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 © 2017 by James Clark

      After enjoying a number of films loaded for bear, it’s a bit of a breath of fresh air to see to it that small game must not be forgotten. Whereas the likes of Kiarostami, Jarmusch and Refn are wired for blowing the planet into outer space, filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt, has perhaps a more low-tech approach to a dispensation of overrated smart-asses.

I recall a brush with her Wendy and Lucy (2008) being haunting and prompting more studies of her work. And now, particularly in the wake of the rarefied, Shirin, her recent film, Certain Women (2016), becomes a must. Let’s not, however, fail to appreciate that Reinhardt can, when apt, throw a deadly cutter in the course of diverging from the mainstream fast balls being expected by a site like Montana. (I’m not unmindful that she has a reputation for being an expert at “slow cinema” to coincide with rural settings. But her “slowness’ has been tempered by the killer instincts of Kiarostami, Jarmusch and Refn, to name but a few of the many fireballers she sees the point of.) Near the end of our movie today, a quite empathetic lawyer, Laura, visits a former client, Billy, now in jail, who hopes to hear more often from her by mail. “Talk about anything…Doesn’t have to be a tome…” But—as part of the tide of an enterprise not so far from the lone coffee drinker in Jarmusch’s, Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), contemplating buying a large gun to deal with hordes of impasse she finds insufferable—there is no effective avoidance of playing something along lines of a tome (a multifaceted outreach, a dialectic, in fact). Earthy folks imply paradoxical struggle, and Certain Women is, in its ‘slow” ways, a deep and hard look at an American, not a German, idealism.

A first and most directly palpable thing that hits us in this film is its ponderously dead visuality. Not (very much) is Reichardt about homage toward those “Transcendentalist” boosters of peppy light coming to bear across vast spheres to kiss delicious flora, faunas and contours. Those former boy scouts taking their marching orders from European Romanticism are supplanted here by an emphatic initial distance shot of a rail bed all but swallowed up by brown and grey unlovely grasses with a mountain range miles away on the horizon, pelted by overcast more impoverished than night. A freight train approaches to complement the unfriendly wind whipping along; but the mere touch of a positive motion catches our attention, as does the train’s raspy whistle. (more…)

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© 2017 by James Clark

      Kiarostami’s film, Shirin (2008), is an endeavor that is formally simple and thematically complex. It could be called a speculative minefield. What could be easier than to fathom the stars of a romantic film melodrama, Shirin and Khosrow, being a piece of work? What is tough, though, is to see that the audience of women worthies watching the movie could also be termed a piece of work, notwithstanding their giving to the courtly medieval saga what seems to be their personal best. We have in fact, holding forth, a story of wilful, wordy chaos and groundless presumptuousness. On the other hand, the ladies of the 21st century seem to be silent paragons of patient and generous discernment. Though far less noisy, they come to pass as an online shopping spree where the merchandise does not really fit them. That comprehensive disconnect is this mighty little picture’s real drama.

One deadly entitlement, making the rounds of response to Shirin and needing to be run out of town, is that the specifics of the flashback-heavy, olden bathos being watched are nothing but ignorable, ancient verbosity. (The Telegraph complains, “… the subtitles get awfully intrusive.”) Goofy, yes; but, without being abreast of the various self-justifications rattling across a soundtrack like a Depression-Era radio soap opera-cum-thriller (the visual component never seeing the light of day as we fully make the best of a so-called “minimalist” mise en scene of face-on close-ups of the customers), we cannot well comprehend the myriad, silent but expressive, engagements (of a hundred or so distaff contemporary viewers) with the flighty golden oldies. Failing to give appropriate time to the dialogue, even those commentators most fond of Kiarostami’s curious wit will limply report about women’s self-sacrifices, accessible sentimentality, thoughts flickering across faces to seemingly no more point than a flower garden and how the peculiar austerity of the experience conveys a pitch of modernity satisfying even when not fully understandable. But, more than any other carelessly perceived value, there is, from that constituency, the pleasure of seeing filmmaking conventions overturned: eschewing the reverse shot process which covers both ends of a dialogue; a fixed camera position; and the welter of minimalist productions in other Kiarostami films, like Ten, where a stationary figure puts to herself that which voluminous phenomena do for her self-sufficiency. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      Filmmaker, Nicolas Refn (b. 1970), has, in his works, always resorted to sensational violence as apparently appropriate for his motives. He could be described as an expert in the ways of violence. Those who assume that comprehending the phenomena of violence is readily accomplished by reason of conventional morality tend to regard our helmsman as a clever but stunted practitioner, someone who, if not emotionally deranged, settles for lucrative crudity.

His most recent film, The Neon Demon (2016), has elicited abhorrence remarkable even for the routine complement of bounty hunters hoping to put him out of business. Though grudgingly acknowledged to be a master of optical sensations, only very few would recognize his persistence as painstaking investigation at a very high level.

In their rush to display what they seem to know about the bankruptcy of LA and the fashion business—by which to fault Refn as lacking sound judgment to be touching it—they tend to refer to a battery of earlier works of his devoted to crime. There is no one, though, whom I have seen who recalls, if it comes to a most telling link, the kick-ass Norse gladiator with a world of woe and wit in Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009).

However, I think we are well advised here to leave in a subsidiary role those off-site matters and take a close look at what The Neon Demon actually presents. One thing it offers is a stream carrying the opening credits, constituting a big picture demanding far more attention than the products of the snack bar. We are, with this listing of names, offered the keynote of the action, before the residents of planet Earth get down to their penchant for butchering it. Since no one ever cares about those names and positions anyway, why not, our movie decides, bring forward the surfaces of distant, stony bodies in outer space, undergoing rich and changing color touches—red, purple, blue; shaped by the interstices of those inert entities—and a sonic rain of urgent percussion: pulsing, tinkling, resonating, as periodically interrupted by the rattle of machinery. On the heels of this inducement to ditch immortality, there is a shower of what resembles glitzy casino chips not entirely able to shroud the look and the sound of something priceless. The film title accompanies the neon-forward, distressed light, and from there we meet our world as represented by Jesse, the young protagonist, positioned on a sofa in the manner of a blood-drenched victim of an assailant bypassing all those lovely and loving reasons just on display. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      We coffee drinkers appreciate the world of taste. (I suppose smokers could be included as seekers of such deal-making, but in the sense of diminishing returns.) What is there about wide consumption of those stimulants which merits strong attention to the point, in fact, of producing a feature film, namely, Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), by that finder of diamonds in the rough, Jim Jarmusch?

One factor to be recognized, in fathoming the characteristically odd unfolding of the disclosure, is that in all (but one) eleven disparate vignettes the players are seated at a table in a coffee shop with, with one exception, at least one other aficionado. That leads us to a first premise that something about the interaction at those tables is largely (though not exclusively) responsible for the supplements of a cup (or more) of coffee and a cigarette (or more). Though most of the conversations consist of rather bewildering tatters of good will, there is one tete-a-tete which seems to have found its way to a field of reflection which might provide more than those copious dead-ends which most viewers of Jarmusch’s films readily assume to be all there is and consequently find themselves obliged, in respect to the whimsy and comedy, to maintain that grotesque errancy is as much as anyone will ever know and that that status quo is acutely gratifying. One other element of this scenario, which should be mulled over, is the cast’s being show-biz notables, many of whom having appeared in previous Jarmusch movies and consequently bringing those dramas into renewed considerations. (more…)

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© 2017 by James Clark

 This film (from 2016) is as devoted to the undeclared war, between old world-history and something beyond that, as Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997). The latter, in its denouement, pours out a Bronx cheer upon an oldie for the sake of its overwhelmed eccentrics, knowing all too well that victories will be very scarce and very incomplete. Elle shows us what such victory of the “selfish” self-starters is apt to look like.

Our more than unusual protagonist, Michele, on being raped one evening in her house by a figure pleased to look like Spider-Man, has her doctor arrange a STD blood test next day—a “full panel”—and, in line with the physical and financial authority she exerts, the specialist suggests a new medication, PEP. She has already covered that avenue and declares, “Too many side-effects… I can’t miss any work.” She adds, metaphorically blowing the roof off the tony clinic devoted to classical science, “I guess we roll the dice…” Albert Einstein, a master of pushing the envelope the better to hide out, poured forth a Bronx cheer of sorts upon youthful researchers in the early days of quantum studies, who were struck by a creative field shot through with uncertainties, by, that is, unpredictability in the ways of nature as crucially including humans. He capsulized his contempt for those renegades by declaring, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Immediately after that appointment she and we are in the midst of the first of a series of locales (at Christmas time) where chains of small white lights flash about, approximating elemental phenomena soaring in electrodynamic outbursts. That such heady take-offs are far from carefree is announced—truth to tell, with nearly as much shock as the oddly truncated sexual assault—at a lunch bar (lights in its doorway and visible through the whole scene) where a splenetic diner dumps the dregs of her tray all over Michele’s shoulder and sleeve, along with the denunciation, “Scum! You and your father!” Her still and silent response is a reprise of her undemonstrative rally after the rape.

Although several melodramatic narratives seem to be vying for attention which would pay dividends, we might find that the outcomes very closely approximate that inconsequentiality of the suicidal obsessive in Taste of Cherry; and that it is the major-league (which means far from perfect) coordination of Michele amidst myriad cons and a few pros which lifts the proceedings to regal stature. (Isobel Huppert’s performance as Michele, though marvellous, constitutes another distraction by which those not having a clue about what is going on can invest the action with a shot of the “powerful,” which can mean anything they want it to mean. This is, in fact, a film [like so many of Kiarostami’s works, and those of Jarmusch] to embrace, not to pigeonhole.) (more…)

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© 2017 by James Clark

      An Abbas Kiarostami film may be characterized as an alert against getting rushed away from one’s best interests. The dramas of his films gather with wit and industry a powerful, world-wide coercive force prohibiting the cultivation of maximum lucidity and sufficiency. These introductions in the form of movies do not confine themselves to self-standing aesthetic objects to be promoted to a Pantheon and treasured as a cinematic/ cultural dividend. But rather, they presuppose viewers with the same eccentric and compelling range of struggle as those depicted on the screen.

Taste of Cherry (1997), therefore, brings to light a suicidal figure having been underwhelmed by all he was supposed to subscribe to, and lacking the resolve to effectively obviate the tainted input of a vast and vastly overrated majority. Accordingly, we are in the presence of the stirring of a new range of interaction, a range which may take centuries to become well-known as such.

It may seem ill-advised to move along that long path under the auspices of someone having lost all interest in being alive while still in perfect health. The protagonist emits a pall of contempt toward any instinct except his own obliteration. Therefore, beyond rejection of such energies and whatever sparks of defiance toward that perversity may arise, where are we to look for the rallies at the core of Kiarostami’s problematic? As it happens, in characteristic style, there are surprising, entirely intuitive and (perhaps this film’s special gift) quite extensive figures impinging upon the central juggernaut in ways which provide much food for thought. (The special snare, I think you will find, within this prize-winning supposed suspense-drama, takes the form of seeming to be on familiar film-entertainment grounds while being as far away from such diversion as the outer edge of the universe.)

Driving his white (-washed) Range Rover along a nondescript fringe of Tehran, the protagonist introduces himself within his rather antiseptic moving cell from which he discreetly scowls upon a horde of men at a depot where work for that day only may turn up. As part of an ongoing study of a revelatory vigor to be found within and without a moving car, we have ragged, imperilled hopefuls intent upon the spark of possibility perhaps alive in the stranger and his costly property, and at the same time the deadened gaze of the supposed beneficiary of life. We are about to encounter myriad such ironies, quite readily obtained. The thematic challenge, we will soon find, I think, is what upshot do these cross-purposes press forward? “You want laborers?” someone calls through a side-window. “No,” is the answer to those hungry for food and hungry for life’s free purchases. The faces reflected on the windshield during his cruise become dynamic apparitions from out of a motive transcending those grave and urgent preoccupations. In the episode just completed, his eyes would often be directed skyward, the better to maintain his abstract ways. On departing the job mart seen to be far too raucous for his spate of calculative instruction to seal the deal, he comes upon two boys playing in the remains of what was once a crude economy auto. “Hello, Mister!” one shouts. “Hello,” he replies, in hollow tone. He pulls away quickly, unprepared for such gusto. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      Although Song to Song (2015/ 2017) adopts the design priority of a pell-mell rout by an army of short-lived wild things being long-term softies, there does emerge, for our sense of counter-attacking against the nearly non-stop jumpiness, a pair of visitations from sagas less spasmodic. The first is the silent, black and white, white-hot film melodrama of massacre, ripping into the midst of a palatial, ultra-modern household owned by an Austin music producer, Cook, besotted by the capacity to marshal hookers to his bed and thus drive his wife, Rhonda, to suicide. Along that so-called life to the fullest, he tells himself, “I can’t take this life straight.” He goes on to ask his former-waitress, former-Kindergarten teacher wife, part of an unstable harem, “What’s your fantasy? What are you afraid of?” She tells herself and whatever else could read her thoughts, “When I was a girl I loved everything. You killed my life…” [in the course of a marriage which delivered a nice house to her destitute mother]. That wild premonition including axe-murder and flowing blood reminds us of a jaded screenwriter, Rick, in Malick’s Knight of Cups (2015), who disregards a video in the foyer of a chic office tower, a decorative production in black and white whereby several women blend into each other from their long, jet-black hair, apparel, make-up and eyes. Rick’s sidelined, spent force may not be going anywhere, but the surreal artwork along his retreat becomes part of a rescue mission which speaks to the defunct Rhonda’s once loving everything, to no avail. (The two marital casualties meet when she is his server in a diner. “I have a condition,” he quips. “I can’t be left alone…” [“Help Me, Rhonda”]. The distance between Song to Song’s death-spiral and Knight of Cups’ going swimmingly in an infinity pool (like the one Rhonda OD’d in) gives us to understand that a very different consideration has become necessary. (more…)

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