Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

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Fair warning: this review contains information related to the third act. I’d say “plot spoilers,” but there’s no plot and, honey, this film was spoiled a long time before I got to it, so it really doesn’t matter.

Seriously, I hate the fact that I walked into the theatre, expecting some guffaws of hilarity at a film’s apocalyptic awfulness, and instead spent 95% of the running length, stoney-faced with a slight elevation in one eyebrow at the entire situation in which we found ourselves.

Mistress America follows the no-lesbo friend crush held by Tracy, who I’m expected to believe is seven years younger than me for Brooke (because of course she’s called fucking Brooke), who I’m expected to believe is five years older than me, as they kinda do nothing and Tracy writes a slightly hurtful short story about it, entitled “Mistress America, or: the Unbearably Obvious Chekhov’s Gun That You Just Know is Going to be Discovered and Read by Brooke Somewhere Near the End and it’s Going to Cause Friction, Like in Every Other Film Ever.” Brooke discovers and reads the story somewhere near the end and it causes friction, like in every other film ever. There’s even a lawyer who threatens to draw up a lawsuit to ban Tracy from publishing the thing. So the fact that, in the very next scene, we see that the story got published in her university’s literary journal, so we wasted a an entire reveal as it resulted in approximately zero repercussions, acts as a perfect analogy for how this film, under a thin veil of hipster abstraction, is actually blithely marching us all straight to the deepest darkest pit of nihilistic oblivion. It’s like some sort of twisted existential Pied Piper / Mephistopheles composite in a beret, clutching a pumpkin spice latte.

Remember Tumblr before it became political? When it was pretty much just a website in which there were all these blogs that seemed to be run by an infinite number of girls who somehow made a comfortable living, wandering around Williamsburg in obscenely expensive clothes and oversized sunglasses, with a Nikon F series round their necks? Not only is this entire film a creepy love letter to them all, but LITERALLY describes them as a “beacon of hope.”

So, ideologically, Mistress America is pretty much the Birth of a Nation for neoliberal cupcake fascism. Fair enough. But is it any good? here’s where it gets annoying: the secondary characters and even the protagonists every now and again drop a joke that is actually funny. That one about “autodidact” being a word Brooke taught herself? That was kind of ok for a second. The fact that there are a couple of those brief funnies, in conjunction with how the entire film is edited to look like an overly baggy montage that shows the development from point A to point A again, left me feeling like I had just watched an 84-minute-long trailer for a slightly better film. One that might have made a bit more sense, one that might have had character development, or at least addressed Tracy’s small scale kleptomania that comes up twice and is then promptly forgotten about. Maybe a film where a person of colour was allowed to speak in more multi-syllables. Maybe a film where a white person was allowed to speak in fewer. But probably not.

Pros: “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide is on the soundtrack.

*1/2

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Witchhammer (Otaka Vávra, 1970)

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A bloody and not un-provocative drama at the tail-end of the Czechosolvakian New Wave, acting clearly as a warning to other filmmakers of the movement about governments by no means above breaking butterflies on the wheel. Witchhammer – very much the Communist Crucible – is a strange combination of a very earnest political message and a very prevalent male gaze. I’m certain the relatively low rating (by Czechoslovak standards) I’ve given it will increase by at least half a star next watching and, at 103 minutes, I think it could make a very interesting B-feature to the superior epic Markéta Lazarova.

Hard to Be a God (Alexei German, 2013)

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“God…If you exist…Please stop me.”

It was impossible, in the days leading up to seeing Hard to Be a God, not to think of it in terms of Tarkovsky. Sharing authors with Stalker, and a setting not unlike Andrei Rublev, I assumed I’d be on similar ground. Five minutes in, however, it became clear we were walking through a profoundly distinct territory.

Hard to Be a God is no Tarkovsky film. It is nastier, uglier, squelchier, more unforgiving, more visceral and with an entirely different philosophy of humanity as it perceives a world made of mud, shit, piss, and blood. Concepts of human dignity are met with undying cynicism, as we would expect better from animals than we see from these people (being not from Earth, their status as “human beings” falls into a degree of pedantic uncertainty, as well as a moral one).

We follow the stumbling journey of the scientist known mistakenly as Don Rumata, believed to be the son of a pagan god, navigating through the city of Arkanar, rendered a pogrom in a pigsty by a culture of brutal suppression of anything that gives the slightest nod towards Renaissance, as he engages in the strangest, adulterous relationship with this code of ethics that, above all, precludes him from interfering violently with the practices of this unnamed planet’s deranged inhabitants, eventually breaking it fully.

As primitivists, who drown letter-writers in latrines, clash with zealots who lacquer hanged men, opposing factions mirror and seem to blend into one another. Major political shifts seem to take place, invisibly within ellipses, and throwaway lines relating to incomplete abstracts seem to repeat endlessly. This world seems devoid of linearity, and we as spectators and Rumata too seem to feel trapped in a state of defeatist, relentless perpetuity – an inescapable present tense of brutal squalor.

Hard to Be a God offers not a satisfying story, but a deeply astute insight into just how unsatisfying it may be for God to oversee and interact with us, after all. This film is a direct line to the ultimate thankless task that perhaps warrants more comparisons to the sisyphean angst of Woman of the Dunes or the woefully determined reparative violence of The Virgin Spring than the earnest spiritualism of the better known master of Russian cinema. This is a film very much worth watching, just don’t expect to leave happy.

****1/2

The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

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A neatly written, well acted horror film that operates fully on the “girls to the front” ethos, The Descent would be excellent, if it weren’t for the fact that it isn’t in the slightest bit scary. Annoying as it is, the film’s noble intention to showcase regular female badassery renders the encounters with the vampire-esque monsters much more like an action film than a horror film, complete with frankly stupid Bourne Identity-reminiscent rapid editing techniques that completely alienate the spectator from any form of empathic involvement in the panic and fear these characters are supposed to be, reasonably, feeling as they are trapped underground, sharing space with bloodthirsty creatures unlike anything they’ve seen before. The psychological aspects of the protagonist Sarah’s potentially self-destructive emotions, surrounding the death of her family are referenced sporadically enough to consider them little more than a half-hearted afterthought to the narrative at large, and the whole experience comes across as rather sub-Whedon-esque. Enjoyable and exciting viewing, complete with decent monsters, but little substance under a variable style.

***