For Reel

Nashville (1975)
August 21, 2016, 12:28 pm
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Director: Robert Altman
4.5 Stars
NashvilleNashville is a film of alarming contradictions, imagining America as a nation at war with itself and yet holding off on an intervention with blind optimism. The songs of the film reflect this notion—how can one stomach lyrics like “I pray my sons won’t go to war but if they must they must” or “We must be doing something right to last 200 years” as a tribute to patriotism and not blind naïveté? The great thing about Robert Altman’s film, however, is that if there is an undeniable cynicism in the way things play out, there is no sensationalizing of the details. It’s a tonally complicated film precisely because the only tone Altman is concerned with capturing is what it felt like to be in Nashville in 1975. When performers take the stage the Grand Ole Opry house, the performers and the crowd are given equal importance—it is impossible to ignore fans shuffling in and out of the theater during Henry Gibson’s performance, whereas many filmmakers would have insisted on falsifying their united interest in the music. The cumulative ironies make the film a darkly funny one at times in a way not unlike a Christopher Guest improvisation, but the situations that are inherently humorous can’t overcome the fact that they are desperately sad and hopeless (Ronee Blakely’s on-stage banter seamlessly transitions from endearingly awkward to a woman having a breakdown in a hurry). If Nashville is almost overwhelming in scope, these consistent themes of contradictions and hopes being pitted against realities is a powerful through-line that substitutes for the need of a traditional narrative.

Barry Lyndon (1975)
February 27, 2016, 5:27 pm
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Director: Stanley Kubrick
5 Stars
Barry LyndonBarry Lyndon is a film about death, its period details unfolding with an exactness that doesn’t so much invite the viewer in as it reveals disparities. From the opening narration we know that Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) will go on to die penniless and childless, a bleak detail that somehow finds justice in the bookending title card that muses that, “good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now”. The performances by O’Neal and Marisa Berenson are presented as touring exhibits–they aren’t treated so much as actors as clotheshorses, which is key to Stanley Kubrick’s themes of how cultural structures inform the individual. Kubrick’s strength as a storyteller often involved the relationship between his characters and the world around them. One couldn’t imagine Kubrick making a film about a cultural anomaly, for example–his stories serve to pervert an institution’s tensions to the point that often leads to tragedy. Barry Lyndon is most famed for its revolutionary cinematography, using special lenses that would perform better under the conditions of low light. As a result, the film has a look that mirrors the oil paintings that often populate the backgrounds, feeling somewhat hazy and dreamlike. Even movements–like the servants, who dutifully present a family their course at a dinner table in perfect unison–seem somehow delicate and illusory, as if they were images on a canvas that have come to life. The difficult thing to articulate about Barry Lyndon, however, is not necessarily the formalism (exhaustive writing has been done on the subject), but in capturing just how intoxicating it is. It’s a still, terribly slow paced period piece that feels immediate and exciting, transcending the vacant performances and distanced approach through its utter precision.

The Passenger (1975)
March 31, 2012, 5:07 am
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Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

What, in retrospect, might be called the emotional climax of the The Passenger occurs within the first fifteen minutes of the film. Jack Nicholson’s David Locke (he of the not-so-clever surname) finds himself stranded on a sand dune after his Land Rover has ceased to move. Frustrations at a boil, he resigns himself to his fate, temporarily giving up, as if recognizing that a higher force is punishing him and he can offer no rebuttal. The rest of the picture – a buddy action comedy, it turns out – shares some narrative similarities with a traditional Hollywood thriller, however is remains intentionally distancing and almost tortuously evasive. Of course, Michelangelo Antonioni was never a director to hold the audience’s hands – as much as L’Avventura‘s inaction has been discussed, however, The Passenger is perhaps more startlingly oblique if only because it is impossible to not acknowledge that it was released by a major studio and starred two name actors. Without explanation, the aforementioned Locke switches identities with a deceased companion in the first act, and soon is on the run from both the phantoms of his past life and the baggage that has come with his new persona. This revelation – of the inescapability of self – is the film’s best attribute, however such thematic concerns are never quite illuminating enough to generate a staying interest. The film is somewhat of a chore in the moment, regardless of the conversation that it stirs after the fact. While such criticism has been flogged at Antonioni’s cinema for decades, it seems much more applicable here than to his more conceptually audacious work, such as Red Desert.

The Mirror (1975)
February 4, 2012, 12:11 am
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Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

The great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky assembled newsreel footage, poems written by his father, and episodes inspired from his own childhood in the production of The Mirror, his most personal and, in the sense that there is little semblance of the conventions of traditional plot structure, least accessible film. Suggesting a stream-of-consciousness, he converges planes of reality to capture the temporal memory of a narrator nearing his death. The shaping of these moments is not constricted to what was experienced directly by the narrator, however – as children run to examine a burning barn, for example, Tarkovsky holds the camera on a bottle falling off of a table. There is no way that the narrator could have seen the bottle fall, of course, but memory is not merely the evocation of what one has seen, but of what one has lived in. Tarkovsky’s settings, most specifically the natural ones, seem to carry visceral memories like these in their very roots. In Stalker, for example, the guide often refers to his previous experiences within the Zone, making the audience not only consider the present, but imagine what has occurred within the space in the past. It is not mere nostalgia, rather a suggestion of spiritual transcendence. The Mirror, then, in examining a multitude of histories that resonate to the narrator simultaneously, is the director’s purest expression of memory.