Andrei Tarkovsky’s highly-regarded 1966 epic had long been something of a cinematic white whale for me, a film I knew I needed to see but one that always seemed too daunting to attempt to overcome. The film has certainly built up a large reputation over the years, frequently appearing on lists of the greatest films ever made. But whether it was running length (205 minutes in the longest version) or just the thought of spending those 205 minutes in the hands of Tarkovsky who, while a brilliant filmmaker, does not have the most immediately approachable style, the prospect of giving the film my full time and attention had always been a little troublesome (the subpar condition of the 205-minute print used on the old Criterion DVD didn’t exactly help matters either; this is a film in dire need of a comprehensive restoration project). Now, after finally taking the time to watch Andrei Rublev in its entirety, I must admit to finding it a far more accessible film than I was expecting. Broken into seven episodes, along with a prologue and epilogue, the film follows the physical and spiritual voyage of the title character, a 15th century Russian icon painter desperately seeking divine inspiration for his work. Commissioned for a project to decorate the Cathedral of the Annunciation, Rublev embarks on a lengthy journey to Moscow, and on the way witnesses the darkness in the world around him.
Looking for a sign from God that will grant him the means to continue his work, Rublev instead finds himself in the middle of a brutal Tartan raid, at the end of which he is forced to kill to protect another. Traumatized by this experience, he takes a vow of silence and ceases his work, which lasts for many years, until he finally witnesses something that allows him to regain his faith. To contextualize the film within Tarkovsky’s filmography, it is closer to the relatively straightforward storytelling of his debut Ivan’s Childhood than the more oblique constructions of later films like The Mirror and The Sacrifice. It’s also the first film of Tarkovsky’s to bring in a heavy spiritual component, which would come to define so much of his later work. Andrei Rublev is interested in the connection between art and spirituality, and how one man sees these two elements as inseparable from each other. In this examination of Rublev’s inner turmoil, the film is surprisingly intimate, but at the same time, the scope is incredibly epic. Much in the same vein as Frantisek Vláčil’s 1967 Czech epic Marketa Lazarova, Andrei Rublev focuses in on the early transitions from a godless to an enlightened era, and dramatizes the violent clashes that resulted from this transition. The film is sometimes unapologetic in its brutality, but the final episode and epilogue closes everything out with an affirmation of a divine presence. It feels good to have finally taken the time to watch this film, and to be left at the end with a feeling that its lofty reputation is entirely justified. 10/10.
Over the course of a year in new film releases, you can expect a fair share of disposable genre exercises, thrillers and comedies and horror films that are content to stay within their own preconceived boundaries. Most of these films come and go without much fanfare or consequence, but there are always one or two a year that take the traditional elements of their genre and expand on them in new and interesting ways. Johnnie To’s Drug War is one of those types of films, a brutal and efficient procedural thriller that offers up the requisite genre thrills while also subverting expectations and bringing along an extra layer of nuance and depth. To’s film opens by introducing a squad of drug enforcement officials, fresh off a major bust. Among the criminals captured is notorious meth manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), who has inside knowledge on the members of a powerful drug ring. To bring down the bad guys, the crafty police captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) offers Choi a deal. Desperate to avoid the death sentence that comes with being caught making a certain amount of illegal product, Choi agrees to help the police. The cop and the criminal form an uneasy alliance, but the true nature of this relationship will be constantly subverted through the rest of the film.
Lest you think this is one of those meta exercises that has a smug superiority over the genre in which it is operating, rest assured that Drug War remains true to certain traditions without ever coming across as self-aware. As far as its merits as a crime thriller go, the film contains some of the most memorable setpieces I’ve seen from the genre in many years. One tense operation that hinges on several identity bluffs will remind many viewers of a similar sequence in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, although here everything builds up to a memorably audacious final challenge. Another sequence sees the police force directing boat traffic on a dock in an attempt to fool watching drug lords. Elsewhere, two big shootouts recapture some of that old John Woo Hard Boiled energy. But To doesn’t settle with just providing terrific setpieces, and the final twenty minutes seriously shakes up the standard order of how these types of films usually play out, which caught me by surprise in a delightful way. Not to say the end of the film is delightful; in fact, it’s incredibly stark and, particularly in the final denouement, genuinely uncomfortable. While my first reaction to these concluding moments was that they didn’t quite gel with what came before, after some contemplation I came to the conclusion they give the film a good deal of extra punch that a more traditional genre film would not have been brave enough to attempt. For that willingness to stretch beyond genre norms, To gets a well-deserved tip of the cap. 8/10.
It takes a special kind of talent to consistently squander tremendous potential, but it’s a talent that Ridley Scott has seemingly mastered over the last handful of years. From 2007’s American Gangster onward, my initial excitement over Ridley Scott films has always given way to post-screening disappointment. Finally, after really getting my hopes up and being let down considerably by 2012’s Prometheus, I told myself I was going to temper any expectations for whatever film Scott had planned next. But all it took was one look at the collaborators involved in The Counselor for me to fall back into the same trap. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay revolves around a plan for a drug deal which will grant its conspirators a large helping of extra spending money. Yet, as is the nature of these things, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. What’s odd though about this film’s characters is how disinterested they seem in those plans. Before the film even opens, just about everything has already been set in motion, and all that’s needed is some final confirmations. The characters are strangely passive for a film of this sort, separated by a great distance from any real action, at least until the deal goes bad and the action comes to find them, at which point there’s really nothing they can do. They enjoy their lavish, hedonistic lifestyles, but they seem purposefully ignorant of the darker corners of society with which they find themselves involved, and, with only a couple exceptions, they think they are immune to the dangers hidden in those corners.
By keeping the focus squarely on these passive characters, the film just isn’t able to generate much in the way of significant dramatic conflict. Hell, even the most active of these main characters operates offscreen for a good portion of the running time. Whatever little action there is comes almost entirely through peripheral characters and although this is more than likely not the case, those scenes almost feel like they were born from reshoots, after studio executives looked at what they had and hit the panic button. Because so much of the film feels like it’s on standby, there is plenty of time to pick up on annoying little quirks elsewhere, mainly in the excessive philosophizing and the handling of the female roles (Penelope Cruz is saddled with the token fiancé character, while Cameron Diaz’s Malkina is an exaggerated, vampy creation the actress never seems completely comfortable inhabiting). I don’t want to give off the impression there isn’t anything of value in The Counselor; truthfully, I found its intentional rejection of convention somewhat admirable. But “somewhat admirable” for a film with so much potential just isn’t good enough. Recent articles about the film have made incredibly hyperbolic claims as far-ranging as “the worst film ever made” or “Scott’s best film.” The truth is it falls squarely into that middle area where Scott has unfortunately found himself visiting all too frequently, although the reasons why it ends up in that middle area are at least slightly more noteworthy than they have been in the past. 5/10.
I may never be able to shake my primary mental image of Rob Zombie as the guy responsible for those irritating head-bangers I always hear at sporting events, but if he keeps making films in the same vein as The Lords Of Salem, that image may very well be replaced one day with one of a semi-competent horror director. Zombie’s newest film stars his wife Sheri Moon Zombie as radio personality and recovering drug addict Heidi Hawthorne. One day, she receives a vinyl record in the mail from a band called The Lords. The satanic noises that emanate from the grooves have a powerful, hypnotic effect on Heidi and the other women of the town of Salem, and that’s when things start to get more than a little weird. Who are The Lords, and why have they sent their record specifically to Heidi? What’s the deal with the ominous red glow coming from the apartment room down the hall? And speaking of apartments, why does Heidi’s complex seem oddly vacant, apart from a trio of ominous women who suddenly decide to take an active interest in Heidi’s life?
Nothing that I’ve previously gandered from Zombie’s earlier films has inspired me with much confidence to seek them out, which makes the classical approach he employs in The Lords Of Salem a real surprise. For the better part of the film’s first hour and a half, Zombie creates a genuinely creepy atmosphere with his $2.5 million production budget, getting the most out of his “Kubrickian” shot compositions and insidious ambient soundscape (although he does go a little overboard with the overexposure; there’s more lens flare here than in a J.J. Abrams film). The film has no problem with cribbing directly from its influences, Rosemary’s Baby in particular, but Zombie for most of the running length is able to ride on the right side on that line between silly and scary. He finally does cross over that line in the final climactic moments, when everything suddenly turns into a music video, with awkward video effects and ludicrously over-the-top satanic imagery. Silly conclusion notwithstanding, I must admit to finding The Lords Of Salem a modest success. Not sure if it’s enough to get me to go back and assess his other films, but skepticism has now been replaced by mild optimism for Zombie’s future as a filmmaker. 6/10.
The paranoid thriller has never left cinema screens for very long, but the genre has never been quite as prominent or effective as it was in the 1970s, in films like All The President’s Men, Three Days Of The Condor, and Marathon Man. Those films spun assorted tales of insidious government conspiracy, both fiction and nonfiction, with panicky spooks resorting to desperate and violent means to keep incendiary secrets under wraps. Today, while tales of reckless governmental overreach still remain all too relevant (especially with the recent revelations of excessive NSA spying), the modern world has seen the rise of another force with similar tremendous power, the corporation, and filmmakers have not let this development go unnoticed. The Tony Gilroy films Michael Clayton and Duplicity have already made great drama out of corporate espionage, and now comes The East, directed by Zal Batmanglij and co-written by Batmanglij and star Brit Marling. When the film is at its best, it’s evoking the memories of those classic ’70s thrillers, although certain storytelling weaknesses keep it from quite measuring up.
Marling plays an employee of a organization that protects large companies from acts of terrorism. At the start of the film, she is given an assignment to infiltrate the ranks of a revolutionary group called The East, who have promised to attack three corporations within the next year for their crimes against humanity. Before long, however, she finds herself gaining sympathy for the members of the group, as well as romantic feelings for their quiet leader. With its anti-corporate/pro-environment stance and even an exclusive song contribution from The National, The East wears its ultra-liberal intentions proudly on its sleeve. I don’t have a problem with a film taking a firm political stance, but in this case some problematic issues crop up as a result, particularly in the presentation of the idealistic revolutionary group. Batmanglij and Marling’s screenplay pulls back right at the last minute from completely endorsing the group’s actions, but there is an uncomfortable feeling throughout that the viewer is meant to empathize with characters that fight immorality with more immorality, emphasized in dreamy sequences of communal bathing and ritualistic dining habits. A film like Martha Marcy May Marlene, which presents its central cult as disturbing and dangerous, can get away with this type of thing, but because The East is more sympathetic to these lost souls, there are plenty of moments that come across as more than a little ill-judged. This facet of the film is unfortunate, because overall it’s a more ambitious and interesting effort than the previous Batmanglij/Marling collaboration The Sound Of My Voice. I just get the feeling Marling and Batmanglij are still one or two films away from making something truly great. 6/10.
Top five first-time viewings in October 2013: