hoping that I can get back in the swing of things.

While I did not post anything in this section for it, I am giving myself credit for Day 145 in which I wrote a long form review on Army of the Dead (2021, Dir. Zack Snyder). Additionally, if I am giving myself credit, today’s viewings were two films.

Frankenstein (1931, Dir. James Whale) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, Dir. James Whale)

Frankenstein (1931) | Film Dialogue

Did I choose to watch these movies because they were short enough that I could fit two films in even though I did not get started until late in the evening? Yes, that is exactly why I chose these films. Even if the runtime was my primary purpose for the decision, watching these classics was something that I had wanted to do eventually regardless. I actually previously watched The Bride of Frankenstein for a class in college (before I started tracking my viewings), but this was my first viewing for the original.

Both films hinge upon the otherworldly performance of Boris Karloff as The Monster. Especially in the second film, Karloff imbues his character with purpose and emotion despite the heavy platform shoes – I was shocked to learn Karloff was only 5 foot 11 – and extreme prosthetics. Karloff finds the childlike curiosity in his character monstrous exterior notwithstanding. Both films have a standout scene in which Karloff explores the interplay of The Monster’s innocent nature with the abrasive body he inhabits. In Frankenstein that scene is with the young girl and in The Bride of Frankenstein it is his interactions with the blind man. Both scenes begin with The Monster finding joy in something beautiful, flowers and music respectively, but both also end in disaster. In the first film, the tragedy comes from The Monster not quite understanding his own power or the workings of the world while in the second a third party who judges The Monster purely on aesthetics destroys the good that he found. These scenes are among the most important in their respective movies, and neither would succeed without Karloff’s understanding of his character and ability to perform in the extreme costume.

The rest of the films surrounding Karloff’s performances are well crafted though dated. They both evoke the gothic horror that Universal was cultivating at the time leaning heavily on literary horror tropes with simple cinematic storytelling to hold the films together. While these films took few risks – MGM released Freaks (Tod Browning) in 1932 which was infinitely more artistically brave if a commercial flop – Karloff’s performance is what causes the two Frankenstein films to last as classics 90 years later.

Army of the Dead: Too Much Style, Too Little Substance

Army of the Dead review: Zack Snyder bets on brainless zombie flick - CNET

Fresh off the success of his four-hour cut of Justice League (2021), Zack Snyder takes his screenplay that had been stuck in development hell for years and uses his current goodwill to jump behind the camera and make the film himself.

Army of the Dead sells itself as a George Romero zombie film mixed with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Dave Bautista plays Scott Ward a mercenary for hire who assembles a crew to infiltrate the walled-off, zombie-infested Las Vegas. The goal is to steal the $200 million from an underground vault before the government nukes the city in hopes of containing the outbreak.

The script for Army of the Dead is a mess. It has very awkward pacing – highlighted by a far too long prologue – and is filled with numerous things for YouTube cynics to nitpick. The script’s largest issue comes from the film’s supposed emotional center. Scott uses the heist as an excuse to reunite with his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) who works as a volunteer in a camp adjacent to the walled off Vegas. She is clearly meant to be who the audience resonates with as Scott is a cold protagonist. Before the reunion with her father, Kate makes a pact with her friend who is being forcefully held in the camp that if she attempts to escape – which must be done through the infested city – Kate will watch her friend’s children until they can be reunited. As Scott and the others are preparing to enter the city, Kate realizes that her friend did in fact enter Vegas but has not emerged leaving the children abandoned. This sets up a powerful dilemma for Kate, but instead of exploring that Snyder simply uses it as an excuse to force Kate into the city with her father and completely forgets about the abandoned children. In a script filled with head scratching moments, denying the film its natural heart is the most damaging to the film.

While Snyder may have looked to Romero and Soderbergh for inspiration, the only director whose influence Snyder truly takes to heart is his own. Romero’s Living Dead films were filled with social commentary from a man with a lot to say on the subject. Snyder on the other hand is extremely misanthropic, and this deprives the film of any meaningful commentary. While the film sets up for the potential of an immigration story, the open-air detention facility is purely used as a plot contrivance and then promptly ignored for more action. Zack Snyder does not care to use his platform to create an allegory. This same misanthropy is also at the heart of why Snyder struggles to capture the wit in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films. While the film is filled with jokes, each of them is mean spirited and come at the expense of someone. This provides none of the levity that drives the Soderbergh’s films and instead creates an unpleasantness which causes the film to feel a slog.

If the film fails to capture the essence of the narrative’s inspirations, Snyder does at least perfectly replicate his own style. Every shot is stylized to the point at which it ceases to have any connection to reality. For the first time, Snyder chose to sit directly behind the camera and shoot his own film, and his personal vision does not work well as a cinematography. In service of making every shot interesting, he kept the depth of field extremely shallow often putting important characters behind a soft focus for no discernible reason. Just as a film should not use exclusively flat shots, one also should not always employ extreme composition techniques. This flawed decision is further amplified by Snyder’s signature desaturated color pallet – a decision which completely wastes using the gaudy Vegas Strip as a setting. The result is a film that is actively straining on the eyes to watch.

Snyder’s other stylistic signatures are present as well. The film makes liberal use of bullet time imagery and dramatic rewinds to create entertaining set pieces. This is where the film is most comfortable, creating graphic violence by and against the zombies. Unfortunately, this positive aspect of the film becomes gratuitous at times, and the interesting visual flare does little to counteract the numerous other flaws.

Zack Snyder was intimately involved in nearly every part of Army of the Dead and his presence comes across clearly on the screen. The film is not without vision, but vision alone does not create a good film. Between a nonexistent theme, the misanthropic souring of narrative tropes, and a headache inducing visual style, Army of the Dead is the most Zach Snyder film in the worst way. Snyder is best when subject to some restraint, and it is clear that no one felt comfortable telling him “no” for this endeavor.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 144

Halfway through today’s film, I started feeling out of touch. The closure of theaters meant that the year after seeing the most mainstream releases of my life, I fell completely off. Today’s watching was one that filled in a personal blind spot, but the film felt every one of its 50 years. That is not to say I did not enjoy the film (keep reading to rind out), but rather it made me realize I want to slightly adjust my viewings. I am still going to be filling in my classic blind spots, but I am going to make sure that I am watching at least one wide release (or steaming equivalent) 2021 film a week.

M*A*S*H (1970, Dir. Robert Altman)

Movie Review – “MASH” (1970)

While I have a passing knowledge of the long running TV show that followed (I can likely count on one hand the number of full episodes I have seen), my knowledge of the Robert Altman film was only that it preceded the series and that is had different actors that the show. While I know that second point makes viewing the movie a difficult ask for many, thankfully my relative unfamiliarity with the material allows me to view the Korean War comedy with relatively uncompromised eyes.

I do not think I am shattering anyone’s mind when I say that M*A*S*H is a very funny film. That said, I found the film to exist in a sort of uncanny valley for humor. The humor is simultaneously unrelenting and underwhelming. This is due to constant subtle jokes despite the serious setting with only a few moments of pure absurdity. This tone was likely deliberately chosen by Altman to keep a constant thread of levity when dealing with the war elements as the film came out amid the Vietnam War. M*A*S*H exists to allow the viewing public of 1970 to experience war in an enjoyable manner contrasting with the footage on the nightly news. This relation is also why outside of the couple of scenes at Major Margaret O’Houlihan’s (Sally Kellerman) expense the film avoided pure farse. Altman did not want to insult the men fighting in the actual war.

The delicate balance that Altman maintained to create a seminal war comedy while the country was actively engaged in another war. While the elements in M*A*S*H maintain much of their comedy today, the different era makes Altman’s balancing act feel unnecessary in hindsight. While it does not detract from the film overall, it clearly dates the film.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 142 and 143

Before I dive into today’s entries, I want to mention a change I am going to be implementing going forward. My past few posts have been coming increasingly late, and I think that is exposing a flaw this project has had upon conception. Moving forward, rather than attempt to write up a post after watching my movie, often late into the night/ early morning, I will be writing my posts the following morning. As for today’s posts, while I do not intend on combining days on a regular basis, it just made sense with these films.

Before this weekend, I had only seen one Jacques Rivette film, his 13-hour epic Out 1 (1971). While that was arguably a foolishly ambitious place to begin, I had the chance to see it in theaters a few years ago and was not going to turn that down. And while at the time I would have been well served watching one of his shorter (shorter being a relative term) films before jumping in the deep end, that experience offered an excellent baseline for this weekend’s viewings.

Paris Belongs to Us (1961, Dir. Jacques Rivette)

MoMA | Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us

10 years before releasing his magnum opus, Rivette’s debut feature debuted during the relative infancy for the French New Wave movement. Had Paris Belongs to Us not struggled to find distribution for years, the film could potentially have had a much more influential role on the movement, but the multiple year delay led to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959)and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) having a much more sizable impact on the movement. This suspended release means that while Paris Belongs to Us implements many trademark elements of the movement, it also feels unique in that landscape.

Paris Belongs to Us leans heavily into the socio-economic themes that are plentiful in the French New Wave. The title itself is ironic as all the characters in the film are non-native Parisians. Each is escaping a place that would not have them in the wake of the second world war, but they find refuge in each other in Paris. What Rivette brings to the movement is a bit more control over the cinematic language of the film with which he creates a mysterious aura to envelope his story. The protagonist Anne (Betty Schneider) is lured into believing a mysterious conspiracy. While she spends the runtime of the film slowly trying to find the truth behind a man-she-never-met’s apparent suicide, the audience in turn is tasked with deciding if the mystery is real or imagined.

Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974, Dir. Jacques Rivette)

The Triumph of 'Céline and Julie Go Boating' | The Nation

The second Rivette offering of the weekend was his first feature after Out 1, Céline and Julie Go Boating. While obviously much shorter than the 13-hour film that preceded it, clocking in at nearly 200 minutes, Céline and Julie Go Boating continued Rivette’s trend of using an extended runtime to create a necessary mood for his features. The film uses its lethargic pace to build the surrealist mood necessary for the film’s principal premise. The initial meeting between Céline (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier) on film initially appears to be a random encounter between strangers, but it quickly melds into a more playful, familiar interaction. This undefined moment to start the film reflects the tone of the film to follow.

Near the halfway point of the film, the relationship between Céline and Julie is well defined – Céline has moved in with Julie – and Rivette’s trademark mystery begins to take center stage. Both women become enamored with a mysterious house that with the help of psychotropic candy takes them to a melodramatic world where they play a hypnotic role. They become increasingly enamored with this parallel reality until it occupies the entirety of both women’s lives.

Both films are ones that I would struggle with recommending. Their extremely deliberate pacing would be a turnoff to many, but to those willing to put up with gratuitous downtime, both films are works of beauty. Rivette displays exceptional skill at mood creation and intrigue building. The extended runtime in his films allow him to implement elongated crescendos such that one finds oneself on edge without being aware of the subtle build. When neither film supplies a narratively fulfilling ending, it is the meticulously crafted mood that lingers from both films. While they are certainly not for everyone, Rivette is a master auteur for those willing to embrace his hallmark style.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 140

I clearly do not learn. A day after lamenting that I chose such a complex film to start so late, and after commenting on how Zama exposed my personal film criticism deficiencies, I for some reason chose today to re-engage with the works of Guy Maddin. Like yesterday, time got away once more, and this post is being delayed again.

Careful (1992, Dir. Guy Maddin)

Careful (1992)

Before this film, my experiences with Guy Maddin had been exclusively his later work. I had seen nothing before My Winnipeg (2007). The context of his latter work, The Forbidden Room (2015) in particular, ended up being extremely beneficial for putting both in auteurial context with each other. While The Forbidden Room was more experimental in form and visuals, at its heart, the film was a love letter to the earliest years of cinema. While that film played with the concept of lost films by intertwining many faux recreations, Careful was an early example of Maddin creating his own version of pre-Hollywood cinema.

While Careful may have spoken dialogue, Maddin implements numerous other techniques in service of replicating they style. The plot of the film feels pulled straight from the bygone era. It is filled with extreme melodramas that ring hollow in current cinema but were common for the era. The filmmaking itself also resurrects specific techniques from the birth of cinema. Most obvious is Maddin’s use of tinted celluloid. Much of the film uses this tinting as the only color – as would be the case in the 1890s through 1920s – but even when Maddin implements color film, each scene is still tinted to replicate the look. Another technique used by Maddin to replicate this era is to shoot while seldom moving the camera. Each of these decisions combine to create an anachronistic viewing that is more enjoyable as a cinematic experiment than as a narrative. It is an extremely interesting watch as long as one goes into it with that in mind.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 139

Fell asleep last night while writing this one. It is probably for the best though; I needed some time to process this film. I really either need to start watching my films earlier, or not pick such heavy material to watch at 10pm.

Zama (2017, Dir. Lucrecia Martel)

zama | vertoning | KASKcinema

Zama is the type of film that really causes me to regret my lack of any formal film criticism training. I can tell you that Zama is beyond brilliant, and that I was in constant awe watching it, but I am not sure what specifically about it activated those feelings in me. The film is a period piece taking place in 18th century Argentina, but the setting has an air of surrealism that creates a constant unease. Spanish elegance is made a mockery of while set upon mud floors and occupied with donkeys in a way that creates a unique world for Martel’s film.

While the setting in Zama may exists in an intermediate space between reality and full-blown surrealism, the film’s narrative symbolism is anything but vague.  At its core, Zama is an extremely critical satire of colonialism. Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and the rest of the Spanish occupiers are portrayed as excessively foppish. The film is constantly juxtaposing the white men who look a fool in their garish costumes with the indigenous people mostly naked, but able to survive in the tropic environment. While the power dynamics are as grim as they were in reality, Martel’s innovative look at the time provides a welcome reframing of that history.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 138

I swear, some days it feels like it goes straight from 6pm to 10pm with nothing in between. All that is to say, I am not really sure where the day disappeared to, so today’s movie once again was started late. Still after this spotty month of viewing, if I watch and write about something I am considering it a success.

Wadjda (2013, Dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour)

Wadjda,' by Haifaa al-Mansour, Made in Saudi Arabia - The New York Times

While this film was on my radar for quite some time now, it was seeing Haifaa Al-Mansour most recent film, The Perfect Candidate, as part of the Seattle International Film Festival that inspired me to move it up my list. Like her later film Wadjda tells the story of a Saudi woman attempting to navigate a country that is only beginning to expand its understanding of women’s rights. While The Perfect Candidate focused on a young professional woman, Wadjda instead follows a young girl’s need to rebel against her restrictive surroundings.

Eight years later, Wadjda is more remarkable for what it meant than what it is. The film is good to great on an artistic level. It has some slight pacing issues but there is little to complain about and a lot to enjoy. What stands out more than any of the films text is its place in the culture. When it came out Wadjda marked the first time a woman made a feature film in Saudi Arabia, and it is clear that Haifaa Al-Mansour took the honor with the respect it deserved and created a film addressing the same injustices that kept her from the big screen before this film.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 137

I am really struggling with keeping on top of writing this month. Yesterday was the first warm day of the year, and while I would like to say I missed my post because I was making the best of the weather outside, instead my body just shutdown unable to take the sudden temperature increase. So yesterday consisted mostly of naps and cold water. Regardless it is cooler today and I have a movie to write about, so here we go.

Zappa (2020, Dir. Alex Winter)

Zappa - Official Trailer - YouTube

This documentary had been on my list last year, but I missed its release in the mess that was 2020. Finding it on Hulu, I knew that it needed to be tonight’s viewing. I got really into Frank Zappa’s music and when I was in college – I saw Zappa plays Zappa twice during that time – and have always been enamored with the man behind the music. Alex Winter’s Zappa delivers specifically on the interest in the man behind the music. While it includes a near constant string of musical clips and tidbits, Frank Zappa the man and the artist take center stage.

As a fan, the film more than held my attention. Winter captured the complexities of Zappa’s career and keeps the movie evolving despite its rather long run time. Zappa’s evolution from musical theater innovator to experimental composer and eventually political voice highlights his genius and influence he had on the world of music. While I was completely enamored with the content of the documentary, I once again recognize that Winter does little artistically with his film. Zappa the man engrossing enough that the film succeeds; still, one has to imagine that Zappa himself would have wanted a more daring and experimental film honoring his legacy.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 135

I am still trying to get back into the swing of things since falling off at the beginning of the month. In service of that, I am doing my doing my best to pace myself as I return to writing. While I likely would have fallen off when I did regardless, I do think my breakneck watching and writing pace from SIFF was responsible for a bit of burnout. With that in mind, even though it is the weekend, today was just a one film day while I ease myself back into this habit.

Cold Water (1994, Dir. Olivier Assayas)

Cold Water (1994) directed by Olivier Assayas • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

Before today, my experience with Olivier Assayas consisted entirely of the films he has done with Kristen Stewart – which I adore. For the next film in his ouvre that I chose to watch, I jumped 20 years back from Clouds of Sils Maria to Assayas’s tale of rebellious youth, complete with classic rock soundtrack, Cold Water. Staring Virginie Ledoyen and Cyprien Fouquet as the troublesome couple Christine and Gilles, Cold Water hits on all the staple elements for a teenage rebellion film, but never feels derivative.

While Assayas’s recent work is highlighted by quiet, ponderous moments, Cold Water shows that he has success in more kinetic moments as well. The highlight of the film comes late in the third act after Christine has escaped from the hospital in which she had been committed, and Gilles had run from home. They both coincidentally head to the same party to reunite under the backdrop of youth debauchery. Credence Clearwater Revival blares while glass and furniture are broken and burned in an energizing moment that keeps the ponderous qualities of Assayas’s later work. While the tropes may verge on the cliché, Assayas’s unique touch is ever present elevating the material.