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A Place for Cinema & the Visual Arts



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Goodbye Tativille, Hello OKCMOA Film Blog

Thu, 02 Oct 2014 01:09:00 +0000

After nine years and three hundred ninety posts, Tativille will be going on permanent hiatus. Let me extend my sincerest thanks to my exceptionally loyal readership, and my gratitude to the many of you who have contributed over the years. In particular, let me thank Jeremi Szaniawski, a frequent - and always provocative - guest writer, and Lisa K. Broad, my consistent collaborator and the author of many exceptional posts. And to the many filmmakers and artists about whom we have written over the past nine years, thank you for making this a truly extraordinary experience!

Moving forward, I will be authoring a new weekly blog in my capacity as Film Curator of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art: http://www.okcmoa.com/filmblog/. Appropriately, my first post focuses on Jafar Panahi's Closed Curtain, my favorite film of 2014. And of course, there are 389 additional pieces to explore in the Tativille archives. Happy reading, and again, thank you very much!



New Film: The Immigrant (2013)

Thu, 29 May 2014 19:23:00 +0000

Representing the absolute pinnacle of American prestige filmmaking in twenty-thirteen - even as it would be all but discarded by its Weinstein Co. distributor in a profoundly unheralded spring 2014 release - James Gray's marvelous fifth feature The Immigrant (2013) advances its mid-career, Gen-X maker's career-defining exploration of the New York Jewish experience with its Ellis Island narrative of a used and abused newcomer. Set predominately in a heavily processed, though still easily recognizable Orchard St.-area Lower East Side, Gray's focal heroine Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is in fact a Polish Catholic immigrant who will be preyed upon by the outwardly empathetic Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a Yiddish-speaking Ellis Island visitor whose malevolent intentions are intimated by the care with which he observes the beautiful new arrival. Bruno, as we will soon discover, is a burlesque showman and pimp, a man who at once has some pull with Ellis Island inspectors, and at the same time will be bullied and badly beaten by corrupt law officers who are quick to call him a "kike." In short, Bruno belongs to that archetypal class of ambitious, early twentieth century urban dwellers whose race nonetheless has dictated a more marginal, pettily-criminal existence.

Though she will prove resistant consistently to the charismatic Bruno's charms, the whored-out Ewa nevertheless will find herself at the center of a love triangle that also includes Bruno's magician brother, the more immediately sympathetic Emil or Orlando, as Jeremy Renner's character is known on stage. Suffice it to say that the rival brothers' shared romantic obsession will yield catastrophe, while also providing the lever for the film's redemptive resolution. As such, The Immigrant not only reproduces the romantic geometry of the writer-director's outstanding Two Lovers (2008); it also reaffirms the traditional Jewish morality that appeared likewise in that earlier Joaquin Phoenix vehicle.

The Immigrant, above all, reads as old-fashioned - in the very best sense, for this writer - not only in its mining of the thematic of redemptive suffering, which will find its most consistent canvas on Cotillard's radiating visage, but also in its unhurried and very precise visual storytelling, which achieves a level of perfection in the narratively and emotionally rich concluding divided frame that matches any last shot in the recent annals of American film art. Gray's neo-classicism, more broadly, eschews generations of intensified continuity, opting instead for a deliberate decoupage and gracefully composed master-shots that bring the filmmaker's golden-hued New York, circa 1921, to vivid and indeed familiar life. Between the film's essentially classical style, therefore, and its ultimate moral complexities - which emerge equally in Ewa's last-act psychology and Bruno's commensurate behavior - The Immigrant emerges as nothing so much as a late, lost cousin to an American Renaissance that experienced many of its own greatest moments on the very same Lower New York streets.



New Film: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Sun, 11 May 2014 01:22:00 +0000

With its opening, starry nocturnal sky bleeding into an overhead set-up of a revolving turntable, Jim Jarmusch's vampiric opus Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) wastes little time in (analogically) tipping the identity of his heroic blood-sucking faction: they are the men of science rejected by generations of ignorant "zombies" and the greats of poetry, literature and most of all music who toil in and out of public view. Jarmusch's male lead Adam (Tom Hiddleston), identified and juxtaposed with his lover Eve (Tilda Swinton) in the alternating, LP-style overheads that succeed the picture's introductory set-piece, proves immediately exemplary, producing great music over a span of centuries that on the one hand would be credited to Schubert and on the other passionately consumed by twenty-first century zombie rock kids - despite Adam's refusal to receive citation for his art. The Romantic myth of the artist is much bigger than Jarmusch's fundamentally nineteenth century hero.Adam, of course, is also a connoisseur of the first order, with his stunning collection of stringed instruments in particular providing an object for his (and the film's) rapt attention. Jarmusch's own expertise shades more toward the vinyl that dominates Adam's living space - just as perilous stacks of paperbacks populates Eve's - with the film's carefully curated noise, Motown and Middle Eastern-dominated musical cues never less than spot on in their selections. While the same cannot quite be said for the literary one-liners that would not have felt that out of place in the risible Midnight in Paris (2011), these occasional incursions of dilettantism seem only appropriate in the director's latest piece of bohemian identity-building (which builds directly on 2009's similarly concerned and wildly undervalued The Limits of Control) in the face of a hostile, insensate and ecologically irresponsible consumerist present.Geographically, Jarmusch finds the nineteenth century of his Gothic generic subject, or at least its predilections, in the urban ruins of post-Industrial Capitalist Detroit, and in the perpetual exoticism of Eve and close friend Christopher Marlowe's (John Hurt) old Tangiers. While the latter provides a familiar subject within the contours of the Romantic visual tradition, the film's mobile, midnight registration of latter-day Detroit feels affectingly new and even urgent as an originary act of poetic reclamation. Jarmusch's isn't the first fiction film to capture the experience of despondent present-day Detroit, but it is certainly the most lyrical, and on some level, the most compassionate. Only Lovers Left Alive, even more than the ultra specific 8 Mile (2002) and Clint Eastwood's masterful, if generically 'Rust Belt' Gran Torino (2008), emerges thusly as the twenty-first century Motor City masterwork.Then there is Only Lovers Left Alive's more immediate identity as a latter-day vampire film, a sub-genre that Jarmusch's film equally dominates, thanks especially to the the filmmaker's creative interpretation and application of the nineteenth-century mythos. Present similarly in details such as its O-negative popsicles, privately commissioned hardwood bullets and complicated, nighttime trans-Atlantic flight itineraries, Only Lovers Left Alive's most memorable and noteworthy refashioning of the vampire narrative ultimately occurs with its instantly compelling and even revelatory characterization of its nocturnal rock musician as vampire. Much to the author's credit, there is a sense in which Jarmusch's narrative choice feels as if it is the most natural within our current cultural context (while of course remaining deeply personal for this cinematic paragon of the early 80s Downtown 'punk' scene). To put it another way, Jarmusch has managed to organically transform the stock vampire narrative into an archetypal example of his own personal mythology. The filmmaker's postmodern sensibility, by comparison, emerges through the unique temporality [...]



February/March In Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Missing Picture, Non-Stop & Kinoshita Keisuke

Mon, 31 Mar 2014 16:11:00 +0000

At the end of January, I wrote of the relief that comes with the new year, with no longer having to submit oneself to the responsibilities of list-making and being able, finally, to find some balance between the old and the new. In the past two months, my viewing has tilted even further toward the old, thanks in particular to two new scholarly projects that came to dominate much of my film-viewing time. Before I get to the more substantial (and official) of the two in this piece's final paragraph, let me review those noteworthy new releases that I have not yet discussed on this platform, beginning with a major-work that I have done my best to avoid speaking about until now.The film in question, as the post's opening two screen-grabs indicate, is none other than Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the most dioramic of the mid-career Gen-X master's career, and one of his stronger perhaps (though not quite to the level of his 2012 career peak Moonrise Kingdom, or to 2007's unjustly undervalued The Darjeeling Limited). What The Grand Budapest Hotel shares with the latter work in particular is a discursive focalization through the medium of cinema itself, or more precisely in the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, film history. We see this in the economy of aspect ratios that preserve the film's three time periods; in the irises and tracking shots that call attention to its fundamental materiality; and of course in the Ruritanian romances, Alpine mountain films, and its star-studded partial namesake that all contribute to the picture's narrative content. Anderson's latest is also a work again of the diorama, of the kunstmuseum and the miniature, captured in tilt-shift photography (as my viewing companion and this website's co-author has pointed out). The Grand Budapest Hotel finds its greatest pleasures thus, in its accumulations - be it those of the narrative or of its Grand Hotel-caliber casting - and its manifold details, in sum, its mise-en-scène. It would be tempting to describe the film in terms likewise of the confectionery that has played a large role in its marketing, and in many respects it does feel this way, were it not also for the film's comically gratuitous cartoon violence - The Grand Budapest Hotel is the closest of Anderson's films to 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox - and its more and less oblique references to mid-century fascism. Anderson indeed contributes another key film to his generation-defining body-of-work.Staging its own meticulously crafted dioramas with sculpted clay figurines, Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture (2013) produces a new form of political essay film that seeks to recreate the filmmaker's personal recollections of life under the murderous Khmer Rouge using the aforementioned inanimate objects - and those few newsreels and relevant propaganda films that survive the period. The genius of Panh's latest testimonial resides in this very novelty, in its figuration of the Marxist regime's intentional and systematic process of dehumanization in a form that essentially eliminates the human form from its reproductions. What results is the titular "missing picture," the heretofore largely undocumented nightmare reality that the Khmer Rouge endeavored to create for its bourgeois and capitalistic enemies, in the image of its profoundly flawed political theory (which disastrously combined Rousseau and Marx). In his dioramic spaces (mostly) and the occasional surviving film clip, Panh's picture equally offers a fond glimpse into Cambodia's lost, pre-Democratic Kampuchea past, into the modern Phnom Penh that would be ravaged by Pol Pot and his ideological faction. A work of powerful, even undeniable truth, The Missing Picture is one of twenty-fourteen's finest commercial premieres to date.The biggest surprise of the past two months belonged to Jaume Collet-Serra for his of-the-moment actioner, Non-Stop (2014). The Catalan-born Collet-Serra seems to understan[...]



New Film: Stranger by the Lake / L'Inconnu du lac (2013)

Mon, 10 Mar 2014 20:41:00 +0000

Distributed by Les Films du Losange, the French production company most associated with the films of its co-founder Éric Rohmer, Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake (L'Inconnu du lac, 2013) draws on the late master's suspended holiday-season settings, iterative narrative structures and two-shot conversational set-ups for its own, very different story of death and desire within the context of gay cruising culture. In this framework, that is by bringing a more expressly 'other-ed' portrait of male homosexuality to the screen than is common in this Modern Family media moment - Guiraudie populates his exceedingly explicit film with the conspicuously promiscuous much more than the monogamous, with the voyeur and the sexless bisexual - not to mention one that calls upon earlier 'cruising' stereotypes, Stranger by the Lake would seem on some level to court conversation-stopping accusations of homophobia. Thankfully, for once at least, we've been saved from this canard, for reasons one might imagine that have to do mostly with its abundantly apparent originality - that is for its organic joining of the deliberate and lyrical 'Losange' film, graphic gay copulation and indeed Chabrolian suspense, all in the service of a sharp, socially potent allegory.Stranger by the Lake, to expand with spoilers on this last point, is at its core an allegory for unsafe sex in the AIDS era. (As a partial aside, the Tom Selleck-ness of Christophe Paou's Michel and Pierre de Ladonchamps' anachronistic choice of automobile both speak to plague's earlier peak years.) From the first, focal protagonist Franck (Ladonchamps) seems little concerned with using protection, an attitude that is not shared by one of his older hook-ups. Following another of his casual forested encounters, Franck spies his objet du désir Michel clandestinely drowning his lover in the eponymous lake. Concealing this knowledge and little concerned, evidently, for his own safety, Franck commences a passionate affair with the newly unattached murderer, a romance that increasingly separates the lead from his platonic conversational partner Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao). The observant and very sympathetic Henri, however, will confront Michel with an insinuation of his crime, an accusation that compels the mustachioed killer to follow the middle-aged divorced male into the erotically coded woods. Indeed, as the murderer Michel gives Henri what he wants - a throat-slashing in lieu of intercourse in the perfect, Bataillean grafting of AIDS-age sex and death - Guiraudie's camera intentionally misleads the viewer as it peers at the pair, in a manner that calls to mind many of the film's sexual encounters, through the slightly obscuring tall grass. Franck too will finally face Michel, at least in a fashion, as he willingly accepts death to satisfy his sexual desire - in what therefore proves the ultimate emblem of unprotected promiscuous (gay) sex in the AIDS era.Throughout Stranger by the Lake, Guiraudie's visual storytelling proves never less than expert - cf. the maddening handheld work of the much lesser Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) - with his observational, surveillance-style long-takes offering an ideal and thematically commensurate vehicle for the picture's voyeuristic psycho-sexual drama. The film's setting - Stranger by the Lake does not once deviate from the lake, its rocky shore and the surrounding woods - is no less ripe in its connotations, particularly when one considers the frequently nude, foreshortened male subjects that transform this space into a spoiled Eden of sorts (to again hint at the disease's early history, while also drawing upon or at least echoing such work as Thomas Eakins' "The Swimming Hole"). At the same time, Guiraudie's film is an exemplary piece equally of lyrical landscape cinema, a work that digresses to disclose the beauty of the lake's choppy blue-black surface or the sudden breeze t[...]



"How bored, how doleful is the flesh!": Jeremi Szaniawski on Nymph()maniac (2014)

Fri, 07 Mar 2014 20:48:00 +0000

The impetuous and darkly facetious Lars von Trier is back with a two-in-one hat-trick, Nymph()maniac (2014). It tells the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-professed nymphomaniac who embarks upon a life-revisiting confession to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a middle-aged man who takes her in after finding her lying, beaten up and unconscious, in a damp alleyway. As he listens to the recollections of Joe’s many tumultuous and colorful sexual adventures—they never bring solace to this bored and compulsive soul—suspicion grows that Seligman's care and attention are far too kind to be driven solely by noble and selfless intentions…As the spelling of the film(s)’ title indicates, the first volume focuses on the ‘Nymph’ stage; while the second, more violent part, has to do with the ‘Maniac’ side of its titular character, emphasizing a brutal dialectical rapport between youth and adulthood, boredom and pain, beauty and ugliness, which turn out, in an indirect but sobering way, to be utterly universal. With this apparently vapid ‘pornographic’ diptych, the Danish director may have found the most profound expression of his cinema, namely one that is at once profoundly didactic/demonstrative (a film à thèse) while pushing the boundaries of self-referentiality (to Epidemic, most clearly, but also the anti-naturalistic, almost Brechtian acting found in many of his films), irreverent playfulness and irony to the very limits. Nymph()Maniac also gives us at long last what von Trier always seemed to teeter on, often breaking down his films into chapters, namely a form of ‘cinematic novel’. The frame narrative of the film, constantly interrupted à la Tristram Shandy, is in itself perfect material for a dark comedy, and it titillates one to see how far von Trier is going to push the parallel with several Marquis de Sade books, wherein a young woman is taken in by an apparently well-meaning man who turns out to be an even greater sadist than the ones she met earlier. Other more punctual references to literary classics include Nabokov’s Lolita, or the greatest poet of grotesque and sublime eroticism who ever set word to paper, Georges Bataille. As for the film’s ‘chapters’ per se, Joe’s recollected stories, as in a picaresque novel, introduce random characters which are often jubilant grist for the Dane’s comedic mill: in the first film, special mention ought to go to Uma Thurman as an apodictic cuckolded wife, as she bursts into Joe’s apartment with her children in order to show them ‘the whoring bed’, to much comic effect. Yet all these scenes in the first film constantly elude the proverbial punch. In similar anticlimactic fashion, it ends with young Joe (model Stacy Martin) claiming to her lover (Shia LaBeouf) that she can’t experience orgasms anymore, the image fading in the most cheap fade fashion into the credits. The latter are accompanied by footage from part two, wherein other familiar von Trier character actors appear, and of far more grotesque qualities: Willem Dafoe, Jean-Marc Barr and the inenarrable Udo Kier, for what promises to take us into the darker, ‘Maniac’ part of the narrative, where all hell will break loose.In spite of its pronounced literariness, far from feeling like an unrealized book, this film creates a perfectly original—if heavily derivative—form of this hybrid, between the purity of the nymph and the provocation of the maniac, and the gaping hole in the middle, the disquieting mystery (and meaninglessness) of life, all bathed in a jarring, absurdist humor. Like the grotesque bodies it bares naked, Nymph()Maniac never shies away from exposing this aspect, opening on a series of mysterious and beautiful shots of walls and pipes in a snowy alleyway (evocative of 1950s Japanese cinema), followed by the nihilistic chords of Rammstein’s heavy and foreboding music—the tone of dark irony and excess of the film s[...]



New Film: Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Tue, 18 Feb 2014 04:28:00 +0000

Reaffirming its writer-director as one of the contemporary screen's most effective makers of sentimental, family-centered melodrama, to damn with faint praise in any context other than the filmmaker's country of origin or his own, exceptional body of work, Kore-eda Hirokazu's Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, 2013) displays the same gentleness and narrative restraint that has long proven a hallmark of the Japanese auteur's corpus. Elliptical and delicate in its presentation of its ripped-from-the-headlines-style shocker - six years earlier, two newborn boys are switched at birth - Kore-eda's Cannes prize-winning, Ozuesque latest emerges above all as a subtle, yet sharp (in the manner of the great master) critique of historical Japanese notions of parent- and especially father-hood.The most emotionally satisfying solution to the mix-up, at least to the distant observer - the situation remaining status-quo, with the Nonomiya and Saiki families raising their 'adopted' children, rather than their long-separated blood off-spring - is rejected quickly by the professionally driven and rather successful Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu). Indeed, in keeping with what we are told is the long-held habit of the Japanese people, from an era when such mix-ups were commonplace, Fukuyama's lead defaults to blood, a decision that is made that much easier for Ryota by his adopted son Keita's (Ninomiya Keita, in one of the Nobody Knows and I Wish director's uniformly accomplished child performances) comparative lack of natural ability. In the end, Like Father, Like Son is about Ryota's struggle to overcome the idiom named in the English title: he must at once resist the cold, disinterested parenting style of his own father, and at the same time become the father that he has failed to be, both to his biological offspring Ryusei (Hwang Shôgen) and more importantly, to the loving, loyal (and impossibly cute) Keita. Ryota, in other words, must reject the less and less culturally valid economic and masculine ideal that he has spent his life pursuing.The Saiki family, on the other hand, provides an alternative to the career-oriented Nonomiya's and their sterile urban bourgeois existence. Alternate patriarch Yudai (Furankî Rirî) in particular offers a point of contrast in his lax attitudes toward work - why do today what can be put off to tomorrow? - and his more nurturing, hands-on style of parenting. Though the buffoonish and occasionally greedy Yudai is himself no unambiguous ideal, as his wife Yukari (Maki Yôko) makes abundantly clear time and again, his virtues do serve to highlight Ryota's archly Japanese shortcomings. Indeed, for all Yukari's faults and for the Saiki's far more modest circumstances in general, their larger nuclear family does seem to work in a manner that the reconfigured, biological Nonomiya's fail to. Nurture most certainly rules out over nature and blood in Like Father, Like Son's cinema of reassessed cultural priorities.Through all the above, Kore-eda manages, rather masterfully, to be both universal and culturally specific in his humanistic, paternal melodrama. The same also can be said for his keen eye for middle-class detail - an observational skill perfected previously in the director's Still Walking (2008) - which here finds expression in the chewed straws that restate the film's final thesis or in the Red Lobster setting that provides a meeting point for the families, their attorney and representatives of the negligent rural hospital. (Kore-eda's camera naturally pursues a similarly observational tact that at the same time allows for mimetic grace-notes, such as the concluding rainbow flare that emotionally echoes the film's final, ever-so-slightly unconventional familial reorganization.) Ultimately, Like Father, Like Son, like all the very best Kore-eda, is a robust cinema,[...]



January In Review (feat. Spike Jonze's Her)

Sat, 01 Feb 2014 22:04:00 +0000

Always a welcome relief from the rigors and assumed responsibilities of year-end list-making season, January is that month, at least for this academic critic, where things get back to normal, where my viewing log again begins tilt away from the current releases that have dominated since at least early November, toward a more privately enriching balance of old and new. This changing of priorities, so to speak, has already yielded more than its reasonable share of exceptional viewing, beginning with Frank Borzage's recently released on home-video Little Man, What Now? (1934), a film that falls squarely within my academic area of specialization. Written about in this space, the outstanding Little Man, What Now? is perhaps most extraordinary (and exciting) as an object of auteurist research. A different kind of context - the social history of Shah-era Iran - provided the primary interest in and my reason for writing on another key January discovery (in one of my secondary scholastic fields), Dariush Mehrju'i's The Cycle (1977). But, of course, loyal Tativille readers will already know my admiration for both of these remarkable films.Among those older January 2014 films that I have not considered previously on this site, Chu Yuan's The Magic Blade (1976, pictured), available on Eastern Masters home video, surely stands as the most purely pleasurable: composed in Shawscope with an at times almost Mizoguchian depth and elegance, The Magic Blade adopts a proto-gaming structure for its spatially dislocated pageant of studio-set-driven stagings - and the deliriously bizarre hired-killers that magically materialize in each. For the Bollywood enthusiast, the Chinese-language Magic Blade approaches the high kitsch that was being created by Manmohan Desai at approximately the same moment. From earlier in that same odd-ball decade, this past month also provided my first opportunity to view Barbara Loden's counter-classic debut Wanda (1970), or a better, and more richly specific Bonnie and Clyde, stripped of any semblance of Penn's romanticism. As befits a work of its now monumental critical stature, the sexual politics of Loden's exceptional film hint at the actress-director's profoundly marginal position in an inequitable and excluding American film industry.As is inevitably true, given the studios' propensity to release their award-hopefuls late in the calendar year, my January also witnessed its share of noteworthy newer titles, with Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Asghar Farhadi's The Past (2013) among the more successful. The only film that I felt the need to view twice in January 2014 - I wrote about my less conflicted second screening here - The Wolf of Wall Street exhibits both the strengths and limitations of the director's worldview, with the former ultimately overwhelming the latter in one of Scorsese's most entertaining epics in ages. As for Farhdi's latest, though it does not quite rise to the masterful level of A Separation (2011) in its manipulation of architecture for the purposes of its melodramatic narrative, The Past, reviewed here, does succeed in re-imagining its primary virtues within a decidedly French context. I also belatedly caught French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners (2013, pictured), a strong piece of revisionist, vigilante-themed cinema that finds real interest in its curious and compelling religious discourse; Prisoners emerges, above all, as a consummate work of mood and mid-winter atmosphere.Then there was Spike Jonze's Her (2013, pictured), my personal choice for the best new film I saw last month, and to my present thinking, the second best American fiction film of twenty-thirteen (just behind Richard Linklater's superlative Before Midnight). Extrapolating ever so slightly [...]



Iranian Oscar-Submission Supplement: The Past (2013) & The Cycle (1977)

Sun, 26 Jan 2014 19:57:00 +0000

Anointed Iran's submission for the 86th Academy Awards, following its fêting for 'Best Actress' at last year's Cannes Film Festival - it failed not only to receive a 'Best Foreign-language' nomination, but even, quite unexpectedly and undeservedly, to secure a place on Oscar's nine-film shortlist - Asghar Farhadi's French-Italian co-production The Past (Le passé, 2013) transposes the transparent settings of the director's Iranian-set Oscar winner A Separation (Jodái-e Náder az Simin, 2011) into the French doors and sliding glass of contemporary France. The Past accordingly lacks some of the former's cultural specificity, its inscription of a surveillant, theocratic society - though The Past does still rely on acts of spying, of overhearing to expedite conflict. The Past, in other words, loses a bit of what might be described as the architectural masterpiece's 'Iranianess', though it will make up for this with a more Antonioni-esque form of incommunicable modernity that materializes in an opening set-piece where separated spouses Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) attempt to speak through a transparent airport barrier: here, Farhadi's film adopts the inaudible perspective of the hearer, rather than the speaker, reversing fields as their exchange progresses in silence. (Speaking of silence, there is a palpable, almost heavy lack of sound throughout much of Farhadi's un-scored film, which above all suggests the deep and fundamental theatricality of the director's latest feature.)The Past also witnesses the return of A Separation's divorce-themed subject - a topic that seems to be inspiring a new generation of Persian filmmakers^ - albeit from a perspective that again resounds more immediately with European and French stereotypes than it does those of the Islamic republic - though, of course, there remains the almost inescapable intimation that the morality that Farhadi realizes is also present, however covertly, in his Middle Eastern homeland. Specifically, The Past brings a French heroine to the screen, in Marie, who has moved through a number of men over the course of her adult life. She lives with the married Samir (Tahar Rahim; pictured, middle), and as we soon discover, they've conceived their first child together. Meanwhile and melodramatically, Samir's wife lies comatose following an attempted suicide that thusly calls to mind the director's fine, L'Avventura-inspired About Elly (Darbâreye Eli, 2009), as will, more directly, the film's subsequent investigation into the causes for her self-inflicted act-of-violence. Ultimately, the admirably complex The Past favors something approaching the former film's uncertainty, which will again place the filmmaker's engaging and effective latest - a work, which it almost goes without saying, that is very well performed from the deeply unlikable Bejo down through to the film's adolescent and child actors - squarely within the domain of the Euro-Asian art film.  Begun in 1973-74, but not officially released until 1977 when it became Iran's first submission for Best Foreign Language Film*, Dariush Mehrju'i's The Cycle (Dayereh-ye Mina) remains one of the most forceful and unflinching social-problem films that the nation has yet produced, a work that seeks to expose and testify against the appalling (real-world) conditions of Iran's black-market blood banks*. Building on the social realism of the director's lightly surreal, symbol-laden New Wave landmark The Cow (Gāv, 1969), The Cycle deliberately discloses the abject conditions - almost unbearable from our post-HIV perspective - under which the gangsters prey on the approximately eight-hundred addicts (according to one the feature's physicians), who supply the nation's tainted blood supply: junkies huddle together [...]



Too Poor and Too Rich: Little Man, What Now? (1934) & The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Tue, 14 Jan 2014 04:41:00 +0000

Premiering finally on home video last October as part of TCM's Universal Vault Series, Little Man, What Now? (1934, Universal) provides even further evidence of the extraordinary emotional richness and thematic consistency of director Frank Borzage's Depression-era body-of-work, a cinema that considered as a whole comfortably places the Italian-American auteur in the pantheon of studio-era filmmakers. Adapted from Hans Fallada's best-selling 1932 novel, Little Man, What Now? opens with a lengthy intertitle from producer Carl Laemelle, Jr. that defines the filmmakers' intentions in presenting the work: namely, to render a "social service" by offering a solution to the "WORLD'S DAILY PROBLEM," which is to say the economic hardships that prevailed in its mid-Depression time of production. This answer is proposed early in Borzage's German-set, Pre-Code melodrama, following the soapbox homily of a socialist speaker who opines that the "rich are too rich and [that] the poor are too poor." Though Borzage's film isn't without sympathy for this view, particularly where it comes to the deeply felt material sufferings of his under-class protagonists, Little Man, What Now? ultimately proffers a more Roman Catholic response commensurate with many of his other signature achievements, from the supreme Man's Castle (1933) to the more middle-range, though no less thematically essential Mannequin (1937); here, Borzage frames his family-centered, hearth-and-home philosophy in the form of question, one to which male romantic lead Hans Pinneberg (Douglass Montgomery) will receive an affirmative answer: "if one is satisfied to accept his life, peacefully, he's better off, isn't he?"Little Man, What Now? finds much of its drama in Hans's struggle to do something so seemingly simple, to accept the domestic happiness that his beautiful young wife Lämmchen (Margaret Sullivan) seems eager to provide, even in the most materially scarce - and thus classically Borzagian - of circumstances. In his resistance, Hans provides another example of the director's archetypal male, a man of some ambition, and even more pride, who fruitlessly strives after worldly success. (By contrast, Sullivan's Lämmchen, in the image of Man's Castle's Loretta Young, embodies the redemptive woman, the figure whose extraordinary love and uttermost faith provides meaning in an indifferent Depression world.) At the same time, as the film's opening political rhetoric indicates, Little Man, What Now? does not entirely lack a class consciousness, thanks not only to its inscriptions of poverty and on occasion, ill-gotten wealth, but also to its dramatizations of Hans's mistreatment by a deeply unjust employer class. Little Man, What Now? accordingly accedes to the problem that the film's inscribed politics approaches - but not its materialist solution (thankfully, given the film's situation in Düsseldorf and Berlin on the eve of National Socialism). As always, Borzage's is a fundamentally Roman Catholic work, a film that imagines happiness within the context of the sacramental family - not in wealth or even the lack of material want. (Of course, owing to its late Pre-Code timing, Borzage depicts a couple who, at the film's open, are both unmarried and expecting their first child; this is simply to point out that marriage is not a pre-condition for family in Borzage's liberal, post-World War I universe.) A work therefore that is consistent both thematically and morally with Borzage's broader body-of-work, Little Man, What Now? equally shares the fleshed-out domestic spaces that define the director's visual art - and confirm his family-centered philosophy - with the couple's various top floor flats echoing the private worlds, for instance, of 7th Heaven (1927) and Ma[...]



The Best Films of 2013

Thu, 02 Jan 2014 02:51:00 +0000

The Twenty Best New Films of 2013:1. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)2. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai; pictured)3. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012)4. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)5. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)6. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)7. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012)8. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Alain Resnais, 2012)9. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, 2012)10. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012)11. Viola (Matías Piñeiro, 2012)12. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)13. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)14. Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont)15. Bastards (Claire Denis)16. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012)17. Pain & Gain (Michael Bay)18. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)19. Vic+Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté)20. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2012) Twenty might have been thirty-five or more in a year that showed exceptional depth beyond 2013's peak achievements. At the summit, the Sinophone cinema dominated with the competition best from Europe's three leading fests, Berlin (The Grandmaster), Cannes (A Touch of Sin) and Venice (Stray Dogs). The Sensory Ethnography Lab's avant-garde doc masterstroke Leviathan and Paolo Sorrentino's deliriously pleasurable The Great Beauty, a La Dolce Vita for the Berlusconi era, rounded out a decisive personal top five. Six through nine sported the American fiction film of the year (Before Midnight); an outstanding first feature from Brazil (Neighboring Sounds); one more masterwork from one of the medium's true giants (Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet); and a new career best from a critical favorite of the New Romanian cinema (Beyond the Hills). This second group represents the next tier, a cut above the remaining eleven selections for this year's top twenty. Overall, I hope that my list provides some sense of the 'where,' 'what' and 'who' of film art in 2013 - even if my list is short on 'event' films, be it the multiplex's Gravity (mostly successful, in my estimation) or the art-house's Blue Is the Warmest Color (which I found only slightly praiseworthy - and almost exclusively for Adèle Exarchopoulos's performance). Then there are the inevitable blind-spots, from The Wolf of Wall Street and 1/10 local debut Her, to the very large number of international premieres that have yet to open commercially in the United States, let alone in Colorado. Consider these exclusions the context for what remained a very good year, even here deep in flyover country.Finally, I should mention that my use of boldface type (on both the above and below lists) indicates those works about which I have written during the past twelve months. Together these posts, accessible by clicking on the respective titles, comprise my public (critical) engagement with a medium that remains very much alive, aesthetically at least, in this age of long-form television - speaking of 'events,' there was none bigger than the final season of Breaking Bad, another personal audio-visual highlight - and the continued collapse of celluloid as a medium of both production and projection.Ten Outstanding Older Films Seen for the First Time:Beware of a Holy Whore (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971)Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)Le grand amour (Pierre Étaix, 1969)The Hanging Tree (Delmer Daves, 1959)Professional Sweetheart (William A. Seiter, 1933)Revenge (Yermek Shinarbayev, 1989; pictured)Three Resurrected Drunkards (Nagisa Oshima, 1968)To Live (Zhang Yimou, 1994)Travels with My Aunt (George Cukor, 1972)Yoyo (Pierre Étaix, 1965)A far more subjective and scatter-shot experience of the year that was, a year that most significantly introduced this writer to the wonderful mini[...]



The Best Films of 2013

Thu, 02 Jan 2014 02:36:00 +0000

1. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)
2. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
3. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012; pictured)
4. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012)
5. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012)
6. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
7. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
8. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
9. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
10. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2012)



Twenty-thirteen - Better by the Help of a Good Epilogue: Matías Piñeiro's Viola & Claire Denis's Bastards

Mon, 23 Dec 2013 03:25:00 +0000

Taking its title from the gender masquerading protagonist of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and borrowing story-lines and snatches of dialogue from both the aforesaid and also the playwright's As You Like It, Matías Piñeiro's Viola (2012) presents its theatrical subject in a de-spatialized fugue of tightly framed faces, shot just above or at the eye-level of the film's shifting set of speakers. Piñeiro elegantly cuts within the camera, moving between his stratum of actors as they articulate the author's words or elaborate in their own philosophical flights of fancy. In thus abstracting the Bard's (and Piñeiro's) dialogue from a proscenium-like setting, the early thirty-something Argentine writer-director re-conceives his sister art subject - this is a film that engages and explores questions of theatrical and cinematic ontology and specificity - as an object, foremost, of language, as an endlessly reproducible and transportable series of conversations that will quickly move beyond the film's opening, imprecisely marked theatrical space (where the disguised Viola first meets countess Olivia). Piñeiro consequently presents Shakespeare's art in the form with which it is most often lived, as words to be read, recalled and repeated, rather than as a fully formed art-object to be received within the space of exhibition. Theatre is dialogue, and cinema faces in this searching, intelligent sixty-minute interstitial.   Twelfth Night and As You Like It additionally offer points of theoretical and narrative departure, all in a manner that distinctively recalls the verbose cinema of Eric Rohmer - the Millennial director accordingly joins fellow Argentine auteur Celina Murga in finding significant inspiration in the work of the late French master. The performance's Viola, the pictured Cecilia (Agustina Muñoz), plays the disguised Cesario both on and off the stage, inserting herself in the romantic life of her co-star countess, before attaining the same heterosexual fate as her Shakespearean model. (In so doing, Piñeiro makes even more explicit the essentially modern gender instability of the author's original.) A second Viola (María Villar) materializes just before the film's mid-point, bringing with her a shift in emphasis from the world of theatre to that of D.I.Y. arts publication: Viola and her boyfriend produce the multi-media "Metropolis," which she disseminates by bicycle throughout Buenos Aires's underground arts community. Indeed, it is this latter sub-culture that the film's second half - which will bring together the two Viola's, occasion the As You Like It dialogue referenced in this post title's (in the midst of a spatially disorienting dream sequence) and conclude with an off-key musical 'epilogue' that follows a Rohmerian bit of voice-over business - ultimately sketches. Piñeiro's highly accomplished re-appropriation of Shakespearean light comedy is in the respect a fundamentally social affair in its orientation, a work of film art that achieves its communitarian vision through its overlapping multi-character story construction, romantic entanglements and of course, its sinuous, sensual mise-en-scène.Where narrative subject and visual style prove elegantly coterminous in Piñeiro's Viola, leading French auteur Claire Denis's Bastards (Les salauds, 2013) emerges more, by contrast, as an application, however tonally appropriate, of the filmmaker's exceedingly distinctive audio-visual idiom. Combining the dusky vocals and moody instrumentation of Tindersticks with the tenebrous cinematography of Agnès Godard, consistent collaborators both, Denis's film evocatively sketches the grim, conspiratorial story of the extended Silve[...]



New Film: Stray Dogs & 12 Years a Slave

Wed, 11 Dec 2013 22:59:00 +0000

Following the Berlin and Cannes premieres of Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (2013) and Jia Zhang-ke's A Touch of Sin (2013) respectively, films that in both instances conceivably merit the title of best in competition, Venice witnessed the debut of a third, prodigious masterpiece of the Sinophone cinema that looks to be the unequivocal equal of the first two, and again a leading pick for the best of its fest. Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs (Jiao you, 2013), from a Tung Cheng-yu, Song Peng-fei and Tsai screenplay, matches The Grandmaster's overriding temporal obsession and A Touch of Sin's encyclopedic inscriptions of space with its own exceptionally rigorous study of physical presence, of the spatialized experience of time that is no less the (story-based) cinema's fundamental subject and substance. Or, to put it another way, Stray Dogs is all about the occupation of spaces, whether it is lightly surreal urban architecture that provides the film with its indelible, post-deluge setting - Tsai expressly personifies these places - or the exceptionally marginal edge of the capitalist economy where the film's protagonists live their unendingly difficult lives.Tsai sets the template immediately, providing, in the first of the film's exquisite (and exquisitely slow) sequence-shots - Tsai's visual constructions find the director at the absolute peak of his powers - a formally re-focused emphasis on patient observation, on a multi-sensory exploration of the decomposing mise-en-scène, which will lend the sudden kick of a sleeping child something approaching narrative significance. Both Tsai's obliquely staged, elegantly lit landscapes of a rain-sodden and wind-swept Taiwan, and his unshaven close-ups of patriarch Lee (Lee Kang-sheng) ironically serving as human advertising for new housing, unfold over a matter of minutes rather than the seconds that they would cover more conventional art-house fare. Invested with phenomenological force thus, Tsai creates a marginally narrative cinema, however lacking in dramatic action and verbal exposition for the most part, which draws more on the visual arts, ultimately, than it does on literary and theatrical (read: temporal) media. In fact, in the film's final set-piece, Tsai evacuates his long-take imagery first of human presence, and consequently, of ambient sound, leaving only a monochromatic mural in the rear-distance as his visual field becomes little more than filmed visual art.The Taiwanese master's profoundly painterly idiom spreads across a series of discrete set-pieces that slowly disclose the film's human subjects: single-father Lee, his two children (Lee Yi-cheng and Lee Yi-chieh) and the unidentified mother or motherly figures (Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching and Chen Shiang-chyi; all three have collaborated with director previously) who move into and out of their orbit. Stray Dogs centers on the family's meager, mundane existence, depicting their daily struggle to satisfy even their most basic needs, from the shelter they find in a grim single-room space to the grimy public lavatory where they brush their teeth and wash their feet - in the trickle that escapes from the bathroom plumbing. Tsai fills his film with the quotidian, with the ways in which the Lee family subsides and spends their days on the most distant margins of the Taiwanese economy, be it again in the work to which the semi-homeless Lee is subjected, or the childhood fantasies that the young heroine pursues in the film's gorgeously lensed supermarket, a vast space of reflective surfaces and painstakingly curated displays. Stray Dogs similarly concerns itself with biological necessity, with the acts of eating, sle[...]



"I like these Anglo-Saxons": In Consideration and Great Appreciation of William A. Seiter's Professional Sweetheart

Thu, 21 Nov 2013 22:25:00 +0000

Bowing at Radio City Music Hall in July 1933, an apt setting for the New York premiere of RKO's radio-sponsorship send-up, Professional Sweetheart, director William A. Seiter's early Ginger Rogers vehicle appeared in the latter stages of an epochal cultural transformation of which Seiter and his playwright screenwriter Maurine Watkins (Chicago, 1926) seemed almost uniquely discerning. Defined by a rising consumer capitalism, anti-immigration sentiment and increasingly liberal sexual mores, the immediate postwar years represented what would prove the last glorious gasp for the nation's long dominant Protestant mass culture - sociologist E. Digby Baltzell has named this the "Anglo-Saxon Decade" - though it would be an apogee that already contained the seeds of its own decline, a fall that would be felt acutely with the imminent rise of the more heterogeneous New Deal coalition. Professional Sweetheart, released in the earliest stages of the latter's ascendancy, observes the conflicts or space between prewar heterogeneous Protestant culture, here a lucrative commodity sold to denizens of the nation's "Corn Belt," and both a newer urban secular American Protestantism and an emergent Rooseveltian cultural multiplicity.Rogers's radio spokeswoman Glory Eden is both cultural product, she is said to represent "the lost innocence that went out with the war," and also a site for the contradictions that had since developed among the nation's historically dominate Protestant faction. Billed as "The Purity Girl" for wash-cloth king Ipswich's "Ippsie-Wippsie Radio Hour," Glory's public persona is closely monitored and managed by her corporate handlers: she is ordered "certified milk" for the sake of the hotel's nosy staff, is forced to wear a modest nightgown for a matronly interviewer (Zasu Pitts as Elmerada), and is denied every postwar vice - be it drink, cigarettes or jazz. In private, however, would-be wild-child Glory demands sexy underwear and fantasizes about transgressive trips to Harlem. Belying her image spectacularly, Glory contends that she wants to go "the Devil," preferably with an international playboy; she wants to "sin and suffer," ruing that "now I'm only suffering." There is, in other words, a substantial disparity between Glory's wholesome public image, her commodified self, and what is in effect the acculturated postwar reality she embodies.This gap is made possible by the lax censorship standards that obtained in Hollywood before the implementation of the Hays Code one year later. It is also indicative of a larger project that Seiter, in a measure of his considerable artistic imagination, pursues throughout the highly accomplished Professional Sweetheart. In the opening studio set-piece, where we are first introduced to our 'Purity Girl,' Seiter makes use of sound perspective to express the discrepancy between the ad campaign that reaches the airwaves and those who are producing the 'Corn Belt'-targeted program: as the camera surveys the studio space with Glory on-the-air, we see (but don't hear) the show's host berating a producer behind a thick pain of glass. That is, we see the reality that is concealed behind the kitschy 'Ippsie-Wippsie Radio Hour' that we, and Middle America, hears. Similarly, Glory's consequent on-air wedding again plays on radio's image-less ontology, with the broadcaster effusively describing the couple's gifts - even as Seiter's tracking camera discloses the far less impressive truth - while also lamenting the fact that they are not on television (in what is therefore a very early reference to the new medium). Seiter's pre-Code cinema shows the reality that 'The Purity Girl' radio spots [...]



36th Starz Denver Film Festival: The Great Beauty (2013)

Fri, 15 Nov 2013 17:04:00 +0000

Populated by the debauched, disenchanted or simply disinterested elite of Roman society – that is, by a decadent and fading aristocracy, counterfeit art-world celebrities, and endlessly prattling priests – Paolo Sorrentino’s latter-day Babylon revolves around Jep Gambardella (the great Toni Servillo in a career-defining performance), a successful journalist and frustrated former novelist with an acerbic wit and irresistible charm. Jep and his social circle are joined first in a pulsing discotheque on the occasion of the former's sixty-fifth birthday, an event that is celebrated with exuberant group choreography and conspicuous kitsch. So begins The Great Beauty’s (La Grande Belleza, 2013) unending progression of chic dinners, all-night bacchanalias and casual hook-ups, with Jep, “the king of the high life,” perpetually present as both participant and observer.Borrowing both its decadent Roman subject and its episodic narrative structure, The Great Beauty stands as a soaringly ambitious and spectacularly successful update of Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece, La Dolce Vita. Where Sorrentino’s luridly contemporary refashioning – a refreshing, in the image of 2008’s Il Divo, that obliquely speaks to the cascading corruptions of the Silvio Berlusconi era – departs most from the Fellini original, is in the age of its hero: the sentimental, lost love-obsessed Jep is two decades older than Mastroianni’s Marcello. Sorrentino’s sprawling feature is, in this respect, a decidedly Proustian affair, with Jep's man of supreme sensibility providing a modern-day stand-in for the French author's Marcel - while the appearance of his younger self, in an ingenious aquatic flashback, serves to replicate or at least echo the novelist's fluid structure of remembrance.Though perhaps a shade less baroque than Sorrentino’s preceding David Lynch-inspired corpus (see 2006’s The Family Friend), the outstanding The Great Beauty remains a work of intoxicating stylization, with short lateral tracking shots and frontal framings joined by brisk montage. The film’s contrastive sacred and secular musical cues separately serve to bring out the contradictions of a Rome that is no less Sorrentino’s city-symphonic subject. A sizable leap forward, ultimately, for the director of the very fine The Consequences of Love (2004), The Great Beauty represents a viable contender for film of the year.The Great Beauty screens at the Sie Film Center tomorrow, November 16, at 1:00 PM, with Sorrentino present to receive Maria and Tommaso Maglione Italian Filmmaker Award. Janus Films is distributing the feature in North America, with dates confirmed for Denver (11/29) and Minneapolis, among other cities. The above review has been adapted from my original 36 SDFF program notes.[...]



Previewing the Directory of World Cinema: Belgium: The Broken Circle Breakdown, as reviewed by Jeremi Szaniawski (and Updated 2/23/2014)

Fri, 15 Nov 2013 14:14:00 +0000

The Broken Circle BreakdownStudio/Distributor: Menuet Producties, Topkapi Films/Kinepolis Film Distribution, Wild Bunch, Tribeca FilmDirector: Felix Van GroeningenProducer: Dirk ImpensScreenwriter: Johan Heldenbergh, Mieke Dobbels, Carl Joos, Felix Van GroeningenCinematographer: Ruben ImpensProduction Designer: Kurt RigolleEditor: Nico LeunenCostumes: Ann LauwerysGenre: DramaCast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell CattrysseDuration: 111 minutesYear: 2013SynopsisTattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) and musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) fall in love at first sight; in spite of their differences, they are united by a love of music. Soon a daughter, Maybelle, springs forth from their union. Everything seems to be going well, but when Maybelle becomes seriously ill, the couple’s relationship is tested. Their worldviews, once harmonious, deteriorate as Elise’s religious leanings and idealism chafe against Didier’s militant atheism, with tragedy close at hand.CritiqueFelix Van Groeningen upholds the fascination with and will to emulate the American movie formula in Flemish cinema, yielding a tragic love story which retains a powerful grittiness in spite of its lush and sensuous representations. Finding his emotional substrate in American culture, the director adroitly reaches for the sentiments contained in bluegrass music, which makes for the most memorable moments of his latest film: who cannot respond in a somatic fashion to classic songs such as ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’ or ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, and its lineage of interpretations by great masters such as Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, or Bill Monroe? These fabulous songs disarm the viewer, beautifully integrated as they are into the fabric of the film, which is filled with passion and heartbreak, joy and longing—sad yet uplifting all at once—just as the music it references.Undoubtedly, Van Groeningen shows the knack he displayed in his earlier efforts, namely to combine relatively unexpected elements into a powerful whole. Here, bluegrass music goes hand in hand with the story of Flemish characters—and the pathos of American melodrama with more typically Belgian down-to-earth-ness. Much as the Strobbes were unconditional adorers of Roy Orbinson in the director’s best film, The Misfortunates / De helaasheid der dingen (2009), Didier and Elise are lovers of music, but also lovers tout court: they pair their erotic passion and familial love with their melomania, at least at first.While the film complicates the cliché story about the rise and fall of a relationship through a jumbled chronological structure (a narrative technique which has served many a successful American film), it is in the bodies and voices of imperfect (and therefore human) beings that it acquires its actual credibility and worth. This could not have been achieved without fully committed and talented actors, and both Baetens and Heldenbergh live up beautifully to the occasion: the latter (upon whose play the film is based) is rock solid as a rugged, rationalistic but romantic bohemian soul, while the former dazzles with her beauty and sensuality, sensitivity and vulnerability, in a truly unforgettable performance, which alternate moments of seduction with an earnest fallibility bordering on comedy. Not least among the accomplishments of the stars is that they sing the bluegrass standards themselves. The result is nothing short of extraordinary, and the soundtrack to the film has become a best-seller in Europe, and even made a remarkable entrance into the bluegrass charts in the US.If the performances are first class, if the cinematograp[...]



36th Starz Denver Film Festival Report Card

Thu, 14 Nov 2013 16:54:00 +0000

Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, Netherlands, 2013, 118 min.)Jan Bijoviet and his band of anarchic wood sprites enter the lives of a middle class family like a force of nature leaving chaos and destruction in their wake. Excellent, expressionistic sound design and engaging performances distinguish this absurdist satire on bourgeois alienation and repressed desire. Lisa’s Grade: A-The Fifth Season (Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth, Belgium, 2012, 93 min.)A visually stunning apocalyptic fable about the loss of connection between man and the natural world, The Fifth Season combines dark, deadpan humor with free floating environmental and political allegory. Young Belgian filmmakers Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth create painterly compositions - which are frequently suggestive of Pieter Bruegel and James Ensor - and multi-layered soundscapes that recall the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr.Lisa’s Grade: B+Go Down Death (Aaron Schimberg, United States, 2013, 88 min.)This singular work of DIY punk filmmaking unites Guy Madden’s anachronistic nitrate-era aesthetic, apocalyptic post-WWI iconography, and the mannered, circular dialogue of early 90s-indie auteurs like Hal Hartley.  Enigmatic and elliptical, Go Down Death, feels significantly longer than its 88-minute running time, but its combination of energy and intellect keeps the viewer engaged.Lisa’s Grade: BGrigris (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, France/Chad, 2013, 101 min.)Esteemed African filmmaker Mahamat-Seleh Haroun follows Grigris – an aspiring dancer with a paralyzed leg – from the city to the country as he attempts to earn a living and find romantic happiness. Haroun’s subtle direction highlights Souleymane Deme’s remarkable physical performance in the title role, while the film’s pastoral coda opens up new areas of meaning.Lisa’s Grade: A-Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen, Singapore, 2013, 99 min.)Set in the late 1990s, this warm and occasionally harrowing family drama from Singapore charts the increasingly uncertain fate of a middle class family and their Pilipino maid as the Asian financial crisis intensifies. Spare, but elegant cinematography and uniformly excellent, understated performances elevate this Cannes Film Festival favorite, which often recalls Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000).Lisa’s Grade: A-  Labor Day (Jason Reitman, United States, 2013, 111 min.)Labor Day unfolds over six consecutive days, during which Josh Brolin’s sensitive escaped convict opens the hearts of reclusive divorcee, Kate Winslet, and her wide-eyed teenage son. This overwrought family melodrama combines hothouse sexual metaphor and heavy-handed sentimentality in a manner that over-powers the well-meaning performances of his talented cast.  At the level of style, Reitman’s signature shallow-focused cinematography denies the spectator’s gaze the freedom to move while cross-cut flashbacks confuse more often than they enlighten.Lisa’s Grade: D The Search for Emak Bakia (Oskar Alegria, Spain, 2012, 84 min.)First-time filmmaker Oscar Alegria lets chance be his guide as he attempts to discover the namesake of Man Ray’s experimental, Basque-language film Emak-Bakia. Quirky and charming – almost to a fault – The Search for Emak Bakia's unique and evocative audiovisual landscape is too frequently intruded upon by explanatory inter-titles. In its final 45-minutes, the film finds its footing as a bittersweet travelogue and meditation on the waning Basque language and culture.Lisa’s Grade: B-A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013, China, 125 min.)A series of une[...]



36th Starz Denver Film Festival: A Touch of Sin (2013)

Mon, 11 Nov 2013 21:59:00 +0000

Conceived as an oblique, 21st-century take on the wuxia (literally "martial hero") film, where that genre’s perpetual rendering of motion is transformed and displaced onto China’s exceedingly mobile, circulating workforce, A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding, 2013) divides into four fluid, gently overlapping parts, with each centering on an economically marginalized protagonist. Working from mainland China’s snowy north to its subtropical south, director Jia Zhangke presents a remarkably comprehensive and detailed snapshot of China's economic and cultural present. The film opens with Dahai (the exceptionally charismatic Wu Jiang), a poor laborer incensed by his village chief’s failure to make good on an earlier promise. Dahai ultimately responds with extreme, even shocking violence in a segment that will confirm the pattern for each of the film’s subsequent three sections. 'Confirm' rather 'establish' as Dahai's Shanxi-set opening segment is preceded by a thematically generative triple killing perpetrated by the film's second subject, Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang). With Zhou's brief entry into and disappearance from Jia's narrative, the Mainland master begins his work of creating a national space that extends - and more importantly, persists - far beyond the limits of the filmmaker's frame. In audio-visual terms, Jia reinforces this sense of great spatial expanse with an aurally dense off-camera field (that emerges again beyond the boundaries of the film's graceful widescreen compositions). In this respect, A Touch of Sin continues the formal project of Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), whose Shanxi setting the Dahai segment expressly shares.Geographically, Zhou's second section shifts into the Chongqing municipal location of the director's Three Gorges-themed Still Life (2006), with Zhou arriving by ferry boat - Still Life's preferred form of transportation and another in A Touch of Sin's exhaustive variety of conveyances. With Zhou disappearing again into the vast Mainland off-screen, A Touch of Sin transitions to long-time Jia axiom Zhao Tao, as the actress's Xiao Yu faces an uncertain future with her married, factory-executive lover. After being assaulted by the latter's spurned wife, Xiao finds herself in an even more perilous confrontation in her spa workplace. In the consequent explosion of violence, Jia's film breaks most decisively from any semblance of naturalism, with Xiao striking down her aggressors in manga-inspired moment of Japanese sword-play - not that there aren't other moments of the surreal: see the tiger's non-diegetic roar.In spite of its uncharacteristic, Takeshi Kitano-influenced eruptions of violence (the effect and meaning of these seemingly unconnected incidents slowly accumulates over the course of the film) the writer-director's latest remains recognizably his own, from the aforementioned articulations of off-camera space to the post-communist kitsch on sale in the film’s fleshy final segment, a set-piece that brings to mind another of Jia's impressive array of masterworks, The World (2004). As the filmmaker surveys his homeland’s deeply troubled materialist present, he provides an almost comprehensive catalog of his many emphases, whether it is the injustices that his actors suffer, the motivations for the violence that in each instance is based on real events or even the multitude of regions and dialects to which the director gives cinematic voice.This is all to suggest that there is admirable conceptual completeness [...]



Previewing The 36th Starz Denver Film Festival

Mon, 28 Oct 2013 00:34:00 +0000

Since mid-July, the overwhelming majority of my film-viewing has been devoted to next month's Starz Denver Film Festival, first in previewing nearly forty festival submissions, and consequently in contributing program notes for more than thirty additional features. Over the next few weeks, this virtual space will be overtaken by the same project, with Lisa reprising last year's exceedingly popular SDFF Report Card, and both she and I contributing longer reviews when we are so moved. The reader may indeed rest assured that longer analyses of two of this year's unequivocal festival peaks, Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin and Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, will follow over the course of the coming weeks (as hopefully will other pieces for unexpected pleasures not yet seen). In the meantime, from the remaining thirty official selections that I have screened thus far, I have chosen the following six title sample as especially deserving the reader's attention and viewing resources.Among the number of promising feature-length debuts included in this year's SDFF, none showed the formal intelligence and rigor of former critic Eddie Mullins's Doomsdays, an American indie slacker comedy that shades toward the truly anarchic and counter-cultural. (If you click through to the description of this or any title on the Denver Film Center website, you will notice, no doubt, my wanton self-plagiarism.) Displaying considerable consideration of alternative methods for telling a story in visual and spatial terms, Mullins relies almost exclusively on highly choreographed long-take set-ups, where a punch-line or plot-point is allowed to developed in a receding plane or on the edges of the frame. Indeed, for a film - home-invasion themed - where "being caught" is a constant source of suspense and especially comedy, Mullins has produced an art that privileges the commensurate act of seeing, and subtly encourages a more active form of spectatorship. If only a fraction of independent filmmakers showed the attention to form and stylistic ambition that Mullins reveals in his first feature, the American indie cinema would be a far richer field.The mid-tier latest from one of the two most important Sub-Saharan African art-film directors to emerge since the mid-1990s - the other is Mauritania's Abderrahmane Sissako - Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Grigris pushes the understated Chadian auteur of the exceptional Abouna (2002) and Daratt (2006) into novel feminist territory, as the film segues, in its final act, from the low-key nocturnal city to the bright, picturesque African savanna. (Antoine Heberle’s handsome cinematography was honored at this year's Cannes film festival.) However, like the aforementioned career highlights, a male lead remains focal, with Souleymane Démé's eponymous, physically impaired hero providing the haptic presence around which Haroun constructs his humanistic crime drama. In fact, the rhythmic advantage that Grigris makes of his disability - within the film's throbbing, neon-lit discotheque passages - provides Haroun's work with its most memorable and even transcendent moments of pure cinema.Heavily atmospheric, elliptical and even dream-like, writer-director Daniel Patrick Carbone's feature-length debut Hide Your Smiling Faces provides further evidence of Terrence Malick's growing influence over the the latest generation of American independent filmmakers. Built around an incomprehensible summer-vacation tragedy that occurs within a verdant exurban New Je[...]



New Film: The Grandmaster (2013)

Sat, 07 Sep 2013 22:07:00 +0000

The first evidence or rather confirmation to reach the United States that two thousand thirteen belongs foremost to the world-class masters of the Sinophone cinema, Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, 2013) is quite likely to prove the most unambiguously pleasurable achievement in Greater China's very big year. An epically structured, elegantly staged Ip Man biography that opens on the brief 1930s rapprochement of China's northern and southern martial arts schools, Wong's first magnificent feature in six years soon develops into another of the auteur's signature star-crossed opuses, with Tony Leung's Wing Chun grandmaster falling for the exceedingly skilled daughter (Zhang Ziyi) of an aging northern legend. Following Ip Man's ceremonial defeat of the latter in the opulent, mirror-filled interior of the Golden Pavilion, a brothel and martial arts social club in the Cantonese city of Foshan, the hero and heiress Gong Er stage their own combat exhibition, despite period prohibitions that forbid women from fighting.The resulting set-piece represents not only one of Ip Man's few matches with an equal, but indeed the lone occasion in which he is bested by an opponent. Of course, it comes in an exchange that Wong infuses with an ecstatic sensuality, where Ip Man clasps the female lead's wrist and where Gong Er circles above her fellow combatant, as their faces come within a hair's breadth of touching. With hand-to-hand combat thus providing a metonymy for the sexual act, Ip Man and Gong Er's exchange proves one of The Grandmaster's rare consummated unions, where two appropriately paired figures meet, in Wongian discourse, at precisely the right time of life.The married Ip Man's consequent attempts to renew his relationship with Gong Er are thwarted first by the sudden onset of the Japanese Occupation, and later by Gong Er's private vows to avenge her father's death. Their time, in other words, will never again be right - in much the same way that the Ip Man's various master opponents all-to-often challenge the Southern hero far too late in their own professional existences. In this regard, The Grandmaster morphs into a martial arts variation on the filmmaker's middle-aged masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (2000): Ip Man and Gong Er's time will pass before they (in their case) renew their acquaintance in the colorized Hong Kong of the early 1950s. Fate will prevent their permanent romantic happiness.As the above attests, The Grandmaster, like every great Wong, is all about time. Time as it is refracted through Ip Man and Gong Er's frustrated romance or in Ip Man's equitable and ill-matched contests alike, but time also it is expressed in Wong's archetypal aesthetic, in the step printing process and slow motion effects that filters and pulls time apart, investing the instant and the momentary - which is to say the true substance of Wong's art - with an added weight. The film's focalized temporal register is also felt in the de-saturated photos that freeze similar points-in-time, not to mention in the voice-over narration that implies some indistinct point in the future from which Ip Man in particular reminisces about his great unfulfilled love. The Grandmaster, in short, is at once an object of temporal manipulation and reorganization and an attempt, however vain, to recapture time that has been lost.Wong's visual strategies equally serve the filmmaker's excessive attention to surface appearances and his commensurate fetishism: in [...]



New Film: The Hunt & Drug War

Sat, 17 Aug 2013 18:36:00 +0000

A Kafkaesque scenario of the agonizing injustices inflicted upon a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of child sex abuse, Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt (Jagten, 2012), from a screenplay by Tobias Lindholm and the director, perceptively details the extra-legal apparatus that punishes the middle-aged lead for a single, indiscriminate allegation. The Hunt's inscription of inequity hinges on the fictive testimony of six year-old innocent Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who in a bout of pre-pubescent sexual jealousy, repeats an explicit utterance of her older brother. Her testimony, however off-handed - and even after she contritely disavows her claim, on more than one occasion - is considered unimpeachable by those in her care: children, as we are reminded repeatedly, never lie. It is on this basis, in accordance with this false proposition, that Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is stripped of his teaching job and violently ostracized from the film's small-town (Danish) society. There is no place for due process when it comes to protecting society's most vulnerable from transformative trauma - even when this means destroying the life of the innocent, and implicitly, those he holds closest. The Hunt, in other words, imagines the subject of the director's outstanding The Celebration (Festen, 1998), the absolute peak of the Dogme 95 cycle, from the position of the accused rather than that of the accuser.The Hunt accordingly presents a problem without an easy solution - blindly believing Lucas is no more advisable from the standpoint of crime prevention, even if in this case we know it would lead to a just outcome, which is to say narrative satisfaction. In this same regard, The Hunt finds itself in a difficult position vis–à–vis its dramatic resolution: either injustice continues to obtain or the apparatus that insures it implausibly collapses. Without being too explicit or direct, Vinterberg and Lindholm find a placating means of having it both ways, of having justice restored while maintaining the film's enraging extra-legal (semi-vigilante) apparatus. However imprecise the allegation, and however faulty the film's initial process of verification - the case is made through a series of leading questions that encourage Klara's assent - the accusation can never be unmade; suspicions can never be completely allayed.As the above no doubt attests, much of The Hunt's strength resides in its scenario, in the extreme injustice that Vinterberg and Lindholm credibly bring to the screen. Of course, The Hunt relies equally on the achievement of its actors, beginning with the Cannes-laureled Mikkelsen, who exquisitely emotes the arch of his excruciating experience just beneath his controlled surface countenance. Admirable too, among others, are Wedderkopp as the troubled Klara, Susse Wold as the school supervisor who spearheads the investigation-cum-persecution and Alexandra Rapaport as Lucas's nascent, non-native love interest. Visually, The Hunt cues into the film's generative performances, with the filmmakers' hand-held framing and accentuating zooms the most common and clichéd of Vinterberg and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen's storytelling strategies; there is, in this sense, a remnant of The Celebration's appreciable amateurism. Longer establishing set-ups gracefully render the handsome late autumnal setting that provides the site for the film's eponymous activity, a mid-December snow tha[...]



Le grand amour: The Erotic Imagination of Pierre Étaix

Fri, 19 Jul 2013 05:01:00 +0000

Staged, in often voiced-over vaudevillian silence, as a series of recollections, desires and contingent realities that collectively map the mental geography of actor-director Pierre Étaix's middle-aged lead, Le grand amour (1969) is indeed a cinema of the male mind, overcome by the obsessive passions that the first sight of Nicole Calfan's eighteen year-old Agnès inspire. Perfectly cast for the spaces that give her grin its wink-like, corrupted adolescent appearance and for the slim shape of her calves as they extend between her sculpted knees and the straps of her black Mary-Jane's, Calfan provides the spectacular sensual presence around which Étaix constructs his digressive imaginings of an adulterous alternative.In the first of these passages, with Étaix's Pierre drifting into a dream-filled sleep, Le grand amour presents its married male lead rolling over a tree-lined country road on his identical twin bed. As an ethereal vocal combines with the scene's organ score, Pierre passes silently among his fellow mattress-motorists, ultimately reaching his objet du désir as she waits roadside, her short pink negligee fluttering in the gentle breeze. Deliberately, she softly slides her bare legs into Pierre's mobile bed; her much older companion tucks her in and pulls her close as the silently shot, five minute-plus passage continues first on the congested rural thoroughfares, and then in an idyllic wooded park. After the couple finds momentary pause in a private glen, they motor back magically to Pierre and Florence's (Annie Fratellini) master bedroom, thus bringing to its conclusion the most classically surreal moment of screenwriters Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière's fourth feature-length collaboration.Elsewhere it is the daydream, the waking fantasy and speculative reflection that provides Le grand amour with its many ruptures from mundane reality. Even prior to Agnès's second-act appearance, Étaix fills his film with sight gags that originate on some level in his character's mind, be it in the kneeling arc of ex-lover brides that take Florence's place or in his spatial alternations between the café's interior and terrace as Pierre struggles to remember where he first spotted his betrothed. (The latter provides occasion for one of a set of comic breaks from the ontological space of Pierre's mind, as a frustrated waiter demands that the lead decide whether he wants to be inside or out.)Of course, it is not only Pierre's mental activity that finds expression, but that of his circle, including best-friend Jacques (Alain Janey), who speculates on ways to end the factory executive's marriage to Florence - though not without Pierre correcting Jacques's more improbable suggestions (as described by the on-screen, contingent comedic scenarios). It is indeed in Le grand amour's comedy of imagination that Étaix and Carrière bridge the gap between their two most prominent former collaborators: Jacques Tati for Mon Oncle assistant director Étaix - Le grand amour's opening church set-piece offers an especially Tatiesque, gag-heavy comedic aural-scape, with sound effects employed for the purposes of distraction - and Luis Buñuel for the Belle de jour screenwriter.Le grand amour in fact anticipates another of Carrière and Buñuel's imminent pairings, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), in both its digressive subjective structure and also its uppe[...]



New Film: Before Midnight (2013)

Wed, 03 Jul 2013 20:18:00 +0000

The consensus selection for the best new film of 2013, six months in, Richard Linklater's Before Midnight conceivably brings one of the recent screen's richest franchises, such as it is, to a courageously corrosive close: eighteen years after early twenty-somethings Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) first became acquainted over a deeply romantic day and night (Before Sunrise, 1995), and another nine since the couple re-connected for a real-time afternoon reunion in Céline's Paris (Before Sunset, 2004), Before Midnight finds the pair on an ultimately argument-filled final day of an extended family vacation in Greece's Peloponnese. The bliss of first sight and rapture of a rekindled (elicit) romance is replaced in Linklater's latest by middle-aged negotiations of familial obligations and career ambitions - or, by the fallout of a passion pursued at all costs. Though it will in this sense prove quite different in the particularity of its subject and the perspectives it offers, Before Midnight emerges nonetheless as a sort of contemporary Symposium, with an extended dinner table conversation replicating the sequence of encomiums that lends Plato's work its structure. Jesse, Céline and (most of all) their Greek dining companions present their twenty-first century standpoints on the differences between the two sexes and (cf. Aristophanes's memorably oddball speech) the romantic economy and virtues of the two, remaining separate or becoming one.Before Midnight, no less than its predecessors - let us say here that until further notice, Linklater's reputation deserves to reside with these three outstanding efforts - is a talking cinema, most of all. It is in this sense a displaced object of the director's 1990s, of a not-too-distant age in which the mind still seemed a worthy competitor to the body, our own present day's all-consuming concern. More importantly, judging from the film's visual and verbal signposting, is the largely European tradition that Before Midnight extends. Foremost among Linklater and co-screenwriters Delpy and Hawke's sources is Rossellini's expressly referenced Viaggio in Italia (1954), which provides not only an overarching thematic and structure in its inscriptions of mid-life marital tensions (and a final-act romantic resolution), but also presaging passages of conversation, be it Before Midnight's single-take, front-seat two-shot or the couple's speculative perambulation (where mention is indeed made of the mid-century masterpiece's Pompeii set-piece). Visually, in the blocking and reverse-field cutting of its seaside sunset, and verbally in its aforementioned moment of dinner-table dialogue, Before Midnight equally calls to mind Eric Rohmer's very great Le Rayon vert (1986). In fact, we might look to Le Rayon vert likewise for an ancestor to Delpy's occasionally (if not often) unlikable or irritating lead - given especially that Rohmer's female star, Marie Rivière, also earned a co-writing credit for her work in the aforementioned, dialogue-centered feature. Rivière's Delphine, in other words, provides the self-critical template for Delpy's auto-expression.Following the romantic fantasies that structure the first two films, Before Midnight seeks instead to impart the unpleasant realities and work of their now long-term committed relationship. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy's film confronts and exposes, with the latter [...]



New Film: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet / Vous n'avez encore rien vu (2012)

Mon, 24 Jun 2013 02:05:00 +0000

Seated in a marble-walled home cinema adorned with rows of plush black couches and over-sized armchairs, twelve French actors, each identified by his or her real name in a previous series of phone calls that convey the tragic news of friend and colleague Antoine d'Anthac's (Denis Podalydès) untimely death, respond to a televised performance of Eurydice, screened for their professional scrutiny as a sort of last will and testament by the deceased playwright. (As a second round of introductions during Antoine's pre-screening message to the assembled actors makes clear, all twelve worked with the director - within the fictional world of the film, that is - in at least one of his two prior stagings of the aforesaid play.) Michel Piccoli is the first to speak, repeating an audible on-screen line and then adding a second as he glances back at the high-definition set in a balanced, multi-figural medium close-up. As the scene continues off screen, Pierre Arditi turns to Piccoli as he phrases his own dialogue (as Orpheé) in response to his fictional father. Following another cutaway to the screen that the filmmakers frame with an elegant marble balustrade that functions equally as a found proscenium, Arditi and Piccoli continue in their remembered reproduction. With the arrival of the eponymous Eurydice (Vimala Pons in the filmed play), Antoine's two generations of female lead, Sabine Azéma and Anne Consigny (pictured), take turns repeating the heroine's opening line - and then reacting to their shared mother, Anne Duperey - as the spontaneous performance begins to to spread among the broader assembly.As the staged version progresses on and off camera, Jean-Noël Brouté and then Azéma and Ardit (see below), stand to deliver their dialogue for their seated brethren. The latter two, Antoine's first Eurydice and Orpheé, accordingly turn to face one another as their intimate conversation continues - even as the rest of the room persists in watching the (now off-screen) televised version. As director Alain Resnais stages his two frequent collaborators on either edge of his CinemaScope frame - Azéma has been married to the director since 1998 - Mark Snow's orchestral score provides minor-key support for the suddenly emergent feeling emanating from the former legit leads. With Resnais and cinematographer Eric Gautier's camera finding the film's other Eurydice, Consigny's Orpheé, Lambert Wilson, rises from his former rear-ground position to join the whispering actress for a tender, face-to-face exchange. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Vous n'avez encore rien vu, 2012), in other words, hastens to divide into its two previous casts, which is to say, into the two worlds of experience that animate the thespians' responses to the filmed play-within-the-film.At this same first-act juncture, Resnais's parallel performances begin to spread into the adjacent spaces of Antoine's Greek-inspired interior. A rear-projected train passes behind Azéma's Eurydice as the stagecraft of the earlier production starts to seep into Resnais's mise en scène. A brief cutaway to the on-screen performance is followed immediately by Azéma and Arditi return to the screening space in what will prove an early indication of the film's ontologically unstable mapping of memory, fantasy and external reality all. Indeed, as the increasingly off-screen contemporary play[...]