The September Issue – RJ Cutler’s documentary is billed as being the Anna Wintour movie, but in fact is more about what its title claims it to be: the making of the September issue of Vogue magazine. There is, of course, quite a bit about the impenetrable Ms. Wintour, but because of her famous iciness (and perhaps out of a desire to show in her a better light than her relatively monstrous reputation) the heart of the film ends up elsewhere, in the form of Vogue’s Creative Director Grace Coddington. Coddington, a former model with a wild head of orange hair, struggles to get her images, some of them quite stunning, into the magazine while meeting Wintour’s often gnomic demands. The sense we get is of a real artist struggling to share her vision with a mass market audience (most of whom probably aren’t the least bit interested in her artistry). That Wintour has been able to successfully balance both the creative and business drives of her enterprise is a testament to her managerial abilities. And her remoteness, we might conclude (though this case isn’t really made by the film) is both the cause and consequence of her success. Cutler tells a fascinating story that isn’t particularly inventive but is none the less entertaining and, as one would expect in a documentary about fashion, full of interesting characters and beautiful images.
Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages – I finally sat down to watch one of the most celebrated films of all-time, DW Griffith’s four-part epic about love that was reportedly his response to the criticisms of his earlier pro-KKK blockbuster Birth of a Nation. I’ve never learned whether this film was meant to be an atonement for that one’s sins (the Intolerance being the source material that he later realized was in fact evil) or the critics and protesters who tried (and in some places succeeded) in getting the film banned (the Intolerance being those who would dare to limit Griffith’s free speech rights). Watching the film doesn’t really answer that question, as it treats both Love and Intolerance more as organizing principles than as themes to be examined. The film is, as reputed, a marvel of technique, if it doesn’t invent it certainly consolidates and epitomizes the state of the art in filmmaking as of 1916: it’s a virtual instruction manual in the art of parallel editing, as well as the use of close-ups and crane shots (all of which were fairly novel at the time). More amazing to me, though, was how perfectly structured the film is. After several explanatory titles explaining the nature of the film (intercutting four different stories in four different times), Griffith gradually brings less and less attention to the transitions. The individual stories themselves don’t say much about the theme delineated in the title: some have very little to do with Intolerance, some very little to do with Love. It’s only when they are told as a whole does Griffith’s conception make a kind of sense. It’s not an intellectual argument so much as an emotional one, where the Modern Day Love story gives emotional resonance to the Intolerant brutality of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and the detail of the sectarian strife in Ancient Babylon is given added resonance by the Passion in the Jerusalem story. That the whole ends up being greater than the sum of any one of its parts is the ultimate argument in favor of Griffith’s parallel editing style: no wonder it won. It deserves its reputation as one of the great works of cinema, and should replace the detestable Birth of a Nation in curricula everywhere. Also fun, look for people in small parts who later became famous: directors Frank Borzage, Tod Browning, WS Van Dyke, actor Donald Crisp and the virtually unrecognizable character actor Eugene Pallette. The #1 film of 1916.
Ong Bak 2: The Beginning – Tony Jaa’s prequel to his breakthrough low-budget action film about a country kid who goes to the big city to retrieve his village’s stolen artifacts. That film, and Jaa’s follow-up The Protector, had a lot of goofy, B-Movie charm (“You killed my father. . . and STOLE MY ELEPHANT!”) whereas this latest film is a big budget, CGI filled spectacle that’s one of the most brutal and emotionally bleak martial arts films I’ve ever seen. Jaa plays the sole survivor of a noble family that’s been wiped out by bad guys. He’s rescued and trained in many combat skills by a band of outlaws, of whom he becomes the eventual leader. He then embarks on a quest for bloody revenge. Jaa hasn’t improved much as an actor (his near refusal to speak in any of his films was comical in the first two, here it makes him kind of boring), but his stunt work is again extraordinary. The film doesn’t have anything as formally exciting as the repeated shots in the first Ong Bak or the already legendary tracking shot in The Protector, but the last half hour or so of the film, an extended action sequence (which starts, surprisingly enough, with a tremendous dance sequence by costar Primorata Dejudom) is as intense and breathtaking as anything he’s done before. This is only the first part of the prequel story, here’s hoping Jaa lets a little light into the next chapter. The #39 film of 2008.