17th 04 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Knight of Cups (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

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By Roderick Heath

Terrence Malick’s late period has seen him more productive than ever at the cost of robbing his output of the almost magical allure it once had through scarcity. Once he was easy to idealise as an emissary of artistic stature redolent of a very different time and cultural frame, the reclusive poet broadcasting occasional, deeply considered artistic happenings from on high. But when he brings out three films in five years, he becomes just another filmmaker in the marketplace. Yet his work has defied the usual crises and swerves that befall aging auteurs to become ever more personal, rarefied, and bold, charged with a sense of questing enthusiasm and expressive urgency. Whereas in his early work I tend to find what Malick wants to say a bit obvious even as he laboured to say it in the most ravishing way, his later work suggests an attempt to articulate concepts and emotions so nebulous and difficult they cannot be conveyed in any meaningful way except when bundled up in that strange collection of images known as cinema, gaining a sharpness and urgency that risks much but also achieves much. This is a large part of why I’ve been moving against the current and digging what Malick’s been putting down all the more since The New World (2005). The New World marked a point when Malick really first nailed the aesthetic he’d been chasing, apparently formless in the usual cinematic sense, but actually fluidic and dynamic, more like visual music than prose, his stories unfolding in a constant rush of counterpoint, the visual and the verbal, each nudging the other along rather than working in the usual lockstep manner of standard dramatic cinema.

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By comparison, I recently revisited Days of Heaven (1978) and find it gorgeous but inert, like a fine miniature in a snow cone. The pursuit of a horizon glimpsed in a dream, at once personal and lodged in a folk-memory, admirably articulated, but too refined, too stringently, self-consciously fablelike to compel me. The New World finally set Malick free because it allowed him to alchemise his preoccupations and poetic ideas, his obsession with the Edenic Fall, into the simplest vessel whilst still engaging with concrete history and a very solid sense of the world. Somehow Malick has become, in his old age, at once the wispiest of abstractionists and the most acute of realists. Knight of Cups feels like another instalment, probably the last, in an unofficial, but certainly linked cycle he started with The Tree of Life (2011) and followed with To the Wonder (2013). Malick has been translating his own life into art for these films, albeit tangentially, through a mesh of disguise, displacement, invention, and simple reflection. Knight of Cups completes the sense of journey from songs of innocence to songs of experience; the depiction of childhood’s protean possibility rhymed with adulthood’s regretful mourning as depicted in The Tree of Life has given way to the specific portrait of love found and lost in To the Wonder, and now, hedonistic abandon and the open void of modernity amidst the elusive promise of the land. It’s a report in the moment that rounds off the tale Malick’s been contemplating since The New World, a portrait of what’s become of that innocent land the white man conquered.

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Christian Bale inhabits the role of Rick, a screenwriter living it large in Los Angeles, but dogged by a lingering inability to form real emotional connections and the gnawing onus that is the fate of his family. That’s just about all the plot there is to Knight of Cups, which unfolds like a fever dream of recollection, pushing the flowing, vignette-laden, high-montage style Malicks’s pursued since The New World to a point that is both an extreme and also a crescendo. In compensation, Malick adopts a very simple, but perfectly functional division into chapters, each named for a card in the Tarot and dominated by a depiction of one of Rick’s relationships, whether passing or substantial, with various women and family members, or turning points in his experience. “The Moon” recounts his grazing encounters with dye-haired young wannabe Della (Imogen Poots). “The Hanged Man” depicts his uneasy relationship with his father and brother. “The Hermit” follows Rick through the indulgences of Hollywood, attending a party hosted by mogul Tonio (Antonio Banderas). “Judgment” sees him briefly reconnecting with his ex-wife, medical doctor Nancy (Cate Blanchett). In “The Tower,” Rick is tempted by Mephistophelian manager Herb (Michael Wincott). In “The Sun,” he becomes mesmerised by a fashion model, Helen (Frieda Pinto), who embodies pure beauty and practises tantric yoga. “The High Priestess” sees him hooking up with stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), and visiting Las Vegas with her for a dirty weekend. In “Death,” he becomes involved with a married woman, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who falls pregnant and doesn’t know if the father is Rick or her husband. Finally, “Freedom” depicts his ultimate decision to leave Hollywood and finding happiness with Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a girl he often sees dancing on the beach.

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The Knight of Cups is also a tarot card, of course, one that notably changes meaning according to how it’s looked at, encompassing the alternately quicksilver brilliance and inane nature of the young adventurer and will to disorder, a reminder of the closeness between the two. Rick is evidently the Knight, one who is not so coincidentally often in his cups. He’s also correlated with the prince in a fairy tale his father is fond of who travels to a distant land on an important mission but is bewitched by a magic potion and forgets his identity. Near the start of the film, Rick meets with two agents (Patrick Whitesell and Rick Hess) who have orchestrated his transfer off a project on which he was floundering and attached him to a top comedy star, a move that brings Rick to the peak of his profession. Rick lives nonetheless in a small apartment that barely displays any sign of real human habitation apart from his bed and laptop, as two thieves find to their chagrin when they break in and try to rob the place. He is shaken by an earthquake close to the film’s beginning, the first momento mori that jars him out of any sense of confident self-satisfaction. Soon, Rick wanders the city gobbling up sensations and distractions. He cavorts with models, actresses, and scenesters he can now pull with his growing wealth and freewheeling enthusiasm, but is nagged at by the omnipresent evidence of a concurrent reality, represented by the down-and-out folk he brushes against on the streets of LA.

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The film’s prologuelike opening scenes see Rick on the town, riding the streets with models and partying hard in scenes of ebullient, carnivalesque high life, where geishas and costumed artistes frolic and life seems utterly ripe. An experimental film being projected on the wall invades the film itself, a beautiful woman shifting through guises, masks of cardboard and make-up floating around her face, identity turned protean and cabalistic—essentially introducing the basic theme of the film around it. Then, the earthquake shakes the town. In the first “chapter,” Rick meets Della, who describes Rick’s problem as one commonly diagnosed in writers by those close to them: “You don’t want love—you want a love experience.” But she also recognises that he’s a man who’s been switched off on some fundamental level for some time. She begs him not to return to such a state again, and the rest of the film depicts his struggle to really feel and open himself up. Rick’s deeper spiritual and emotional maladies are soon revealed as he visits his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) at his offices, in a strange sequence that might be memory, dream, or a blend of the two, as Joseph seems to be alone in a vast building and washes his hands in filthy water. Joseph’s health and sanity become niggling sources of worry for Rick, whilst Joseph boils over with Learish anger and sorrow. Rick also maintains an uneasy relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley), a former junkie turned street minister, often submerged in the shoals of human wreckage Rick contends with. These three beset survivors are closely bonded by rivets of love and wracking pain because of the suicide of a third brother, Billy. When any of the three come together, they often clash, sometimes in heated and physically eruptive manner: a dinner the trio have together devolves into Barry hurling furniture around.

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Rick’s success has been achieved by remaining switched off because of a fear he admits in contemplating his failed marriage to Nancy. Nancy, in a motif reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s minister in To the Wonder, is glimpsed treating broken and sickened individuals from the fringes of society, contrasting Rick as he eddies in a zone where he’s aware of his inconsequentiality even as he experiences a very real sense of burden. Joseph’s thoughts are repeatedly heard in voiceover, as if the ailing father is trying still to guide his Rick, who, nominated as the successful progeny, wears the double burden of fulfilling the familial mission and holding up, psychically if not financially, the remnant of their pride and prospect. But Rick’s perspective is not just one of fashionable ennui: it’s one that touches everything he sees with a sense of charged fascination and transient import and meaning. One of the film’s high points is also one of its seemingly most meandering and purely experiential, as Rick wanders Tonio’s estate surrounded by a boggling collective of random celebrities and pretty faces. Rick explores the gaudy environs of Tonio’s manse, a gigantic placard advertising tasteless wealth, a neo-Versailles, whilst on sound we hear Tonio’s explanations of his love life, comparing his womanising habits to daily cravings for different flavours of ice cream, the confession of an easy sybarite.

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At first, the smorgasbord of flesh and fancy is bewildering and entertaining, the perspective that of a professional rubbernecker, but as the day goes on, booze is consumed, people dance and cavort, and eventually start plunging into the pool. Malick starts off the sequence with shots of dogs chasing balls in the water and then segues into models dressed in haute couture, complete with giant heels, seeing something both beautiful and highly ridiculous in these visions, where rose petals flitter through the air to rest on the shoulders of the anointed, straight out of some neoclassical painter’s concept of decadent pleasures in the days of Rome. By the end, everyone’s in the water, squirming in the liquid, a crescendo of absurd yet affectionate observation of the desire many have to exist within a perpetual party. The LA setting robs Malick of his usual places of meditative peace, the wavering grasslands, the proud sun-scraping forests. Swimming pools, the omnipresent symbol of prosperity in LA, become under Malick’s gaze numinous portals aglow with fervent colour, places where the moment anyone enters they instantly transform into a different state of being. They’re tamed versions of the ocean, a place Rick constantly returns to with his women or by himself, the zone of transformation and grand, impersonal force. Something of a similar insight to one Sang-soo Hong explored in his The Day He Arrives (2012), charges Knight of Cups, if in a radically different fashion, as Rick’s various relationships, whether brief or substantial, see him constantly returning to the same places and sights to the point where they seem both interchangeable and looping—going to the beach, driving the streets, visiting his girlfriends’ homes—evoking the evanescent rush of the early phases of love, but then each time seeming to reach a point where he can’t go any further. At one point he’s visited by old friends who knew him as a kid and have kids of their own, a zone of experience he hasn’t yet penetrated, emissaries from an alien land.

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One noticeable lack from most of Malick’s earlier films was real, adult sexuality. After finally delving into that with To the Wonder, Knight of Cups is frankly sexy, as it portrays Rick’s successful entry into a zone that would strike a lot of young people as paradise. But there’s still a fascinating, childlike sense of play apparent in the film as Rick cavorts with naked nymphs he picks up. Malick moralises none of this, seeing it merely as the inevitable result and pleasure of putting a large number of good-looking, well-off people into a similar environment and letting them have at it. Knight of Cups brings the implicitly autobiographical narrative Malick wove through The Tree of Life and To the Wonder into a new phase, patterned seemingly after Malick’s time spent as a screenwriter in the early 1970s and leading up to his eventual self-exile from the movie industry. Again, of course, there’s good reason not to take all this simply as memoir, but rather as a highly transformed, aestheticized attempt to convert experience into poetry. That aesthetic is one of memory—fallible, fluidic, selective, associative. But there’s no hint of the period piece to the result, which is as stylistically and sociologically up-to-date as anything I’ve seen lately, engaging contemporary Hollywood and indeed the contemporary world in all its flailing, free-falling strangeness, the confused impulses towards meditative remove and hedonism apparent in modern American life.

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Knight of Cups is, as a result, one of the most daring formal experiments I’ve ever seen in a feature film, an attempt to paint entirely in the mode of reminiscence, a tide of epiphanies. Malick’s early films were obsessed with the exact same motif of clasping onto a mood, a way of seeing, an impression from the very edges of liminal experience. But his techniques have evolved and transformed those motifs and are now inseparable from them. Knight of Cups seems random and free-form, but actually is rigorously constructed, each vignette and experience glimpsed as part of a journey that eventually resolves in some moderately traditional ways. Amidst Malick’s now-trademark use of voiceover to give access to the interior world and thoughts of his characters and music to propel and define various movements, he also uses here snatches of recordings of poetry, recitation, and drama, including John Gielgud’s Prospero from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) and lines from The Pilgrim’s Progress. With such hallowed, high-culture refrains shattered and rearranged into mantralike capsules of eerie wisdom ringing out, Knight of Cups is at least as concerned with the cornucopia, enfolding and smothering, that is modern life as it is with Rick’s immediate personal concerns, and to a certain extent, Rick is merely a scarecrow to hang it all on, the vessel of perception whose journey through life is, like that of all artists, one of both immersion and detachment.

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One clever aspect to this is that Rick is hardly a nonentity or even a cliché emblematic of Hollywood shallowness. If The Tree of Life and To the Wonder were overtly concerned with spiritual and religious impulses as well as the worldly matters of growth and love, in Knight of Cups, that has faded to background noise. Here Malick suggests constantly that in the modern world, the divides we used to be able to set up to corral zones of experience—enterprise, spirituality, sexuality, intellectualism—cannot be maintained in such an age. The urge of the spiritual seeker is still apparent in Rick, perhaps all the more urgent when stripped out of the pieties of childhood and small-town life and set free in the louche embrace of modernity. Armin Mueller-Stahl appears briefly as a minister advising Rick on how to try to engage with life as he moves closer to making a real break. But the matter here is the allure of the profane, and indeed, an attempt to create a truly modern definition and understanding of it—the intoxicating, but also dispiriting effects of superficialities, the strange hierarchies that turn some people into the tools and suppliants. Some have seen this work as an anti-Hollywood moan, but it’s not the usual shrill satire or snooty take. The narrative does infer that Rick’s role is so inane that it barely registers in his stream of consciousness, and the essence of Malick’s complaint seems to me to be that although the movie industry attracts, employs, and sometimes enriches artists, it so rarely asks them to truly stretch their talents, like making Olympic-level sprinters compete in three-legged races.

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Malick actually seems to see Hollywood as rather comical, a candy castle for perma-adolescents. Rick’s dabbling in decadence is far from extreme: sometimes he gets blotto and has a lot of sex. Malick maintains much the same goggle-eyed, wide-open sensibility towards the strange places where Rick finds himself, from Tonio’s party to the pornocratic sprawl of Vegas and the strip club where he meets Karen. The placidity of a Japanese shrine offers the balm of calm, but Rick’s real transformative visions come amidst the partygoers of Vegas, a place that counts as some gigantic, if tacky, work of artistic chutzpah. There he gazes up at dancers dangling from the ceiling enacting a visualised myth of birth, slipping out of a chrysalis above the swooning, frenetic joyfulness of the people on the dance floor, an event of communal magnitude, something Rick is happy to exist within but cannot entirely join. Malick comprehends the magnetism of a place entirely dedicated to immersion in sensuality, a place where Rick lets the strippers lock him in a cage. Malick sees something genuinely telling here—that in the most adult of activities are the most profound expression of a desire to devolve back into the childhood, a place of play and free-form existence. But it’s also another stage for Rick to study to reveal his own persistent problem. It’s entirely logical then that in Malick’s mind, Karen, a bon vivant with a gift for moving freely and easily in the world, is probably the most complete and easy person glimpsed in the film, capable of chatting amiably with both pimps out in the surreal wilderness near the city and moguls ensconced in its gilt chambers.

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Rick’s fascination with all his women encompasses their ways of interacting with the world and their individual identity, and also their commonalities, their mirroring points of fascination and ironic disparities. The faint, but definite glint of hard, ambitious intent in Della’s eye as a wanderer far out of her zone both rhymes with and also contrasts Karen’s similar status as a wanderer, but one who has no programme in life other than giving herself up to experience whilst making a living in the profane version of Helen’s job. Rick’s regret at never having a child with Nancy segues into Elizabeth’s bitter, crucifying pregnancy. Rick’s own internal argument is actualised in glimpses of characters who bob through his life. Cherry Jones appears as a wisp out of his past, someone who knew him and his family way back and who recalls how he once told her he felt like a spy in his own life. Wincott’s Herb declares he wants to make Rick rich, but Rick contemplates his ruined father, who remembers that “Once people envied me…” and measures the ultimate futility of success as measured in exclusively worldly terms. The Tree of Life evoked Death of a Salesman in certain respects as it analysed the figure of the American patriarch, and here Malick’s casting of Dennehy, who found great success playing Willy Loman in a recent revival, is another tip of the hat to Arthur Miller’s work. At one point, Dennehy is glimpsed treading a stage before an audience, one of several fragments scattered throughout the film of a purely symbolic reality and glimpses of oneiric netherworlds buried deep in Rick’s mind, as his father has become an actor, a seer, a fallen king, Lear on the heath or Prospero’ magic failing on his lonely isle.

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Malick’s methods both chew up the talent he hires at stunning pace, but also presents an entirely democratic employment of them in service of a vision that tries to encompass a sense of nobility in every individual. Knight of Cups is at once a display of Malick’s solipsism in this regard, his casual readiness to use a raft of skilled actors simply to inhabit the free-floating, sometimes barely glimpsed human entities that graze the camera in his films, and yet invigorating and reassuringly uninterested in the usual caressed egos of Hollywood film. Every performer is ore, mined for their most precise gestures, looks, words. Malick’s use of voiceover allows him to grant all characters their moment of insight and understanding as if gathering the fruits of years of contemplation, rather simply relying on what they can articulate in the flow of the banal.

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Whereas To the Wonder suggested Malick’s intention to incorporate aspects of dance and particularly visual art into film, here Malick’s artistic arsenal is rooted securely in the language of modernist literature reconstituted as cinema. The rush of images has the ring of Joyce’s technique and the very last word heard in the film, “Begin,” evokes the famous affirmative at the end of Ulysses, whilst the visual structure recalls John Cage’s take on Joyce’s aesthetics, “Roaratorio.” But Malick also shouts out to some of his filmic influences. Della is initially seen wearing a pink wig, recalling a Wong Kar-Wai heroine, a nod that acknowledges the influence on Wong’s free-flowing style and obsession with frustrated romanticism on Malick’s recent approach. Malick also reveals selective affinities with some signal cinematic gods for filmmakers of his generation: as with To the Wonder, I sense the imprint of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) in presenting the main character as both actor and viewer in his life. The narrative, like many artistic self-contemplations in film, recalls Fellini’s (1963) whilst other motifs evoke Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) as Rick circles photo shoots, fascinated and knowing about the arts of creating illusory beauties whilst confronting interior voids. But Malick ultimately rejects the roots of their works in a pernickety moralism that blends and confuses Catholicism and Marxism, chasing more a Blakeian sense of life and existence as a polymorphic surge that must be negotiated and assessed, but cannot be denied.

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Rick’s late agonistes with Elizabeth signal the end of the process Della identifies at the start, of Rick coming to life again but also facing the sort of emotional crucifixion from which his detachment spared him, both a price exacted and a perverse kind of reward found in genuine suffering: “It binds you closer to other people,” Mueller-Stahl’s priest notes. This event finally drives him out of LA, and he hits the road, exploring an American landscape of his youth and dreams that has forgotten him and that he, too, has forgotten. He seems to reconcile with his father and brother in a scene of violent catharsis, and takes his father to visit a former workplace, a heap of glowering, indifferent industry. By the very end of the film, Malick signals that Rick escapes LA, settles down with a woman, and finds a certain level of peace and healing living in the desert. Isabel seems deliberately filmed more as an entity than a person, the archetype of the type of woman who has flitted right through Malick’s work, a dancer and a priestess who leads Rick into caves for candlelit rites whilst the mountains that Rick has envisioned as symbols of everything his life wasn’t now soar above him. It’s arguable that in such imagery Malick finally retreats into a safe zone of symbolism, where much of the value of Knight of Cups is that it’s a work well outside his regular purview. But the truly radical quality of Knight of Cups is how completely untheoretical it is, the power of lived experience blended with urgent need to express in the most unfettered ways welling out of that experience. It’s both an explanation and a blithe feat of expressive legerdermain, not caring if we keep up. It’s cinema, stripped to the nerve.


13th 04 - 2016 | no comment »

An Autumn without Berlin (Un otoño sin Berlín, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Lara Izagirre

32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Back in 2013, I sat down with Ben Sachs, former film critic of the Chicago Reader to talk about French filmmaker Claire Denis on the occasion of a retrospective of her work at the Gene Siskel Film Center. As the kickoff guest in this month-long series Ben put together with other female critics and artists in Chicago, I had first crack at giving my opinion about whether women directors have a unique perspective on storytelling that inflects their films. Ben said of Denis’ 2009 film White Material, “The movie, like many by Denis, asks you to intuit the characters’ relationships from impressions of environment and physical behavior.” I added, “There’s a sense of just wanting things to unfold. In my experience, women can be more patient. They’re not as quick to try to figure things out.”

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I thought about that conversation yesterday as Spanish director Lara Izagirre’s first feature film, An Autumn without Berlin, did indeed unfold like a complicated origami creation before my eyes. As with Denis, Izagirre is in no hurry to fill in the blanks as she winds her way through her story, and like Denis, her story is very personal. A woman we learn very late in the film is named June (Irene Escolar) returns to her hometown after an unknown period of time away. She gets off a train, walks what seems quite a distance to a squat apartment building and rings the bell. Silence from the intercom is greeting with silence from June until, finally, she say “It’s me. I’ve come back.” Nothing. She ends up at a house where she opens an unlocked patio door and watches a young man (Mariano Estudillo) who is moving his arms to some music none of us can hear. He sees her, welcomes her into the house with a big hug, and then informs her that her bedroom has been dismantled. Ah, must be her brother. Oh, and their father (Ramón Barea), a physician who is out seeing a patient, will be angry when he sees her.

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Slowly we watch June reconnect with the touchpoints of her life before she left. She pushes back a cloth covering an upright piano in the house, and we get a good look at a photo of a woman on a table next to the keyboard who looks like June, probably her mother, though that is never confirmed. When her father refuses to speak with her, she returns with her luggage to the apartment building and uses a key to gain entrance. She looks around the darkened apartment she must have lived in at some point because she has the key, running her hand over objects, looking at some writing on a desk, peering into dark and empty rooms. Eventually, the man who refused to let her in the first time, Diego (Tamar Novas), emerges from behind a bedroom door. He is sullen, suspicious, and asks her why she’s there. “To stay with you,” she answers.

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The ambiguity Izagirre packs into her scenario extends to her dialogue. Diego and June were married, but why they separated is not clear. “To stay with you,” at first blush, sounds like an appeal for somewhere to sleep now that she knows she’s not welcome in her father’s house, but the larger implication—that she wants to get back together with Diego—hangs in the air like an intoxicating perfume that eventually envelopes the pair and brings them closer and closer together.

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Slowly, we are drawn into the rhythms of Izagirre’s film and accept the pace of discoveries in the way we would with a good novel. Indeed, Diego turns out to be a fiction writer with notebooks full of short stories, a clear inspiration for Izagirre’s approach to her narrative. She pays admirable attention to the supporting characters who flesh out the film’s central romance—June’s very pregnant best friend Ane (Nairara Carmona), Diego’s estranged mother Pili (Paula Soldevila), and Nico (Lier Quesada), a precocious boy June has been hired to tutor in French so that he can get into the local French school. Her relationship with Nico, intelligently played by Quesada, a truly great child actor, is an absolute joy to watch as he convinces her to skip out on the lessons and roams the town with her, winning a giant panda at a carnival, fishing with Ane at a nearby stream, and getting drenched in a sudden downpour. He doesn’t want to get into the French school because he thinks it took first his friend’s hair and then his friend. This fear teases out the reason for June’s departure—she was so burdened with grief over the death of her mother that she could not endure the added sorrow of her father and brother.

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In the end, the central piece of the puzzle is the very sad impasse between June and Diego. As observant and kind as she is, as loving as the couple becomes over the course of the film, June fails to recognize that Diego suffers from a mental illness. The restless wanderer, June longs to go to Berlin with Diego, who wrote an award-winning story about this dream. Diego, an agoraphobic, struggles to meet June in her world. The pair, beautifully embodied by Escolar and Novas, couple and uncouple like a silk scarf quietly slipping its knot. Izagirre’s delicate film builds an emotional power that is uniquely, proudly female.

An Autumn without Berlin screens Monday, April 18 at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, April 20 at 9 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. Film composer Joseba Brit will present the film.

Previous coverage

Burden of Peace: This searing documentary follows Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s first female attorney general, as she tries to dismantle the country’s corrupt, ineffective criminal justice system and prosecute its former military dictators for crimes against humanity. (Guatemala)

I Swear I’ll Leave This Town: A recovering cocaine addict goes more out of control than when she was using when her father takes control of her life in the hallucinatory dramedy. (Brazil)


11th 04 - 2016 | no comment »

Burden of Peace (Paz y Paz, 2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Joey Boink and Sander Wirken

32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

On many best documentary lists, including the 2014 and 2016 Academy Awards nomination lists, were The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), both of which deal with the Indonesian death squads that brutally murdered more than a million people in the mid 1960s. Both films are very painful to watch, but it is even more painful to contemplate the depths of depravity and utter heartlessness to which human beings can sink. It’s downright crazy-making to know that anti-communist, anti-unionist, and anti-leftist ideology was used as an excuse for the machinelike decapitations and hackings of hundreds of human beings at a time, and that the murderers credited the United States with teaching them to hate communists.

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Burden of Peace tells another such story in another part of the world—Guatemala. Perhaps it should not have surprised me that these same ideologies were behind the genocide of 200,000 Mayan people, from babies to old men, the destruction of more than 450 Mayan villages, and the displacement of more than 1 million people during the 1990s and early 2000s—but it did. One survivor said that the killings were with an economic purpose: a hydroelectric power plant and mining operations are now cranking at full steam on stolen land from which the original inhabitants were, ahem, removed. The Guatemalan military government that ordered the killings had the full support of the United States.

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It is a miracle that the heroine of Burden of Peace, Claudia Paz y Paz (Peace and Peace), was appointed Guatemala’s first female attorney general. Paz y Paz became a dedicated human rights activist during her time working with Roman Catholic archbishop Juan José Gerardi, who was symbolically murdered in 1998 with a rock to the skull after he named names to a UN commission investigating human rights violations. As attorney general, she set about purging her office of incompetent and corrupt functionaries and then massed an impressive record of successful prosecutions of everyone from crime lords to corrupt officials. It was when she started to target the military leaders who engineered the Mayan genocide that she finally became a painful enough thorn to the country’s power elite to warrant removal.

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Dutch filmmakers Boink and Wirten give us the lay of the land prior to Paz y Paz’s installation as attorney general, with pictures of the murdered and missing among the Mayans, dead bodies from gangland slayings and gang disputes, and frightened Guatemalans standing by helplessly as the police and government officials fail them. Then they follow Paz y Paz around as she is driven in what must be an armored SUV to and from her office in Guatemala City and conducts investigations, staff performance reviews, and victim interviews. She doesn’t complain about her exhaustion or the difficulties of trying to get her job done in the face of so much corruption; she finds people willing to work honestly alongside her to try to get the rule of law off life support. She has a picture of former U.S Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on her office wall to give her inspiration. Her objective is to give the people of Guatemala hope and confidence in a system that has been broken for nearly 40 years during the country’s lengthy civil war and numerous military coups and dictatorships. Her most important case, and the centerpiece of the film, is the prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt, president of Guatemala during the genocide.

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There is something about her that makes one breathe easier. She has an open, caring face and an obvious intelligence and determination. The film luxuriates in her presence, lulling one into thinking everything will turn out well despite the formidable obstacles. Thus, it is a real shock when Boink and Wirten turn to one of her most vociferous detractors, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, whose father served in Ríos Montt’s government during the genocide. His Foundation Against Terrorism represents the business elite and the military establishment, and he publishes tracts and blogs that denigrate her and accuse her of ignoring ordinary crime to advance her ideological war against the state. He says, “She may be charming with her soft voice, and you may think ‘O poor, little fatty.’ But she is incapable of being the attorney general. She comes from a different world, the world of human rights.” If your jaw just dropped, join the club. The thinking behind these statements and the insulting, racist comments that come from the defense attorneys for Ríos Montt left me dumbstruck.

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The trial is both fascinating and deeply depressing, as Mayan villagers come one by one to the witness stand to testify to what they saw, brutality beyond description but crucial to the trial’s outcome. A victory that becomes a defeat is to follow, and then Paz y Paz finds herself accused of impropriety in office and facing an early ouster. She knows that the establishment intends to undo all she has done, return the crime bosses to the five regions from which they had been eradicated, install more corrupt, incompetent police and prosecutors. Perhaps another genocide is in the offing. I left this film feeling deeply disheartened and pessimistic about the human race, let alone Guatemala. But then I read on about Guatemala post-Paz y Paz—a corrupt president was forced to resign. I hope Claudia Paz y Paz, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and beacon for human rights around the world, knows that her legacy endures.

Burden of Peace screens Monday, April 11 at 6 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

I Swear I’ll Leave This Town: A recovering cocaine addict goes more out of control than when she was using when her father takes control of her life in the hallucinatory dramedy. (Brazil)


7th 04 - 2016 | 2 comments »

I Swear I’ll Leave This Town (Prometo um dia deixar essa cidade, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Daniel Aragão

32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Chicago Latino Film Festival premiered in the meaning-loaded year of 1984, and numerous films it has presented over the years have turned the tables on the all-controlling Big Brother, as filmmakers cast a bright light on political, social, and economic realities all over Latin America, as well as communicate the unique cultures of Latino communities around the world for interested audiences. Brazil is a country that will get its glaring place in the sun with this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio; I Swear I’ll Leave This Town offers an indirect, but pungent look at the social and political shenanigans that likely are afoot at this very moment.

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I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is set not in Rio, but in Renife, the home town of the film’s director and a big city that sounds like the Brazilian equivalent of Chicago. It has more than 3.7 million people in its metropolitan area and is a port city that gets its name from the stone reefs that line the city shores. Those reefs provide a metaphor for the stone wall the film’s main protagonist, Joli Dornelles (Bianca Joy Porte), hits up against as she tries to start her life over after a long stint in rehab for a severe cocaine addiction.

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The film’s opening scene shows a nude Joli trying to escape from the hospital, fighting two guards, and eventually turning a fire extinguisher on them before being subdued. As he looks on a straitjacketed Joli, who insists she’s cured, the medical director (Luis Carlos Miéle) decides to curse her by granting her wish to leave and predicts that she’ll be back sooner rather than later. Like all addicts, the worst possible scenario for recovery is to return to the milieu in which they were using—and, of course, that’s exactly what happens to Joli.

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Joli’s boyfriend, Hugo (Sérgio Marone), fetches her by private helicopter and returns her to her well-heeled politico father, Antonio (Zécarlos Machado). Even though he must have expected her arrival, Antonio and the throng of people gathered on the expansive lawn of his modernist estate for a party treat her like a pariah. He gives her the toughest-love greeting I’ve seen in many a day and orders her to be on call whenever needed to help his campaign to become mayor of Renife.

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Every attempt Joli makes to start her life over outside the orbit of her father is dashed before it really starts. He makes sure she loses her job at a restaurant, and when he finds a spoon her friend Manuela (Ana Moreira) brought over to her apartment to cook crack in, he rejects her honest pleas of innocence and has a thug drug her with a tranquilizer. She wakes up in his house. From that moment on, virtually every move Joli makes is controlled by her father, from making commercials to support his candidacy, to accepting Hugo’s marriage proposal, to heading up a recovery program for drug addicts from poor neighborhoods.

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Director Aragão has created a free-wheeling, hallucinatory tale that peers inside the kaleidoscope of corruption, sexism, hypocrisy, and classism that characterizes parts of Brazilian politics and society. In today’s atmosphere of celebrity confession and public absolution, Joli could be seen as an indulged brat whose every fall will be cushioned, but her only real privilege was to be shunted away for medical treatment instead of locked in prison when the pain of her life had her reaching for a coke spoon. The depths of her enslavement to her ambitious father are truly horrifying to witness from the inside. Antonio wouldn’t know what to do if she were ever really well, and his role as saboteur seems perfectly in character with his self-serving, snobbish attempts to solve Renife’s problems by obliterating the riff raff and building luxury condos and retail stores on top of their ashes. He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to undo a damaging remark Joli made on live television, nor does Hugo, when he punches her out after she starts laughing uncontrollably following a hand job she forces on him. Indeed Hugo’s engagement to Joli seems pretty darn close to a proxy marriage to Antonio. In the end, her only defense against her father and Hugo and is to slip their bonds by going insane. Joli descends into catatonia, and Antonio agrees to have her brought around through the barbarity of electroshock therapy. It would have been better for him if he’d left her staring mute and motionless into space, but what fun is it to torture someone who can’t react.

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Aragão thoroughly scrambles Joli’s world, plunging the audience into her sense of disorientation along with her as his brilliantly variable camera roams freely and his narrative becomes unhinged. Joli’s sexual activities and provocations, including a lengthy masturbation scene and a humorous attempted seduction of her auto mechanic, are reminiscent of the anarchic sexual freedoms found in the Brazilian classic Macunaíma (1969). In general, the film seems energized in the same way as many of the politically and socially provocative films of the Cinema Novo movement that Aragão says influenced his approach to I Swear I’ll Leave This Town. Bianca Joy Porte does most of the heavy lifting in this film, and her magnetic performance deservedly won her a best actress award at the 2014 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival.

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I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is a confusing and often disturbing experience, but it’s also a funny, exhilirating tribute to the power of the oppressed to survive. To those who break the rules for their own gain, be forewarned—what goes around comes around.

I Swear I’ll Leave This Town screens Saturday, April 9 at 8 p.m. and Monday, April 11 at 8 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.


15th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

Nothing in Return (A Cambio de Nada, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Daniel Guzmán

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you liked The 400 Blows (1959), then I have a feeling you’re really going to want to catch Nothing in Return. Just as The 400 Blows was François Truffaut’s first feature film, so, too, does Spanish actor Daniel Guzmán make his feature directorial debut with Nothing in Return. Both films have an energetic boy from a troubled home who likes to steal at their center, and both end on an indeterminate, but hopeful note. Most important, both are incredible looks at growing up.

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The central character in Nothing in Return is Darío (Miguel Herrán), a 13-year-old boy who, with his best friend, Luis Miguel, nicknamed Luismi (Miguel Herrán), enjoys speeding around Madrid on a motorcycle, shoplifting, peeping at their neighbor Alicia (Patricia Santos) as she showers, and watching TV while Luismi’s tiny dog tries to hump Darío’s larger dog. Darío’s parents (María Miguel and Luis Tosar) are separated and preparing to divorce, and both are pressuring their son to testify at their divorce trial. Darío is failing all of his classes at school, though as a very skilled and incessant liar, he has convinced his parents he’s acing everything. Instead of school, his preference is to “work” at a motorcycle chop shop for its shady, but entertaining proprietor, Justo (Felipe García Vélez), who fails to pay him and everyone else for the parts they supply him.

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Darío is a dervish of energy whose open, easy way with people endears him to Justo and Antonia (Antonia Guzmán, the director’s grandmother), an elderly woman he meets one night collecting junk off the streets in her ancient pick-up truck to sell at a flea market. When his parents visit the school at the request of the principal (Miguel Rellán) and learn how badly Darío is doing, they start arguing bitterly about who is to blame. Darío runs off and asks Justo to take him in. When Justo fills his head with notions that he can make some real money coming into Justo’s business, Darío drops out of school. Unfortunately, Justo is arrested, and Darío moves in with Antonia until he can come up with the money to pay a lawyer to represent Justo. The rest of the film centers on Darío’s plan to finance Justo’s defense.

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Guzmán has written a teeming, confident script that he directs with vitality. He is blessed with a uniformly terrific cast who know exactly who their characters are and are able to project their personalities indelibly, even if they have very little screen time. Herrán, whom Guzmán frequently shoots in close-up, is a delightful, but vulnerable boy, almost excessively open to any positive emotions. Watch him as he listens with an ever-widening grin to a pitch-perfect García Vélez spin his tough-guy tales and make himself a hero and fount of wisdom in the boy’s eyes. One scene where this plays particularly well is when Justo confronts a man with a motorcycle. He pretends to the boys he is going to clean the guy’s clock, but asks him after they are out of sight whether he’d be interested in a nice set of saddlebags for the bike. The next time we see the man, he is laying in the street, fulfilling his end of the bargain, as Justo drives past with the boys.

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Antonia is another piece of work—an old lady whose surprising toughness mixes with a tenderness for Darío, who helps ease her loneliness. She is amazed when Darío turns up some new furniture during a junking expedition, not realizing he is stealing it from the lobby of a plush apartment building. When she is stopped by a cop for having a couch extending past the bed of her truck, we learn she’s been driving for five years without a license. That seems a fairly common practice in Madrid, as Darío has been doing the same without incident.

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The most affecting relationship is between Darío and Luismi. They comprise a young, Spanish Laurel and Hardy, with Luismi’s girth a frequent target of Darío’s insults, though there isn’t a single hurt feeling between them. They share their mutual horniness and belief in their sexual prowess as they try to hire a hooker and accept that “later” will never come for Luismi to drive the motorcycle instead of Darío. During the first shoplifting expedition we see, Darío steals exactly the same red sweatshirt and sunglasses for each of them, forming a wonderful image of solidarity between them. Neither boy ever lets the other down, and Darío’s screams of “Luismi, Luismi, Luismi!” when he’s about to be arrested but is worried only about his friend testifies to the depth of their relationship.

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The film’s title, Nothing in Return, could refer to any number of things, but for me, it signifies the truly selfless nature of Darío’s behavior, even though his actions cross the legal line. When, at last, he tells the truth of his life in a courtroom in a quickly spoken, short declaration, it provides an object lesson to everyone who thinks their children are “just fine” during divorce proceedings.

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I’m a bit in awe of how much action and clever, revealing dialogue Guzmán packs into a 93-minute running time, reminiscent of the great screwball comedies of 1930s Hollywood. There are numerous set-pieces in the film, but they build naturally from conversations and happenstance and don’t draw attention to themselves as moments of directorial conceit. Nothing in Return is a very funny and warm film that delivers its lessons with a light, but resolute touch. It’s an excellent example of the great new films coming out of Spain.

Nothing in Return screens Thursday, March 17 at 8 p.m. and Friday, March 18 at 8p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Daniel Guzmán will attend both screenings.

Previous coverage

Free Entry: A tale of friendship and coming of age set at a rock festival in Budapest boasts natural, fresh performances from its two female leads, not to mention some great music. (Hungary)

One Floor Below: Another tale of personal disharmony inflected by the past from Romanian New Wave director Radu Muntean, this film brilliantly explores the conflicts experienced by an ordinary man who withholds information in a murder investigation. (Romania)

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


11th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

Free Entry (aka One Day of Betty, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Yvonne Kerékgyártó

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One type of film I’ve charted through my own experience is the coming of age of a teenage girl. Having been a teenage girl myself, I remember the films that attracted me during those exciting years—the quite appalling Where the Boys Are (1960) and the touching The Trouble with Angels (1966). A vestige of personal interest in these films remained when I was in my 20s and made a minor religion out of visiting and revisiting Valley Girl (1983) and Mystic Pizza (1988). Since then, my need for such films has abated as my interest in them as a film critic has grown up along with the subgenre. I’ve been pleased to see such films tackle a more diverse array of stories that cross into other genres—horror (Heathers [1988], Ginger Snaps [2000]), mystery (The Virgin Suicides [1999]), and biopic (The Runaways [2010]). Despite the quality and relative success of these films, Hollywood seems to have abandoned the teenage girl. The best such films I’ve seen lately have come from Europe, including the exuberant “buddy” film We Are the Best! (2013, Sweden), the tough gang drama Girlhood (2014, France), and the film under consideration here, Free Entry, from Hungary.

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Free Entry, the feature film debut of Yvonne Kerékgyártó, is something of a breakthrough for Hungarian filmmakers as a whole. The movie’s life began in 2011 with a no-budget shoot that eventually yielded five 5-minute web episodes that formed the series FreeEntry (2012). The series won awards, including a monetary prize that allowed Kerékgyártó to expand the concept into a feature film. In the process, she became the first Hungarian filmmaker to receive federal funds for postproduction and DCP creation. With a high-quality DCP to submit to film festivals, Kerékgyártó’s small movie about two friends who start breaking the bonds of childhood after they sneak off to a music festival has found its way to audiences all over the world.

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Doughy-faced 16-year-old Betty (Luca Pusztai) is introduced sulking alongside her single dad (Róbert Kardos) as he drives her to meet her friend V (Ágnes Barta) at a Budapest train station and urges her to comb her punk-style hair. The girls have a cover story about going to the country together to visit a relative of V’s. Instead, they stash their luggage at the station and head to the annual Sziget Festival held on a North Budapest island in the Danube River. They make a stop at the apartment of Wolf, (Péter Sándor), a friend of Betty’s brother, who gives them some marijuana to sell.

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V looks more mature and thinks every man is hot for her, though her aggressive advances and Lolita sunglasses pretty much force a response. Betty is more businesslike and responsible, disliking V’s flirtations and the guys she picks up. Eventually, she gets tired of V’s antics and tries to do her job selling Wolf’s weed. Two security guards become suspicious, examine her entry bracelet, find it is a forgery, and evict Betty from the premises. With this separation, V and Betty make their own discoveries that turn their reunion the next day into something of a triumph for them both.

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Kerékgyártó shot Free Entry at the real Sziget Festival, and though her cast held to a tight, well-rehearsed script, Kerékgyártó’s roaming camera picks up every nuance of a music festival, from the overflowing trash cans to the spontaneous dancing and singing that add to the authenticity and joy of the presentation. When Betty finds a cellphone in a port-a-let and realizes it belongs to someone she knows—someone who is with one of the girls’ favorite bands (and one friendly to the film’s director)—Kerékgyártó is able to film backstage and capture Betty and V’s excitement at receiving such special treatment. At other moments, the girls join the rest of the crowd jumping up and down, waving and shouting, as such groups as Hungarian alt-rock band Quimby and South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord entertain the festival goers.

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The easy rapport between Pusztai and Barta makes the friendship of their characters completely believable. It is very true that opposites often become friends, balancing each other’s tendencies and teaching each other lessons in behaving responsibly or running loose. I was quite reminded of the dynamic between Angela (Claire Danes) and Rayanne (A. J. Langer), from the late-lamented TV series My So-Called Life (1994-95)—the former dreamy and intense, the latter flamboyant, reckless, and a budding alcoholic. Indeed, Betty and V do an awful lot of drinking in this film, which scared me just a bit while reminding me how much excessive drinking is a time-honored rite of passage that I, too, indulged.

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Another time-honored tradition of youth is acting before thinking. Although they plan to be at the festival all week, neither girl has thought to bring a tent or extra clothing for the cold nights ahead. The only food they have is a melon that Betty has to bash on a rock to open. After the girls get separated, V wanders through the tent city of festival goers looking for a place to sleep. Her anxieties surface in an effectively confusing, nightmarish scene as she comprehends how vulnerable she really is in a sea of strangers and an altered state of mind—the girls took a hallucinogen with two boys they met. Betty, on the other hand, starts for home, but eventually ends up at Wolf’s. Perhaps because of his name, she grabs his guitar and very competently sings Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’s “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” in one of the most original scenes of its type I’ve ever seen.

There’s nothing terribly revelatory or ground-breaking about Free Entry, but it gets my full endorsement because it so brilliantly and realistically captures a crucial moment in time that escapes us all too quickly.

Free Entry screens Sunday, March 13 at 5 p.m. and Thursday, March 17 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

One Floor Below: Another tale of personal disharmony inflected by the past from Romanian New Wave director Radu Muntean, this film brilliantly explores the conflicts experienced by an ordinary man who withholds information in a murder investigation. (Romania)

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


7th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The opening scene of master Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean’s new film, One Floor Below, is deceptively simple. Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban) is in a Bucharest park running off some extra pounds and throwing sticks for his dog, Jerry, to retrieve. Their play is interrupted when Sandu hears someone tell another man to put his dog on a leash; the dog is aggressive and could tear another dog apart. Sandu steps over to meet the barking dog and says, “I used to have a pit bull like that,” to which the dog’s master responds, “So you’ve got yourself a teddy bear now.” Sandu replies that “it was a bargain,” but what kind and with whom remains a mystery. In this one brief scene, Muntean has laid out the personality of his central character, a man whose darker instincts and need for self-protection under the repressive Communist regime have abated, but not disappeared.

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Of all of the great filmmakers who formed the Romanian New Wave, Muntean is perhaps my favorite. He has found an understated, seemingly effortless technique for combining the personal and the political in a way that illuminates both. He dramatized in a surprisingly leisurely style the behavior of a small group of soldiers and some ordinary people on the extraordinary day in 1989 when dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown in The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) that brought the absurdity and tragedy of those lost years into laser focus. His portrayal of a disintegrating marriage in Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) offered a probing look at the emotional violence that simmered under the surface of the newly free country. With One Floor Below, we gain insight into the effects of the police state on the Romanian people and the still-yawning gulf of misunderstanding that lingers.

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Sandu, his wife Olga (Oxana Moravec), and their son Matei (Ionut Bora) are a modern happy family. Sandu and Olga run a business together helping people cut through the red tape of vehicle registration and licensing and share parental concern and responsibilities for their precocious 12-year-old son, who, of course, spends most of his time playing video games and posting online. They host a small family gathering to celebrate the birthday of Sandu’s mother (Tatiana Iekel), and Sandu gathers regularly with his buddies to watch sports on TV—one night, when they seem distracted, Olga threatens to change the channel to “Romania’s Got Talent.”

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Sadly for Sandu, he has the misfortune to return to his apartment building while his unseen first-floor neighbor, Laura (Maria Popistasu), is arguing with a man inside her apartment about a trip she is taking with her sister to Italy. Instead of going straight up the stairs to his home on the third floor, he listens at the door. Just then, the man emerges; it is his married second-floor neighbor, Valentin Dima (Iulian Postelnico). Sandu hurries away. The next day, Laura is found dead in her apartment. When the police come by to investigate, Sandu mentions nothing of the argument.

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It’s not hard to sympathize with Sandu. He has a great life after years of deprivation, and all he wants to do is get on with it. He never asked to be involved in a murder investigation—he only knew Laura to say hello to, after all—but here he is sitting on some explosive information. Worse, Dima seems to be going out of his way to get close to Sandu and his family, asking Sandu to help change the registration on his car, playing video games with Matei, offering Matei and Olga advice on how to upgrade their computer system, even accepting a plate of food from Olga. What’s his game? Why won’t he give Sandu his wish and go away?

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One Floor Below interrogates the secrets and lies that grease the wheels of every society. In the context of a repressive society, it’s not hard to imagine Sandu and people like him listening in on private conversations, if not to inform the secret police, then to ensure they avoid associating with people who could prove dangerous to them. It’s also reasonable to assume that Sandu would be reluctant to share information with the police out of simple conditioning. Corban had me believing in Sandu’s goodness through his carefully built signs of a guilty conscience. Sandu loses his appetite, defends Laura’s honor to his friends who assume she was a slut who got what she deserved based on nothing but their need to gossip and have an answer to her murder, and mumbles painful condolences when he runs into Laura’s sister, also played by Popistasu, trying to get inside Laura’s mailbox.

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But he is also timid, a man who could lose the confidence of his neighbors and the clients on whom he relies for his living if he “turns informer” to tell the truth of what he heard. Muntean is careful to show the extent of the bureaucracy that envelops even something as benign as the department of motor vehicles. Romania may not be a dictatorship anymore, and secret police may not be around every dark corner, but the mechanics of that society are still in place. Nobody of a certain age—certainly not Sandu—has forgotten, and it is the silence that results from living in such conditions that intrigues Dima, a young man who would have been a mere child when Ceauşescu’s regime fell.

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Of course, it’s hard to forget that this kind of conspiracy of silence is exactly what allowed the atrocities of Ceauşescu, Stalin, Hitler, and many others to begin and continue. Despite our sympathy for Sandu, we can’t forget that self-interest is to blame for so much injustice in the world. Perhaps justice for one woman isn’t worth misery for an entire family. Perhaps the police will find the killer anyway. The brief catharsis that Sandu experiences feels good for him and for us, but the ultimate price may prove to be too high. As Romania continues to build as a nation, Muntean offers its people thought-provoking scenarios through which to build their social conscience as well.

One Floor Below screens Sunday, March 20 at 5:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


3rd 03 - 2016 | no comment »

Latin Lover (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Cristina Comencini

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The movie industry trades in all types for all tastes. Among male matinee idols, you have your blond-haired, blue-eyed men with boyish good looks (Tab Hunter, Brad Pitt), your frail, poetic, doomed types (Leslie Howard, Robert Pattinson), and your approachable sophisticates (Cary Grant, George Clooney). No matter what flavor you prefer, what’s great about matinee idols is that they are meant to delight, to provide us with enjoyment and vicarious romance. Taking the image of the matinee idol too seriously would ruin the pleasurable escape they provide when we need a vacation from our lives.

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This featherweight quality also makes them perfect targets for satire. It is in this spirit that a large raft of women in the film industry—director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini, coscreenwriter Giulia Calenda, and a bevy of actresses, including the great Virna Lisi in her last performance—came together to create Latin Lover, a spoof on the type of smoldering lothario that gives the film its title.

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The Latin lover in question is Saverio Crispo (Francesco Scianna), an Italian movie star whose serial infidelities stretched across Europe and the United States, leaving many broken hearts and attractive children in his wake. Saverio has been dead for 10 years, and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in his home town has his Spanish second wife, Ramona (Marisa Paredes), and his five acknowledged daughters gathering at the home of his Italian first wife, Rita (Lisi), to attend the ceremony and festivities surrounding it.

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Oldest daughter Susanna (Angela Finocchiaro) is the somewhat neurotic head of the Crispo Foundation, which is dedicated to keeping the star’s film legacy alive. She hides her relationship with Walter (Neri Marcorè), Saverio’s film editor and her long-time fiance, from the rest of the family for somewhat obscure reasons and refuses to allow him to come to the house or walk with her. B-list actress and full-blown neurotic Stephanie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), Saverio’s illegitimate second daughter with his French wardrobe mistress, arrives with her half-black Moroccan son, Saverio, whom she delusionally insists resembles his namesake around the eyes. Ramona and her daughter, Segunda (Candela Peña), whose name proclaims her to be the actual second daughter of Saverio, shows up with Segunda’s sons (another Saverio among them), and her husband, Alfonso (Jordi Mollà), who immediately starts putting the moves on Solveig (Pihla Viitala), Saverio’s Swedish daughter. Near the end of the film, Saverio’s American daughter, Shelley (singing star Nadeah Miranda), also arrives.

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It’s hard to keep the players straight, at least during the opening scenes of the film, but eventually, the nonstop introduction of characters and polyglot dialogue mostly comes to an end and their personalities start to shine. Of course, jealousy rears its ugly head, as Ramona vents her hostilities toward the “American slut” who gave birth to Shelley and anyone else who stole Saverio’s affections from her, while Rita nods sympathetically but with a more generous attitude toward the women who found Saverio irresistible. Solveig tries to resist Alfonso out of sisterly solidarity, but her thermostat seems permanently set at hot to trot where he is concerned. A mournful-looking Stephanie bears her relatives’ slights with exaggerated winces, self-deprecating asides, and frequent phone calls to her shrink in Paris. Intrigue is stirred when Saverio’s stunt double, Pedro (Lluís Homar), shows up, and Ramona and Rita work hard to keep him away from a writer (Claudio Gioè) who is working on a life of Saverio.

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The actors work off each other with exquisite timing and broad emotional interplay, turning what is largely a sex farce into a breezy comic masterpiece that compares favorably with Alain Resnais’ final masterwork Life of Riley (2014). The old masters, Lisi and Paredes, offer brilliant portrayals of women who adhere to the non-Bechtel-approved roles of the sexes; Paredes especially seems the very image of a nonliberated woman until she reveals that she has found her freedom from the torments of love in a rather unusual way. The sisters seem resigned to multiple marriages and unfaithful husbands, as befits their generation, and argue more over the lack of a fatherly presence in their lives. Shelley even reveals that she thought Saverio would instantly know who she was on their first meeting, only to discover he had no clue and merely wanted to jump her bones.

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I was captivated by Toni Bertorelli, who plays Picci, an old chum of Saverio’s from their home town who shares his memories of his famous friend whenever possible in endlessly boring fashion. But it is Homar who nearly walks off with the picture as the ruggedly handsome oldster who can still spin a gun like a Wild West performer, chase down a nosy photographer and sniff out his hiding place, and cry like a baby at the thought of his “workmate,” Saverio.

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In the final analysis, however, the beating heart of Latin Lover is Saverio himself. Comencini opens the film with a full-frame picture of the actor and then pans out to watch a worker walk the photo blow-up to the theatre where a film tribute to him will be held. A quick review of his career via the reminiscences of Picci show him performing in every kind of film imaginable, from Hollywood musicals and beach bum films to spaghetti westerns and neorealist dramas. The various clips and the very structure of Latin Lover call to mind some of the greats of Italian cinema, from Federico Fellini and Sergio Leone to Pietro Germi and Mario Monicelli. The final montage of Saverio images reveals that the women and men who realized no peace with who he was as a man found their greatest fulfillment in worshipping him as their ultimate matinee idol. Latin Lover is a superb comedy with heart that shows Italian cinema still has a great deal to offer, with or without its Latin lovers.

Latin Lover screens Saturday, March 5 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, March 8 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. A reception follows the Tuesday screening in honor of International Women’s Day.

Previous coverage

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


1st 03 - 2016 | no comment »

How to Stop a Wedding (Hur man stoppar ett bröllop, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Drazen Kuljanin

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I always find directorial debuts interesting for what they tell me about the state of filmmaking and the mindset of budding filmmakers. The first-time feature director of How to Stop a Wedding, Drazen Kuljanin, was 34 when he made this film from his own screenplay. Like many freshman efforts, the film was done on the cheap, using only two actors and shooting with a Canon C300 handheld digital camera. Settings are borrowed—someone’s apartment, a nightclub, a train, and a train station and its immediate environs. It also relates a “tell what you know” personal story about a young man and young woman sharing the same train compartment who are traveling from Malmö to Stockholm to break up the weddings of their former sweethearts. The twist is that they learn they are planning to stop the same wedding.

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Kuljanin shorthands Amanda’s (Lina Sundén) break-up by showing her and her former boyfriend arguing briefly in their apartment and then switching to a nightcub and Amanda crying in the bathroom. Kuljanin places large, black frames around these brief scenes, perhaps suggesting that we are watching them on a cellphone, but certainly giving the impression of constriction. The rest of the film takes place on the train.

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When Philip (Christian Ehrnstén) boards, Amanda is asleep in a corner seat. He awakens her and tells her she is in his seat. Although Amanda says she gets motion sickness if she has to sit backwards, he stands his ground because he, too, can’t sit backwards. She tries to sleep in one of the forward-facing seats, but can’t get comfortable without a wall to lean against. She moves to the seat facing him and promptly gets up to vomit. Perhaps in retaliation, she lets him tell his tale of woe without letting him know that his former girlfriend is her best friend—well, perhaps not best, since she is marrying the love of Amanda’s life. Soon, she is sharing a bit about her relationship with the man she still loves and, now, passionately hates.

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There are few films that are set almost entirely on a train, the most notable being Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952), a suspenseful noir filled with murder and mayhem. Kuljanin’s film offers no such drama, so he resorts to sex and visual tricks to keep us engaged. His film starts rather annoyingly with a look at Amanda’s naked boyfriend, certainly original in that we don’t get an actual sex scene or a naked woman, but nonetheless a gimmick to engage us immediately. His framing and effects also seek to keep us engaged, using a horizontal split screen to shoot a conversation between Philip and Amanda that avoids the usual two-shot approach but adds nothing to the presentation, and shooting through windows to obscure his characters with arty blurs and reflections. He also scrambles the chronology of the lengthy sex on the train scene that occupies most of the final fourth of the short, 72-minute film, again seemingly for the sake of doing something different with what’s becoming a tired cliché of modern filmmaking.

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Kuljanin should have just trusted his script and his gifted, committed actors. The dialogue is fresh, with just the right amount of combativeness and an enormous amount of honesty that is the most original part of the film. Philip’s plan to win back his love is to imitate the cue card scene between Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln in Love Actually (2003); Amanda, who, to Philip’s amazement, has never seen the film, savages his idea for the ridiculous Hollywood device it is. She further taunts him by describing his girlfriend in a generic sense and wondering why men fall so hard for women like her, but ending with a reference to her “cupcake earrings” that reveals she’s known all along whom Philip is pining for. She believes they need to speak from the heart, so Amanda and Philip film each other on Amanda’s cellphone as they rehearse what they plan to say at the wedding. Sundén’s wrenching monlogue is devastating to watch and feels utterly spontaneous. Ehrnstén’s dialogue is more contained, but spurred by his acting partner’s vulnerability, he also finds Philip’s authentic voice amid his reaching for Hollywood clichés. If it weren’t for these two powerful moments, I would not have believed the energetic sex scene that follows Amanda’s seductive dance to the music pouring from her phone.

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Indeed, Kuljanin’s scenario offers an absorbing look at the unnamed third character in the film—the cellphone. Technology is lifeblood to today’s youth. Although Amanda leaves her suitcase on the platform in Malmö with “everything,” she says, her phone was tucked neatly into her pocket, part of her second skin. Shooting cellphone frames to start the film and using the phone for everything from making calls to making videos and music—these actions show how integral technology is in helping the millennial generation express their feelings and share their views.

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Ultimately, however, Kuljanin affirms the importance of real contact, not only by ending his film with sex but also when Amanda offers her arm to Philip as a place to write his phone number instead of storing it in her phone. The emotional basis of How to Stop a Wedding is reaffirmed and the possibility of living to love another day a hope Kuljanin shares with his audience. While How to Stop a Wedding shows the relative inexperience of its director, it should find a grateful, enthusiastic audience who needs to see it.

How to Stop a Wedding screens Saturday, March 26 at 4:15 p.m. and Monday, March 28 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Drazen Kuljanin will attend the screenings.

Previous coverage

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


28th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

Anton Chekhov 1890 (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: René Féret

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

On April 28, 2015, actor/director/screenwriter René Féret died, less than a month shy of his 70th birthday. Féret is something of a mystery to moviegoers outside of France; his only directorial effort to have gained widespread distribution is Mozart’s Sister (2011), a fictional imagining of the largely unrecorded life of composer and pianist Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) Mozart, lost in the shadow of her brother as her sexist father pushed him to the forefront, and without a single extant work to her name. Mozart’s Sister was the first film Féret made about a famous person, but his directorial oeuvre is filled with autobiographical works and stories that revolve around families, and he frequently casts members of his own family in them. Anton Chekhov 1890, his final film as a director, encapsulates many of his interests with his distinctly French point of view.

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Unlike Nannerl Mozart, a great deal is known about Anton Chekhov, the towering Russian writer who is credited with helping to found the modernist movement in literature. His short stories were much admired by his countrymen, writer/artist/art critic Dmitri Grigorovich and legendary writer Leo Tolstoy. He was very close to his five siblings and mother, though he generally despised his Bible-thumping father, and brought the family under one roof when he became their sole financial benefactor. He was also a practicing physician all his life and loved a great many women while avoiding marriage until three years before his death from tuberculosis at age 44.

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Féret hews close to the facts of Chekhov’s life and chooses judiciously which elements to dramatize, beginning in 1890, when Chekhov is first approached by prominent publisher Alexei Suvorin to begin writing stories for his St. Petersburg newspaper, New Times, and ending with the first production of The Seagull in 1896. His approach to depicting that life gains inspiration from Chekhov’s naturalist approach to drama in his four timeless works, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

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Féret’s fortuitous choice to play Chekhov, Nicolas Giraud, is a handsome, quietly charismatic man much in the mold of the writer himself, the center of attention for the whole family. When Suvorin (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Grigorovich (Philippe Nahon) come in search of “Antosha Chekhonte,” whose short stories published in a small paper startled them with their originality, the family bands together to keep Anton under wraps until they can determine the pair’s intentions. Féret establishes in this opening scene of high spirits the particularly close bond between Chekhov and his sister, Masha (Lolita Chammah), and his four brothers, who all sleep together, two in bed and the rest on the floor.

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It is Anton’s bonds with brother Nikolai (Robinson Stévenin) and Masha that punctuate the turning points in Féret’s drama. Nikolai is a talented artist suffering from tuberculosis whom Anton persuades to abandon his dissolute life in St. Petersburg to come home, where he will illustrate Anton’s works and be cared for properly. Nikolai has the idea that he wants to visit a penal colony on the island of Sakhalin to view its living conditions, and makes Anton promise to travel with him. When Anton fails to prevent his brother’s death, he decides temporarily to give up writing—Féret has Giraud melodramatically toss a couple of manuscripts into the fireplace—and undertake the arduous two-month trip to Sakhalin. The result is the sociological treatise The Island of Sakhalin, published in 1893-94.

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Masha appears to be the true love of Chekhov’s life. She copies all of her brother’s works to be submitted to his publisher, is his confidante via correspondence about his life in Sakhalin, and is the person through whom Chekhov meets Lika Mizinova (Jenna Thiem), a woman in a loveless marriage with whom he has an affair. Although Lika’s love for Anton is unrequited, her parting words to him after his final rejection become part of Nina’s dialogue in The Seagull.

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Féret portrays the Chekhov circle as similar to the doomed families in his famous plays, emphasizing the consumptive Nikolai, the ardent romantic Lika, and Anna (Marie Féret), a teacher at Sakhalin who has shaved her head as an example to her lice-ridden students and, of course, fallen for the kind, flirtatious writer whose works she adores. At the same time, Féret offers a Francophile interpretation of their story. L’amour takes a very prominent place in the film, with Lika and Anton’s affair (and Thiem’s obligatory nude scenes) and Anna and Anton’s repressed affair consuming a fair amount of screen time.

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It appears Féret shot largely with natural lighting, and his DP, Virginie Surdej, makes the most of the candlelit interiors and natural landscapes. One scene where Anton interviews Sakhalin’s prisoners in what looks like an empty barn has them emerge from the shadows near the walls into the light coming through the door as Anton enters and sits at a desk recording their experiences, an effective visual metaphor for the revelations Chekhov will soon publish. Féret uses music only when filming action, which, to me, seemed like unnecessary filler to attract our gaze. The production is rather too pretty, a collection of well-appointed drawing rooms, picturesque estates, and spotless, fashionably dressed characters. Even the prisoners seemed to have carefully arranged rags and dirt.

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The Seagull was not a success when it premiered and didn’t gain recognition as a masterpiece until it was remounted in 1898. Féret doesn’t give us this information, preferring to allude to the radical transformation in acting styles that must have confused audiences by having Chekhov berate his actors during a rehearsal for their artificial line readings and melodramatic gestures. Of course, melodrama has fallen far out of favor, but I wonder whether Anton Chekhov 1890 might have benefited from a more passionately Russian approach similar to what John Huston achieved in sounding some very Irish notes in filming James Joyce’s, The Dead (1987)—a similar family affair that was the director’s last film. Regardless, Anton Chekhov 1890 is a well-crafted period piece that does justice to its subject.

Anton Chekhov 1890 screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Thursday, March 10 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


25th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

Home Care (Domácí péce, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Slávek Horák

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

If we live long enough, we will be confronted with the crisis known as middle age. Some middle-aged men live the cliché of ditching their longtime mates for someone younger with whom to start their second adolescence, but the vast majority of them simply choose to berate and abuse their partner to express their fear of aging and feelings of entrapment. Among middle-aged women, routine and manic activity often cover for their terror of being left alone and, more important, the feeling that they’ve wasted their lives conforming to society’s rules. Home Care, the debut feature of Czech director Slávek Horák, examines a self-sacrificing home care nurse who, compelled by personal calamity, looks for more out of life.

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Home Care opens with a static camera regarding an open green surrounded by trees. Some distance away, a deer moves into the frame and stops. After some moments, the camera shifts to Vlasta (Alena Mihulová), dressed all in beige and humping two large bags of medical supplies as she makes her way along the edge of the green to call on a patient, the first of several she will visit well into the night by foot and by bus. Her rounds can be difficult. A vicious dog bars her way at one home, and she has to fish a piece of meat out of her sandwich to distract him long enough to get inside. Another patient locks her in his bathroom to avoid getting an injection, forcing her to escape out the window.

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At home, Vlasta lives in passionless coexistence with her crusty husband, Láda (Bolek Polívka). Although the couple starts each morning with a comradely shot of slivovitz, Láda treats his wife like “twice the freight and half the fun” and embarrasses her in front of her sullen daughter, Marcela (Sara Venclovská), and Marcela’s boyfriend, Robert (played by director Horák). Láda often refuses to drive her to or from work, even when she’s missed the bus or the weather is foul, because he says they spend more on gas than she makes working for the impoverished Czech healthcare system.

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One day, as she’s hoofing it in a downpour, a neighbor offers her a ride on his motorcycle. Although she is reluctant to accept—his nickname is “Speedy”—she climbs aboard. They promptly crash. Speedy breaks several bones, but Vlasta suffers only minor lacerations. In the process of treating her injuries, however, the doctors discover that she is seriously ill. Vlasta does what many desperate people do—she seeks alternatives to the Western medicine she herself practices and starts demanding more from her life.

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The double meaning of the title Home Care signals the division in Vlasta’s life, dedicating herself to the care of others while neglecting the care she needs herself. Vlasta’s discontent and fate gained rather poetic expression when I realized that Horák means for us to associate Vlasta with the deer in the opening scene—similar in color, moving on foot, vulnerable. I initially wondered whether the deer would be shot by a hunter, but it is Vlasta who is in peril; when she goes into a deep trance during a session with a spiritual healer, she dreams that Láda has hit a doe on the road that transforms into Vlasta herself.

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The film’s view of spiritual healing is fairly standard-issue. Hanácková (Tatiana Vilhelmová), Vlasta’ dance teacher, has a wise-beyond-her-years quality and encourages her to brighten up her wardrobe, pamper herself, and believe in the power of touch when she warms a spoon with her hands, bends it, and hands it to Vlasta. Miriam (Zuzana Krónerová), the spiritualist, has Vlasta drink her own urine and bond with a dead tree to heal her soul. Vlasta’s outrage that none of their ministrations are aimed at curing her ironically kicks her back into her own life to take care of business and settle her feelings with her family.

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Mihulová and Polívka seem born to play husband and wife. Their alternately comic and callous behavior offers a very believable look at a wilted marriage, and their awkward return to each other is touching and also terribly sad for having come so late. The scenario also offers a realistic look at Czech home care, as Horák based some of the interactions between Vlasta and her patients on stories from his mother, a home care nurse herself. His affection for his characters comes through even when they are behaving at their worst, and shooting the film in his parents’ house, workshop, garden, and vineyard in his hometown of Zlin adds a sweet regard and comfort in the skillful environmental shooting. Some of the homey touches he brings to the film include the tradition of burying a bottle of slivovitz on the birth of a child and then digging it up to toast the child’s wedding, crooning folk songs, and forcing women to sit on towels to keep their ovaries warm. A touch of the much-beloved Czech absurdity can be found as road workers construct an underpass for frogs.

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Conventionality is not something I associate with Czech cinema, but Home Care’s story and execution are as safe as can be, which perhaps explains why the Czech Republic chose it as its official 2016 entry for the safely conventional Academy Awards. Nonetheless, Horák and his crack cast infuse this familiar story with humor and heart.

Home Care screens Saturday, March 12 at 8:15 p.m. and Tuesday, March 15 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


23rd 02 - 2016 | 11 comments »

Forbidden Films (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Felix Moeller

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Freedom of speech. Has there ever been a more slippery phrase in modern times? In 2015, French cartoonists exercising their free speech to lampoon Islam were gunned down by offended Muslim extremists, causing worldwide mourning and defiant support for their work; yet, a French comedian was arrested for hate speech for making comments that appeared to sympathize with the gunmen. Americans condemn the repressions of the Iranian state, which has banned writers, filmmakers, and activists, imprisoning and executing some of them; yet, in recent years, Americans have seen major suppression of demonstrations and the killing of citizens, most notoriously in Ferguson, Missouri. Moreover, in the name of free speech, billionaires are now able to spend unlimited amounts of money in U.S. elections on politicians they favor. If there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that free speech is neither universally understood nor universally available, even in countries where it appears to be a core belief.

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Film, of course, has a long history in the debate over free speech. From the Catholic Church to AMPAS and governments at all levels, films have come in for condemnation, censorship, and outright banning for everything from miscegenation of the races (Piccadilly [1929]) to sexuality (Kiss Me, Stupid [1964]). Implicit in these actions is the recognition—or fear—that films can be an effective tool for winning hearts and minds. As Hitler articulated in Mein Kampf:

One must also remember that of itself the multitude is mentally inert, that it remains attached to its old habits and that it is not naturally prone to read something which does not conform with its own pre-established beliefs when such writing does not contain what the multitude hopes to find there. … The picture, in all its forms, including the film, has better prospects. … In a much shorter time, at one stroke I might say, people will understand a pictorial presentation of something which it would take them a long and laborious effort of reading to understand.

With this assertion in mind, the Nazi Party included propaganda filmmaking in its plan, establishing a film department as early as 1930. Eventually, filmmaking was nationalized and administered by Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While only about 15 percent of the more than 1,000 films that were made in Germany from 1933 through 1945 were blatantly propagandistic, most films conformed to Goebbels’ Nazification program in some way.

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Today, Germany still grapples with its Nazi past, including how to deal with the hundreds of propaganda films that unified the people of the Third Reich so effectively behind its mission to become masters of the universe. Forbidden Films deals specifically with the 40 or so Nazi-era motion pictures that are still banned from unrestricted public viewing. Director Felix Moeller isn’t as interested in the films themselves as in the debate surrounding whether it would be wise to loose them upon the general public. Although Forbidden Films wends its way through some of the “genres” with which Nazi propagandists concerned themselves, including anti-British, anti-Polish, youth indoctrination, pro-euthanasia, and, of course, anti-Semitic, with each topic prefaced by a quote from Goebbels (e.g., “Film is the educational tool to teach our young people” for films meant to delegitimize parental guidance in favor of Nazi ideology), he’s more interested in the reactions of those who attended supervised screenings of these films in Germany, France, and Israel and discussed them afterward.

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Moeller consults a number of film scholars who foreground the films under discussion with their specific function and the elements that helped them work their magic on the movie-going public. Some films are blatant with their messages, which we see in the anti-Polish Homecoming (1941). Poles are shown discriminating against their German-minority population, climaxing with the gunning down of a family of five—an incredible act of projection that the Nazis used to justify their invasion of Poland. Homecoming fooled one German viewer, who said he never knew about the “merciless way that Poles terrorized minorities.”

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Other films, the scholars say, are more suggestive. The Rothschilds (1940), which takes fictionalized biography to new territory, reinforces with subtle, repeated phrases the notion of a global Jewish conspiracy to control the world by controlling its banks, ending with the admittedly not-so-subtle image of a Star of David formed by connecting the dots representing centers of Rothschild domination. An even more disguised propaganda film, the pro-euthanasia I Accuse (1941), was designed to make the public comfortable with the Nazi plan to murder 70,000 physically and mentally disabled Germans. The film concerns a woman afflicted with multiple sclerosis who begs her physician husband to end her life before the disease leaves her unrecognizable. Right-to-die groups operating today might take a lesson from its persuasive melodrama and the star power of Heidemarie Hatheyer as the wife. Indeed, I Accuse is only one of the films that skillfully used well-known stars for their marquee value and acting talent. In addition to Hatheyer, Goebbels employed Paula Wessely (Homecoming and other films), Emil Jannings (Uncle Kruger [1941] and other films) and Heinrich George (Kolberg [1945] and other films). Many of the viewers are surprised at how entertaining and well produced they are.

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The most notorious film Moeller takes on is Jew Süss (1940). Considered by many to be one of the most effective of the anti-Semitic films of the era, it takes place in the distant German past, during the 18th century reign of Duke Charles Alexander of Württemberg. The duke turns to Süss the Jew for financial help, and this allows Süss to infiltrate Christian society, where he subverts the rule of law and eventually rapes a Christian woman. The money-grubbing stereotype is paired with dangerous, lawless behavior to incite audiences and help them justify the persecution of Jews. A lot of money was spent on this film, and the high production values and quality performances and script made it a big hit.

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Most of what I know about Jew Süss is what I’ve read because Forbidden Films provides only excerpts of that film that are not particularly edifying about why it is so heinous. On the whole, however, the film handles its excerpting quite well, and I found particularly interesting the edited-out footage—swastikas, Hitler, tanks, and planes—of films that then went on to be shown in theatres and on TV after the war.

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Forbidden Films is hardly a well-crafted film itself. It opens somewhat inexplicably at a well-fortified storage facility for thousands of nitrate films. Apparently, the idea was to compare the flammable and explosive nature of nitrate with the incendiary nature of the banned films whose reel cans are displayed for Moeller’s camera. The audience discussions resemble C-SPAN televised lectures and discussions. Better are the individuals who are filmed outside the screening room for their take on what they have seen. These interviews go from unhelpful to illuminating: director Margarethe von Trotta, no doubt approached for her celebrity, adds nothing, while a French woman, interestingly, believes the films would be more dangerous in France, where the right-wing National Front is strong. Moeller also obscures the faces of two interviewees, former neo-Nazis, who offer little other than that these films were popular in their group and available through YouTube.

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Unsurprisingly, opinions about the continued restrictions on these films are varied. In Israel, one man thought they should be shown to every school child so they can be understood and rejected. A Holocaust survivor in Germany did not want them shown on TV, as had been proposed, whereas free-speech advocates believed that people should be allowed to make up their own minds. Some people castigated film fans for wanting them released just to satisfy their cinephilia, and one scholar felt that editing the films was tantamount to mutilation. Knowing how carefully these films were crafted to sway public opinion and how susceptible all of us are to being manipulated, I personally favor erring on the side of caution by offering them only for educational purposes. Forbidden Films is not a great film, but it can be a great facilitator of conversation.

Forbidden Films screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Wednesday, March 9 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.


12th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

The Last Rites of Joe May (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Joe Maggio

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Dennis Farina had one of the more unlikely routes to show business fame and fortune. A dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan, he spent nearly 20 years with the Chicago Police Department before he was elevated from acting as a consultant on Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) to performing a small role in the movie. Farina knocked around the Chicago theatre scene, garnering the support of his fellow cops, who came to see and cheer him on. Chicago actors were hot in the 1980s, and Farina was swept up in the talent scouting that took such stage actors as William Peterson, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Cole, John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise on to bigger and better things.

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Farina’s Sicilian-American mug and unmistakable working-class accent didn’t outfit him for romantic leads in Hollywood, so, unsurprisingly, he played a lot of cops and crooks. Indeed, Mann would return to Farina again, casting him as cops in the classic 1986 film Manhunter and the TV series Crime Story, and as a crime boss in the TV series Miami Vice. What I always appreciated about Farina’s approach to his characters was that he never overplayed their toughness. His real-life experience prevented him from hyping the potential threat his characters posed, allowing his natural gravity from having walked in those shoes do the talking for him. At the same time, he found something individual in each of them and understood the delusions and vulnerabilities that might drive a man to choose a tough-guy profession. I became startlingly aware of just how great an actor he had become after watching one of his last films, The Last Rites of Joe May.

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Joe May looks at a few weeks in the life of its title character (Farina), an aged short-money hustler of stolen goods who has just been released from the hospital after six weeks’ treatment for pneumonia. He must have been admitted in warmer weather, because the thin leather coat he wears is no match for the brutal dead of winter that greets him on his way back to his apartment in Little Italy, on the near West Side of Chicago. When he arrives, things look different. His belongings are missing, and signs that a child may be around (drawings on the refrigerator, frilly bedspread, toys) dot the apartment. Unexpectedly, he surprises a young woman in the shower. It seems Jenny Rapp (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter Angelina (Meredith Droeger) are living there; the landlord (Phil Ridarelli), thinking Joe died, rented the apartment out from under him and tossed all his belongings. A shocked Joe is next to be tossed by an equally shocked Jenny. Now homeless—even his ancient car has been ticketed as abandoned and towed away—Joe has nowhere to go and nothing to do but ride a bus until he is kicked off. One night, Jenny finds him shivering at her bus stop. She takes pity on him and offers him a room in the apartment. He immediately prepares to resume his “career” and get his life back on track.

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Farina plays May as a man who has followed his delusions all his life, believing he was destined to do something great and ruining his relationships with his family and friends in the process. His life has been self-centered, petty, careless. His old age is a betrayal of how he sees himself—vital, tough, charismatic, a force to be reckoned with. He rejects the advice of his friend Billy (Chelcie Ross) to move into a retirement community with him where he can socialize and relax. Joe’s life project is unfinished, he hasn’t achieved his potential yet, so relaxation is out of the question. The less Farina does, the more he says about May—his quiet determination and a mind racing to outpace the bad fortune that is overtaking him, but not knowing what to do.

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According to director/screenwriter Joe Maggio, he based the character of Joe May on the impoverished, displaced pensioner who is the title character of Vittorio de Sica’s classic drama Umberto D. (1952). Unlike Umberto D., Joe May never succumbs to pathos or melodrama. Farina’s May meets the world with bravado and refuses to let his belief in himself crumble. When he goes to see Lenny (Gary Cole), the fixer who fronts him the stolen goods he sells for a percentage of the take, Joe makes a big show for the drivers waiting outside for their hoodlum bosses to call, using what little money he has to hire a taxi and have the driver (Craig Bailey) open the door for him. Lenny’s contempt is palpable, but Joe is polite and controlled.

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Sure he is going to get back into the game, he finds that Lenny has fixed him up with a 50-lb. hunk of grassfed New Zealand lamb (“It sells itself.”). It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry as we watch Farina hump the slowly thawing meat all over town as one grocer after another throws him out on his ear. Farina shows varying shades of anger, exasperation, fatigue, and defiance as Maggio records a day of effort move into a night of failure. Joe loses his courtly ways with Lenny when he goes back to get some respect and spits venom at one of the drivers who tries to offer him some money to tide him over, a cruel act that Farina plays to rip some sympathy for Joe from our hearts. He’s not willing to give Joe a pass, even though we might be.

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His saving grace is the tenuous friendship he forms with Jenny and Angelina. Farina’s May is more embarrassed to see Jenny naked than she is shocked to see a stranger in her bathroom. Somehow, he finds it within himself to accept her charity, choosing to believe he can help with the rent, though he has barely a dollar to his name. He bristles at looking after Angelina when Jenny wants to have a romantic weekend away with her boyfriend, Stanley (Ian Barford), a Chicago cop; he was never around for his own son and doesn’t see himself doing “woman’s work.” He proves his inadequacy when he can’t even babysit Angelina properly, “losing” her when he dumps her at Billy’s rest home while he is trying to land a deal. Nonetheless, when he learns that Stanley beats Jenny up and intimidates her, he realizes that it’s finally time to square things with himself, to live up to his potential—which, surprisingly for him, is to do something for somebody else.

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Maggio’s script is very observant, very attuned to what happens to us when we find the world has passed us by before we are ready to go. Joe’s neighborhood bartender (Matt DeCaro) still fronts him a boilermaker from time to time, but the gentrifying neighborhood is now overrun with hipsters who look at Joe’s tavern as the perfect “old man” meet-up bar. One of the hipsters even tries to buy Joe’s leather jacket for its retro cool look, insulting its current owner. When Jenny and Angelina buy Joe a record player for the few opera records of his the landlord didn’t toss in the garbage, we know it’s come from a junk shop, a relatively worthless relic that still fits Joe’s present need.

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Maggio’s camera, lensed by Jay Silver, offers the real Chicago, far from the famous buildings, marquees, and lakefront that most films use as signifiers, a great tribute from a New York native who changed the location of the film from his city when he cast Farina. This film lingers on outside-the-Loop streets, underpasses, working-class residential neighborhoods, and meat-packing facilities. I’d almost say this film isn’t recognizably anywhere to people who don’t live here, but the presence of Farina and a raft of other Chicago actors gives the film a distinctive voice and vibe. A rap of the knuckles on a tabletop signifies thanks and recognition, short, plain-spoken sentences and expressive looks emphasize the understated staccato of a Chicago conversation, inadequate outerwear gets a matter-of-fact “That’s a little thin for the weather.”

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The Last Rites of Joe May is full of small, telling moments that paint a picture of a place, a time, and especially a man whose life amounted to something after all just in the telling of it. The film builds believably to its inevitable end, honestly earning Joe the respect he craved all of his life. Dennis Farina’s tour-de-force performance is an appropriate legacy for a great actor who shared his soul and passion to the end of his life.


7th 01 - 2016 | 5 comments »

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

My conversion to Quentin Tarantino fan has been a fraught and slow one, and not for the reasons some of you might imagine. I’m not that squeamish about violence and profanity, though I will admit they are not my favorite things. No, the real reason I started digging in my heels about Tarantino is that a very aggressive group of male film fans with whom I used to be associated kept insisting that I had to see his films. I don’t like being told what to do, and I especially don’t like to be told by a bunch of men with anger management issues and sexist tendencies. So it came to pass that it was 2008 before I saw one of his directing efforts, Grindhouse: Deathproof (2007). It was a rather unfortunate experience, as his homage to this form of cinema was so faithful that it bored me to tears. Nonetheless, the thaw between Mr. T and myself began, and though I still haven’t seen much of his oeuvre, I thoroughly enjoyed the Kill Bill movies and look forward to viewing others.

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Which brings me to his latest film, The Hateful Eight. I was genuinely excited about seeing it, particularly since he was bringing back the widescreen, celluloid film format I remember so fondly from my childhood PLUS an overture and intermission. Why, I haven’t seen those lovely interludes in a proper theatrical setting since The Sound of Music (1965)—and believe me, a lot of films today could use them! I relished the idea of spending a New Year’s Day packed into the vintage Music Box Theatre with a sold-out crowd of 860 to see a genuine movie event. Even waiting outside in the cold for the patrons of the previous sold-out show to exit the theatre and the staff to clean up after them was kind of a thrill. We got some very good seats about 10 rows back from the specially rigged wide screen and waited for the lights to dim and the film to jitter slightly along the sprockets of the 70mm projector, through the Ennio Morricone overture, and finally to the opening vista of a snow-covered range in Wyoming. It was kind of downhill from there.

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Tarantino’s choice of genre—a western set during Reconstruction—is an interesting one at this current moment in U.S. history. As racial tensions run high, in part because of the failure to sustain the advances of Reconstruction beyond the pitifully short 12 years it lasted, a bit of truth-telling to the country’s frantic white supremacists and “postracial” neoliberals is certainly in order. The writer/director’s transmitter of choice is a fully empowered African American named Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who fought for his freedom as a member of the Union Army; indeed, as a gun-toting bounty hunter who always brings ’em in dead and who claims a close friendship with Abraham Lincoln (read Barack Obama), he’s their worst nightmare.

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The crackers he’s about to instruct constellate certain types. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a fellow bounty hunter whose nickname, “The Hangman,” refers to his preference to bring ’em in alive. He doesn’t really say so, but it seems he believes in the American system of justice whose foundation is that everyone has a right to their day in court. He also adjudicates life and death on the road to Red Rock by deciding to let Warren and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a goofy guy who claims he’s headed to Red Rock to become their next sheriff, ride with him after they are stranded with a blizzard approaching. Chris, whose daddy was the leader of the infamous Mannix’s Marauders, a band of Confederate soldiers who kept fighting for the cause mainly by killing blacks anywhere and everywhere they found them, represents eager, uneducated youth, sure he’s ready to uphold the law in a land where violently breaking it is more the rule than the exception. The prisoner Ruth is transporting to Red Rock is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an unrepentant outlaw and racist whose obviously drawn-on black eye and function as a punching bag and target for disgusting bodily emissions are so cartoonish that her roles as plot device and (not very funny) comic relief are never really in question. Also, since she’s destined to hang, her enlightenment is neither needed nor wanted.

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This being a Tarantino film, we know that this caravan is headed for some kind of bloody reckoning and that it will come at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the waystation where they must ride out the blizzard before reaching their final destination. Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and her husband, Sweet Dave (Gene Jones), are away. Bob (Demián Bichir), a shaggy Mexican, has been left in charge of the store. General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), an elderly Confederate officer who is on his way to Red Rock to erect a tombstone for his son, who died there while trying to seek his fortune, is holed up with two other stuck travelers, hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Warren turns sleuth at this point, noticing clues that all is not what it seems at Minnie’s, turning this western into a very crude episode of Murder, She Wrote as the cast of characters bob and weave around each other and start dying. All that’s left is to wait for Warren to call them all together to solve the mystery and finger the bad guys.

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There are things about The Hateful Eight to admire. Tarantino seems to be more interested in creating character arcs that reveal some changes and depths of understanding. Warren is by far the most full-blooded of the film’s characters, revealing intelligence, cunning in dealing with a racist world, literacy far beyond what might be expected of a man of his background, and leadership skills. Although he appears to be named for Charles Marquis Warren, a pulp fiction writer, as well as a screenwriter and director of numerous western films and TV shows, he seems modeled in part on Robert Smalls, a slave who freed himself and others in a daring escape, joined the Union Army, lobbied Abraham Lincoln to enlist more black soldiers, and eventually served as a congressman from South Carolina. Ruth seems to have an emotional life, with an appreciation of music, an ability to compromise when he lets Daisy off her handcuff tether to him to eat dinner, and a genuine admiration for Warren as a fellow professional of uncommon skill. Even Chris, who initially offers a healthy helping of bigotry to Warren and greets Smithers with outsized respect, seems to grow into his supposed role as a lawman to work with Warren. Only Daisy resists redemption, which marks her out as the baddest of the bad in Tarantino’s eyes and deserving of everything she gets, though, in fact, the script reveals there is a far worse person associated with her in the eyes of the law.

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I also applaud Tarantino’s attention to detail in showing how westerners handle blizzard conditions. It was really interesting to see guidelines strung between the store, the outhouse, and the stable through looped poles struck into the ground, and the camerawork of his regular DP, Robert Richardson, did all but put the ice on our noses as stagecoach driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks) struggles against gale-force winds to reach the store from the outhouse. That said, I found a singular lack of imagination in the use of the widescreen format for the duration of the film. Expecting great things from the beautiful panoramic shot that opens the film, I was dismayed that Tarantino immediately slaps us into a claustrophobic stagecoach for some lengthy conversation between Ruth, Warren, Mannix, and Domergue that made me wonder (probably correctly) if the whole thing had been filmed on a soundstage using really good process shots to show the great outdoors through the slivers of window that made it into the extra-wide frame.

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After the coach ride, we are again largely confined to the interior of the haberdashery. I have read that Tarantino’s use of Panavision was to record the landscape of the face, but honestly, any camera at all can capture a good close-up of a face (see my review of The Lodger, a 35mm-shot film from 1926, for more on this). In fact, Richardson doesn’t spend all that much time on faces, but rather uses blocking that suggests Cinerama, whose logo is displayed during the opening credits. He divides the screen in thirds and places objects, mainly the characters, squarely in each zone when they are not large enough to fill the screen. This blocking makes demands on the actors and lighting technicians that other films don’t, and thus, there is a real finesse required of everyone to make the technique work. More than that, there needs to be a compelling reason and vision to use it. Westerns tend to be a natural fit because the ethos of the genre is conquest of the wide-open spaces. In this case, I feel Tarantino has neither the finesse nor the imagination that filmmakers like John Ford and David Lean possessed to envision a widescreen world. I applaud the attempt, however, for at least it gives young audiences a taste of what they’ve been missing all these years watching films on increasingly smaller and smaller screens in relative isolation.

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Tarantino’s great love for B genre films seems to have extended to his lack of attention to continuity. In one scene, O.B. grabs a bearskin off the wall, rolls himself in it, and throws down next to the fire to warm up from his exposure to the blizzard. He is never seen in this position again. In another, a character is shot, crawls a bit on the floor, and dies. He does the same thing a couple of shots later. The denizens of Minnie’s stake out zones for Union and Confederate sympathizers, respectively, and then repeatedly violate those zones. He also offers the symbolism of an enormous, snow-covered, grotesquely carved crucifix on the roadside, a genre fixture, but never refers to religion in any way again. Even the too good to be true “good people” he injects into the film seem religion-free. In addition, scenes are allowed to drag on and on. For example, we really didn’t need to see eight of the looped poles going into the ground to get the idea, and the repeated “gag” of having to nail the door shut to keep out the snow wore out its welcome very quickly.

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The biggest problem for me is that the film really held no surprises, nor did the stakes feel important or personal in any way. I kept thinking about another film, Day of the Outlaw (1959), and how much deeper it went in surveying a similar story because its characters behaved like real people and it seemed rooted in its surroundings in a way all the bric-a-brac in Minnie’s and then some could never accomplish. The film is a flimsy fantasy that I found almost completely humorless, though I may be an exception in this regard, and lacking a proper ending. Its comment on race relations, particularly in one lurid fantasy Warren relates to Smithers, certainly gets at the hysterical fear of black men especially, but because it’s so hard to take Tarantino’s films seriously, any statement he might be making—if indeed he was trying to make a statement at all—will likely be lost. I have no problem with filmmakers who just want to give their audiences a good time, and many filmgoers have had a great time seeing The Hateful Eight. I just wish I had been one of them.


6th 01 - 2016 | 13 comments »

Man in the Wilderness (1971) / The Revenant (2015)

Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

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By Roderick Heath

The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass, but for whatever reason, departed before he had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and, at first, literally crawling his way to safety, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.

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Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up, but the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.

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Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing immediately an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.

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Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was, by all reports, already amazing, including a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.

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Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry all but invites becoming Bass’s nemesis, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.

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The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, and his former fellows begin to see the landscape as charged with portents of his survival. Visions of the stalking revenger torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.

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By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.

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Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.

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Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.

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Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.

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The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth—he has to revisit it three times. It’s not enough for him to stage one sweeping chase scene—he gives variations on the same scene several times.

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DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.

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Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.

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Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.

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Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.


3rd 01 - 2016 | 4 comments »

My Movie Year 2015

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

2015 is officially over, and I have squeezed in the last few films I can from the year, with the last of which, The Hateful Eight, still buzzing annoyingly in my head. Of the total of 63 2015 films I’ve seen, 13 were festival films, of which I’d guess perhaps only four or five will be released in 2016 or later in the United States, including Pablo Larraín’s brutal look at sexually predatory priests under house arrest, The Club; Corneliu Porumboiu’s gentle comedy, The Treasure; Michel Franco’s moving meditation on death, Chronic; and perhaps Gillian Armstrong’s inventive biopic of Orry-Kelly, Women He’s Undressed, and Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s sad comedy from Palestine, Dégradé.

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The Look of Silence

Among the new releases Americans had a chance to see in theatres this year, I took in the much-buzzed-about (e.g., Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, The Look of Silence) and films that were lucky to find any screens or viewers at all (e.g., The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, James White, I’ll See You in My Dreams). Even with the poor distribution of foreign films, I grabbed a larger handful than most because of film festivals I’m able to attend in my cinema-mad city, though most had played here one of more years earlier, including About Elly, which I saw in 2009.

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Youth

It has been an interesting year for the elderly in cinema. Seventy-year-old George Miller rebooted his own series, Mad Max, to delirious accolades, though, on the whole, I much preferred the genuine tension and creativity of his Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and hope he will be allowed to reboot that franchise soon. After decades of undistinguished parts in undistinguished movies and TV shows, Blythe Danner finally got the showcase she deserved in I’ll See You in My Dreams, a romantic drama about a retired Baby Boomer trying to awaken from the lethargy of a routine life. Jane Fonda, Michael Caine, and Harvey Keitel showed that age really does have it over the pretentiousness of the seriously flawed Youth. Charlotte Rampling gave a performance for the ages as a disillusioned woman about to celebrate her 45th wedding anniversary in 45 Years.

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Anomalisa

The year’s most anticipated films also had their share of imaginative failure. The formerly wildly inventive Charlie Kaufman teamed up with animator Duke Johnson to create the thoroughly dreary Anomalisa, perhaps thinking that using stop-motion animation would somehow save a story about a cynical man who stays cynical. Quentin Tarantino perhaps hoped that shooting on 70mm Ultra Panavision film would camouflage the fact that The Hateful Eight is a poor genre film; in fact, it not only did not compensate for the weaknesses in the script, but it revealed that the great film fan has no idea how to make use of widescreen technology. The excitement that greeted Roy Andersson’s 2000 return to feature filmmaking after 25 years with the highly original and funny Songs from the Second Floor led to diminishing returns with You, the Living (2007), and finally, thankfully, the last and least of his millennium trilogy this year, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

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Maps to the Stars

Just as Jessica Chastain seemed to be everywhere the last couple of years, this year, Alicia Vikander burst onto the scene in four high-profile films, Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Testament of Youth, and The Danish Girl. However, 2015 wasn’t the year of one woman; it really seemed to be a watershed year for women in film. There was a noticeable number of real women who were the protagonists in such films as Brooklyn, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Carol, The Clouds of Sils Maria, Maps to the Stars, and By the Sea, as well as transgender female characters in the delightful Tangerine, the less successful The Danish Girl, and in the festival films Open Up to Me and Girls Lost. Even the sexist American animation industry produced a female-centric film that felt authentic to a girl’s experience, Inside Out. In addition, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, Meryl Streep, and other actresses lit up the 2015 Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards ceremonies by decrying the unequal and frivolous treatment they receive. More seriously, a hack of Sony email accounts revealed the lower salaries and insults Hollywood actresses receive from those in positions of power. In May, the ACLU called for an EEOC investigation into discriminatory hiring practices in Hollywood, and in October, those investigations commenced. (For a complete look at the cinematic year in women, I highly recommend this post by Marya E. Gates at her website, Cinema Fanatic.)

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Tab Hunter Confidential

On the whole, I found the documentary year to be disappointing. On the positive side, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a follow-up to The Act of Killing, his 2012 look at the Indonesian death squads that killed more than 1 million people during the 1960s, and the close look at the life and career of Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone? provided wide-ranging edification of events as well as specific people. However, too many documentarians focused their lenses on celebrities, fashionistas, and food in such films as Iris and Tab Hunter Confidential. Even a social-justice-oriented film like Dreamcatcher failed to escape the allure of the charismatic individual.

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No Abras Nunca esa Puerta

Of course, my movie year must include the vintage films I’m privileged to see because of the many dedicated exhibitors who search the archives and the great foundations that resurrect forgotten works and have them restored and issued for theatrical and home viewing. Among the restored treasures of the past I’ve been able to see on the big screen this year were Sherlock Holmes (1916), Terence Young’s directorial debut, Corridor of Mirrors (1948), Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990), Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy (1955/1956/1959), and Joseph Green and Konrad Tom’s Mamele (1938). The invaluable Film Noir Foundation again brought their Noir City program to Chicago, bringing more world noir with it, including reuniting the two halves of Argentine director Carlos Hugo Christensen’s 1952 classic thriller No Abras Nunca esa Puerta (Don’t Open that Door)/Si Muero Antes di Despertar (If I Die Before I Wake) in a new print. The celluloid-only Northwest Chicago Film Society inaugurated its new permanent home at Northeastern Illinois University with a two-strip Technicolor rarity, Follow Thru (1930), that brought down the house. They followed up with a number of archival and contemporary film prints, including Richard Lester’s first feature, It’s Trad, Dad! (1962), Ernst Lubitsch’s So This Is Paris (1926), and Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987), to name only a few. Finally, a weeklong residency of the great Agnès Varda at the University of Chicago ended with a sold-out screening of Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and a Q&A with the director at the Music Box Theatre.

Now here’s my baker’s dozen of favorite films of the year, in order of preference.

1. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz)

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The final film in the Amsalem Trilogy is the most intense and claustrophobic yet. Ronit Elkabetz continues her painfully committed 10-years-long performance as a woman trapped in a miserable marriage by Israel’s medieval divorce laws. Further, the courage to reveal this hidden scandal of domestic entrapment is a first in Israeli filmmaking and a feminist statement to rival any yet seen on the silver screen. That it is wrapped in a fascinating, well-executed story with vivid characterizations makes it the best film of 2015.

2. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)

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Old-fashioned filmmaking in the best sense, Spotlight relies on keen ensemble work to tell a compelling story about the successful efforts of Boston Globe investigative reporters to unearth the massive abuse of children by Catholic priests and the Church’s attempts to cover it up. Inspiring and horrifying in equal measure, the film builds up the painstaking detail work like a great detective story, and unlike the film it’s most often compared with, All the President’s Men (1976), shows the effect of the scandal on the ordinary people who suffered and those whose faith was shaken badly by the revelations.

3. La Sapienza (Eugène Green)

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Sixty-eight-year-old Eugène Green, a late bloomer who began making films in 2001, has finally fully realized his potential with this fascinating dive into the Baroque period he so loves. A disaffected couple find their way back to each other by revisiting the past through its Baroque architecture and a brother and sister who seem to have transported from another time to teach them some lessons in immediacy and high romance. Unusual, beautiful, and supremely romantic.

4. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi)

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Lies and tragedy sour the weekend getaway of some well-to-do residents of Tehran. The repressions of Iran’s Islamist state take a back seat to the more universal repressions between the sexes and the way guilt can turn normally rational people into blamers and liars. Golshifteh Farahani gives a performance for the ages as she manipulates her friends and husband to achieve her ends.

5. James White (Josh Mond)

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Many people may find the in-your-face close-ups and raw performances of Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon almost too uncomfortable to watch, but I was astounded by how truly the film conveys the dynamics of a loving parent-child relationship and the emotional and practical aspects of caring for a dying parent. I felt privileged to share this intimate act with the actors and their director, who used his own life experience to create this moving film.

6. Blackhat (Michael Mann)

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Michael Mann brings his unique brand of cool and weird to a tale of outrageous greed and cynicism fought by an outsider computer genius with a populist soul. The action shares equal time with the emotional core of each character, committed to their choice of good or evil in a way that reaches beyond the mechanics of plot. Underrated at its release, I hope it finds the acclaim it deserves.

7. Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner)

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The Romantic Era of 18th century Europe infects the extremely conventional protagonist of Jessica Hausner’s comedy of manners, skewering the romance of love unto death while remaining compassionate toward those whose narrow lives reach toward some sort of true and pure act. Hausner’s generosity and wit have never been better.

8. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)

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The simple story of a long-married couple whose foundation is shaken by news of the husband’s long-ago love provides a platform to examine the assumptions and compromises we make or refuse to make when we take a spouse. Charlotte Rampling is astounding as an intelligent, rational woman who realizes she was second-best in her husband’s affections. No one who has ever been in love will fail to understand her feelings or those of her husband, played with oblivious honesty by Tom Courtenay.

9. Suffragette (Sarah Gavron)

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It took a full complement of women to bring the story of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain to the big screen nearly 100 years after that country gave women the right to vote in 1918. The film focuses on the struggle of working-class women, eschewing the more usual top-down approach to depicting civil rights movements and showing how betrayal in the halls of government led to increasingly violent action. Brendan Gleeson, excellent as a shrewd cop, transposes the word “terrorism” onto the militant wing of the movement. Carey Mulligan gives a convincing performance as a woman radicalized by dashed hopes and masculine mistreatment into giving up everything for the cause. Historical details lend fascination to a compelling story.

10. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)

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This adaptation of the Emma Donoghue novel about a kidnapped woman who finally makes a bid for freedom after seven years of captivity downplays the point of view from which the book was told—that of the woman’s five-year-old son. However, in its place is a warm relationship between mother and son, preserving the boy’s fondness for the only home he’s ever known while understatedly horrifying us with her wretched existence bargaining for the necessities of life while being repeatedly raped. Brie Dorsey and young Jacob Tremblay could not be better in a challenging scenario.

11. By the Sea (Angelina Jolie Pitt)

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Angelina Jolie Pitt is slowly building up a body of work as a director that could put her in the rarefied company of Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, and Robert Redford as an actor/director to be reckoned with. By the Sea, her most accomplished work to date, is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), focusing as it does on a troubled couple and their relationship with a younger couple. Jolie Pitt’s strong performance plumbs the depths of her character’s depression, self-loathing, and destructiveness. Her strong use of a Mediterranean idyll as a setting gives the film the timelessness of a Greek tragedy. A mesmerizing experience.

12. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)

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The triumphs and tragedies of Nina Simone are chronicled largely using her own words from her letters, photos, and film clips of her performances and interviews. Her life illuminates the Jim Crow South, the black power movement, and the highlights and lowlights of her life in Europe. Her pain is palpable, her anger frightening, her embrace by those who would use her fame and talents for their own purposes cautionary. And, of course, her music, her glorious music.

13. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt)

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I didn’t expect to enjoy this film very much, chronicling as it does two writers, David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky, whose work I don’t know from an era of writing for which I have little love. Yet, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg turn this two-hander into an engaging dialogue full of gamesmanship that compares favorably with Sleuth (1972). The genuine, if short-lived friendship is touching and revealing, and the truths Wallace expresses about the life of an instant celebrity offer much food for thought.

Runners-up (alphabetically)

Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda)
I’ll See You in My Dreams (Brett Haley)
Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen)
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton, Richard Starzak)
Tangerine (Sean Baker)
What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)


27th 12 - 2015 | 9 comments »

Confessions of a Film Freak 2015

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By Roderick Heath

Last year, I vowed I was going to spend much less time and energy keeping up with the films of 2015. So, of course, this year I saw over 100. Was it worth the time and effort? In the sense that I have an even broader perspective over the year than usual, yes. But I’ve still spent most of the last 12 months in a state of intense frustration, amidst a litany of films unable to sustain their best ideas and works whose worthiness seemed to be established entirely by the rhetorical force of the internet. This may, after a fashion, presage a vintage crop for next year, considering so many well-rated films from the major international film festivals are still limping their way towards distribution, like Dheepan, Jacques Audiard’s Cannes champion. But this year I’ve seen 50 different styles in old hat passed off as genius novelty, and had the feeling many films have been snatched hold of by cinephiles and critics like lifebuoys, talked up in a state of mild desperation. I just haven’t been able to get with the program at all.

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Inside Out

2015 has been a year for colossal hits and equally big misses at the box office, as the Hollywood worm has been munching on its own tail even more voraciously than usual. Deep into the 21st century, ’60s spy tales and their disreputable heroes, including James Bond, the Mission: Impossible team, the Men (and girl) from U.N.C.L.E., and their ethically dubious descendants the Kingsmen, joined superheroes who go back even further, along with a clutch of franchises that date back variously to the Carter, Reagan, and Bill Clinton eras. By comparison, the compulsory well-reviewed Pixar movie of the year, Ronnie Del Carmen and Pete Docter’s Inside Out, seemed like a fount of originality, even if you swore you saw the same idea used in an old episode of Muppet Babies or Punky Brewster. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey flew the flag for something resembling cinema intended for adults, but, of course, that film’s brand of S&M erotica was actually turgidly adolescent in its underpinnings. It’s not surprising that in a time of fervent, reawakening social protest and anger over proofs of the retarded and monstrous things still at loose in our time, a lot of films took on an edge, whether vaguely metaphorical or concretely activist, of revisionist and redefining intent, from recasting the Rocky franchise as a tale of African-American resurgence where once, however unintentionally, the franchise expressed working class white anger at black success, to casting an all-female version of Ghostbusters.

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Backcountry

Part of me digs this sort of thing, but another part recoils at the self-congratulation some of these tweaks stoke, distracting us from the fact that instead of coming up with new myths for a new time, we’re just redrafting old, tired models with thin veneers of fashionability. Of course, any good postmodernist might say that’s all art does anyway. I also wonder if our attachment to such familiar templates, as well as being enforced by risk-averse corporations, is as much to do with the fact that, well, for whatever reason, we can’t come up with anything better. Some great new shock might have to come to the culture. In any event, these are all “official” themes. In the past I’ve had more fun trying to pick the connecting threads of interest in the year’s films that seem more happenstance or coincidental, revealing of the zeitgeist’s subterranean structures. Those sorts of connecting motifs have felt rather diffuse this year, though. Certainly survivalism seems an ever-popular preoccupation. The hugely ambitious The Revenant, the tensile chamber drama Backcountry, and the good old monster movie Into the Grizzly Maze all depicted gruesome bear attacks on heroes lost in and assailed by nature, perhaps giving symbolic teeth to the anxiety surrounding climate change. Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest had no bears, but it had the might of the world’s biggest mountain, conquerable most of the time but able to swat away pesky humans when a foul mood descends, Mad Max: Fury Road posited a futuristic wasteland beset by mechanical monstrosities and humanoid tyrannies, whilst The Martian looked both forward and right back to the founding survival tale—Robinson Crusoe—in contending with an alien world.

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Faults

This “here there be dragons” motif stalked the cinema screen more consistently than any other. Films as diverse as Fury Road, Spotlight, The Big Short, The Tribe, Testament of Youth, Sicario, Suffragette, Faults, Spectre, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jurassic World, Cymbeline, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens, The Water Diviner, and The Assassin all depicted supposedly unshakeable institutions with all their safeguards and systems of security failing, releasing devils into the world, and described hapless protagonists amidst the furore, trying to keep hope in the box. Those lost characters, wandering through deserts, sometimes of their own making or imposed on them by fate or the machinations of others, also beg attention, a manifestation perhaps of the many talented and resolute people adrift in our time. This motif connects such apparently diametric figures as the loser antiheroes of Faults and The Mend and the scum-bucket tycoon of Welcome to New York, the battered frontiersmen of The Revenant, the blindsided FBI agent of Sicario, the increasingly politicised heroines of Suffragette and Testament of Youth. The titular killer of The Assassin and the renegade heroes of Blackhat and the wasteland riders of Fury Road, the bereft survivor of Backcountry, the outmatched individuals trying to become a lesbian couple of Carol. The junkies of Heaven Knows What and the hooker transsexuals of Tangerine, the stormtrooper-turned-righteous outcast in The Force Awakens, the banker who bets on the collapse of his nation’s economy and beholds his terrible success in The Big Short. The various actors in the tales of the Tale of Tales. The schoolgirl digging into her own collapsing identity in The Falling. Just about everyone in the versions of Detroit depicted in It Follows and Lost River.

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Testament of Youth

Over in the more respectable climes of cinema, some of this year’s more ambitious works following the lead of last year’s Selma, including Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, Richard Laxton’s Effie Grey, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, Todd Haynes’ Carol, and James Kent’s Testament of Youth, in harking back to social and personal struggles with perplexed avatars of zeitgeists past, a good way of measuring achievement and failure in the current day, if also one that carries a certain cosy distance like a shield. Of these, Testament of Youth stuck with me most pleasurably, a temperate, fine-palette but quietly remorseless study in loss and positive political radicalisation. Apart from Velvet Goldmine, I’ve never warmed to Todd Haynes’ preciously arty style, and though I at least watched the whole of Carol, something I couldn’t manage with I’m Not There, nonetheless I found it a stiff, ponderous, stillborn approximation of Patricia Highsmith’s beloved lesbian romance: if you want to study repressed passion, it helps to actually have a sense of passion. F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton tried, with some verve and a good cast, to create an authentic contemporary hero myth via the career of rappers NWA who shook up the complacent pop culture of the mid-’80s. But the film, far from being as radical as the art it paid tribute to, soon fell victim to the castrating bent of both standard movie narrative and authorised biographical nicety. Adam McKay’s The Big Short took on the global financial crisis in an attempt to blend real-life drama with a waggish, Michael Moore-esque sense of panoramic satire, but finished up a mass of divergent impulses, with McKay’s annoying direction playing here to the rafters and there to the Oscar-bestowing tribunes, one part Funny or Die skit and one part Stanley Kramer aren’t-you-ashamed mallet. Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight took on a rather different subject, newspaper investigation into rape, cover-ups, and the abuse of power, with a similarly compulsive, procedural pursuit of a lurking menace. Whilst it overtly courted comparison to All the President’s Men (1976), Spotlight failed to bring anything like Alan Pakula’s cinematic power to the table or much nimbleness to its outlay of facts: sometimes the dialogue was more like reading a journalist’s notes than experiencing the journey of enquiry.

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The Mend

The old-is-new-again spirit of blockbusters was also powerfully apparent in the artier, capital-D dramas. Would-be serious filmmakers offered a parade of films harking back to the recent past and fondly fetishized model artworks, mostly from the heights of ’60s and ’70s moviemaking, including Spotlight, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, Yann Demange’s ’71, and Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection. Such films were all engrossing, well worth watching, solid and intelligent, but also couldn’t shake the feeling of careful ventriloquism and a certain dramatic inevitability. One thing that made the various cinematic New Waves so great lay in the determination of artists not to heed the past or be nailed down by safe aesthetics or received ideas. Such work did give way to genuinely strong and imaginative movies that drew on certain classic traditions but also offered real evolution. Films like the shaggy, Cassavetes-gone-hipster mood of John Magary’s The Mend, the disorienting power tussles of Riley Stearns’s Faults, the neo-beatnik brutalism of Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, the screwball-goes-digicam mood of Andrew Bujalski’s Results, and the wobbly but ultimately enriching street-level tragicomedy of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, which was filmed on an iPhone, and managed to look better than many far, far more expensive films. Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York was like seeing the ancestor of these films rearing up like one of Jurassic World’s genetically revived dinosaurs, roaring with anger and pain; if the film was too distended to count as one of Ferrara’s classics, it was still a blast of unremitting purpose and unflinching artistry.

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Alex of Venice

By contrast, some humbly likeable movies about humbly likeable people flitted about the edges of the cinematic consciousness, offering some spells of relief from all the Op-Ed themes and epic posturings, like Chris Messina’s gentle, balladlike Alex of Venice, Helen Hunt’s likeably ditzy surfer time-out Ride, and Results, which followed Bujalski’s Computer Chess in looking into a niche world of people no one takes seriously with a wry, but definite sense of empathy. Noah Baumbach offered both one of the year’s most trying films, While We’re Young, and one of its slyer successes, Mistress America, both studies in the manners and morals of contemporary New York as an Eden of smug, filled with people coasting on the triumphs of other, braver generations and dens of culturati. The Mend, set in much the same pocket of humanity, was such an inspired mix of the fuzzily indulgent and the ruthlessly well observed that it almost obscured how its statement about modern day masculinity essentially came down to a choice between being a shiftless, recherché outcast or submitting to concealment in coupledom. Dave Boyle’s Man From Reno was an original take on classic varieties of mystery thriller and fish-out-of-water adventure tales, its only major flaw, like too many films this year, its inability to come up with an ending.

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Mortdecai

Rude critical and box office treatment doled out to some of this year’s films compelled me to take note, for instance, how the first half of Josh Trank’s infamous bomb Fantastic Four was actually well done and more ambitious than most superhero films will ever be, and how David Koepp’s Mortdecai, crucified well before it was even released, was terribly overdirected, but sported some entertaining shtick nonetheless, including a fun Terry-Thomas tribute from star Johnny Depp. Depp was partly saved from career doldrums subsequently by his role as the glum, hollow bad guy in the glum, hollow Black Mass. On the other hand, there was some real shit out there. Where once upon a time Luc Besson’s imprimatur was a reliable source of good, dumb action, this year his protégés offered up the excruciatingly bad Taken 3 and The Gunman. Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland seemed primed to be another successful flight of fancy for one of Disney’s golden boys, but proved instead a fragmented, preachy, rather witless amble through one of the least interesting fantasy worlds ever concocted. Susanne Bier’s Serena, a film that wanted to be a laudable throwback to muscular melodramas from the days of classic Hollywood, was instead one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever seen, sporting a miscast Jennifer Lawrence playing a nature child femme fatale (!) and such dialogue as, “I love you. I have your child inside of me,” and, “They have to know it was a woman who tamed the eagle!” Come back, Pia Zadora, all is forgiven.

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Lost River

Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, awkwardly dumped into release, was certainly an affected piece of Lynchian artiness, but it also offered up some of the most compelling images and textures in any movie released in 2015. By comparison, I found some of the more praised left-field items of the year, like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Carol Morley’s The Falling, to be films that could have embraced the strangeness and wildness their best moments teased, but which instead took refuge in obvious concepts and arch metaphors. I’d still watch these any time over anodyne quality flicks like John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a pretty comedy-drama which also starred Lost River’s Saoirse Ronan, and The Danish Girl, which saw Eddie Redmayne misinterpreting his task in playing a pioneering transsexual as a quest to recreate the performances of divas past and win the Best Actress Oscar for 1932. Or something as bogus-gritty as Denis Villeneuve’s showy but empty drug war flick Sicario, and Justin Kurzel’s awful attempt to turn Macbeth into Games of Thrones. Macbeth was a particularly galling disaster, offering fine actors and some beautiful visual elements, but fumbling Shakespeare’s text embarrassingly and reducing its theme to a turgid parade of grandstanding violence.

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Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Yann Demange’s ’71, set in Belfast during the height of the Troubles, was rather similar in focusing on a solitary man trying to survive in a cruel landscape: Demange’s you-are-there aesthetics were strong, but the storyline descended into a mere potboiler thriller. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, although vigorous, failed to truly explore a closed-off world, in this case, a school filled with deaf-mute students somewhere in the grimiest centres of Ukraine, with authentic interest in the specifics of its environment and the pains of its characters. Instead, it offered up a technically daring but gimmicky, X-rated St. Trinian’s film with a ham-fisted metaphor for the shambles of contemporary Eastern Europe. Michael Almereyda’s Cymbeline was like a recipe the filmmaker hadn’t entirely perfected, and so, though far more interesting as screen Shakespeare than Macbeth, it also wasn’t half as successful as the same director’s Hamlet. Still, it was anchored by a fascinating high-wire performance by the year’s breakout star Dakota Johnson, who also gave Fifty Shades of Grey a flicker of charm and provided the one spark contradicting the dude-drama heaviosity of Black Mass. Almereyda quickly followed Cymbeline with Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story, one of the best releases of the year. Everybody’s been raving about Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (I haven’t seen yet, and I certainly hope is a roaring comeback for Lee), but his immediate predecessor, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, was a stilted remake of Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess. Where Gunn recorded the intricacies of his intellectual moment in a way that seemed as much reportage as surrealism, Lee suggested how square and alienated his academic characters were by dressing them in Poindexter suits.

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The Face of an Angel

Michael Winterbottom, who like Lee has eased back from the previously frantic pace and protean urgency of his earlier work, offered The Face of an Angel, an experiment in narrative forms and postmodern flimflam based on the infamous Meredith Kercher murder case. The film was a mess, a pile of impulses and half-baked ideas, but it was just about the only film I saw this year actually about the zeitgeist rather than a symptom of it, describing the confused and tumultuous spiritual tenor of the moment manifest in its images of mass furore and private anguish, the simultaneously exciting and exhausting nature of it all. Winterbottom followed his protagonist in contemplating a criminal proceeding charged with intersectional issues and buzzwords, noting how the public event, which seems, thanks to media coverage, wide open to understanding, is in fact constantly redefined in terms of the baggage each of us brings to the table, a jumble which the creative mind meets with dizzy bemusement as it tries to organise an honest, organic response.

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Dark Was the Night

Similarly occupied with a wayfaring antihero in Italy, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring toyed amusingly with the canard of a young man who encounters a beautiful, possibly dangerous young woman in an exotic clime, quoting ’80s body horror films through the prism of sunny, ’50s-style romantic comedy. It was a fresher and more original genre twist than the year’s wildly praised horror film, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, though Mitchell attempted with real purpose and some art to mate John Carpenter-esque menace with his own dreamy surveys of coming-of-age troubles. Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended took on a similar idea—a group of teens tormented by a supernatural entity—with much less refinement, but perhaps with more punch and relevance. Meanwhile David Gelb’s The Lazarus Effect stood up for good old fashioned dumb-dumb schlock, and Jack Heller’s Dark Was the Night was a gripping, if slightly verbose, monster-on-the-loose thriller. Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was a curious byproduct of its creator’s imagination, alternately original and referential, gorgeously moody and excessively declarative: if the whole work had been as good as its first and last half-hours, it would have been a major classic. John McNaughton’s The Harvest, rescued from a distributor’s shelf, proved a throwback to a brand of modest, low-budget, high-tension thriller that used to bob up a lot in the ’80s, plus Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon playing memorably batty parents—imagine being their child! Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44 had incredible plusses going for it, including a terrific cast, meaty story based in fact, hefty production values. But it finished up choking on its own cornucopia, transposing the Chikatilo murder case to the Stalinist era for the sake of more self-important irony and drama, and then failing to decide just what kind of cliché thriller it wanted to be. Joe Lynch’s Everly knew exactly what it wanted to be—a nasty, gleefully disgraceful entertainment—and it delivered even as it went too far over the top. Everly did, at least, give Salma Hayek the rampaging revenger role I never knew I wanted, and it made Mad Max: Fury Road’s stilted action feminism look like so much hot air.

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Jurassic World

History may remember, or choose to forget, 2015 as the year of titanic reboots. It’s like when I was a kid again, and finally, that’s lost its charm. The biggest hit of the year, Jurassic World, was heir to one of the more comparatively youthful franchises, only harking back to 1992. Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens comprised the year’s big three in this field, with the surprising Creed giving chase and poor old Terminator: Genisys limping somewhere in there, too. Genisys actually had a certain charm, with its ramshackle plot and cheeky structure that turned the logarithmic variances of rebootology into its very own structure, and felt like the biggest budget Cannon Films production ever. Everyone but I liked Fury Road, so we’ll move on past that (but get real, folks, it was a two-hour dodge ’em car ride shot like a ’90s music video you all would’ve whizzed on if a less storied director had made it). The Force Awakens bravely told a story already told long ago in a franchise far, far away. Although in many ways an honourable attempt to reconstitute the hallowed epic series created by George Lucas with some excellent newcomer heroes and technical qualities, it was finally a flatly professional exercise, an overt tribute to beloved superficialities determined to give fans of a certain age a long, slow hand job. Frankly, Jurassic World was my favourite of these, cheesy as its bioweapon subplot was, because it was the only one that made anything like proper use of the movie stars at its disposal, and it was properly constructed, building up to its monster bash finale with a sense of showmanship and gleeful crescendo. Also, in spite of the often excruciating “debate” over its leading lady’s footwear, Jurassic World actually offered in Claire Dearing one of the year’s most endearing heroines, a gender-flipped version of Spielberg’s classic hapless Everyman who rose to the challenge of erupting chaos. Her release of the T-Rex upon the evil genetic chimera is still the most properly thrilling big movie moment of 2015.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

James Bond poked his head up again for another dance with the devil in Spectre, a film that disappointed many and was undoubtedly riddled with problems. But I still liked it more than the last two entries in Daniel Craig’s tenure as the superspy, as it sought to combine several rather antagonistic stylistic impulses that have defined the series over its half-century of life. Creed was good fun, but it had a tendency to presume too quickly that its new characters had earned a place in the heart, dutifully sending Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky through a lazily handled bout with cancer for the sake of pathos and to distract us from the fact that young tyro Adonis “Donnie” Creed was a bland, unconvincing inheritor whose daddy issues remained entirely abstract. Also, Coogler, whose filmmaking was so impressive throughout much of the film, fumbled the final fight by turning it into a long montage. By comparison, Antoine Fuqua’s much lumpier, less cool Southpaw remembered to bring the blaring baseline melodrama a boxing flick needs and paid off with much more kick. Marvel continued sucking in money like a black hole at the centre of the movie galaxy, but with decreased gravitational force. Avengers: Age of Ultron tried to bundle together the increasingly unwieldy sprawl of the superhero genre, and even nerd overlord Joss Whedon couldn’t cope with trying to meet the conflicting demands placed upon him: the result was both a gaudy good time but also somehow a quiet disappointment, overstuffed and lacking a focal point. The potential of Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man to form an islet of true cleverness and conceptual élan in this genre was undoubtedly foiled by losing Edgar Wright as helmsman, but it proved far fleeter and less exhausting than Age of Ultron, a throwback to the uncomplicated days of the first Iron Man.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

Meanwhile, some more contemporary franchises did fly their flags. Furious 7 proved a perfectly fine and fun action flick even if it wasn’t quite as rockin’ as everyone hoped, running out of steam barely halfway through. Plenty of noble man tears were nonetheless shed as it waved Paul Walker away into digital heaven, and that’s what mattered. Dwayne Johnson sometimes seemed like the epicentre of pop movies this year, also appearing in San Andreas, a big, clanging disaster movie, but his presence there felt like a cheat; as warm and welcome a screen presence as he usually is, the genre demands ordinary people as its heroes, not giant musclemen. The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2 brought a once-promising series to an end so flat and dutiful that even when lots of people paid to see it, barely anyone could remember it a week later. Donald Sutherland’s invaluably virulent President Snow did manage just briefly to jolt the whole tepid affair to life, at least. Meanwhile, Insurgent, the continuation of the second-string YA dystopia Divergent series, was considerably more fun, better paced and visualised. Kingsman: The Secret Service saw Matthew Vaughn revisiting Mark Millar’s rabble-rousing fare, presenting a bratty send-up cum tribute to old-school James Bond blended with deliberately outré humour: the result was slicker and more consistent than Vaughn and Millar’s Kick Ass, but didn’t match that film as a truly pungent, lawless-feeling take on its chosen genre lampoon as it laboured through a midsection taken up by a surprisingly straitlaced take on the usual learn-to-be-a-super-warrior story. Christopher McQuarrie, who proved his action-thriller chops with Jack Reacher, reteamed with Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and many were eager to hail the resurgence of Cruise as the Last Movie Star. But McQuarrie didn’t bring anything new to this most dispensable of movie series, making the fatal mistake of opening with the best stunt before proceeding through a parade of flashy, competent action scenes. Kenneth Branagh brought customary epic lustre and a sense of cavalier flash to Disney’s agreeable, if deliberately unimaginative Cinderella. Some people even tried to come up with something vaguely original, but sadly, the Wachowskis failed badly with their second attempt to match Star Wars, the well-made but weirdly listless and jumbling Jupiter Ascending.

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Youth

The best entries in fantastical cinema I saw this year weren’t from Hollywood. Christophe Gans’ Beauty and the Beast was, in spite of its obvious intention of beating a lot of Hollywood CGI wonders at their own game in a manner likely to turn off Gallic fetishists, the year’s single most delicious piece of eye candy, and a smart mythopoeic amplification of the familiar story. Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales was a deeply strange and original take on classic Italian fairy tales, one that located real beauty and ugliness, pathos and terror in them in a way that evoked an imagined past’s alien textures. Tales of Tales, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria were all major Euro-auteurs who made films in English for the sake of convenience. Youth was one of the most wounding disappointments of the year, wasting a marvellous cast and Sorrentino’s talents on a slight and hackneyed exploration of artistic life. Assayas succeeded in every regard Sorrentino failed in, even if his method was passing arch, and with the irony that a French film found more power in the English language being used than just about any other movie lately. Peter Strickland, an English director at home amidst the rarefied textures of the continental film, offered The Duke of Burgundy, a darkly funny, mockingly sensuous trip through the intricacies of adult relationships via tropes harvested from a certain brand of disreputable cinema. I found some of it entrancing and some of it a mere repetition of Berberian Sound Studio’s wilful obscurantism, as if Strickland was marking time instead of looking for new, genuinely inventive games to play.

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Phoenix

Poor distribution has really been a hindrance for non-English-language cinema lately. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix broke through this laggard scene to provide a real art house hit, providing an odd, occasionally wicked blend of Holocaust survivor drama and Hitchcockian identity thriller, though I found it didn’t add up to all that much in the long run, at least until that marvellous final scene. La French, aka The Connection, borrowed the finery of a certain brand of ballsy thriller from the glory days of such films, and it was a concoction that went down like a shot of a cheap whiskey blend—not refined or exceptional, but it hit the spot. At the opposite end of the filmmaking world, action master Tsui Hark tackled a story based in Maoist propaganda and Chinese opera and turned it into a high-flying action yarn for The Taking of Tiger Mountain: the result was gorgeous-looking but, by Tsui’s standards, curiously lacking depth and real inspiration, with the misjudged, gimmicky double finale only highlighting this. Meanwhile, in South Korea, Han-min Kim’s The Admiral: Roaring Currents, the biggest hit in the country’s history, was a blustery but full-blooded account of great national moment of trial, with a truly terrific battle finale. Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s The Assassin took on the same brand of historical swashbuckling and emerged as one of the year’s singular achievements, but also one of the most eccentric, an anti-action film that disassembled the familiar figure of the avenging angel. Australian cinema this year was dominated by Mad Max’s return, but there were some movies that crawled out of the rubble, including the young audience-oriented Paper Planes. The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe’s debut film, released at the end of 2014 here but exported this year, proved a lumbering mixture of disparate genre formulas mated to moral and patriotic soul-searching. Kim Farrant’s Strangerland was a good-looking mystery film that sadly seemed like a greatest hits record compiled with ideas from better Aussie films.

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Trainwreck

And what of comedy? Paul Feig’s Spy was well reviewed and a hit, but I found it as funny as a mouthful of turds, a mass of incompetently shot pseudo-lampooning that offered only the spectacle of “edgy” modern comedy grazing rock bottom. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was like watching the indie film tradition slowly bleed out with its too-cute claymation interludes and desperate desire to be the next Juno/Napoleon Dynamite/Perks of Being a Wallflower/whatever. All the hipsters went nuts for the Kiwi vampire housemate comedy What We Do in the Shadows, but lines of dialogue like “Werewolves, not swear-wolves” left me unmoved as the film kept contradicting its own basic tenets. Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, on the other hand, was such an old-fashioned brand of star vehicle and low-key character comedy that its bewildered audience reception wasn’t so surprising. Crowe, not normally a filmmaker I like much, offered a new-age variant on John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef complete with Ford’s gift for coaxing fine details from his actors: even if the nominal plot was excessively silly and the resolution far less engaging than the set-up, it still felt like an oasis of genuine cheer. Results similarly channelled the mood of a bygone brand of romantic comedy but with the antsy insecurity of modernity stitched into the seams, diagnosing in fitness fanatic types what Evelyn Waugh called the kind of neurosis that gets mistaken for energy. Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck was an admirably filthy take on the romantic comedy that showcased Amy Schumer well. Although the film was ridiculously overlong, the dance finale managed to slot Schumer into the most gallant tradition of screwball comediennes.

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The Walk

Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk was another of the year’s heavy bombs in spite of its urgent desire to please. This was a real pity, as it was Zemeckis’ most digestible film in a while, somewhat arduous in the set-up but transfixing when the moment of truth came, and harking back to his earlier work in its gallivanting, slightly asocial protagonist who wants to tread the finest line of the sublime and thumb his nose at the earth and its more stolid inhabitants. Magic Mike XXL and Pitch Perfect 2 became interchangeable in my mind in spite of their asymmetric demographics, both being ramshackle, knowingly superfluous sequels about putting on a good show for its own sake. Focus, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s lush tribute to a bygone brand of elegant romantic drama built around criminal activities, had a script that sadly played its best hands far too early, but it looked good all the way down and got the best out of stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie. That perennial Oscar cash crop, the biopic, hasn’t had nearly as much traction this year as usual, perhaps because of the domination by ensemble dramas about headline events. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs was reminiscent of the eponymous antihero’s Macintosh, a bright, shiny, efficient object of technical art the mass market had no interest in. But it came armed with a terrific cast working at fever pitch, Boyle’s direction effectively restrained for once, and Aaron Sorkin’s script, although no less inclined to remake everyone in sight in his own image, was punchy and found theatrical integrity in its overtly artificial structure. Bill Petzold’s Love & Mercy was an entirely acceptable, good-natured biopic recounting Brian Wilson’s tumultuous life, sometimes wielding a genuinely clever sense of how to use sound and image independently, albeit whilst reducing its tall and tortured subject into a damaged pixie genius for easy consumption.

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Ex Machina

Of course, even in the midst of movies that don’t hold up, there can be scenes and images that linger in the mind, and in a year filled with so many not-quites, there’s a lot of such moments. The ebullient hip-hop variation on the compulsory training scene in Creed, where our young hero rants like a bard as motorcycle knights form his honour guard. The extended accidental house-party-cum-group hate-in in Mistress America and the Greenwich Village poseur gathering in The Mend. The attack of crippling, but also transformative dysmorphia that sweeps upon the protagonist of The Danish Girl, giving a flicker of momentary intensity to the hero’s need for transformation. James Bond beholding his new lady love swathed in silk in elegant surrounds in Spectre, and his opening adventure that transmutes 50 years of series lore into a perfect 10 minutes. The kinetic waltz that tears the heroine of Crimson Peak out of her solicitous solitude and the final chase, also dancelike, that sees her fighting for her life, painted in tones of snow white and blood red. The disquieting dream sequences that signal monstrous and bizarre things claiming the soul of the wretched antihero of Faults. The beach sequence in It Follows, gaining eruptive tension not from hiding the menace, but watching it with dispassion. The spectacles of action and detachment dotted through The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The awe-tinged climax of The Walk. The too self-consciously weird, but effectively creepy dance at the heart of Ex Machina.

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Love & Mercy

Will Smith’s conman starting into a seemingly mad game of ante-up with B.D. Wong’s grinning gambling tycoon in Focus, essayed in a sprawl of fragmented and diffused images and jolting music cues that obscure the mechanics of deception at work. The brilliantly shot accident sequences with their ridiculous, but intricately observed processes of cause and effect bookending Age of Adaline. The gruellingly realistic bear attack sequence that gave Backcountry its moment of awful reckoning. The wittily staged microcosmic action finale of Ant-Man, complete with miniature tribute to 2001 that outdid the whole of Interstellar. The rip-roaring, one-shot, church massacre sequence in Kingsmen and the balletic aerial battle of hero and villainess. Tom Cruise dangling off the side of a plane at the very start of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The pummelling storm sequence in Everest and the astonishingly casual fate of John Hawkes’ gutsy, but outmatched ordinary man. The outbreaks of order-cracking deliria that punctuate The Falling. The hilarious interview with the industrious designer of S&M furnishings in The Duke of Burgundy. The nonverbal communication espoused by the two alpha males in Aloha. The depictions of recording Pet Sounds in Love & Mercy.

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Lost River

The song recital that gave Phoenix its climax and moment of ultimate revelation. President Snow laughing his guts out at the aptly nasty final spectacle of death that capped The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2. The ride of the Resistance in The Force Awakens, heroic flying knights skimming across the waters bringing retribution for the blitzed. Ultron singing his weird, mad song likening himself to a puppet freed from strings as titans and gods fight to undo his unleashed chaos. In Welcome to New York, Gerard Depardieu’s monstrous banker roaming like some soon-to-be-extinct Apatosaurus in New York’s dawn light, flanked by temples of glass and steel whilst meditating on the tragedy of his own lost hope. Shu Qi’s eponymous gentle killer in The Assassin, hovering amidst the shadows and gauzy drapes of the palace like some hazily remembered ghost of reckoning, listening in to the tragedy of her own life. The unblinking abortion sequence and silent final murder rampage in The Tribe. Alicia Vikander’s boozy, liberated heroine dancing behind Armie Hammer’s smouldering, gelded Soviet superman in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The assailed squaddie protagonist of ’71 carrying the young victim of a terrorist bombing out of the inferno. Saoirse Ronan enthroned as queen of the underworld by Matt Smith’s feudal lord of the wasteland, and Christina Hendricks slicing off her own “face” in the Grand Guignol theatre, in Lost River

Performances of Note

Jacqueline Bisset, Welcome to New York
Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak; The Martian
Viola Davis, Blackhat
Gerard Depardieu, Welcome to New York
Harrison Ford, Age of Adaline; Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Greta Gerwig, Mistress America
Donald Glover, Magic Mike XXL; The Martian
Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies
Christina Hendricks, Lost River
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World
Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight
Dakota Johnson, Black Mass; Cymbeline; Fifty Shades of Grey
Sidse Babett Knudsen, The Duke of Burgundy
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Rachel MacAdams, Aloha; Spotlight
Ben Mendelsohn, Lost River; Mississippi Grind
Carey Mulligan, Suffragette
Leland Orser, Faults
Shu Qi, The Assassin
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Peter Sarsgaard, Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story
Liev Schreiber, Spotlight
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; Testament of Youth
Maisie Williams, The Falling
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alex From Venice; Faults
B.D. Wong, Focus
Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton
Ensemble: Aloha
Ensemble: The Mend
Ensemble: Results
Ensemble: Steve Jobs

Best of 2015

The Assassin (Hsiao-Hsien Hou)

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A dense, elusive, bewitching work from a real master, The Assassin, along with Michael Mann’s Blackhat, took on the well-worn idea of the rogue deliverer of justice in a corrupt world. Where Mann’s film was a myth of the hypermodern, Hou’s is a dream of the past, a whispery, folkloric exploration of a usually high-powered genre, turning the familiar marital arts drama inside out whilst staying true to some of its deeper cultural and spiritual underpinnings, every shot reverberating with implicit mystery, longing, and melancholy as well as impossible beauty. Shu Qi provided a near-silent centre of gravity with unerring poise.

Blackhat (Michael Mann)

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One of the year’s heaviest flops and a divisive experience for those who did see it, Michael Mann’s Blackhat was perhaps the surest litmus test to differentiate between auteurists and everyone else since De Palma’s Mission to Mars, encompassing as it did the full pantheon of Mann’s ideas, obsessions, and stylistic quirks. At once a dashing piece of genre storytelling and a genuinely original, boundary-pushing piece of cinema, Mann’s first film in six years took on technological concepts that are notoriously tricky to film and turned them into raw cinema, whilst diagnosing the present day’s insidious psychic dichotomy, split between technological wonder and a reversion to almost primal causes and concomitant violence, with the kind of cool that burns.

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

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Nobody would have minded much if Steven Spielberg had relaxed a little with the follow-up to his magnum opus Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies might have been just a grace note, another civics class account of righteous causes and plucky dealmakers with macro-historical interest. But Bridge of Spies built to its finale with admirable narrative cool that concealed a sneaky emotional punch, and provided, like Blackhat, a summary for its director’s career that also clears the way for new material. The familiar ordinary man at the heart of Spielberg’s early work strove through a narrative that moved in stages through his ’80s retro adventures, ’90s conscience dramas, and ’00s moral quagmire studies. Uniformly excellent performances helped.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)

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Olivier Assayas’ antidrama took on the familiar conceit of art vs. life, applied a stringent cinematic and conceptual rigour to it, and came up with a work that was at once deliberately frustrating, even alienating, and yet somehow profoundly enjoyable to experience. Not all of Assayas’ twists and trials felt necessary, but as long as he was arming leading ladies Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz with words to wrap wicked tongues about, it was riveting. It was also, in spite of its emphasis on the verbal and theatrical, a work of exquisite visual poise and economy.

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda)

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In a year filled with rickety prestige films trying at once to be strong-arming dramas and meaningful statements on Big Issues, Experimenter proceeded with the same analytical, essayistic dispassion, mixed with a misdirecting technique, of its central character. Director Michael Almereyda stripped out everything that smacked of melodrama, whilst retaining a spry sense of humour and an absurdist visual style that might have been offering symbolism or just trolling us. Like Clouds of Sils Maria, Experimenter was a work that prods the audience to think rather than smother them in screenwriting contrivances.

The Martian (Ridley Scott)

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In some ways a comedown in ambition from Ridley Scott’s recent films but all the more fluent for it, The Martian was an almost defiantly relaxed, sublimely confident exercise in crowd-pleasing, with a dose of big-heartedness and respect for intelligence that made it feel distinct amongst recent big-budget films. But under the new-agey take on heroic themes and pseudo-satiric waggishness was an old-fashioned sense of cinematic virtue, eyeing both grand vistas and the quirky nobility of its humans in both solitude and solidarity with a clear sense of their entwining: truly, a grain of sand doesn’t stir on Mars without eyes to see it.

Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone)

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A movie I can imagine delighting or disturbing viewers in roughly equal numbers with its triptych of perverse, funny, often bloody, occasionally harrowing mythical stories harvested from a collection published in the 1500s, Tales of Tales was a fervently weird and original work that had much in common with a near-forgotten strand of European fantasy cinema that sometimes poked its head up during the ’60s and ’70s. Although made in English with an international cast, Tale of Tales retained an atmosphere rooted in the arcane, ornate Italianism at the heart of Garrone’s source material. But it also realised the essential timelessness and symbolic force at the heart of such stories, with their acerbic metaphorical attacks on power, class, family, desire, the hunger for beauty, youth, and riches, as well as other ills that still define our collective neurosis.

Would Have Been On Best-Of List If I Had Seen It In Time

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

Runners-Up

Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans)
Faults (Riley Stearns)
Heaven Knows What (Ben & Joshua Safdie)
Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow)
The Mend (John Magary)
Results (Andrew Bujalski)
Testament of Youth (James Kent)
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara)

The Worthy & The Underrated

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Han-min Kim)
Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
The Falling (Carol Morley)
Joy (David O. Russell)
Man From Reno (Dave Boyle)
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Pan (Joe Wright)
Spectre (Sam Mendes)
Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy)
Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)
Suffragette (Sarah Gavron)
Tangerine (Sean Baker)
Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
The Walk (Robert Zemeckis)

The Underwhelming & The Overrated

Black Mass (Scott Cooper)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie)
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (Spike Lee)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)
What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)
Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)

Unredeemable

The Gunman (Pierre Morel)
Macbeth (Justin Kurzel)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Seventh Son (Sergei Bodrov)
Spy (Paul Feig)
Taken 3 (Olivier Megaton)

Unseen

45 Years / Beasts of No Nation / Chi-Raq / Concussion / Diary of a Teenage Girl / The Dressmaker / Eden / The End of the Tour / Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem / Mustang / Room / Son of Saul / Tu Dors Nicole

Vintage: Best First-Time Movie Classic Viewings of 2015

Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
The Big Boss / Fist of Fury (Lo Wei)
The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith)
Caravaggio (Derek Jarman)
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (Sergio Martino)
The Creation of the Humanoids (Wesley Barry)
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)
Deadline USA (Richard Brooks)
Dillinger (John Milius)
The Driver (Walter Hill)
Eugenia (Jesus Franco)
Eyes of Fire (Avery Crounse)
Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger)
Fear City (Abel Ferrara)
Foolish Wives (Erich von Stroheim)
Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn)
Gold (Peter Hunt)
Green Snake / The Blade (Tsui Hark)
Hangover Square (John Brahm)
Krylya (Larisa Shepitko)
Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu)
The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg)
Les Amants / Le Feu Follet (Louis Malle)
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Lucio Fulci)
Mamma Roma / The Gospel According to St. Matthew / Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
Men in War (Anthony Mann)
The Man on the Roof (Bo Widerberg)
Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Psych-Out (Richard Rush)
Riot in Cell Block 11 / Charley Varrick (Don Siegel)
The Samurai Trilogy / The Birth of Japan (Hiroshi Inagaki)
San Demetrio, London (Charles Frend)
Scandal (Akira Kurosawa)
Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu)
Shack Out on 101 (Edward Dein)
Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Story of G.I. Joe (William A. Wellman)
The Wild Angels (Roger Corman)
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber)


17th 12 - 2015 | 29 comments »

Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: J. J. Abrams

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

And so it begins. Again. After months of feverish anticipation, it finally came down to me amidst a movie theatre filled by fans, many dressed as their favourite Star Wars characters. Some recoil from the way such popular material can suck up all the oxygen of cultural discussion, but I can’t help feeling enormously cheered when surrounded by people who love a story and a way of seeing so much that it inspires them to throw out the usual rules about how we’re supposed to treat the products of imagination in real life. Amidst such cultish fervour, however, it can also be hard to formulate an objective opinion. J. J. Abrams now lives out the dream of so many in the audience who saw the first Star Wars back in 1977 in relaunching the series for a new time and generation, skewing it back toward his understanding of what made it great in the first place. Abrams is, of course, the former scribe of TV shows, including Lost and Alias, who graduated to making films with the nervy action thriller Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), the big, fun, rather dumb rebooted Star Trek movies, and his best to date, the deeply personal, if derivative, semiclassic, Super 8 (2011).

Auteurist scruples may wince at the prospect, but then again, just as George Lucas was so ready to remix his favourite old movies into something for himself, the time had come, apparently, when someone can do the same to Lucas’ model. The new Star Wars entry comes weighed down with a colossal amount of expectation amongst many hardcore and casual fans, most of who want to bury the memory of Lucas’ prequels that I spent so many digits exploring recently. I like the prequels, and my set of expectations are inevitably different. I’m a fan of the series, of Lucas as a filmmaker, and of fantastic movies in general, a set of loyalties that can converge neatly—or twist in gruelling discursions.

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The Force Awakens nonetheless studiously hits all the right notes from the outset— the classic title swooping away from the camera, the expository screen crawl, the first glimpse of something awesome deep in outer space. In this case, it’s a Star Destroyer appearing as a silhouette against a planet and disgorging a swarm of smaller space ships like some monstrous arachnid. The crawl does a fair job setting up the essential story: the Republic is faltering, a bunch of Imperial holdouts calling themselves the First Order are on the march, and Luke Skywalker has disappeared. First Order jackboots, including new dark lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Stormtroop commander Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), are chasing down dashing X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who’s on a mission to retrieve a map that may show Luke’s whereabouts. Poe receives the map from an old rebel adherent, Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow, pitifully wasted), on the desert planet Jakku, but Ren and his thugs arrive, forcing Poe to hide the map in his droid BB-8 just before he’s captured. The First Order thugs massacre Tekka and his fellow villagers, but one Stormtrooper, whose only moniker is FN-2187 (John Boyega), is disgusted with the slaughter. He helps Poe escape Kylo’s clutches, albeit not before Kylo uses his skill with the Force to extract the map’s whereabouts. Poe gives his rescuer a proper name, Finn, based on his number, and they escape in a TIE fighter. The craft is damaged, and they crash-land on Jakku. Finn thinks Poe has died and starts searching for BB-8 alone, only to be adopted quickly by venturesome young salvager, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Duo and droid flee First Order forces, and eventually hijack an old, battered spaceship found lying about a Jakku junkyard. Whaddaya know, it’s the Millennium Falcon.

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The Force Awakens works well up to this point. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are able to create likeable heroes and strong repartee with surprising fleetness, setting up this fresh roster of characters in the context of a new era whilst also counterpointing the story beats of the very first Star Wars film in a way that feels apt to the basic patterning that has dominated the series. Rey is, like Anakin and Luke Skywalker, the product of a desolate environment and even more hardscrabble existence, and Finn recalls Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in his determination to do right in spite of a morally compromised past. BB-8 is an ingeniously designed and executed new droid who has to bear all the heavy lifting of cute appeal in this edition, for precious little kid-friendly whimsy will be allowed to slip through tightened fanboy security. Isaac, in particular, is instantly convincing: his natural charisma and swagger, so often damped down in more earnest performances and films, makes Poe a real focal point — so, of course, the film leaves him out of its middle act. Abrams’ insistence on returning as much as possible to “practical” special effects, replete with model work and life-size mock-ups, pays the most obvious dividends. The physical world here has texture, and the technical production is magnificent, every ray gun blast and engine noise registering with thrumming force, every spaceship seeming real and tactile. If Abrams achieves nothing else, it might be that he does something similar to what Lucas, Spielberg, and the other Movie Brats accomplished in their day for his own contemporary cinema: reinvigorate the love of craft and sense of film production as a near-religious event.

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Rey and Finn’s first adventure in the Falcon, dodging TIE fighters inside the strewn wrecks of cast-off Imperial death machines, is dynamically staged, and carries thematic force—the world of the old Star Wars films is now a dramatic scrap heap, a legendary time given way to an age of fractious decay needing new blood and gumption. But The Force Awakens starts to go awry here, too. The arch touch of finding the Falcon in such a circumstance is wittily purveyed, but segues into a desperately flimsy reintroduction for Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who have just returned to their old lives as smugglers because, as Han says at one point, it’s “the only thing I was ever good at.” You’ve gotta be kidding me, Abrams. Han and Chewie, appearing in a big, junky smuggling ship, zero in on the Falcon and pick it up. They hold off some disgruntled clientele and marauding monsters in a sequence that comes across more as a big-budget Red Dwarf gag than Star Wars-grade fare, and Abrams gets to do one of his trademark breathless but unimaginative run-about-hallways action scenes. The best news is that Ford is at the top of his game here, slipping back into Han like a second skin and tossing off his bluffs and grouchy quips with sublime ease. But this is part of the problem, too. Howard Hawks, one of Lucas’ masters and models, knew very well that he couldn’t utilise John Wayne the same way in El Dorado (1966) as he had in Red River (1948), and apart from Han’s tentative reunion with Leia late in the piece, there’s little convincing sense of character development. Abrams offers the juice of seeing an old friend, but with the dispiriting corollary of finding that old friend is still a screw-up. Of course, there’s a reason for this, such as it is.

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It’s not surprising that Abrams is confident in making a continuation that gives us “what we want.” Any experienced TV writer learns quickly how to move onto a project and mimic the qualities that sustain a successful show. Here that honed skill is matched to a fan’s fetishism for the look, sound, and tenor of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens bends over backwards to operate like someone just took all the old Star Wars toys out of your bottom drawer and started playing with them again, at the expense of developing Lucas’ fantasy world in any meaningful way. Spent the last 30 years wondering what the rebuilt Jedi Order would look like, how Han would take to being a war hero and husband to a princess, what the rebuilt Republic would be like? Abrams answers these questions by negating them, hitting the reset button and returning the narrative to comfortable, fan-service postures. Luke’s in narrative purgatory, the Jedi are a nonstarter, Han’s gone rogue again, and Leia’s now a general, which means she does the same thing here as she did in the finale of the original—stand around watching glowing maps. The Republic is up and running once more, but fragile, and the First Order is being fought by “the Resistance,” which is basically the Rebel Alliance with a mandate, still scrappy, outmatched outsiders. The First Order looks, sounds, and operates exactly the same as the Empire though they seemingly have none of that entity’s resources or purview. Having experienced two giant variations on the Maginot Heresy already with the Death Star, here is, well, another Death Star, except it’s been constructed inside a planet and is called the Starkiller base: “It’s bigger!” Han cracks, a touch of knowing self-satire that doesn’t actually excuse the laziness of the story. The First Order have an overlord who’s come out of nowhere named Snoke (Andy Serkis)—wow, there’s a terrifying villain name—and looks like a bigger, even pastier and nastier version of Emperor Palpatine. His underlings Ren and Phasma are joined by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, overacting something shocking) to duke it out for most incompetent bad guy prize.

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The emotional element for many in seeing Han, Chewie, and Leia again after so many years presents Abrams with a ball he can’t possibly drop, and he doesn’t. Nor does he do anything interesting or enriching with it: Han and Leia stand around swapping a few feels, and then we’re off again. The habit of reviving iconic characters only to make them mere furniture or to bump one or two off for shock effect is one comic book readers mocked decades ago, and Abrams lets himself be drawn into the same trap, as indeed he already did on his Star Trek films. One of the major spoilers or whatever here is Kylo Ren’s identity: in a motif drawn from the expanded universe novels that followed the original trilogy but tweaked for the sake of independence, Kylo is actually Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son, who’s fallen under the spell of the Dark Side. The absolute signature moment of the original trilogy was, of course, the revelation by Vader that he was Luke’s father. Think about that moment, how brilliantly powerful and climactic it was, how dramatically staged. Here, we learn Kylo’s real identity in a throwaway piece of exposition spouted by Snoke. Lame scarcely covers it. Kylo keeps Darth Vader’s melted helmet as a totem in his bedroom to spur his longing to become a worthy heir to the Sith lord’s power. Driver is competent in the role, but anyone who critiqued Hayden Christensen’s rather more complex performance as Anakin Skywalker should not have the gall to call this anything more persuasive. Indeed, the film badly lacks a truly potent and charismatic villain, someone to shock the narrative into feeling like anything more than a wire hanger to drape callbacks and footloose action on.

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I know this might sound rich coming from a guy who defended the writing of the prequels, but the script of The Force Awakens is weak in many respects. It struck me to be about three or four drafts away from optimal, and contains many familiar clichés of Abrams’ writing style—and contemporary screenwriting in general. Lawrence Kasdan might have been hired to give the script some gloss of familiarity with the original characters (he’s credited as cowriter along with Abrams and Michael Arndt), but too much of the film has Abrams’ rather more mechanical, weakly balanced sensibility. In its desperate need to get off to a high-powered start and stay in that gear, the sequences that have to bear the weight of character and story development, particular in the middle act when our heroes takes refuge in a bar run by gnomic alien crone Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), take on an awkward feel, at once rushed and laborious. Maz is a fascinating example of how an attempt to reproduce an element of the original trilogy (Yoda) finished up as a bland and forgettable placeholder, someone to nudge Rey along her path toward finding her inner Jedi and nothing more: no one will remember a thing this character says or does. Also, why net an actress of Nyong’o’s quality for such a fruitless aspect of the film? The film sets up a tension whereby Finn fears the inevitable moment when his Stormtrooper past will be revealed to Rey. The moment comes. There’s no payoff. We wait for Han and Leia to be reunited. They’re reunited. And we’re done. Compared with the way Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) wove Indy’s reunion with Marion as a screwball bickering scene in amidst thunderous action, this is strikingly witless. Indeed, for all the faults of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was a far more accomplished film than this in acknowledging aging heroes and weaving in legacy with derring-do.

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The Force Awakens is a paean to popcorn movies as an ideal, and it moves along with such rollercoaster verve and good spirits that it does fulfil that ideal to a great degree. But something’s been lost. For Lucas, even at his lowest ebbs, the Star Wars mystique was about something more, something richer and more conceptually challenging. The acting is “better” here than in the prequels, but largely because the actors are called upon to do much less complicated things, in that increasingly common pseudo-screwball, TV-influenced manner where they all but trip over their dialogue from having to rattle it off so quickly. Boyega and Ridley give mostly confident, broad performances where they nail what their characters are supposed to be doing in any given scene, as much as the script is clear about who they are and what they’re thinking and feeling, which isn’t as often as I’d like. Boyega has a good sense of humour and he conveys Finn’s anxiety well, a particularly neat turn from an actor whose most notable previous role, as the hapless leader of the gang of posturing toughs in Attack the Block (2011), was defined precisely by a lack of self-humour. But at no point was I ever convinced that this character had ever been ruthlessly trained since childhood as a killing machine and then discovered his humanity. This is actually a very cogent example of something I was getting at in my comments on the prequels, where Lucas tried so hard to make his characters operate according to the laws of his invented universe rather than dumping easy avatars into that world, which is exactly what Abrams and company have done. Ridley, who suggests this year’s model Keira Knightley, is sometimes a plucky lass with a line of good-golly-gosh faces and sometimes an omnicompetent Sarah Connor type, and the film is remarkably cagey—or lazy—in telling us who she is and how she got this way. A couple of the bad guys sneer about her being a scavenger, but this feels more like regulation screenwriting apparatus than a real goad to her class rage. Nonetheless, I liked Finn and Rey as protagonists: as this revived series goes on, they might be allowed to take these roles to some interesting places. Or maybe not.

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I’m not sure what, if any, authentic emotional level Abrams works on, except for his love of classic Gen X action and scifi flicks, and the originals in this series above all. The sprawl of Lucas’ references was vast. Abrams’ take on Star Wars refers to almost nothing outside itself, except with some vague suggestion of an Islamic State programme of all-consuming absolutism behind the First Order, as well as the usual Nazi-authoritarian stuff. Given the post-Romanesque world of the collapsed Empire, there was a good opportunity to give the overarching narrative shape by referring to tales of Charlemagne and Arthur, rather than the Greek and German myths used in the original sextet. One of the best heroic images in the film, when Poe leads in a flight of Resistance X-Wings to battle like charging paladins or knights of the Round Table, grasps this concept. There’s also a hint of Excalibur surrounding the light saber left behind by Luke, which Rey finds hanging around in an odd place (but convenient for Abrams, who still has a poor sense of how to get characters around points A, B, and C) which seems to now choose its owner. But the really alarming side of The Force Awakens is that it completely lacks any kind of fresh, motivating frame of reference or core idea, or at least, none that’s allowed to make itself apparent. The original films never let concepts get in the way of a good story, but they were held together doggedly by Lucas’ carefully parsed underpinnings. It’s enough for Abrams that a character goes from zero to hero; that’s his and Hollywood’s current idea of mythic resonance. Some critics have congratulated this film for precisely the absence of mythological preoccupation. Go to hell, I say; then why am I watching this and not the 300 other action-adventure franchises out there?

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Abrams and his team have gone to great lengths to merely dress familiar things in new garb: here’s a new Emperor stand-in, here’s a Darth Vader wannabe, here’s a second-string Luke Skywalker, without pausing to let any of it breathe or gain substance. The original film took nearly an hour to leave Tatooine in the course of charting the events that set Luke on his journey, passing through stages of surprising stillness and quiet, evoking the meditative edge that often bubbled unexpectedly to the surface in places throughout the sextet. Lucas’ Jedi were thinkers and feelers; everyone here is a doer. Abrams grazes similar moments of horror to the death of Luke’s aunt and uncle and Anakin’s mother in noting the First Order’s violence, but it’s impersonal and offstage. Many branded the prequels as overly light and lacking grit, but The Force Awakens is actually far more blithe and evasive about the impact of violence. Many similarly derided the introduction of the idea of the midi-chlorians as a source for the Force as a misguided demystification of Lucas’ spiritual aspect, but here Abrams and company do something worse as the film reaches its climax and Rey literally gets her Jedi knight moves on in the course of battling Kylo. The whole point of the original trilogy was the process of developing the mental and spiritual discipline required to become a Jedi, and the prequels studied what horrible results could come of the process failing. To Abrams, it’s become just another cheap power fantasy.

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The Starkiller base wipes out a few planets a la the destruction of Alderaan, but whereas that was Leia’s home and an immensely brutal act registered through her reaction delivered with a political purpose of tyrannising obedience out of Imperial subjects, here it’s just some places that get wiped out for no particular reason other than, well, the story needs to make us dislike the baddies some more. Such is the film’s great technical in-your-face bluster and swiftness of movement that the weakness of its story structure and designs is nearly obscured. Return of the Jedi saw the rebels embarking on a rather limp plan to foil their enemies’ defences, but that plotline now looks positively Machiavellian in cunning compared with the way Han and Finn take out the Starkiller base’s defences by holding Phasma at gunpoint and threatening her into lowering the shields. So much for these fanatically committed agents of evil. The second great spoiler here is that Kylo, when Han finally confronts him, kills his father, in a sequence deliberately reminiscent of the death of Obi-Wan in the original. That scene was wrenching and shocking in part because Lucas never really suggested it was going to be so momentous. Here Abrams telegraphs what’s going to happen so blatantly that I couldn’t feel even a flicker of surprise, or even much sadness. By this stage, Han is just another moving part amongst too many. But I did like the flicker of interesting ambiguity that strays into the scene—does Han realise what’s in Kylo’s heart and willingly sacrifice himself, or did he trust too much?—which lends the film momentary depth by offering the one vignette that isn’t plying the obvious.

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The Force Awakens is spectacular, of course, but there’s a difference between spectacular and spectacle. Spectacular is flash and impact; spectacle is lucid and grand. Lucas aimed to give a touch of the sublime in his sense of the cosmic, and so often had a poetic edge to his visuals to counterpoint the kinetic ferocity. His frames spoke of his love of the fantastic, his desire to share with the audience a sense of things vast and strange, even when his words failed him and his movies skidded. Nothing like the romantic vistas of Attack of the Clones get a look in here, and Abrams’ way of evoking the same kind of yearning in Rey as once possessed Luke, so eloquently captured in the famous sunset shot of the original, manifests as her watching a spaceship take off, without anything like the same sense of visual rapture conveying inner meaning. The Force Awakens deploys the same lexicon of fantastic images as Lucas created, the scale of his war machines and the martial vigour of the space battles and final light saber duel. But Abrams has no gift for spectacle, and apart from the few brief visions early in the film, like the wrecked carcasses of Star Destroyers and their cavernous innards, no grasp on the dreamlike sensibility that coiled throughout the original sextet, no feel for the dark and hushed places that often live in the corners of that fantasy world where the heroes often found some of their truest threats.

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Abrams has been consistently improving as a director, and he restrains his messy instincts here to a great degree, imitating Lucas as much as possible. Yet his images never escape the realm of mere prose. The final battle sequences forget entirely about the space war raging above the heads of the duelling young warriors, and the Starkiller base blows up with scarcely a raised eyebrow: there’s no sense of the dramatic shape that made the original’s finale so enthralling. Here it’s just more cool, pretty things going zap and boom. Even the scene I praised earlier, of the Resistance’s charge, kind of comes to nothing. Finn and Rey’s attempt to bring Kylo down really gains strength, but this is then spoilt by Abrams’ need to give too much too soon. I’m being churlish to a deliberate degree, I’ll admit. The Force Awakens is a beautifully produced, solid, fast-paced and entertaining space adventure movie. But on some level, for all the familiar paraphernalia and exacting tribute, I felt like it was barely a Star Wars film, but rather just another imitation, Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) with more money. The film finally wraps up with a coda that is, on one level, excruciatingly clumsy, but also intriguing, as Rey confronts Luke at his hidden abode, an ancient Jedi temple at the edge of the ocean, his grizzled and battered face suggesting the hells he’s been through coping with the aftermath of his awful triumph. It’s telling that merely the sight of Mark Hamill’s face captures exactly the note the film has spent more than two hours trying to strike.


14th 12 - 2015 | 4 comments »

The Assassin (Nie yin niang, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou

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By Roderick Heath

Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.

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The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.

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The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.

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Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.

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Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.

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This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.

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Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.

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The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.

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Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.

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Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.

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At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.

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Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.

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At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.

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Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.

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Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.


10th 12 - 2015 | no comment »

Carol (2015)

Director: Todd Haynes

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s hard to believe that Todd Haynes has been making movies of some significance since 1985, when he launched his career with Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, a short film about the love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Since this audaciously experimental beginning, Haynes has dealt explicitly and implicitly with gay themes, as with his examination of the sexually fluid glamrock scene through the eyes of a gay journalist in Velvet Goldmine (1998) and a camouflaged look at AIDS in his environmental-health horror story Safe (1995). He has also developed revisionist versions of classic films that have served as touchpoints for the gay community, including his TV miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) and Far From Heaven (2002), his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s “taboo” older woman/younger man romance All That Heaven Allows (1955) that pulls the conformist veil off the Eisenhower era to reveal the real social pariahs of the time—homosexuals and interracial couples. Haynes’ concerns have remained outside the mainstream for most of his somewhat sparse career, perhaps limiting the amount of work he could have accomplished, but also giving him the space to look at the films that influence him and find creative ways of capturing their appeal without succumbing to their amber-coated attitudes. In this respect, Carol represents the apotheosis of Haynes’ filmcraft.

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Haynes once again turns to a mid-20th-century source, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, to mine the period details with which he seems so enamored as well as the repressions and widespread prejudices of the period that will stand in opposition to the would-be lovers, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Interestingly, the barriers to happiness for the couple in All the Heaven Allows—class and age differences—face Carol and Therese as well and are compounded by their same-sex attraction. In truth, however, neither woman seems to have any trouble being in love with another woman; it is the reaction of Therese’s suitor, Richard (Jack Lacy), and especially Carol’s estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), that puts them in a complicated bind.

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The film opens near the end, with the audience casual observers of two women we soon learn are Therese and Carol as they sit across from each other in a restaurant. A young man spies Therese and goes up to greet her and invite her to a party. Reluctant at first, she agrees to go when Carol arises and says she has to meet some people anyway. The film then flashes back to Carol and Therese’s first meeting in the department store where Therese works and proceeds chronologically from there, as Carol pulls the barely formed Therese into her orbit, her bed, and, eventually, her life.

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Haynes’ choice to name his film Carol instead of “Therese” or “Carol and Therese” reveals something interesting about gay relationships, especially in more closeted times, as well as some myths the straight world has held regarding homosexuals. Carol is older and has pursued lesbian relationships throughout her life; in fact, her former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), is godmother to Carol’s daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim). Thus, Carol offers Therese the mentorship characteristic of gay relationships of the time. At the same time, her seduction of Therese is practiced and, frankly, predatory for the first half of the film—a perfect example of the “recruitment” homophobes fear. The revelation of Carol’s affair with Therese during her divorce proceedings further aggravates homophobic notions that she is a degenerate influence and blocks the slam dunk mothers of the time usually had in retaining custody of their children.

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Haynes’ focus on Carol also presents a model of homosexuality that is more assertive and positive than it might have been had Therese been the center of attention. Therese is little more than a lump of clay who admits that she acquiesces to everyone because she has no idea who she is or what she wants. Her idea of rebellion is to “forget” to wear her Santa hat at work and to suggest that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll for Christmas—a gift Therese coveted as a child, in the script’s small nod to her hidden butchness. Even the stare she fixes on Carol when she first sees her, though insistent, is terribly repressed, so glazed over that it might be mistaken for something other than attraction, say, spotting her long-lost mother or recognizing the woman who seduced her father away from the family.

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Carol quickly moves in on Therese, who instantly agrees to every invitation—to lunch, to Carol’s country estate, to take a road trip to Chicago and beyond. It’s sadly funny to watch the men in their lives stomp around like Rumpelstiltskin when they realize they are neither needed nor wanted. Richard can’t believe Therese won’t join him on a cruise to Europe—at his expense—and isn’t thrilled that he wants to marry her in opposition to his usual tom-catting ways. Harge keeps harping on Carol that she’s his wife and is supposed to want him, though his tragedy is that he is deeply in love with Carol and tries very hard to woo her back, turning vindictive and calculating only to unleash his pain at her and protect their daughter from her possibly harmful influence. Lacy creates a certain simple, straightforward man in Richard, one whose ordinariness makes him seem a bit like a pale caricature. Chandler defies expectations that he will eventually explode in violence and seems all the more impotent and pitiable for being, actually, a good man.

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Haynes flings all his balls in the air, moving them skillfully in rhythmic orbit around each other, adding in and subtracting balls from his circular tale. He punctuates scenes with telling looks, charged touches, and fetishized objects, like the gloves Carol leaves on Therese’s counter to ensure they’ll be in touch again, the toy train shot from above as it describes a small, closed loop, the tartan hat Therese wears in many scenes, a blatant emblem of her schoolgirl innocence longing for experience, and Carol herself, with her luxurious golden locks, ruby-red lips and enveloping fur coat that rivet our attention. Haynes’ regular cinematographer, Edward Lachman, offers us a Technicolor dream, highlighting the breathtaking colors that accompany scenes shared by Therese and Carol, while offering muted, cool colors when Therese is on her own or bereft at her separation from Carol, as well as gauzy, dreamlike sequences that make his images indistinct and private. Haynes finally winds back to where the film started, but shot from a different angle to reveal the changes the previous scenes have wrought on Carol and Therese.

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Blanchett delivers a complicated performance—all surface and sheen in the beginning, the gradual defrosting that happens during the road trip, and finally, a completely open declaration of who she is and what she wants when facing down Harge. Mara, on the other hand, doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, which seems contrary to what young people usually do, and remains a mousey presence whose main attractions for Carol seem to be her refined name, her slight ability to play the piano, and her eager youthfulness. When Carol tells Therese that she loves her, it seems sincere, but the final look she gives a slightly more wised-up Therese is tantalizingly enigmatic.

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Honestly, I don’t believe in the sincerity of this love story, but Carol accomplishes something more interesting—it honors authenticity, devalues social convention and wealth, and presents a capstone tale that validates the tremendous gains made by the LGBTQ community in the past few years. It must have given Haynes great pleasure to acknowledge this progress in the best way he knows how—by continuing to chronicle and reinvent the gay experience for audiences everywhere with exquisitely crafted and directed films.


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