2nd 02 - 2014 | 7 comments »

American Hustle (2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: David O. Russell

Film-Review-American-Hustle

By Roderick Heath

David O. Russell is a filmmaker for whom I’ve maintained a certain wary admiration since first encountering his work with Flirting with Disaster (1998). Amidst the directors who emerged from highly idiosyncratic independent filmmaking in the early to mid-1990s, as Russell did with Spanking the Monkey (1994), Russell’s specific interest was in observing natural oddballs in their native habitat. As such, he seemed to maintain links not just with the Robert Altman-derived strand of modern American cinema but also with a variety of frenetic comedy associated with the screwball works of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and the Marx Brothers, except that his character types are rooted securely in naturalistic environments. Yet Russell doesn’t have Altman’s covert grace or political and cultural wit, whilst his humour is far more forced and jumpy. He is a product of a snarkier, more fiercely hip age, with characters that thrash about trying to generate comedy and action rather than enacting the farces elegantly served up to them by masterminds. I have no great liking for Three Kings (1999), which gained a lot of cool-kid traction because of its shallow critique of the Gulf War while being only a flashy variation on certain, better ’60s war movies.

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When Russell came back from exile with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), he was obviously playing by house rules, which made his films both more humdrum, but also, ironically, more enjoyable, injecting eccentric invention into standard narratives. American Hustle represents a compromise, mixing a populist brand of sarcastic frolic with his fascination for unruly dispositions. Whilst the Altman-esque element is still apparent in American Hustle, the style here is plainly a mild annexation-cum-parody of Martin Scorsese, borrowing devices and flourishes like his driving edits, alternately explanatory and dissenting voiceovers, signature inrushing camera dollies to punctuate scenes, and evocations of the simultaneous earthiness and brash flash of ’70s Americana. Whereas Scorsese usually situates his narrative perspectives deep within the often unpleasant headspaces of his characters, however, American Hustle remains determinedly exterior, watching its character types eddy in their fetid pools of temperament.

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The film is based loosely on the infamous “Abscam” stings run by the FBI that took down several on-the-take bigwigs in the wide-open post-Watergate era, already touched on cinematically in another sub-Scorsese hit, director Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997). Russell takes the tale and inverts its tabloid meaning, making grifters, corrupted leaders, and phonies the heroes and the driving investigator a self-interested, nutty villain, as if The Sting (1973) had been reset in the same era it was showing in theaters. Russell kicks off with an arch but fitting sequence. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) carefully hides his bald pate with a combination of comb-over and toupee, only to have it ruined by aggressive FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) as the two men argue about proceeding with their current sting operation and the woman between them, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), tries to maintain working equilibrium. Flashbacks reveal how this unlikely team came together. Irving, a glass salesman with a sideline in fake art and bogus loan agenting, met Sydney, a Midwestern blow-in with a penchant for putting on an English accent, at a party, where they bonded over their mutual love of the elevating pleasures of Duke Ellington. After they hooked up, they found a deeper accord in their love of covert role-playing and profitable deceit. They’re a match made in Hades, except for the complication that Irving is already married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a young single mother he wed essentially out of charity.

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The scenes recounting Irving and Sydney’s union are played with an interesting mix of dreamy wonder and raconteurism, as each narraties what they were thinking and feeling, stricken by recognition of a kinship that can, perversely but logically, find its best expression in criminal behaviour: Love, Underworld Style. Sydney’s adopted persona as a veddy British dollybird proves to facilitate Irving’s loan scams perfectly, as she pretends to have connections to a reputable London banking firm. They’re undone, however, when one potential client is Richie working undercover, and Irving semi-wittingly manages to leave Sydney holding the bag because she seemed to be flirting with Richie. Richie cuts a deal with the deceitful duo to use their talents to catch corrupt officials, promising they can walk away after three operations.

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Richie sets his sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the go-get-’em, regular-Joe mayor of Atlantic City who’s trying to rebuild the city as a tourist mecca. After much bickering and backbiting, Irving sells Richie on the idea of putting together a scam wherein they pretend to be connected to a zillionaire Saudi sheikh who wants nothing more than to invest in Polito’s vision of a reenergised boardwalk. Tensions simmer constantly between this potentially explosive mix of personalities: bullshit artiste Irving is forced into unfamiliar zones of emotional intensity, constantly seething with jealousy as Sydney punishes him for sticking with Rosalyn by holding him at arm’s length and half-faking a romance with Richie. Irving also begins to squirm in contemplating the damage the scam is going to do to Polito, with whom he becomes fast friends, and the potential of mob reprisal, as the boardwalk project demands they make deals with Meyer Lansky associate Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).

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On a superficial level, American Hustle keeps bouncing along merrily, driven not by the mechanics of the Abscam plot, which is quite garbled at points and generally played as a farcical, even counter-productive proposition, nor in generating tension with the story beats. Russell only milks the most salient absurdity from the plot, when Richie has Latino FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Peña) to pose as the mythical “Sheikh Abdullah” rather than Irving’s first choice of an actual Arab pal (Saïd Taghmaoui). This choice sparks both humour at Hernandez’s inaptitude at the role and then suspense, in one of those by-rote post-Goodfellas “tension when talking to the gangster” scenes, as he’s presented to Tellagio, who reveals an unexpected gift for speaking Arabic. American Hustle is rather a wobbly highwire trick, trying to gain propulsion from volatile character interactions, putting Irving and Sydney in constant danger by placing them in the hands of various lunatics. Richie sees himself as a brilliant but stymied law enforcer, but he’s actually a sexually repressed, brattish self-promoter with a bizarre, ultra-Catholic mother. He’s faced with the disdain and disregard of immediate superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), and keeps trying to guess the moral to a long-winded anecdote Thorsen tries to tell him; eventually Richie physically assaults Thorsen in frustration. Nonetheless, Richie gets his way and fends off repercussions by appealing to state’s attorney Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola, done up to look like Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II), who’s as greedy for high-profile arrests as Richie. Richie’s an interesting study in pathology and an ironic depiction of law enforcer as a case in arrested development, evoking FBI kingpin J. Edgar Hoover. Like Irving and Sydney, he’s on the make and doesn’t care who it hurts so long as he realises his vision of triumph, but unlike them, he is convinced of his own rectitude.

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American Hustle is clearly a movie moulded to fit a fading ideal of popular cinema—actor-based but kinetic, taken from true life but rendered much larger than life. And yet’s it’s a peculiar, frustrating failure that manages to stay in a state of flux, emotionally and artistically, for over two hours. The acting is exciting and hammy in roughly equal measure. Cooper’s excessively mannered, and finally downright irritating performance stretches out the manic phases of his character from Silver Linings Playbook to fill an entire movie like being stuck in a phone booth with a well-groomed chimpanzee, and fails the film because it renders Richie too discursive an antagonist. Similarly, Bale pulls off one of his impressive ACTOR! transformations by becoming a paunchy, drawling, oh-so-Noo Yawk operator, but Irving isn’t deeply compelling as a protagonist even when facing a problem of conscience. Where a charismatic actor closer to the required physical type like Paul Giamatti might have made Irving interesting, with Bale he remains a dead spot. The emotional crux of the film is supposed to be Sydney and Irving’s combative reaction to the pain of loving each other counterbalanced by the quiescent, often cross-purpose desire of both to achieve authenticity and realise their private fantasies. But the film’s too skittish to let this underlying earnestness stand, too vague about those fantasies, and not sure which way is up when it comes to authenticity. For instance, Russell can’t resist playing the film’s real climax—when Irving admits all to Polito and tries to warn him what’s coming—as farce. He cuts into the scene halfway through the conversation, so there’s no sense of tension about the building emotion and unease, and then provides laugh-line-like jump cuts to shots of Polito’s kids all crying as word gets around. Not surprisingly, Polito throws Irving out, and Irving suffers a brief spell of shamed hyperventilation before getting on with saving his own ass, but the reckoning is stated rather than felt. This is a notable example, but far from the only one that shows Russell closing off avenues to real substance.

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Rosalyn becomes the narrative joker in the deck: because Sydney’s been cast in another “role” in their comedy, Irving needs Rosalyn to be his wife in the scams without quite letting her in on what’s going on. Rosalyn, in spite of her kookiness, is smart enough to know something’s up, and harbours her own suddenly nascent intent to emerge as a social butterfly. Thus, with madcap bravado, she overcomes her professed anxiety and outpaces the scammers and the feds in making friends not just with Poliltos, but also the mafia hoods insulating Tellegio. Lawrence helps to crystallise the film’s most interesting themes, including the notion that elaborate plots and constructs are found in all walks of life, but that the borderlines of the scam are smudged by the very human aspirations of the players. She charms the Politos and helps sell both her own, Irving’s, and Carmine’s fantasy worlds by being herself, warts and all, going on a memorable rant about nail polish that ends in her tumbling tipsily from a restaurant booth. Russell gets far too cute with her character, however, as her loose-cannon approach gets more dangerous, tipping off one of Tellagio’s lieutenants (Jack Huston) that Irving’s running a con, and then fudging as to whether Rosalyn is actually some kind of idiot savant of plotting, putting her husband on the spot to come up with an exit strategy, or just a flake who happily claims flukes as her genius. This comes after she’s had a flagrantly weird and bracing sing-and-dance-along to Paul McCartney’s theme song for Live and Let Die, gyrating with malicious glee as if she’s gotten beautiful revenge on Irving. There’s such compulsive kineticism and unrestrained loopiness here that it almost wills itself into making sense. And yet, the feeling that Rosalyn stands in for an artist-director creating in the same improvisational way comes to the fore.

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The part depends greatly on the audience’s lingering affection for Lawrence, as Rosalyn is presented as scary-exciting, but Rosalyn is really an awful creature in many ways—capricious, disturbed, and destructive, only partly elevated by her own desire to become a self-actuating person. If Russell had cast not the delicious Lawrence but someone closer to Irving’s nominal age, Rosalyn would look much more like a sitcom caricature. Lawrence shocks it into life with that gift she has, badly frustrated in her headlining films but keenly understood by Russell, for playing brittle personalities: her Rosalyn has the authentic flavour of many half-wonderful, half-disturbing people out there in the world. More often, she’s depicted as Irving’s ball and chain, tethering him to an unbearable state of reality to which his flights into fancy with Sydney are only temporary reprieves. Then, arbitrarily, after a long sequence fuelled by this dynamic, with Irving raving on in thin-wedge frustration like a reject from a Neil Simon play, Rosalyn, suddenly lets him off the hook, as if Russell couldn’t think of a believable way to get Irving loose of her and end his movie. The stage is then set for Irving to pull off a clever last-act twist that nets him and Sydney a sweet paycheque and Richie a seemingly well-deserved humiliation.

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As a whole, American Hustle made me curious in all the wrong ways. Part of this curiosity lay in trying to work out what it is. Is it a satire? A screwball farce? A caper flick that riffs jauntily on a true-life episode of venality? A tragicomic study in absurd people searching for legitimacy? Yet another piece of cinematic reference that looks back nostalgically to ’70s fashions in film and clothing? A collection of acting exercises cut together with great skill? Well, it’s all these things, and none of them; at least, not any one of them to a satisfying or complete degree, except perhaps the last two. Russell reveals a strong level of wry affection for a bygone era of American life where regular guys got together and sang along to Tom Jones with a good stiff drink in the hand, and ladies piled their hair in absurd concoctions, wore fur, and mocked the workings of a microwave.

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The film’s best scene, which really does hit a remarkable, almost transcendent note, sees Russell cutting between Irving and Carmine engaged in such a singalong, roaring with impudent, drunken life and hope for a reborn American dream, whilst Richie and Sydney enact another version of the same thing, dancing in a disco to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s mighty “I Feel Love,” whereupon they retreat into a toilet and make not love but a pact of ardour. Richie’s thrilled that he might be about to escape the strictures of his life, and Sydney releases a tile-cracking whoop of joy, a moment that feels utterly random and yet a logical endpoint for the thrill of being alive, and for Sydney not so much for love of Richie, as she’s really playing him, but of excitement at the feeling of being master of her destiny again. Otherwise, however, Russell remains at arm’s-length from both considered feeling and lacks sociological depth. Irving’s line of crap about a fake Rembrandt that’s become real from effort echoes too many others films of last year, notably Trance and Blue Is the Warmest Colour, that try to fool you into thinking they’ve got something profound to say about their own self-awareness when they’re just tritely spelling out the theme for you.

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Whereas a close antecedent like Boogie Nights (1997) wrestles with an entire zeitgeist, for Russell it’s mostly window dressing, reducing character arcs to a series of well-described impulses of a misfiring nervous system. He has great capacity to get his cast fired up and his visuals flowing in propulsive manner, but little gift for the kinds of pivots in tone and aesthetic that regulate intake and make for a deeper kind of film experience that can infuse even a pop bauble. American Hustle is certainly blatantly sceptical of the presumption of mutual exclusivity in the motives of con men and police in an America where everyone’s on the make in some way, an idea that’s endlessly reiterated in dialogue. People in government are occasionally self-serving and career-minded? Wow, that’s profound. Phonies might desire to be, like, real? Blow my mind why don’t you. More interestingly, it touches on the notion that sometimes corruption in government may be a mere adjunct to other, better motives and actions: the film makes the point that all the Abscam operation succeeded in doing was bringing down some lawmakers, many of whom were enticed into illegal acts and like Polito, were trying to do some good. But this idea isn’t particularly well-served in a film that lets Irving and Sydney smarmily off the hook because Richie’s a prick, and politically it’s a damp squib. It’s also—and this might be its chief crime—not really that funny.

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The unstable mixture and uncertain aim of the film confirms that when Russell isn’t being corralled into commercial moulds, his own are too shallow to contain all of what he creates. Some people love that sense of filmmaking without a net, but Russell isn’t actually uncontrolled or ebullient enough to truly cut loose, nor is he ever discomforting in his irony like Altman often was. Whereas Scorsese, even when presenting the gaudiest, most stylised visuals, presents them with illustrative framing and punctilious cuts, and Altman held back to give the impression of random discovery, Russell pushes in more tightly and cross-cuts, feeding off and repurposing the energy of his actors. That’s why many scenes feel as if they’re about to burst at the scenes—because in cinematic terms they are.

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Renner and Adams give the film’s most measured performances. Adams is particularly good as Sydney, with her habitual lapses in her British accent, a mixture of operator ruthlessness and hopeful pathos inflecting her scenes. Renner is low-key as Polito, at once charming and persuasive as a populist leader, but also vulnerable in his streak of blue-collar sentimentality. The idea that Carmine, as a tragic hero, was a potentially more interesting protagonist than the ones foregrounded, who are essentially supporting grotesques placed centre-stage, occurred to me, especially as the central proposition of the film, the troubled but supposedly magnetic attraction of Irving and Sydney, never feels particularly vital, certainly never as vital as anything that occurs between Irving and Rosalyn, who remains, as Irving says in voiceover at the end, always interesting. And so, too, ultimately is American Hustle. It’s neither a mere polyester shindig nor a covert artwork, but something intriguingly misbegotten, far less than the sum of its parts but more than a lark in the meadow. It’s something, but I’m not sure what.


18th 01 - 2014 | 4 comments »

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza, 2013)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Sometimes one just has to admit defeat. I have been struggling for a week to write a review of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, looking for a way to open the review that will give a flavor of what I think Sorrentino is up to with this film, trying to find an artful method to link scenes that illuminate each other, grasping for an economical use of words to convey the themes and impressions Sorrentino has laid out for us. I’ve changed things up over and over, found myself writing a detailed synopsis instead of a critique, forgetting more about the film than I can countenance, and looking at other reviews for memory jogs and inspiration. Interestingly, I have found most reviews of the film to be extremely short and somewhat simplistic, seeing it mainly in terms of its resemblance to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1961) or commenting on the great party scene that comes near the beginning of the film. I think all we critics are at a loss to really come to terms with this sprawling film whose story seems fairly confined, but whose real character is epic in scope, a Lawrence of Arabia (1962) focused on the whole of Italian culture from the Roman Empire to the 1960s heydays of Italian cinema.

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A character in The Great Beauty says that the only industries for which Italy is known today are food and fashion—a country of grocers and garment workers. Abhorring this loss of creative stature, Sorrentino not only has tasked himself with the usual artistic challenge of finding a way to express his times in an authentic way, but also seems determined to return Italy to a place of cultural prominence. His work is complicated by the fact that the history of Italian culture is so long and laden with genius—his efforts are bound to look derivative if he works on a grand scale, or unambitious and forgettable if he goes small and personal. That he has chosen to take on some of the giants of Italian culture—Michelangelo, Dante, and Rossellini, to name but a few—and that he has found not only specific, but also transglobal ways to comment on the human condition circa 2013 is a cause for celebration. Sorrentino may just wake the sleeping giant that is Italian cinema.

The film begins with an epigram from French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Journey to the End of Night: “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” This quote brought to mind a film to which The Great Beauty bears some resemblance, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002). In the latter film, a 19th century French nobleman escorts an unseen person (aka, the audience) through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg on a tour of Russian history. The journey ends with the unseen tourist moving forward, leaving his historical guide behind. This, I believe, is Sorrentino’s purpose—to survey the past, present, and future in a kaleidoscope of images and feelings.

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A rather startling opening depicts a group of Japanese tourists on a guided tour of Rome stopped in front of a church located at a high point in the city. As their guide talks to them about the church, a group of nuns sing in a capella harmony near an open balcony. One of the tourists separates himself from the group and takes a few photographs of the city below. He begins to perspire and then collapses. Was it heat prostration, a heart attack, or a swoon brought on by the overwhelming beauty surrounding him? In one moment, Sorrentino has communicated his mixed emotions about the project about to unfold. He follows this up immediately with a bacchanal of the first order, letting us know that he has thrown caution to the wind and will do his best to fulfill his promise to us and himself.

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The party, an extraordinary set-piece in a film filled with extraordinary set-pieces, is celebrating the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a journalist as well known as the famous and infamous people he interviews for a magazine published by Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), a middle-aged dwarf whose small stature belies her substantial influence. In homage to Fellini, Sorrentino stocks his party with people of every shape, size, countenance, and age. They writhe to techno music, some alone in a trancelike state, others in pairs or groups, and one on display behind a window moving to an internal rhythm because, as we learn in a shot from her point of view, she cannot hear the music on the other side of her glass cage. A helicopter shot of the party shows it lighting and scoring the night sky, a dazzling, pulsating organism that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

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Jep is an older version of La Dolce Vita’s Marcello imagined at the crossroads of a life lived in disillusionment, a superficial creature who produces nothing of lasting value. His moments of triumph constitute little more than being a minor mover in high society, his ambition not just to be invited to the right parties but also to have the ability to make parties fail, whatever that means. That Jep might have been more consequential becomes something of a sick joke, as person after person asks him when he is going to follow up his well-regarded first novel, “The Human Apparatus,” a piece of juvenilia about the woman he loved and lost that sated his appetite for fiction writing when he was in his 20s. At 65, he knows “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.”

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Jep seems sincere in his desire to lead an authentic life, and he becomes a mirror breaker in denouncing the vacuous and fraudulent. An unsatisfactory one-night stand with a beautiful, idle-rich woman (Isabella Ferrari) who complains about not being good in bed garners the blunt pleasantry “to be good is to risk becoming deft” and abandonment when she goes to get her laptop to show him the selfies she posts on Facebook. Jep rips apart a conceptual artist (Anita Kravos) whose act is to head-butt a wall and shout something angry. And when attacked for his superficiality by a woman (Galetea Ranzi) who claims to be a productive, principled torchbearer of socialist ideals with enough fortitude to take the truth, he pleads with her to “pass the time with us nicely,” and failing that, punctures her smug self-regard with her own hypocrisy and failure. Sorrentino, it seems, is fed up with what passes for profundity in Italy, as well as the veiled bourgeois aggression that causes blossoms of beauty to wither in despair.

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In the main, however, Sorrentino finds inspiration in the beauty of the past and rather than attempting to imitate it slavishly, pays homage in ways that feel surprisingly fresh. He turns Dante’s The Divine Comedy on its head by having Jep act as the guide through rarefied Rome for Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the 42-year-old exotic dancer with whom he starts keeping company. The commodification of art and the wunderkind is critiqued, but the results extolled in a scene in which a child artist is forced to create a masterpiece for her parents’ party guests—and, after a tantrum, does.

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Ingrid Bergman’s menacing encounters with statuary and the ashen outlines of the victims of Vesuvius in Roberto Rossellini’s Journey in Italy (1954) are contrasted as Jep and Ramona trek through the palaces of the ancient princesses of Rome with the keymaster (Giorgio Pasotti) who safeguards their keys. We take in the artwork that fills the otherwise useless rooms—massive sculptures mixing with paintings and objets d’art. When a stunned Ramona asks the keymaster why the princesses entrust him with their keys, he says, “Because I am trustworthy.”

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Such simple statements that Sorrentino seems to want us to take at face value are strewn throughout the film like pure drops of wisdom in a visually intoxicating house of mirrors. Jep often stares at his oval ceiling and sees a blue, inviting ocean, painting an undulating fresco with his imagination like a latter-day Michelangelo. When Jep asks a magician who has made a giraffe disappear if he can do the same for Jep, the magician cautions him that it is merely a trick (in fact, a CGI trick of Sorrentino’s). Jep is still vulnerable to the deceptions of the glittering creatures and night life that have absorbed him for so long. Indeed, in a somewhat gratuitous tip of the hat to French cinema, Sorrentino includes a cameo of Fanny Ardant. There is something naively sweet about her appearance, however, as Jep the jetsetter seems genuinely starstruck when he encounters her. This moment adds to the winsome charm Servillo brings to the role.

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Jep’s ultimate deception revives when the husband (Luciano Vigiloof) of his lost love Elisa (Annaluisa Campasa) comes to his door with the devastating news that she has died. “She always loved you,” he says to Jep. Reminded of his life before the drive to be the center of the in crowd, Jep returns in his memory to the day he was almost run down by a motor boat, the day Elisa took his virginity. She is achingly beautiful to his mind’s eye, but after 40 years, it’s likely that Jep’s memory has sanded the rough edges of his past and retouched the imperfections of his “perfect” love.

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There is more than a touch of melancholy to Jep’s passage into old age, as his inscrutable grin cracks into unseemly tears at the funeral of a young suicide victim (Luca Marinelli), a breach of etiquette he has warned Ramona about. Ramona herself eventually succumbs to whatever she told Jep she was using all of her money to cure, leaving Jep without his protector. Ferilli’s incredible presence, a stranger in this strange land, made her absence from the rest of the film a real loss for me.

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In the last act, a burlesque critique of the church, Jep seeks wisdom in vain from the fatuous, spiritually dead Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka) and witnesses a 104-year-old Mother Teresa knock-off named Sister Maria (Giusi Merli) huff and puff and blow a flock of migrating (CGI) flamingos off a terrace where they were resting and preening. The hard turn into religious ridicule threatens to undercut the overall tone of the film, but it comes so late in the film that it doesn’t inflict lasting damage.

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Servillo offers us a sympathetic figure that could have turned tragic in another actor’s hands. He longs for that clean slate that Sorrentino is scraping at while maintaining the lessons that age has brought him. When his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) succumbs to nostalgia, his choice is to leave Rome, which has “disappointed” him, to return to the village he abandoned 40 years before. Not Jep. He won’t write another novel, but his hope that he might brings his rite of passage to something of a close. I look forward to seeing if Sorrentino’s next film will prove that he has shaken the dust of the ages off his camera lenses. I am rooting for him.


12th 12 - 2013 | 4 comments »

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle Chapitre 1 et 2, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Abdellatif Kechiche

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By Roderick Heath

French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche specialises in long, leisurely, encompassing behavioral studies of individual humans standing at various crossroads. They are often tilted towards Kechiche’s own understanding of cross-cultural neutral zones and the immigrant experience, whilst also often fluently examining the peculiar rituals and experiences that mark youth’s coming of age. Kechiche’s superlative 2007 epic The Secret of the Grain (aka Couscous), his third film and one of the best of the early millennium, depicted an extended and volatile family working to remake its fortunes by starting a small business. Blue Is the Warmest Colour, his latest, gained a Palme d’Or this year and international fame and notoriety along with it. It clearly extends Kechiche’s oeuvre in encompassing niches of the modern human experience, locating both what’s peculiar and universal about them.

Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Colour charts young love, from individual yearning to electric attraction to coupling to break-up, as experienced by and between two young women. Maroh’s book told a familiar variety of queer love narrative with the expected beats of the genre (variably accepting parents, schoolyard angst, etc.) but in a dynamically expressive and highly emotional fashion. Kechiche’s approach is superficially cooler and more exacting, but ultimately travels into the tactile and emotional envelope that forms around its central couple, picking up manifold nuances and peculiarities.

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Kechiche’s narrative replicates both the essence and specific moments from Maroh’s book, whilst revising many elements in a filmmaking process that often seems to have followed its own logic. The film loses the melodramatic bookending narrative and changes the main character’s name from Clementine to Adèle, partly, it seems, to clear a space of independence and to foster lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos’ stake in the characterisation, and also to justify some shifts in attitude. Kechiche’s style has more than a hint of the neorealist hue revised and updated by filmmakers like the Dardennes brothers and Ken Loach in contemporary European film, except that Kechiche’s touch is more spacious, colourful, and carefully rhythmic, with an almost musical quality (musical performance is usually an important aspect of his work). His stories are less case studies than biographies, a quality that gives the film’s French title its justification, a title that also calls out to the film’s many references to classic French literature.

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Much of Maroh’s book was rendered in a near-monochrome with only striking blues elucidated, reflecting the impact the woolly mane of dyed hair Clementine’s lady love Emma sports in an otherwise drab and petty environment. Kechiche avoids this flourish, painting rather in crisp but painterly colours and sunny hues, with the only suggestion of blue right at the end. But the relationship of film to other art forms, like literature, art, and music, is evoked with a nudging constancy, almost echoing the central relationship in its simultaneous rich accord and subtle disparity. Kechiche emphasises the hidden artifice of dramatic shaping in a manner reminiscent of some other French films, like Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), including virtually self-deconstructing, essayistic-flavoured passages.

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Such reflexes are readily on display in long scenes in which bored teens in a class read and discuss Marivaux and Sophocles, failing to comprehend the urgency of the relationship between the experiences recorded in art and their oncoming plunge into life, or a later scene in which a middle-aged aesthete may stand in for Kechiche himself in meditating on the overwhelming urge recorded in art history of men trying to comprehend female sexuality. Kechiche calls out to his earlier work in this manner, like his second film, Games of Love and Chance (2003), which was built around rude and rugged high schoolers acting out Marivaux, explicitly testing the relationship of the young products of shifting cultural paradigms with the French canon, finding both alienation and connection through it. Adèle and Emma, whose studies necessarily entail comprehension of technique and representation, are glimpsed at one point exploring an art museum’s sculpture collection. Its rooms filled with roiling nude female forms coaxed into dazzling life from crude ore is an act that Emma—and through her Kechiche—can surely thrill to, whilst for Adèle it’s a way of familiarising herself with the form that very shortly she’ll be exploring more immediately.

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Young Adèle is a fairly “normal” high schooler who begins to feel the elusive tension between her personal emotions and the pack life that dominates at that age as her friends call her attention to Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), who’s taken with her, in the school cafeteria. Adèle dates Thomas and has sex with him, but is haunted by the vision of Emma (Léa Seydoux), an older art student she catches sight of with an arm around another woman, the image of her invading her nightly masturbatory fantasies.

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Adèle’s intimation of an almost predestined link to Emma seems borne out when she and gay pal Valentin (Sandor Funtek) venture into gay bars, and Adèle, after having several women hit on her, is rescued by Emma’s charming attentions, setting the scene for a quickly combusting relationship. Adèle and Emma form a bond initially through extended conversations, where attraction and developing mutual confidence grow amidst the thrust and parry of conversation of two smart but callow lasses seeking to justify and express their tastes. Kechiche all but bends over backwards trying to situate his narrative in the great French romantic tradition, with all its references—Les Liaisons Dangereuses is also shouted out to at one point, evoking its rakish delight in bedroom matters and foreboding a later turn in the plot—and his film’s evident echoes. Adèle and Emma’s long, garrulous conversations laced with probing intimations of character and perspective echo the famous bedroom scene of Breathless (1959) and the chatty works of Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache, whose The Mother and the Whore (1972) anticipates Blue particularly in length and scope. Like those films, and many in the French cinematic pantheon, the degree of cultural literacy on display is surprisingly high, perhaps to an extent that seems artificial (does the average French teen really enjoy talking about De Laclos?). Some of these conceits have specific overtones: when Emma prods Adèle about her knowledge of art, she answers that she’s only really aware of Picasso, who, of course, had his blue period. Kechiche’s work here, however, is in active dialogue with both cultural context and personal experience, whilst negotiating its own evolving disparities as an adaptation.

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Kechiche dials back much of Maroh’s familiar angst, particularly in contending with homophobia as inward retardant on personal acceptance, avoiding clanger lines like one a parent emits in the novel, “Gay pride again? How much longer are they going to be doing this nonsense?” Not that it’s a bright, rosy, postgender world here: Adèle contends with her school friends who, at the first hint of her homosexuality, roundly turn on her. Whereas in the book Clementine runs away and hides to deal with her shame, the more forthright Adèle gets angry and tries to wallop someone. The way people come out, and the world they come out to, has changed, Kechiche notes. More faithfully reproduced from the novel is a moment in which Adèle has her first real same-sex snog, with the bohemian-styled school pal Béatrice (Alma Jodorowsky), who then resists Adèle’s desire for more: such are the pitfalls of curiosity when it grazes against real and urgent need. Kechiche makes long movies because, like the late Theo Angelopoulos and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, he’s a maximalist who specialises in redistributing the way cinema time is absorbed, with a flow of epiphanies that coalesce into a special brand of storytelling, creating an echoing space around the key drama. Unlike them, however, he’s less a poet than a blend of Victorian realist novelist and sociologist. The Secret of the Grain is still his best film because of the fashion in which it justified its heft in building to a brilliant conclusion, one that managed to express simultaneously an urge towards a climactic revelry associated with Shakespearean comedy whilst also counterpointing a tragedy laced with microcosmic import.

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Blue is the Warmest Colour, by contrast, has little story and tones down sociological pressure on its heroines. Kechiche concentrates on the transitory beauties and pitfalls of a relationship that’s based more on a preternatural sexual chemistry than genuine accord of personality, and traces the urges that first brings them together, as Emma helps to ease Adèle through the pains of accepting herself, and then tears them apart, as they grow into distinctively different adults. Emma’s outlook is intimately bound up with her ambitions as an artist, whilst Adèle becomes a teacher of young children. A pair of well-contrasted scenes depicts each girl meeting the other’s family and comprehending the subtle but daunting differences in outlook they face. Emma’s mother and stepfather, casually accepting of her, are haute bourgeois, complete with a fancy art collection started by Emma’s father. In perhaps the film’s most obvious thematic joke, the stepfather, an expert gourmand, serves up live oysters to the girls. The poetic conceit of conflating eating oysters with cunnilingus is not at all new, calling back to, amongst others, Radley Metzger’s film of Violette Leduc’s signal lesbian erotica novel Thérèse and Isabelle (1967), and also suggesting the infamous “snails and oysters” scene restored to Spartacus (1960), whose director, Stanley Kubrick, Adèle loves. Dinner with Adèle’s petit bourgeois family, by contrast, eats spaghetti bolognaise and careful evasion of Adèle’s sexuality; Emma scarcely bats an eye at posing as Adèle’s friend and tutor in philosophy, whilst Adèle’s father (Aurélien Recoing) gruffly grills Emma about her job prospects as an art student, all familiar reflexes of a more working class mindset.

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The quiet disparities outlined in these paired scenes include the first time in the film that both Emma and Adèle state what they want to be. Emma is forced to lie doubly not only about what she is, but also that she fully intends to be an artist, whilst Adèle is honest, but sets the scene for her later frustrations. Adèle remains closeted in some peculiar ways, neither coming out to her parents, or at least not on screen, nor to any colleagues when she becomes a teacher, to protect her brittle sense of security as much as out of concern of what might happen to her. Blue is the Warmest Colour is at its best when charting Adèle and Emma’s coming together, a process that climaxes in the already legendary and notorious central sex scene that sees the couple conjoin in feverishly energetic, invasively corporeal manner. Kechiche counterpoints the convulsive intimacy of the moment with one of public display, as Adèle joins Emma in a gay pride march where the ecstasy of being young and in love loses all bindings for a moment, a scene that mirrors another earlier in the film in which Adèle marches with students. One peculiarity of gay sex scenes in modern film is that they’re just about the only ones where anyone’s allowed to look like they’re actually enjoying themselves (straight sex scenes now, by contrast, are generally required to be hideous). Kechiche mimics Maroh’s approach to Adèle and Emma’s first bedroom encounter, using jump cuts like comic panel boundaries to fragment the girls’ roundelay of positions into an explosive succession of erotic images.

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Kechiche’s approach here is quite clearly unitary with his general fascination for detail and descriptive comprehension, gazing calmly at intense sexual activity as he does at other behavioural traits. But to a certain extent, it also unbalances the film’s emphasis on interpersonal passion and distorts the impression we should be getting, of a young and inexpert girl’s first bedroom romp with a more experienced lover: the necessary sense of exploration is missing. It looks and feels more like an extremely hot one-night stand for two well-practiced sexual athletes, as they whip between positions and smack each other’s asses in search of ever-sharper corporeal registers. The aspect of clinical display is emphasised by the flat lighting and diorama-like bed, carefully charting possible positions and forms, coming close at points to resembling a yoga instruction sheet or “baby’s first pop-up book” of sapphic sex. Other points, however, strike notes of extraordinary beauty, as when the two lie together in symmetrical post-coital calm, as close to a unified creature with two minds as humans can get, the linchpin of both their affair and the film’s aesthetics.

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When gay-themed works like Beginners and The Kids are All Right (both 2010) are so cosily mainstream and sentimental in their reflexes that it’s not too hard to imagine classic Hollywood actors playing roles in them, Kechiche’s gambit to wield an unblinking directness in his sex scenes gives the film a radical edge it wouldn’t have otherwise because he is working with two of the most pleasing possible avatars for lesbian love conceivable. In spite of Emma’s jokes about bull dykes and Adèle’s classmates branding Emma as an obvious lesbian, it’s hard to imagine just about anyone not falling for Emma, whose tousled tomboyishness and anime hair in no way violates rules of attractiveness; ironically, only later, when Emma is older and no longer dyes her hair, does Seydoux seem more genuinely androgynous.

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In terms of the film’s intrinsic personality, two subsequent sex scenes are more impressive. One sees Emma trying to keep Adèle from crying out as they secretly make love in her parents’ house. The other depicts the two lovers, locked in a scissoring tussle, reach out for each other to grip hands, in part for greater traction and pleasure, but as much in that blindly desperate joy of trying to bridge the gap of mere flesh even as it seems they might literally meld. Perhaps indeed the most profound and universal note the film strikes is implicit here, the intensity some relationships can reach on the sexual level, to extent that when other circumstances intrude upon them, it can feel like being cut off from a part of one’s own flesh. Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s second “chapter” deals exactly with this notion as it skips forward a number of years. Now Emma and Adèle live together. Adèle has fulfilled her desire to teach young children, whilst Emma is poised frustratingly close to major success, a success Adèle helps to foster by posing for a lushly semi-abstract nude, exciting the attention of a major gallery manager, Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol), who comes to a party Adèle helps to throw. Adèle impresses and charms many present, including Joachim and Samir (Salim Kechiouche), a mildly successful actor who wryly comments on his moment of success, playing an Arab terrorist in an American movie. But Adèle still quietly chafes in their company, especially as Emma tries to talk up Adèle’s diary writing as an accomplishment, an attempt to paper over Adèle’s inferiority in their relationship.

Adèle is also perturbed by Emma’s friendliness with Joachim’s very pregnant artist friend Lise (Mona Walravens), and as Emma and Lise begin working on a project together, Adèle’s increasing alienation leads her to commence an affair with co-worker Antoine (Benjamin Siksou). Most of this is synthesised from the scant material in Maroh’s book, and begins to smack of a lack of inspiration on Kechiche’s part, as the once-powerful relationship cracks up over such clichéd tensions, with Adèle stuck playing the wife to the mercurial artist in a very familiar kind of domestic drama. The early shout-out to Picasso can be read as a warning that like old Pablo, Emma paints mistresses and moves on. Perhaps this was the point, to show their relationship is prone to the same weaknesses as any other union, but the price Kechiche pays for normalising that relationship is to also make his own narrative more banal, recalling Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), which for the sake of mainstream recognition, turned Harvey Milk’s lover into a regulation politician’s stymied wife. Without the force of a strong story behind the film, like The Secret of the Grain possessed, this film’s unwieldy length starts to wear thin.

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Tellingly, the film’s intellectual discursions feel far too academic and potted, relating only to the film’s own telling but without real penetration. Unlike, say, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which is as much about the sociopolitical milieu that formed it as it is about its central ménage à trois, Kechiche deletes most of Maroh’s emphasis on the experience of her couple as products of the early ’90s, when gay visibility was on the rise in a still-reactionary society, and thus of the schism of personality the women experience in the way their sexuality links them to the world. Neither Emma nor Adèle are granted much self-awareness in this regard, in part possibly because in altering the setting to be more contemporary, the relatively laggard sensibility of a more liberated generation is evoked. Whereas Metzger’s Thérèse and Isabelle was intimately layered to both build to the climactic sexual consummation whilst also mediating it through flashbacks to make it both immediate and nostalgic, cinematic and literary, Kechiche’s touch is often much more prosaic.

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Which is not to say he doesn’t wield some marvellous cinematic prose, like that aforementioned image of the entwined lovers and an early sequence in which his camera glides ahead of Adèle after she’s brushed off by Béatrice, her hurt all too vivid even as she maintains a stoic mask and ignores the world whirling about her. Kechiche determinedly avoids melodrama: only the calamitous spat between the couple that breaks them apart resembles a traditional climax, and he skirts several key scenes of the novel, especially the slip-up that sees Adèle ejected from her home and previous life. Moreover, for a film that expends so much time on merely detailing the characters in a love affair, the inner life of both women remains a little vague—in the case of Emma, more than a little. She’s a cagey creature who holds Adèle at a slight remove that Adèle eventually tries to shatter, but this element remains frustratingly opaque. In Maroh’s book, the relationship commences under a pall as Emma already has a girlfriend, which lends a hypocritical edge to Emma’s explosive rage when she throws Adèle out after learning of her affair. Here, however, it seems at once more righteous and also more peculiar in its contextless vehemency. Adèle, for her part, becomes a Lady of Shalott figure, doomed to grieve over her ejection perhaps all her days.

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Kechiche pulls off two excellent scenes as he skips forward again in time: Emma now lives with Lise and her young son as a family, but Adèle, having suffered for a long time, tries hopelessly to entice Emma back when they meet at last for an amicable drink. Adèle’s efforts to seduce Emma reveal once more the powerful spark of physical attraction between them, but can’t break Emma’s new commitment. It’s a somewhat gruelling scene of humiliation for Adèle, reminiscent to my mind of Bob Dylan’s angry heartbreak under surface goodwill in “If You See Her, Say Hello”. The subsequent, ultimate scene, is equally strong, as Adèle attends a gallery showing being given by Antoine signalling Emma’s success, with Adèle finding her portrait hanging with the others, a white-hot and life-changing affair now a mere incident in Emma’s life. Emma and Lise canoodle in the moment of triumph whilst Adèle roams in disquiet. Her intent is all too painfully obvious, as she’s dressed in blue, evidently trying to sway Emma’s eye or at least memorialise their connection. Where for the artist, alchemic creation is the act, for the average person the self is the canvas, and Adèle cannot channel but only telegraph her own bleeding emotion. Adèle meets Samir again, who’s now quit acting for a life in real estate. He searches for her when she quietly absents herself, dashing in a different direction whilst she walks away, a blotch of forlorn blue burning in a grey city street. If the use of the artistic milieu elsewhere feels hoary, here Kechiche uses it to concisely reflect Adèle’s exile: it’s a world of insiders and outsiders, and Adèle is just another outsider now.


24th 11 - 2013 | comment closed

The Counselor (2013)

Director: Ridley Scott

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By Roderick Heath

Ridley Scott’s latest film has stirred extremely divided responses in the critical and general audiences, with reviews quite literally ranging from those hailing it as the worst movie ever made to masterpiece. This makes it almost by default one of the most interesting releases of this year, a time of general indifference and enforced consensus, offering the hopes of surprise that someone, even someone lodged at the safe end of the Hollywood spectrum like Scott, can have stirred such intense responses. But Scott, coming off two uneven, big-budget spectacles, Robin Hood (2010) and Prometheus (2012), is actually a past master at shifting directorial gears, and like Hitchcock and Huston before him, prone to making some movies as working holidays. Indeed, some of his lower-wattage projects have been his best. But The Counselor, although shifting from the large scale to the small, represents no dip in ambition. Scott here tackles an original screenplay penned by acclaimed, but famously unforthcoming author Cormac McCarthy, his first venture in the field, and harks back to the famous collaborations of Carol Reed and Graham Greene. McCarthy and Scott share an evident interest in the crime genre, but neither approaches it in a familiar fashion. Much as McCarthy’s novels blur the mode’s boundaries with the Western, whilst veering its deeper concerns into the punitive teachings of folk tales and biblical parable, Scott’s affinity for neo-noir has usually been explored with a twist. Blade Runner (1982) was, of course, a scifi movie as well as a detective thriller, whilst Black Rain (1989) and Thelma and Louise (1991) anatomised cultural problems via genre plots, and Matchstick Men (2004) provided self-satire.

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The Counselor sets out to both honour and critique the classic noir tale. Many of the genre’s most essential notions are present: double-crosses, innocents falling into infernal realms, terrifying revelations of the permeable wall between over and underworlds, well-laid plans going haywire, fetishistic delight mixed with straitlaced repugnance in regarding forbidden pleasures, the all-conquering femme fatale, and agents of evil doubling as angels of fate. But The Counselor is not mere homage. Critic Scott Foundas notably recognised its kinship with John Boorman’s seminal Point Blank (1967) in its simultaneously futurist and primitive atmosphere. Although squarely set in the here and now, The Counselor stretches in thematic reference from the destruction of Sodom to some future apocalypse, and the visual lexicon feels close to science fiction in some aspects and primeval in others. It also hews close to the visceral version of neo-noir popularised in the 1980s, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1983), John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1992), Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), and even Robert Harmon’s genre-blurring, subliminal The Hitcher (1987). Scott’s interest in systematology is also apparent, as follow-up to American Gangster’s (2007) efforts to encompass the drug trade on a near-sociological level. One of the The Counselor’s three criss-crossing narrative lines follows one special drug shipment inside a septic tanker. The tanker, grimy and shabby, moves according to the whims of several vying owners, but always keeps rolling like inexorable fate to its intended destination. Perhaps the most important intersecting line of Scott and McCarthy’s sensibilities is their cynical attitude to money as toxic agent in human endeavours, a device that exposes weakness and sparks will to power.

One of McCarthy’s now-familiar methods is to build narratives around characters who could be described as the also-rans in most crime fiction, not great heroes or villains, but variably competent shmucks who find themselves outmatched on an almost cosmic level and fall by the wayside. They’re the kind of loser who turns up as a corpse on page 76 of a Phil Marlowe novel, the look of shock still marked on their face from the moment of death reflecting their sudden lesson in not being the cleverest men in the universe. Scott, for his part, usually has affection for idealistic, but similarly outmatched figures, a condition even his titanic heroes like Christopher Columbus suffer.

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The titular and otherwise nameless Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a successful lawyer with a large roster of seamy clients and the trappings of success. He and his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz) are introduced in bed, at first entirely swathed under white sheets that cling to their outlined forms that evoke both baptismal robes and shrouds. The rawness of their couple’s sexuality doesn’t belie the evident truth that this is their Eden moment, and Laura’s first words, asking her lover if he’s awake, start the ball rolling on the film’s enquiry about states of awareness and pitches the work in that moment of wakefulness where the substance of reality isn’t quite discernible from a dream. The Counselor plans to pop the question, and does so after buying an expensive loose diamond from an Amsterdam dealer (Bruno Ganz) who walks the Counselor through technical matters of evaluating diamonds. The dealer introduces him to a “cautionary” diamond, an object that has outlived many merely mortal owners: the history of human greed, hope, and frailty has left no mark on its pristine surface.

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One major aspect of The Counselor that quickly asserts itself is its emphasis on interpersonal dialogue: much of the film’s first half offers fairly simple scenes of the characters talking. McCarthy’s stylised dialogue is reminiscent of old-school noir and its roots in Marcel Carne’s poetic realist films and Val Lewton’s oneiric horror movies, even traditions of modernist and vernacular poetry, whilst also creating kinship with recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, and Neil Jordan in filtering that harsh romanticism through modern gab.

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The Counselor has a series of encounters with garrulous characters who are all, in their way, trying to warn him about something. The jeweller does so, in an abstract way, whilst his business confreres Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) do so more urgently and with specific illustrations and examples, because they’re involved in the drug trade and know the kinds of people they deal with, and insist on making the Counselor absolutely knowledgeable about the risks he’s now taking. Reiner is one of the Counselor’s clients but also a friend and business partner in a nightclub they’re financing jointly, but because the Counselor’s finances have gone awry, and he decides to join forces with Reiner and Westray. Reiner is enjoying the highlife with his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), whilst Westray tells the Counselor that he’s arranged his affairs so that he can disappear at the drop of a hat, and that he’d be happy living in a monastery if it wasn’t for his taste for women, a taste he has in fatefully common with Reiner.

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Whereas Bardem bedazzled many playing a McCarthy fiend in No Country for Old Men (2007), here he plays a very different character, a chatty, fatuous, misogynistic playboy with a punkish hairdo, one who’s become accustomed to his luxurious, ill-gotten lifestyle, but who has no actual killer instinct. He and Malkina are first glimpsed watching with indulgent pleasure, complete with cocktails, as their two pet cheetahs chase down rabbits out in the hinterland. Reiner confidently believes that women have no moral compass and that the only thing they don’t like in a man is being bored, attitudes that might stem from his discomforting proximity to Malkina, whose affectations of predatory intent stretch to having cheetah spots tattooed on her back. In the film’s funniest and strangest scene, Reiner recounts to the Counselor with lingering unease and distaste when Malkina quite literally insisted on having sex with his car: she sat herself split-legged on the windscreen and rubbed her groin against the glass, a vision Reiner queasily compares to a catfish or other bottom feeder working its way up the aquarium tank glass. This marvellously weird moment crystallises the vagina dentata anxiety that underpins the femme fatale figure, whilst allowing Scott a chance to acknowledge the crackle of the erotic that’s always underlain his fascination with sleekly tactile surfaces. Indeed, one of the more amusing but expressive aspects of the film is its misè-en-scene, which pits Scott’s familiar modes of film décor in dialectic opposition. The Counselor and Reiner live in houses of ultra-modernist minimalism, as if to declare themselves ahistorical beings without fear of the tides of history, whilst the dirty work is done in degraded zones of industry and lunar outskirts, and godlike kingpins lounge in rococo elegance.

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Aspects of The Counselor are hardly original in this branch of genre cinema, not even some of McCarthy’s vaunted metaphors. What is original about the film is the way it works through the film noir story template in a fashion more akin to Greek tragedy and horror films, setting up ominous suggestions of things that will come to pass with hints of oracular and morally significant purpose, and then following through on them unrelentingly. McCarthy’s plot is a kind of anti-thriller, depicting the Counselor as a man who’s constantly warned he’s getting in over his head, and then finds to his shock that he’s powerless to prevent awful things happening. Reiner asks the Counselor if he knows what a bolito is, and explains the nasty device’s function, a slow decapitation with a motorised, unbreakable wire slipped around a quarry’s neck. Westray asks if the Counselor has ever seen a snuff film, and then recounts one he saw in which a young woman was beheaded for an underworld overlord’s amusement. Both of these examples of brutality are so extreme and random that the Counselor processes them as far-out campfire tales. But soon we become aware that these are Chekhovian guns, presented via anecdote and soon to be made use of in the imminent, bloodcurdling unspooling of predestined ends.

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The sense of being caught within systems one doesn’t entirely comprehend or see major parts of is key to The Counselor, a feeling exacerbated by Scott and McCarthy’s resistance to spelling everything out. There are insinuations about dealings that link Malkina, Reiner, and Westray, and the precision with which Malkina works to destroy both men is telling, but ambiguous. They present a triangulation of criminal intent that the Counselor is foolish enough to get involved in, even as it seems, surrounded by the trappings of their great success, like a good idea. Malkina’s background is chillingly hinted at when she mentions her parents died after being thrown out of a helicopter over the ocean. The overlords are never seen, only the cogs of the great machine, a motif that gives confirmation to the Kafkaesque overtone of the protagonist’s designation.

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Scott opens the film with the truck being loaded in Mexico for its journey to Chicago, and charts the mechanisms designed to ensure its smooth movement. One human cog is the motorbike-riding son (Richard Cabral) of one of the Counselor’s clients, Ruth (Rosie Perez). Nicknamed The Green Hornet, he takes cash at high speed across the border, and is also charged with handing over the part of the truck’s engine, once it’s been deposited on the American side of the border, to its next drivers. Ruth, a hard-bitten gangster, asks the Counselor to bail out her son when he’s arrested for speeding. The Green Hornet, however, proves the target of Malkina’s project to throw a spanner in the works with a hired assassin, “the Wireman” (Sam Spruell), lying in wait for him to take possession of the engine part.

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Scott stages this malicious sequence on a vast plain at sunset, blazing blood-red fires and silhouetted stony rises as backdrop to the killer’s methodical construction of a brutal trap for the rider, stringing a wire across the road he knows no one but his prey will be using, at a height exactly calculated to decapitate him. There’s a fiendish variety of patience and deadpan attentiveness to this scene, as what’s going to happen is made deadly clear and played through exactly as intended, boiling the film’s atavistic, deterministic sensibility down to an essence. The motif of decapitation recurs throughout the film, an extraordinarily gruesome and medieval kind of killing exacted through various means.

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The Counselor has kinship with the TV series “Breaking Bad” (2008-13) and Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012), two successful, recent derivations of the neo-noir tradition. All three evoke the horrors of drug cartel violence as a stygian realm where all moral standards dissolve, and hapless gringos who regard the trade as a mere cash cow soon learn monsters are after them. The Counselor features a “Breaking Bad” cast member, Dean Norris, who plays a dumbstruck cartel associate who’s privileged with a glimpse of the sickest of sick jokes by another factotum (John Leguizamo): a corpse that’s been sealed inside a tank with the rest of the shipment and is bound to be shipped back and forth across the continent in lieu of actually disposing of the body. Where Stone’s film was absurdist and pulled genre givens apart with meta-narrative and self-reflexive satire, Scott and McCarthy offer a film that burns like liquid nitrogen, with flickers of a sense of humour so black as to be an event horizon. An older ancestor is Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949), with similar motifs of border crossing as passage between civilisations, even epochs, and of journeys through an alternative world, as the truck crawls up through North America’s alimentary canal. Early in the film, the two Mexican drivers who take the truck into the U.S. note a train of illegal immigrants heading across the border. Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) likewise had a desolated fascination for the borderlands as zone of cultural nullity. Like Mann and Peckinpah, Scott and McCarthy here have a fascination for the terrible beauty of violence; indeed, the film’s narrative as a whole has a tone like the memorable tractor sequence of Mann’s work, a sensation of being paralysed in the path of a grim death.

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Malkina’s plot to have the truck with its load stolen proves an elaborate misdirection, albeit one with a deadly consequence. With the presumption that the Counselor, Reiner, and Westray have connived in crossing the greater powers, calamity immediately threatens them: Westray makes good on his capacity to disappear quickly and advises the Counselor to do the same, but the latter, encumbered by worldly cares and the belief that reason and explanation might prevail, is far too slow in getting going. Perhaps laden with a sense of fatalism, so is Reiner; he tries to run when the killers come to call, and is chased and gunned down. In the course of shooting Reiner, the assassins accidentally free his pet cheetahs, who scare off the armed men and proceed to wander the landscape like unleashed spirits of animalism. The Counselor arranges for Laura to leave New Mexico, flee the nebulous zone between countries, and take refuge in the presumed safety of the American heartland, but Laura doesn’t make it. She is taken prisoner at the airport, and the Counselor travels to Mexico to try to get in touch with the kingpins and plead for his and Laura’s lives.

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Whilst McCarthy’s artistic imprint on the film is vital, Scott takes to it like one of those cheetahs to a hare. A beautifully styled exploration of the abyss, this could be Scott’s darkest film to date, and his most shapely in a long time. Scott’s usual type of hero tends to strive against forms of social exclusion and culturally ingrained limitations of vision, whereas his antiheroes, plentiful in his oeuvre, have similar motives but have become cynical about them. A sense of protagonists spiralling down the ethical plughole is common in his films, as are battles with grotesque others that stand in for mutating moral distress, like the astonishing fight Christopher Columbus has with the berserkers from the forest that encapsulates the horror following first contact in 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (1992), and to Rick Deckard’s confrontation of his own weakness and sanctioned cruelty in Blade Runner, whilst the accord between hero and villain in American Gangster was built around precisely their divergent reactions to the same formative forces. Whereas Michael Mann, perhaps Scott’s major rival in Hollywood as premiere stylist and neo-noir specialist, tends to abstract his heroes and dissociate them from social paradigms to focus on their private ethics, Scott always firmly contextualises his. Even in a film as seemingly lightweight as A Good Year (2007), a constant stress is placed on his crass hero as avatar for a newer, ever more ravenous world of European capitalism, one that’s accessible to outsiders like him, but with the codicil that he has to be more unscrupulous, more insensate, than anyone else. Similarly, the note of a fight for survival against an opposing force that is inimical to rational appeal echoes back not just to Alien (1979), but also to his very first film, The Duellists (1977), where two men war for decades for reasons neither exactly understands: there is only a standard of behaviour that has been found wanting and must be punished, and indeed, this is exactly the situation here.

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Not for nothing, then, does Scott have his last act partly play out back “home” in London’s glitzier districts, climaxing in an elaborate, almost giallo film scene of elaborate stalking and execution that leaves tourists and yuppies splattered with blood and severed fingers lying on the cobbles. It’s Scott’s gleefully nasty metaphor for the crack-up of the British financial sector, a notion reinforced by the narrative’s portrait of ruthless capitalism’s fallout spreading from the U.S. to Europe. Malkina’s plot turns out not to be aimed at the drug deal at all: this was only a mechanism to get Westray moving, his escape plan turned into perfect money delivery for Malkina, who hires a blonde escort (Natalie Dormer) to honey-trap him. It’s amusing to consider Bardem’s presence in this film whilst his earlier work this year in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a film with an almost exactly opposite spiritual and philosophical position to this one, is fresh in the memory. In one sequence, Malkina, intrigued by Laura’s Catholic background and its confused impact on her sexual sensibility, visits a priest (Édgar Ramírez) to taunt him with erotic reminiscences under the guise of confession. This could almost be a direct send-up of that film, whilst digging into the same, ever-present rupture in a modern world of exhausted paradigms and insufficient replacements that cannot heal the rift separating the elusively redemptive from the corporeal. Such a schismatic, anguished sense of existence that some of Scott’s most memorably tortured characters, like Roy Batty in Blade Runner and Commodus in Gladiator (2000), feel with emotional urgency, drive them to homicidal acts against their creators. Malick’s and Scott’s films also share deeper connecting strands in spite of their thematic opposition, particularly in their sense of the American interior as unfinished space where wilderness and suburban stability cohabit in disorientating closeness, and the concurrent possibilities for rapture and damnation seem similarly extreme and wide open.

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McCarthy often invokes biblical imagery, borrowing the voice of a wilderness preacher in his invocations of hellfire and Old Testament justice, but does so ironically with his existential conviction that the void rather than heaven or hell await, whilst his stories often skirt the edges of a virtually nihilistic sensibility. But The Counselor confirms he’s more a harsh moralizer who justifies his stance by constantly looking at worst-case scenarios, giving real force to ethical questions by studying them with a method close to Shakespearean tragedy, watching fatal choices create whirlwinds of carnage to prod a greater awareness of the mesh of niceties that keeps the world inhabitable. The film’s narrative is predicated around two choices: the Counselor’s decision to get involved in crime, and the blonde escort’s rejection of Malkina’s payment after realising that it’s more than a robbery she’s planning, all but throwing down her 30 pieces of silver and repenting. This last piece is almost a throwaway, one of the many vignette-like asides that dot the film, but it feels crucial in retrospect, as it sharply contrasts the Counselor’s choices, a deliberate turning of the blind eye; whilst the blonde’s choice actively repudiates Reiner’s contention that women are immoral, it still comes with a host of sarcastic meaning, as it doesn’t hurt Malkina’s programme one bit, and won’t stop Westray’s assassination, a note Malkina happily acknowledges as she kisses the blonde off with a quip. Otherwise the film maintains a portrait of moral rot on an epidemic level, with corrosive free radicals on the loose.

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Meanwhile, the truck with its forbidden load keeps moving, stolen by Malkina’s men and stolen back by the cartel’s men in a roadside gunfight that turns a lonely stretch of road into a war zone. The one remaining cartel gunman simply drives the truck onto a friendly wrecker’s yard and gets himself and the vehicle patched up, and on the load rolls to its original destination. The safe return of the vehicle doesn’t change the situation for the collaterally damaged. The Counselor gets in touch with a cartel boss, Jefe (Rubén Blades), in an effort to make a deal for Laura, but he finds that not only can’t Jefe help, but Jefe insists on giving a positively poetic explanation that, essentially, consequences are already truths, and that he can’t talk or buy his way back into the land of the living. The cruelty of the narrative here moves beyond mere circumstance into the very method. The viewer is forced to share the Counselor’s frustrated disbelief and the mismatch between the awful urgency of the moment and the calm, oracular wisdom of Jefe, his earlier glib patience on listening to long-winded warnings now curdling into sweaty, despairing frustration that he can’t change the situation. Scott and McCarthy viciously undercut the usual expectation that some kind of brilliant scheme can be formulated, a la The Firm (1992), or even a noble act of self-sacrifice.

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The Counselor, a bystander in his own film, is left wandering in shellshock and infinite apprehension on the streets of a Mexican city. In another of the film’s seemingly off-the-cuff but actually revealing vignettes, filmed with a flavour of punch-drunk dissociation that recalls Val Lewton’s films, the Counselor wanders into the midst of a rally being held to memorialise victims of the drug war. This communal act of mourning and protest is entirely indifferent to the Counselor’s presence, but also one implicitly, both in sympathy with and accusing him. The narrative’s bleak terminus has an allusive concision that again recalls Lewton, as the Counselor receives a package that, with the information given earlier, sees the apparently banal suddenly, plainly becoming a ticket to the ninth circle of hell. More promethean than Scott’s Prometheus, this saga conjures the spectacle of a man being chained up by the gods to have his liver eaten daily by guilt, fear, and horror. Like Oedipus, another ancient Greek fool of fortune, the Counselor sees but does not comprehend his sins until revealed, by which time it’s much, much too late. A coda hands the attention back to Malkina, but having devoured everything in her path, she proves less a triumphant villain than prophetess for a new, unspeakable age where the best predator will survive.

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The Counselor is obviously not a conventional crowd-pleaser. In fact, it could be as much the opposite of a crowd-pleaser as any studio film of recent years, though the pungent gallows humour and gaudy, giddy style leavens the experience somewhat. Even a concession many neo-noir films make to the wry pleasure in seeing an evil but charismatic bitch-goddess win in works like Body Heat is twisted here into a perverted caricature of itself. Doubtless this aspect, in addition to its apparently cold and merciless attitude, accounts for the polarity of its reception. But it’s also the quality that makes The Counselor feel special, the sense of lawlessness underlying its pristine and peerlessly professional form, McCarthy’s blissful disconnection from the set rhythms of contemporary Hollywood screenwriting even as he reveals affection for genre work past, and Scott’s capacity to keep me watching. That same disconnection does account for the film’s weaker aspects, the slightly adolescent tone to Malkina’s calculated blasphemies and the clichéd Madonna/whore diptych of her and Laura that is only inverted from traditional imagery by swapping hair colours. Also, Diaz’s performance feels too archly calculated to entirely persuade. The curious thing about The Counselor is that it’s a film defined as much by absences as presences, narrative dealt out in clipped parcels whilst its essential thesis explored not through the usual redemption narrative but the pointed lack of one, a humanistic despair reflected through its worst nightmares. But whilst the film references classical tragedy, the solemnity of tragedy is even scorned, as the film concludes with the same mockingly upbeat Latin rhythms it began with. Still, The Counselor actually does film noir a great service in apparently subverting it, returning actual gravitas and unnerving impudence to the genre, and along with it some of the quaking existential fear it once transmitted.


20th 11 - 2013 | no comment »

Computer Chess (2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski

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By Roderick Heath

Contrary to its long-presumed nature as a purely ephemeral, commercial cult of the new, pop culture today seems powerfully concerned with the study of its own roots. Faced with a panoply of devices for making slicker and slicker creative product, recreating the elusive texture of a rough-hewn past has become a kind of alchemic ambition for many artists. Music recording artists wielding computer software that can make just about any sound known and unknown to humankind, labour now to recreate the tweets and bleeps of the synthesisers their ancient forebears wielded. Some filmmakers, faced with detachment from actual film, have become increasingly preoccupied not just with past genres or movies, but also with recreation of past styles and the specific inflection bygone technological modes brought to cinema. Such is a fascinating turnaround from creators of low-budget and independent cinema who struggled to find parity with mainstream works until new technology allowed artisanal films to look just as good as blockbusters—to reject that quality and delve into the medium as message unto itself. Once, to have shot a film on a crappy video camera would have branded you as a try-hard amateur. Now it’s the latest in craft-art branding.

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Like Pablo Larrain’s No (2012), Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is built around a singular aesthetic choice to shoot on an old black-and-white video camera, conveying the texture of the era in which the movie is set via a technological conduit that, even at that time, was considered pretty lame. Bujalski’s film moves into a more literal zone as it obeys this instinct, insofar as that its proper subject is once cutting-edge technology from which a new realm of human activity would spring. Its subject is, in part, the creation of a world the film is itself implicitly rejecting.

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Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) is considered the first film of the peculiar niche of independent film wryly dubbed “Mumblecore,” a new variation on some old ideas in cinema. Personages to emerge from that movement of naturalistic, witty no-budget films made for, by, and about young, urban, creative types include Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, and Greta Gerwig, who have moved out into the mainstream without excessive compromise. Swanberg’s work this year, Drinking Buddies, is a small gem that assimilates and liberates marquee names like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, without a blink. Bujalski remains distinct from the improvisatory bent of the Mumblecorps in that he always heavily scripted his films, and Computer Chess again takes a different course from his fellows, fashioning a work as determinedly rarefied as anything to emerge from American independent film in the past 20 years. Computer Chess is set around 1980, when the idea that the computer could play a part in people’s everyday lives was starting to look more realistic and yet still undefined. The culture developing around this new machinery was still one that largely attracted fixated brainiacs, absent-minded would-be professors, entrepreneurial savants, and other exotics who can only flourish in carefully controlled environments.

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The film revolves around a chess tournament played by computers, pitting rival programmers, computer models, and software against each other in a stolidly controlled and enclosed environment where petty jealousies, insecurities, asocial traits, and enigmas percolate. The event is held in a distinctly mid-market Austin, Texas hotel, and hosted by chess master Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), who tries to play the avuncular, good-humoured host, but lets slip a tetchier side occasionally. At the beginning, he berates the crew documenting the tournament on his video camera not to point his camera at the sun. As the competition commences, he brings together several of the major team leaders for a panel discussion about the future chances of a program being good enough to beat him in a match, whilst also exploring some of the past problems in design the teams have encountered. Carbray (James Curry), a bashful, but articulate British software designer, predicts that Henderson will probably win his bet that a computer won’t beat him until 1984, but that he’ll be cutting it close. The highly touted MIT team, led by Roland McVey (Bob Sabiston), was humiliated the year before when their programme, instead of achieving an easy checkmate, got lost in a looping series of checks, which resulted in victory for their rivals from Caltech.

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The Caltech team was led by the now-venerated, but mysteriously absent Todd Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who has left the team in the hands of his assistant, Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins, long-ago hero of Dazed and Confused, 1993) and neophyte Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), whilst MIT have consulted with grandmasters and recruited the tournament’s first female programmer, Shelly (Robin Schwartz), as part of their team. Another man on the panel, Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige), a dapper but truculent and arrogant “independent programmer,” derides the tournament even as he engages in it, and claims to be looking far beyond the petty preoccupations of those about him. Papageorge’s comeuppance proves rapidly forthcoming, as he learns his room booking hasn’t been recorded. With the hotel full up, he’s left wandering the hallways at night, and lacking any cash, trying to find someone who’ll give him a place to crash. He alienates other teams and even the friendly neighbourhood drug dealers when he takes some of their stash but can’t pay for it. Most of the programmers are engaged in low-level drug abuse, taking uppers to sustain them through marathon coding sessions and bug hunts in their digital children. The introverted Peter is faced with trying to rescue the Caltech team’s flagging fortunes as their computer keeps performing disastrously in matches.

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Computer Chess examines the little whorl of subcultures and period details it encompasses less with the cheap gaudery of nostalgia than with the finicky exactitude of anthropology. The haircuts, the clothes, the bland environs of the hotel and its surrounds, the boxy cars, all are employed with fidelity and transcend the usual chuckle-worthy recreations for retro send-ups, becoming rather part of a project of holistic depth. Bujalski offers an undoubted sense of kinship between fashioners of off-road artistry like himself and these pioneer mongers of technological ingeniousness, seeing the common roots of obsessiveness, curiosity, and alienation from the imperatives of a larger “real” world. The alternative-capitalist triumphalism portrayed by a films like The Social Network (2010) and Jobs (2013), in which asocial geniuses become world conquerors, are still scarcely conceivable, distant horizons. The programming world portrayed here is wedged between the counterculture and technocrats, neatly trimmed institution men and hairy, dishevelled hobbits fond of puffing weed coexisting in this realm, unified by their devotion to the obscure beauty of code. Only Papageorge seems to have an eye on the necessity, even in the computer business, to project authority and professionalism, but he’s constantly thwarted by his overweening sense of superiority unmatched by a sense of salesmanship and charm.

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Whilst the tournament seems a clear-cut affair, zones of mystery, ambiguity, and even outright surrealism begin to open around it. Rumours of military interest in these seemingly benign, almost inane inventions and their possible uses add to undercurrents of paranoia. Schoesser’s absences and distracted manner give some credence to this suspicion, as does the presence of John (Jim Lewis), one of a pair of hotel guests who sell drugs to the programmers, a burly man who chuckles in sardonic amusement at the programmers whom he seems to regard as an the alien species even whilst probing them about potential military applications. He reports to the cameraman that he’s come to see “the end of the world” in the making, and in a way, he’s right, if not in the way he expects. Meanwhile, Peter seems to be spiralling down the rabbit hole trying to understand the Caltech computer’s erratic behaviour. When Schoesser does finally turn up, he explains to Peter that the new programme is supposed to learn as it plays, absorbing new methods of play. Theoretically, it should adapt quickly to the other programmes, but instead, it seems almost wilfully bad. Bewildered and increasingly spaced out by his all-night coding sessions exacerbating his already deep introversion, Peter takes the Caltech machine to Shelly’s room in the middle of the night to test out a theory that proves correct: having Shelly rather than the MIT computer play his, the Caltech programme finally starts working properly. It wants to play against humans.

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Have the Caltech crew failed to create a great computer chess programme, but instead created artificial intelligence? Or are they just so strung out, paranoid, and distracted that Peter and Beuscher are imagining things? Henderson mentions earlier the original “chess-playing machine,” the Mechanical Turk, an apparently brilliant device that defeated Napoleon at chess; its secret was that a human chess player was hidden within it. Now will humans have machines hidden inside them? Schoesser, in explaining the program’s workings to Peter, says that “everything is not everything—there’s more,” a seemingly contradictory piece of guff that accidentally reveals potentials beyond what he and his colleagues have imagined, opening the gates into unknown realms of intelligence and discovery. Bujalski stages a witty quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as he offers a computer’s eye view of two humans talking to each other, except where in Stanley Kubrick’s film, the sentient computer was defensively vigilant about the threat of his human charges, here the new artificial intelligence seems frustrated by how stilted and pedantic its human creators are and begins steering them toward new paradigms. Later, Beuscher nervously tells Peter about an exchange he had with the computer late at night when it seemed to start interacting sarcastically with him before prodding him to “ask your questions.” Beuscher asked, “Who are you?”, and the computer showed him a brief picture of an embryo in utero, before switching itself off. Rather than offering either maniacal super-intelligence as per scifi cliché or the benign boxes of helpfulness we’re used to, Bujalski intimates a Frankensteinlike aspect to the creation of computers, but more faithful to the original theme of Mary Shelley insofar as the creations map, mimic, and invert the faults and qualities of their creator. The good-humoured irony at the heart of Computer Chess is the notion that computers translate their programming into an urge to create connections, between each other and between their creators, the people who use them. It could be argued that the film is also a jokey metaphor for the roots of the internet age; with its billion-fold opportunities for linkage, one of the programmers only hesitantly ventures that one day computers may be used for dating.

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For added piquancy, Bujalski turns the hotel into a strangely nebulous zone that acts like the programming limits of the games themselves, complete with mysterious glitches that suddenly puncture holes in reality. During one of his midnight rambles in search of a place to sleep, Papageorge encounters a single cat reclining in the laundry room. Soon the cats start proliferating, like bad patches of software. Papageorge has an allergy to the cats, and when he’s finally given a room, he picks up the hooker who constantly hovers outside the hotel and takes her there, only to find the room filled with cats, preventing him from entering. At first it seems like the cats are Papageorge’s hallucination, stemming from his sleep-deprived state, except that later, Henderson passes on the hotel’s apologies for the cats infesting the place. Papageorge is forced to continue his search for a spot to sleep, and camps out in the convention room. But this place has its own infestation: the hotel is splitting the use of the room between the chess competition and an encounter group run by an alleged African guru Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott) for his congregation of middle-aged hippies. Papageorge’s ordeal by humiliation thus reaches an apogee as he’s dragged into the group’s games, undergoing a ritualised rebirth.

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Bujalski’s casting of a large number of nonprofessional actors, many from either the film world (Peary, Schwartz, Riester) or the computer world (Curry, Kindlmann) points to a neorealist sensibility, and indeed it gives the film its peculiar texture of veracity, particularly with the likes of Peary’s wonderfully awful MC work. But for all its esoteric flavour, Computer Chess has real and recognisable roots in a very Hollywood genre, the screwball comedy. The basic situation of a collection of weirdoes gathered in a hotel, indeed two different and irreconcilable kinds of weirdo, readily calls to mind films starring the Marx Brothers or Cary Grant. It’s easy to picture Papageorge in another era played by Grant, increasingly frustrated by his inability to find a place to sleep, a problem Grant indeed went through in Howard Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride (1949). The gently affectionate mockery of nerds who need to get in touch with their inner troglodyte calls to mind other Hawks comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ball of Fire (1941), and Monkey Business (1953), in all of which the breakdown of order and scientific rationality is correlated to the impudence of nature’s version of the science the heroes try to corral. Peter and Shelly’s meet geek threatens to move into ’80s teen comedy or Jerry Lewis territory. Bujalski channels these influences tellingly, though whereas another kind of order underlies that surface anarchy in Hawks, here things are far more complicated. Irreconcilable systems are blurring. Artificial and organic intelligence are meeting and melding. Biology has been invaded. A cybernetic age is beginning.

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Computer Chess also reminded me strongly of some quintessential films from the era in which it’s set, such as Dark Star (1974) and Repo Man (1984)—incidentally constructed, but richly composed works with a similarly, cheekily oddball spirit. Indeed, Bujalski seems almost nostalgic for the blurring of the present and the future in those films, for Computer Chess recreates that feeling, but in what is, for the filmmaker, the past. It has hints and hues, too, of Jacques Tati’s comedies of modernism and Brian De Palma’s formative works, whilst the black and white and lack of artifice call to mind early Jim Jarmusch. Whilst evoking such classic models, however, Computer Chess dives into the argot of the recent past. The video shooting facilitates this, but there’s more to it than that: a lot of contemporary directors have nostalgically referenced bygone modes of filmmaking, for example, J.J. Abrams’ much-noted efforts to recreate the flavour of ’70s cinematography, but Bujalski’s references are far less common. He tries to recreate the tone of no-budget documentaries, public TV specials, corporate training videos, and most particularly, the sort of filmmaking that came out of regional and university workshops, from a very specific era. The photography gets pixelated, blown out, and even riddled with hazy, smeared impressions from bright lights (not for nothing does Henderson warn the cameramen).

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Some of Bujalski’s forebears in smart, independent cinema, including Jarmusch and John Sayles, have often been tagged less as film minds than writers with cameras, a problematic attitude that sometimes seems aimed at ghettoising filmmakers who try to do as much as they can with limited production resources. But in spite of the self-imposed technical limitations that endow this film with its lo-fi look, Bujalski’s framing and cutting are lissom, lively, and laced with a wide repertoire of film devices utilised in a deadpan and simple fashion—iris shots, abstruse framings, delicate tracking shots, split-screen effects, flashbacks, looping shots, even a truly peculiar special effect towards the end—that evince a sophisticated filmmaker trying archly not to seem like one. Lightly surreal humour and images that seem to have stumbled out of cheap, but inventive scifi TV shows coexist with nonchalant realism. The setting, an incredibly bland hotel and concrete surrounds, offers not the slightest photogenic purchase, but, of course, it helps the precision of the misè-en-scene in presenting a land beyond taste and character, like the starting point for an alternative timeline in which machines could well take over because human beings have become deadly dull.

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Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Computer Chess is based in Bujalski’s contemplation on the roots of one part of the contemporary zeitgeist. He’s aware that most artists have, so far, generally failed to contemplate just how much the computer and internet age have created a new epoch. He delves into this new age, a very different kind of new age than the one conceived during the ’60s counterculture era, and yet stemming in part from aspects of that ideal. Bujalski focuses on a time when culture was in a state of flux after the ructions of the 1960s, and not doing it via the sexy story of some zillionaire like Steve Jobs, who did indeed provide a link between the ’60s era and the dawn of the personal-computer age in the’80s.

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The technocrats of the tournament, living through supposedly serene, digitised simulacrums, and the encounter group faithful searching for immediate, sensitising tactile and experiential awareness, are directly contrasted, but also identified as similarly weird and interesting alternative worlds within worlds. Both have characters capable of speaking derisively about them, as Papageorge mocks the comp and one of the encounter group readily concedes Keneiloe might just be an entertaining fraud. There is mindfulness here of how both systems have apparently opposite worldviews but shared roots, and are linked by a hunger for new ways of experiencing and ordering the world. During the film’s most uncomfortable, sustained comic sequence, a couple from the encounter group, Dave (Chris Doubek) and Pauline (Cindy Williams) try to sell Peter on having a threesome with them. Pauline prods Peter with appeals to expand his mind and range of experience from the narrowness of his technological obsessions, to which Peter ripostes that the possible permutations of positions in his computer chess programme are staggeringly large, and his world of the mind equally vast, so Pauline’s rhetoric is in a way close-minded. Peter flees the couple in a panic, understandably, as Bujalski cunningly roots the discomfort of the scene not so much in the sexual offer, or even their disparate ages, so much as the weirdly parental method of seduction Pauline tries. Peter remains blocked, however, even as he catches Shelly’s eye. She instead has to bat off Papageorge’s entreaties, like his hilariously self-congratulatory chat-up line: “I’d be willing to bet that you and I are the only ones here who even understand that programming has a feminine side.” This aspect of Bujalski’s satire, the perception of the tech world’s awkward record of gender inclusivity, is perhaps the timeliest, although his touch is light: Shelly, like Peter, is an archetypal nerd.

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Most of Computer Chess’s first two-thirds is fairly straightforward, and only in the endgame, as per the early discussion, does the program begin to break down; Bujalski achieves the sense of disordering in the way he puts the film together, revealing the genuine cinematic intelligence at work here. Papageorge’s program lives up to his reputation for avant-garde thought, but still fails to best Carbray’s more conventional, reliable invention, and the Brit takes out the competition. Whilst Papageorge and Peter vie to be protagonist in their sharply contrasting ways of being computer savants, Carbray emerges as the quiet hero, with his successful program, his intellectually curious and defensive engagements with John, and his likeably old-school approach to mood-altering: he announces that he’s scientifically determined that “a man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.” John has his own opinion, as he berates the victory as “Goliath beating David.”

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Having clearly counted on winning the tournament for the prize money, Papageorge is left broke and reduced to searching his house for cash to pay off John’s partner Freddy (Freddy Martinez) for drugs he gave him, rushing back and forth whilst his mother regales Freddy with a biblical reading. Finally, Papageorge is caught in a looping segment of the film itself, which has shifted into blurry Super 8 colour as the setting has changed. Bujalski equates Papageorge’s existential situation with the faults of the old MIT computer, doomed to circle endlessly because of his own blind spots. Henderson takes on Carbray’s computer for an exhibition match, but finds that a problem with the booking means that the convention hall belongs to the encounter group. The group agree to share the space and become so interested, they crowd in on Henderson, who suffers a meltdown when the group reach out to absorb him into their number as a fellow sufferer in the new age. Peter seems on the verge of grand, new discoveries, both personal and technical, when he learns that Schoesser has indeed ceded the team’s work to the military for exploitation. He accidentally leaves open a window, and rain gets to the team’s computer, ruining it.

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Peter is then left alone and in disgrace, unable to connect properly to Shelly, with her attention newly sensitised by Peter’s experiment and her own observations of how the people at the tournament move like chess pieces themselves in systems play for the sake of defence and offence. She and her team leave. Like Papageorge, Peter finally picks up the hooker, as if making a logical-minded attempt to purge his hang-ups and inexperience. The hooker strips off her clothes and sits on the bed beside him; Peter is carefully framed, downcast and quite literally oppressed by the drab, lifeless décor of the hotel. But then the hooker casually removes the side of her head, revealing flashing lights and gadgets within.

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Perhaps Peter is the one hallucinating now, or perhaps he’s having a vision of the future when the technical and the human will conjoin, or merely wishing that humans could be opened up and rewired to work properly like his machines can. Either way, it’s a marvellous climactic image that reminded me of the conclusion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), a sudden swerve into outright strangeness that signals things wonderful and frightening are happening, and the way we perceive reality is shifting. It’s undoubted that Computer Chess, like Berberian Sound Studio from earlier this year, a film with distinct similarities of focus and aesthetics, will prove a huge turn-off for many in its wonky form and mannerisms. But at a time when empty junk is passed off as game-changing cinematic brilliance, I found Bujalski’s wealth of ideas and quirk a tonic, and if not the best, Computer Chess is perhaps the most original American movie I’ve seen in 2013.


17th 11 - 2013 | 3 comments »

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Director: Jean-Marc Valée

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By Roderick Heath

As a child of the ’80s, the menace of the AIDS epidemic is engraved on my formative years. The spectre of the disease’s infiltration into world consciousness and the widespread confusion it created was like an insidious flipside to the decade’s pervasive nuclear angst, like a choice of destruction from without or within. As an Australian, I readily recall the infamous “grim reaper” ad designed to foster alarm and caution in the general populace. The effect of this campaign was to generally traumatise kids my age, but it hit the mark in instantly making everyone aware of the general nature of the problem, as part of effective government programme of action.

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Dallas Buyers Club harkens back to those tumultuous, scary days with a different paradigm, of course. The film revolves around a straight character’s battle with the disease in the context of the Reagan era in the U.S., when many felt that viewing AIDS as a specifically gay problem was being propagated by the attitude of a conservative government—the anger of the time still smoulders in the American LGBT community. Dallas Buyers Club recounts the fascinating true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a self-stereotyped Texan he-man with a love of rodeo riding, sex, and intoxicating substances. Introduced at the outset having a threesome with a pair of rodeo groupies in a bull holding cage whilst waiting for a different kind of ride, Ron is a professional electrician. He consumes sensations with ravening hunger, a Falstaffian figure, albeit one who, far from being garrulously corpulent, has mysteriously been worn to a stalk instead.

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Ron is diagnosed with full-blown AIDS when he lands in hospital after getting electrocuted on the job, and is given 30 days to live, with the suggestion that he go home and put his affairs in order. Ron rejects the diagnosis in disbelief, but when he learns it’s entirely possible to have contracted it through unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, he puts himself in the hands of Drs. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). He’s made furious when he learns he’s going to be included in a research study of the effects of the experimental drug AZT, but won’t know if he’s receiving the drug or a placebo. Instead, he starts paying bribes to a hospital orderly to smuggle him doses of the drug. As his 30 days run out and his supply is suddenly cut off by tightening security, he contemplates suicide, but instead follows the orderly’s suggestion to go south of the border in search of a banished gringo doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne).

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Vass introduces him to other drugs and supplements he believes are less corrosive than AZT. Ron, seeing not just hope for himself but also a major opportunity, fills the trunk of his car with this contraband, bluffing his way past border cops by posing as a cancer-stricken priest who is bringing a stash in for his own use. He sets up a business he dubs the Dallas Buyers Club, a technical subversion of FDA regulations that allows him to give foreign, unapproved drugs to members who pay a $400 monthly fee as club members. Aiding him in the business is a would-be trans woman, Rayon (Jared Leto), whom Ron met in hospital as a fellow AZT trial recipient. In spite of Ron’s brusque homophobia, he and Rayon form a working relationship as Rayon knows many potential members for the club.

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Ron, used to being a good old boy at the dead centre of macho Texan culture, is suddenly faced with cruel ostracism by friends, neighbours, and his landlord: finding himself locked out of his trailer home, Ron blasts off the lock, removes his money and a painting done by his mother, and struts away with his signature rejoinder: “Y’all go fuck yerselves.” This experience primes Ron, however reluctantly, to form a bond with Rayon and other sufferers, and get over himself enough to venture into a gay bar on the hunt for new customers. Humiliated by an encounter with a gang of his pals, Ron takes revenge when, in the company of Rayon, he meets one former friend, T.J. (Kevin Rankin), and through a display of forces, compells T.J. to shake Rayon’s hand. The only one of Ron’s old buddies who sticks by him is Dallas beat cop Tucker (Steve Zahn), one of that variety of character who turn up when required by the plot.

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Ron is the sort of character any actor might consider donating organs to get their hands on, and McConaughey brings him roaring to impudent, individual life. McConaughey’s severe weight loss, dropping all the buffness he showed off in Magic Mike (2012) to facilitate his performance, is a fairly familiar act of actor masochism in the hunt for gold statuary. But it’s backed up here with an expert sense of physical performance, as McConaughey nails the gait of a man not used to his current weight because he’s lost so much of it in a short time, as well as the many fluctuations of Ron’s mental and physical condition, from outrageous drunkenness to fiery combativeness. McConaughey cunningly doesn’t play Ron as cool as Ron thinks he is, presenting a scrappy survivor, glimpsed early on running from guys who want to beat him up, who might once have been a golden boy like McConaughey’s own younger self, but who now gets along on raw nerve and charm. This is some fine film acting, using the body as malleable canvas, but not neglecting other gifts: a great deal of the entertainment value of the film is sourced in Woodroof’s dexterity and inspiration in getting around the rules and his mysteriously protean abilities, able to demolish stereotypes by using them to his own ends.

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Dallas Buyers Club, as a film, is by far at its best in the first half when concentrating on Ron’s dizzied journey from the centre to the fringe of his culture, and the confrontation with mortality by such a rudely sensual man, who deals with imminent death in the same way he deals with everything else, with fuck-you attitude, wheeler-dealer conceit, and spidery wit. He prays at one point for a chance to catch his breath when faced with scarcely a month of life ahead of him, but then hits the ground running and finds this keeps him alive. His unpleasant side, bound up with his culturally enabled, and indeed, dictated dislike of queers, is eventually found to stem from the same source as his best quality, his gleeful skill and wit in a fight. He’s a guy who loves contention and defining himself in combative situations, so there’s no real change involved in his move from aiming nasty, gay-baiting barbs at Rayon to suddenly defending his honour. He soon finds that side of his nature more than occupied by his ongoing combat with experts and official gatekeepers like Sevard and FDA honcho Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill), who try to shut down the club for reasons Ron and, eventually, Eve come to believe are bound up in the cosy relationship the American medical establishment and bureaucracy have with Big Pharma. Warned by Vass that AZT is highly toxic, Ron upbraids Sevard and others for continuing to use it. Faced with having his stock impounded and government audits, Ron refuses to stop propagating his own regimen, flying around the world in search of new supplies and treatments, and expanding his variety of guises to bring them back.

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Despite its qualities as a character portrait and actor’s showcase in its early phases, Dallas Buyers Club proves a much less compelling experience than it initially promises to be. The director is Jean-Marc Valée, who last took a tilt at prestige cinema with The Young Victoria (2009), a very ordinary costume biopic jazzed up with some showy, but pointless directorial technique. Valée tackles this subject more aptly with that energy, trying to shape the film via arty visual and aural flourishes designed give the audience the same slightly woozy, breathless, simultaneously spacy and intense mental landscape Ron has. Valée, who also edited the film, uses Godardian jump cuts, hazy and semi-abstract point-of-view shots, and manipulated sound similar to an effect used many times on the TV show “Breaking Bad” where someone zones out with a faint whistling sound that deadens everything else. The opening scene with Ron’s sexual escapade in the bullpen is a strong example, as Valée suggests intensely corporeal erotic action in hyper-contrast to the bullriding beyond the grating, conjoining the sexual act and the rider’s fall, a miniature portrait of the life cycle itself. It’s a great start, one with a purposeful technique and artfulness Valée can’t sustain in part because both the uneasy relationship of the messiness of life and the programmatic script forestall it. Valée’s directing gives a veneer of edginess to a film that’s actually deeply conventional.

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The film’s second half begins to devolve into a series of loosely connected scenes, particularly in making room for Ron’s relationship with Eve. McConaughey and Garner, in other circumstances, could be a great onscreen couple, but the necessarily platonic stuff here doesn’t feel anything but fake, especially considering that Eve is present in the painfully clichéd role of the company girl charmed by the ragged but loveable rogue who slowly changes allegiances. This climaxes, embarrassingly, when Eve stomps out of a meeting with hospital chiefs who try to make her resign, tossing Ron’s vulgar preferred farewell over her shoulder. Ha ha, she’s a goody-goody doctor, and she just swore like a redneck, ha ha.

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Rayon is a character by now as clichéd as Eve, the fabulous, spunky, doomed queen sidekick: he’s practically interchangeable with figures like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Lola in Kinky Boots (2005) whilst also recalling the Blanche Dubois school of transgender tragic. Rayon’s relationship with his boyfriend (Bradford Cox) isn’t given any study, nor is said boyfriend even given a name: you just see the two constantly frolicking together. Leto’s smug and artificial performance doesn’t help bring any new depth to this character, though there is one good touch to it, insofar as that early in the film Leto offers an androgynously beautiful façade that gets seedier as the film goes along. This accords with perhaps the film’s slyest joke, albeit one that’s not that well developed, as Ron becomes the more stereotypically gay member of their partnership. Ron offers a nurturing influence, dictating a healthy lifestyle and giving Rayon a hard time for his increasing drug use as Rayon copes with existential dread with mood-altering substances, whilst Ron deals with his in his combative labours.

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Meanwhile, Valée and writers Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten try to wring the material for pathos whilst dancing around the painful business at the centre of the tale. In offering Woodroof as an antihero, Dallas Buyers Club seeks to shake up our perception of virtue, joining an increasing body of prestige pics like Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) in which the protagonists are figures of unruly sexual and sensatory appetites. At the same time, the film falls back on some very old tricks of the crusader biopic, offering convenient representatives of official villainy as arch as those found in examples of the genre from the 1930s, like The House of Rothschild (1934) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)—which is, I admit, one of the more fun things about those movies, but not necessarily a good reason why that sort of thing is needed in a serious-minded movie now. Dallas Buyers Club plays its politics with fascinatingly equivocal precision, presenting a rootin’-tootin’ good old boy as saviour of the queers whilst taking on the big boys in a film that plays equally on liberal dislike of corporate-influenced governance and Tea Party loathing of federal institutions, in spite of the apparently much more complex history behind this tale, and generally ignoring the wider picture of the AIDS epidemic. I do like that the news broadcasts used to give some background information in the film seem to be real, as fake ones used for exposition are one of my singular pet peeves in films. Not there’s anything new about distorting history for the sake of a good story, but that’s just the problem: there’s nothing new here, an interesting true story reprocessed into a stock star vehicle, vague and platitudinous in its actual social perspective.

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If Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t sink to the level of dread offered by the likes of The Help (2011) in jerking off the audience for sharing the right opinion about period social injustices, it’s because Valée and his cast sustain their ornery energy. The film offers seemingly casual, but sharply realised moments of interaction and odd-couple humour, as Ron and Rayon’s relationship finds spiky, fraternal stability, for example, Rayon teasing Ron by sticking up pictures of his own favoured love object, Marc Bolan, amongst Ron’s girly pics. There’s tang to the film’s evocation of life in the byways of Dallas, particularly the motel the becomes the base of operations for the club, which Ron unapologetically runs as both public good and capitalist enterprise to rows of needy, would-be club members queued up outside. One neat sequence of Ron’s misadventures depicts him going to Japan, engaging in difficult and costly deal-making, returning unscathed into the U.S. by pretending to be a physician raving on a huge ’80s mobile phone, but then being done in by the very drug he’s just brought back when he tries it to relieve his symptoms in the airport bathroom and gives himself a heart attack.

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The film avoids realistic depiction of death by AIDS to a weird and discomforting degree. Everyone goes along fine until Rayon suddenly keels over, and Ron experiences that whistling zone-out a few times, including once at an intersection as cars zip dangerously close to him. Apart from these episodes, Valée is pretty coy about the gruelling nature of the film’s motivating subject, believing perhaps that audiences are turned off by carcinoma far more readily than the sight of slim, pretty Leto snorting cocaine. Rayon does die, giving Ron and the film an appropriate emotional wallop, but it happens off-screen and comes practically out of nowhere. This lack, this avoidance of actually confronting the tenuousness of mortality and the tragedy that underlies even Ron’s punchy sense of purpose, robs Dallas Buyers Club of its natural conclusion, and also its character. Because sooner or later, this is tragedy, the tragedy of an era and a still-present reality the film tries to avoid admitting. So determined is it to send the audience out of the theatre with a positive vibe that even though Ron loses his climactic challenge in the courts to keep his business going, we still get the regulation scene of him being greeted on return by a clapping crowd of friends and supporters. Still, Valée returns to his opening for the very last image, with Ron preparing for a bull ride, spied between two slatted bars, caught in a freeze-frame atop the beast as Valée closes the loop of Ron’s life.


11th 11 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Europa Report (2013)

Director: Sebastián Cordero

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Even as the big-money people in the United States are freaking out about how our children are lagging behind those in other countries in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and pouring tons of their ill-gotten booty into STEM education, Hollywood and indie films alike continue to push fear and superstition as the major consequences of exploring nature and the universe. From the horrors of cloning (Moon [2009], Primer [2004]) and dangers of space exploration (Apollo 13 [1995], Red Planet [2000]) to the wrong-headedness of atheism (Contact [1997], Gravity [2013]) and threat of aliens (all the Alien movies), our movies are telling us to remain god-fearing people who will only be safe and happy in our own backyard.

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Certainly there are dangers involved in exploration, and have been since the first human beings migrated from humanity’s place of origin millennia ago. But even as Dorothy Gale told herself over and over that there’s no place like home, she enthused to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry that most of Oz was absolutely beautiful, a place of color that contrasted the black-and-white bleakness of Kansas, and a place where she made lasting friendships. I have been hoping that one day we’d emerge from our self-imposed prison of fear and start declaring and acting on, as Frank Zappa said, how “fucking great [it is] to be alive.” While Gravity chose to dazzle and frighten us and take us back to safety, an indie film that has garnered more buzz than box office, Europa Report, offers us a dangerous journey of discovery that sends back to us a message of hope and wonder untainted by superstition and narrow-focused fear, a feeling the world as a whole has not experienced since the first person walked on the moon in 1969.

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Reflecting the reality that governments are no longer willing to support space exploration, a private company is behind the mission to send a six-person, international team of scientists and engineers to Europa, a moon of Jupiter. The expedition’s mission is to see if there may be life on Europa, following a real-life theory that massive oceans may be flowing beneath the moon’s ice sheet. The film toggles between a talking-heads-style documentary of the company’s executive team, Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), Dr. Sokolov (Dan Folger), and Dr. Pamuk (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.), who describe what happened when ground control lost communication with the spacecraft, and the details of the mission.

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Before communication with Earth is interrupted, we get the kind of footage most of us are used to seeing of life on a spacecraft—messages to loved ones, a communal meal, demonstrations of weightlessness and how the crew works out to keep their muscles from shriveling. The actual loss of communication is very realistic, as the picture being transmitted breaks up, freezes, and finally dies. Thereafter, all the footage we see is from the on-board video recorders and the video feeds in the crew’s spacesuits during out-of-craft missions. The ever-present logo in the lower right corner of the screen, as well as the identifying stamps of the mission cameras, seem to disappear as we become enveloped in the crew’s drama of discovery, but they also provide a subtle link to the documentary-like footage of the company executives that puts the entire film into perspective.

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Like real-life space travel, the Europa mission is a hazardous one, and crew members do die along the way. One of the crew is shut out of the craft when his suit becomes contaminated with a highly toxic substance during a repair job that could kill them all. He doesn’t want to die—and we don’t want him to die after seeing his obvious love for the family he left behind—but he takes his fate philosophically. The crew member who was with him, also in danger from a puncture to his space suit, is only dissuaded from helping his crew mate because he passes out from lack of oxygen. When he revives in the airlock of the ship, his cry of anguish is wrenching and real.

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The landing on Europa doesn’t go exactly as planned, as the crew misses the target landing space by 100 meters because of an unexpected heat vent that blows the landing craft off course. This is a lovely touch, showing that the precise planning of the mission is always subject to change due to unknown natural conditions the crew may encounter. So many fact-based science fiction films make everything seem to run like clockwork, with the only snafus coming from human error or equipment mishaps. They forget what we have sought in space—the unknown wonders of the universe.

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What else is extraordinarily refreshing, something that harkens back to the fictions produced during the early days of space exploration, is a sense of excitement and awe the crew displays. We only see what the crew sees—some narrowly delineated looks at the surface of Europa, for example, though director Cordero ensures that we see an entrancing image of Jupiter on the horizon. The crew drills a large hole through the ice sheet, and a camera records a first look at the predicted, and now confirmed, ocean below. When marine biologist Katya (Karolina Wydra) goes out to collect samples after the remote collection equipment fails, we see her unscrewing and resealing jars, and then move toward some lights in the distance. Her enthusiasm and curiosity sweep us along with her.

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The film’s budget seems relatively modest, with the personnel and the spacecraft (green screens were employed for the out-of-craft shots) the major expenditures in what is essentially a one-set film. Despite the craft looking like an exploded hardware store later in the film, Europa Report creates an impressive, largely believable world of its own. Crew actions make sense, except perhaps for Katya’s refusal to return to the landing craft after being ordered to twice.

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The overall feeling of the film is one of camaraderie, dedication, and self-sacrifice. William Xu (Daniel Wu) is a believable mission leader who is both decisive and willing to sacrifice life and limb for his crew. Russian crew members Andrei (Michael Nyqvist) and Katya huddle from time to time to check on each other’s state of mind, a concern for their mutual welfare part and parcel of the mission. Andrei’s and crew member Rosa’s (Anamaria Marinca) dedication to Katya, in fact, ensures that her discoveries on Europa will be communicated back to Earth. The final takeaway of this film is that some causes are worth any sacrifice, including one’s life and peace of mind. We live in unusually selfish times, so this message delivered by an international cast and crew in a thoughtfully rendered, exciting, and entertaining film is timely and welcome.


6th 11 - 2013 | 2 comments »

The Past (Le Passé, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

Asghar Farhadi, since his critical breakthrough with About Elly (2009) and the international success of A Separation (2011), seems to embody several arresting contradictions. He’s an Iranian filmmaker, and like many of the captivating talents that country has produced in the past few decades, the restrictions placed on what artists can depict only seem to have liberated a deeper fount of creativity. He’s a more convincingly sophisticated artist of the interpersonal drama than just about any western filmmaker to emerge in recent years, acute to the rhythms and quirks of contemporary life and morals. But his methods avoid the deadweight reflexes of too much modern pseud drama and cinema. His work has some similarities to that now-common brand of realist filmmaking best exemplified by the likes of the Dardennes brothers, but really seems to harken back more to the theatrical traditions of major 19th century playwrights like Strindberg, Ibsen, and Chekhov and the dense, morally and psychologically interrogative efforts of European film greats like Ingmar Bergman’s early, more domestically focused works and aspects of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson’s oeuvres. Whilst not as cinematically vivid as Bergman or as stringent as Bresson, Farhadi creates, like them, vivid, exactingly wrought tales of interpersonal crisis and conflict with a discreet sense of social context. Farhadi’s filmmaking is sleek and functional, but not in an impersonal fashion: there’s a tautness and concision to his framings and camerawork, a sense of space and the largesse of the screen, which feels organic, even epic.

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The Past, his latest film, shifts ground insofar as it’s a French film, set in Paris, though it does deal with Iranian émigrés, with a subtle undertow in the dramatic flow stemming from the dissonance of displacement and estrangement. The search for exact truth in A Separation and The Past is both the aim of the characters and an impossibility because the viewpoints keep shifting. Motivations that make perfect sense to one might be incomprehensible to another. Experience and truth spread out in interlapping but distinct ripples from the actions of each character.

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Farhadi kicks off with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving at a Paris airport where he’s met by his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo): she spies him through a pane of glass separating the incoming passengers and they communicate amusedly via signs and mouthed words. This proves to be the easiest, most relaxed act of communication in the film, because once the glass is gone, discomforting familiarity begins to creep in. The two make a mad dash through the rain in almost romantic fashion, but then they’re locked in a small, breathless, steamy car together. It becomes clear that Ahmad has returned to Paris from Iran to give Marie a divorce after several years of separation. Marie stops by a high school en route to pick up eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), but she’s already fled, as has been her recent habit. Entering the yard of Marie’s sizeable old townhouse, Ahmad is recognised by one of the children playing in the yard, Léa (Jeanne Jestin), but not the other, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), the son of Marie’s current beau, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad arrives apparently oblivious to Marie’s current situation and is bewildered because she’s neglected to book him a hotel room. She says she held off with the booking because the last time he planned to come, he failed to show.

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Marie tries to billet him in a bunk bed with Fouad, but Fouad throws a tantrum and tries to flee the house for his and his father’s apartment. An infuriated Marie drags him back and locks him in a parlour. The camera takes Ahmad’s place as accidental eavesdropper as Marie’s struggle with Fouad, staged and shot from a high window as a half-comic, half-alarming Coyote and Road Runner chase about the back yard. Soon, the tension underlying the strained attempts at civility and modern cool about the odd family situation proves to have deeper sources, and the sense that some explosion is inevitable builds as Ahmad comes to realise what’s going on. One of Farhadi’s most fundamental observational and dramatic elements here is also one of the more problematic aspects of his film: the family under study here is complicated, with about one layer too many for use. Neither Lucie nor Léa are Ahmad’s children, but the product of yet another of Marie’s ill-fated unions: their father lives in Brussels. But this difficulty is part of Farhadi’s point, that today, many families are indeed such fluid, ad hoc, but perversely binding creations, easy to leave but impossible to escape.

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Farhadi’s observational streak is in marvellous form in these scenes: Ahmad and Marie trying to dry themselves with tissues in the car; the blob of spilt paint that drives Marie into a rage with Fouad, and Fouad’s hostile, but curious first handshake with Ahmad; Ahmad dutifully taking a blow dryer to Marie’s hair after they arrive home; Ahmad’s quizzicality and Fouad’s fury as they try to make up the bunk-bed they share, each aware to a degree that they’re extraneous males in the house and somehow, intentionally or not, they’ve been put together for that reason; Fouad viciously stabbing at corncobs in reactive irritation when helping Ahmad prepare dinner until he cuts himself; the few seconds it takes Léa to recognise her stepfather, whom she then calls by his first name but with genuine affection, revealing much about his parental status. Lucie, when she does finally show up, takes refuge in her bedroom, but Ahmad is able to communicate with her, especially when he takes her to visit his friend, Shahryar (Babak Karimi), another expat who runs a café, providing memories of happier times. Meanwhile, Samir sits in the paternal position at the table, but with distinct unease: Lucie won’t speak to him, and he distractedly tries to observe how Marie acts with Ahmad, peering out at them as he tries to paint a room.

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Samir runs an inner-city dry cleaners, and, it emerges, he still has a wife, albeit one who’s in a coma she will probably never come out of. Her state is the result of depression-fueled suicide attempt in front of Samir’s assistant, Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani), an illegal immigrant. That malady and suicidal thoughts have also dogged Ahmad, as his inability to adjust to life in France destroyed his marriage to Marie, but he generally seems pleasant and intelligent. Soon, however, he is placed under strange pressures that rub his patience raw, as Marie asks him to speak to Lucie and find out why she’s been difficult recently. Ahmad solicitously interviews Lucie and is satisfied at first with Lucie’s explanation that she doesn’t want her mother to get married again, especially to a man Lucie dislikes.

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A delicate equilibrium forms in Marie’s house as Ahmad plays house-husband, cooking meals and trying to fix a faulty sink, a task which Samir takes over after Ahmad seems to have effortlessly stitched himself into the fabric of the place, even proving skilled at drawing Fouad out of his funk. Samir’s stern approach to fathering contrasts Ahmad’s ability to create a rapport with the kids: after Fouad and Léa pinch one of Ahmad’s gifts for the family from his suitcase, Samir puts Fouad through an interrogation where he forces the lad to meet his eyes and doesn’t want to let the kids get away with apologising because that would teach them all they have to do is say they’re sorry to be absolved. This seemingly throwaway moment proves to be the film’s main thesis, as Farhadi examines the way people try to mollify others with civilities, but nonetheless take actions that incur genuine consequences.

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The younger characters contrast the older ones. Marie, in particular, tries to discard the past before it strangles her chances for happiness, whereas the children try to cling to their pasts, the things they know. Fouad deals with alienation and changes with bratty aggression, whilst Lucie plays adult games and is shocked at the real, awful consequences that occur. Farhadi’s fascination for watching ambiguities in a situation proliferate until all viewpoints seem to cancel each other out recalls Otto Preminger’s, and, indeed, aspects of the story resemble Bonjour Tristesse (1958), particularly in the theme of a teen girl trying to thwart a parent’s love affair, and standing back in shock at the results. Lucie’s angst, it emerges, stems from her distaste for Marie and Samir’s relationship, a distaste that proves much deeper and more significant than mere adolescent resentment. Lucie almost desperately explains to Ahmad that Marie’s remarriage would mean she would lose her old home, the one they shared with Ahmad, forever, and later furiously informs Ahmad, “You know why she went to that filthy man? Because he reminded her of you.” Lucie’s observation here seems coldly accurate on at least one level, as Samir certainly suggests Ahmad Mark II, less interesting and talented as a family man, but more reassuringly mundane and workaday.

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Marie works as a chemist around the corner from Samir’s laundry, and they seem nicely in synch as sleek, fit, moderately successful worker bees. One of Farhadi’s most succinct shots offers a trio of fancy lampshades for redecorating the house, signifying their hope for the future and also their status as bourgeois clichés in their fetishism of faux-antique security. They move like people who know the score and carry a faint aura of both longing and old hurt in their manners. Marie and Samir’s desire to get on with life together and cast off old baggage has a wilful quality with a vaguely psychopathic note, which they themselves have noticed and which haunts their every motion. This note turns out to have predated the tragedy of Samir’s wife: they started an affair before the suicide attempt, when Marie was lonely and Samir stopped by the chemist’s for his wife’s antidepressants. Ahmad and Samir’s wife (like Marie, she’s “French”) share maladies, as both are depressives who are written off as deadweight by their functional spouses, wrong choices who don’t fit with the program.

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Farhadi’s major conceit in telling this story lies in how he moves distinctly between four characters as focal point, from Ahmad to Lucie to Marie to Samir, with Samir scarcely making an impression in the first half-hour as the perspective belongs to Ahmad; by the end, Ahmad has more or less vanished, written out of the drama as he becomes irrelevant to the new marital quandary. The kitchen of Marie’s house becomes shifting territory in domestic war. The film’s middle act is, in its dramatic structure, a little like one of those slapstick comedy gags where characters dart in and out of a long corridor, disappearing and reappearing in increasingly tangled and improbable places and patterns, as Lucie vanishes, forcing the others to hunt for her. Tempers boil, old wounds open, resentments arise, tiny physical and emotional cues spark heated reactions, and in trying to deal with the problem they chase their own tails.

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Eventually, the real root of the drama is revealed as Lucie confesses that she believes Marie and Samir’s affair caused the attempted suicide of Samir’s wife. Ahmad tries to assuage her fears by having her talk to Naïma, whose account of the day puts the tragic turn down to altercations with a client. But, both Lucie and Naïma have secrets involving that day. Lucie confesses hers first: she logged on to Marie’s computer and forwarded to Samir’s wife the emails Marie and Samir had been writing to each other. The notion of verboten love letters resting at the heart of a familial melodrama is given a cunning modern makeover by this device, as the email medium’s rapidity has removed the safeguards of time from the heat of immediate strong feeling, which I’m sure we’re familiar with now—the “I shouldn’t have done that” moment where technology has allowed emotion to outpace good sense. Indeed, the ambiguity of such communication has already been touched on, as Marie and Ahmad bicker about whether she really sent him messages that would have forestalled the accommodation problems he’s faced with on his arrival. Ahmad’s attempt to mediate Marie’s discovery of Lucie’s awful, guilty act and make sure the rupture is stemmed results only in an ugly explosion of rage and grief, as Marie assaults her daughter in the kitchen, screaming with telling outrage, “How could you do this to me?” The film has obviously been building up to such an eruption, though Farhadi delays it cleverly. The hot flare of Marie’s anger doesn’t last long, and she calls her forlorn daughter back from the railway station as she prepares to take her leave, perhaps the film’s finest recognition of the way powerful emotions alternate and feed each other in family conflicts, the rapid successions of egocentric rage and abject forgiveness.

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Lucie’s confession seems to offer a cut-and-dried confirmation of the anxiety behind Marie and Samir’s relationship, the one that constantly threatens to cleave them apart in guilt and shame, already apparent in the simple act of trying to hold hands, but it soon proves even more complex. Naïma proves to have played a part, too, as she provided another link in the chain that might have brought the adulterous messages to the wife’s attention as a petty revenge for suspicions that she and Samir were having the affair. When the investigations to nail down the truth lead Samir to his employee, he angrily ejects her from his life and her job. But the onus of causative guilt can’t be shifted so easily onto Naïma’s act of hapless spite, for, as she retorts to Samir, she still can’t understand why Samir’s wife staged her act in front of her instead of him or Marie. Naïma, like Sareh Bayat’s Razieh in A Separation, becomes a figure the other characters try to turn into a villain for her genuine act of wrongdoing, but with obnoxious readiness on their part to offload their own guilt whilst disregarding the anxiety and difficult position that caused the wrong in the first place. The point is plain, but thankfully not forced down our throats: as much as the characters want to, there’s no easy moral out for anyone. Farhadi is obviously staging a merciless gag at the expense of the modern faith in “closure,” the idea that a ritualised conclusion for something will sever past from future and remake you. “I didn’t want you to be in torment for the rest of your life!” Ahmad explains to Lucie, a sobbing, fleeing mess after being ejected by Marie. “I’m not now?” a beggared Marie retorts.

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The Past, from its title inward, notes that human character is the sum of its accumulated experiences rather than a free-floating entity, and by definition, therefore, the past cannot be left behind. On the most literal and humdrum level here, this is apparent in the complex mesh of affection and enmity, hope and disappointment that exists between Ahmad and Marie and the children, with Samir as ambiguous new spoke on the wheel and the body of Samir’s wife, paralysed, probably brain-dead, voiceless and powerless, but doggedly clinging to life with tormenting ambiguity. Farhadi, who’s already taken aim at the byzantine, unforgiving qualities of his homeland’s mix of theocracy and bureaucracy in civil life, explores this new realm on the microcosmic level, wringing out each character’s attitude to their own lives past and future, but with overtones that could also be cultural and political. Just as western bourgeois family life is predicated today around an unstable binary ideal of personal liberty that can, on the basic levels of society, both bind and damage individuals and those close to them, so, too, are western bourgeois politics based on a sharklike need for forward movement, a carefully fostered rejection of the past.

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Indeed, the family under study here quickly comes to resemble modern geopolitics. There are proliferating ghosts of past wrongs with accompanying guilt complexes, accumulating dependents, self-righteous busy bodies, emotional and physical emigrants, and bewildered holders of dual citizenship: Ahmad’s status as a man not at home in France, but solitary in Iran correlates to Lucie’s feelings of uncertainty about three different, equal variations of her “family.” There are makeshift states, acts of terrorism, invasions, and even moments of peace and amity. Farhadi is not a political filmmaker, at least not in the didactic sense, or even a maker of parables, but his observations of human behaviour on a small scale are relevant to the larger. The theatrical sensibility Farhadi brings to his material is more noticeable here than with A Separation. If it seems to be a slightly lesser achievement, it might well stem from the lack of the overarching tension the earlier film sustained about the contentious relationship of the individual to the state. Farhadi was able to string out elaborate narrative pressures and concurrent emotional volatility in his characters from very simple acts because of that contention, whereas in transferring his methodology to a French setting, he needs to up the stakes to shake up his characters to the same degree: instead of an irritable shove now, the story linchpin is an attempted suicide. The more melodramatic quality is apparent.

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Yet Farhadi’s fondness for devices that put his characters under pressures greater than usual is one of his strongest traits as an artist and puts him most directly in contact with the great realists and naturalists of European literature: Dostoevsky, of course, meditated on psychological and metaphysical matters, but usually got to them through the stuff of pulp, like money and murder. There’s a sharpness and urgency to the drama, a sense of danger to the characters beyond a haze of mere middle-class moping, a precise sense of the forces that push ordinary people into zones of behaviour and consequence beyond what they can handle, but without needing to introduce spies or serial killers. But Farhadi’s method actually feels to close to Alfred Hitchcock’s, as odd as that sounds, particularly works like Rebecca (1940) and Under Capricorn (1949), which have strikingly similar story elements and emotional resonances, only contextualised differently. And whilst The Past has some elements in common with the mainstream Hollywood drama The Descendants (2011), what distinguishes Farhadi’s work is the rigour of his writing in achieving an attitude that too many would-be serious filmmakers fail to achieve, which is to be both dramatically involving and successfully ambivalent at the same time. Farhadi’s casting and handling of the actors is superlative. Bejo couldn’t have asked for a more vivid contrast to her role in The Artist (2011) as a follow-up. But Farhadi also gets great performances out of young Aguis, as well as Burlet, who embodies Lucie with a refreshing lack of the kind of pouty insouciance with which such teenage girls are usually portrayed.

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Finally, Farhadi suggests, life probably demands a capacity to simply push forward regardless, a capacity that is usually regarded as a heroic trait, and yet here is interrogated ruthlessly. Marie certainly believes so, for as Ahmad makes a last attempt to explain his leaving, she cuts him off: “It’s not important…I don’t want to go back into the past.” This moment bespeaks a certain amount of exhaustion after too many confessions and dredged-up pains have tortured Marie, who, carrying Samir’s child, is feeling the baby quite literally feeding off her body—she aches in her bones from leached calcium—and must, at some point, focus entirely on this next act of her life. But it also suggests nobody’s really learnt anything, except that perhaps moving on is an act of will. The final sequence show the inevitable limitations, as Samir visits the hospital where doctors have been trying the last of many tests—response to familiar perfumes—to determine if his wife is brain dead. This leaves us with the simultaneously poignant and pathetic last images of Samir bend over her prone form, using the scents of the past to try to prompt some sign of life in a moment of manifold needs, not least of which is the need to relieve the burden of uncertainty that hangs over him, but also to heal, to gain forgiveness, to restore, ironically, to bring back the past in order to remake the future, clasping a motionless hand in hope of a sign.


3rd 11 - 2013 | no comment »

Hannah Arendt (2012)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Margarethe von Trotta

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In this age of extreme practicality, the pursuit of a philosophy education may seem a useless self-indulgence. Yet, there is nothing more useful to an individual than being trained to really think. It is encouraging to know that as our public discourse seems to be increasingly prone to magic thinking and opinion as fact, the actual number of students getting formal training in philosophy is growing.

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It was my great luck that my post-secondary education at a Jesuit university required me to immerse myself in philosophy to graduate. It was also my misfortune that I never encountered the writings of German political theorist Hannah Arendt. Even though I was a political science major, her seminal works on power and totalitarianism were not discussed in the classes I took. Perhaps I took the wrong classes. Perhaps sexism was at work. Perhaps her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil made her just too hot to handle. Whatever the reason, I came to Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt as ignorant of this woman and thinker as the average person seeking to know more.

incontroarendtandersArendt, a secular German Jew, had a momentous early life. She studied philosophy at the University of Marburg, and carried on an affair with her professor, Martin Heidegger, one of the great names in philosophy whose Being and Time is a standard text. She hit up against German anti-Semitism when she was disqualified from securing a university teaching post, and soon fled to France in 1933. There she married Heinrich Blücher, a German poet and Marxist philosopher, but did not escape detention at Gurs, a camp the Vichy government used to hold non-French Jews. She escaped after only a few week and managed to obtain forged visas to get to the United States in 1941 with Blücher and her mother. She wrote for Jewish newspapers during the war and helped Zionist organizations to relocate young Jewish survivors of the war to Palestine. The remainder of her life was dedicated to teaching and writing, beginning with The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951.

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Hannah Arendt concentrates on the years 1961-1963. In 1961, William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), the editor of The New Yorker, hired Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) to cover Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem for crimes against the Jewish people. It took her two years to complete work on what became a five-part series in the magazine, commencing in February 1963, and her book, also published in 1963. While the trial and the violently negative reaction to Arendt’s report certainly are dramatic, the challenge for von Trotta and her coscreenwriter Pam Katz was to sustain a dramatic through line for someone who, in essence, simply observed, thought, and wrote. To do this, they focused on Arendt’s personal life—her happy marriage to Blücher (Alex Milberg), and her friendships, which included American author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and philosopher Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), who attended Marburg with her and taught with her at New York’s New School for Social Research. While there are several scenes of Arendt arguing politics with friends in German, we end up feeling like non-German-speaking McCarthy at these gatherings—lost.

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First, we aren’t introduced to any of the characters surrounding Arendt, so if you don’t know Arendt’s history and circle of friends, you’re just out of luck until the script happens to cough up some information. I had never heard of Gurs before this film, so when Heinrich tells Hannah that she was right to leave Gurs when she did to assuage her feelings of guilt about abandoning Europe’s Jews and freedom fighters, I thought he was talking about a lover or husband! It wasn’t until much later in the film that I got the information that corrected my mistake. We learn almost nothing about Heinrich himself, though Katz and von Trotta keep hinting that he may be having affairs with Hannah’s assistant Lotte (Julia Jentsch) and a woman named Charlotte (Victoria Trauttmansdorff) about whom I still have no information because I haven’t looked her up. It seems that through its assumptions of knowledge on the part of the audience, this movie was intended for an elite or German crowd, though its deep adherence to the stodgy conventions of the biopic would argue otherwise. It may be Katz’s inexperience as a screenwriter that led to so many creaky choices, such as the allusions to Heinrich’s possible adultery that are never resolved or the hissworthy villainy of Commentary writer and editor Norman Podhoretz in condemning Arendt as a woman without feelings. As though to counter that frequent slam on Arendt, it seems the script bends over backwards to show that she had a lot of feeling.

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What works best in this film and what makes it worth seeking out is the very thing that may have made it seem undramatic in the eyes of its creators—the ideas Arendt formulated about the banality of evil. It is, perhaps, human nature to want to separate ourselves from people who commit great crimes and deny that we have the capacity to commit such evil ourselves. Arendt challenged the notion that only inhuman demons commit genocide by characterizing Eichmann as an efficient bureaucrat dedicated to helping Hitler accomplish the Final Solution without thinking about the moral implications of his actions. He was an ideologue whose one-track mind allowed him to carry out the deportations to the concentration camps, denying that he killed anyone—that part of the Final Solution just wasn’t his job. Arendt saw him as a mediocrity who had lost the ability to think, though his efficiency in transporting Jews to their doom was anything but mediocre.

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Further, she had the temerity, the “self-hating” gall to suggest that the Jewish Councils that assisted in this efficiency should come in for condemnation, too. It is the assertion, accurate reporting with which we are assisted in sympathizing by having a Jewish member of the trial gallery curse the councils, that most riled people as an example of blaming the victim. Arendt lost friends, including Hans Jonas, over this cold-hearted assessment. Questions of appeasement are always hard to resolve—for example, if Neville Chamberlain hadn’t appeased Hitler, would he have been able to avert so much destruction—but given the deep-seeded animosity that still lives in France over the actions of Vichy officials, including sending French citizens of Jewish heritage to their deaths, I don’t think this line of reasoning on Arendt’s part is ill-conceived. It is when passions are running most hot that cool thinkers like Arendt are needed to help us make sense of what we are experiencing. Indeed, her notion of the banality of evil has entered our cultural lexicon, leading to much soul-searching in Germany and elsewhere about the average citizen’s complicity in crimes against humanity.

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This film is aided enormously by the performance of Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. Von Trotta and Katz should have trusted her to humanize this courageous thinker and jettisoned all the feints of her intimates to defend her. Sukowa is as intelligent an actress as her character was a theorist, and you can actually see the wheels of thought turning as she watches a closed-circuit feed of Eichmann’s trial from the pressroom where she spent most of her time. She cows those less gifted than she merely with her presence, and argues with dispassionate passion the ideas she supports. Her final defense of her views on Eichmann and the Jewish Councils given in a class lecture near the end of the film is brilliantly delivered. Jonas, who attends the lecture, is not convinced and cuts Arendt out of his life, an action that seems completely irrational from this distance in time, when her ideas are now orthodoxy. I wish von Trotta and Katz had done more to develop the counter-arguments so that we could understand the reaction to her assertions; despite a jab at German Jews, whose secularization and assimilation brought their feelings of superiority over other Jews out in spades, not enough of this internecine battle is made clear.

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Another stroke of brilliance was using the actual footage of Eichmann from the trial. It puts us in the position of trying to judge whether Arendt saw him correctly as a mediocrity who was only following orders, or as a brilliant actor who fooled her into believing he was merely a mindless bureaucrat. Presenting us with the evidence itself, and not an actor’s interpretation, offers us a chance to think for ourselves, a very appropriate exercise for a film about thought. It’s hard to read into the hearts of others, particularly those who have everything to lose by exposing their true thoughts and feelings, but one remark Eichmann made convinces me that Arendt was right:

Q. In your police interrogation you said that if the Reichsfuehrer had told you that your father was a traitor, you would have shot him with your own hands. Is that true?

A. If he was a traitor, probably.

Q. No, if the Reichsfuehrer had told you, would you have shot him – your own father?

A. I would then assume that he would have had to prove it to me. If he had proved it, I would have been duty bound, according to my oath of loyalty.

Q. Was it proved to you that the Jews had to be exterminated?

A. I didn’t exterminate them.

Q. Did you never feel a conflict between your duty and your conscience?

A. One could call it a state of being split. A conscious split state where one could flee from one side to the other.

Q. One’s personal conscience was to be abandoned?

A. You could say that.

Q. If there had been more civil courage, things could have been different?

A. If civil courage had been hierarchically organized, then yes, absolutely.

According to this excerpt, the idea of acting on one’s personal conscience independent of the prevailing social structures does not exist in Eichmann’s universe. This reverence for hierarchy isn’t some trick on Eichmann’s part, but an integral part of societies around the world. Therefore, Eichmann’s guilt, his obedience to the chain of command, is a common and very dangerous flaw.

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Hannah Arendt is a flawed film that tries to obey the laws of box office that demand familiarity of story structure and a sympathetic central character. Yet, it was the characteristics that made Arendt not dissimilar to her fellow Germans that made her the perfect witness to the implications of Eichmann’s trial. The final words of Eichmann in Jerusalem sum up her passionate dispassion:

Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.


24th 10 - 2013 | 17 comments »

Gravity (2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

To judge by the early reception of Alfonso Cuarón’s new space adventure movie, it’s the most super-duper, amazing, staggering work of filmic genius of all time, a thrilling successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as evocation of the awe of space, combined with an elementally thrilling, limited-cast survival quest of the likes of, oh, say, The Perfect Storm (1999). With such unceasing and elated praise, a certain level of scepticism going in and disappointment coming out becomes almost inevitable. Cuarón is a talented, observant, technically ingenious filmmaker who can wring a fablelike sense of macrocosmic beauty of some peculiar material, like his 2001 classic Y Tu Mama Tambien, whilst the Harry Potter franchise owed everything to his forcible reinvention of it with 2004’s The Prisoner of Azkaban. He can also be a prissy bore, as his 1998 version of Great Expectations transmuted Dickens’ drama into the worst kind of Miramax mush. Gravity seems born of the praise for his 2006 scifi dystopian allegory Children of Men, or, more accurately, the praise for the most superficially impressive aspects of it.

Cuarón has an interest in and great facility for creating the one technical act by a filmmaker that can still set cinephiles foaming at the mouth in nerdish delight: the epic unbroken shot that seems to defy all inherent limits of perspective and staging. Gravity offers up one at the beginning that takes the form to new heights, seeming to drift as weightlessly as the characters in space whilst recording the action with precision. Indeed, the whole of Gravity is a technical marvel, a sprawling, eye-gorging example of all that contemporary film photography and special-effects units can offer. It’s just that the film is so remarkably banal, even embarrassing, on a dramatic level.

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Cuarón’s protagonists are a pair of American astronauts, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), introduced nearing the end of a long, exhausting spacewalk from their shuttle, Explorer, to work on upgrades to the Hubble space telescope. Matt is the old hand, on his last mission, garrulously yammering to keep nerves dulled and spirits high, and coaching rookie Stone, a former medico. Fellow astronaut Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) putters idly as word comes through that some sort of missile accident has caused a Russian satellite to disintegrate, and soon, waves of space debris fly toward Explorer. Explorer is smashed, Shariff and the other crew are killed, and Ryan is sent spinning off into the void. Fortunately Matt, who has a thruster pack, also survives the calamity and retrieves her. They make their way back to the ruin of Explorer, and then head on to the International Space Station (ISS), hoping to use the Soyuz modules docked there for an emergency landing. As they near the space station, with Matt’s thruster power running low, they see that the crew has abandoned the damaged station. Can Matt and Ryan make it aboard the ISS and maneuver the damaged craft to Tiangong, a Chinese-manned station?

Standing well apart from the space opera traditions of galactic warships and the like, the more realistic mystique and danger of existence in space has wrung interesting representations from filmmakers for decades now. The James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967), directed by Lewis Gilbert, commences with a surprisingly, poetically chilling scifi vision of a space capsule being swallowed by another: a spacewalking astronaut’s tether is cut by the closing jaws of the larger craft, leaving him to drift off into eternity. So striking was this moment that Pauline Kael, with a hint of accuracy, said that with 2001, Stanley Kubrick seemed to have fallen in love with it and tried to stretch it out into a feature film. Certainly one of the remarkable aspects of Kubrick’s film is that, whilst sustaining its larger, semi-mystical programme of parable, its fastidious attention to space detail provided a genuinely gruelling sense of life and death in the vacuum in a fashion that felt uniquely authentic, extracting every echoing spacesuit breath and agonising moment of laborious action outside the craft to invoke the dread of the void: many of the film’s most poetic moments are achieved through the conscience avoidance of poetic licence. Peter Hyams did a good job on a similar level in the belated sequel, 2010, with a memorable sequence depicting a scientist’s (John Lithgow) first spacewalk. Brian De Palma’s severely underrated pop version of 2001, Mission to Mars, sported one amazing sequence of prolonged suspense in which Tim Robbins’ space captain, drifting away from his friends in a spacewalk, finally ends their efforts to save him by removing his own helmet, a climax to one of De Palma’s many scenes of operatic construction and power.

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By comparison, likening Gravity to 2001 is a bit like comparing Lawrence of Arabia to a Road Runner cartoon because they’re both set in the desert. The exhausting raves for Gravity only seem to prove how deeply the hooks of Hollywood technocrats are now lodged in the general consciousness. I refuse to become used to the repudiation of the need for a first act, where the viewer is introduced properly to characters who are then developed with detail and portrayed with substance, giving the audience time to engage with their individuality and then their plight. The dialogue in the first 10 minutes of Gravity is pitched on the same level of crappy conversational exposition I expect from a ’50s B-movie; only the staging distinguishes it.

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Cuarón commences with an immense vista of a gorgeous CGI Earth, slowly allowing Explorer and Hubble and the tiny humans darting around it to drift into view. Cuarón repeatedly returns to similar vistas of the Earth, evidently intending for us to soak in the impersonal grandeur and spiritual significance of the view, but what I got from it was the sense that he’s entered a novel dimension of artistic experience: filming the average college student’s screensaver. But anyway. . . soon disaster erupts, and the serenity of weightless orbit, which Ryan says she could get used to, is abruptly transformed into a churning maelstrom. Apparently the missile accident that starts the havoc was Russian. Ha, those Russians. Wait, what? Are we really blaming the Russians for everything that goes wrong again? Hunks of speeding metal hit Explorer and smash it to pieces, killing Shariff—that’ll teach us to quit doing what Matt describes as a “version of the Macarena” and other goofy acts and behave only in an utterly professional manner. Perhaps he was meant to edge into the role of Doomed Ethnic Guy, except that’s still too substantial. If this film had been made in the ’60s, Shariff would’ve been played by Red Buttons, would have had actual screen time.

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After the disaster, Ryan goes spinning off into emptiness unlimited in the film’s most effective shot, directly cribbed from the one in You Only Live Twice. The basic limitations and challenges that Cuarón sets himself are admirable and certainly worthy of a great filmmaker: a tiny cast, little space on either side of the crisis it portrays, no flashbacks or digressions from sustaining a unified authenticity. Except that as Gravity continues, the realism which Cuarón and his production team strive for exactingly and constantly devolves as the pressures of maintaining the sort of breathless thrill ride he’s constructed means piling plot devices, coincidence, and absurdity on top of each other. Spurning the initially cool sense of extraterrestrial physics, the film favours increasingly silly, cartoonish-looking, cliffhanger stunts. When Matt and Ryan make it back to Explorer after the initial disaster, they encounter the drifting, frozen bodies of their shipmates, one of them suddenly looming out of the hull with all the blunt force of a cheap horror movie scare: even the music gives regulation “boo!” underlining.

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It’s obvious why Clooney was cast as Matt. He has the kind of stoic, adaptable, good-humoured attitude that only someone who’s starred in a couple of Killer Tomato movies, but whose career survived, can radiate. More importantly, his instincts are strong enough to turn a god-awful line like “You’ve gotta learn to let go” into a professional charmer’s last, weak gag as he gently encourages Ryan to release him to certain death. But Clooney can’t make Matt more than a cliché wrapped in a cliché, a compendium of archetypes. He’s that goofy guy who’s always got a corny story about that time he was in New Orleans to keep things light and earthbound. He’s the veteran superior who’s only a day away from retirement, damn it. He’s the noble, experienced, self-sacrificing captain passing the torch onto his Girl Friday. At no point does he feel like a real person. There’s no fear or pain in him when he tells Ryan to let him go, and Cuarón turns his death into a kind of joke as he goes back to listening to his cowboy music, in a touch that feels like an outtake from Dark Star (1974): now there was a space movie.

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And Dr. Ryan Stone, what is she, apart from a woman with an unlikely name? She admits, during a particularly fraught passage through space, that her daughter died in a softball accident, and that ever since she’s been inclined to drive aimlessly, dissociating, until whatever quirk of fate turned her into an astronaut (it seems to be something to do with adapted medical imaging tech she developed). Now, whilst it would’ve violated the conceptual purity of this project (though few things are starting to shit me more than conceptual purity), I found myself wondering what another director might’ve done with this contrast of earthly and celestial wandering, what poetic resonance they might’ve garnered by contrasting the image of a grief-stricken woman driving the lonely Illinois plains and floating high above the Earth. Cuarón can only give me literalism: Matt and Ryan are drifting around to the dark side.

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Truth be told, Ryan’s backstory of loss is only brought up to give her the thinnest of emotional identities, and to justify Cuarón’s repeated, deeply corny images of rebirth. Bullock, not generally an actress I like, is restrained and efficient in her role, thankfully. Here, as in many of the film’s numerous, repetitive moments of cliffhanger tension, the visuals and the way the human figures are manipulated within them began to resemble not convincing approximations of space, but rather the sorts of mechanistic inventions found in a lot of completely computer-animated films these days. This feeling gets strongest with a shot Cuarón repeats twice, when Ryan opens an airlock, the interior pressure flipping over and back with cartoonish speed, and her grip suddenly seeming to have become superhuman. Another technically bravura moment depicts the return of the wave of debris, slamming into the ISS and carving it to pieces, with Ryan, who’s been trying to cut away a cable restraining the Soyuz, surrounded by whirling debris and crumbling infrastructure. That Ryan survives such an experience for the second time, this time without even losing her slight grip on her buffeted craft and left completely untouched by a multitude of flying metal shards, seems patently ridiculous.

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The sensation that Gravity represents the Pixar-fication of “live-action” cinema increased with every passing minute. It reflects the same delight in turning a ruthless movie scenario into a mechanistic, Rube Goldberg construction. Logic and likelihood seem aspects Cuarón and his coscreenwriter, his son Jonás, decided to avoid early on to concentrate on sheer rollercoaster thrills, plus Cuarón’s getting at something the crystallises in the film’s most amazingly bad sequence. Ryan makes it aboard the ISS after being forced to abandon Matt, a moment that’s curiously unaffecting, partly because Matt’s demeanour of professional acceptance and humour doesn’t waver. Matt has alerted Ryan that the debris field will be returning about 90 minutes after the first strike judging by the speed it’s moving in orbit, and when it comes back it destroys the ISS and almost takes out Ryan’s Soyuz. The 90-minute interval seems set up to accord closely with the film’s initial real-time mission brief, for Gravity runs just over an a hour and a half, but Cuarón throws that felicity away as he plays games with story progression in the last third. Ryan’s first entrance to the ISS sees the wryest of Cuarón’s several nods to earlier scifi films, as Ryan strips off her spacesuit to reveal her lithe female form beneath, evoking the famous opening zero-g striptease of Barbarella (1967), but with sniggering sexuality replaced with the grace of mere biology. Except that Cuarón instantly gets too cute by having Ryan curl up in a foetal ball, to underline her own renaissance, and possibly invoke the star child of 2001, but only achieving the status of laboured symbolism. This isn’t the only moment in the film where one of Cuarón’s better touches segues instantly into one of his worst.

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The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki is, as expected, superlative throughout, though as Christopher Doyle complained about last year’s Oscar-winning Life of Pi, to what extent a film as relentlessly post-produced as this can be said to be have photographed is increasingly dubious. Lubezki shot the last film to earn a lot of 2001 comparisons, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), and he has a gift for making even mundane objects seem blessed to exist and bathed in holy luminescence. But whereas Malick’s loopy epic shared a vital trait of thematic adventure and aesthetic risk with Kubrick’s work, Cuarón’s film is infinitely more conventional on all levels but the technical. Kubrick took risks to offer up his space-age tale as a metaphor for the search for divine transcendence one can’t imagine a contemporary big-budget filmmaker being allowed to take, and indeed now, his work was largely greeted with querulous confusion. By comparison, Cuarón’s attempts to invoke religious, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions to his tale range from the cringe-worthy to insulting. After the ISS’s destruction, Ryan is left alone in a seemingly broken-down craft contemplating a solitary death. Again Cuarón offers up one of his best moments here, as Ryan contacts a Japanese ham radio operator and begs him to listen to the barking dogs and crying babies she hears in the background, and begins forlornly howling along with the dogs herself.

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There’s riskiness here, an embrace of a note of black comedy as well as a threat of existential absurdity that does achieve something like what Cuarón’s aiming for. But he immediately destroys the effect as Ryan moans, “Nobody ever taught me how to pray!” Give me a fucking break! The film’s dramatic credibility slides precipitously towards the level of a bad soap on a Christian TV channel. Ryan decides to die by turning off the air supply, but Matt, either his shade or Ryan’s feverish, oxygen starved imagining of him, returns and lets himself into the Soyuz to give her pep talk and tell her how to get out of her fix. I will admit as this crap piled up, I very nearly left the movie theatre. A good genre smith would’ve let the angst, the fear, and the desolation in the story all speak for themselves, but Cuarón pretentiously underlines his points in such a way to only highlight how obvious, slick, packaged, and greeting-card-worthy the sentiments here are. We couldn’t just take it for granted that the woman doesn’t want to die and would like to get back to Earth. Cuarón’s presumption to evoking cosmic awe and human frailty in the face of infinite has, lurking behind it, a religious presumption that’s as tinny as a late-night preacher’s homily. One has been warned of Cuarón’s fondness for cheesy symbolism before: to wit, the ship called “Tomorrow” that picks up the heroes at the end of Children of Men, but that was more forgivable as it was akin to a sort of sign-off admission of the story’s fable qualities after constructing his world with some rigour. Here the lurking stickiness of vague New Age spirituality is recalled right at the end as Ryan breathes a grateful thank you, perhaps to God, perhaps to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Or are they the same thing? Of course they are.

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There’s no real curiosity about the universe, about the nature of humanity, the contrast between the scale of space and the finite nature of human endurance, to be found here. This is a popcorn-selling, fantasy-action film, no mistake. Some are celebrating it as a riposte to the emptiness of many special-effects blockbusters, and yet it’s no smarter than many of those; in fact, in some ways it’s interchangeable with them, and in other ways worse. At least Avatar (2009) had some actual ideas. Gravity has lots and lots of scenes of Sandra Bullock trying to hold onto metal bars in repetitive cliffhangers. Indeed, consider the title’s similarity to Bullock’s star-making vehicle, Speed (1994), and the close relationship of the two works emerges. Perhaps the greatest lack here is any kind of story complication that might have offered some moral or actual psychological depth, a la Tom Godwin’s famous scifi short story “The Cold Equations,” or various cinematic permutations on it (like precursor realist space movies Destination Moon [1951] and Marooned [1969]). Structurally, Gravity is another recent movie that owes quite a bit to video games as well as Pixar, with its first-person shots and the series of rolling crises that defines the story to quite ridiculous lengths. Really, the tidal wave of technical carnage takes out every satellite, which are all on exactly the same orbital level? Can your average spacesuit really take that much punishment? Are we really supposed to swallow Ryan being saved by the ghost of Matt? Because make no mistake, Matt’s reappearance does have a functional effect on the story: he tells Ryan how to get the Soyuz going and get to the Chinese station. Can we buy this as Ryan’s subconscious telling her how to do it? Either way, it’s really stupid.

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Some proponents of the film have dismissed the validity of remarks on its science and implausibilities, as if this was somehow incidental in a film that’s being sold around its realism. I’d like to say that at least on the level of a thrill ride, I enjoyed Gravity, but even there I’d be stretching it somewhat. I often found the film’s technical cleverness to work against the nominal effects it was trying to achieve—the sense of claustrophobic vulnerability violated by the camerawork, the keynote of physical danger degraded by the precision control of the special effects, which, in spite of their grandeur, still rarely looked like actual objects that pose immediate tactile danger to the actors. The opening single shot is deeply admirable as spectacle, and yet I felt irritated by it on a fundamental level: it’s nothing, really, that the many recent fake-found-footage filmmakers haven’t already done. Certainly, this manner of filming has come on in leaps and bounds since Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) had to awkwardly hide cuts in close-ups. Now all sorts of astonishing, reality-jamming things can be accomplished. But the reason why so many filmmakers, critics, and theorists cream their jeans about unbroken tracking shots it’s because they’re supposedly more realistic and offer a more open sense of detail, a challenge to the usual precepts of movie construction, direction of attention, and coherence of space and time.

Such shots in a film like Gravity are more like an extended stunt, not provided to give detail but to wow with how good the staging and effects are. Instead of the potential to awaken the viewer’s receptivity, here it helps to narcotise it, to make us stop paying attention to details and give ourselves up to the experiential haymaker. I will admit to betrayed expectations. This sort of story seems to me more fit for a dark, meditative, mostly psychological thriller, rather than a pompous arcade attraction. Steven Price’s clod-witted scoring has all the subtlety of a day-glo thong. Cuarón has only done one major work not based on strong preexisting material, and that was Y Tu Mama Tambien: if not for that film’s quality, I’d readily put the weakness of this one down to the lack of such a basis. As for the finale, well, remember how Apollo 13 (1995) went into all that detail about descent trajectories and how if they’re not met correctly, you burn up? Yeah, well apparently that doesn’t matter in a Chinese space capsule. Yeah, that was another good space movie. Finally Ryan crawls out of a lake that somehow looks faker, more generic and art-directed, than the space she’s just been in: the real world has become phony.


21st 10 - 2013 | 4 comments »

CIFF 2013: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013)

Director: Chiemi Karasawa

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

To paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, if you know who Elaine Stritch is, no explanation is necessary; if you don’t know who she is, no explanation is possible. Even if we had a documentary that went through her life in meticulous detail—which this film doesn’t come anywhere near to doing—a woman who belongs to the glorious age of the Broadway musical is a figure whose celebrity took place long ago, out of view of most of the world. That she made numerous films and television shows, most recently as Alec Baldwin’s mother in “30 Rock,” does not dim the glow that adheres to Elaine Stritch because of when her life in the theatre took place, and only those of us who follow musical theatre really understand why this documentary needed to be made.

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Or so I thought. Whether or not she intended to, Chiemi Karasawa filmed a much different, much more valuable film than the one I thought I was going to see. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is an appropriate title for this documentary about the 88-year-old Broadway legend because while we are aware that Stritch needs the attention of a film crew like a fish needs water, we are brought uncomfortably close to the tail end of a life, one now filled with infirmity. If Stritch were a horse, we might find it kinder to put her down. That she bravely reveals all of her pain and struggle, both physical and psychological, makes this an unforgettable and necessary document, as well as a roadmap for taking our leave from this world.

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I wish to emphasize that Stritch is still with us, and in fact, attended the sold-out showing of Shoot Me. (UPDATE: Elaine Stritch died July 17, 2014, at the age of 89.) She’s halt of gait, forgetful, and very hard of hearing, but her performer’s instincts and wit are as sharp as ever. Her performance at the AMC Theatre 11 was loaded with zingers, her characteristic profanity, and a teary appreciation for the love we lavished on her, a love whose pursuit propelled her to stardom.

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Karasawa films Stritch as she gets ready for a cabaret show at New York’s Café Carlyle with her long-time accompanist Rob Bowman. She sports the Judy Garland look of black tights and a long men’s shirt during rehearsals, in performance, and in fact, most of the time. One of her intimates says Elaine just won’t wear pants! She is very thin, so the effect is rather worrying, particularly when she goes through her dance routine.

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She has a lot of trouble remembering her lyrics, a problem compounded by diabetes. When Rob suggests she check her blood sugar, she reacts with a violent “NO,” but soon relents. On seeing the number, she dispatches Rob to get her some orange juice immediately, and he jumps. She was always a volatile, self-critical performer, which we see in a vintage clip of her recording the cast album for “Company” with a displeased Stephen Sondheim listening to an unsuccessful take. Now, her volatile blood sugar makes her more unpredictable than ever. Add to that her decision to climb off the wagon after what she says is nearly a quarter-century of sobriety, and the health horrors multiply.

Stritch’s decision to start drinking again is very telling. She feels that at her age, she has earned the right to do what she wants, but the real impetus behind it is her fear of death. Despite the fact that alcohol could conceivably kill her, she feels calm and safe after she has taken a drink, and we don’t really believe her when she says she allows herself only one drink a day. As though to confirm our suspicions, she orders an old fashioned and then shows that she carries a tot of Bombay gin in her purse at all times. Perhaps we’d do the same if the reaper were so near at hand.

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One scene shows her going out of town to appear at an anniversary celebration for an 80-year-old theatre—younger than she—and celebrating when the show is canceled because of an approaching hurricane. She says she wasn’t feeling well anyway. Cut abruptly to news that Stritch is in the hospital, a cruel echo of an earlier scene from “30 Rock” showing her in a hospital bed. We don’t know why she’s there, but she looks frail sleeping under sedation, and when she wakes up, she says she can feel death around her, that it’s her time. A devout Catholic whose uncle was Cardinal Samuel Stritch, archbishop of Chicago, she hopes there isn’t nothing when she dies; “I wouldn’t like that,” she says as though she should be able to have the afterlife she wants, but then with a real uncertainty.

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We see the world start to pay her homage, with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting wanting to name a rehearsal room after her, but having to offer her three rooms before she finds one that is sufficiently small. Her assistant has been helping her choose photos from her collection to hang in the school, and we see her photographed with her beloved husband, actor John Bay, who died when Stritch was in her 50s after they had been married only 10 years. Her abiding love for him extends to her preference for the product of his family business, Bay’s English muffins, a staple in my home and found only in Chicago. When her regular delivery of the product arrives, she wants the cameraman to watch her open the carton and follow her out to the back porch to throw away the packaging. It’s a truly dotty request, but she who must be obeyed gets her way.

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We get very little from her past—a few musical clips, photos of her when she was at the height of her beauty, clips from her Emmy Award-winning program “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty” and her acceptance speech in which she brings down the house by saying she’s glad that she won and the other nominees lost. Stritch’s honesty makes her the ideal person to reveal the ravages of old age as well as the vitality that many of us don’t believe the elderly have. Stritch will not be pushed off stage until she’s ready to go.

That she does, when she moves out of her long-time home in The Carlyle Hotel and into a condo just outside her native Detroit. Many of us go home to roost when our time is near. Gradually, not entirely gracefully, but with gusto, Elaine Stritch is walking her path to an eternity beyond the footlights.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me has no more showings, but the film has been picked up by Sundance Selects for distribution and cable airing. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Shakespeare and More – A Conversation with Harry Lennix: The actor talks about his new film, H4, Othello, his new production company, and more.

The Don Juans: Veteran director Jirí Menzel brings his gleeful sensuality to bear on this story of two Don Juans working together to produce Mozart’s Don Giovanni and finding out about their failings as men. (Czech Republic)

The Exhibition: In this thoughtful and comprehensive documentary, an ambitious artist raises provocative and controversial issues when she paints a series of violent portraits of murdered prostitutes. (Canada)

Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)

H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)

Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


20th 10 - 2013 | no comment »

CIFF 2013: Shakespeare and More – A Conversation with Harry Lennix

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Harry Lennix is a busy man. An actor who has distinguished himself in the theatre (for example, the title roles in August Wilson’s King Hedley II at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and Malcolm X at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre) and in 95 (and counting) film and television shows, including his latest, NBC’s “The Blacklist,” Lennix has also launched a production company, Exponent Media Group (EMG), to bring back mid-budget films. The second EMG production, H4, is at the Chicago International Film Festival, where Lennix hopes it will find a receptive audience and, importantly, a distributor. I had a chance to talk with him about H4 and more this past week.

What was the genesis of the H4 project?

It was more or less a thought experiment for Ayanna Thompson, a preeminent Shakespeare scholar at George Washington University, a brilliant woman of color I met in Memphis, I think it was 2008. I told her that I’ve always loved Henry IV, and I wondered if there was a way to contexualize it without changing the language substantially to this experience we call the black experience.

She grafted together this script, and the director Paul Quinn, who’s Aidan Quinn’s brother and a terrific director and a great teacher, and I, primarily him, put it into a screenplay form. All of us started to rehearse it in a classroom at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles—30 adults sitting in chairs and desks for high school students. We would just read the script and over the course of those weeks, characterizations starting coming through, people sort of cast themselves in these parts. It was sort of an organic experience that way, and we tried to figure out a way to shoot it for not a lot of money, but not have it look cheap. If you don’t have a lot, you want to use what you have and make it look like it’s intentional.

What about these particular plays attracts you, and what about them seems particularly relevant to the African-American experience?

The black experience is a wide and long experience. There is a distinction between black and African American. The primary thing that black has in it is the slave experience. For example, you can be white and be African American. If you were born in South Africa and nationalize yourself here, you’re African American.

Why I liked it so much and why I thought it was applicable was because it is a human experience that a father does not always approve of his son’s development. And that was the case here. In this case, the father has arrived at power through what might be seen as illegitimate means. The history of Richard II and then Henry IV taking over power from him is interesting, and he felt bad about it evidently, at least in Shakespeare’s imagination. So I thought, where does that apply in black life?

I thought our royalty are generally spiritual, political type leaders, people like Dr. King. Jesse Jackson Jr., of course, has a father who himself wanted to be president, wanted to be in the great halls of power. Martin Luther King’s father was a preacher, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who became a congressman, had a father who was head of the largest Protestant church in America. So it seemed to me that this was right for a comparison, and so we created this kind of political potentate. Originally, we felt we might make him a spiritual leader because there was no easy allusion to a black person being the head of state in America. But clearly that’s no longer true, as we have a very powerful black man in office now, and so we seized on that. I think that what resulted you can easily buy.

Have you had audience reaction to the story? Do they get it?

I don’t know because nobody has seen it in its completed form. We took a more or less rough version of it to Stratford-upon-Avon, England, Shakespeare’s birthplace, and showed it to a couple hundred Shakespeare scholars at the most prestigious Shakespeare scholarship conference in the world, the International Shakespeare Conference. It’s every other year, and they asked us to screen it because Ayanna is a member. They looked at it with great interest. They were curious about what the ramifications were, the violence, the sociopolitical activity that was going on in it. I think they accepted it wholesale in the sense that you’re asking it. They didn’t have any problem with its contextualizing of the people they were watching on film saying these words and doing these things. I don’t imagine that we’ll have a big issue or a whole lot of debate about whether or not we’re worthy.

All of us, Marilyn, we all have to study Shakespeare. All of us, if you speak English. You have to read it or watch the movies and talk about it. And we are forced, as it were, just by circumstance never to really be able to see ourselves in these roles. We’re told it’s universal, we’re told it applies to every human experience and every group of people. But we don’t get a chance to see it. And so this was my way of saying, I think you’re right, it is universal, it is great, it is timeless, and we have as much right to do it since I had to study it, since I had to learn it and practice it.

And I can’t tell you how many hours and hours of craft time is devoted to Shakespeare performance, and that normally, when I get to do it, I’m in a subservient role or a marginalized or token role. And I don’t really get a chance to chew up this language and to digest it in the way that white actors do. And there’s no reason for it.

With the exception, I suppose, of Othello.

I don’t like that play, Marilyn, I don’t like that play one bit, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve done it, I’ve played the part, and I know a lot of people think it’s great, but it is like if you want to do Shakespeare, Negro, you go and do Othello so you can be this simpleton who is manipulated by this evil white man who’s not even in a position of power. But he’s got you twisted around his finger and you revert to type, to this bestial, thoughtless, murderous, suicidal animal. That’s what happens. Although it’s probably a rare black actor who says that, I don’t think I’m alone. It’s extremely uncomfortable to play that part and have any pride, any kind of equilibrium as a black man. It’s impossible, really, to walk away with your dignity. I don’t know who can do it really—I’m sure there are people—it’s just probably me, but I don’t want to be relegated to Othello. It’s not indicative of the black experience.

You seem to be forming something of a stock company with the directors, like Danny Green, and producers involved in your projects? Tell me a little more about the collaboration. Is it your intention to always be working together?

Yes, that’s very perceptive of you. Danny and Albena Dodeva actually got engaged in H4 fairly late, at post-production, as producers. Post-production is the single most important aspect of getting a film made. There’s pre-production, which is cool and fun and crazy, and production, which is heaven. You’re loving doing it, you’re loving the problems that are facing you. But you can have all this stuff, all the ingredients for a meal, but then you’ve got to put it all together and put it in the oven. That’s post-production, which Danny and Albena have learned brilliantly through doing Mr. Sophistication (2012).

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Our filmmaking company is called Exponent Media Group (EMG), and our intention in calling it exponent is because we believe we can exponentialize limited resources and show that there’s a third way. You don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to do these blockbuster superhero movies, and you don’t have to look like you filmed it on your iPhone in your back yard. There is something in between that can combine the technological advances with a good production and good, old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making. And that’s what we intend to do with EMG, and this is the second effort. We are gearing up to go into our third effort, and I’m extremely excited about that. One of them is going to hit.

What are you doing about the distribution end of things?

That’s the million-dollar question. We had a distribution deal for Mr. Sophistication, but it fell through because it was delayed, and we didn’t want to wait too much longer because we want to get H4 out and make sure that it comes out at the right time. Now that I’m on this television show, we think this is a great time to launch EMG. We are close to closing a deal on Mr. Sophistication. We don’t have a distributor yet for H4, but we hope to be able to find one through our submission to these film festivals, Chicago being the most important one. This is our opening shot, so we’ll see.

I’ve enjoyed the films you’ve been in that have appeared at the CIFF, which go back to The Human Stain (2003). Was it problematic for you to have Anthony Hopkins in the title role for that?

I had absolutely nothing to do with the casting for that (laughs). No, I love Anthony Hopkins. I worked with him on Titus, and I think he’s a great actor. I know that other actors were interested in and up for that part. But here’s an interesting thing, color in America. What is black? For example, Dr. Adam Powell, for his early years, passed for white. A lot of people passed for white. J. Edgar Hoover, they say, was black and passed for white. So black is really a state of mind. So I didn’t have a problem with Anthony Hopkins playing the role.

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I think if somebody, particularly like me, who is taking these plays or movie ideas and adapting them for the black experience, that goes both ways. So if I want to do Shakespeare, there should be no reason why white people can’t do Lorraine Hansberry or August Wilson as long as there’s a context for it that makes sense. I just saw The Hollow Crown on “Great Performances,” with Jeremy Irons the other day and they had a very good actor by the name of Paterson Joseph playing Henry V’s cousin, York. But he was black! I’m not aware, in the 14th century in England, of any black person walking around in the court of the king as a fully functional, empowered official of the court. So who is this guy? I wanted to know. It took me out just long enough for me to say, I applaud the effort, that’s nice, it’s good that they want to include people, but that is not indicative of an actual experience.

My question has been with regard to these things is can we be inventive enough, creative enough to find a way to include somebody without forcing the issue? I don’t want to force myself on somebody just because, you’re right, the black actor should be able to do Shakespeare. That’s not good enough to me. It’s fine for some people, but I don’t have a problem with people also who don’t like it, who say, that is not historically accurate. At the end of the day, I know that there’s a way to do these plays … and not to make it relevant, the plays are relevant. The play didn’t ask me to do it. It was perfectly fine! But since I love the language and since I’ve taken it upon myself to try it, then it should make sense to the person who just wants to come in and have a good experience without having to twist his mind up so that he can make sense of it.

So, that’s what I want to do, and I hope that we get to do a lot more of these plays. I want to do Julius Caesar, for example, and I just did a Romeo & Juliet with a cast of all people of color set in Harlem. This is an idea whose time has come. We are having a good amount of attention coming our way because of H4, and I’m curious to see if it continues. I hope it does.

You are still very involved in the Chicago community. What does your connection to our city mean to you?

For me, Chicago is the prototypical American city in the sense that it was founded by a black man, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who founded this outpost and had a relationship with the natives there and later with a lot of other people, like French traders. To me, he exemplifies the American experience, someone who takes what is in front of them and then spins it into gold. Now Chicago is also known as the city that works, and I love that work ethic that we have there. We may not have the most polished baseball team or what have you, but we find a way to get it done, and that has always been my motto. I went to a Catholic seminary whose Latin motto means “work and prayer.” I have always believed that those two characteristics are beneficial. You can’t pray too much. I think you can work too much, but when you find a balance between those two things, I believe that progress gets made. I like being identified with and representing Chicago. People ask me all the time where I live, and I tell them it may be New York or L.A., but I’m from Chicago. My mama’s there, my people are there, my beginnings, my whole roots and infrastructure are Chicago. And I’ll never stop being part of it, I love it.


18th 10 - 2013 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2013: The Don Juans (Donšajni, 2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jirí Menzel

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the things I love most about much of Czech cinema is its joyously subversive attitude toward life. When my Czech dentist told me that when efforts to remove a Soviet tank from a square in Prague were going nowhere—the Czechs took it down, the Soviets put it back, and so forth—some Czechs finally laid the matter to rest by painting it pink, too big an embarrassment to the Soviets to let stand. How very Czech! Thus, when I heard a grand master of the Czech New Wave, Jirí Menzel, would have a film at this year’s CIFF, I couldn’t wait to see it.

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The last time Menzel showed at the CIFF, it was with his film I Served the King of England (2006), a surprisingly buoyant sex farce set before, during, and a bit after the rise of Nazism in Europe. It was apparent then that Menzel has a prodigious appreciation of the female of the species, his love and joy of women apparent even in the darker sequences portraying the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. In I Served, the main protagonist is a small, horny man, almost a pet to the prostitutes he beds and whose naked bodies he decorates with flowers. In The Don Juans, Menzel lightly tarnishes the innocence of sex he previously celebrated. His central character and occasional first-person narrator, Vítec (Jan Hartl), is a small-town opera director who claims (falsely) to hate opera and who beds as many sopranos as he can get his hands on.

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His company is filled with regional singers of varying levels of skill, most of whom have businesses or jobs on the side. For his production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, he brings in Jakub (Martin Huba), an aged lyric bass of some renown, to play Don Pedro, the man who condemns Don Giovanni to burn in hell. Jakub was also a Don Juan in his day, and his return to the Czech Republic after a successful career in the United States brings him face to face with a former lover from some 40 years in the past, the eccentric Markétka (Libuse Safránková), whom he impregnated and abandoned. Through Markétka and an ego-deflating soprano (Marie Málková) who tells him that his good luck with women is directly related to what he can do for their careers, Vítec becomes a wiser, if not entirely repentant man.

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The Don Juans is a broad comedy with a wealth of sight gags. For example, as Vítec tells us about his lust for sopranos, we get a series of quick-cut images of women’s faces as they hit a high note while laying on his bed, the affirmation of his sexual prowess, at least in his mind. Markétka finds herself in police custody twice, first following a swat team raid on a 250-year-old opera house where she has trespassed with a group of children to stage a children’s opera, and second, after she has driven off with a car being used in a robbery to prevent the theft and crashed it into a butcher shop. Both scenes are played for antic humor, as the heavily armed police watch a long stream of children pour out of the theatre door, and as the hapless woman who doesn’t know how to drive barrels through the streets, all four doors wide open and slamming into objects along the way. Markétka is a delightful character whose reminiscences of Jakub, her greatest love, are dewy and bright, but who is rueful about how such Don Juans leave a trail of tearful women in their wake.

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There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Vítec has inspired such heartbreak in his women. They all pass through his bed and into his shower, where he presents them with a basketful of unopened toothbrushes, unabashed about how many one-night stands he has. None of them seem jealous, confirming that he is a means to an end and nothing more. Vítec’s character takes on the lightest of shades when he comes into Markétka’s orbit; it was his car that was stolen to use in the robbery, and he comes to the police station to meet the woman who wrecked it and sort out the property damages. He learns her story, meets the 40-year-old daughter, 20-year-old granddaughter, and 6-year-old great-granddaughter who emanated from her affair with Jakub, and works to bring them together, a brief encounter that will end for the sick, feeble Jakub as it did for Don Giovanni, in death.

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I found the performers enchanting right down to their toes. Safránková plays her part with a combination of ditzy abandon and calculation. Her reverence for the old opera house, learning to work its ancient scenery-changer and introducing Vítec to the glory of the past, seems fitting for a film about an anachronistic art form that in the newly capitalist Czech Republic will be defunded to pursue more lucrative enterprises, like a casino or hockey rink. Yet, the opera company members are moving into the future in much the same way as the rest of the country. Málková is a hard-looking punk rocker, but with her glorious voice, she bumps the less-gifted Alenka (Anna Klamo) from the part as Donna Anna, even though Alenka slept with Vítec to get her diminutive husband (Jiří Hájek) the starring role. Another singer runs a travel agency, taking calls on her cellphone during rehearsals and performances. Still another sleeps her way to wealth, providing the wedding in the final scene that Vítec says is essential to a successful story.

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The Don Juans is a lovely film to look at and a generally joyful romp overflowing with gags. Its examination of the cruelty of womanizers is light as air, but still makes its point to some degree. The film is a bit disjointed, favoring comedy over coherence, particularly in delineating the separate stories of Vítec and Markétka until they merge. As Don Giovanni is my favorite Mozart opera, I reveled in the music that liberally scores the film, but the obvious dubbing was a bit distracting. Nonetheless, I found myself grinning through much of the picture, levitating on the luscious images, generally spot-on humor, and always engaging Czech sensibility. This is a fluffy effort, to be sure, but one that is a pleasure from start to finish.

The Don Juans screens Saturday, October 19, 1:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

The Exhibition: In this thoughtful and comprehensive documentary, an ambitious artist raises provocative and controversial issues when she paints a series of violent portraits of murdered prostitutes. (Canada)

Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)

H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)

Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


16th 10 - 2013 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2013: The Exhibition

Producer/Director/Writer: Damon Vignale

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

On a break from the festival, I started watching a classic Italian film on TCM, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s directorial debut, Accattone (1961). This film is highly regarded and bears all the visual stamps of its singular director, but as it progressed, I got more and more agitated. It seems that a fairly normal activity for the Roman men the film depicts is to hire a prostitute, have their way with her, and then beat her up. One such incident involves pimp Accattone’s whore, and we are meant to sympathize with the financial hardships he suffers when she is sent to prison.

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Coming on the heels of viewing The Exhibition, I just couldn’t watch the violently entitled, self-pitying men in Accattone without strong feelings of revulsion. The Exhibition is a 360-degree look at the broad range of issues surrounding a Vancouver-area farmer who admitted to killing 49 women, the vast majority of them First Nation prostitutes, during the 1990s and 2000s, and a successful artist named Pamela Masik who undertook a project to paint huge portraits of all of the victims in what she calls “The Forgotten” series. Director Damon Vignale told the audience at the screening I attended that he was not on any particular mission when he decided to make this film, his first documentary; rather, the impetus came after his strong reaction to seeing one of Masik’s canvases. That’s not hard to imagine. Even when viewed on a movie screen without the immediacy of standing below the towering images, the power of the faces, which Masik may have left intact or slashed, reassembled, or defaced, is overwhelming.

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There are many ways to take in the story Vignale has to tell. He covers the police incompetence and frank lack of interest in exploring a lead to the killer, Robert Pinkton, which allowed his killing spree to continue and cost 16 more lives. He interviews surviving family members and friends to burrow into the stories of several of the girls and understand the grief and anger they feel. We see, yet again, that violence against women continues as a universal problem for which there are no easy answers, and that prostitutes, particularly from minority groups, are often considered expendable. He reveals various aspects of Masik’s life: a single mother to an eight-year-old boy, head of an art program for women at risk, and creator of a varied body of art, from beautiful canvases that resemble Monet’s water lilies to others that are too sexual for her gallery to show.

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For me, The Exhibition offers another exposition of an issue I find an eternally fascinating conundrum: the line between expression and exploitation. Masik has poured $150,000 of her own money into the creation of “The Forgotten,” and is emotionally connected to these women because of her own history of abuse. Her portraits are not memorials, but rather seek to confront viewers with the violence these women experienced in their own lives and especially in their deaths. She says she wants to reverse the stare, to make the observer the observed in a kind of accusation for their lack of concern for the fates of women on the margins of society. Masik is also aware that she is inflicting her own injuries on the images of these women, slashing the canvases, sewing some of the wounds and leaving others dripping with red paint, cutting out faces and reassembling them in some imitation of the butchery they experienced at Pinkton’s hands. At some level, Masik understands that her artistic impulses are coming from a dark place that may not just wake up a blasé gallery hound, but also somewhat cruelly stir the emotions of those more closely involved with the victims.

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The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia planned to exhibit “The Forgotten,” but protests from the Women’s Memorial March, victims’ families, and First Nation representatives caused the museum to cancel the show. We sympathize with Masik, who seems to have the best of intentions in trying to raise people out of their torpor with regard to violence against women, but the issue isn’t just one of the perceived dishonor to the memory of these particular women. Image appropriation is more than a superstition or a copyright question—it is an integral part of creating social attitudes that have lasting consequences. Feminists have long objected to the objectification of women and the dictatorial way in which women are pushed to conform to each generation’s feminine ideal. Images of Native Americans, in particular, have been used as sports mascots and advertising logos, and Vignale includes information about how European settlers set about the systematic destruction of Native American culture and identity. It may seem a bit absurd to outsiders that anyone would complain that Masik didn’t show these women looking attractive or dignified, but given the degradation they suffered in life, perhaps Masik’s personal impulse to expose that ugliness, memorialize THAT, is indulgent and insensitive. Perhaps it creates another image of prostitutes and Native Americans that plays into a cultural stereotype, reinforcement rather than redress.

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Artists are well-known cannibals, chewing up and spitting out the world around them in acts of creation that seldom take their “raw material” into consideration. The idea that the culturally sophisticated have the right to use and consume whatever material they want, whether the less sophisticated understand or approve of it, has been examined here before in my review of The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia. Masik says at the top of the film that she was naive about the reception the show would get. I believe her, but at the same time, she is self-aware enough to know that she uses her art to work out her personal issues as well as to make statements and a very good living. Is what she did exploitation? I don’t have the answer, but I know we should all keep asking the question.

The Exhibition has no more screenings. It will be broadcast nationally in Canada in the coming months. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)

H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)

Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


14th 10 - 2013 | no comment »

CIFF 2013: Melaza (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Lechuga

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the reasons a middle class was allowed to grow in capitalist societies like the United States and Britain during the 20th century was to combat burgeoning socialist movements to prevent the spread of communism. If the financial burgers could have seen how big a failure communism was as an economic and social system, they might have saved themselves the 30 years they’ve spent dismantling an equitable society. Melaza, a Cuban film that got past the censors because they were blind to the irony of the scenes “celebrating” the triumphs of the revolution, is a fascinating look inside a society dedicated to leveling the playing field for all, but managing instead simply to flatten most of its people. Beyond economics, however, is one of the most heartfelt love stories I’ve ever seen, one that seems to want to believe that love conquers all, even as it shows that we often have no control over the little lives most of us would like to go about in peace.

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The film opens with sunshine and a light breeze blowing through a field of sugar cane. The camera slowly shifts to a rusting, empty factory where a couple are making love on a mattress laid out on the factory floor. The scene shifts to the pair carrying the mattress out of the way and walking through the cane fields to a small metal shack. Mónica (Yuliet Cruz) and Aldo (Armando Miguel Gómez) live together in the shack with Mónica’s mother (Ana Gloria Buduén) and 13-year-old daughter (Carolina Márquez) by a man who ran out on them. We don’t know if they’re married, but it is obvious throughout the film that they are very much in love. They are also very hard pressed to make a living.

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Mónica worked at the sugar processing factory, empty for more than a year due to government restructuring, and Aldo was a swimming instructor. She still dresses smartly for work every day, punches her time card, inspects the equipment, and phones in her report of how many machines are still working to a central office. Aldo has his charges lay on chairs in the emptied swimming pool and teaches them various strokes; afterward, he gives them language lessons in front of the locked school. Neither of them get paid, but they hope that when the factory opens again—a promise the government makes nearly daily through radio broadcasts—the jobs will return and they will be the first in line to be rehired.

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Economic privation is on the minds of people throughout the world, and filmmakers are reflecting their times. What makes Melaza so vital is not the seriousness and timeliness of its subject, but rather its extraordinary look at how a particular set of people react to the ruin of their way of life. Mónica and Aldo are determined to stay together, and they find some ingenious ways to keep food on the table. For example, the family periodically vacates the house for Mónica’s friend, Yamilé, a prostitute (Yaité Ruiz) who pays them to use it when she has a client. But, the government is swift to undermine this mutually beneficial arrangement—the police raid the house and fine the family for renting without a permit. Later, Aldo starts selling black-market meat, a crime that could garner him 10 years in prison. The collectivism of communist Cuba doesn’t care about entrepreneurial prostitution or other service-industry work, but try to get into their rackets—housing and the food supply—and watch out.

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The hapless routines of government functions—grocery stores that are bare of stock, air-dropped propaganda that most of the villagers don’t even bother to pick up and distribute (Mónica drags a bundle to the factory from time to time to keep up appearances), a loudspeaker-equipped car traveling the village to encourage workers to come to a rally against capitalism—act like mosquitoes that buzz in the background. Some people, those with businesses and the money to pay off officials, live quite luxuriously, and the contrast is quite jarring.

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What is real is the love that binds Aldo and Mónica. She tries to prevent him from selling meat in Havana because she doesn’t want him to go away or get arrested, but he does the even more risky thing of selling it in the village. Mónica prostitutes herself exactly once, and when she tells Aldo, we see them standing across from each other, the front door of the house between them like a giant wedge. Yet the next scene is of the two of them in the bathtub, with Aldo gently washing her. Cruz and Gómez have amazing chemistry and form the beating heart at the center of this beautifully shot, languorous film.

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Melaza has many amusing, very particular moments. Mónica’s daughter, who has become an obese, sulky child since her father left, is shown pushing her grandmother in her wheelchair as the old lady tries to sell homemade donuts in the street. Aldo is shown trudging a chalkboard from the school, through the cane fields, to the house where his five-peso English class garners not a single student. Yamilé and Mónica have a very warm friendship, and I loved the way both women conspired and dressed, exactly communicating their personalities with their choices.

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The surprising humor and joie de vivre of the film speaks volumes about human resilience and the pleasures of just being alive, no matter what hardships there may be. The film ends with the called-for rally, which attracts about 20 people with nothing better to do. Musicians play, the ralliers jump up and down to the music, and Aldo, Mónica, and her daughter gradually join in. The sun and breeze bless the cane fields, and another propaganda bundle drops from the sky. Like the film’s title, which means “molasses,” movement is slow, but the bittersweet life of the village goes on.

Melaza screens Friday, October 18, 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, October 20, 6:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Director Carlos Lechuga and Producer Claudia Calviño are scheduled to attend both screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)

Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


13th 10 - 2013 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2013: H4 (2014)

Director: Paul Quinn

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The film community has been debating the appropriateness and relative merits of well-known filmmakers asking the public for financing through Kickstarter, most specifically, Spike Lee. It’s hard for film buffs to believe that directors as celebrated as Lee need a handout, but it is a fact that films out of the mainstream, no matter who wants to make them, often can’t get made. As confirmation that Kickstarter is a blessing to the individual voices Hollywood doesn’t want us to hear, H4 is a stunning example of our money being put to very good use.

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This production starring its coexecutive producer, Harry Lennix, in the title role is an adapted version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Parts I and II featuring an African-American cast and set both in modern-day Los Angeles and on a stage. The stated purpose of the filmmakers is to use the plays, combined into one script, “to explore various aspects of African-American politics in the 20th and 21st centuries. . . . We believe that the themes and ideas contained in the first and second parts of King Henry IV are today as urgent as they were when Shakespeare was writing them.”

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The credits for the film begin with the screenwriter Ayanna Thompson and dramaturg Jeff Steele, pointedly listing their PhD degrees as a marker that what will follow is a faithful adaptation. Indeed it is. The merging of the two plays, the first of which is the more historically comprehensive and successful, is a welcome compression that balances the gravitas of King Henry IV with the far more numerous scenes of his wayward son Hal (Amad Jackson)—the future Henry V—and the flamboyant Sir John Falstaff (Angus Macfayden). The compression creates a coming-of-age story that has universal applications, but that in the final scene, points specifically to Barack Obama becoming president of the United States.

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The film opens with the sin of the father, a young man (Owiso Odera) when he murdered Richard II to take the crown. The ambush plays out like a gang hit, with Richard being lured into a gangway and ambushed by Henry and his men. With a parting shot, Richard’s head butt sends a point of his crown into Henry’s eye, an interesting metaphor for the blind ambition of the usurper. This scene will repeat throughout the film, a haunting memory for Henry as his own crown comes under threat from Richard’s kin and followers, especially Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Geno Monteiro). His feelings of vulnerability are amplified by the wastrel life Prince Hal is leading.

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Hal spends most of his time in a graffiti-laden bar with the thieving glutton Falstaff, one of only a couple of white characters in the film. A perfect exemplar of cowardice and sloth, Falstaff is a comic figure who tends to steal the show every time these plays are produced. MacFayden carries on in that grand tradition with a performance that is delightful and even somewhat innocent, like the more harmless version of Fagin in the musical Oliver!. As a figure of corruption in this context, however, he can be seen as American consumerist culture, and stretching the metaphor even further, a mindlessly malevolent force that keeps black men down with the hefty weight of centuries of white oppression. I would add, however, that there is nothing terribly polemical about the film; in fact, it took me a long time to tease any kind of modern political agenda out of it, and I wouldn’t go to the mat to defend this observation. Above all, the film simply glories in the language and intrigues of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved histories with actors who not only understand the demands of the plays, but also deliver a compellingly watchable drama.

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I enjoyed some of the wonderful details layered into this film. Prince Hal wears a t-shirt stenciled with “Rex” on the back, and the stage combat between a newly mature Hal and Percy is authentic in terms of weaponry and also highly theatrical. I enjoyed that the Chief Justice was played by a black woman, the marvelous Victoria Gabrielle Platt, thus laying to rest the prejudice that strong black women are a threat to black masculinity. When Henry V raises her up instead of banishing her for daring to arrest him in the past, it is a proud moment for both.

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The film is a bit disjointed, and with the large cast of characters hardly delineated in this shorthanded version of the plays, I was rather confused about who was doing what to whom. For example, the rebel Edmund Mortimer (Kevin Yarbrough) is much spoken about, but only appears late in the film in an abbreviated scene in which he and his coconspirators meet with Hal to discuss terms. This may be true to the plays, but feels abrupt, with a predictable conclusion that requires no knowledge of history or the plays to suss out.

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Without question, Harry Lennix is the strong backbone of this production, an actor in complete command of his craft with the regal bearing of a king. When he bellows at Hal to make something of himself, to distinguish himself in combat against a comer Henry would rather have had as a son, the sting has force. When he upbraids Hal for taking his crown off the pillow of Henry’s deathbed in advance of Henry’s death, the fearful wails of a dejected father are brittle and haunting. Lennix, whose impressive performance in Mr. Sophistication was a standout at last year’s CIFF, provides a presence that is felt in every scene, though his appearances are more supporting than central. His strong guiding hand is what makes H4 such a triumph. This movie should be a must-see on your festival schedule, and is an achievement for which everyone who contributed to its making, including the Kickstarter donors, should be proud.

H4 screens Saturday, October 19, 8:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 20, 2:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Producers Albena Dodeva and Danny Green and Executive Producers Harry Lennix and Giovanni Zelko are scheduled to attend both screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


8th 10 - 2013 | no comment »

CIFF 2013: Lifelong (Hayatboyu, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Asli Özge

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of my pet peeves with modern cinema is when a film begins with a sex scene—to me, it seems that the filmmaker lacks the confidence to draw an audience in by less sensational means. After being initially put off by this ploy in the Turkish/Dutch/German coproduction Lifelong, I came to see that it was an important key to the entire movie. Lifelong’s sex scene is short and vigorous, but its aftermath is the point—no embrace or conversation, just a panting woman left alone in bed while her husband showers. This is a marriage on the brink of dissolution.

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Reminiscent of the alienated couples in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ela (Defne Halman) and Can (Hakan Çimenser), an installation artist and architect, respectively, live a very luxurious life in a modernist, multistory home in Istanbul centered around a spiral, metal staircase that sounds a hollow ring every time someone moves on it. Ela’s studio is on the ground floor, and she sleeps on the couch there most nights. Despite their mutual unhappiness, Ela is concerned when she suspects Can of cheating on her. She snoops into his cellphone to see who he has called and has a hook-up on the house phone installed so that she can listen in on phone calls without being detected. When she discovers her suspicions are correct, she tells Can she wants to move out.

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Lifelong is a film of mood, simmering emotion, and somewhat surprisingly, work. Ela’s approach to art is highly conceptual and noncommercial—she searches a quarry for a boulder “big enough to crush a man,” and then hangs it above the glass roof of an art gallery. Can’s work presumably is reflected in the home they share, and we see him go to a region of Turkey where a 7.2 earthquake has flattened 72,000 buildings, perhaps to assess the causes of the damage and make plans for rebuilding, though the trip is never really explained.

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The earthquake figures in Ela and Can’s story as well, as they sleep through what has roused their entire neighborhood. This is a rather obvious metaphor for their repression of the fatal fracture of their marriage, and it frightens them into embracing each other in passionate need. Soon, however, Can slowly, delicately extricates himself from Ela’s embrace, seeing their actions as panic-motivated and not a true revival of feeling.

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It might be tempting to look at this film as just another exercise in self-pity among the financial and social elites, but I was haunted by the performances of Çimenser and especially Halman. Can is brusque and often unsympathetic, but his pain is evident and his concern for Ela real, even if he no longer loves or wants to live with her. On their way to visiting their daughter Nil (Gizem Akman) and her live-in beau Tan (Onur Dikmen), Ela is shown cooling her burning-hot feet in the snow, a stunning image; on arrival, her body temperature and blood pressure rise to a dangerous level, and she flies back to Istanbul to be hospitalized. Can, driving alone to meet her there, stops at a viaduct she wanted to photograph but that he made her skip, and in a warm gesture, shoots some pictures with his phone to present to her.

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Halman, however, is the real center of this film. Özge’s camera catches her in every mood—mostly drawn and serious, but also happy and animated in the presence of her daughter. A woman who appears to be in her 50s, she is still attractive and in shape, but director Özge knows the insecurities that befall women at all ages, but especially when they are past their peak of attractiveness. She films Halman strip naked and stare at herself in a full-length mirror, perhaps wondering if she would have rejected that body, too, if she were Can. Of course, there is a brittleness to the couple’s conversations, with Ela condescending to Can, and Can sulking defensively. When Ela calls the number on Can’s cellphone, we hear nothing—indeed, we see and learn absolutely nothing about the woman he is seeing—but understand what has happened by the minute changes on Halman’s face. We watch Ela scrutinize Nil and Tan’s relationship. In a cleverly shot scene, Nil, Tan, Ela, and Can are each framed in a separate window of a coffee shop as Ela asks why Nil is giving up industrial design for Tan’s field of archaeology. Visually, it would appear that Nil is planning to replicate her parents’ marriage.

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It is only after the doctor has ruled out anything organic, diagnosing her condition as psychological, that Ela determines her stress level is too high to live with; she confronts Can with his infidelity and takes the first step to end the marriage. But couples who have been together a long time uncouple slowly. Can allows her to sleep in the bedroom when Nil and Tan come to Istanbul to attend the gallery opening, and he enters an installation she has at the show, a room of shifting colored light masked with mist from a fog machine, and emerges full of praise and admiration for her work. It is strange to watch them shop for apartments together, but when we see which one she chooses, we understand that cohabitation may end, but the marriage will be what the film’s title suggests—lifelong.

Lifelong screens Saturday October 12, 8:30 p.m., Monday, October 14, 6:00 p.m., and Thursday, October 17, 1:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


7th 10 - 2013 | no comment »

CIFF 2013: Papusza (2013)

Directors/Coscreenwriters: Joanna Kos, Krzystof Krauze

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This seems to be the year for biopics among the Polish entries to the Chicago International Film Festival. Wałęsa: Man of Hope is a stimulating look at the life of the working-class electrician who went on to make huge changes in Polish society and receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Papusza is a much different film about a much different person, a published poet of Romy-Polish descent named Bronisława Wajs. Papusza, which means “doll” in Romy, was born in 1908 and died in 1987, thus making her a witness to both world wars, the occupation of Poland by the Soviets, and the forced settlement of the nomadic Romy in permanent homes. That she learned to read and write is remarkable in itself. That her poetry found a wide audience and acclaim in Poland and other countries is a near miracle. Yet, unlike Lech Wałesa, her life did not change for the better, and the hardships she suffered as a Romy woman dogged her to the end of her life.

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The film begins in 1971, when the assistant to the Polish cultural minister goes to a prison where Papusza (Jowita Budnick) is incarcerated. A performance of her poetry set to music is about to take place, and the assistant tells the warden that she will not tell the minister that the guest of honor can’t attend because she stole a chicken. After securing Papusza’s release, the women get in a car that will take them to the venue. We flash back to 1909, to a young, pregnant Romy who walks through a muddy street and out to a meadow. She lays down and yells for her mother, followed by a baby’s cries. The scene cuts to the new mother cradling her child and giving her the name Papusza. A fortune teller says the child will live a momentous life, but she cannot say whether it will be one of greatness or despair. In fact, it will be both.

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The film jumps to 1949. Papusza’s much older husband, Dionizy Wajs (Zbigniew Walerys), watches as his friend and harp tuner Czernecki (Artur Steranko) rows across a lake, harp upright in the boat, to the Romy camp. He asks Wajs to hide a young man who is on the run from the police. Wajs is reluctant to take in a gadjo (outsider), but he owes Czernecki the favor. The man, Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki), is a writer who travels with the Romy for two years, until he learns the warrant for his arrest has been vacated. He becomes a natural companion for Papusza, who, we learn in another flashback, got a Jewish woman to teach her to read and write when she was of school age. “Little Brother” encourages Papusza to write down the poetry she composes orally. Once he gets established in Warsaw, he collects the poems for publication. By this time, the Wajses and others in their camp have been forced to abandon traveling and have settled in a slum in a small Polish town.

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The film’s scrambled chronology keeps us waiting to see what is only mentioned in the 1949 section—the extermination of the Jews and Romy by the Nazis. We see little graphic violence, but the Romy are clearly being hunted. The Wajses and some of their camp hide in the woods in dugouts covered by leaf mats; Papusza ventures out of her hole and into a barn where a group of Romy have been herded and killed. She finds a baby crying, almost an echo of her own birth, and brings the boy back to Wajs as the son they haven’t been able to conceive. Later, when Papusza is shunned by the Romy for helping Jerzy share their secrets with other gadjo in his book The Gypsies in Poland, written in Polish and Romy, her son disavows her as his mother because he is a foundling.

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There is a great deal more to the film, filled with details of Romy life, that make it seem more interested in Ficowski’s work than in telling the story of a remarkable woman. In many ways, the approach is intriguing. The beauty of the lush black-and-white cinematography brings both a harshness to Romy life, particularly when they are cooped up in their tenement, and the romance and beauty of the open road and living in nature. We see a Romy orchestra play at a posh event in the 1920s, reminiscent of how African Americans were allowed to entertain white Americans, but were persecuted outside the performance arena.

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The superstitions of the Romy come out in everything from fortune telling to pouring wine on the ground before drinking. The subjugation of Romy women to their men is shown in the segregation of the sexes, the commonplace of child brides, and a king making rulings for the entire community. Wajs threatens Papusza with a beating when she says she is not a poet and will not attend the state performance in her honor, and it’s clear this is a default position for him.

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As much as I enjoyed looking at this film and learning about how the Romy lived during most of the 20th century, I kept looking for Papusza and her poetry to take center stage. Her art was barely quoted, and her life was massed in with the rest of the Romy, to the point where, despite a great performance by Budnik, it seemed like her husband was the main character. We do see her grieving over her marriage to a man 25 years older than she and falling for Jerzy. She is put in a mental hospital at one point, something that seems to go with the territory when a woman tries to do something her society finds offensive, like speak for herself through her art (see Séraphine [2008] for more on this type of narrative). But this film doesn’t really get at the heart of the woman who made such a deep impression on Ficowski and the outside world. She just becomes more abject and poor, doomed and demented, setting her poems on fire on her kitchen table and begging for a few złotys in her old age in exchange for a tarot reading. She becomes a figure of pity when she should have been someone women could look to for inspiration. While I can encourage people to see this film for the richness of its imagery and scope of its story, both of which might have been meant to evoke Papusza’s writing, if you want to know who Papusza is, read her poetry.

Papusza screens Wednesday, October 16, 6:25 p.m, Thursday, October 17, 5:30 p.m., and Friday, October 18, 2:455 p.m., and at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Actress Jowita Budnik is scheduled to attend all three screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)

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3rd 10 - 2013 | 7 comments »

CIFF 2013: The Verdict (Het Vonnis, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Jan Verheyen

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the things I love about the Chicago International Film Festival is having a chance to see what issues are on the minds of filmmakers in different countries. No matter how small the world may seem to be in these days of the worldwide web, we most definitely do not live and see things the same way. The Verdict is a film that shows the yawning cultural chasm between life in the United States and, in this case, that in Belgium. It also provides me with a chance to sound a note of caution about the unintended consequences that may befall the country’s system of jurisprudence if the filmmakers get their way.

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The Verdict opens with a man crouched in a doorway. His face is drawn, and his hands are shaking. The scene ends with a B-roll to a static frame of the man, a technique director Verheyen uses throughout the film to create a patchwork of impressions and amp the intensity of each scene. The next scene shows the man in a very different, very happy frame of mind. He is Luc Segers (Koen De Bouw), an executive who is enjoying a company party with his wife Ella (Joke Devynck) and daughter (Nell Cattrysse). Luc expects to be named CEO to succeed his mentor, and the two men are set to meet about it the next day.

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On the way home from the party, Luc stops to refuel his car. His wife goes to an automat across the street to get something to eat. She encounters a man who is burglarizing the machines. She resists him when he tries to grab her purse, and he beats her to death with his bare fist. Luc, wondering what is taking Ella so long, goes across the street and runs into the assailant, who kicks him into unconsciousness. Luc’s daughter runs to help her father and is struck and killed by a passing car. When Luc awakens from a three-week coma, he learns that he has lost everything—his wife, his daughter, and the promotion.

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With Luc as an eyewitness, the assailant, Kenny De Groot (Hendrik Aerts), is apprehended quickly at the auto repair shop where he works. Unfortunately, the case is thrown out because a magistrate failed to sign a necessary document. De Groot is out free and clear. Furious that the system failed to secure justice for him and his family, Luc stalks and kills De Groot and gives himself up to the police without a fight. Rather than plea bargain his way to a short sentence, Luc seeks to put the system on trial by going for an acquittal with a defense that his was a crime of passion despite the premeditated nature of his actions.

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I love looking at the workings of jurisprudence in other countries because they all have their unique qualities. In Belgium, though I could be wrong, it appeared that Luc would have to pay something toward the prosecution of De Groot, perhaps even to help pay the publicity-seeking, private defense attorney (Veerle Baetens) who will bill the state for her services. When Luc himself is standing trial, De Groot’s defense attorney stands by as a kind of prosecutor who seems involved primarily to see that the victim, Kenny De Groot, is not put on trial for Luc’s crime. Her summation, detailing De Groot’s difficult childhood as an explanation for his life of violent crime, is right out of the root-causes playbook.

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The trial is extremely compelling, as the testimony is intercut with scenes of the days leading up to the murder and culminating in the murder itself, thus slowly revealing the action we thought we might be denied. The scene of Ella on the floor of the automat looking as though she is preparing to die is doubled with a similar shot of De Groot; however, the brutality of the first murder by a habitually violent man is contrasted with the shaky hand and wild shooting of a man who has never killed anything in his life. Nonetheless, he manages to pump four bullets into De Groot and stands over him as the life bleeds out of him, showing that violent anger is available to us all if given the right set of circumstances.

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American audiences are very used to films and television programs of vigilante justice and revenge, so we expect Luc to act as he did. The film, however, doesn’t make this crime seem like an inevitability. Koen De Bouw’s performance is a tour de force that keeps our expectations slightly off balance because he’s a real person, not a stock character, whose emotions are volatile and realistic. Indeed, the entire cast take overly familiar characters—the lady judge, the barracuda defense attorney, the pragmatic chief prosecutor (Jappe Claes), Luc’s understanding family lawyer (Johan Leysen)—and manage to individualize them to a considerable degree. The closing argument Leysen gives is spellbinding, and almost completely won me over from the equally compelling arguments made by the two prosecutors of the case. The writing and fervency of the actors couldn’t have been better. The tight construction of the film turns a routine procedural into an edge-of-seat experience.

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Nonetheless, the closing title cards that warn of the problem the Belgian criminal justice system faces from procedural errors left me feeling queasy. Equal justice under the law underpinned the prosecution’s case, and Luc’s trial represents a slippery slope away from it. As an American who has just seen the U.S. Supreme Court deal a severe blow to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and the Miranda warning requirement, learned that 55 people have been in custody in my state for more than five years awaiting trial, and despairs that the prison population nationwide has quadrupled since 1980 to a total of 2.4 million, I shudder to think what Belgium is toying with. Hopefully, this activist film will see people who commit procedural errors dealt with through education and disciplinary action and not an erosion of the rights Americans once had but lost.

The Verdict shows Wednesday October 16, 8:30 p.m., Thursday, October 17, 8:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 22, 3:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Actor Jappe Claes is scheduled to attend the Wednesday and Thursday screenings.www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


2nd 10 - 2013 | 16 comments »

CIFF 2013: A Thousand Times Good Night (2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Erik Poppe

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Here there be spoilers.

A Thousand Times Good Night is likely to have a large audience because its stars are the luminous Juliette Binoche, who has been in some very good pictures indeed, and Game of Thrones hottie Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Norwegian director Erik Poppe has crafted a fine-looking film that is well paced and watchable, and he’s thrown in some arty images of slow-motion near death that add tasteful cachet. But like Binoche’s patented ability to cry on demand, this film has a trick or two up its sleeve, and the insidious message for women that it delivers, while seeming to say the opposite, may be overlooked if someone does not speak up. That someone would be me.

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The film revolves around Binoche’s character, Rebecca, a war photographer who infiltrates an Afghani insurgency that uses women as human bombs to wreck terror on the opposition. She photographs the odyssey of one bomber beginning with a mock funeral that offers her the oblations she will be denied after her mission because there will be no remains to bury. Rebecca drives with the bomber to a market in Kabul, where she makes the driver let her out. An instinct to keep photographing draws the attention of the police. Rebecca feels that the nervous bomber will press the button too soon and warns the bystanders in the market to flee. She is, of course, right. After emerging in a daze from the bombing, Rebecca pops off a few more frames, and then collapses, her punctured lung bringing her close to death.

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Her marine biologist husband Marcus (Coster-Waldau) flies to Afghanistan to bring her back to their home and two daughters in Ireland. Shortly after arriving home, Marcus tells her that as soon as she is on her feet, he and the girls are leaving her. His reason is that they are all terrified that she will be killed on the job, and they can’t live with the tension. Rebecca tells her editor that she is through doing combat photography, but when her teenaged daughter Steph (Lauren Canny) wants to go to a “safe” refugee camp in Kenya with Rebecca as part of a school project, Marcus agrees. Of course, the camp is attacked, Rebecca’s work instincts kick in, Marcus finds out about it a few days after they come back, and he kicks Rebecca out of the house. Marcus is a lost cause, but can Rebecca win back her children’s affection? Will she return to war photography as the only place she has left? Will she enroll in Adrenaline Addicts Anonymous and be reunited with her family, taking it one day at a time? What’s a woman to do?

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The sexist bias of this film should be obvious to anyone, but adding children to the mix will sufficiently camouflage the issue for many audience members for whom society has provided a handy default position for women set to “mom first.” If the subject of this film were Frank Capa or Ernie Pyle, we’d expect the wife and kiddies to suck it up for the greater good. Indeed, we expect that of military families every day. But when a woman’s passion, talent, and ambition take her away from her family, when her love of humanity sometimes outstrips her mother love, wifely love, or even her love of her own life, then Houston, we have a problem. Rebecca is ballsy (yes, manlike ballsy) enough to accept the risks, but Marcus decides not just for himself, but for the children that she has to choose; after some two decades together, she finally gets hurt, and he can’t deal. When Rebecca senses something is wrong, she asks if there is another woman. Well, you know what—I think there was or this change of heart after so much time actually makes no sense.

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The film moves on to explore the relationship between Steph and her mother, one in which Steph comes to accept and admire the work her mother does. Rebecca gives her a camera in Kenya and encourages her to experiment with it. After the marriage bust-up, Steph invites her mother to see her African project at school. It ends up being a tribute to her mother and the harsh truths she exposes—indeed, her photos of the attack in Kenya garnered better security for the refugee camp, so we know she’s doing important work that gets results. So, yes, the film wants to assure us that war photography is good.

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But Poppe just has to beat Rebecca up one more time. Rebecca returns to the insurgents in Afghanistan to take some final photos to wrap the story up. Why she has to see another suicide bomber prepare herself is unclear, except as a way to get to the moral of the story Poppe wants to emphasize in case we hadn’t learned our lesson about the greatest calling a woman can aspire to. Rebecca raises her camera to photograph a young girl being fitted with explosives and starts to cry. She can’t take even one photo, so overcome is she that a terrible ideology is now sacrificing girls. The underlying message, however, is that Steph may end up following in her mother’s footsteps. What a horrible fate that would be.

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The title, A Thousand Times Good Night, comes from the balcony scene in Act Two of Romeo and Juliet, one of the most romantic moments in all of dramatic literature. Its choice for this film is a confusing one, offering mixed messages about love. On the one hand, Rebecca has a private life filled with people who love her and whom she loves. On the other hand, Rebecca’s love for humanity tugs her away from them time and time again. I think it’s clear which love director Poppe thinks is more appropriate.

A Thousand Times Good Night shows Saturday, October 12, 3:00 p.m, Monday, October 14, 8:15 p.m., and Wednesday October 16, 12:40 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


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