Déjà Vu (2006) – slice

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Is “looking” at image-time the first step in controlling them?

What should one think of Déjà Vu? It throws around difficult and morally-charged concepts of time-travel, fate, patriotism and government surveillence of post-9/11 America. In a way, it’s Tony Scott’s crude way of recognizing the American regret of that tragedy (and its aftermath). There are some neat cinematic experiments he does here, especially that past/present chase scene, which I believe–despite its somewhat dumb premise, which in my opinon, doesn’t really matter in most Tony Scott films anyway–works well with his signature quick-cut, rapid-pan style.

I watched this before Lucy, but in retrospect, this is a film that is loosely what Lucy attempts to do except mostly fails: it’s an action vehicle that actually attempts and more often than not roughly succeeds in fusing its subject matter (image and time, Gilles Deleuze must be proud) to the generic principles that the studios and the audience expect from the action auteur.

Of course, as per usual, his preference for constantly-moving entertainment supercedes any meaningful engagement that is deserving of the concepts he touches, and overall becomes a mind-numbing–I’d say in both good ways and bad–thriller that’s more about puzzles than ideas. But it does have some merit; Unlike Lucy, the film simplifies the concept of time into something decidedly linear–looking into past, the time flows linear, and so are the images. Once Washington’s character travels back in time, the image becomes reality that he can temper, ultimately disrupting the flow of time itself. It’s a rudimentary attempt at connecting image and time (therefore making time a visible concept), and furthermore connecting image-time to the regret and temptation to control time and image, but it works more or less while sitting nicely in that limitation of an action flick.

As with Scott’s excellent Unstoppable and Enemy of the State, Scott is always good at infusing cinematic theories into an action movie fundamentals (Unstoppable is a modern example of action-narrative-structure-symbolised-by-train that reaches back to Buster Keaton’s timeless The General, while Enemy of the State is the mother of all image surveillance/voyeurism films in post-Cold War era). It may be a limitation in a way to have those generic “shackles” attached, but at the same time, they do sometimes reinforce his ideas, and sure as hell make them more approachable.

If anyone’s interested, Gavin Hood presents a (lot) more sophisticated poke at similar ideas regarding image in his recent film Eye in the Sky.

Also, I should re-read Gilles Deleuze, and this time try to actually understand what the fuck he’s saying.

Lucy (2014) – slice

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So what went wrong with Lucy?

There are so many ways it could have done to be better, but it hasn’t, and there are so many interesting things it attempts without much insight ultimately leaving them in the dirt.

What I hate in sci-fi films that attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible is that too many times that said films just end like “it happened, there is a complicated reason behind it, but it’s too hard to tell, so it happened and that’s all you have to know.” The problem with that way of storytelling (another film that commits this sin recently is the inexplicably overrated Interstellar from the understandably overrated director Chistopher Nolan) is that it ends the discussion right there–you can discuss how it happened, the missing link that should’ve been there in first place, but the openness of exploring the unknown, perhaps one of the chief appeals in the utopian sci-fi genre, disappears. Maybe it is science’s ultimate goal to understand everything, but a science fiction must strive to depict that endless struggle to understand everything–if not, the “fiction” is lost, while the “science” is left abandoned.

While many fans of sci-fi criticised Lucy for going light on science (what the hell does your brain have got to do with changing your hair, let alone control electromagnetic signals?), I believe Lucy‘s biggest failure comes from going light on science fiction. The plot being thin is least of its problems (so many films have succeded with relatively simple plot), but it’s the entire narrative effort as a whole that fails to synthesise its subject matter with all the generic shenanigans it does to please its studio execs. At times, it almost seem like a self-parody (Choi’s character is as cliched as he can be, while Amr Waked’s role is either a very bad spoof of police procedural cop character or a tiring joke at gender reversal the film seems to push too obviously), but as with all the bad self-parodies, it never goes beyond just embarassing itself. Johansson not bringing anything new to the table doesn’t help either; I was never really impressed by Johansson ever (except for Her; Under the Skin doesn’t count because it’s mostly Glazer filming Johansson being awkward), and this film does not change that.

The idea of brain and the supposed myth of humans not fully using it, and the linearity of time being an artificial conceiving method for our self-locked brain capacity, seem all good on paper, except this is a film on screen, not a scribble on paper. The interesting ideas never fully become realized in film form other than the tacked-on CGI sequences that rarely show anything more than just spectacles and (almost intentionally) jumbled expositions, and that is perhaps the worst way of representing something that could be inherently linked with the fundamentals of film medium itself. I am not even looking for something that rivals Act IV of 2001 Space Odyssey; even a cheap gimmick would have sufficed, but no, it’s all visual exposition/spectacle on and on and on until the film loses meaning and forgets what it was trying to talk about in first place. Besson tries to salvage anything he can, and some of the scenes are indeed exciting to watch purely for his effort, but mostly, the film is too much of a mess from the ideological conception to become anything great.

For a film about brain, it’s conspicuously brainless, and for a film about non-linearity of time, it’s strangely linear. And that’s all because the “fiction” never takes off in first place; it just keeps on circling on the ground, wondering what it wants to be until the end credits roll.

Godzilla (2014) – slice

The thing about Gareth Edwards’ version is that it really does not care about its story. As far as the narrative goes, it comes to its audience and says, “hey, this is a film about three huge monsters destroying everything, so shut the fuck up and watch.” There are plot holes everywhere, characters are as one dimensional as they can be, some shoddy attempt at relating Godzilla to the atomic regret, and really, the ending is a mess. The pacing, while more or less consistent, is mostly disjointed, and the emotional impact of the story rarely follows through.

But it’s the visual direction that carries the film. Most of the shots involving towering monsters wrecking havoc are shot at human-level–be it on the ground, in the building, in helicopter–regardless whether there is a diegetic reasoning behind such placement (there is only one explicitly diegetic, character-bound POV-shot in the entire film, if I recall correctly). By doing so, Edwards amplifies the force of nature that the titular monster and his adversaries bring to fullest potential: they are huge and awe-inspiring, and that impression is universal for all humans. While the beginning seves as a workable drama setup only, it’s the late-middle part of the film that graces us with a memorable aesthetic spectacle, crafting a scene that is almost equal to the eerieness of its soundtrack by Ligati. Edwards uses not the movement (sometimes he does, but usually not the main technique) but the placement of the camera and the lighting–CGI or otherwise–to get the atmosphere spot on.

It’s too dark to see everything, but to be honest, I like the apocalyptic feel that directorial choice brought. Compared to Fury, another 2014 film that really pushed the grim apocalyptic visual direction, Edwards’ work is more coherent: the balance between red fire and grey darkness, as well as the ominous nature of fog/dust clouds, are sufficiently linked back to the entire point of the film which is the post-nuclear disaster in (gigantic) flesh. Granted, Godzilla‘s task of creating a huge monster is far less of a conceptually complicated one compared to Fury‘s (ultimately failed/only partially successful) attempt to bring the darkness of war in post-Apocalypse Now war films, but that does not mean one cannot be impressed by Edwards’ visual consistency. Moreover, Edwards really understands how to create tension through exaggerated shadow and light here, like that scene in Nevada nuclear waste management site where a beam of light in a dark room instantly signals danger without any action, and it is these kinds of visual cues placed at the right time and right place that holds the film together.

So as a disaster film, Edwards’ direction shines through. As anything else however, that’s a whole other story.

The 400 Blows (1959) – slice

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Freeze frame: will Antoine meet his Bazin, or will he be forever lost?

I’m confused; we learned French New Wave through Breathless and other batshit crazy Godard films, and boom, I finally watch this, and this film actually makes sense. What the hell?

Joke aside, this is, I think, the first non-blockbuster film I’ve watched since graduating in April. It’s kind of fitting, considering it was on my wishlist exactly since my first day of the cinema studies class, after my TA said it was her favourite.

Truffaut focuses on details. The mundane actions that culminate into something equally mundane–or something dramatic that is cinematically rendered mundane–are what take place of the most of the film. You don’t really get to feel Antoine or empathise with him, but rather, Truffaut just lets him be, exist in the diegesis, while we peek into his daily activities without much overarching plot. What should kickstart a story–the kid running away from his home–is soon rendered meaningless and Truffaut maintains the narrative uneasiness (of renying resolution) all the way through until he just, literally, freezes it.

This attention to detail is from Bresson. The social realism is obviously from the Italian neorealist masters that preceded Truffaut just few years before. What’s interesting however is that Truffaut seems to bring the camerawork of none other than–from what I understand–Hitchcock. It’s not entirely noticeable, but some of the long takes have Hitchcock’s eyes, shifting focus and flowing naturally to tell a story rather than show it. It strangely fits Antoine’s wandering personality, as well as the equally wandering narrative. In the end, I think it wouldn’t be wrong to say that it is a work of homages, but as with all good homages, it transcends the source materials while respecting them to create something new–something next.

A baton well-passed, indeed.

Life of Pi (2012) – slice

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A heaven on sea.

Yann Martel’s book is one of the best contemplations on faith in the era of post-nuclear rationalism. It hits the heart of what religion is, not doctrine, not tradition, but what it actually means to believe, God or anything, with the unwaverable reason(able doubt) always lingering behind the reader.

In a way, Cinema, especially that of Hollywood, is a medium of reason. Its origin coincides with the jubliant advent of technology, its advancement saw the rise of reason-based miracles and atrocities. Its grammar (in Hollywood form) follows a strong causal relation that is aimed at making sure the visual image–a far more instantly and readily recognizable form of information transer that is almost unanimously associated with the idea of truth than its ancestor, text and language–comes to create a coherent story that is, in the words of David Bordwell, “excessively obvious.”

What is most impressive about Lee’s adaptation then is understanding the very idea of exploring and expressing something so intensely spiritual in the age of ratonalism into a medium that is perhaps one of the most crowning examples of that age’s philosophy. Lee’s visuals are sufficiently miraculous, serene and catastophic, bewildering and coherent. Lee captures the essence of Martel’s book in only way that cinematic grammar can achieve, and that in itself is an exciting achevement. The film is rich with so many visual symbolism that is not only carefully placed (look at the picture above, a perfect use of CGI to visually symbolise heaven), but coordinated with other symbols.

But it’s not just the visual spectacle; the storyteling, which is done through editing and script (and Irrfan Khan’s wonderful voice) is one of the best in recent memory. Too many times has cinephile community regarded the trend of social realism as the ideal method of mature storytelling in recent auteurist cinema, but here, a film that quetions the very notion of realism in first place, the storybook-like storytelling shines to achieve every goal it wishes to master.

I still cannot figure out the very last shot: why does Lee juxtaposes Pi’s face on the right and sea on the left, Richard Parker’s back replacing the sea, then fade Pi’s face away while the jungle takes over? What is the meaning of the gradual desaturation of the jungle shot? Is trying to relate all these visual symbolism into something that had happened–or about religion–what the film wants the audience to do in first place? Or should our questions and exploratons lie elsewhere?

It is a film, like that of Martel’s book, that is at one hand coherently closed while on the other endlessly open. To have made a film that captures that essence of the source material while making it even more approachable without any narrative or symbolic sacrifice, is indeed a miraculous achievement.

Sunset Blvd. (1950) – rewind

Title: Sunset Blvd.
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Released in: 1950
Genre: Film-noir, Drama
Running Time: 110 min.


Let us start by clearing up something: Sunset Blvd. is most definitely one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced–and if we were to specify that spectrum to “Hollywood film about Hollywood,” it is without a doubt the best in its league. David Lynch graced us with his own version of Hollywood in 2001 with Mulholland Dr., but it is mere tribute to the masterpiece the Great Billy Wilder and his ever-so-precise performers Gloria Swanson and William Holden created (something Lynch not only alluded to, but probably takes pride in doing so). Moreover, unlike the typical Lynch-esque perplexing nature of Mulholland Dr., Sunset Blvd. is in its essence one of the most Hollywood dramas ever made–it is easily accessible, comfortably addictive and instantly enjoyable. It is not to say Mulholland Dr. is a bad film–far from it–but rather that Sunset Blvd. is so singularly significant.

There is something inherently special about Sunset Blvd. As with all “inherently special” films, it is one where the viewer finds a new meaning in each viewing, making him/her snap his/her finger and yell out “I got that!” and feel superior to everyone else in the room with the newfound knowledge for about 15 minutes.

In my last viewing, that moment occurred when Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is playing bridge with her friends from the bygone era. Holden’s character, in the typical Wilder-narration style, refers to these “friends” as the “waxworks”. That is quite an understatement of who these people actually were.

Of course, Gloria Swanson needs no introduction, but her wingers, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner were also stars in their heydays. Nilsson was named the most popular woman in Hollywood in 1926, but her career soon declined with the coming of sound. Warner fared better–he even garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Capra’s Lost Horizon. But he did also play Jesus for one of De Mille’s epics during the silent days, so there is that.

Then there is the star, sitting quietly, with a face that is so devoid of emotion, almost as if he will soon break down and cry on his knees for his downward career. He is, needless to say, Buster Keaton. However, in Sunset Blvd., his role (who lasts a single line) does not perform impossible stunts to save the day–neither in the movie or for any depressed viewers still looking for his films to combat the side effects of 21st century modern life. All Wilder allows him to do is for him to say a single phrase: “pass.”

This moment means so much that somehow it has travelled 65 years into the future and snapped something inside me. It is not that before this viewing I could barely recognise the name “Buster Keaton” when it was brought up, and now that I actually love his films and recognise his signature stone-face with my heart that I instantly find my recognising his cameo an excuse to feel better about myself; it’s deeper than that.

Keaton’s The General was appreciated properly only after his career had a positive turning point in in early 50s. By the time Wilder–then the budding director with several Academy wins and nominations under his belt–invited the filmmaker to the Sunset Blvd. set, Buster Keaton still had not fully recovered from the career damage he suffered in 30s and 40s.

Sure, we have seen–and most importantly in this case, heard–Keaton during 30s and 40s, but compared to his heydays, they were lacking to say the least. And Keaton was a comedian who first and foremost earned his right in the annals of cinema history through slapstick performance and impossible stunts. However, the only shot of him Wilder allows the audience is the man sitting idly, saying “pass” twice. There must be some significance in that, beyond the superficial idea of making the forgotten star look even more miserable.

Keaton is first and foremost denied of doing what he wants: direction, stunts and slapstick. He is being directed by Billy Wilder in the set, while he is being urged to speak louder by Nilsson in the scene. He is forced to speak–both in reality and in the scene–when his strength was from his emotionless face and body that moves to achieve impossible feats. No longer in control, the Great Stone Face not only has to “pass” his moment in the scene, but has to confirm such status again with his own words.

I will not venture to guess what he was thinking while filming the scene. However, Wilder constructs the scene so that such meanings can be drawn. It is from these little details such as this that Sunset Blvd. stays immortal and everlasting.

Let us focus on our protagonist, Joe Gillis (William Holden). Joe mentions through his narration that the only spendable cash is earned through this game of bridge they are playing. He does not play the game, but rather receives certain percentage from Norma’s winning. Only thing Joe does is sit next to Norma as a sidekick, and occasionally going to fireplace to empty the cigarette ashtray as per her highness’ wish.

There is a line where he remarks his life under Norma feels like a cigarette caught by the strange contraption of hers. Then there is the scene where Norma gives her lover a golden cigarette case. The connection is both obvious but carefully and calculatingly positioned. The image is obvious: an elaborate golden case to enclose a “cigarette” that is constantly being replaced.

Remember what happened to the last thing that was within an elaborate case in the mad house of Norma Desmond? It was a monkey–a dead pet monkey to be more precise. Who knows, maybe that monkey died of lung cancer, that would have made the metaphor even more complete (if we were to believe Mad Men teaches us right, smoking and lung cancer connection probably wasn’t that common knowledge until late 1950s).

Then there is this scene of Max (Erich von Stroheim) telling Joe that his car is being taken away. But that’s whole another story, one of seemingly infinite number in Sunset Blvd. Let’s just feel proud for a few seconds of what we’ve learned so far in a scene that barely lasts a minute. Only for a few seconds though, for I am sure that others have differing perspectives of the same exact scene. And that is the beauty of this film: for a black-and-white film, it is so rich with colour.

The best “film about making a film” is probably Fellini’s , but best “film about filmmakers” is, in my opinion, Sunset Blvd. Indeed, for a film about filmmakers, there is only one scene that involves actual filming; yet, the film encompasses so many things about films without showing us how they are made. I am sure many feel the same when I say the film offers something new with each viewing. And the most magnificent thing about Sunset Blvd. is that it is charming enough to be watched multiple times to actually experience it in such a way. Furthermore, it does not matter whether or not you pick up every tiny little homage Wilder has planted throughout the film, because it is still a marvellous standalone achievement as a melodrama and a film-noir.

Sunset Blvd. in the end is a letter from one of the greatest masters of Hollywood’s Golden Age to the industry he was part of. Sometimes, it is a love letter, lovingly and nostalgically recounting the romantic memories they had shared; others, it is an open letter, loudly and cynically criticising the way it has come to. Regardless, its style of writing is consistently dramatic, bitter, cynical, charming and of course, perfect–thus, the film remains immortal to this date.

 “This is not a Hollywood story. This is the Hollywood story.”