A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell)

Both Bens Rivers & Bussell are in Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50, and I’ve checked them both out before – Russell with Let Each One Go Where He May and Rivers with Two Years at Sea and some shorts.

Spell opens and closes with Russell’s shaky follow-cam, the camera behind the head of a walking person. I can see a theoretical point to his relentless follow-cams: regular movies are always showing people leaving and arriving in scenes, while his movies show them traveling to the scene realistically. Theory or no, they still annoy me, and maybe he needs to find a new thing.

In between we’ve got Rivers’s “man living alone in the woods” motif and his long still shots of nothing much happening (man in a slowly drifting fishing boat – think I’ve seen that one before).

Three parts:

Estonia: bunch of foreigners in a commune, including one Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who is not the star of this section in any way but on whom I focus whenever he’s around, since I’ve seen his face in the promo photos.

Finland: just Rob Lowe alone, mountain climbing, fishing, cooking, hunting, slow-paced, no dialogue. Cutaways to the lake, a photograph of a lake, a magazine, etc. Then Rob is applying makeup, then his house burns down.

Norway: Long guitar intro over blackness, then we’re at a metal concert, interestingly shot up close by slow roving camera (this whole section is just a few long takes), with Rob as a guitarist and vocalist. They play a few songs, then he wastes no time getting backstage before the last one has ended, removing the makeup and walking into the night. I love the sound during this part, the club noise following him into the street and gradually getting louder.

M. Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Russell and Rivers share an engagement with the history of ethnographic film, but only inasmuch as the critiques of its shortcomings and power relations have been fully internalized … Russell’s films have often favoured group dynamics, or at least individuals losing their identities in tandem; Rivers has more often than not worked within a mode of solo portraiture. The resulting collaboration is a dialectical meld of these tendencies. … The resulting film is a triptych fully reflective of Rivers’ and Russell’s longtime concerns: how does one remain a part of society while carving out a space that is, in Heidegger’s terms, true to one’s ownmost possibility?

Russell:

One of the most important realizations that I had through the making of this film was that cinema was, in fact, one of our best vehicles for realizing utopia. During a conversation about his experience in the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, Tuomo (he’s the Finn who tells the asshole story in the film, also the subject of our next collaboration) proposed that utopia only exists in the present, that it can only be realized in the now. Cinema is a medium that is likewise always arriving (as the future) and receding (as the past) simultaneously. It is only alive when we are alive with it, when we share our time and allow our space to be occupied. It can only happen as experience in the present, and its capacity to produce worlds unto itself positions cinema as a very real site for utopia. For Thomas More, Utopia was a no-place, a construct; taken positively, this is cinema defined.

Sicinski again, but for Fandor:

Although the makers of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness have been most closely aligned with the avant-garde film world, they stake out a position somewhere between trance film, portraiture, and ethnography. Their films, then, identify and problematize certain dual aspects of realism that could be said to “haunt” both experimental film and anthropological documentary.

Alan Partridge (2013, Declan Lowney)

“Which is the worst monger: fish, iron, rumor or war?”

Returning cast and situations from I’m Alan Partridge, which I watched eight years ago and barely remember, and Mid Morning Matters, which I haven’t checked out yet. Alan is wedged into a hostage plot, in which Colm Meaney (The Road to Wellville) takes over the radio station in revenge for the corporate takeover that got him fired. I knew all this going in, but I watched it anyway in the hopes that it’d be unremittingly hilarious – and it is! Even the opening titles are pure pleasure, and in fact I restarted the movie to see them again and almost watched the whole thing twice.

World War Z (2013, Marc Forster)

Better than I’d heard. From one deliciously tense action scene to the next, it’s a million times more fun than Contagion.

I recognized Davis Morse playing an inspirational madman and Peter Capaldi as a world health organization doctor (get it? WHO Doctor?). Pitt’s wife Mireille Enos stars on TV’s The Killing Remake and I think Daniella Kertesz played the short-haired Israeli soldier whose zombie-bitten hand Pitt severs. Between Stranger Than Fiction and this, Forster made Machine Gun Preacher (tough white guy saves African child soldiers), The Kite Runner and a James Bond flick. Supposedly based on the Max Brooks book, but I hear it’s not really. Credited writers include Matt “Lions For Lambs” Carnahan, J. “Changeling” Straczynski, Damon “Prometheus” Lindelof and Drew “Cabin in the Woods” Goddard. That’s a lot of writers for a special-effects movie.

Hard to be a God (2013, Aleksei German)

Heard this three-hour Russian movie fourteen years in the making was something incredible, and oh boy is it ever. Loooong roving black-and-white takes (with beyond-Russian Ark choreography), torrential rainfall, everything bleak and ugly but masterfully shot. Sounds like Bela Tarr, but it doesn’t feel like Bela Tarr. Tarr ultimately focuses on individuals, and this one seems more concerned with lovely filth.

There is a story, or a premise at least, but if you miss the first five minutes you’d be forgiven for never figuring that out. Don Rumata is from present-day Earth, one of a team of scientists sent to “another planet, about 800 years behind,” on which the Rennaisance never happened because dumb thugs murdered all the educated and artistic types. The intro is the last time any of this is mentioned – the rest follows Rumata as he wanders the horrors of this place, through filth and hunger and murder. There are other characters, and a bit of a plot – a Wikipedia summary of the source novel reveals that many of its characters and events were adapted in the film, but weren’t explained. I’m not an avid reader of Russian lit so probably won’t pick up the novel, but I’m excited to see there’s a 1990 film version which may be more comprehensible.

Story aside, this is both a slog of a plotless beast and a technical and tactile marvel. It seems postsynched since we only hear certain sounds among all the chaos, but if so it’s done quite well. Also: a hedgehog and much bird tossing (including owls).

C. Marsh:

Hard to Be a God, by design, is not a dynamic film. Its consistency is intended to be exhausting. Over time, like Rumata, we’d rather be anywhere else. .. German seems less interested in the science-fiction dimension of the source material than in the central idea it poses: the Renaissance was a fluke. Cruelty and brutality are the default modes of existence.

I’m happy that Marsh mentions Monty Python and the Holy Grail in his review, since it was on my mind as well.

Intriguing Russian and German titles mentioned in Olaf Möller’s Cinema Scope article:
Khrustalyov, My Car! (1988)
Workers’ Settlement (1965)
My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982)
Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (1990)
Days of Eclipse (1988)
The Fall of Otrar (1991)
Until the End of the World (1991, the 5-hour version)
The Ugly Swans (2006)
Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)
Lenin’s Guard (1965)

Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)

Filmed gradually while its young stars (Mason: Ellar Coltrane, sister Samantha: Lorelei Linklater) grew up. That’s the hook, and it would make for a fascinating movie regardless, but Linklater has dug into his Before Trilogy bag of observational non-dramatic tricks and built something great. There are big plot points and dramatic moments, for instance when mom Patricia Arquette grabs the kids and flees her abusive, alcoholic husband, but it focuses just as much on smaller moments, and it’s true to its growing-up concept by not having every event have a consequence (e.g. Mason picks up a gun and nobody gets shot).

G. Klinger in Cinema Scope:

The film’s title is somewhat misleading: if Boyhood certainly chronicles Mason Jr.’s experience, it also allows us to see Mason Sr. and Olivia mature alongside their son. Olivia herself resides at the core of the film, heroic for her resilience and commitment to her kids, and tragic for her inability to make suitable decisions for her long-term happiness. Arquette is so sublimely perfect, so believable as a single mom struggling with poverty (even maintaining the same bad haircut for much of the film), that when her character finally breaks down toward the end, she achieves the kind of saintly purity that one associates with certain Bresson characters.

Stories We Tell (2012, Sarah Polley)

Katy and I disagreed over which was the bigger twist ending: the revelation of Sarah’s real father, or that half the family home-movie stock-footage was faked. I figured the way the movie was going, something bigger than her mother’s death, which we learn about early on, had to be coming – the stories have to be building to some family secret, so the fact of the affair was less surprising than the betrayal of the documentary form, as we briefly see Polley directing her own “mother” in the re-enactments.

Polley:

I wanted people to constantly question what they were seeing and if it was real or if it wasn’t, because that was my experience. My experience going through the story was “Is what I’m hearing fact? Is it nostalgia? Is it subjective? Is it objective?” So I wanted the audience to have a paralleled experience to that and that’s why we worked so hard to make the recreations as accurate as we possibly could.

Incidentally, Sarah’s mom was a casting director and acted in a late-80’s TV series, dad Michael has acted in Slings and Arrows, and biological dad Harry Gulkin was oscar nominated for a movie appropriately named Lies Me Father Told Me.

Cinema Scope’s A. Nayman admires it partly, but finds it all too carefully filled with self-regard.

The Clock (2010, Christian Marclay, 12:37pm-2:16pm)

I’ve read a couple of great articles about The Clock – never thought I’d have a chance to see it, but we were in Minneapolis while it ran at the Walker, so we watched almost two hours of it, which seems like a lot but is only seven percent of the total. And we could’ve easily kept watching (yes, Katy liked it too) – it’s not only a great conceptual achievement, it’s also very entertaining and ingeniously edited. To my great pleasure, as much care was given to the sound mixing as the picture, so audio will overlap in interesting ways. And the picture isn’t as clock-obsessed as I’d assumed. Clocks aren’t always onscreen, sometimes in just one fragment of a scene, or sometimes not at all, instead with characters speaking (usually in English) about the time or its passing (Nick of Time with Johnny Depp and Chris Walken got some repeat play), and clever connective shots will be used to fit scenes with similar times together. Plenty of humor – we got a confused phone conversation between two different movies, and Karl Malden in Baby Doll honking his horn to annoy characters of a whole different era.

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013, Cattet & Forzani)

Amazing giallo tribute that outdoes any of the originals except maybe the peak Argentos. Apparently this is what this Belgian filmmaking duo makes – loving, intensely stylized fever-dream giallos – which makes me sorry I skipped their Amer a few years ago. Full-color widescreen lunacy with trippy credits, great but too-infrequent music, extreme close-ups, bondage, nudity and lots of knife murders.

Danish Klaus Tange returns home from a trip to find his wife missing. They live in a Lords of Salem apartment building full of odd neighbors and evil unopened rooms and hidden passageways above and behind everything, in which first a tenant named Laura and now Klaus’s wife have disappeared. Mysterious bearded guy lives in there and seems to know what’s going on, and Klaus has an Italian police detective on his side. Also there’s a grey-haired old woman who tells a story of when her husband disappeared into the walls, and she might in fact be Laura and/or the murderer, and I believe Klaus gets killed, but none of this seemed important at the time, even less so afterwards.

N. Murray in Dissolve:

The problem is that Cattet and Forzani have done this before—and with more focus. Strange Color gets at the voyeurism of giallo, and how investigating a mystery gives people license to peer into other people’s homes and lives. But the movie as a whole doesn’t say anything about male sexual desire and female sexual power that Amer didn’t already say.

J. Anderson in Cinema Scope:

One reason Forzani and Cattet’s films are so alluring and unnerving is how well they tap into giallo’s fundamental core of irrationality. They invest a new elegance and a renewed vigour into the “science of plotless shock and dismemberment.” O’Brien intended that phrase to serve as faint praise for Bava and his successor Argento, but it’s also suggestive of the careful manner in which The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears induces ever more advanced stages of dread and derangement on the viewer’s part.

About Time (2013, Richard Curtis)

Not really a romance movie, turns out it’s a father/son bonding flick with some incidental women: perfect girlfriend/wife Rachel McAdams (Passion), and troubled sister Lydia Wilson (kidnapped princess in the first episode of Black Mirror). Father (Bill Nighy, natch) and son Tim (Domhnall “son of Brendan” Gleeson) have the boys-only inherited ability to revisit previous moments in their lives, change things then return. Movie starts out having Tim use his power to impress girls, but later to teach us that life should be enjoyed and fully experienced the first time through. Non-time-travelers: Tim’s mum (Lindsay Duncan of Traffik) and first crush (Margot Robbie, Leo’s second wife in Wolf of Wall Street), and I can’t remember if they explained whether Tim’s weird uncle Richard Cordery could time-travel. Nighy has Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms” play during his funeral, so now I’ve gotta find a new Nick Cave song to request for mine. “Push The Sky Away” sounds too obviously like funeral music with that organ, and “Babe I’m On Fire” goes too far the other way, so maybe “People Ain’t No Good”? I guess “The Weeping Song” would work, or “Let The Bells Ring”. I’ll have to listen to those two again, and maybe “No More Shall We Part” before deciding for sure, but for now I’m leaning “People Ain’t No Good”.