2013 First-Time Viewings: March Week 1

Holy MotorsHoly Motors

Leos Carax’s new film, his first full-length feature in over a decade, opens with himself as he enters a secret door in his bedroom and walks into a cinema. The audience watches the screen, and are introduced to Monsieur Oscar, who travels from one destination to another in his limousine, applying extensive makeup and emerging at each stop as a different character. He begins the morning as an elderly businessman with a family, before shifting into a begging spinster, a hitman, and a flower-eating, sewer-dwelling leprechaun, among others. All the while there is the question of why he is playing these roles, and who he is playing them for. It reminded me, strangely enough, of the Bill Murray comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little, which features a plot element called the Theater Of Life, an outlet for people to act without the need for a stage or cameras. That idea of theater being played out in reality, without any specific audience or any camera there to capture it, is only one of the many ideas the film entertains. To say much more about the roles Oscar plays would spoil many of the film’s best moments, but I will mention one interlude where he dons a motion-capture suit and performs acrobatic stunts in a pitch-black warehouse, with only the lights on his body visible in the darkness. This section displaying the wonders of digital motion capture work contrasts nicely with the film’s opening images of early footage of human motion, and indeed one of the pleasures of Holy Motors is how it contrasts the old with the new. The frequent changing of roles and situations also allows for some playful experiments with genre storytelling, as Oscar seems to move between comedy and tragedy, musical and horror, realistic drama and surrealist fantasy. The constant presence throughout each section is actor Denis Lavant, who immerses himself in every role so thoroughly that it’s easy to accept him at every point, even though it’s made clear each section is a performance carefully tailored to the situation. Despite its oblique nature, the film is one of the most exhilarating and intellectually-stimulating experiences I’ve had the pleasure to witness in the past year. To be honest though, I don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface of what this film has to offer, but I know I’ll be gladly returning to it many times. 10/10.

This Is Not A FilmThis Is Not A Film

If we could tell a film, then why make a film? This is the question Iranian director Jafar Panahi asks himself, after staging a bare-bones recreation in his apartment of a film he is not permitted to make. Under house arrest and awaiting the results on an appeal of a six-year prison sentence and a twenty-year ban from filmmaking, Panahi, desperate to express his creativity and situation in any way possible, invites a fellow filmmaker over to essentially document a day in his life. This includes an attempt by Panahi to explain what his unmade film would have been about and how it would have been made, by reading from his script and using tape on the floor to establish a makeshift setting. He realizes quickly though that his efforts are futile, that there is something about film storytelling that can’t be replicated with ease. The film is about that special and unique power that only cinema has to offer, but is it also equally about a filmmaker who has had his main creative outlet of expression taken away from him. Panahi’s situation is frustrating and depressing, and it’s sobering to realize that there are places in the world where artists are punished so heavily for expressing their opinions and ideas. But the film itself never turns into a dirge, in part because Panahi himself is an affable, and slightly eccentric, personality (he has a pet iguana that likes to wander behind shelves and occasionally dig its claws into his shoulder). Because of the short running time and the fact that this is by necessity the equivalent of a home movie, the film itself sometimes feels a little aimless (the final stretch in particular where Panahi interviews a young custodian/graduate student offers up some insight but seems like an odd note on which to end everything). Still, I think this comes close to mandatory viewing for any film fan, to witness how a filmmaker’s passion and vision can remain vital and alive even in the most oppressive circumstances. 7/10.

Out Of The PastOut Of The Past

In my admittedly limited experience with film noir (I’ve seen the classics and a handful of others), I’ve always taken pleasure in the depiction of the central anti-heroes. From Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep to Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly to Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, the best noirs always have that strong center, a figure to command attention. Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic Out Of The Past is no different, with Robert Mitchum taking center stage.  I went into the film expecting a certain kind of performance from Mitchum, looking perhaps for a similar character to the ones he played in The Night Of The Hunter and Cape Fear, sinister creations with only evil on their minds. That’s not what you get here though, as Mitchum plays essentially a good guy and plays it well. Like many noir heroes, he can talk tough and he knows his way around the darker corners of society. But also like many noir heroes, he has a softer side that he likes to keep hidden, and this is apparent when his character is first introduced, having escaped into a life of seclusion in a small town, with a pretty, wholesome girl by his side. He is hiding from a mistake in his past, but in a nice touch it wasn’t money that motivated him, but love.  When he inevitably ends up getting dragged back into his past, he knows he’s not going to get off the hook easily, and he plays along with everyone’s schemes, in part perhaps because he feels he kind of deserves it. Despite his attempts to settle down in that quiet town at the beginning with the nice girl, he doesn’t belong in that world, and he knows it, and everyone else around him knows it too.  The machinations of the plot are classic noir, with twists and turns and double crosses and gamblers (Kirk Douglas in a nice early role) and femme fatales influencing everything from behind the scenes. But it’s Mitchum who holds it all together, the center of an essential noir. 9/10.

Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph

The trailers for Disney’s CGI animated film promise a nostalgia-fueled adventure for anyone who grew up with early video game systems and mascots. Even though I am definitely a part of that particular demographic, for whatever reason I didn’t ever jump at the chance to see the film in theaters (only recently did I learn that Paperman, the eventual Oscar-winning short film, was offered before the main feature, and that alone would have sparked my interest). Despite quite a bit of hype from both friends and the gaming community, I waited until it hit the home market to finally see it, and approached it with trepidation. Would the film end up as the ultimate video game love letter, or a disappointing and cynical attempt to rope a new audience into the theaters? It was with some relief to find that the answer is much more the former and hardly any of the latter, but I’m not without some reservations. The first half-hour or so is far and away the most engaging, and it’s not just because it contains of all the vintage references that appeal to a nostalgic gamer like me. The first third sets up a world with enormous possibilities from both a visual and storytelling standpoint, but unfortunately, this world isn’t really explored to its full potential. Once everything starts to settle down in the Sugar Rush game world for the final two-thirds, the film seems to lose much of its ambition in favor of more conventional fare. The whole “love letter to gaming” aspect takes a backseat, replaced by countless candy jokes and standard action. To the film’s credit, it never slides down far enough to become actively bad, but there was a disappointment from me with the abandonment of the earlier, more creative material. With all that said, I think the film does an acceptable job of balancing out the inside jokes with the more universal material for the wider audience. As with any animated film that bases a portion of its jokes on pop culture references, I have a hard time believing this one will stand the test of time as something truly special. The references do already have their feet planted firmly in the distant past though, so maybe this one will last longer than others, and unlike many other similar creations, Wreck-It Ralph at least deserves that chance. 6/10.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part  2Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2

In what could only be described as either a bout of morbid curiosity or temporary insanity, I decided to subject myself to the Twilight franchise this last December. I rented the first four films from the library, but decided I couldn’t live with myself if I paid to see the final installment in the theater, so it’s been a little bit of a wait to get to this second half of the franchise finale. A few words on the previous films I suppose are in order, as I did attempt to view them with an open mind. While I don’t hold the same level of vitriol towards them, I have no problem with saying they are not good films. The original film maintains a few elements of interest, mainly through its sincere attempts to resurrect some classic Gothic traditions, and Eclipse is the closest the franchise has ever got to a halfway decent entry, but the bar has clearly not been raised to an even moderately high level. And this last entry asserts that the bar will maintain its low placement.

While the previous films in the franchise occasionally crossed the line into pure camp, they more often than not just trudged along in a mode of dull self-seriousness. This last entry is finally the one that embraces that inherent goofiness of the material. A plot summary is pointless, but for a franchise five films long, it’s amazing just how little actual plot there has been. The stakes are almost comically low; everything hinges on a simple misunderstanding that can be solved with a minute-long explanation. But that doesn’t stop the characters from standing around and having the same discussion over and over again, usually in only one setting, which begs the question of what the 120 million dollar budget was used for. It certainly didn’t go into the special effects. On a genuine plus side, the final thirty minutes and the climactic battle are laugh-out-loud hilarious. The film might break the record for onscreen decapitations in a PG-13 film, which I didn’t expect and which was quite good fun. And of course, in a key moment that emphasizes the inherent terribleness of the source material, the climactic battle turns out to only be a premonition, bringing the franchise to an inexplicable anticlimax. Now, I realize that I’m clearly not the targeted demographic for the Twilight franchise, but I did try to go into it with an open mind. The truth it this isn’t even close to being good enough for anyone. Hopefully audiences will get something better when the next hugely popular young adult franchise comes along. For now, I guess I’ll just be glad this one is over. 3/10.



About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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