Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Leos Carax: Holy Motors

When a film work as maddening, fresh, and bizarre as underrated auteur Leos Carax's Holy Motors comes barreling our way, we must not only take notice, but bask in the glory of its sheer audacity. Carax, with only a handful of magically transporting works under his belt, has almost topped himself with this richly consuming piece.

The plot almost defies description - it must be seen to be believed and savored. Carax's stock star and alter ego (?) Denis Lavant, with his elfin visage and diverse body language, portrays a mysterious agent working for an unclear organization. Driven from scene to scene in a black limousine by his faithful and adoring partner (an enchanting Edith Scob), he uses wigs, make-up, and costumes in the bacseat to transform himself into a bevy of bizarre characters, insinuating himself into the'reel' world as a crippled beggar woman, a virtual-reality sex partner, a dying father, and even his monstrous sewer troll from Carax's beyond weird segment from the omnibus film Tokyo! from a few years back.

The elusiveness of the premise and its delivery are open to audience and critic interpretation, which seems to be the director's sublime intention. He calls our attention to the metaphoric process of watching movies and being affected by them. In its vague sublimities, the unclear transforms the spectator into the creator. His work is what we make of it. No other recent movie is as dialectic or challenging as this one. Certainly no film in its director's canon.

Open-ended, enfuriating, fascinating, calling into question genre and the very act of cine-voyeurism and the artform in its entirety, Holy Motors is a spellbinding provocation every movie lover must see to believe.

Steven Spielberg: Lincoln

Unfurling across national screens with the graceful stamina of a late-career master's stroke, Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated historical epic Lincoln has the strange distinction of being both a measured study in classic storytelling and the odd slog of a great director's letdown. For in pinpointing the accuracies of a celebrated presidency and decisive turning point in our country's history, Spielberg allows the dust to settle far too much.

Coming off the jubilant high of his triumphant double feature last year, the delightfully rambunctious adventure film The Adventures of Tin-Tin and one of his few works of shattering perfection, War Horse, Lincoln couldn't help but be anti-climactic. Despite perfection in all technical departments, and on the parts of his stellar cast all delivering career-high point performances, the mainstream maestro's ode to arguably our greatest president is studied, overlong, and dull.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones are all three hypnotic in the immersion of their respective roles - Field's conviction is mesmeric, and Day-Lewis' transformation is not surprising knowing his track record but stunning nonetheless.

Opening with a roar, we are reminded of Spielberg's ingenious choreography of his battle sequences in his masterful World War 2 opus, Saving Private Ryan. But the brutality and realism of these Civil War battle scenes and Lincoln's mysterious introduction, and complex symbolic dialogue with black and white soldiers, gives way to the cold, leaden pacing of the rest of the film.

It's as if the passion and vision of War Horse drained the director of the emotion and heart one of his most important projects needs to survive. Janusz Kaminski's camera work is some of his best with his perennial partner; this world feels lived in, the color drained of blood along with the country, dying from its fissures. The art director and set decorators expertly recreate the period, almost better than any previous record of the time; Joanna Johnston's costumes are equally measured and just right.

Michael Kahn's editing is thoughtful and paced; as the picture drags on, we can't help but remember that Spielberg is one of many helmers who often has trouble knowing when to end his pictures. John Williams' music score is magisterial and classic, in union with the spirit of the entire old-fashioned affair. One of Spielberg's most inspired touches is his surprisingly fresh take on Licoln's demise; other than that it all goes down predictably, though well-done.

As the credits rolled, I couldn't help but be disappointed; my hopes are that this picture endures, and will deepen upon multiple viewings - Spielberg deserves them. I didn't care for his A.I. Artificial Intelligence upon its release. In the past couple years, I've watched the picture several times and adore it now. For now, Lincoln is one of my least favorite Spielberg movies.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Robert Zemeckis: Flight


Taking a much needed breath of anti-animation fresh air, Robert Zemeckis triumphantly returns to live-action narrative filmmaking with his riveting, complex new film Flight. Working from an excellent script by the talented John Gatins, Zemeckis aligns all the elements just right, delivering easily his best movie in over a decade.

Flight not only affords the director a chance to stretch his creative maxims into regions he's never gone before, but also gifts Denzel Washington one of the strongest roles of his career; he is thankful in gifting the audience, in return, one of the richest, most challenging performances of his in some time. The plot, regarding an alcoholic, drug binging pilot and his moral confliction after he saves the lives of passengers and crew with quick thinking, harks back to the days of morally ambiguous, adventuresome, and crafty American filmmaking of the 1970's.

Zemeckis, in solid conjunction with his stellar cinematographer Don Burgess, multi-faceted editor Jeremiah O'Driscoll and longtime collaborator, the incomparable composer Alan Silvestri, weave a fascinating tapestry rife with questions of hero-worship, addiction, and media-mongering. Washington's conviction is spellbinding; we come to care deeply for Whip, and his fate. Solidly, Zemeckis and Gatins leave a lot of said questions unanswered.

A wizard of the 70s generation wunderkinds including Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Lucas, Zemeckis is best known for his fantasy strength in masterworks such as the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Death Becomes Her, and Forrest Gump. With Flight, he achieves one of his subtlest, most mature and humane creations yet.