Saturday, December 15, 2018

More than a Mere Time Capsule

Shirkers (2018) - Tan
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There are movers and there are shakers, then there are shirkers, narrates Sandi Tan, reminiscing about making the greatest indie movie in Singaporean history in the 80s that never saw the day of light. She and her best friends Jasmine and Sophia, rebelling punk girls back then, decided to make a film with the help of Georges Cardona, a enigmatic adult with haunting eyes and cool demeanor who owned the film collective or sort in Singapore at the time. Written by and starring Tan herself as a 16 year old heroine "S" that Sophia later describes as a 'mood piece', Shirkers was a labor of love and youthful passion project. The girls went their separate ways, literally right after the wrap, to LA, London and New York respectively for their schooling, leaving the finished film in the cans to Cardona. With his peculiar ways of communicating - sending audio tapes which he seldom did, the film sat and never got put together for years. It put a lot of strain on the friendship among three girls and Cardona seemed simply disappeared from the face of the earth with the unedited 70 cans of footage and all the meticulous production notes and sound tapes and props.

Tan went on to be a film critic and a writer/filmmaker. But Shirkers, the vanished, unedited film of a good chunk of her youth haunted her for 25 years. The documentary becomes a detective story as Tan looks back and trying to locate the illusive film that is a testament of her lost youth which is much more than just a time capsule.

I know that filmmaking is hard. Finishing it takes a lot of effort and determination. Shirkers spoke to me in a lot of different ways and invoked a lot of different emotions in me that I hid it from myself over the years. Independent filmmaking is truly a medium of self expression but because it's a communal medium as well, being an asshole is an absolute necessity- I don't care what others say, it's a very narcissistic endeavor.

Shirkers is a very entertaining, touching concoction film about filmmaking. It works because it's so personal.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

LA Lazy Noir

Under the Silver Lake (2018) - Mitchell
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This is a pointless, indulgent, boringass filmmaking and a direct result of a big-success-got-to-his-head effort by a young director. David Robert Mitchell was riding high after his great indie horror success, It Follows. Under the Silver Lake, written and directed by Mitchell, has the hallmark symptoms of 'I'm so clever, gimme all the money' (matte) painted all over the 2 and a half hour yawn fest. This LA lazy noir gives countless unnecessary nods to old, cliché Hollywood - Rear Window to Marilyn Monroe to Irma Vep to The Long Goodbye to Big Inherent Lebowski with tonally completely wrong Bernard Herman-esque soundtrack.

It stars not so fabulously fresh Andrew Garfield as a LA loser Sam (Spade?), a permanently jobless/on the brink of homelessness man who sits around in his apartment doing nothing in particular except jerking off to nudes in old magazines but snoops on his neighbors with his binoculars in his bungalow style adobe equipped with sizable pool. There is a serial dog killer going around in his neighborhood. One night he gets smitten by a swimming bae Sarah (Riley Keough) and has a brief cannabis induced intimate moment. The next day he finds her disappeared and her apartment cleaned out overnight. So starts Sam's conspiracy theory laden journey into the so called underbelly of the City of Angels - countless parties, death cults, coded pop music, 90s nostalgia, etc.

Silver Lake tries to be many things at once but fails to be anything. It is not a brazen satire of skin-deep LA scene, nor an anthropological study of millennial generation, nor the scathing critique of pop culture nor it is a straight comedy, because it didn't make me laugh once. It reminded me a lot of Southland Tales, another sophomore clusterfuck of then a hotshot Richard Kelly riding high on his debut Donnie Darko. All the actors in Silver Lake are too old for their roles. Their late 90s R.E.M. blaring parties are lame and tiresome, their boulevard of broken dreams ring extremely hollow but not hollow enough to be a satire. This movie is just very sad and depressing without trying very hard. This might be the worst movie I've seen this year.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Literary Cinema

The Wild Pear Tree (2018) - Ceylan
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The Wild Pear Tree is yet another Nuri Bilge Ceylan's leisurely paced, literary filmic experience. Just like his other films, it starts out slowly- kind of middling and you don't know where it's going exactly. It's basically a post-college blues movie where the young protagonist is excessively downtrodden and cynical. It has some ceylan-ian showstoppers in beautiful rural Turkey setting here and there, visually speaking. And as always, just like a dense, good book, the film has rich characters and delicious philosophical musings.

Sinan (Dogu Demirkol), who just graduated from college wanting to be a writer just came back home to his parents in small rural town. He has some decisions to make - does he get some silly job in town or does he go to mandatory military service and forego entering the adulthood a little bit longer. His school teacher father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is squandering all the money on gambling, and digging a well where the water never comes, while annoying everyone around him.

A showstopper comes early with Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü), Sinan's highschool sweetheart, not sure about her impending marriage which will surely guarantee a safe but boring life. They converse under a leaves-turning tree and share a forbidden kiss and it's stunning.

There are two very lengthy conversation scenes that shows Sinan's world view - one with him confronting a successful local author at a bookstore. Half jealous and half resentful, he questions the author's legitimacy of success. The other one is his talks with two young imams about the religion's place in the modern world. Obviously, the young man could do without faith.

Balancing petty earthly matters (his family dynamics) and the philosophical musings, The Wild Pear Tree plays out like a thick Russian novel. Cemcir deserves an award for his portrayal as a dreamer and a gambler whose self deprecating humor and otherworldly wisdom is right out of a Dostoevsky novel.

The Wild Pear Tree is that rare film that captures the trial and tribulations of a young person who is intelligent enough to be both self aware and pessimistic. His disdain for his father hides his own disenchantment about the dim future prospects. The film's title, also the title of Sinan's book which is supposed to be an honest observation of humanity, filled with colorful characters, not a travel brochure, and unironically, that's what you watching the film. Definitely one of the year's best.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Humorous Barry Lyndon

The Favourite (2018) - Lanthimos
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Yorgos Lanthimos' first parlay into a film not written by him (and his constant writing partner Efthymis Filippou), The Favourite retains all the witty cynicism and deadpan humor that the world has become accustomed to throughout his filmography. But it has rounded the masochistic edge and made it more palatable. And it's a good thing. It is in large part thanks to his three main actresses - Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone who shine in their respective roles.

Olivia Coleman is Queen Anne, a blubbering womanchild whose health is failing and leaves all the queen's duties to Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is her strict disciplinarian and also her lover. It seems that thanks to her no bullshit approach and tough love that kept the wolves (opposition party headed by pompous Harley, played by hilarious Nicholas Hoult) at bay. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a distant cousin of Sarah, first hired as a kitchen maid, proves herself to be a cunning social climber using her looks and quick wit. It becomes a battle between Lady Sarah and Abigail to win the favor of the ailing and temperamental queen.

Think of The Favourite as humorous Barry Lyndon. The stately glacial façade of Kubrick's film was always a stone's throw away from parodying comedy anyway. Costumes,opulent interiors and harpsichord music tells you that you are watching a period piece, but its sardonic wit and amped up performances are quite the contrary. Lanthimos remains to be the only filmmaker who can get away with using wide angle lens shots because his comedy calls for it. Robbie Ryan's energetic candlelit interior shots are a thing of a beauty.

The favourite is a wickedly funny film that hits all the right marks. It touches upon all the hallmarks of Lanthimos other films - patriarchy/monarchy, desire and perversion and loneliness. Coleman, Weisz and Stone deserve all the accolades.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Healing Nature

I tempi felici verranno presto/Happy Times Will Come Soon (2016) - Comodin
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I loved the fable like quality of I tempi felici verranno by an Italian documentary filmmaker Alessandro Comodin. It's his debut narrative feature. Loosely connected stories in the lush green forest unfold playfully and organically with its mostly handheld camera work. We see two scrappy young men on the run- they might be army deserters or thieves. With the distant gunshots and barking of the dogs, they run deep into the forest. With their clothes and a musket they later find, you can guess that this is in the past, or is it? They take shelter in the cave and trap rabbits to survive. But not that long, their demise comes unexpectedly.

Then we are introduced to a small town folks being interviewed about a legend of a wolf lady. The old tale goes that there was a sickly woman from Paris who ventured into the forest for its healing power. A vicious wolf also lived in the forest, but instead of attacking and eating her, he became her protector.

Then it's Ariane (Sabrina Seyvecou), a local farmer's daughter who has a tendency to roam around the forest and digging up holes in the ground. Is she setting a trap or is she trying to find an entrance to a cave? One of the young man who appeared in the first segment finds her and they fall in love.

I tempi felici verranno presto is a beguiling mixture of folktales, documentary elements and deeply spiritual film full of wonders and rapturous beauty. It's an animistic, kindred spirit love story beautifully told. It reminds me of Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady in many ways. But it's not tethered to its region's history nor politics and concerns more about rustic nature. Just lovely.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Mad World

Hypernormalisation (2016) - Curtis
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British Documentarian Adam Curtis gives a constantly captivating, digestible rundown on how we arrived at the shitshow that is our current world in 2hr 45min runtime. It's not because I do not appreciate his connect-the-dots-stupid approach or near conspiratorial tone, I do on the contrary- it's coherent no brainer stuff, but I am just surprised how broad Curtis's strokes are at the same time how narrow his scope is.

The docu's self-fulfilling circular narrative concerns three things - the rise of financial institutions over the political system, the Pan-Arab movement against the west backfiring spectacularly and chaos rules - as demonstrated by Putin and his allies.

It starts out with the tale of two cities in 1975 - New York and Damascus. Banks took hold of power over city when the city went bankrupt. The opportunist in chief Trump sneaked his way in to profit off of it. In Syria, Hafez al Assad (father of Bashar) tried to unite Arab countries against western influence. His influence in Lebanon and suicide bombing in the US military barracks that ultimately caused US pullout was the beginning of the gruesome suicide bomber tactic in the region.

Hypernormalisation is the term used to describe the society at end of Soviet empire where disillusioned people didn't believe a word from politician's mouth and effectively lived in a seemingly normal society where things could collapse at any minute. Curtis then connects this to the rise of technology and the internet, where people took to escape the ugly reality, so even though it's heavily regulated and commerced, they had a false sense of freedom.

Most of the time the film makes sense and it hurts to face the obvious example of the failure - rudderless Occupy Movement and Arab Spring. And he makes a good case for the rise of Basket of Kittens and Putin using instability and chaos to keep their enemies at bay. That Basket of Kittens's election win and Brexit were completely expected and not a fluke. But I'm pretty sure Curtis was well aware of his predicament when he sets out to make a film about the increasingly chaotic world in a straight forward fashion that everything is not black and white, that however he makes Assad that suicide bomb guy, Putin the mastermind of destabilization, the internet free but not free, he is no journalist.

Starting the film from 1975 on, Curtis is disregarding the whole colonial history of the Middle East and the history of capitalism since the industrial revolution. Hypernormalisation's conundrum of presenting an extremely complicated world in a concise way is obviously showing. It might be an impressive feat at first, but Curtis's use of scenes from Carrie and a repeated youtube clip of preteens dancing almost descend the whole movie into a typical mainstream documentary.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Tresor Island

Les garçons sauvages/Wild Boys (2017) - Mandico *reviewed at Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2018 in April. It plays at Anthology Film Archive starting 11/16 - 11/21
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Five handsome boys from an exclusive boarding school go a little too far with their sexual desire with their literature teacher, reaching a state called 'Tresór,' symbolized by a jewel-crusted skull. As a punishment, they are cast away by a greasy, bearded ship captain (Sam Louwick) with a gigantic tattooed penis. Chained and fed only a fruit that resembles hairy balls, the boys go through a harrowing sea voyage under the ruthless captain. The ship is headed toward a mysterious island where men turn into the fairer sex. The idea is, taking a short trip to the island might make these wild lusty boys a little more even tempered, a little less testosterone filled.

Bertrand Mandico makes a feature debut after many fantastical, colorful, playful shorts with the crazy beautiful The Wild Boys. He flips gender roles, having the roles of the boys played by female actors (Vimala Pons, Pauline Lorillard, Diane Rouxel, Anaël Snoek and Mathilde Warnier) in ties and suspenders with short hair. After they get to the seemingly wild and unkempt island full of weird vegetation that resembles secreting penises and hairy balls (their only means of sustenance), they meet Dr. Séverin(e) (Mandico's muse Elina Löwensohn), a zoologist who became a woman after he landed on the island. One of the boys, Hubert (Rouxel) gets left behind with Séverine and the rest go back to the ship due to the captain's urging. But soon the boys revolt against the captain because they want to go back to the weirdly seductive island. The boat capsizes in the storm, and the boys end back up on the island.

A gaudy, sensual, daring and inventive take on both Goto: Island of Love by Polish master Animator/filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk and Lord of the Flies, The Wild Boys is a lot of fun. It plays out like a prettier, sexier Guy Maddin film. And its pan-sexual theme is not without a dash of humor. The beach fight/orgy scene complete with flying feathers and sand alone is worth the price of admission.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

James Joyce in Brazil

Araby (2017) - Dumans, Ochoa
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Andre, a sullen teen, lives in a small mining factory town in Brazil with his sick little brother. His aunt who works at the factory as a nurse looks after them since their parents aren't around. There isn't much to do around. We are presented with their small sad lives. We see Andre's aunt giving a quiet laborer, Christiano (Aristides de Sousa), a ride to work. One day Christiano's hurt at the job and falls into a coma. At his aunt's request, Andre goes to where Christiano has been living to fetch some of his belongings. There he finds Christiano's journal. He starts reading it. The title appears and the real story begins...

Sharing the title of James Joyce's short, the film beautifully presents an everyman's story as he travels around Brazil, job to job, trying to eke out the living. A folksy soundtrack enforces the film's rather old fashioned approach. Yeah I get that everyone you see around has a story to tell. They all have hopes and dreams and good times and bad times. It follows the tradition of Olmi's social realism lyrically presented. Christiano's small existential angst is appropriately heartbreaking at the end.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Violent Sport

Infinite Football (2017) - Porumboiu *reviewed at Art of the Real April 2018*
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Romanian helmer Corneliu Porumboiu (Police Adjective, 12:08 East of Bucharest) makes a wacky yet poignant documentary about his childhood friend Laurentiu Ginghina, a middle aged bureaucrat who is obsessed with changing the rules of soccer to make the sport safer. At 19, he fractured his right fibula as many players in the opposite team ganged up on him in the corner when he had the ball. Because of the injury, he had to give up hope of going professional. Now he is hell-bent on changing the game - he wants to implement octagonal shaped soccer field with sectioned groups where 5 offensive and 5 defensive players can't cross each other's lines and no offsides. He says this improvement will speed up the game and make it smoother and safer.

He wanted to go to Forestry university but it required physical where you had to run which he couldn't do with his leg. His dream of coming to the US twice - first to run the ranch out in the West, then in Florida, gets thwarted by 9/11 and its aftermath with tighter restrictions. He ended up where he is, some desk job which is not that exciting. Ginghina's sad sap story, told in his office where he keeps getting interrupted with his daily tasks- an old lady with her inheritance questions, paperwork, meetings and appearances, brings out chuckles rather than sympathy.

Porumboiu prods his friend's obsession about 'the ball being free' in a sport where beauty is in player's skills and the ball is just an object. Our bureaucrat obviously is self aware, that deep down he equates himself with the ball and trying to escape from tight corners. That he sees himself as a superhero from comic books, like Superman or Spiderman who has a normal boring dayjob. Is his situation a stand-in for the general disillusionment with European Union, felt by majority of its members? Maybe.

After seeing his plan implemented on the indoor soccer field to not so enthusiastic results, he keeps changing his rules and therefore his creation being tagged as Infinite Football by Porumboiu. The film ends with Ginghina's poignant and touching monologue about the world where there is less violence which the director equates for political utopia. There is no fast zoom in/freeze frame or zany music for cheap laughs. Nor the film intentionally demeans our silly bureaucrat. Just like other Romanian new wave compatriots, Porumboiu knows how to justly reflect the lives of ordinary Romanians finding themselves riding along in a rapidly changing world and facing mildly amusing situations.

Infinite Football is now playing at Museum of Moving Image. Please visit their website for more info.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Guilty Conscience

Transit (2018) - Petzold
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Transit is another tightly scripted high melodrama by Christian Petzold. Based on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers based on her experience in France under Nazi Occupation, Petzold transposes its premise to modern day Maseilles, again under the Fascist Germans. With the rise of authoritarian right wing regimes and their nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigrant sentiments here and everywhere, it is frightening to think that this film is not a too far fetched scenario. It's one of the many reasons why the film is brilliant.

Georg (Franz Rogowski) is asked to deliver two letters to Weidel, a writer of some importance in Paris. It's a dangerous mission- there are police raids daily and it's harder to get around on the street without constantly being asked for proper papers. Everyone knows the major shit's gonna go down soon: there are people being dragged away in the street by the heavily armed authorities- 'the purge' is at hand. But with some money promised, Georg is up to the challenge. But once he gets to Paris, he finds that the writer committed suicide, leaving his documents and the latest manuscript behind. With others urging to take a sick man to Marseilles and notify the Mexican consulate the death of Weidel, Georg hops on the train to the port city. The letters reveal that his has a safe passage with his wife Marie (Paula Beer of Franz) to go to Mexico and that she will be waiting for him in Marseilles.

Once he arrives at Marseilles, he reluctantly assumes the identity of Weidel, make friends with an Arab immigrant boy whose dad (the sick man) died on the way. He also sees Marie everywhere, scouring the city for Weidel, her husband, day in and day out. She is involved with Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor who has put his departure on hold because he doesn't want to leave her behind. No one wants to be the one who leaves. These characters are stuck in there, going around in circles, trapped in love, in sense of loyalty or simply in human decency.

Transit's got a lot to do with guilty conscience: Guilt of leaving someone behind. Guilt of forgetting. Guilt of being indifferent. With this, Transit is a great companion piece to Phoenix, the director's last film, taking place in post-WWII setting. It also is in line with Petzold's usual themes - people in transit, state of uncertainty caused by outside force, by something bigger than an individual, while not losing sight of its characters' humanity. Also because of this setting and themes, even though contemporary, it reminds me strongly of Nouveau Roman writers' works.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Bill Spann

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017) - Wilkerson
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Travis Wilkerson is, for lack of a better term, an investigative experimental filmmaker. His films largely concern with the buried, sordid American past. His film, An Injury to One, about a murdered union activist in the turn of the 20th century had a deep connection with me at the time and therefore was a fascinating watch. With Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun, he unflinchingly delves into his racist family history where his great granddad got away with killing a black man in 1940s Alabama. As usual, he goes on about it with his dry, raspy voiceover, words over images, split screen and old home movies as well as static/driving shots of places.

Wilkerson starts with clips from To Kill a Mockingbird, announcing that the film is not a white savior movie. Throughout the film, he self-consciously traverses Alabama, making a point that he is a white man with a movie camera digging up a forgotten murder story of a black man. As usual, even after 4 years of research into the subject, and even though it's his own family's history, there is no real resolution to the film. The truth in what happened to the powerless will be erased from history and completely forgotten. It's a timely film because with a racist buffoon being in charge, the racist rhetoric right now is truly alarming.

His name was Bill Spann. Wilkerson is nowhere near to find out what really happened, but finds Spann's final resting place in an unmarked grave in Louisville Alabama with the tip from a local woman who fears for her safety by just talking to him. Yes, the violence and racism is still rampant in the south and everywhere nowadays. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? bears witness to those who were victims of racist violence and serves as a reminder that they all had names.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Hairball Romance

Are We Not Cats (2016) - Robin
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A New York slacker Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson)'s life can't get any worse - dumped by his girlfriend, fired from his job (sanitation worker, dangling from the back of the garbage truck) and his parents declares that they are moving to Arizona, so he has to move out. Only silver lining in this case is that his father leaves him his old cube truck (from his mover business days). After unsuccessfully bumming around his friends and sleeping in the back of his truck for a while, he gets a job delivering a giant, old engine to snowy upstate. Once there, he gets stuck with a man who ordered the engine for god knows what reason, meets the man's cute girlfriend Anya (Chelsea Lopez) in some dingy basement club. Their attraction is mutual. And since Eli's got nothing better to do, he decides to hang around, getting a job as a machine operator at a logging company where Anya also works at. It turns out that they share the same tendency: They pick and eat their own hair obsessive compulsively. While Eli's tendency is mild (not that he is a healthy man by any means, he urinates blood!), he recognizes and understands Anya's near dangerous obsession. Oh man, the hairball that is cummulating in her must be huge!

Are We Not Cats is a drolly funny and romantic even. it's an unusual comedy that is deceptively sweet and tender. Lopez is adorable even without hair, and Nicholson nails his anxiety ridden millenial hipster bit. Perfect as a Halloween night movie.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Animis Suspirium

Suspiria (2018) - Guadagnino
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It's a mess. It's sad that this is the state of what passes as arthouse cinema nowadays. I didn't like Guadagnino's much phrased I am Love. Had no desire to see his remake of Le Picine, Bigger Splash, or Call Me by Your Name. This overwrought, over-serious and over-long take on Dario Argento's chinzy classic of the same name gets almost everything wrong.

We get to know Susie Banyon (Dakota Johnson) fresh from Ohio farmland as she travels to always rainy, still divided Berlin, to audition for a Martha Grahamesque modern dance school. It is 1977, same year as the initial release year of the original. But this doesn't mean that they have to contextualize anything- and they do the hell out of it- Baader Meinhoff, RAF terrorists bombings and hijacking of the airplane and all that - both on the street and on TV and radio. But only on the surface level though. AND BECAUSE IT'S GERMANY, you have to have a concentration camp story. So Ohio and Mennonites background gets lost in the shuffle, even though Susie is supposed to be the chosen one. And because Guadagnino is buddy buddy with Tilda Swinton, she has to play two very different roles unnecessarily.

Thai cinematographer/Weerasethakul's regular Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's sudden zoom-ins and busy camera movement are a total mismatch. Worse are distracting editing and terrible in camera effects. Worst is Thom Yorke's soundtrack which comes across as completely inappropriate for the material. Too bad because Johnson, Mia Goth and Swinton are all wonderful in their respective roles. There are some great visual moments -especially the eerie dream sequences and dance numbers. But the ending resembles later period Argento level of terribleness. I mean, it's From Dusk 'til Dawn bad. Wow, I mean, terrible. Guadagnino is not the knight of Shining Armour for the future of arthouse cinema. Get that in to your head.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Disappearing Act

Cherry Pie (2013) - Merz
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"I will find a perfect place to disappear," Zoé (Lolita Chammah) declares on the phone message she leaves for Toma. She just walked out on him. With only a flimsy clothes on her back and without a place to stay, she hitches rides without any destination or plan.
As you probably know by now, I'm a sucker for road movies starring a girl/woman. Swiss filmmaker/cinematographer Lorenz Merz's Cherry Pie seems to be banking on that premise because it's the only thing the film has going for. And Lolitta Chammah. There are a lot of Chammah twirling around in the wet and windy weather of the English Channel and the coastlines. I got no problem with that. Almost always in tight closeups, we get to experience and study her anxiety ridden face. Her diet subsists of coke/pepsi and pop music blaring through her earphones.

Zoé encounters some souls here and there, they are like distant strangers that she watches from afar. There are less and less people. As she crosses the English Channel on a ferry, she encounters not one soul and it gives more time for her to twirl on the empty deck.

Merz is going for an expressionistic take on 'a woman finding herself on the road' but not successfully. It's one of those pretentious student films that you wish you could change and make it better, giving it a little more soul to get bigger lingering impact on you because the premise itself is just too perfect. Chammah is not wasted here but has very little to work with and it shows.