I was actually going to write something…

26 08 2015

So I had grand plans to write either my Criterion Top 10 list or a piece about Marion Cotillard today, both of which tied into the Criterion Collection release of “Two Days, One Night” on Tuesday.  (Side note: Amazon.com, you need to get me this disc now, I don’t know why you can’t just put it in my darn mailbox.)

But then, something out of this world happened.  The video essay I posted yesterday popped up on IndieWire, a site that I check multiple times a day.  Needless to say, the excitement kept my mind sidetracked for a while.

Click the picture to be taken to the post itself.

The Playlist - Two Days, One Night video essay

It wasn’t just a link, either.  I hate to toot my own horn, but they gave me a truly flattering write-up as well.

“It’s hard to think that a pair of filmmakers who have won two Palme d’Or prizes at the Cannes Film Festival could be underrated, but the extent ofJean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s talents still feel insufficiently realized. Their latest work, ‘Two Days, One Night‘ — which is now available through the Criterion Collection— showcases an area of their acumen seldom discussed when praising their work: shot composition.” Marshall Shaffer’s 7-and-a-half-minute video essay begins with that big thesis.

What follows is extremely well edited video that deftly delivers on its premise, showcasing Shaffer’s astute eye for dissecting the latest work by the Dardenne brothers, known for movies like “L’enfant,” “The Son,” and “The Kid with a Bike.”

Watch below for Shaffer’s perspicacious analysis, including what he deems to be “the masterpiece of camera work and character blocking” in the Dardennes’ film.

So you could say I have been floating on cloud nine today.  Sorry if you were craving some juicy content or analysis today.  Sometimes it’s nice to just take a step back and appreciate that all the hard work pays off in some way.

But the reward is not in the recognition.  It’s in the work itself.  I love producing these video essays, and this certainly gives me some motivation to keep churning them out.  But the thrill I got from seeing my name on IndieWire does not measure up to the immense satisfaction of exporting the final cut of the video essay itself, knowing that I have truly wrestled with a film’s meaning and produced something enlightening for the benefit of the discourse around cinema.

Two Days, One Night: A Separation (VIDEO ESSAY)

25 08 2015

In honor of today’s Criterion Collection release of “Two Days, One Night,” I have prepared a video essay examining the superb use of composition in the film.  Full text of my narration can be found below – enjoy!  I hope this video is somewhat enlightening.

* As a reminder, the film is available (as of publication) to stream for free with a Netflix subscription.

It’s hard to think that a pair of filmmakers who have won two Palme d’Or prizes at the Cannes Film Festival could be underrated, but the extent of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s talents still feel insufficiently realized.  Their latest work, Two Days, One Night – now available through the Criterion Collection – showcases an area of their acumen seldom discussed when praising their work: shot composition.

In today’s cinephile culture, composition is often reduced to mere eye candy and celebrated mostly whenever the merits of a shot loudly blare their meticulous construction, such as in the films of Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, or Wes Anderson.  To be clear, these filmmakers are all great craftsmen who create truly indelible imagery.  But the Dardennes do something with composition in Two Days, One Night of particular note – they employ it to serve as a direct compliment to the tensions present in their narrative.

Perhaps part of the reason this stylistic triumph seems relatively unheralded is that the Dardennes, early adopters of the shaky cam verité style, often used cinematography to enter the subjective headspace of a character.  In Two Days, One Night, the directors’ camera offers a direct commentary from their position outside the story.

That story, boiled down to its essence, is one of binary choices and the journey that an individual must make to move from one side to the other.  The main choice in Two Days, One Night is the decision that 16 workers must make between a thousand euro bonus or saving the job of Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard.  The head of the company allows Sandra one weekend to try and convince her co-workers to change their minds before a revote that Monday.

At the script level, this means a lot of conversations between two people, which typically restricts the visual choices available at a filmmakers’ disposal.  Most films shoot these in some variation of a shot-reverse shot technique, varying close-ups, and the occasional master shot containing both characters.

The Dardennes, however, shoot almost exclusively in that master shot that can capture two figures from a long range.  It is here in these shots, along with some spare editing in post-production, where the directors echo the choice in the narrative.  In their visuals, the Dardennes introduce a visual motif of separation and union to compliment the tough referendum Sandra must pose to her colleagues.

This motif does not appear in every conversation, which is probably for the best as the Dardennes’ subtle aesthetic decision could have become bludgeoning and thus defeating the purpose of their attempt to keep the visuals interesting.  But it appears enough to put aside any doubts that this was some kind of accident or repeated mistake.

So let’s take a look at this in action.

Sandra goes to visit as many colleagues as she can to plead the case for why they should vote for her job.  Whenever she encounters someone hostile to her request, there is usually something in the frame that puts them in a separate space from Sandra.

At her first stop, it’s a piece of wood…

Then, a stack of grocery crates…

A locker…

Later on, it’s different stones on the wall of a row of buildings.  This conversation plays out with the camera roving a little more than usual, beginning on a close up of Sandra, then pivoting to get the same shot of her co-worker, and then moving back to capture them in this two shot.  The two might as well not even be in the same shot – and were it not for the fluidity of the take, I might suspect the sides of the frame were stitched together in post-production.

Later on, when they stop to talk again, she appears against the backdrop of the street while he remains seen against the stone wall.  Call this coincidence all you want, although to have the same pattern pop up twice in the same scene seems to indicate the Dardennes know exactly what they’re doing.

But most often in Two Days, One Night, the visual separation comes from a doorway.  Sandra goes to visit these workers at their homes, and they often prove unwilling to extricate themselves from that place.  They remain comfortably situated in their space of private domesticity and thus allows to remain steeped in the concerns of their own self-interest.

For the people who do make the difficult decision of self-sacrifice for Sandra’s well-being, the visuals play out with a closely correlated complication.

Take, for instance, the case with her colleague Anne.  She decides to come outside and address Sandra directly, which is more than most co-workers were willing to do.  Still, the answer is no, and the corner of the house separates them in the frame.

Later on, Sandra returns to the house, and Anne comes outside to inform her that she’s trying to make it work financially to sacrifice the bonus.  Still, her husband yanks her back inside and yells at Sandra for daring to come and ask this of them.  But now that she has crossed the precipice, it presages this scene.

…where she shows up at Sandra’s house to proudly profess that she will vote to forgo her bonus.

Earlier in the film, she manages a much easier vote switch with Timur, who she catches while coaching soccer practice.  The two talk from opposite sides of a fence, but the Dardennes scarcely let that barrier drift into the shot as they float fluidly between mid-shots of the person talking.  While a separation may have existed between them in the past, the camera suggests the relevancy of that division is next to nothing.

The Dardennes save what might be the masterpiece of camerawork and character blocking in Two Days, One Night for the very last off-site conversation, one between Sandra and Alphonse at a Laundromat.  As he explains his tough choice not to vote for her, she stands in front of the blue-painted wall while he is positioned in front of a red door.

Then, as Alphonse moves around, he has a change of heart and declares his intent to vote for Sandra as he now stands in front of that same blue backdrop with her.

But later, after having a realization that a vote for Sandra might adversely affect his long-term employment prospects, Alphonse decides to change his vote back.  And now, a machine and some bubbles on the wall mark a line that puts them on opposite sides once more.

Fascinatingly, the Dardennes do not only make visual choices that draw separations between Sandra and her co-workers.  In the film’s most tragic moment, where Sandra has to excuse herself from a family lunch to break down crying, the camera catches her facing away from the lens.  We, the audience, are separated from Sandra’s emotions when access to them might make us feel all the more for her.

Yet, through these conversations that dynamically illustrate the power of humanity at both its most selfish and selfless, we cheer on Sandra as she makes the journey towards larger choice that has a far greater bearing on her life – the journey from the stasis of the opening shot, where she finds herself unable to summon the energy to fight for her job…

…to the motion of the final shot, towards whatever uncertain future lies ahead.


23 08 2015

Ant-ManAnt-Man,” the final piece in Marvel’s so-called “Phase Two” of their Cinematic Universe, invites us all to do what I have done for the past five years: not to take any of this too seriously.  With the constantly winking and self-effacing charm of Paul Rudd (and co-writer Adam McKay), the best Marvel movie in years is ironically the one that spits in the face of what the studio signifies.

This is the first film from the comic book behemoth since the original “Iron Man” back in 2008 that feels entirely sufficient as a film in its own right, not just a placeholder for the next super-sized sequel.  Granted, some of that might be a response to its iffy economic viability at the green-lighting stage of the process (and some concerns over authorship following the departure of writer/director Edgar Wright and his screenwriting partner Joe Cornish). Nonetheless, “Ant-Man” earns a second installment by virtue of its tongue-in-cheek spirit and fun sense of scale.

Rather than set up some cataclysmic battle of the fates where the powers of good do battle with a terrifying evil that beams a big blue light up into the sky, “Ant-Man” builds up to a fight between two men for one important thing.  This climax engages rather than numbs (as “Avengers” final acts tend to do) because it takes place on the human level where the rest of the film registers.  It also helps that the final clash is essentially the only major one in the movie, going against Marvel’s general tendency to throw in a major action set piece every 30 minutes or so to placate the thrill-seekers in the audience.

And every time it seems like “Ant-Man” is turning into a conveyer belt of Marvel tropes, Paul Rudd’s humor kicks in to disrupt the moment and make a joke at the studio’s expense. He plays on admittedly shorter leash than someone like Judd Apatow or David Wain gives him, but his sardonic wit proves a welcome reprieve of Marvel’s faux gravitas that proves suffocating in their more commercial products.

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REVIEW: Phoenix

22 08 2015

PhoenixWhen analyzed literally within the context of Christian Petzold’s film “Phoenix,” the title refers to a Berlin club where Nina Hoss’ Nelly once crooned with her husband Jonny (Ronald Zehrfeld).  Yet to stop there only scratches the surface of meaning within this richly realized piece.

The phoenix, as many know from mythology (or the “Harry Potter” series), is a bird that can rise from the ashes of its own funeral pyre and give birth to itself once again.  This could easily apply to Nelly, who survived the Nazi concentration camps but emerged with severe damage done to her face.  With the help of some gifted surgeons, she reemerges – but as someone who looks distinctly different from before since the doctors suggest anything to close to the original will only recall painful memories.

For Petzold, the personal is also writ political as the issues Nelly must confront closely mirror those that face her religion, nation, and continent.  Amidst the deep shame and regret that hangs over every scene, they must decide whether to move forward into an unknown future or attempt to recreate the past.  The latter option, while risking a repeat of its imperfections, at least provides some small sense of comfort and recognition amidst a seismic shift in geopolitics that still produces aftershocks today.

Nelly experiences these dangers firsthand when she seeks out her Jonny in spite of good intelligence that suggest he turned her into Gestapo.  Since her facial reconstruction proves enough to incite his curiosity but not enough to trigger recognition, Jonny launches a seemingly hair-brained scheme to pass this woman off for his late wife to get her inheritance money.  And Nelly becomes willingly complicit in making it happen.

Credit Hoss for making this decision feel like it comes from a place other than pure masochism.  She gets down in the mud with Petzold and co-writer Harun Farocki’s script to grapple with the messiness of identity on scales large and small. With their commitment, “Phoenix” makes for the ultimate exploration of the paradox of trying to move forward while casting a glance backwards.  Thanks to Nelly, we can feel our away through some tricky contradictions facing both people and nations – not just ponder them with an academic remove.  B+3stars

REVIEW: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

21 08 2015

The Diary of a Teenage GirlPeople like myself willing to live and let live when it comes to the unconventional relationship between Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn may experience a bit of cognitive dissonance while watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”  (Or those who condemn the aforementioned relationship may have an entirely different reaction and feel the same inconsistency of ideology I felt.)

Marielle Heller’s film, adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, tells a story of sexual pleasure and liberation first achieved by a 15-year-old through statutory rape by her stepfather figure.  Reason it away all you want so it sits well in your stomach – it was the 1970s, it was San Francisco, the initiator of the acts are not always clear. But at the end of the day, the ongoing physical relationship meets the criteria for criminal prosecution in the United States.

I usually prefer not to check my morals at the theater door, largely because such an act is why the world gets parties inanely styled after reprehensible behavior in films like “Fight Club,” “Project X,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  So, keeping that in mind, I often found it tough to get on board with the message of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”  Is this kind of borderline exploitative relationship actually supposed to be liberating?

The film gets away with some of this questionable mindset by framing the film within the subjectivity of its protagonist, Bel Powley’s Minnie. At such a young age, of course she views any sort of sexual content as exciting and pleasurable no matter how transgressive it might be.  “I guess this makes me an adult now,” she proclaims into a tape recorder after losing her virginity, making it perfectly clear that she widely overestimates her own maturity.  As carnal relations continue with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgard, we see just how quick she is to conflate sex and love.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 20, 2015)

20 08 2015

Lily Tomlin won the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, yet she somehow still feels underappreciated. Or maybe that’s just because she kept a low profile after the peak of her stardom in the 1970s and was known mostly to members of my generation as the voice of Ms. Frizzle on “The Magic School Bus.” But thanks to perfectly tailored roles in Netflix’s “Grace & Frankie” and the new film “Grandma,” Tomlin definitely seems poised for a major moment once again.

But Tomlin’s career is not necessarily being “rescued.”  In fact, some of her best work has come from the slow and steady decades between her peaks of public interest.  Case in point: “I Heart Huckabees,” the film that landed David O. Russell in director jail after he went for Tomlin’s jugular on set.  In spite of that tension, the movie still turned out alright – even if I did not immediately recognize it on first viewing five years ago.

Russell has gained a reputation for stylish, quirky films with his so-called “reinvention” trilogy that began with 2010’s “The Fighter.”  But that idiosyncratic spirit certainly existed before then, and “I Heart Huckabees” might mark its most vibrant display.  Working with co-writer Jeff Baena, Russell crafts a so-called “existential comedy” that mines philosophy and ontology for laughs that might make Woody Allen green with envy.  As such, it merits my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Beneath all the hilarious intellectual banter lies a very simple story about a man, Jason Schwartzman’s Albert Markovski, an environmental activist who just wants to know what it’s all about.  “It,” of course, is the very meaning of life itself.  After a series of odd coincidences, he turns to a pair of existential detectives, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin’s husband and wife team Bernard and Vivian Jaffe.  This duo claims that they can – with enough field research – determine how everything in Albert’s life connects.  They set out to find his place in the grand plan of the universe, optimistically sure that such a thing exists.

But after a while, Albert falls prey to the Jaffe’s nemesis and ideological counterpart, Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vauban. She offers similar services but with the nihilistic assertion that nothing relates to anything.  The longer Bernard and Vivian take to complete their assessment of Albert’s life, the more appealing Caterine’s services look.

Albert’s quest for self-knowledge gets complicated by others who seek out the detectives’ services, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Corn, a firefighter who can chew anyone’s ear off with his views on the harmfulness of petroleum.  Russell has utilized Wahlberg in three films now, and this is certainly his most ingenious performance among the trio.  While the actor is notorious for his authentic off-screen anger and street cred, Russell funnels those traits into a hilariously exaggerated character professing a hyper-verbal righteous indignation.  For Wahlberg, often more likely to rely on the swagger of his body than the power of his words, the performance feels revelatory (and perhaps indicative of even more untapped potential).

The quirky crew does not end there, with Jude Law also in the mix as Brad Stand, a corporate executive at the company Huckabees determined to take Albert down by figuring out the meaning of his own life.  Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, Brad’s girlfriend and the star of Huckabees’ ad campaign, gets thrown in for good measure too.  Both are slightly minor players but still players nonetheless.

Russell throws some really dense, cerebral concepts out there in “I Heart Huckabees” – and at the lightning-fast speed of his dialogue, no less.  But so long as you can keep up, the film proves a rewarding, stimulating experience with something to say about the equilibrium between pragmatism and pessimism that we need to get through the day.

REVIEW: The Iron Ministry

19 08 2015

The Iron MinistryNew York Film Festival, 2014

J.P. Sniadecki begins his rather free-form documentary “The Iron Ministry” in pitch-black darkness, laying down an aural landscape of screeching trains for several minutes.  My screening companions, both exhausted by a taxing NYFF 52, took this as an invitation to nap.  I, on the other hand, found myself all the more drawn in.

Sniadecki’s work recalls the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s groundbreaking docs “Leviathan” and “Manakamana,” albeit with even less adherence to narrative principles.  “The Iron Ministry” is like a collage, both aural and visual, of what happens in the cars of a Chinese locomotive. Sniadecki’s camera feels chillingly removed from the human activity on board, making his role more akin to objective field researcher than an empathetic documentarian.

As such, “The Iron Ministry” often feels a little bit more like a historical document than a piece of cinema. If someone wanted to know what early 2000s working-class China looked like, this will be a valuable resource.  The train itself is arguably the main character of the film and, not unlike Bong Joon-Ho’s “Snowpiercer,” functions as a microcosm of their society itself.

Sniadecki does start to verbalize these politics toward the end of the film by training his lens on passengers who choose to talk about such issues, a conversation that proves detrimental to the observational style that dominates the rest of the documentary.  But even though “The Iron Ministry” clunks along to its close, the bumpy ending does not erase the power of the images that came before. The sight of trash strewn everywhere as well as people shoved into every nook and cranny of the train cannot be so easily dismissed.  B2halfstars


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