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.


29th 11 - 2015 | no comment »

James White (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Josh Mond

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I want to get one thing straight at the outset: I do not see James White as a movie about a self-destructive, self-centered, rich-ish 20-something who needs to grow up. The character of James White is not the problem that needs figuring out in this film. In fact, from where I sit, James White, as played brilliantly by Christopher Abbott, who is never offscreen, is a sensitive human being who feels everything so deeply and sees everything so clearly that he uses sex, drugs, and alcohol to beat reality back to a tolerable distance. James White is likely a difficult person to be with and live with because of how he deals with his sensitivity, but those who focus on these difficulties will miss the larger beauty of James and the film itself—the opportunity to understand how to behave when someone is grieving and how to undertake the sad privilege of caring for a dying loved one.

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We first meet James in a pulsating nightclub where the in-your-face glitz and noise form an insignificant background to the almost full-frame shots of James’ sweat-soaked face and hair as he gets visibly more wasted as time goes by. Eventually, the scene shifts to a nice apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), is sitting shiva for James’ father, her ex-husband Barry (Scott Cohen). Nick (Scott Mescudi, who also provides the evocative score), James’ best friend from childhood, has flown in from Europe to lend his support, a support he must know James will need desperately in the weeks ahead. The shiva, a bizarre exercise given that Gail is not Jewish, is loaded with people from Barry’s life with his second wife, Karen (Sue Jean Kim), and friends of Gail’s who cruelly greet James with remarks like, “We always thought you’d end up in prison.” James and Nick leave the gathering to drink and find a couple of one-night stands to take to a hotel. When they return to Gail’s, the mourners are watching a tape of Karen and Barry’s wedding. Incensed at the insensitivity of this act toward his mother, James throws everyone out of the apartment. Very soon thereafter, he decamps to a posh Mexican resort with Nick, where he meets fellow New Yorker and future girlfriend Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), drops acid, and is called back home by a frantic Gail, who has learned that her cancer has returned.

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Josh Mond’s perceptive first feature is shot in a way that refuses us the comfort of distance. His extreme close-ups, handheld camera work, and honest dialogue force us into James’ world, a world of loss, pain, and above all, love. The searing first scene in the nightclub gives us no clue as to what kind of a man James is or what his story will be. We are as disoriented as he is, and Mond keeps us off balance throughout the film. There is no settling into a familiar narrative rhythm, as James remains constantly on the move, free-falling through what plot there is, making tentative connections episodically and living in the raw through sensorial experiences as oppositive as beatdowns and being beat off by Jayne. In Mexico, the ocean laps at him, and an LSD trip makes his excursion through a shopping mall almost tactile for the audience as he and his friends reach toward the colorful baubles on display in a kind of parody of the dazzling allure of acquisitiveness.

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The painful truth of James’ life is his ironclad connection to his creative, dependent mother who raised him without the presence of James’ father to provide him with a strong sense of direction in life—indeed, James never even met his father’s second wife until the shiva. James, a would-be fiction writer who promises more than he has so far delivered in the way of actual work, seems stuck in place, but some of his paralysis is beyond his control. Gail excoriates him for being a slacker who lives off her, while in the same breath condemning him for not being where he says he will be, for not being there for her. In fact, James has given up long stretches of his life to care for her through her various bouts with cancer. We see just how much when he races home from Mexico to be her advocate, her caregiver, her son during her final illness. His extreme competence in taking care of his mother shows what skills he was required to hone during the time of life when newly mature adults are establishing career trajectories and looking to settle down. His friendly alliance with Gail’s home care nurses shows that he has this drill down pat, while subtly emphasizing that no one else in Gail’s life seems to be around to help carry the water. Cynthia Nixon’s beautifully off-balanced intensity completely sells the double-bind Gail has necessarily put James in.

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Mond moves into the intimate space of illness as we watch Gail remove her wig after the shiva to reveal a spiky, short hairdo that hints at the hair loss she experienced as a result of chemotherapy, and then in her gradual spiral to the end of her life. We see her embarrassment when she vomits suddenly, her temporary victory in getting her fever down, her helplessness when hospitalized with only James to scold the call nurse for not cleaning up the diarrhea she is sitting in. In the most touching scene I have seen in years, James is with Gail in their bathroom at home after she has just been sick. He asks her where she wants to be. Paris, she says. She leans her head on his chest as he starts to describe a beautiful life in the City of Light, where he lives with his wife and two children. She lives in her own apartment just a few doors away, close enough to visit frequently to play with her grandchildren and dine with them. It is in this moment that we see the essential utility of being able to escape, to pretend for a little while to get over the horrors of each moment leading to death. Who would be callous enough to deny either of them this harmless comfort?

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Of course, escape for James and Gail is only temporary. Eventually, the reality of Gail’s imminent death results in a vigil of James, Nick, Jayne, and a number of the people who attended Barry’s shiva. Gail’s death rattle is frightening and so very final. James’ despair is almost too difficult to watch, but the aftermath offers us another dark chasm of uncertainty. Mond has softened the blow somewhat by writing in an editor (Ron Livingston) at New York Magazine who seems willing to hire James when he gets his act together, and the enduring presence of Jayne in James’ life is unexpected, but welcome.

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Nonetheless, James is alone. Whether he will weather this raging storm is very much in doubt, and that heartbreaking reality forms a coda to his sadly tenuous life.


13th 11 - 2015 | 9 comments »

Crimson Peak (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro

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By Roderick Heath

Since his debut with Cronos (1993), Guillermo Del Toro has stood as one of the few major arbiters of a near-bygone attitude in contemporary fantastic cinema. That attitude still floated to the surface even in his stabs at epic, vibrant crowd pleasers, including Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009) and Pacific Rim (2013), where a delight in the colour and spectacle of blockbuster cinema blended with a fervent belief in melodrama as a form that demands no apology. The brand of pop surrealism apparent even in Del Toro’s action works saw machines of the superego take on the welling forces of the id. Crimson Peak, his latest, is a partial reversion to another strand of his cinema and another province of his obsessions—outright gothic horror and classically contoured ghost stories. This streak was previously parlayed in his Spanish-language works, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), tales pitched in the keys of haunting loss and reality-transmuting fantasy mixed with bizarre and thunderous thriller plots that evoked political dimensions, as both of those films took place during the Spanish Civil War. Like many films these days, Crimson Peak blends homage with its own purposes, serving as a visual tour through the history of screen horror, evoking aspects of German expressionism, Universal and Hammer horror, 1940s gothic melodramas, and the romantic decadence of Italian horror. Del Toro declares his allegiances the moment you hear the heroine’s name is Edith Cushing.

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The setting is turn-of-the-20th-century Boston with all its protomodernity of motor cars and typewriters as still-new but swiftly adopted technology. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the product of clashing social systems, the safe but cloying enclosure of a traditional ideal of femininity and her father’s “go get ’em” Americanness. Crimson Peak shifts territory from Del Toro’s earlier ghost stories, as it’s not about a child struggling in an adult world, though most of his protagonists are defined by similar experiences of being orphaned and left adrift in that world, a theme that also secured Hellboy, Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori, and even Blade to Del Toro’s personal universe. Edith certainly has the same quality of the innocent abroad about her, and she, too, is left alone to survive and finds herself in the midst of a situation she understands through the intuition of signs and distorted simulacra rather than from more worldly cues and hints. Edith, daughter of respected financier and former steel manufacturer Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), has ambitions to become a writer, but faces rebuff by a sniffy, patronising publisher at the outset because her book has no romance and is a ghost story. “It’s not a ghost story,” she protests, “It’s a story with a ghost in it.” Edith has a peculiar affinity with ghosts, however, as her mother’s spectre appeared to her as a young girl shortly after her funeral, delivering enigmatic warnings about a place called Crimson Peak. The shade returns and renews its entreaties not long after Edith’s eye is caught by a darkly handsome stranger who approaches her father for capital: Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet, trying to finance development of a digging machine he’s designed to revive his family’s clay mining business.

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Encountering Thomas at her father’s workplace, where she labours during the day as a secretary, and then in local society, Edith falls under his spell. He encourages her out of her intellectual bubble and offers her a moment of metamorphosis as he dances a waltz with her at a society ball. Thomas is accompanied by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), whose taciturn and boding manner manifests as she takes entomological interest in dying butterflies and runs frostbite eyes over Edith. Edith has a childhood pal, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), now an eye doctor setting up practice in the same building as her father who shares Edith’s interest in spiritualism. He only starts to recognise his deeper affection for her as she’s pulled into Thomas’ orbit, whilst his mother (Leslie Hope) looks down her nose at the unglamorous would-be writer. Carter takes an immediate dislike to Thomas he can’t quite account for at first, except that as a self-made American, he can’t stand Thomas’ air of slightly effete, quixotic inspiration and softness. Later, as it becomes plain that Thomas is pursuing Edith, Carter hires a private detective, Mr. Holly (Burn Gorman), to investigate the Sharpes. Holly turns up something disturbing enough to make Carter call the Sharpes to his office and confront them. He pays them off and orders them to leave town quickly, whilst also extracting a promise from Thomas to break off with his daughter in a suitably jarring and heartbreaking way. Thomas obediently does so, humiliating Edith in front of a dinner party’s guests by disdaining her writing and lack of life experience. The next day, as Carter prepares to shave in the bathroom of his club, someone sneaks in and kills him by bashing his head against a sink to make it look like he’s died in a fall. Thomas returns and marries Edith, and then he and Lucille whisk her to England and introduce her to the lugubrious grandeur of their family manse, Allerdale Hall.

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This long first act proves one of the more surprising aspects of Crimson Peak. Del Toro flirts interestingly with a Henry Jamesian approach to milieu, a sense of the personal and the cultural intersecting, and commences in an essentially realistic frame whilst setting up a move into perfervid weirdness. The film continues in this vein even as that weirdness floods the screen, taking its characters with unexpected seriousness even as they perform archetypal functions to the point where the chief source of tension in the last act stems from anticipating where the twists of character loyalties will lead. Of course, James himself notably departed from his serious social tales with his famous ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which locates the source of horror in the strange and twisted psychological reactions of its repressed and rootless female protagonist. Del Toro isn’t interested in ambiguity of genre—he’s far too fond of the imagery and mechanics of spookfest traditions—but if it wasn’t for the ooky-kooky wraith that appears in the first few minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into some classy literary adaptation. Del Toro turns the waltz Thomas and Edith take into a subtly symphonic moment of swooning romanticism with a touch of the sublime indicated by their ability to dance whilst keeping a clutched candle lit. Thomas’ mastery of courtly arts and aura of bruised poeticism let him sustain waning aristocracy with Yankee money, a phenomenon that was very real in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. There’s a meta touch to making Edith a penner of the kinds of stories she’s about to get herself into—I detect a hint, deliberate or not, of Joseph Mankiewicz’s lampoon The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), which likewise turned on a similar conceit of literary self-reference.

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A number of contemporary ghost tales made for the cinema have been set like Crimson Peak in the first quarter of the 20th century—Haunted (1995), The Woman in Black (2011), The Awakening (2012)—because the era presents a telling, yet quaint, opposition between evolving modernity and the persistence of the irrational, and they often reference the actual explosion in interest in spiritualism of the period. Del Toro goes a few steps further. Just as he looked to the schisms of Spanish history to ground his dark fantasias in a real-life sense of angst and unhealed wounds, here Del Toro takes New and Old Worlds as a similar line of division and angst. The narrative immediately touches several essential aspects of gothic melodrama: the loss of a parent, the heroine’s aura of intellectual independence colliding with desire, the coming of the Byronic stranger and the triangle formed with a more parochially charming suitor, and the eventual shift to strange territory in the form of the grand old house that contains dark and potentially destructive secrets that the young bride must either defeat or be consumed by.

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The 1940s were a high point for this mode of cinema, perhaps nudged on by the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)—Mankiewicz’s debut Dragonwyck (1946), Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946), the Gainsborough melodramas in Britain. By the finale, there’s a dash of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), too. Wasikowska has already played the heroine of a classic text in this style, Jane Eyre, a few years back, whilst Del Toro, with his lexicon of influences, readily invites comparisons with Rebecca. Del Toro isn’t particularly Hitchcockian as a filmmaker, but he clearly has an intellectual kinship with Hitchcock’s general delight in tales of seething repression, covert truths, and subversive hungers. Hitchcock returned to gothic territory with Under Capricorn (1948) and ultimately transmuted it into something newer and stranger with Psycho (1960).

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Once the film reaches Allerdale Hall, Del Toro takes a swift turn into the saturated colour tones and densely miasmic moods of mid-century horror cinema. Del Toro is undoubtedly one of the great craftsmen of contemporary film, and his filmmaking throughout Crimson Peak hums with a sense of cinematic largesse. Del Toro infuses Lucille with a characteristic close to his own heart, a fascination for insect life, and turns an allusive moment when Edith and Lucille chat about American and British species of butterflies and moths, into a visual aria of a scene: butterflies paralysed in the chill evening become prey for swarming ants, filmed in colossal close-up. The foreshadowing is obvious—Edith is the butterfly, Lucille the black ant—but the effect is eerily sublime. As is right and correct in the gothic tradition, Allerdale Hall is a character in the film, a triumph for Del Toro and his production designer, Thomas E. Sanders, in creating a physical structure that has a quality of mimetic trap littered with remnants of past lives and decaying in synch with the psyches of its characters. Giant moths infest corners of the house. A great hole in the ceiling above the foyer lets snow collect on the floor, a rickety elevator connects the house with the basement and treacherous old mine workings. Mouldy, giant portraits gaze down on Edith and perverse spectres flit in the shadows and peer upon her. Thomas’s digging machine huffs and trembles like a great metal dinosaur hewing at the earth. The weird soil mixture in the hill the Hall stands on sees blood-coloured muck welling up, giving the hill its name; yes, this place is Crimson Peak.

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Once safely ensconced again in their home, the Sharpes press Edith to sell her father’s estate to finance work on the digging machine. Meanwhile, Alan, troubled by the mysteries swirling around Carter’s death and the newlyweds’ swift departure, begins investigating, and thanks to information from Holly, begins putting together the terrible pattern behind the Sharpes’ activity—a truth that begins unfurling to Edith in a more urgent form. Edith keeps seeing spectres about the Hall, bearing signs of violent death. Although they terrify the hapless young bride, they seem to be trying, like her mother’s shade, to warn her about the hidden evil around Allerdale Hall. The early line about a story with ghosts in it seems an evident pitch on Del Toro’s part to gain a certain breed of critical favour, but it also helps make viewers aware of the way the supernatural and the corporeal interact in his story, with these ghosts operating more as totems of awful things, which is generally what tales of hauntings have traditionally served as, ways of preserving and communicating dread events and attaching them to places where they occurred in folklore. But Del Toro also loves spooks far too much to reduce them to the realm of the merely symbolic and the suggestive a la Val Lewton. This proves a major flaw, or at least superfluity, in Crimson Peak. The manifestations of the supernatural are both unnecessary and not terribly well handled (then again, I think the same thing about some of spooks in The Shining, 1980).

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This is an odd weak point for Del Toro, who’s made a career out of his wholehearted love of the fantastical and his talent for illustrating it; perhaps that’s part of the problem, that it’s just too reflexive for Del Toro, who otherwise does a remarkable job here of blending multiple frames of reference. But the juddering, squirming, hissing wraiths that dog Edith are far too obvious, even clichéd displays of special-effects cinema, reminiscent of those in some of the rather lame horror films Del Toro has produced recently (like Mama, 2011). I get the feeling he and script collaborator Matthew Robbins (who once upon a time directed the interesting genre revision Dragonslayer, 1982) merely added ghosts to the film as a concession to presumed audience expectations, a way of sneaking them an uncool genre exercise in the guise of another. There’s a tension within Crimson Peak that doesn’t entirely resolve between the expansive showmanship manifest in Del Toro’s visual and conceptual approach and the stringencies of his story, which unfolds with a classical, near-leisurely interest in characterisation and mood, milieu and atmosphere. On the other hand, Del Toro resists turning his work into a mere haunted house ride. Crimson Peak probably counts as the first major stab at a true, unabashed gothic work since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), and it does have a surprising number of concerns in common with Burton’s Dark Shadows (2012), without the variable levels of humour: Del Toro is in earnest. That’s not to say Crimson Peak doesn’t earn any horror stripes either, it just belongs to a different branch. The scene of Carter’s murder references Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and nods to the common giallo ploy of playing games with the gender of the killer.

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Argento’s predecessors Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava seem generally much closer to Del Toro’s thoughts than giallo, however, in the diseased romanticism of their gothic-accented horror works that took inspiration equally from Hitchcock and Edgar Allen Poe. Crimson Peak shares similar points of obsession with Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1972) and particularly Freda’s The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962)—sexual deviance, piano playing, insidious presences, poisoned drinks, a house as all-but-organic presence. Ultimately, although both spooks and the equally insidious nature of money figure in this tale, boiling human passions edging into the realm of madness are the real stakes and drivers, as Edith is confronted by the true grotesqueness of perverted lives and psychopathy channelled into relished crime. Del Toro can face up to the sorts of fetid underlying motives that generally had to be communicated more discreetly in classic genre inspirations: he ultimately reveals that Thomas and Lucille, having grown up isolated and neglected in the tottering towers of Allerdale Hall, have long engaged in an incestuous relationship. It’s an apt, if icky, revelation; quite often in classical mythology, the dark secret at the heart of many a riddle was a similar revelation (e.g., Oedipus, the parentage of Siegfried). The siblings have developed a modus operandi of marrying Thomas to rich, solitary women for their money, and having Lucille murder them with the same brutal relish she turned on their mother. It’s not hard to guess the grim intent at the heart of the Sharpes’ plan, and I also guessed the dread secret they harbour, too. But the pleasure of the story here is wrapped up with both its uncertainties and its fervency, the emotions and conflicting desires that ultimately create a deadly situation Edith has to fight her way out of, and the way Del Toro’s superlatively conjured creative universe illustrates that psychic landscape.

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Hunnam played the jut-jawed young hero of Pacific Rim, and here inhabits a role akin to the sort David Manners used to play in the early Universal horror films—the square, upright character who keeps matters rooted in a less bizarre reality and whose traditional brand of heroism seems weirdly pallid in such a context. In ’80s slasher movies, they usually turn up dead sometime in the fifth reel, but here his search gives Robbins and Del Toro an excuse to steal one of the cleverest narrative touches from Joseph Ruben’s thriller The Stepfather (1987) when the time comes for the storylines to collide. It’s in its last act that Crimson Peak finally slips its moorings and goes gloriously over the top, as the tensions sustaining the triangle of Edith, Thomas, and Lucille crumble after Thomas gives into his real affection for Edith and sleeps with her, driving Lucille into a fit of psychotic, vengeful violence. One of Del Toro’s most distinctive traits is his ability to find humanity in even the most bizarre figures, and he locates real pathos in Thomas and Lucille, who lesser filmmakers would probably have reduced to mincing caricatures once necessary narrative games were dispensed with. Here, Lucille and Thomas become all the more interesting and strange the more their crimes and their own sufferings become clearer, particularly as Thomas tries to prod his sister toward self-awareness over what their attempts to avoid change have turned them into—and, of course, that sort of awareness is exactly the hardest thing to countenance. Hiddleston has a gift for suggesting things shiftless and septic under the surface of his lean English charm has been exploited well by several filmmakers lately, and he does fine work here, chiefly because like Del Toro he enjoys the pathos of tortured figures. Not without reason, if also by accident, has his Loki evolved into the heart of the Marvel franchise. Here, his performance reminded me a little of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, particularly in the underregarded Psycho 2 (1981), a film that recast the former serial killer as a troubled antihero.

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Chastain’s slow-burn performance, suggesting degrees of tightly suppressed feeling at the beginning and slowly unsheathing lunacy laced with relished villainy, most effectively channels the melodrama spirit, particularly as Lucille slips the few bonds that keep her restrained and sends the film spiralling off with her into delirious realms. She’s most enjoyable letting a sweetly psychopathic pleasure sneak into her manner as she enjoys the chance to finally squash Edith under her thumb like a bug. Chastain remains one of the most interesting performers around at the moment because she can adapt her performing style to suit her material, and here she’s required to keep her characterisation just on the near side of camp. The finale’s loopy force makes up for some of the problems in Crimson Peak’s unfolding, proffering the image of a thoroughly unhinged Lucille pursuing Edith through the dank confines of Allerdale. The gears not just of story, but also within the iconography of Del Toro’s images, snap at last into perfect alignment: the Victoriana dolly nightgowns flowing in the dark and splattered with blood, the bars of the elevator crashing on delicate flesh, Chastain’s eyes bugging with vicious glee as she hefts a colossal axe intending to plant it in Wasikowska’s head, the cellar with blood-filled pits and bobbing bodies, the flakes of fairytale snow flitting in through high places, and then, finally, the wasteland of ice and metal where the final confrontation takes place. It’s like some lost last reel of a fondly imagined Joan Crawford movie viewed through a prism of freaked-out cosplayer chic and Final Girl survival drama, one that lets the ladies get down to business. Here, Del Toro cashes the check his labours have written and caps Crimson Peak as a grand experience in spite of its hesitations.


20th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: The Treasure (Comoara, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the brightest stars of the Romanian New Wave is Corneliu Porumboiu. His 2006 feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest, is a dead-on comic critique of finger-pointing at the dawn of Romania’s release from communist oppression and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. In the years since, Romania joined the European Union, in fact, only one year before the economic meltdown of 2008. The EU and financial hardships that afflict modern Romanians and their response to them are the themes Porumboiu examines in The Treasure.

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Costi (Toma Cuzin) is a hard-working civil servant living in Bucharest with his wife Raluca (Cristina Cuzin Toma) and 6-year-old son Alin (Nicodim Toma). As the film opens, Alin is sitting alongside Costi in the family car scolding his father for being late to pick him up. Although he acknowledges that Costi is almost never late and that heavy traffic delayed him, Alin is still upset because he thought Costi did it on purpose and that he told Alin a story about trying to save people like Robin Hood, Alin’s favorite fictional character, to try to smooth things over. Costi apologizes.

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That evening, Costi is reading The Adventures of Robin Hood to Alin for the umpteenth time when his neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcaresco), asks to see him. Adrian, recently unemployed from a lucrative job, is far behind on his mortgage interest payments and about to lose his house. In desperation, he wants Costi to loan him 800 euros so that he can hire a metal detector to locate treasure said to have been buried by his great-grandfather on the grounds of his family’s country estate in Islaz; Adrian offers to split the take 50/50. Costi has to manage his money carefully to pay his bills each month and tells Adrian that he can’t help. However, the idea worms its way into his mind, and with Raluca’s belief that the story could be true—Islaz was the site of the Wallachian Revolution of 1848 that was bankrolled by some wealthy families—he scrapes together enough money to hire Cornel (Corneliu Cozemi) to scan the grounds.

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The Treasure is a sly little film that says a lot, especially about the European Union, without doing a lot. The golden dream of a democratic, capitalistic society to which Romanians clung while they were part of the Eastern Bloc tarnished in the oxygen of reality. Usurious interest rates combined with economic instability in the new Romania have our characters, Adrian and Costi, dreaming a different dream—in fact, a fairytale. Hilariously, Costi’s boss (Florin Kevorkian) learns that Costi used a work excuse to sneak out of the office. When Costi tells him truthfully that he left to meet with a metal detection firm to scan for treasure on a friend’s property, the boss nearly fires him for trying to play him for a fool. He insists Costi must be having an affair, and Costi, fearful of losing his job, complies with a made-up mistress and promises to end the affair to save his family.

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The actual search for the treasure is about as true to life as it gets. Cornel moves back and forth inside the ramshackle remains of the once-grand estate and the acreage surrounding it, has trouble with his sophisticated, deep-imaging scanner, switches to a screeching surface scanner until Costi effects a repair, and argues off and on with Adrian as the tedium of the long day grows more acute. It’s odd to share the experience of standing around doing nothing; it’s a little boring and causes one’s mind to wander, but the anticipation that Cornel will turn up something exciting underlies the experience. When he finally thinks he’s found something, in the spot Adrian predicted, the men must then set to the hard work of digging two meters below ground. It’s almost cartoonish to watch, through Porumboiu’s steady, clinical gaze, as the dirt flies out of a hole lit only by a set of headlights and a single bulb flung over a tree branch.

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Porumboiu introduces us to a rich cast of supporting characters, from minor functionaries at the Islaz police department to a resourceful thief and some larcenous country neighbors. Adrian doesn’t seem trustworthy, with his tales of family riches, but the country home he split with his brother as their inheritance is real enough. Costi is a kind, law-abiding man in a happy marriage, and we want the best for him. In the end, I felt quite happy with the behavior of all involved. Despite the looming threat of state seizure and only a small finder’s fee should a treasure of cultural significance be found, Adrian and Costi pursue their dream fairly. The film comes full circle, back to the magic of Robin Hood, the fantasy of buried treasure, and a father’s desire to be a hero in his son’s eyes—in part, thanks to the EU and the prosperity of a former enemy. The Treasure is a funny, human delight for the whole family.

There are no more screenings of The Treasure. It may be shown during Best of the Fest on Wednesday, October 28 at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Motley’s Law: Informative and inspiring documentary about Kimberley Motley, the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. (Denmark)

The Emperor in August: Fascinating, beautifully shot historical drama of the final days before Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


19th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Motley’s Law (2015)

Director: Nicole Nielsen Horanyi

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The documentaries at this year’s CIFF lean heavily on portraits of influential individuals, including Chicago “Breakfast Queen” Ina Pinkney, Italian designer Michele De Lucchi, and architect Helmut Jahn, whose State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago may be facing the wrecking ball. I don’t deny that these and other individuals highlighted at the festival are interesting and notable, but I’d bet large that the most fascinating and arguably most important person profiled in a CIFF documentary is Kimberley Motley, the central figure of Motley’s Law.

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Motley is an American attorney and former Mrs. Wisconsin who is the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. She first went there in 2008 as part of a nine-month legal education program run by the U.S. State Department and spends approximately six months a year in Kabul mainly defending foreigners caught up in the country’s legal system and pursuing women’s rights cases on a pro bono basis.

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Motley, half-black/half-Korean, proudly sporting her University of Wisconsin Badgers T-shirts and a dizzying array of dangling earrings, would be a striking figure anywhere, but in Kabul, she’s utterly singular. She never wears a veil anywhere, not on the streets, not at the prisons where she consults with her clients, and not in court. She’s forceful, no-nonsense, and relentless in pursuing justice under whatever laws apply—constitutional, Sharia, or tribal. She shakes off the fact that a grenade was thrown into her house while she was in the States and tells her assistant Khalil, who wants to bring her car into the courtyard, to leave it on the street. She prefers to be the intimidator, not the intimidated.

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We follow her as she visits a prison to see her client, a South African contractor who was convicted of what may have been trumped-up charges and has been in prison for six years. Instead of waiting however long the prison guards see fit before allowing her in, she simply breezes in through the open gates, blankets of barbed wire flanking her on either side. The South African has found ways to keep his spirits up, but he says he has reached his breaking point. He knows that if he pays a $5,000 bribe, he will be released—the two Nigerians who were convicted with him went free long ago, most likely because they paid up—but he refuses. He has already gotten a letter ordering his release from Afghanistan Attorney General Aloko, but the court officials want to keep bouncing his case around, perhaps hoping he will eventually pay them off. Motley isn’t exactly patient, but she hangs in there, restating her points over and over; finally, when she offers to help an official with a green card problem he has in the United States, her client gets his walking papers. “Every system is corrupt,” Motley says, “but this system is really corrupt.”

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Motley is very frank in stating that she came to Afghanistan for the money, which affords her, her husband, and their three children a very comfortable lifestyle in North Carolina. We see the contrast during the fall months when she’s at home celebrating Halloween with her family and neighbors. Horanyi takes her camera down a North Carolina street lined with trees and comfortable houses and then immediately contrasts it with a Kabul street, where a father, mother, and baby stand in the middle of the street, seemingly with nowhere to go, and children wade through garbage-filled water. The military roams everywhere.

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Although Motley lives in a very large, fairly luxurious house in Kabul, she is subject to power outages and leaking plumbing. When the lack of utilities becomes too much, she decides to move into the luxury Serena Hotel; 15 minutes after her check-in, gunmen arrive and kill nine people. She sluffs it off as just another attack to her husband—she likes to drive after an attack because the streets are usually clear—but he learns how serious it was from U.S. news reports. Ironically, her husband is nonfatally shot through the jaw when he visits his family in Milwaukee. Motley decries Americans and their guns, but she isn’t sure she’ll remain in Afghanistan as cut-ins of President Obama announcing the pull-out of U.S. troops in 2015 (now delayed) means decreased security for her and increased factional fighting.

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It’s hard to know what keeps Motley going in such capricious and dangerous circumstances, but one case she handles provides the best clue. A young, religious woman has been thrown in jail for running away from her husband. He took her to a party where he wanted her to drink and have sex with his friends. Motley points to the Koran to defend her and wins her release. The poor woman, practically a girl, is crying as she talks to Motley and says she would kill herself if she didn’t fear Allah. Motley may have been in it for the money, but it’s clear that she considers herself, as her banter with Khalil at the beginning of the film states, like a member of DC Comics’ Justice League.

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I found Motley’s Law inspirational as well as informative about what life in Afghanistan is like beyond the dutifully reported attacks and counterattacks. While anarchy may seem to reign, people like Motley prove that the infrastructure of Afghan democracy, while shaky, still stands.

Motley’s Law screens Tuesday October 20 at 8:00 p.m. and Thursday, October 22 at 2:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Emperor in August: Beautifully shot, compelling, and updated telling of the final days before Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


18th 10 - 2015 | 6 comments »

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

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By Roderick Heath

Mars, the near future. The members of Ares 3, the third manned mission to the Red Planet, pick at the surface whilst pursuing their scientific mission. The team consists of commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), and a crew of highly competent supernerds, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). As Watney and Martinez trade their practised acerbic banter, the team are called in because a powerful sandstorm is heading for their mission base. Rather than weather out the storm and risk the safety of the rocket that will take them off the planet, Lewis orders the mission aborted and immediate evacuation. During the near-blind and floundering trek through the storm to the rocket, Watney is struck by a piece of flying debris and flung into the maelstrom. Lewis tries to find him but, faced with the evidence that he’s probably dead, and with the rocket in danger, she gets aboard and orders lift-off. The accidental tragedy, the kind that can befall such dangerous missions, is reported, and NASA boss Teddy Daniels (Jeff Daniels) breaks the sad news to the world’s press. Watney, however, is not dead. He awakens half-buried in the red Martian soil, a steel spike jutting from his chest, his pressure suit leaking but not enough to kill him. He manages to get back to the habitation unit, dig the jagged metal out of his body, and staple the wound closed. He is then confronted by the awful fact of his situation: the smart-aleck botanist and engineer knows he’s alone on Mars, his communications wrecked, and the rations left behind insufficient to last him the wait of up to four years until the next mission arrives.

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Watney must improvise the best he can with the limited tools available to him, the limits of his existence reduced to a glorified tent on an alien alluvial plane. There’s nothing left to do but, in his words, to science the shit out of this. Watney is presumed dead by everyone on Earth for many months, and his survival is only discovered by accident when the NASA director of operations, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), asks permission to scan the site of the Ares 3 mission by satellite to check its condition. Technician Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) quickly discerns that someone is driving around the abandoned rover vehicle. Daniels refuses to pass on the news to the Ares 3 crew, who are already grieving his loss, but NASA snaps into gear to work out how to resupply Watney in a tight window of opportunity. Unexpected disasters soon begin to make the situation critical, as Watney’s crop is destroyed by a near-fatal rupture in his airlock, and the first rocket built to send food to him crashes during launch because of its hurried construction. The head of the Chinese space agency, Zhu Tao (Chen Shu), offers to help with his organisation’s new experimental booster rocket, but a young telemetry expert, Rich Purnell (Donald Glover, stealing scenes), has a better and less risky idea, and proposes turning the Hermes, the spacecraft used by the Ares crew, around and sending them back to fetch Watney after a resupply. Teddy nixes the idea, not wanting to risk the rest of the crew, against the heated disagreement of Mission Controller Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), so Mitch secretly transmits Rich’s plan to them, essentially making it their call whether to turn around and trek back across space to save their friend. Meanwhile, Watney survives his ordeal with the only supply of Earthly culture left behind for him: Lewis’s USB collection of ’70s sitcoms and disco music.

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Andy Weir’s 2012 novel The Martian had a very contemporary genesis. Weir, after dabbling unsuccessfully as a writer, started the story as a blog purely to amuse himself, but then the project developed much like the adventures it portrays: a solitary task that attracted like minds fascinated by the same ideas and problems Weir postulated. The ideas readers contributed via comments were woven into the tale. Weir placed most of his emphasis on the science part of science fiction, striving to create a believable depiction of survival on another planet. Weir’s narrative template was obviously Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: as with Defoe, the nuts-and-bolts survival methods of a castaway concerned him first and foremost, tackling in abstract the very real and likely problems of survival as a mixture of thought exercise, best-practise thesis, and classical frontiersman narrative. For dramatic convenience, Weir eventually brought in other characters and viewpoints, including a collective of NASA brains and Mark’s own guilt-ridden crew. Weir’s novel was deliberately (in part) artless, most of it presented in the form of Watney’s daily log that suited the initial presentation on a blog perfectly whilst also reviving an old literary form, the epistolary novel. Watney’s yammering, authorial voice was replete with pop cultural references, sophomore sarcasms, and nerdy enthusiasms—pretty much the voice we’re all used to reading on a thousand fliply amusing websites. The blend of hyper-detailed procedure and antiheroic humour wasn’t great drama or deep contemplation, and yet it made for a very enjoyable read.

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Ridley Scott’s film adaptation was destined to be a rather different creature, though screenwriter Drew Goddard, who handled the witty, if minor, horror genre riff The Cabin in the Woods (2012), follows the novel scrupulously in many regards. Scott, one of the few great maximalists left in cinema, couldn’t be much different to Weir in his approach to his art. But it’s not difficult to discern the appeal of the material for the director. For one thing, it lets Scott operate in several genres at once, most of which he’s tackled before, particularly in his restless late career. It’s a scifi vista about fighting for survival a la Alien (1979); a comedy about characters with weak social skills like Matchstick Men (2003) and A Good Year (2006); an epic pitting man against primal forces following on from Prometheus (2011) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014); and a tale of a searcher founding new worlds like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). The sequence in which Watney operates on himself suggests a prototype for Prometheus’ best scene, which depicts more sophisticated self-surgery. Prometheus was doomed to stay in the shadow of Alien because of a confused screenplay, whilst it also discomfortingly revealed how much more staid and lumpen much current big cinema often is compared to that from the days when Scott emerged. The mild disappointment of the experience seems to have stung Scott out of a relatively flat period. The Martian, excellent as it is, might also count as a decline from the gutsy strangeness of The Counselor (2013) and the epic vigour of Exodus: Gods and Kings, two films with completely diverse brands of ambition that few seemed willing to process.

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Most vitally, though, The Martian allows Scott a chance to approach narrative entirely on the level of systematology, a notion he’s been dabbling with for most his career but started reflecting most seriously on his underrated crime movies American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. In those films, he strove to do what most gangster flicks avoid and demonstrate the drug industry as a chain of cause and effect leading right down from kingpin to the most pathetic junkie. Even more impudently, he used a spectacular chain of logically metastasising events to illustrate that most illogical of things, divine intervention, throughout Exodus: Gods and Kings. Watney is Scott’s anti-Moses, and yet echoes his take on the mythic hero, partly signalled by Scott’s return use of Wadi Rum in Jordan as a location for the drama (whilst also tipping his hat again to Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, which also used the same location). Watney is forced to rely purely on his own invention, using happenstance advantages, like the manna provided for him in a package of potatoes shipped for a Thanksgiving feast that gives him the chance to grow enough crops to live, and then carefully manufacturing what he needs, including water, through risking chemical and mechanical processes. Weir’s book was obviously far more detailed and in-depth about the pure process of this undertaking, and to a certain extent Goddard’s script skates over the very business that is the essence of the tale. But then The Martian is a mass-market movie, and it’s already stretching the template by avoiding many regulation elements and clichés—only the very faintest hints of romance, little action, very little religion, and a bunch of eggheads for protagonists.

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The Martian’s can-do poptimism strikes a refreshing note in the contemporary film landscape, following Weir’s lead in contemplating a situation where scientists get on with their jobs without political interference and the world’s populace looks on, riveted by the spectacle of how to do a lot with very little—a very now theme if ever there was one. The Martian belongs to a recent string of science fiction straining to be more accurate than the cinematic branch has often been seen as in the past, whilst also connecting to hallowed works of the genre’s history. The speculative problem-solving has roots not just in Robinson Crusoe but also in Jules Verne’s template of blending hard and soft science based in the best available knowledge and cutting-edge concepts of his time. Cinematically, Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe in Mars (1964) is an obvious intermediary: Haskin’s film dragged in scientific improbabilities, like stones that give off oxygen when heated, and the outright fantastic, when aliens eventually appear. But it also evoked an eerie, distinctive, dislocated mood that anticipated the serious science-fiction filmmaking of the next two decades, including Alien. Haskin had worked long before that with George Pal, who had produced Destination Moon (1950), the first modern scifi film and one that was just as persuasively preoccupied with the true problems of space travel. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001), a controversial flop at the time of its release and another film made in the image of Stanley Kubrick’s tirelessly (and, increasingly, tiresomely) influential 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), helped reinvigorate realistic scifi with its elegant use of the authentic limitations of travelling in space, usually sidestepped readily by filmmakers, as the very matter of its drama—the danger of meteors, the tyranny of distance and scarcity, the exacting punishment attending the smallest of faults and miscalculations.

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More recently, Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014) had delved into similar territory (The Martian shares Interstellar cast members Damon and Chastain). One thing The Martian has that those films conspicuously lacked is its scallywag sense of humour; Scott’s film is less pretentious than either whilst going well past them in actual, practical acumen. If it lacks the intermittent glimpses of unusual grandeur Christopher Nolan conjured in his work, it also avoids the bad wobbles of story and characterisation, and actually lives up to the promise of convincing use of a far-out setting on which Gravity failed so conspicuously to deliver. But actually, a closer ancestor to Weir’s novel was The Andromeda Strain (1970), Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel where almost all of the drama was found specifically in scientific exegesis. A lot of Weir’s more finicky process details are left out of the film, and Scott is more attentive to the physical level: Watney, as his ordeal continues over months, degenerates from a man blessed with Damon’s weathering but still very boyish features and sturdy physique, to scrawny, sore-riddled, malnourished remnant sprouting a ragged beard. Scott’s filmmaking is part of the great pleasure of The Martian: avoiding much of the mannered and assaultive lexicon of contemporary pseudo-realism (some of which Scott helped invent), Scott instead offers a work of classical filmmaking sweep, perhaps his most successful attempt: it somehow manages to be at once fast-paced and dashing, yet also curiously relaxed, a work of profoundly casual skill.

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The filmmaking here is most memorable when regarding the Martian landscape itself, a vista grand and beautiful, but also utterly desolate. Watney’s journey across the planet to locate the escape ship intended for the next mission but now to be repurposed as his ark is an interlude of cinematic grandeur that again nods to Lawrence of Arabia’s Nefud Desert crossing sequence, alternating viewpoints both godlike and eye-level. Some have called Scott’s approach to the material distant, but I found it simply elegant, and perhaps that’s so rare these days, no one recognises it. The mix of old-school cinema and new-age humour, potentially awkward, works for the most part. Perhaps there was the seed of something shaggier and more genuinely oddball here, in the mould of John Carpenter and Alien collaborator Dan O’Bannon’s heady Dark Star (1974). But of course, that was never part of the mission statement. Weir resisted introducing much introspection on Watney’s part, with the suggestion that Watney’s detail-focused approach to his situation holds at bay existential angst. One of the best jokes transcribed here satirises a tendency towards heavy metaphysical ponderings in such fare, when Kapoor wanders what Watney must be thinking, before cutting to the stranded astronaut deploring the lyrics of disco music.

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Scott, on the other hand, whilst not trying to graft something too weighty onto the material, doesn’t let Watney escape unscathed, simply utilising his filmmaking to acknowledge a sense of isolation and the tug of eternity, and finds a sense of wonder as much in the miracle of a sprout of living green, with all its scientific and poetic meaning, as in the vast reaches of an alien world. Watney is confronted with a landscape of perfect solitude, his status as pioneer, the first one to go just about anywhere on the planet, a space cowboy and tourist who has the technology-provided ability, familiar again to most of us these days, to define his own reality with the music he constantly blasts, and yet with the tug of airless infinities just beyond his cocoon of plastic and digitised music.

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Scott and Goddard smartly dial back on some of Weir’s more awkward, populist-wannabe touches, like the clashes of temperament between Teddy and Mitch, aiming more for an interesting diminuendo where a confrontation of the two men after Mitch makes his risky play acknowledges consequences like grown-ups. It’s tempting, indeed, to read Mitch, with Bean in the role dampening his trademark machismo and playing up his intelligence, as Scott’s avatar in the film, a man long used to playing by a larger game’s rules but willing to occasionally remind everyone he doesn’t always sign on with the smooth, hierarchical, technocratic suppression of human instinct (Bean’s presence also presents an opportunity for one great in-joke for Lord of the Rings fans). I was also pleased that Chastain, who might have been prodded to overplay the fearless leader in a manner close to her charmless part in Interstellar and her steely-neurotic spymaster in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), instead offers a portrait in mature leadership that, again, feels rather rare in recent filmmaking. Chastain expertly handles the moments like when she holds herself accountable for leaving a very-much-alive Watney behind with pliant skill, registering both piercing reprobation and lucid realism. In fact, the cast is so generally excellent that many actors, like Kristen Wiig, must count as wasted.

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The Martian isn’t perfect. I could’ve done with a few less rounds of NASA technicians cheering and cutaways to enthralled audiences in Times Square and other international locations. The theme of contact and cross-pollination between cultures is one close to Scott’s heart, and yet The Martian gets oddly stiff when contemplating an American’s butt being saved with Chinese aid. Yet something of the crowd-sourced joie de vivre of the novel’s genesis has slipped through into this film, one that invites the audience along and doesn’t talk down much as it explains the minutiae of growing crops on Mars and explores the method Watney has to use to strip down and repurpose the ascent vehicle in order to reach the Hermes, reducing to a “convertible,” as Watney quips, assaulting the craft to the point where it seems unsafe, and indeed this turns out to be so.

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The climax is a particularly brilliant display of technique and visual power, ratcheting up tension but also finding weird epiphanies of motion that extend the film’s theme of seeing the beauty and wonder even at the outermost fringes of survival. The jokey yet fundamental theme of music as a basic human need resolves in a zero-gravity dance where the need to grip onto another human is quite literally a life-saving act of faith. Scott and Goddard go further than Weir for a postscript that underlines, amidst a mood of bouncy triumph, the notion that experience equals knowledge that then must be passed on in the same way a seed leads to a green shoot. Such uncynical epiphanies make The Martian one of the most charming big-budget movies of the year and one of Scott’s most entertaining works.

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13th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: The Emperor in August (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Masato Harada

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The story of Japan’s surrender to Allied forces on August 15, 1945, which unofficially ended World War II, is one of obvious interest to the Japanese people. In August 1967, director Kihachi Okamoto’s Japan’s Longest Day, the first major film to deal with this event, premiered in Japan (and showed at the 1968 Chicago International Film Festival), where it was a smash hit. Now we have a new film version of that story. Of course, remakes are standard operating procedure in Hollywood and something audiences around the world are used to, but some in Japan have wondered why The Emperor in August needed to be made.

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Director Harada felt the time was ripe for a retelling, not only to reveal established and new information about the surrender to a new generation of Japanese indifferent to their country’s history, but also to correct some misperceptions about the emperor’s responsibility put forward in two American histories that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and 2001, respectively—John Dower’s Embracing Defeat and Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. His approach eschews the melodramatic style of Okamoto’s film to reveal the workings of Japan’s constitutional monarchy and the real power behind the symbolic power of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito).

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When the film opens, Japan’s war effort is on its last legs, and its government is faced with the decision of whether to accept the Potsdam Declaration Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender issued by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Chinese Chairman Chiang Kai-shek or go on fighting. Harada focuses mainly on Prime Minister Suzuki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the aged general who reluctantly formed a new cabinet at the request of the emperor (Masahiro Motoki), Army Minister Korechika Anami (Kôji Yakusho), and Chief Secretary of the Cabinet Sakomizu (Shin’ichi Tsutsum) as the main political players in deciding the fate of the Japanese nation.

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Anami is a proud soldier who believes the Japanese could yet win the war through a coalition of all of Japan’s military branches and has the joyous support of the army in pushing for the “decisive battle” on Japanese soil, using the Soviet sacrifice of 20 million soldiers to win the war against Nazi Germany as an example of what can be accomplished. The emperor (Masahiro Motoki) implores Suzuki to persuade the cabinet to accept the Declaration, fearing that there will be no Japan if all of its people are killed; the “new bomb” has already been dropped on Hiroshima, and Nagasaki will be bombed within the film’s timeframe. Suzuki is old and mostly deaf, but he knows that if he presses Emperor Shōwa’s case, he could be executed for treason under the terms of the constitution, which grant no governing authority to the emperor. Sakomizu observes and records every cabinet meeting, an uncomfortable neutral party in a war of words and passions.

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The 2¼-hour film is filled with politicians and military brass moving from meeting to meeting, securing the emperor underground after the Imperial Palace is destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo, and outsmarting the army, which is poised to stage a coup. Yet it is the more personal moments in the film that resonate most deeply. Anami is shown at home having dinner with his wife, daughter, and future son-in-law as they plan their marriage. Despite the material privations and bombing threat, Anami insists that they start the marriage right with a grand affair at the Imperial Hotel, though the venue will change when the hotel is burned in the firestorm. Anami is deeply touched when the emperor asks him late in the film whether the wedding occurred as planned—a show of concern from a godlike man that convinces Anami that his sacrifice of his political position and his life in the honorable ritual suicide of seppuku are in service to a worthy man and his cause.

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The prelude to his suicide—the suicide itself is shown in semigraphic detail, including the politely refused offer of one of his retainers to “relieve (cut off) the head”—is intermixed with scenes of his wife walking for four hours to bring her husband news from a soldier who served under their beloved son, who died in battle at age 20. She arrives in time to see his corpse laid out carefully by his retainers under his uniform, and delivers details of her son’s service as though Anami were sitting across from her drinking tea. The decimated countryside through which she travels is the only time we see the common people of Japan, and their lot is desperate indeed.

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Harada lavishes attention on the gung-ho young officers, focusing on Major Hatanaka (Tôri Matsuzaka) as the touchpoint for all of the young officers who refuse to accept surrender, the loss of national sovereignty, or a diminution of the position of the emperor. The emperor has made a recording for national broadcast in which he reads the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War. The officers seize the radio station, though quick thinking by Sakomizu puts the recording out of their reach. They later try to coerce a general into signing a false order to continue fighting; Hatanaka shoots him when he refuses and forges his signature—an ink impression of his official seal. The passion of these nationalists is furious and intense, a reminder of why war and nativism stubbornly persist.

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The film is mainly procedural and a bit confusing until all of the characters are firmly assigned in one’s mind; a quick review of the history of this event in an encyclopedia would help audience members make sense of some swiftly moving action. Harada offers some visually stunning moments, which include the glow of Tokyo burning to the ground and a vision of fully flowered cherry trees that Suzuki fears will never bloom again if the war continues. His landscape of faces front extremely impressive performances of all the principal actors, with Yamazaki and Yakusho particular standouts, the former full of shrewdness as well as decisiveness, the latter burning with pride and a surprising vulnerability. I hoped against hope that he would wait for his wife to arrive before gutting himself, perhaps allow her to talk him out of it, though, of course, she would never even try, military families being what they are.

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Harada hopes that this film will help frame the debate in Japan about rewriting the country’s pacifist constitution. He wrote a line of dialog with this in mind: “Gun o nakushite, kuni o nokosu” (get rid of the military, save the country).” No one can say for sure whether The Emperor in August will provide the wake-up call Harada thinks his country needs, but his masterful treatment of a crucial historical moment should be must-viewing for any serious cinephile or student of history.

The Emperor in August has only one screening, on Sunday October 18 at 1:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


12th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Dégradé (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Arab Nasser and Tarzan Nasser

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When most of the world hears about Palestine, it’s usually in connection with military or police actions, not for anything to do with art and culture. Indeed, for many people, it is hard to conceive of something resembling daily life, let alone artistic expression, in a country so battered by external and internal war and political strife. But, of course, life does go on for the people who make their home there whether by choice, necessity, or simply the inability or lack of opportunity to go anywhere else. With Dégradé, twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser have offered the rest of us a window into what it’s like to live in a battle zone.

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All of the action takes place inside Christine’s Beauty Salon or on the wide, dirt street that fronts it. Christine (Victoria Balitska) is a married Russian who has lived in Gaza for 12 years and has a 10-year-old daughter (Nelly Abou Sharaf) whom she keeps shooing away from the window to do her homework until her father comes to pick her up and take her home. The salon is stuffed with a dozen women waiting their turn with Christine or her assistant (Maisa Abd Elhadi). Christine is working on the hair and make-up of a young woman (Dina Shebar) who is to be married that very evening, and the assistant spends most of her time on her cellphone, crying and arguing with her boyfriend Ahmed (Tarzan Nasser), a gangster standing just outside the salon with his automatic rifle and a lion he has “liberated” from the zoo to serve as his pet. Night will fall without a single woman walking out the door with a new look.

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As the women swelter all day in the salon—use of the fan is too much of a drain on the three hours of power the area gets each day—the inevitable arguments become the focus of the story. The mother (Reem Talhami) and mother-in-law (Hude Imam) of the bride clash about whether Christine should cut or put highlights in her hair, taking up their posts in the traditional war zone of familial merger. A chain-smoking, middle-aged woman (Hiam Abbas) who could have been inspired by the lyrics of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” keeps her scowl trained on the other women and especially on the assistant who is supposed to be giving her a full beauty treatment for her date later that night with the man to whom she coos seductively into her cellphone. A religious woman (Mirna Sakhla) trades barbs with a potty-mouthed woman (Manal Awad) stoned on Tramadol who may be her sister. What that pair is doing in the salon is anyone’s guess, but without their terrific comedy act, the film would be humorless and possibly unwatchable. To top the ensemble off, a woman days away from giving birth walks in with a friend or relative to add her imminent contractions to the party.

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If this film had been made in almost any country other than Palestine, I would be trashing it for its sexist set-up and unoriginality. However, radical Islam is highly sexist, and the beauty salon is one of the few places where women can go and where they can dress as they like. Every time one of them leaves the salon—and that only happens two or three times in the film—she must put on a head scarf. The assistant dons a burka as well to tell Ahmed to move his lion away from the shop, only to get scolded for not completely covering her hair. We don’t learn the names of any of the characters aside from Christine and Ahmed, which emphasizes the marginalized position of native women in Palestinian society under Hamas. What a waste of human potential!

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Nonetheless, the Nassers give voices to the voiceless. The religious woman is no supporter of Hamas; she thinks that one ruling power is as bad as the next and that Hamas is not truly adhering to the ideals to which she has dedicated herself. Christine, interestingly, says she’s gotten used to life in Gaza, that it’s not much worse than Russia and much less expensive. The potty-mouthed woman can’t seem to stop talking and talking, saying one rude thing after another as her foil tells her to shut up, and finally assigning each of the women to a ministry in the government she would run if she could. The assistant is besotted with her gangster boyfriend who makes her miserable, but she can’t seem to give up on him—a metaphor for the desperate Palestinians who cling to hope through Hamas.

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The women’s endless wait to be served by Christine and her assistant seems a sad commentary on the failure of Hamas and the world to bring stability and a measure of freedom to Palestine. In fact, the salon will find itself in the middle of a firefight as Hamas attempts to retake the lion from the street thugs. What insanity is it to carry out a war in the streets to save face over the theft of a single animal! In the end, drunk on its own power and anger, Hamas destroys what it says it wants to defend. This film is not a pleasant one to watch, but it does put one’s own troubles in perspective and evoke a certain admiration for the people who carry on and have hope in the face of overwhelming misery.

Dégradé screens Thursday October 22 at 6:15 p.m., Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m., and Wednesday, October 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


11th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Chronic (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Michel Franco

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Mexican director Michel Franco is a man whose creative brief is life and death. His clear-eyed look at grief, bullying, and retribution, After Lucia (2012), is something of a modern horror masterpiece made all the more terrifying because the behaviors on which it focuses are all too human. In his new feature, Chronic, winner of the best screenplay at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Franco again takes unblinking aim at a chronic condition of the human animal—mortality.

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David (Tim Roth) is a home health nurse working for a Los Angeles agency catering to a wealthy clientele. When we first see him, he’s parked outside a house waiting for a young woman to emerge. When she does, he follows her car to a college campus. Then he takes off for work. Next, we see a wasted woman (Rachel Pickup) leaning motionless against a tiled wall as a handheld shower head positioned near her sprays water on her naked body. David steps into the frame and repeatedly squeezes soapy water from a sponge onto her body, as much for her physical comfort as to clean her. His cheerful efficiency and calm command are a balm to Sarah, who is his patient, and her sister (Kari Coleman) and her sister’s family when they pay what very well could be their last visit to her. When David goes home, he visits the Facebook page of a young woman named Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland) and scrolls through her photos, an action he will repeat several times during the film. Was this the woman he followed from her home?

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Over the next few days, David sits with Sarah, fixing her a bit of food, helping her stand, putting her in a wheelchair, getting her into her nightgown. One morning, he arrives for work and finds that Sarah has died. Angry that the night nurse has not washed her because the family told her not to touch Sarah, he slams into Sarah’s bedroom, shuts the door, washes her lifeless body, and puts a nightgown on her—a rather grisly echo of our first encounter with the dying woman and her caregiver. That evening, after his usual run on the treadmill at his gym, he goes to a bar. A couple who have just become engaged buy him a shot to toast their good news. When asked if he’s married, he says he was but that his wife died quite recently. Her name was Sarah. The three toast Sarah instead of the engagement.

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What are we to make of David? He seems like a man looking at life from the outside, as though some part of him is dead or on life support and using his work to connect with others like himself. Even more, the fact that dying people allow him the privilege of journeying with them to the end makes his declarations that they are members of his family quite plausible. It’s not easy for the actual families of the dying to make that connection, which arouses their jealousy, and one of his patients, Marta (Robin Bartlett), aware of the mutual dependency that has developed between them, uses it to manipulate him to help her die.

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Franco reveals David’s backstory slowly, not allowing us to put the pieces together quickly or easily and not resolving questions that arise from our newfound knowledge. His is a fly-on-the-wall approach that uses static framing to observe actions loaded with meaning for the characters but that go unnoticed to anyone outside their circle. As with After Lucia, a hidden grief leads to psychological disaster and is at least partially responsible for David’s too-close contact with his patients—a stark contrast with the detachment of real caregivers similarly observed by documentarian Frederick Wiseman in his brilliant Near Death (1989)—as well as an estrangement from closer engagement. When Sarah’s niece (Maribeth Monroe) tries to talk with David about her aunt at the cemetery following her funeral, he refuses to speak with her—her need is more than he can bear.

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Tim Roth is beyond brilliant, containing his emotions behind a brittle wall that cracks only once, heartbreakingly. His quiet, compassionate approach to his patients makes death a bearable event. For example, as he washes Sarah, he doesn’t shrink from her limp, skeletal corpse, which requires his careful manipulation. When he helps Marta die, he works quickly and without hesitation to push four syringes of a drug that will arrest her heart into a catheter in her neck. I don’t know how Pickup was able to look so convincingly dead, but she betrayed not a sign of life, and Bartlett’s stillness was a model of how death can move gently, imperceptibly over life. Michael Cristofer, Bitsie Tulloch, and Tate Ellington were all terrific as stroke patient John and his grown children, the latter of whom are grateful and then hostile toward David.

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Finally, the ending of this film has been criticized by some as abrupt, unsatisfying, or a failure of imagination. It is abrupt, but it is entirely consonant with the theme of the film and the many ways that death is the ultimate leveler. In giving us films that make us think and help us negotiate the big questions of our lives, Michel Franco is an incredibly brave and committed artist. His films are priceless gifts to us all.

Chronic screens Wednesday, October 21 at 8:15 p.m., Thursday October 22 at 8:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


8th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Clever (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Divorce is never a joyous affair. While it may be a relief to both parties, there is usually an instigator who has the courage to throw in the towel and who can more easily move on. The ego blow taken by the discarded partner is not so quickly healed and often results in a quest for love or status of any kind to replace the feelings of unattractiveness and deflation.

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In psychological terms, it seems that cars are symbolic of the male ego, and that certainly is the case in the mordantly funny Clever, a new comedy from the Uruguayan filmmaking team of Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro. The duo, who were both born in Montevideo and earned social communication degrees from the Catholic University of Uruguay, have worked together since 2005, honing their unique style in the process of making short films, music videos, and experimental documentaries. In this, their feature film debut set some time in the early 2000s, Borgia and Madeiro take aim at machismo, chronicling the frustrations of Clever (Hugo Piccinini), a martial arts instructor who, in the opening scene, is sitting in court as the presiding judge grants a divorce to his wife Jacqueline (Soledad Frugone).

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Clever did not want the divorce, and soon after the court hearing, we see him persuade Jacque to get in his rusted, blue Chevette and then try to force her to kiss him. She fights him off and disappears behind a gated entrance to the home they once shared. When we next see the couple, it is six months later. Clever has completely shaved his balding head, giving him a tougher look, and painted his car orange. He is picking up his son Bruce (Santiago Agüero) for his weekend of custody. The exes talk to each other amicably, though Clever grills Bruce later about the new man in Jacque’s life.

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After a trip to the dojo where Clever teaches, he takes Bruce to his apartment, minimally furnished and very much a divorced man’s pad. Bruce isn’t much like his namesake and Clever’s idol, Bruce Lee, preferring to sit in front of the TV playing videogames on a cheap game console. When he wants to play with Clever’s model cars, Bruce must be very careful—this is a collection as fragile as Clever’s ego. Bruce does delight his father, however, when he notices a car painted with flames as they drive along a Montevideo street. After Clever’s friend and coke-snorting buddy Juez (Ernesto Borgia) strong-arms the car’s owner into telling him who painted it and where he can be found, Clever sets off for the sleepy town of Las Palmas to find the artist who can make his wheels the most badass at the city’s annual car show.

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Borgia and Madeiro’s shooting style, ably lensed by cinematographer Ramiro González Pampillón, favors extreme close-ups and slow horizontal pans that provide humorous juxtapositions. For example, we see only the stubbly mouth of the judge in the opening scene as he steams his glasses with his breath in slow motion and rubs them clean. We watch Bruce pumping small dumbbells, followed by a pan to his father pumping considerably more iron in one of many mirror images that dot the film. The directors use slow motion to suggest Clever’s emotions, as when he sees his car after Sebastian (Marcos Escobar), the body-builder/artist, drives it out of his shed; this priceless moment of ecstasy uses a corny love song about sex in a car performed in English by singer Ismael Varela to reveal the dragon-shaped flames along the side and the classic pose of Bruce Lee with hands at the ready painted on the hood.

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In the grand tradition of Paris, Australia, in Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) or Werner Herzog’s Wisconsin in Stroszek (1977), Las Palmas is a place that reason forgot. When Clever stops to relieve himself in the bushes, a boy on horseback rides by and shoots his tire out with his rifle. His arrival in town along a long approach appropriately lined with tall palm trees lands him next to a cantina with a red popsicle painted on its side. Everyone near the cantina, including a man wearing a pageboy wig, is slowly sucking on a popsicle, a Las Palmas specialty made of wine from locally grown grapes. Police play pick-up sticks with a handcuffed prisoner and argue about whether he moved a stick. Clever incurs the wrath of the man (Néstor Guzzini) he was told was the artist by rightfully doubting he is who the villagers and he say he is (and slights are not forgotten in this small, possibly inbred town.) Finally, Sebastian and his mother (Marta Grandé) form quite a pair—a muscle-bound, religious mama’s boy who has “a 100 percent latin temperment” and possibly a hard-on for Clever, and a sexually frustrated woman who has decorated their home with hundreds of her paintings and drawings of nude males.

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Where Clever succeeds most spectacularly is in the offhand depiction of the masculine psyche. The man whose car sent Clever on his quest is a flabby, hair-covered, unattractive man who projects his desired self-image onto his car. Clever’s car, at the beginning, reflects the shabby state of his ego. He is assertive in Las Palmas, but can’t wheedle his way out of sleeping in Sebastian’s bed—feet to head—and finally simply abandons Sebastian near a small lake where they are shooting photos of the car when it appears that the artist is planning to make a major move on him. His impotence in the face of his wife’s rejection finally erupts when he bashes a large rock through his rival’s windshield, a perfect image of his shattered ego. In the end, he reveals himself to be very much the boy, as he and Bruce sit side by side wolfing burgers down at a sidewalk stand and playing in the cars most suited to them—bumper cars.

This film is filled with oddball moments, gorgeous frames, and most important, a central character whose confusion is touching and funny in equal measure. This is a film to treasure.

Clever screens Saturday, October 24 at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 25 at 6:15 a.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Adama: An ingeniously animated coming-of-age story depicts a 10-year-old West African whose journey to save his brother takes him into the heart of battle during World War I. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


5th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Adama (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Simon Rouby

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In a village in West Africa isolated at the bottom of a large, circular gorge, 12-year-old Adama (Azize Diabaté Abdoulaye) and his friends enjoy an afternoon swimming and diving into a water-filled depression far below a narrow path where some village elders and Adama’s brother Samba (Jack Amba) are standing. Although told to stay with them to prepare for his initiation the next day, Samba defies the elders and performs a perfect swan dive into the pool. His independent nature will prove a trial to the villagers, and especially Adama, when his initiation into manhood is interrupted by an evil omen that he is possessed—an albatross flying high above the village. When he is told he must live with the village shaman, who will try to cure his possession, Samba sets off in the night to join the people of the wind, the Nassaras, in the outside world who have tempted him with gold and adventure. Adama sets off to bring his brother home. Eventually, his travels land him in the middle of no man’s land during World War I’s Battle of Verdun, during which more than a quarter-million French and German soldiers perished.

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In his debut feature film, French animator/director/screenwriter Simon Rouby has turned to France’s past to tell a fable of sorts with flourishes of magic realism abetted in this animated film by a combination of 3D laser-scanned characters and 2D scenery and decors. While France’s colonial past is alluded to, as Samba is enticed to fight for France, while men in the coastal village to which Adama makes his way are conscripted if they don’t volunteer, the film’s main focus is the fish out of water adventure of Adama and his single-minded quest to save his brother.

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The look of this film is both beautiful and a bit disconcerting. The backgrounds in the African portions of the film are impressionistic, with all the beauty of a New Mexico desert. The high cliffs that surround Adama’s village are modeled on the landscape where the Dogon tribes live—North Mali, by the Bandiagara cliffs—though the actual location is left unspecified in the film. Ferrofluids (iron particles mixed with ink that can be manipulated with magnets) and a combination of live-action effects and paintings provide some stunning images, from ghostlike soldiers in gas masks to a sandstorm that pummels Adama on his trip to the coast. On the other hand, Adama and Samba, though designed by Rouby to look lifelike, look anything but. Perhaps in 3D, they accomplish his goal, but in the 2D I saw, they looked like rough CGI.

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Appearances aside, the action and voice actors are compelling and affecting. When Djo (Oxmo Puccino), the strong African warrior who protected Adama while they were crossing to France, is shown in a vast hospital blinded by mustard gas, it is a shocking and terrible moment. His dismay at being sent to a fight an enemy he never got a chance to see shows the gaping distance between traditional wars fought face to face and the mechanized, impersonal death that has grown ever more sophisticated since the beginning of the 20th century. Adama’s naïve wonder at the world outside his village, from the spreading ocean to the truck tracks that seem to line every road, reveals his disoriented curiosity. When he falls in with a French thief who arranges for them both to get to Paris on a truck and then steals Adama’s money, Adama’s tears of loneliness, fear, and frustration in a back alley where he is forced to spend the night are all too real and pitiable.

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Throughout the film, Adama is met with an effigy of a spirit or god that seems to keep him on his course to finding Samba. It appears that Abdu (Pascal N’Zonzi), a beggar Adama encountered in the seaside village who was forced to fight for France, is the embodiment of this spirit; Adama sees him on the Verdun battlefield cursing at the German planes that swoop down to strafe anything that moves. He provides Adama and Samba with the key to survival—to remember their roots—and finishes Samba’s initiation ceremony by making a small cut on each temple that symbolically opens his eyes to the world beyond childhood.

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Adults watching this film will find the coming-of-age story familiar, but the context unfamiliar and sobering. Despite the resemblance of the village to the isolated utopia of Shangri-La, the villagers are real people, with strict rules and rebellious youths. The blood ritual is mild in comparison to other types of traditional initiation rites, but the connection to the out-of-control test of manhood that was The Great War should have audiences wondering which way of life is more civilized. This film may be too intense for younger children, but should resonate with young adults. One of Rouby’s stated goals of helping Europeans and others understand the experience of immigrants from Africa is noble, but the remoteness of a film set 100 years in the past with folkloric content may not be sufficient to open eyes and hearts. Nonetheless, this film may be just good enough to pull it off.

Adama screens Friday, October 23 at 5:45 p.m., Sunday, October 25 at 11:30 a.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


2nd 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: How to Win Enemies (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Gabriel Lichtmann

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Is Gabriel Lichtmann the Woody Allen of Argentina? Although Lichtmann has only made two feature films in 10 years, both deal with his Jewish identity in his big-city hometown of Buenos Aires, both are written and directed by him, and at least one—How to Win Enemies—has an intellectual, sexually bumbling nerd as its main protagonist. How to Win Enemies is, like his own description of his feature debut, Jews in Space or Why Is this Night Different from All Other Nights? (2005), also a sad comedy, and though rather predictable, it is still a well-executed film that holds one’s attention and sympathy for its duration.

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Like Jews in Space, How to Win Enemies begins during one of the more important rituals of Jewish life—a wedding. Max Abadi (Javier Drolas), an attorney in practice with his brother Lucas (Martín Slipak), is marrying another attorney in their firm, Paula (Eugenia Capizzano). We come in right before the end of the wedding ceremony and get to watch Max smash the wine glass underfoot as the guests yell “Mazeltov!” The film cuts to the wedding reception. A nervous Paula asks Lucas whether he can tell that there is a rip in her dress, and he assures her she looks fine and is too good for his brother. He delivers Paula and Max’s speech, which he has written, to the head table, and Max opens the envelope containing the speech, unfolds it, and says the first two lines: “How do you win enemies? By telling the truth.” Then the film flips back to two days before the wedding, when a series of misadventures turns Lucas, an Agatha Christie fan who has written a mystery novel, into an amateur detective.

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The film takes its time moving into the mystery portion of the film with a languorous introduction phase meant to acquaint us with likely suspects to a theft Lucas will find himself investigating. This phase does not proceed as it does in many mysteries I’ve seen because it doesn’t present these characters as having obvious axes to grind or hidden agendas. In fact, most of the suspects seem unequivocally innocent and delightful. The real pleasure of this film is not in solving a mystery, but rather in the perfect vignettes of the talented cast that reveal different aspects of life in Argentina’s capital.

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The mystery involves a set-up in which Lucas is the target. That he feels he was specifically marked and not just some random victim of an opportunistic thief comes from his instincts, not from anything the plot reveals. As he starts weaving the threads of information together from Facebook, to a library, to a seedy part of town, and then closer to home, we meet a very resourceful woman (Inés Palombo) with some muscle to back her up, a sarcastic librarian (Carla Quevedo) who may turn out to be the woman of Lucas’ dreams, and a professional criminal (Ezequiel Rodríguez) who seems to think Lucas isn’t entitled to enter a conference room in his own law firm.

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Lichtmann peppers the film with realistic vignettes that are sometimes comical, but really aren’t all that funny. For example, Lucas is trying to help a woman get an order of protection against her abusive husband, but his witness backs out of testifying. He goes to “Pelícano,” (Sangrado Sebakis) a large, curly-haired fixer to be his witness for hire. Pelícano asks for $3,000, Lucas counters with $600, and the deal is quickly struck—a little larceny in service to a good cause that plays with all the comedic humanity I’m sure Lichtmann intended. We also travel with Lucas through the streets of the city as he follows an attractive woman, very likely a hooker, to an elementary school to pick up her son and bring him back to an apartment complex with burglar bars over the windows. Yes, this is Buenos Aires, too.

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Max’s bachelor party is loaded with attractive hookers and a porn movie blares in the background, but this scene made me feel rather sad for Paula and for Lucas as well. Lucas seems disgusted with the throwback machismo Max displays with entitled ease, and we get the feeling that Paula will be turning to Lucas almost immediately after the ink on her marriage license dries, and that Lucas knows it.

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Most of all, we see Lucas and Max bickering and looking out for each other in equal measure. Lucas puts up with Max’s hooker-strewn bachelor party, while Max indulges Lucas’ reminiscing in their childhood home left vacant by the recent death of their mother. The latter is a scene to which many middle-aged people will relate, revealing an inventory of outdated furniture and decors, shelves of family photos, a kitchen crammed with a lifetime’s worth of gadgets and tableware, forgotten card collections and treasures crammed in the boys’ desk and dresser drawers. These moments of unity appeal to Lucas’ romantic side, while Max has little use for anything that doesn’t matter in the here and now.

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It doesn’t take Lucas long to figure out who Mr. or Ms. Big is—but I was way ahead of him. No matter. When we return to where the film began, the wedding reception, there will be a payoff and a payout. It’s not as satisfying a conclusion as I would have liked—I’m more vengeful, I suppose—but in a movie about Jews, it provides the Old Testament eye for an eye that is not only appropriate, but also inevitable. If Lichtmann is the Argentine Woody Allen—and this is a rather lightweight, conventionally made film in the Allen mold—he is nonetheless graced with a bigger heart and a better eye for the absurdity of human existence.

How to Win Enemies screens Wednesday, October 21 at 5:45 p.m., Thursday, October 22 at 9:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 2:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


1st 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Women He’s Undressed (2015)

Director: Gillian Armstrong

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

My 2015 Chicago International Film Festival coverage kicks off today, and the film under consideration is a real doozy from the brilliant Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong. Armstrong has largely abandoned the feature format she plied with such skill to turn out such enduring films as My Brilliant Career (1979), Starstruck (1982), and my favorite version of Little Women (1994), and turned to documentary filmmaking. While spending about the last 40 years creating her version of Michael Apted’s Up series featuring three girls from Adelaide, Armstrong has kept her focus on women’s experiences and her homeland. Women He’s Undressed combines these two concerns as Armstrong creates a hybrid documentary about costume designer Orry-Kelly, the Australian from the tiny coastal town of Kiama, NSW, who made it big on the other side of the Pacific dressing some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

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Armstrong combines traditional talking-head interviews and clips from some of the nearly 300 films for which Orry-Kelly made costumes with depictions of Kelly, engagingly played by Australian TV star Darren Gilshenan, breaking the third wall to speak directly to the audience about his life from a stage, the place where Kelly first gained inspiration and experience in show business. As seems to be something of the norm with biopics these days, Women He’s Undressed starts with Kelly’s death, as eight young women dressed in red gowns serve as pallbearers to a rowboat. The dresses refer to Kelly’s most notorious creation, the red gown Bette Davis’ defiant character wore to the white ball in Jezebel (1938), and the boat the conveyance Armstrong uses throughout the film to propel Kelly away from Australia and through the episodes of his life. “When you grow up with the smell of the ocean, the horizon beckons you every day,” Kelly says early in the film.

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Costume designer Ann Roth, who worked with Kelly, questions Armstrong’s project at the very beginning. “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is!?” A string of snippets showing the costumes he made on the backs of a slew of famous actresses, from Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) to Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958) and Natalie Wood in Gypsy (1962), confirm that even if people don’t know precise details about Orry-Kelly, they certainly know his work.

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The film proceeds roughly chronologically from Orry George Kelly’s childhood and takes liberal dives into his experience of being an out gay man in homophobic Hollywood. His nurturing mother, played by Deborah Kennedy, encouraged his art studies and theatrical ambitions, while his father, a tailor and reformed drunk, propagated a bright pink carnation he dubbed the “Orry,” in oblique reference to Kelly’s being “different” despite his father’s attempts to drum the tendency out of him.

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Much is made in the film of Kelly’s “matehood” with Archie Leach when they were both struggling actors living together in New York. Through Kelly’s narration, we learn that the two had a lot in common and subsidized their anything-goes lifestyle in Greenwich Village by making and selling Kelly-Leach ties by the hundreds. Throughout the film, Armstrong returns to Archie’s transformation into Cary Grant, how Grant played the studio game by giving up his relationship with actor Randolph Scott to marry actress Virginia Cherrill; his subsequent suicide attempt, which Kelly blames on denying his true nature; and his later failed marriages. This throughline provides the private part of Kelly’s biography that producer/director Eric Sherman says he undoubtedly had but had been secretive about to the end of his life. Grant, who never answered any questions about his sexuality, doesn’t come off very well in the film, but this again would probably be true to Kelly’s undoubted sense of betrayal and abandonment.

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The main event, of course, is Kelly’s spectacularly successful career. He was hired by Warner Bros. to bring some gloss to their proletarian style of filmmaking, and he outdid himself. He worked with colleagues Adrian and Travis Banton to make Kay Francis Hollywood’s “best dressed woman,” and Ruth Chatterton, another Warner Bros. star, called his designs “well bred.” His gowns for 42nd Street (1933) show the energy of the unforgettable penny costumes and double-hooped skirts that he may or may not have had a hand in creating; the film suggests that he admired the creative volcano that was Busby Berkeley. It was his working relationship with Bette Davis, however, that provided him with his greatest challenge.

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It’s fascinating to learn that Davis refused to allow Kelly to use a metal underwire to boost her sagging breasts because she feared the metal would give her cancer, so he had to design other foundations for her. Armstrong shows us clip after clip of Davis and the challenges her figure posed to Kelly. His tests of fabrics for the red gown in Jezebel were extensive and successful, as many people who have seen the black-and-white film swear it was red that they saw. Another figure that gave Kelly trouble was Natalie Wood’s. Her too-slender form did not make her the ideal candidate for the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world’s most famous stripper. Armstrong takes a peek inside one of her costumes for the film to show the padding Kelly used to fill out her breasts and hips.

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Angela Lansbury, who considers herself a character actress, confirms that Kelly’s skill went beyond making beautiful clothes to helping actors inhabit their roles and enhance their performances by matching the mood of each scene. This comment is illustrated through several of the films he designed. For example, clips of Now, Voyager (1942) show the transformation of Bette Davis from a dowdy, mentally unstable woman to a glamorpuss of classic elegance; however, the real touch of genius Kelly brought to the film was in the last scene, when he responded to Davis’ desire that her clothes not detract from the drama of the moment. He puts her in a simple blouse and skirt, allowing her face to register as the most important element in the frame. In another anecdote, we learn that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis went into the ladies restroom at the studio in their Some Like It Hot (1959) disguises to see if anyone would notice them—nobody did!

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Kelly also liked to push the envelope of the stuffy 1950s. His designs for Auntie Mame allowed him to create flamboyant, colorful outfits for the outsized personality of the main character, a visual tweak to the Establishment that defined Mame Dennis. He was determined to bring all of Marilyn Monroe’s sex appeal to the screen in Some Like It Hot. Jane Fonda, who worked with him on some forgettable movies, is interviewed about this film and says that despite not being gay, she was transfixed by Monroe’s pregnancy-swollen breasts, which Kelly saved from censorship by some strategic beading.

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Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards, and his designs were knocked off for retail sale all over the world, a fact the film suggests galled him given that his own atelier went bust. In the end, his hope for a comeback from cancer was not to be, and his wish that, after years of estrangement, Cary Grant would be one of his pallbearers actually did come true, as Armstrong shows someone scrawl his signature in the funeral guest book that opened the film.

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Gillian Armstrong brings almost as much design panache and ingenuity to her film about Orry-Kelly as he had himself. Her strategy of offering a theatrical setting for the imagined scenes with Kelly, complete with stage make-up and tinny sound effects, evoke the era in which he grew up and from which he claimed his influences. The film is hampered only by the familiar talking-heads format that may be necessary to offer detail but interrupts the flow of the film as told by Kelly himself. Where did this script by Katherine Thomson come from? The movie discusses an autobiography Kelly wrote but never published and shows one of his heirs holding it, under orders never to let it slip from her grasp. Did Thomson crib dialog from it? I don’t know. But I can say that as written, the outspoken, entertaining Orry-Kelly in Women He Undressed is as unforgettable as his costumes.

Women He’s Undressed screens Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday, October 28 at 5 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.


29th 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Paul Taylor Creative Domain (2015)

Director: Kate Geis

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As an inveterate Paul Taylor fan, the prospect of a new movie about this master dancer/choreographer filled me with joyful anticipation. Taylor is one of the last links to the legendary Martha Graham—the “naughty boy” of her company, as she said of him—and is himself one of the last grandmasters of dance. Long retired from performing himself, he is still choreographing new works at age 85. That fact in itself is interesting, as late works of masters in the arts can often have a gravity that comes from their accumulation of experience. Yet, I wondered what director Kate Geis would reveal that hadn’t already been shown in what I thought was the definitive documentary about Taylor, Matthew Diamond’s Dancemaker (1998). Riffing on the title of Taylor’s autobiography Private Domain, Geis’s conceit is that she will reveal the secret of Taylor’s choreographic genius. This she does not do—nor do I think anyone can—but she nonetheless offers accumulative detail in showing how a dance is made, eschewing the more all-encompassing look at Taylor and his dance company in Dancemaker in a way that resonates more deeply for its concentrated focus.

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The film moves from the first day of working on a new dance to its premiere in 2010. Taylor explains to his company that he wants to examine a love triangle in a Rashomon-like fashion. It’s doubtful that the dancers have seen or know about Rashomon (1950) and its shifting points of view, but no matter. Taylor gets his point across and casting begins for what will become “Three Dubious Memories,” his 133rd modern dance. All of the dancers say they want to be a part of any new dance, hoping to be part of writing the history of the company and having the pleasure of working with Taylor. Amy Young, too, is anxious to be cast, and when she is given the principal female role of the Girl in Red, she is nervous about being physically and artistically able to give Taylor what he wants. He casts Sean Patrick Mahoney as the Boy in Blue, who disrupts the initial romance of the Girl in Red and the Boy in Green. He gives the latter role to Robert Kleinendorst, perhaps sensing that Kleinendorst and Young had started to see each other (they are now married).

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Taylor has written out specific beats and dance patterns for the music he will use, but prefers to work without music as he evolves the piece. He manipulates the bodies of his dancers, offers them shapes to imitate, and verbally instructs them where to move. His plan is to allow the three principal dancers to move freely as full-bodied beings, but restrict the eight-member chorus commenting on the story to flat, angular movements reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics to suggest two dimensions. His ideas sometimes outstrip the dancers’ ability to carry out the movements he wants, and we thus get to witness not only the strength, but also the fragility of a dancer’s body and the need for the artist to modify his vision to accommodate the “clay” with which he is working.

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Little in Taylor’s method has changed over the years, certainly not from what was shown in Dancemaker. Former dancer turned rehearsal director Bettie de Jong is still his rehearsal director. He still uses reel-to-reel tape to play the music for his dances. He still injects sexual ambiguity into his romantic pieces, as when the principal male dancers seem to reject the Girl in Red for their own camaraderie and possible romance, drawing a swift and powerful reaction from her worthy of the feminist model he had in Graham.

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When Taylor finally plays the music for the company—unusually, Taylor chose to use an unsolicited composition from Czech-born composer Peter Elyakim Taussig—the dancers’ interpretations of the moves they have learned gain force and fluidity. Taussig is delighted by what Taylor has created when he sees the dance for the first time in the company’s studio space. Then we’re on to Santo Loquasto’s costume designs and fittings, tech rehearsals with lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and, finally, the premiere performance.

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What I like about Reis’ approach is that we get a chance to watch the dance as it is built, step by step, with little in the way of navel-gazing by the dancers or Taylor. The dancers say they really don’t know much about Taylor, and he deflects any such probing by saying that what he is can be seen in his dances. It is a little frustrating not to see “Three Dubious Memories” danced straight through in its entirety, but in a way, it really doesn’t matter that much. We’ve seen all parts of the dance at various stages and have an insight into what it takes to make and perform a dance that simply watching from the audience can never convey. Dancers are supposed to make it look easy, so the more grueling and painful aspects of the life are never fully understood, though this film is blessedly free of the litany of injuries and parade of deformed feet that characterized Dancemaker.

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One the other hand, claims I’ve read that this film is the first to pull back the veil on Taylor and his process are nothing but marketing fiction. Nonetheless, even though it’s not the exclusive look the copywriters claim it is, it is a look, and a very good and well-shot one. If you’re a fan of dance, and especially if you’re a fan of Paul Taylor, Paul Taylor Creative Domain is well worth your time.


27th 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Everest (2015)

Director: Baltasar Kormákur

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By Roderick Heath

Mount Everest has always loomed in my imagination, a behemoth of rock standing like some exposed bone of the earth, puncturing the sky. When I was a kid, I watched the documentary Conquest of Everest (1953), which depicted Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s triumphant ascent, fixated by the scale of the feat. Hillary’s photos of Norgay on the summit, wearing his mask and breathing oxygen, made him look like the first true astronaut, the pair of humans balancing on a pebble and touching the void. A lot of people obviously share this fascination, but some aren’t happy to just watch it on a screen. Forty years later, climbing Everest became a commercial tourist enterprise, professional climbers leading parties of variably rich and enthusiastic amateurs to the peak. The subject of Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest is the mountain’s dormant treachery, the danger always present when climbing its bulk to heights usually traversed only in jets.

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In 1996, journalist Jon Krakauer had the painful and dubious fortune to join an Everest climbing party and find himself in the midst of a tragedy that he would report on in his book Into Thin Air. His account inspired a popular telemovie; a small industry of other accounts by survivors, some aimed at rebutting his take on the story; and now, a big-budget feature film. Recently, even worse disasters have struck would-be climbers of the great peak, lending timeliness to a tale that counsels respect for the power nature can still wield over us. Icelandic filmmaker Kormákur, began his directing career 15 years ago with a very different piece of work, the droll and raunchy Almodovar-esque comedy 101 Reykjavik (2000). He has been making movies ever since in both Iceland and in Hollywood, and here makes an overt stab at epic stature.

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Mountain-climbing movies have a long pedigree, harking back to the craze for them in Weimar Germany, exemplified by Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst’s The White Hell of Piz Palu (1928), a film that defined a finite blend of wrenching physical intensity and spiritual romanticism associated with great heights where people can die and yet remain, frozen and unchanged, for ages. Mountain climbing is an innately cinematic activity during which even the most banal maneuvers can be charged with visual beauty and a sense of fraught peril. The Challenge (1938) depicted the first climb of the Matterhorn, whilst films over the years of varying degrees of seriousness and excitement, including The White Tower (1948), The Mountain (1956), Third Man on the Mountain (1959), Five Days One Summer (1982), K2 (1992), and Vertical Limit (2000), have all plied varieties of high-altitude melodrama. Everest, in telling a true and largely grim story, has no plot contrivances or great, driving stakes to lean on (like Vertical Limit, which was essentially 1953’s The Wages of Fear on a mountain), leaving Kormákur to create his sense of drama by paying attention to the contrasting spectacles of human-scale ambition and suffering, and the vast, dwarfing vista of the mountain, ignorant of the tiny creatures perambulating up its flanks. The chief players in the impending tragedy are professional mountain climbers Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), men who pioneered opening the mountain to tourism by acting as guides to small, relatively select groups of amateur climbers, who find themselves merely two of many competing operations.

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Rob and Scott couldn’t be much more different as personalities: Rob is a sturdy, circumspect New Zealander who leaves his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) at home to ply his trade, whilst Scott is a scruffy, blissed-out Yank fond of a good drink until he snaps into action. Rob is described as a “hand holder” who does his utmost to get all of his clients, no matter how shaky, to the top. Scott prefers a more Darwinian approach, believing only people capable of getting themselves to the summit under their own steam should make the trip—those who can’t hack it can head back down. Both men are intrinsically aware of the disconnect between the mores of dedicated, experienced mountain climbers and the concessions to the people they’re now dedicated to aiding. Mountain climbing can be a group activity, but treats strong, prudent, self-sufficient people the best. The vagaries of nature are indifferent to the timetables and expectations of paying customers. Scott’s tough, terse righthand man, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), avoids climbing with oxygen, as he feels they lend an air of false security, preferring hard, fast ascents and descents. This approach, however, asks more of the less rugged and experienced types their business depends on than some can manage.

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Michael Kelly plays Krakauer, who was going to make the ascent with Scott’s Mountain Madness team, but instead signs on with Rob’s Adventure Consultants outfit and their motley crew of experienced and hardy climbers. Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) is out to finish her project of climbing all of the “Seven Summits,” the highest mountain on each continent, by taking on the biggest of them all. Americans Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) are two highly contrasting personalities unified by their dedication to conquering the peak after many frustrations in pursuing their love of climbing. Beck is a big-mouthed, wealthy Texan, whilst Doug is a wiry man who laboured at three jobs to put together the funds for the climb, and even then, still needed Rob to give him a discount. Rob’s regular team includes fellow pro climber Andy Harris (Martin Henderson) and loyal manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and newbie team doctor Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki), both of whom provide support at base camp. Rob and his company transport their clientele to the foot of the mountain to begin the rigorous acclimatisation and training process before launching a proper assault on the summit. On arrival, they’re confronted by the army of other climbing teams, some of whom resent Rob’s air of authority as the pioneer of their business and habit of looking askance at shabbier practices, like littering up the camp site.

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This competition starts to make the situation tense and dangerous, at one point creating a human traffic jam at a dangerous crevasse crossing point. Teams try to get across this before the rising sun makes the ice brittle, and the delays make it ever more dangerous. Beck has a terrifying moment dangling from the rickety ladder bridge that leaves him shaken and inclined to tear a few angry strips off Rob, whilst Doug shows signs of susceptibility to the lung problems that descend at high altitudes. Faced with the prospect of teams tripping over each others’ toes when making their final ascents, Rob suggests to Scott that they cooperate and make their ascent together. Scott is cautious, aware of the teams’ different styles and ways of handling clients, and the teams’ lead sherpas Ang Dorjee (Ang Phula Sherpa) and Lopsang (Pemba Sherpa) clash heatedly. But Scott eventually agrees to the pact, and they head off during a window of good weather. There are always calculated risks in this business, with a storm cell hovering in the Bay of Bengal that may or may not come their way, an array of bodies that may or may not withstand the strains of more than eight kilometres above the sea, climbing with a squad of men and women who may or may not be able to effectively work together. When a brisk wind that dogs the team up to the South Col dies off, leaving a pristine and perfectly silent moonlit view of the peak, the climbers seem set for a swift and lucky ascent.

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Kormákur presents Everest as a blend of movie styles, matching a polished, imposing brand of Hollywood spectacle on the visual level and the cues of an adventure drama, like Dario Marianelli’s thunderous music score, with a finicky, detail-based variety of realism on the dramatic level, exploring not just the whys and whens of the tale, but trying to come to grips with things as subtle as how body language signals differences in people that can help explain how eventually they will die on a mountain. Kormákur doesn’t always elegantly mesh these approaches, in part because of the slicker pretences of his filmmaking and the screenplay by one-time Gladiator (2000) cowriter William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, who has been selling the travails of ordinary people as multiplex fare as far back as The Fully Monty (1997) and who also penned 127 Hours (2009), a tale of similarly punished extreme sports hubris.

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Everest is at its best when it sticks to studying the woozy, edgy camaraderie of these mountaineers, the sense of troubled awe found in the landscape, and the accumulation of minutiae that mean little in themselves, but add up to a deadly situation still being talked about 20 years later. Clarke and Gyllenhaal are particularly good as men bound by a certain code, but who approach it in divergent ways—the uneasy, assessing alertness that lurks under Rob’s affable, practiced demeanour, Scott’s tendency to play beach bum in the sky until duty calls and sees him push his body to a breaking point. Rob and Scott become, to a certain extent, victims and culprits in the calamity, men who sell their skills and their hard-won knowledge of the rarefied zones to others whose expectations and naivete, which no matter how hardy and experienced they are can’t entirely be shed until they venture into the deadly region above 8,000 metres, inevitably drive them to make perilous decisions.

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Krakauer prods his fellow climbers over their motivations, but finds it hard to extract such nebulous, yet powerful drives from them; Rob fills in with that old standby, “Because it’s there.” The climbers’ overwhelming need to pit themselves against such a challenge and the feeling that they can’t rest until they’ve won against the mountain has no logical end, except perhaps the desire to not simply experience the extreme but to then share the experience. For Doug, it’s a virtually communal act, considering that he’s been partly sponsored by schoolkids and wants to plant a flag they gave him on the summit. Beck seems to be pushing against his own masculine self-image and fear of approaching middle age. Sam Worthington is shoehorned in as Guy Cotter, another climber who takes over communications when the team runs into trouble.

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Kormákur emphasises the array of nationalities represented by these errant souls, people truly from every corner of the earth (and this is probably the first and last time in a major Hollywood film where a large percentage of the cast is playing Kiwis). The scaling of the mountain and subsequent events take up a bulk of the running time, and Kormákur handles this extended set-piece extremely well. The shoot was spread over a variety of locations, including some real footage taken near Everest ,but with most high-altitude footage shot in Italy and mixed with occasional, mostly seamless special effects. It adds up to a convincing, dizzying approximation of the experience of climbing the world’s tallest mountain and makes the film a must on the biggest screen you can find.

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Kormákur holds a peculiar form of faith with the people he’s depicting. The act of reaching the peak is a maxim in their lives worth knocking on death’s door, and Kormákur follows them step by bloody step on a journey that is a stirring and noble moment in and of itself, but underscored by the anxiety that every extra second spent up that high brings these people closer to the disaster sneaking up on them. In this environment, tiny faults and minor delays become great big problems. Scott rushes down the mountain shepherding a wash-out, injects himself with dexamethasone to guard against pulmonary edema, the high-altitude equivalent of the bends, and heads on up again, pushing his body to the limit exactly when he needs reserves of strength and physical integrity. Beck, who had eye surgery years before, finds his vision going blurry from the altitude and cold and is left dazzled and lost by the trail. Crucial ropes needed to make the dangerous part of the ascent go missing.

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Doug is halted by breathing trouble, but eventually he restarts and follows the party at a distance: when he proves determined to summit even as the rest of the party starts descending, Rob sticks with him, a seam of sentiment stirred by Doug’s agonised dedication—but with fateful consequence. A storm sweeps up the valley and slaps the mountain, and the people on it are immediately lost in a violent and freezing flurry that turns the operation into a hectic and lethal free-for-all where even the most experienced are readily overwhelmed. Those well-versed in these events or the various earlier versions will obviously know how these events play out, removing some of the tension from the familiarly constructed narrative, except perhaps for an immersive sense of the shock of the moment.

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Kormákur captures the descent into chaos effectively, and makes the first death a particularly heartbreaking moment for not overplaying it: one moment a man is there, the next, nothingness. The grandeur remains, but has turned murderous. But Everest is hurt by a tendency to graze the obvious, like having Beck first appear wearing a Dole-Kemp campaign shirt to tell the audience he’s a bit of a good ole boy through period detail. Later, Beck has visions of his family, inspiring him to battle against the elements and begin an agonising trek, the kind of touch no filmmaker should be trying to ply in 2015. Kormákur has roots in a kind of oddball surrealism, but he would have done better sticking more purely to the docudrama template. The time-honoured desire to encompass a broad audience by appealing to basic reflexes of family relationships stretches a bit far. Actresses of the calibre of Watson, Knightley, and Robin Wright, as Beck’s wife Peach, are called upon to have their four or five minutes of screen time on the far end of increasingly distraught phone calls and do their wobbly-face emoting, in a business that is defined by a passing surreal disconnect between relative proximity and remoteness. This quality is at least drawn out by the pitiful strangeness of Jan’s attempts to contact her husband on the mountain as he struggles against soul and body-grinding forces of nature, proving that modern communications can reach anywhere, but still provide only an illusion of closeness and safety; that this scene is also true makes it especially poignant (also, kudos go for Knightley and Watson’s great Kiwi accents).

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On the other hand, a scene in which Peach and her pals try to whip up action from diplomats and politicians from a coffee table war room sticks out for reeking badness, a cringe-inducing attempt to appeal to Republican mores where Peach stirs action with some mama bear growls, with Wright as the only caricature in the film. The final scenes, which depict a dangerous attempt at a helicopter rescue of one survivor at altitudes right at the threshold of the machine’s reach, feel rushed and flimsy, though again, this part of the tale is true. I also wonder why Yasuko’s story isn’t emphasised as much as the other characters, given that it’s just as dramatic and tragic as theirs: as a non-English-speaking woman, is she considered not as universally interesting? The straightforwardness of Kormákur’s approach gives the film crowd-enticing gloss, but also retards to a certain extent what should be a haunting study in stoicism and death. Only the very last shot, which is perfect, captures something of the same melancholy, spiritual grandeur, and vision of eternal stasis that Fanck and Pabst did so long ago.

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Everest is ultimately an imperfect and perhaps slightly under-ambitious film, one that misses a chance to explore an obsession with the ethereal and the far reaches of experience in deference to remain a nail-biting hit. But it’s also the kind of big moviemaking with a human core that’s been desperately lacking this year, especially compelling to me when compared to blockbusters that are hollow displays of technique, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, so I’m willing to forgive its faults. Most crucially, I walked away with a sense of healthy respect for both the living and the dead of Everest, and the mountain itself, which, however hazardous, still looms majestic in the mind, a place where dreams flow, for better and for worse.


7th 09 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Queen of Earth (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Alex Ross Perry has done it again. He has taken self-proclaimed influences as far-ranging as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, and Woody Allen and told another annoying story about a relationship break-up and nightmarish partying in the country among the rich and artistic.

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Perry has followed in the footsteps of many a modern filmmaker and emulated a particular genre film—in this case, psychological horror films of the ’60s and ’70s—to tackle his newest obsession: “broken women.” He has taken a couple similar to the New York writer (Jason Schwartzman) and photographer (Elisabeth Moss) who broke up in Listen Up Philip (2014), and instead of offering an interesting look at both their lives as they move away from each other—really, audiences get two films in one from an unexpected change in direction from Philip to the more devastated Ashley—here he has chosen to focus only on the effects of the break-up on Catherine, played again by Elisabeth Moss. In addition, he seems to have been reading a bit of Margaret Atwood, as Catherine’s recovery will be thwarted by her revenge-seeking best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston).

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In the very true and funny scene that opens the film, Perry offers an extreme close-up of a mascara-smeared Catherine crying and responding sarcastically to her off-camera boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), who utters every platitude ever offered by someone who wants out of a relationship, along with the usual revelations that he had been seeing someone else for a long time, since, as Catherine puts it, “before the accident” that killed her father, a world-renowned artist. James, ever the sensitive soul, reminds her that it wasn’t an accident. Naturally, James finds Catherine’s mourning and aimlessness too much of a drag to be around.

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We next see Catherine carrying a bag and an easel along a country road. Apparently, Virginia was late picking her up at whatever depot Catherine alighted in a rural area along the Hudson River to spend time at the summer home of Virginia’s family, resulting in Catherine’s hissy fit. The friends had been there the previous summer, but in an unannounced change of plan, Catherine brought James along with her. The film is littered with flashbacks to the previous visit during which Catherine walks in on Virginia making out with a neighbor, Rich (Patrick Fugit), who takes an instant dislike to her and James and who becomes her arch nemesis during her solo visit. Virginia’s constant spats with Catherine indicate some unresolved conflict between the friends and help to send Catherine into a Renfield-like lunacy by the end of the film.

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What is the affront Virginia seeks to avenge? Nothing truly terrible, as befits the milieu of Virginia (“I was born to be part of the modern aristocracy”) and Rich, whose name says everything about his place in life. She simply wanted to spend the previous summer alone with Catherine, who was supposed to be there to help her with some unspecified troubles of her own. Oh, there was a little sparring about Catherine working while Virginia sits idle, and Virginia’s ridicule of Catherine’s “career” as a manager for her father, a job she can neither describe nor defend as anything other than nepotism. Her attempts to make her own art are doomed to failure.

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I don’t think the problems of the rich are undeserving of consideration and empathy, but Perry doesn’t seem to agree. He seems to hate the denizens of monied and artistic circles, and he certain hates their pretensions. Yet, his attacks on them are just as pretentious, jokey, and ironic. For example, in a nod to the rotting meat in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), he has Virginia bring a salad up to Catherine, who never touches it. Although only a few days pass in the film, Perry keeps coming back to the salad, noting that the greens are getting a little flat. This is his signal that the sorrows afflicting Catherine that his own fisheye lensing and skewed angles suggest are true madness really don’t amount to anything at all. He tries to take shots at the corruption of money, having a groundskeeper near the shoreline tell Catherine that “people don’t take kindly to that kind of money” before starting his leaf blower and aiming it toward a patch of growing grass with no leaves on it at all. It’s all a joke, this noncritique critique, this savaging of characters who don’t deserve our pity or concern because their lives are so trivial and easy.

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Moss becomes a grotesque by the end of the film, dressed almost exclusively in a slip and sweater, laughing with a maniacal look on her face, cowering in corners, finding herself in the midst of a party without knowing how she got there. Virginia, well played by Waterston, shifts from rueful to genuine, providing some cognitive dissonance between how she really is behaving and how Catherine may be perceiving her. The men in the film, particularly Fugit, are shallow caricatures who are not offered the same kind of dual view Virginia is accorded. Perhaps Perry’s stated sympathies with his broken woman prompted a speech he gives Catherine near the end of the film in which she puts Rich and, by inference, all her tormenters in their place, one in which she says “You are worthless. You are weak and greedy and selfish, and you are the root of every problem; you are why depression exists.” Bravo, but so what? What are we to make of this declaration? That there are shitty, self-important people in the world who like to kick a gal when she’s down because they think she’s an asshole?

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Maybe I’m getting a little too old to appreciate the point of view of a young filmmaker who prefers to quote from such superior films as Repulsion, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) to finding a way to attach a relationship story to something more substantial. The incessant, ominous score by Keegan DeWitt does almost all of the work of making this a horror film. If you took the music away, it would be a French relationship film. If you added a bright score, it would be a comedy. As it is, Queen of Earth is an engaging but empty vessel.


1st 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Dreamcatcher (2015)

Director: Kim Longinotto

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Several years ago, I had a discussion about prostitution with some of my regular commenters. Among the ideas put forth were that prostitution is a victimless crime and that sex workers are free to choose other lines of work if they don’t like what they’re doing. My reply to these ideas was that sometimes a choice is not really a choice and that prostitution victimizes many people, from the prostitute to the family she or he is supporting through this work. I continue to hold these beliefs, and now I have evidence to back them up in the form of director Kim Longinotto’s new documentary Dreamcatcher.

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Longinotto is a respected British documentarian who has used her camera primarily to focus attention on women’s issues, such as female genital mutilation and divorce in Iran, as well as such feminist leaders as a group of women who protect and care for the abused and neglected children of Durban, South Africa (Rough Aunties, 2008) and Indian poet, politician, and activist Salma (Salma, 2013). Dreamcatcher looks at prostitution through the eyes and work of Brenda Myers-Powell, former prostitute and cofounder and executive director of The Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago-based organization working to end human trafficking, prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth, and help current prostitutes find a way out of their current lifestyle. Longinotto and her sound recordist, Nina Rice, follow Myers-Powell as she makes her rounds of the streets, prisons, and schools where she connects with at-risk girls and those already in the life, as well as to the home where she lives with her husband and her adopted son, the natural son of her drug-addicted sister-in-law. Longinotto also accompanies her on a trip to Las Vegas where she and an ex-pimp who works with her, Homer, lecture at a conference on human trafficking.

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During the opening scene, Myers-Powell is looking for streetwalkers whom she hopes will accept the free condoms she has on hand, as well as some words of help and encouragement. One older prostitute accepts the condoms and climbs into the van emblazoned with The Dreamcatcher Foundation along its side to talk with Myers-Powell. Her story is beyond harrowing, as she talks about being stabbed 19 times by one man and trying to help her friend, another prostitute who was stabbed on another occasion and died in her arms. She can’t wrap her head around the fact that she survived 19 stab wounds, while her friend died from one, and says repeatedly that she doesn’t want to live anymore but is too afraid to kill herself. She leaves the van grateful for having someone to talk to, but it’s hard not to feel that one day soon she’ll get her wish.

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That same evening, Myers-Powell finds Marie, a prostitute working in one of the most dangerous areas in the city, a wooded, isolated park. Marie is from Portland, Oregon, and has been on the streets most of her life, starting as a child collecting money for a pimp and graduating to hooking. Myers-Powell listens to her story of abusive pimp boyfriends, guesses that she’s pregnant, and offers her judgment-free help. Marie will turn up throughout the film.

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We see Myers-Powell at a women’s prison talking to inmates about the choices they made because they had to survive and celebrating that her record has been wiped clean. Her attorney, Rachel Pontikes, speaks before the group, telling them that Myers-Powell actually made law as a result of her petition to have her prostitution convictions erased; in 2011, Illinois passed the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, under which survivors can petition a judge to vacate prostitution convictions that resulted from sex trafficking. The celebratory mood breaks something open in the group, as one woman talks of being repeatedly molested as a child, and then tells the shocking story of being beaten severely, having her jaw dislocated, and then being forced to perform oral sex on the man who beat her.

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Throughout the film, we meet women who were molested as children, some as young as four years old. In fact, in one of her weekly meetings with at-risk teenage girls, Myers-Powell listens as one girl after another tell about being molested by relatives and the boyfriends of their mothers. Often, these stories are told in an unemotional way, but some of the girls break down in tears or become angry when telling about how they tried to prevent the abuse, but were not believed by the adults around them. Homer comes to talk with them one week, and reveals that he was molested, too, and found a way to feel powerful and wanted as a pimp.

_83595763_brenda-on-steps_editedThese stories have the important effect of putting to rest such ridiculous ideas as the “happy hooker” or prostitution as a free choice. Clearly, the abuse the vast majority of these sex workers and at-risk girls experienced in their formative years have had a strong effect, causing Myers-Powell to say repeatedly “it’s not your fault” and “you did what you had to do to survive.” This is the language used with rape victims, which, of course, most prostitutes were as children and are at various points during their lives as sex workers. It’s not that surprising that prostitutes have children: when Myers-Powell learns from a teenager who keeps moving out of her mother’s house that she is pregnant, she remarks, “She wanted someone to love her, so she made one. I know, I did.”

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Longinotto makes a stab at providing some sort of uplift for the audience. Marie finally leaves her boyfriend and is shown moving into a shelter with Myers-Powell’s help; she says her spirit was touched and that things will only get better. Maybe, but the preponderant feeling Dreamcatcher elicits is despair. Myers-Powell is a dynamic, determined individual who has survived and thrived despite the dead weight of her background, but the repetition of the same stories by girl after girl, woman after woman, made me feel pretty hopeless about reducing human trafficking, never mind eliminating it. This is an important subject, and Brenda Myers-Powell is a lively central character who does more, I’m sure, than hug people and provide positive messages. Unfortunately, as a piece of filmmaking, Longinotto has produced a static bludgeon of what are, essentially, sloganeering talking heads.


5th 08 - 2015 | 6 comments »

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Science nerds of the world, celebrate! A tiny film from France set largely in Big Sky Country has put a 10-year-old science prodigy at its center and schooled the United States on the need for more energy efficiency and fewer guns—or something like that. Other reviews I’ve read of this charming family film seem to lean heavily on the subtextual critique of American society The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet apparently packs. Personally, as one of the few Americans who has had a chance to see this film, which was virtually buried by its American distributor, the Weinstein Company (more on that later), I don’t see much to object to from a political or sociological point of view. Jeunet’s adaptation of American Reif Larsen’s first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, showcases the whimsy and sometimes genuine oddity of its director, so well embraced by the hordes of people worldwide who made Amélie (2001) the fourth-most-successful French film ever.

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Larsen’s book is loaded with illustrations and side notes, which must have appealed to Jeunet’s detailed, eccentric visual sense, and the uniquely constructed, but emotionally distant family at the center of the story must have spoken to the dark playfulness Jeunet favors in his scenarios. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is classic Jeunet, a visually stunning film, though somewhat hampered by a lead actor not quite up to the task of carrying the picture and a too-short running time that made for some awkward transitions between the three acts of the film. (I shudder to think what it would have been like if the Weinstein Company had gotten its way and the film were shortened even more!)

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Ten-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) lives on a Montana ranch near the Continental Divide with his father (Callum Keith Rennie), a 19th-century-style cowboy, his entomologist mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), his teenage sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), and until his untimely death, his fraternal twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies). T.S. is as much a budding scientist as Layton was a budding cowboy, leading T.S. to wonder how his equally opposite-minded parents had ever fallen in love and gotten married. In an attempt to do something together with his brother, T.S. set up a sound experiment that required Layton to shoot his Winchester rifle in their barn. The rifle misfired, killing Layton, and the family retreated into silence and disconnection, leaving T.S. feeling lonely and guilty.

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T.S. sits in on a physics lecture in which the dreamy, old instructor (Mairtin O’Carrigan) sets forth a challenge to those attending to invent a perpetual motion machine and enter it in the annual Baird award competition held by the Smithsonian. While one smarmy leader of tomorrow (Kyle Gatehouse) scoffs at the old man’s belief in creativity, T.S. approaches him and says simply, “I accept the challenge.” No one should be surprised to learn that T.S. wins the competition and is invited to Washington, D.C. to accept the award. The rest of the film details his journey east and his experiences once he gets there.

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The film is divided in thirds—The West, The Journey, and The East—with a pop-up book of characters introducing each segment in the cinematic version of a bedtime story. Short, but perfect vignettes introduce us to Gracie, roaring about her freakish family, Dr. Clair and her distracted, obsessive muttering about her insects, and Mr. Spivet, revealed in the living room he has commandeered for his frightening collection of taxidermy and cowboy memorabilia. The living room, Dr. Clair’s work room, Gracie’s neo-hippie room, and even Layton’s messy, frozen-in-time bedroom are teeming to bursting with markers of each character’s exuberant personality.

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T.S., whose point of view is privileged as our narrator, gives Jeunet the chance to provide lyrical images for his words, many of which are lifted directly from the novel. For example, as T.S. wonders about the mismatch of his parents, he recalls how they sometimes pass in the hall and touch hands; Jeunet films this gesture in slow motion at about T.S.’s eye level to put us in the moment. In another vignette, he breaks our heart when he shows Tapioca, the family dog, chewing on a metal bucket as T.S. informs us that this is the dog’s reaction to the loss of his master. We learn a lot about T.S from what he chooses to pack for his trip to D.C.—plenty of underwear, different-colored notebooks for different types of writing, his teddy bear, and his bird skeleton, the latter of which would have seemed less quirky if he had also told us that the first curator of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird, was an ornithologist.

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T.S.’s ingenuity in hopping a freight train and evading the railroad bulls is exciting, hair-raising, and pretty funny in parts. The serious-minded boy, with nothing but a box of raisins for the trip, spies a hot dog stand and disembarks the train at night to grab a snack. When he is stopped by a hobo (Dominique Pinon) who is getting some hot tar to fuel his campfire, my heart nearly stopped as well. This nighttime scene amps the potential danger to a boy on his own, even one as clever as T.S., but in the end, the boy’s rationality in refusing to join the hobo in enjoying a campfire tale renders the scene fairly depressing.

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The film went a bit slack for me once T.S. reaches Chicago. He hides his overstuffed suitcase and sets out with a backpack of essentials to thumb a ride. His misfortune is to be seen by a railroad security guard (Harry Standjofski), who chases him to a lock on the Chicago River, forcing T.S. to jump across the opening gates. He is injured in the process, but the guard, fearful for the boy’s life until he reaches the other side safely, begins shaking his fist and yelling again. The film dispenses with the rest of the trip when a trucker (Julian Richings) takes him all the way from Chicago to the front door of the Smithsonian, foreshortening the adventure aspects of the film. It falls completely into caricature from this point forward, as civilization in the form of Smithsonian Deputy Director G. H. Jibsen (Judy Davis), all of the guests at the award ceremony, and a TV talk show host (Rick Mercer, real host of the satirical Canadian program Rick Mercer Report), all behave like cartoon villains of marketing and neoliberal sentiment, sniffling as T.S. stands at the award podium and tells the story of his brother’s death.

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The cinematography by Thomas Hardmeier is breathtaking, making Montana look like a wide-open Garden of Eden and offering some truly interesting views of the freight train and train yards where T.S. passes the night. The 3D effects accompanying T.S.’s scientific musings and animations must have added a great deal of visual interest (I saw the 2D version), though the effect is starting to become a bit overdone in TV and film. Daydreams by both Gracie and T.S. are very amusing and a bit sad, particularly when T.S. imagines his family greeting his phone call from the road with relief and outpourings of affection.

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Unfortunately, newcomer Catlett, though appealing with his nose full of freckles, isn’t a very good actor. He can deadpan pretty well, but his every attempt to cry and feel sad is forced. In the last of these attempts, it’s pretty clear from the way the film was cut that he either was induced to produce a tear after many attempts or went the fake tears route. However, his narration takes us through the film quite well, and he is very believably intelligent. I have to think Bonham Carter was cast based on her fantasy characters in Tim Burton films and the Harry Potter series; she used to be a pretty good actress who did interesting things, and I wish she’d move away from these quirky parts if she can. Wilson is delicious as a typical teen lost among the Addams Family. Rennie not only doesn’t get much to do, but he doesn’t even get a first name. I do want to offer kudos to Jakob Davies, who manages to be a presence of some consequence even as a ghost. He says what we only think when T.S. is subjected to tests by the incredulous adults who literally want to pick his young, bright brain: “So you let them wire you up like a lab rat!”

09

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet isn’t a perfect film, and it doesn’t really burrow into the grieving process the way another thoroughly humane family film, Tiger Eyes (2013), does, but it is a visually stunning, entertaining film loaded with sight gags and some genuine adventure. When the Weinstein Company acquired the distribution rights to the film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the highest-profile deals inked at Cannes.” Rumor has it that Jeunet was punished for not agreeing to the cuts the company wanted with a very limited release—I saw it at the only screen in Chicago showing it—and no publicity that I’m aware of. In addition, perhaps Americans just won’t buy a gentle film without swearing, sex, or exploding anything to entertain the kiddies jacked up on sugar from the theatre concession stands. But the shabby treatment this film received makes its certain failure at the box office a self-fulfilling prophesy.


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