This is considered by many the best submarine film ever made, and after finally seeing it for the first time after many years of procrastination, I find it very hard to argue with that label. Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 film follows the exploits of a German U-boat crew during World War II, as they mostly wander the Mediterranean, with only a vague sense of their mission and purpose. Around 95% of this 293 minute film (I watched the uncut TV miniseries version) takes place in the submarine, which results in a fairly uncompromising experience. This isn’t the same as the submarine environments in other acclaimed films of this order like Crimson Tide and The Hunt For Red October, where the characters at least have room to walk around and breathe. The U-boat is cramped and claustrophobic, and the camera has to constantly fight past crewmembers as it hurtles along the submarine’s lone hallway. The film is also notable in presenting a wartime view from the German perspective. It initially seems strange to be following and sympathizing with this group of Nazi soldiers, but it becomes clear very early on that the filmmakers and the characters have little to no interest in discussing politics. These are men first and foremost, and their main interest is survival. This miniseries version contains moments of almost unbearable tension, separated by long, almost monotonous stretches of inactivity when the viewers gets to know the characters. By the end of the film, you feel like you’ve experienced the whole ordeal along with them. My guess is that for future viewings I can go with the shorter director’s cut version for a leaner and more evenly-paced experience, but whatever version one chooses to watch, chances are it will leave a big impression. 9/10.
Not for a long time have I seen a film as aggressively terrible as this latest effort from director Lee Daniels. It’s sort of a cross between hard-boiled southern noir and campy exploitation, but populated by A-level actors and with a deluded sense of overinflated self-importance. Everything about the film feels misjudged, but the central casting and direction deserve special notice. Matthew McConaughey is the only one who emerges at the end with his dignity intact; Nicole Kidman and John Cusack, on the other hand, crank their performances up to 11, to the point where they’re nothing more than campy white trash caricatures. Daniels’ directing choices are just baffling; he never manages to establish any kind of consistent tone, and too frequently he resorts to needless gimmicks (split-screen, breaking the fourth wall). There’s a half-hearted attempt to weave in some commentary on the racial and homophobic climate of the southern U.S. in the late 1960s, but it feels like it’s only there to trick audiences into taking the lurid material seriously. The worst part is, just when you feel like you’re getting a handle on the film’s obnoxiously sweaty and sleazy style, it switches gears in the final half hour with a ludicrously dark and nihilistic ending, which only makes the early campiness even more confusing. It’s really weird, because with the talent involved in this you would expect it to at least be professionally competent, and it never is. 3/10.
Searching For Sugar Man
The enigmatic Rodriguez released two albums in the early ’70s to dismal sales in the United States, and he would never record again. But due to some strange twist of fate, the albums made their way to South Africa, where they became in a sense cultural milestones in the countercultural history of the country, with Rodriguez’s voice and lyrics sparking a sort of awakening among the youth during apartheid. However, due to the restrictions and censorship in the country at the time, nobody knew anything about Rodriguez, including the fact that he was nowhere near as renowned almost anywhere else in the world (he was also popular in Australia, but the documentary doesn’t factor that in to the story it’s telling). So little was known that people began to believe a rumor floating around about how Rodriguez had, in his final performance, committed suicide onstage. The early segments of Searching For Sugar Man recount these strange events, and the rest of the film is all about the investigation from South Africa into just exactly who this man was/is(?). I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it’s certainly available elsewhere if you want to go looking for it. I think it’s better, if you have any interest in the documentary, to go into it knowing as little as possible. I didn’t know anything about Rodriguez beforehand, and I think that lack of knowledge improves the overall effect of the film, with the final section building to a similar kind of crescendo as something like Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, which at the end was almost overwhelmingly emotional. The documentary is deservedly one of the five nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, and it’s something I can imagine everyone appreciating and enjoying at least on some level. 9/10.
Watching this film, I felt like John Cusack in Being John Malkovich. Perhaps more than any of his other films, Inland Empire is essentially the equivalent of invading the mind of David Lynch. And, if this film is anything to go by, David Lynch’s mind must be a very frightening place. You know you’re in for a long haul when a film opens with an existential sitcom starring rabbits, and it only gets weirder from there. Forget any conformation to accessibility; the film is three hours long, most of the scenes are improvised, and it’s shot entirely on ugly digital video. Now, my tolerance for Lynch’s inherent strangeness is fairly high, but there were times during this film when I was close to losing all patience with it. Were it not for Laura Dern’s all-in central performance, I might have given up. As the situations in the film become more and more abstract, Dern remains the only real constant element. I won’t pretend for a second that I understood the film, and to be honest I don’t even think Lynch has a complete idea of what it’s about, but there does seem to be a loose statement on the roles that women play in entertainment, with Dern morphing between a variety of different personas. In part because of its total inaccessibility, for me the film doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of his previous works. Still, it’s a film that was made completely on the director’s own terms, and if the result isn’t necessarily the best work he’s ever done, it’s at the very least an admirable excursion. 7/10.
Continuing in the same vein of inaccessible but fascinating fare is this expressionistic horror film from 2009. Like Inland Empire, trying to look for any kind of clear narrative through-line is inevitably going to end in some frustration, but unlike David Lynch’s film, trying to do so is not a hopeless cause. From what I can gather, the film tracks the progression of a girl’s sexual awakening through three distinct stages. In the first stage, she is terrorized by a black figure in an old, dusty house, before viewing her parents making love. In the next stage, the girl, now a teen, goes with her mother into the nearby town, where she draws the attention of the local men. In the last stage, she returns to the house of her childhood, now an adult, and is once again terrorized by the black figure, as well as by a sinister cab driver. The interest in the film comes not from what is being told but how the filmmakers are doing the telling. Stylistically, it’s a not-very-subtle homage to classic giallo filmmakers, particularly Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The filmmakers reuse classic giallo music, individual segments play out in expressive washes of color very similar to what can be seen in Argento’s films, and in the final moments, there is a clear reference to Bava’s Blood And Black Lace. Even without any knowledge of its references, the film manages to sustain a tone very much its own, with some inventive editing and oversensitive sound design making a big impression. Does it all add up to much of anything? Well, that’s a difficult question, but it sure is pleasing to the senses. 7/10.
More and more now I find myself gravitating towards films like this. Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 film is mostly a quiet, contemplative experience, without anything in the way of directorial showmanship or obvious plot elements. It may seem deceptively simple at first glance, but it has continued to reveal new layers to me as I’ve thought about it consistently for the last week. The film starts with a mother journeying with her son to her late husband’s hometown, where she hopes to live and work as a piano teacher. As they near their destination, their car breaks down, and the local mechanic comes out to help her and drive her into town. He immediately falls in love with her, but the rest of the town is not as welcoming. I’ll avoid explicitly spoiling what happens next, but suffice to say there is tragedy in store for the characters in the near future. Jeon Do-yeon won the Best Actress award at the 2007 Cannes film festival for her work here, and she is undeniably brilliant, but equally important to why the film works as well as it does is the always-reliable Song Kang-ho. While Jeon handles most of the big emotions, Song hovers around in the background, almost as a sort of guardian angel, whose love is unreciprocated but who is always willing to be there for her. The film is in part about the ways that people attempt to find solace in the wake of tragedy. Jeon’s character seeks out solace in the form of religion, but ultimately comes to question the meaning of her suffering, acting out at times violently towards God. Despite this, it’s not an anti-religious film. It’s a spiritual film that is more of an assertion of the human spirit, a film that puts forth the idea that maybe consolation can be found not by looking up into the heavens, but by looking around us here on the ground. It’s also the best film I saw in January. 10/10.
There’s something about the Tim Burton aesthetic that lends itself extraordinarily well to animation. Burton is a notoriously uneven director, but when he’s gone the animated route with The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and now Frankenweenie, the results have been consistently excellent. His latest is a stop-motion recreation of one of his early shorts, a riff on the Universal monster classics and Hammer horror pictures. As was the case with Burton’s previous stop-motion efforts, one of the big pleasures of the film is simply watching the technical craft on display. The black-and-white look of the film is lovely; it’s a creative gamble on the part of the filmmakers, but it works to connect the film back to its many classic horror film references, as well as to provide an appealing visual contrast to other modern animated films There’s also an interesting thematic current running through the film about the varied reactions to science in society, and how people oftentimes react negatively to scientific discoveries in part because of the questions that are raised in relation to them. In the end though, the visuals and the horror references and the scientific debates and the trademark Burton Gothic humor all take a backseat to the central relationship between a boy and his dog, and the lengths to which the boy will go to keep his friend alive. Especially coming from a filmmaker whose films are more often than not stylish but cold affairs, this emotional center is impressive, and the overall result is one of his best films. 8/10.
Top ten first-time viewings in January 2013:
Zero Dark Thirty
Searching For Sugar Man
The Turin Horse
The Good, The Bad, The Weird
Jiro Dreams Of Sushi
Let The Bullets Fly