Friday, November 15, 2019

Bye, Bye Birdy

Lady Bird (2017) - Gerwig
Lady Bird
Whether you have preconceived notion about the film's creators' gender, race and upbringing, because...whatever the reason - not universal enough, too era specific, too narrowly personal, Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is a great coming of age film. It's endlessly charming and you want it to go on much longer after its short one hour 30 some minute running time. The film concerns Christine "Lady Bird" (played by Saorise Ronan), who is a senior at Sacred Heart Catholic high school. She is from a low income working class family in Sacramento suburbs. Her mild mannered aging dad is just about to lose his job. Her adaptive brother works at a grocery store with his live in girlfriend, the same grocery chain the family has been going for years. Her hard working nurse mom (played perfectly by the great Laurie Metcalf) is struggling the family finances.

Lady Bird longs to get away from Sacramento to some liberal art college in the East Coast. In the mean time, she will need to be content with being a high schooler in a mondane setting and engage in some mischiefs, romance and do the best she can at being herself.

Gerwig, who is known for her screen persona as an endlessly charming underachiever in such films as Francis Ha, naturally translates that energy in her script. Lady Bird is not some jaded know it all but rather, comes across as a genuine goofball who is growing up to be a unique person and personality. Sure there are archetypes around her - a closeted gay theater major, a brooding bassist who reads Howard Zinn, a rich girl who has a tanning bed in her house, etc. But Lady Bird feels genuine. Ronan blends in to a role easily, despite her beautiful grown up face that goes against the high school type.

Lady bird is a funny, genuine and heartfelt coming of age film that are rare in American films. I guess I have to see The Edge of Seventeen next.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Madness at Sea

The Lighthouse (2019) - Eggers
the Lighthouse
From its mucky, grainy B&W academy ratio cinematography to off-the-wall acting by two of the most distinguished faces in Hollywood, Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse is one of the most original American films I've seen in quite a while. Eggers one-ups his great debut, The Witch, in terms of formalist filmmaking, originality and ambition.

OK. Two men cooped up to keep the lighthouse going, on an island (the rock as it is referred to) surrounded by stormy sea, for two hour running time, you'd think it would be an all formalist, all talk, My Dinner with André style snorefest. Not so. In this two-men stranded on an island set up, the elder is a bearded, flatulent sea man, Wake (Willem Dafoe), and the rookie is Winslow (Robert Pattinson), running away from his troubled lumberjack past. Wake soon exercises his stern authority over the young man. So Winslow is burdened with extreme physical, day-to-day chores - bringing up the coals in a wheelbarrow in a rocky, muddy hill, cleaning their cavernous cabin, maintaining the gears and wheels of the lighthouse. He also has to content with Wake's noisy bodily functions and general below-hygiene standards in close living proximity and also crippling loneliness.

But Eggers wastes no time plunging Wake and Winslow into cabin fever induced, lust deprived hallucinations and madness. The men's backstories figure less into the film as they devolve into the nights of binge drinking, ugliest shitfaced free-fall soon enough. There's gonna be a mermaid with fishy vagina. There's gonna be tentacles. There's gonna be a severed head filled with crabs. Seeing the giant revolving light on top of the lighthouse becomes the ultimate goal for Winslow, since it is forbidden to him - only Wake has the key to the entrance all to himself.

The Lighthouse is a crazy hallucinogenic trip that is extremely original. The two actor's physiognomy, Dafoe's troll-like, gangly body and posture and bushy beards (right out of Van Gogh's paintings) and Pattinson's bulging eyes and angular face, is very well used. There are many unforgettable imageries. The Lighthouse is a quite unique movie watching experience.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Modern Day Mythmaking Continues in Matthew Barney's Redoubt

Redoubt
Redoubt brings artist Matthew Barney back into a feature film world after River of Fundament (2014), that was 7-years-in-the-making, culminating in 6-hour filmic experimentation with elements of performance, sculpture and opera. Like his breakthrough The Cremaster Cycle (2002), it is usually the case that his film(s) are accumulation of gallery/museum installations and performances.

Redoubt, a relatively slight piece, clocking at 2 hours 14 minutes, is Barney’s newest project that he’s been working on for the last 3 years in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, ending in Sculpture and engraving on copper plate exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery with the standalone film getting its 2-weeks theatrical release at Film Forum in New York.

As usual with his film work, Redoubt is told wordlessly, but rather through visual, sound and dance. It tells a very loose interpretation of Diana and Actaeon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Anette Wachter, a real life long-range sharp shooter champion, decked in camouflage suits and weapons, plays Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting and nature. Her two companions, played by Eleanor Bauer, who is also the film’s choreographer and Laura Stokes, are first seen sleeping and waking up in the hammock far up upon the trees. Their agility and movements are that of woodland creatures rather than humans. They are on the hunt for wolves in the snowy Idaho wilderness. Their path crosses with a land manager (played by white bearded Barney himself) who lives in a trailer with his wife (K. J. Holmes, also a dancer) in the wilderness.

Once the land manager spots Diana and her companions, he tracks their movements with engravings on copper plates which his wife carefully dip in electrified bath for corrosive effects- I do not remember the etching process that well since art classes in college, so I may not be explaining this well. Sorry.

Eleanor Bauer and Laura Stokes reenactment of the hunting ritual are often playful and beautiful, especially the killing and skinning of an animal, even though their acts are often overshadowed by their immense and powerful surroundings.

Barney’s fetishization of objects is prevalent here as well – the series of hunting rifles, bows and arrows and clothing, all designed for the film. So is his penchant for texture – engravings submerged and corroding in the bath of acid, the night vision camera’s image of Wachter dancing, strewn carcasses of an animal killed and pecked out by other animals surrounded by pinkish snow.

So, does Acteon gets his comeuppances for snooping around Diana? His copper plates get shot at, leaving unintended but highly desirable patterns, his trailer ransacked by a pack of wolves. But they are all pretty minor for Barney standards.

There are no bodily fluids flowing nor sexual provocation, nor elborate prosthetics, nor grand scale sculptural awe. Unlike painstaking, labor intensive production designs and mise-en-scenes of his previous projects, be it Cremaster or Drawing Restraint series, Redoubt relies heavily on its breathtaking snowy landscape of the Sawtooth Mountain Range. With aerial shots of frozen streams, woodland creatures and a little avalanche from the top of the mountains are all spectacular.

Barney goes for his nature shots to do the job for him rather than relying on his usually elaborate, labor intensive set ups. Still, Redoubt is undoubtedly a continuation of Barney’s unique modern day myth-making process. And its hypnotic images have to be experienced on the big screen.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Interview: Nadav Lapid on Synonyms

Nadav Lapid
Synonyms, Nadav Lapid's semi-autobiographical film about a young Israeli man struggling with his country's identity, won him many accolades this year, including the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. The film is greatly aided by its fearless star Tom Mercier. I had a chance to sit down with Lapid when he was in town for the New York Film Festival.

It opens this weekend in selected cities in the US. Please click here for my review of the film.

I know that your films are somewhat autobiographical. How close was the experience for you with SYNONYMS, as your main character Yael was going through in Paris?

It was pretty close. I mean, myself, I’ve done military service and a year later, I felt…in a very sudden way had a courage to leave, to runaway and never come back. It was the same determination, the same passion. And I landed in Paris and few days later…it’s very few words in French but…with not concrete plans for the future except for this…existential crisis, to die as an Israeli and reborn as a French.

I was mumbling words in adjectives and synonyms in French walking on the sidewalk you know.

Did you have a little French-Hebrew dictionary like in the movie?

Yeah yeah yeah totally! I still have it in somewhere in my pocket. (Laughs.)

Most of the scenes that takes place afterwards, I feel it’s like the real life and a movie, like me and Tom. I guess Tom is a little bit better version of myself. So I guess the movie is a better version of a real life in a sense.

You know that there is a moment in your life that looks like a genesis of a wonderful scene and then you go somewhere else or fall asleep…I don’t know. But in a movie, you can go back to these moments and, sometimes it’s opposite and sometimes it’s too evident (to the real life), so you can blur it a bit. So I think that’s the main difference.

Tom Macier is really phenomenal in this film. I hear there is a funny story behind his casting. Can you tell me about it?

I can tell you about the casting but you can decide it’s a funny story or not.

OK.

I mean, we found him in an ordinary casting but, only ordinary thing about it was the guy was like a youth judo champion. He was supposed to bring in the gold medal but the pressure and people’s expectations were too much, he abandoned judo to become a dancer. You can tell in his performance that fragility and tenderness and also violence.

Yeah.


Having him on set is like a casting a super hero, because he is capable of doing anything, I mean, physically and intellectually he can do everything. He can walk on his hands on Saint Germaine Boulevard while talking synonyms to the word 'clock'. I mean, it’s almost dangerous to have a person like this on set because whatever you are asking on set will be done.

But I realized and accept the fact that that’s how he functions. He does these things in a very calm and concentrated way. He is very serious.

And our casting director asked him to charm us because that was what was required of the character. I thought to myself, ‘oh man what’s the poor guy going to do?’ He was hesitating for a second. Then he went and found this life size cut out of a woman from behind the curtain. He started to hum and sing to her…some Edith Piaf song. He was this charged with this funny charming erotic cabaret thing.

They were rolling on the floor. It was pretty unbelievable. It was intense! He had so much imagination and inventive power. So we said. Wow that was great. And the moment we said that, he walks away and was being his serious self again. So that’s Tom. He can go from calm to racing from zero to three hundred in a second. He does that in the movie.

Oh definitely!

He can be polite and everything but he can also explode in a second.

I sat through the credit and it was backed by Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport. But the movie itself doesn’t portray a flattering picture of Israeli military…

To say the least…

To say the least. How did it come about? How did you get a funding from them for this film?

First of all, I got the funding in 2017. I’m not so sure I would’ve gotten it today. It was slightly different. But even then, before there was kind of pitch you had to do. So before that, someone who knows me quite well, who was a director of one of those ancient film funds, called me and told me that when you do a pitch, try to make it sound a bit more patriotic. (Smiles devilishly.)

I mean, this is something that never happened to me before. But he told me, “Maybe present the movie as a story of a guy who had a post-traumatic stress disorder as a soldier with this PTSD symptoms, went to France but in the end finds out that there is no place like home, or something like that." It's true, you CAN talk about the movie like this!

There have been political movies made in Israel. And lately some of them are harshly criticized. For instance, a movie about a soldier at a checkpoint. But for the Ministry of Culture and other organizations around them, it is easier for them to deny those films’ argument and accuse them of falsehood.

But I think Synonyms goes much beyond. It talks about Israeli collective soul, Israel’s DNA, the essence of the Israeli state. This goes much beyond it becomes almost abstract. It’s not a left wing movie. At the same time, I think the movie is much more ambivalent. At the end, Yoav is as harsh to his French friends as he is to Israel.

I always feel that…when people ask me if the film is anti-Israel, I say that the main character who is desired, sensual, sexy, loved by the camera is an Israeli. An Israeli can’t be totally anti-Israel. All the contradictions exist in Yoav.

Before the premiere of the movie, one of the high officers of the Ministry of Culture who came, told me “I can’t wait to see if that movie is pro or anti Iarael.” I told him OK, the moment you find out, please tell me because I don’t know. In a way I was sincere. They don’t know how to deal with it.

I also saw Maren Ade as a executive producer and SBS Production on the credit too. How did that happen? Did you know these people previously?

No, no. But Komplizen Film and Maren Ade, they really loved my previous films and wrote to me often. I felt we had the same views in life. For Said Ben Said (SBS), I didn’t know him before. But I am pretty close to one of the most important figures in French cinema, Olivier Père. And Said was there too when I pitch the project.

But the film was not the easiest one to produce because many people didn’t like the script at all. My previous films were well received in France and they were excited about me coming to France to shoot it. But soon they read the script, they were disappointed.

I mean a lot of people loved it but I think it happens quite often with my script. The script itself is about 1/3 of the movie so when they read it they often feel it’s incomplete. It has beginning, middle and end but they feel it is incomplete.

Just like your previous film, KINDERGARTEN TEACHER.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Shai Goldman, who HAS shot all your films, does an amazing job in this film. It’s so kinetic in the beginning, How did you accomplish all the POV shots of Yoav walking in the sidewalk?

I held the camera when we were shooting on the street. We shot it on a smaller camera, usually with only me and my actors. Sometimes Shai was there as well. I think it really injected an extremely important thing to the movie. This vibration into a normal life. Whenever he is not doing something he is walking. The way he walks, it tells us about his state of mind.

It was fantastic. The film is so energetic.

The flashback sequences when Yoav is in the military. He wins the silver medal. Did it really happen to you?

(Uncomfortable laugh) Yeah…. My mother started clapping and that put me to shame.

We talked about this before but it’s not only the film makes fun of Israel’s uber military culture but there is this perverted French photographer. Is this how you view the French: perverted and uncaring to the foreigners who are coming and living in French society?

Well, you know for Yoav’s character, earthly paradise is obviously France. So however grossly caricatured they are, the better.

That’s why Yoav wakes up naked in front of the Frenchest French couple. It’s in the place he chooses to go -- the most archetypal places in Paris: Notre Dame and the bridge over Seine. There is always this distant curiosity the French people have for other nations and of course they are all somehow inferior.

I find that interesting about Yoav’s friend, who is super macho and yelling at the people in the subway and they don’t really give a shit. It goes perfectly well with what you are saying.

Yeah, exactly.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Hauntingly Beautiful Immigrant Song

Vitalina Varela (2019) - Costa
vitalina-varela
In a barely lit alley created by towering concrete slap walls, we see a funeral procession of a day laborer in the urban slums of Lisbon. So starts Vitalina Varela, another stunning masterpiece by Pedro Costa, one of the greatest living directors.

Ever since Casa de Lava (1994), Costa has been tracing the flight of Cape Verdean immigrants, specifically concentrating on the inhabitants of Fontainhas, the concrete urban slum in the outskirts of Lisbon with series of films since 1997. The last couple of films, Colossal Youth and Horse Money, it was Ventura who was the focus of interest with Vitalina playing a supporting role. Now it is Vitalina who is getting the spotlight.

Just where Costa draws the line between fiction and reality, memories and present is difficult to decipher. His highly formalist approach doesn't help the matter either. But boy, it nevertheless creates a glorious cinematic experience.

Vitalina arrives from Cape Verde, a Portuguese colonial island off the cost of Africa, to attend her bricklayer husband's funeral. But she is three days too late. In a highly artificial, even invoking a Kaurismaki comedy, she emerges from the airplane, soaking wet and barefooted. She is greeted not by family, but a group of immigrant workers working as a airport crew. They tell her, “Go back to Cape Verde, Vitalina there is nothing for you here.”

Vitalina situate herself in her husband's concrete shack, getting used to the low doorframes, meeting both hostile and friendly interlopers. We get use to the space too, trying to navigate our way in what seems to be forever nights, poorly lit interiors where we can barely make out the contours of a face or slumping bodies.

Vitalina finds solace in an empty church, presided by a frail preacher (played by Ventura). No one ever comes here anymore, the preacher tells her. She questions why would her husband leaving her, promising her a better life some 20 years ago, only to endure harsh life in a foreign land just to die? The shack is not the palace he promised her. And why is she there in Portugal?

A torrential downpour hits the leaky corrugated roof and makes terrible and frightening noises. Neighbors promised to help to fix it when her husband was alive but the promise was never kept. Even though her husband is gone and unseen, it's as if all the dark corners of the slum is permeated with the ghosts of the past, ready to emerge any minute like some jump scares in a horror movie.

Vitalina hosts a younger homeless couple and feed them, only to find out the girl has died since. People appear and disappear, slowly moving across the frame like zombies in Costa universe, existing and not existing at the same time.

Like Ventura's, Vitalina's weathered and angular face tells thousand stories. Her huge eyes reflect the darkness of the exteriors as well as sorrows inside. She becomes an iconic living statue in Costa's observations of the netherworld.

As usual, Vitalina Varela is stunning to look at. Every frame is a work of art. Greatly aided by Leonardo Simões, Costa's cinematographer since Colossal Youth, and João Gazua and Hugo Leitão's sound work, the film gives the lives of its inhabitants the poeticism they deserve.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Grief and Human Folly

I Was at Home, But... (2019) - Schanelec
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Angela Schanelec's take on the effects of grief in I Was at Home, But... might be less inscrutable than her last film The Dreamed Path, but that doesn't make it any less challenging. It mostly concerns Astrid (Schanelec regular Maren Eggert) a widowed mother of two - young daughter Flo and troubled teenage son Philip. As typical in Schanelec universe, in series of image fragments without much dialogue through out the film, we gather that the father who was in theater had been ill and died about two years ago. Philip (Jacob Lasalle) had been missing but emerges from the forest, with his yellow jacket all muddied up and an injury to his foot. Astrid is elated, as seen in a silent scene where shehugs Philip and motionless for a while until the camera cuts. One could guess that the death of the father contributed Philip's behavior.

Astrid is in a vulnerable state emotionally and acts out her frustrations outward to any human contact. There is a lengthy segment where she buys a second-hand bicycle from an old man who uses an electro-voice box to communicate. After finding out the bicycle is a junk, she tries to confront the old man and get the money back. Even though the old man offers to fix the bike, Astrid is belligerent. She assumes Philip's teachers are considering expelling him for his off screen unseen behaviors and lashes out on them. She also scolds a filmmaker friend rather harshly, on his use of a terminally ill in his film that she just saw. She says that there is no truth in acting and it was irresponsible for him to have the terminally ill person being in the scene with actors 'pretending'. She explodes at her children when they make too much noise or make mess in the kitchen (even if it was well intentioned). However the small and insignificant these interactions are, they poke at her raw emotions yet healed.

The silent pastoral scene involving a rabbit, a donkey and a dog bookends the film. Schanelec's affinity with Bresson is a known fact. But the appearance of donkey really tickles the senses here. As the dog takes apart the rabbit because it's his nature to do so, we see it laying to sleep under the watch of the donkey. In Au Hussard Balthazar, donkey is seen as an allegory for Jesus who forgives all our sins. Does Schanelec equates grief as one our natural tendencies that lashing out against death is forgivable? Then there is motive of crown keeps popping up and I can't help reverting back to the crown of thorns/flowers in the Bresson film. Then what about Hamlet high school recital where Philip plays the ill fated Danish prince?

There is a slight subplot involving Lars (Transit's Franz Rogowski), one of the teachers in Philip's school who is going through a break up. There is a heart breaking scene at night in an empty parking lot. Lars wants a child, because he is afraid of vanishing. There is nothing to show for their love ever existed. But she doesn't want to. She can't be anyone's wife, because she is on a mission. A mission to be alone and lonely. For what, exasperated Lars asks. She doesn't know.

Just like other Schanelec's work, I Was at Home, But... is a puzzle piece that is never solvable. We have opaque characters with Bresson style delivery. We instead concentrate on gestures, details inside the frame in compensation for the lack of dialogue. It's that fragmentary images and colors that we play around our heads long after we leave the theater to make sense of it. Even more so than Godard's, Schanelec's cinema concentrates on 'visual' part of the medium. It is the best kind of cinema I can think of.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Ghost Story with Female Solidarity Twist

Atlantics (2019) - Diop
Atlantics
Mati Diop, better known as an actress for such films as 35 Shots of Rum, Simon Killer and Hermia & Helena, makes her feature directorial debut with dazzling Atlantics, based on her 2009 short of the same name. In her short, young Senegalese boys were shown discussing the pros and cons of leaving the country for Europe on the beach at night. The feature narrative version expands the premise with a whole narrative that shifts from the male to female perspective, as women are usually the ones left behind with the emotional trauma and economical hardships to deal with.

Atlantics starts with a young day laborer Souleiman (Traore) along with hundreds of others working on a futuristic glass tower in outskirts of Dakar. They eat and sleep together in a cramped bunk bed housing. Against the hypnotic, undulating ocean in the background, they go on about their back breaking work. The whole sequence has a documentary feel to it.

The workers haven't gotten paid for months and things are heating up at the payroll office. Souleiman is in love with Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young woman who's still living with her parents. Her conservative friend in hijab, Mariama (Mariama Gassama), chastise her for leading him on even though she is set to marry a local hotshot businessman Omar - arranged by their parents. Defiantly, she goes off to see Souleiman. Even though clearly something is eating at him, Ada urges him to wait until they meet again at the local beach bar run by her friend. She sneaks out through the window at night to the bar, only to find out that Souleiman, along with many of his friends set sail to make a dangerous trip across the Atlantic to Spain. Then the news arrive of a capsized refugee boat. Ada is crestfallen.

Someone torches Ada's bridal bed on her wedding night. It prompts a police investigation. The main suspect is Souleiman since there are some witnesses who saw him at the wedding. Police detective Issa (Amadu Mbou), who is suffering from dizzy spell at night, is determined to solve this mystery. Convinced that Ada is protecting Souleiman, he interrogates her harshly and starts trailing her.

Then local girls, including Ada's friends start appearing at night with milky eyes at the house of shady construction manager Mr. N'Diaye, demanding the wages he owes to the workers. It's the spirits of the drowned boys taking over the bodies of girls temporarily every night, haunting the greedy man. The girls, found in various places in the morning, has no recollection of the events. Sometimes the possessed girls show up at the bar, asking for food since they are starving.

Expertly weaving the current headlines of marine disasters, which countless African refugees searching for better life meet their watery grave at the bottom Atlantic ocean, and the ghost story with the female solidarity twist, Atlantics has all the right ingredient to be a success story of a small art film breakthrough recalling Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It's a melancholic romance film set in bustling Dakar, featuring the lives and hopes of young Senegalese we seldom get to see. It's also hopeful and lyrical yet pointy. And without a doubt, it is my choice for the best film of the year.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Justified Mayhem

Bacurau (2019) - Filho, Dornelles
Bacurau
Let's consider what's been happening in Brazil before we talk about bat shit crazy movie that is Bacurau (from the makers of Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius - Director Kleber Mendonça Filho and co-director/production designer Juliano Dornelles). In early 2018, Luiz Ignacio Lula de Silva, commonly known as Lula, a much loved labor leader and former two-term Brazilian president, was barred to run for president again because of trumped up corruption charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison in all likelihood by opposing conservative Social Liberal Party, led by foul mouthed, all out bigoted racist who ran on his presidential campaign of fear and hate (sounds familiar?). It was widely expected that Lula was going to win. But him being jailed, his Worker's party's nominee Fernando Haddard ended up losing to Bolsonaro in the runoff. So now Brazil has the social conservative and known racist Bolsonaro for president. His pro-corporate, pro-logging, anti-regulation agenda is creating perhaps the most serious eco-disaster in the Amazon Rainforest right now, as the rest of the world helplessly watch it burn in the sidelines.

Brazilian film scene was having its renaissance in the last decade under the Lula's Worker's Party leadership. The money was flowing in to arts and to the once neglected regions of Brazil. Pernambuco, a north east state with its multi-culti capital Recife became an economical, cultural hub, producing many emerging film directors like Filho, Adirley Queirós and Gabriel Mascaro. Bolsonaro's austerity measures will undoubtedly, put a damp on this growing Brazilian film movement perhaps the most significant since the days of Cinema Novo.

So Bacurau is an angry film and deservedly so. It takes place in the near future. A dusty small town called Bacurau in the north east region of Brazil, is inhabited by a fiercely independent, self sustaining, proud people largely cut off from the outside world. The glimpse of satellite TV and radio tell grim stories of lawless in urban areas. Teresa (Barbara Colen) is returning to attend the funeral of the town's matriach. Evading the law and roadblocks guarded by heavily armed government troops, she is bringing medical supplies to the residents of Bacurau. There's shortage of everything - food, water, medicine, household items, tampons, etc. Everything is brought in from outside world and distributed among the townsfolk for their needs. Bacurauans seems to be a well organized social collective, living relatively well despite the rest of the world seems falling apart. The town, like any other small towns, people know one another and there are some frictions among them. But generally they get along.

Then we see a sign of trouble brewing. First, a farmer spots a UFO shaped drone in the sky. And two city folks in fancy motorbikes in neon colored spandex show up in town, confusing everyone. Their cockiness and otherworldliness is noted. They turn out to be a sort of a local guide for a heavily armed mostly American mercenaries, led by Michael (Udo Kier). They are there to literally wipe Bacurau off the map. Most of these gungho people-hunters are ex-military officers trying to blow off some steam by going to third-world countries and killing its inhabitants. They are armed with various antique weaponry of their choice and follow rules only they seem to understand. It's a game to them and has no interest even in where they are.

After few horrible massacres outskirts of the city, Bacurauans realize what's happening to them. But what the hunting party doesn't realize is that these Brazilian country hicks are weather worn, experienced and deeply proud people who are not going to go down easily. One by one, the hunters become the hunted.

It's kind of a departure for Filho since his previous films are, for better or worse, a lot more subtle in presenting the gentrification and monied people in fastly developing urban areas. Perhaps it's Dornelles' contribution to make Bacurau a little more obvious and bloody. Its cartoonish violence that Bacurauan inflicts on the hunting party is so over the top, you can't help but chuckling along. The acting also is very over the top. Udo Kier delivers some hilarious lines which only he could deliver. Great Sonia Braga (last seen in Filho's fantastic Aquarius) who plays the jealous sister of the dead matriach/the local doctor in the movie, grounds the film with her presence and charisma.

As the Bacurauans get rid of foreigners and local traitors, at a glance, without the context of what's happening in Brazil, the film is a silly, tacky man-hunting-man akin to The Most Dangerous Game or Naked Prey. But it isn't. Bacurau highlights the resilience and resolve of Brazilian people against mounting assault of multi-national corporations backed by Government military to devastate their beautiful, once burgeoning country. One of the year's best.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Warning White Colonialists: Don't Mess with Voodoo

Zombi Child (2019) - Bonello
Zombi Child
Bertrand Bonello, a director of such sensual films as House of Pleasures, Saint Laurent and pointy, up to date social critique Nocturama, dabbles here in Zombie movie genre and turns it into cautionary tale in the post-colonial, multi-ethnic France.

It's an interesting investigation that is more in line with Jacques Tourneur's I Walk with a Zombie and Serpent and the Rainbow of Haitian voodoo than the current crop of zombie themed films and TV shows where chemical, nuclear or disease has been the cause of making the dead come alive and gorging human flesh.

The film cuts back and forth between 1962 and present day. The past portion of the film takes place in Haiti. A man named Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) is fallen into a voodoo spell by his brother and declared dead. A huge, elaborate funeral is performed where he is buried alive. Then he is dug up by zombie traders who put him in the field with other zombie-fied men to work in a sugar cane plantation as a sort of slave labor force. You see, zombies are just normal people, who has fallen into a spell (brought on by psychotropic powder that causes neuro-paralysis) who appears dead for a while, with their memories erased.

Fanny (Louis Labeque), is a student in an all-girl prep school in an idyllic woodsy setting. It's a very liberal school for only chosen few whose parents are deemed as important in French meritocracy. She is deeply in love with her boyfriend and writes letters to him everyday. Her reading those letters accompany the daily school activities as the girls take classes, play sports in a gym, and gossip. There is a new black girl Méllisa (Wislanda Louimat) and Fanny and her small, all white sorority want to have her as a member. Méllisa obliges to go through a test at night in the school's library. She is asked to reveal her most important secret. She says her aunt is a mambo, a voodoo priestess. Wow, that's cool. She is in.

Things take a drastic turn when Fanny receives devastating news from Pablo. He is breaking up with her. Suffering from a broken heart, she appears at the doorstep of Méllisa's aunt's house, asking to perform a voodoo magic. She wants to become Pablo or something like that. She will pay for the ritual.

Bonello, forever sensualist, presents some beautiful, lyrical shots of Narcisse the zombie standing erect motionlessly, looking afar in the fields, in ancient ruins. It is pretty evident that he takes much of the lyricism from I Walk with a Zombie.

Fanny's silly school girl story aside, Zombi Child digs deeper into hasty western appropriation of everything non-european, non-anglo American culture. It disregards the cultural, historical, ethnographical significance of the origins of a zombie in exchange for sensationalism. Narcisse’s journey back home is more interesting than Fanny’s story here.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Desplechin's Law and Order Episode

Oh Mercy! (2019) - Desplechin
oh mercy
Roubaix, a little northern French town near Belgian border, is where Arnaud Desplechin's new film, Oh Mercy! takes place. It happens to be the director's hometown. He didn't have good things to say about Roubaix in Ismael's Ghost, his last film. He described it as the poorest, crime-ridden rathole, the city in decline. But when I interviewed him, he told me that he is making a film about its townsfolk in the next film. As a result, Oh Mercy! is Desplechin's episode of Law and Order with some compelling acting by two of France's leading actresses - Léa Seydoux and Sarah Forestier.

Narrated by a well meaning young cop Louis(Antoine Reinartz) who was just transferred from another town, Oh Mercy!'s trajectory is just as erratic and unexpected as many of Desplechin's past work. And it's delightful. Anchored by Chief Daoud (great Roschdy Zem), the police precinct tries to keep law and order where drug abuses, runaway cases, disorderly conduct, break-ins, false accusations based on racism are daily occurrence. The town is in bad shape with years of neglect and its mostly immigrant population barely getting by. Born in Algeria, but Daoud has been living in Roubaix most of his life. He knows the streets and he knows its people. He never raises his voice when questioning or interrogating suspects. He is firm yet deeply cares about what's happening in the lives of his townsfolk.

The film follows multiple threads at first, in real Desplechin fashion. Only in mid-way we revisit the one of the threads involving two young women which takes over the rest of the film. Claude (Lea Seydoux) and Marie (Sarah Forestier), two druggy friends living in a dangerously under-occupied, decrepit building in a neighborhood where you don't want to go out at night. They called the police before for breaking and entering, which Louis couldn't solve. It is most likely the girls lied, trying to get others in trouble. This time though, they report someone breaking into another apartment in their building. And the Daoud team finds an old woman strangled to death in a burglary-gone-wrong situation. All the usual suspects threads lead them to nowhere. And there's something that doesn't really add up in two girls' testimonies.

Louis, who has slight feelings for Claude, struggles to keep his temper in check when interviewing her. He knows she's lying. Marie, who is withdrawn and extremely shy, with her deer in the headlight expression leaves everything up to Claude when testimonies are concerned. They will need to interrogate the girls separately. It will be a she said, she said situation. Someone's gonna crack and spill the beans.

Seydoux and Forestier are great in their very unglamorous roles playing petite criminelles. But it's Roschdy Zem deserves an award for this. The sordid story is nothing to brag home about. There are millions stories like this we see on TV every night. But it's Desplechin's so very human portrait of these characters that is the heart of the film. There are several compelling scenes in the film but the one most stuck with me is Daoud's cool observation of the girls' relationship that sums up their entire history. He tells Claude what he sees - A pretty girl who was popular in school. But she finds out she can't really get what she wants or want others to get it for her in real life. Time in a town like Roubaix wasn't kind to her. She is stuck with her childhood friend who still worships her. They live in a day to day life in a squalor. It's a bad relationship. She knows it all to be true.

Oh Mercy! is certainly different from any other Desplechin film I watched over the years. But it's any less intriguing. The love he has for his hometown and its inhabitants are undoubtedly palpable. Desplechin is a master storyteller and humanist. Oh Mercy! is a very moving experience.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Tropical Noir

Wild Goose Lake (2019) - Diao
Wild Goose Lake
The follow up to Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan's blistering noir that put him on the international cinema map, Wild Goose Lake is another stylish noir/policier. If Black Coal Thin Ice was a cold noir with its wintry setting, Wild Goose Lake is the opposite- its subtropical setting and constant rain provide the film soaked with atmosphere and vivid colors under flickering fluorescent lights. And it's a beauty, thanks to Diao's regular cinematographer Dong Jingsong. Along with recent Long Day's Journey into Night, Wild Goose Lake continues the tradition of 'Tropical Noir' of Wong Kar-Wai's work.

It starts out with a large gathering of motorbike stealing street gangs in the basement of a hotel. While divvying up the territories, a scuffle breaks out among rival gangs. When the dust is settled, a thin truce is made between the Crazy Cat Brothers and Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge). But unbeknownst Zhou's gang, the rising Crazy Cat Brothers made a deal behind the scenes to take over Zhou's territory, starting the same night. Zhou's gang gets attacked, and Zhou becomes a subject of a manhunt after he accidentally kills a cop while on the run.

Police Chief (Fan Liao of Ash is Purist White, Black Coal Thin Ice) organizes a large tactical unit near Wild Goose Lake to scour the erea and apprehend Zhou. Wearing civilian clothes, these cops are stationed in every nooks and crannies on the street, always watching every movement of extremely busy and crowded tourist town. But Zhou remains elusive. He gets help from Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei), a 'bathing beauty'- a euphemism for lakeside prostitutes, who was sent by Zhou's gang. But now Zhou has large reward money on his head, he wants to turn himself in in custody of his estranged wife, Shujun (Regina Wan), so she can get the reward money. Things get messy of course, since everyone has his/her own agenda.

The police chief's relentless pursuit yields many close calls with Zhou. On motor bikes and on foot, its frenetic, large scale chase scenes in the squalid living quarters of densely populated suburban sprawl provide some of the most thrilling moments in the film. There are also some kinetic, almost cartoonish violences happening here and there: there's a sudden decapitation on a motorbike and one involving an umbrella. I laughed out loud at its Takashi Miike level inventiveness.

The film also showcases the changing China: from the emergence of middle class and its subculture - 'bathing beauties' with their wide brimmed straw hats, lessons in which motorbikes are more valuable and easier to steal, to the rigid police state with CCTV in every corner and sheer precision of its well trained tactical force in action. Attention to detail and controlled chaos Diao manages in the film is nothing short of astounding.

Wild Goose Lake is a good looking film to be sure and well acted, especially Hu Ge, with his soulful long-face and Kwei Lun-Mei as unlikely femme fatale. Yet it is not as taut as Black Coal Thin Ice. It sets up the motion nicely, but it doesn't have a momentum to follow through its 113 minute running time. Watch it for its beauty. Watch it for atmosphere. The film is still well worth the ticket.

Night of Sexual Escapade

Liberté (2019) - Serra
Liberté
Catalan director Albert Serra has been practicing his brand powdered-wig costume dramas in cinema, art galleries and on stage (not particularly in that order) for quite some time now. First conceived as a gallery performance art, his The Death of Louis XIV and its companion piece Roi Soleil were either stroke of genius cinematic daring-dos or insufferable indulgence pieces depending on whom you ask in the cinema circle.

Then comes Liberté which started out as the stage opera first commissioned by Berlin’s Volksbühne in 2018, Serra seems to take advantage on the film medium and expound/expand his horizon of the limitless possibilities of ways in presenting the same subject. And he seems to be relishing it in this film version.

In Liberté, we are introduced to a group of French ex-patriots in the woods at night in ornate hand-drawn carriages fleeing in the eve of the revolution. They are on the run in Germany, where they hope to spread a philosophy of moral, political and sexual indulgence. They are regrouping with the help of Duc de Walchen (played by Helmut Berger of Visconti films). Slowly but surely, the group engages in voyeurism, all sorts of pan-sexual and s&m activities all night until dawn.

The film is intentionally minimally lit. It's in the woods, there are trees and leaves everywhere to obscure the views. And it's criminally dark. If grandiose and ornate production design and suggestive nature were the point of his stage version of Liberté, It’s the darkness and restraint from showing too much is the point in his film version. Yet the film is still filled with graphic sexual imagery.

It slowly starts with these libertines lurking and spying on each other in underbrush. Placid penises appear here and there. Mind you, these are not the most attractive people. What we can make out, many of them are hideously overweight, deformed and amputated. They whisper to each other some of the most pornographic scenes imaginable.

Serra is making the most out of cinematic medium here that he couldn't dare do on stage - graphic sex scenes obscured and not full on porno level but are still very shocking nonetheless: close ups of vaginas, pissing, flogging, bondage, etc. And in turn, he makes voyeurs out of all of us. And it goes on and on and on. The hushed moaning and screaming are mostly drawn out by the chorus of insects at night.

But these repetitive and prolonged sequences reminded me of the effects of repeated sex scene in Cronenberg’s Crash. You don’t see the eroticism anymore after a while. You become numb. Like most of Serra’s work, there is a hint of parody in these shenanigans. I mean, it’s actors in wigs stroking themselves in the woods in a movie called ‘freedom’. I think with Liberté, Serra reached the new height in his formalist approach to costume dramas. He is an artist who will run amok with his approach when given a chance and Liberté is probably the best example. I do like the playfulness in his method when it comes to parody when seeing the past with irony. Liberté goes on a little too long but it’s still a fascinating ride.

Identity Crisis

Synonyms (2019) - Lapid
synonyms
Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli man, is first seen with spitting out words and their synonyms, like a broken automated dictionary, in French which is obviously not his native tongue. He arrives in a posh part of Paris, gets all of his meager belongings stolen in a flash, including clothes and a sleeping bag that he just laid out on the floor, in a large empty apartment. And there is no hot water. He passes out from exhaustion and hypothermia. His young neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire of Anaud Desplechin's My Golden Days) and Caroline (Louise Chevillote), find him and revive him. They are almost parody of what 'a Parisian couple' is like - Emile is a writer who is forever working on a book titled, "Night of Inertia" and sexually ambiguous, coquettish Caroline plays oboe in an orchestra in her spare time. Emile, fascinated by this hunky, naked young foreigner, gives him clothes, a cellphone and wads of cash.

Soon Yoav moves into a squalid apartment across the river, still keeping contact with the young couple. He is an angry young man who is running away from home and refuses to speak Hebrew. He describes Israel as Ignorant, mean-spirited and crude. He is fit and has strict daily regimen for survival. He is listless, directionless and tactless. He gets a job as a security detail at the Israeli consulate. There he befriends with a typical macho soldier type, Yaron (Uria Hayik), who describe France as a hornet's nest for terrorists. Yaron forcefully asserts his Jewishness everywhere he goes by shouting "I am Jewish!" and humming Israeli national anthem loudly in a crowded subway to Parisians who could care less.

With his good physique and boyish good looks, Yoav gets involved in the art project by some pervert French photographer who tells him to penetrate himself while naked spread eagle on the floor, yelling in faux ecstasy in Hebrew. He feeds stories from his military service to impressionable Emile, telling him that he can have all of his stories as if he can truly hand over his former life to someone. He gets involved with Caroline even though whose high culture antics doesn't sit well with him. The flashback from his military service plays out, accented with absurd moments like dancing soldiers serenading a pop song during a military honor awarding ceremony.

Synonyms can be a difficult film: it can be seen as rudderless and abrasive. Sense of irony dominates the film as Yoav struggles with his identity. It's packed with dueling exaggerated visions of perverted and uncaring Europe (France in particular) and the uber military culture the director Nadav Lapid grew up with. The film concludes, as Yoav trying to open the door by slamming his body against it, you can't escape where you came from and the gap between the world you are trying to assimilate remains shut closed. But the film works, thanks largely to Tom mercier's physical as well as verbal, at times verging on slapstick level on both counts. The film is often hilarious and at times poignant and filled with manic energy. Shai Goldman's handheld camera work is aces also.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Female Gaze

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) - Sciamma
portrait-of-a-young-woman-on-fire
Talking about female gaze. It's all about that. Sciamma's period piece centers around two women. One, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait painter whose job is that of a photographer back then. The other, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), fresh plucked out of the convent to get married off to her dead sister’s Italian suitor that she’s never met. It was her mother (Valeria Golino)’s insistence that her portrait be painted and sent to Italy before the wedding. Marianne is supposed to be there for a week. In and out. A quickie.

Héloïse already refused to pose and to be painted by another portrait artist and sent him packing, leaving a creepy portrait painting without a face when Marianne arrives by the sea. But the mother insists on Marianne not telling Héloïse that she is there to paint her portrait, but paint her in secret from glimpses while acting as ‘walking companion’.

With their walks by the beach together, they get to know each other a little. Héloïse is understandably gloomy about her impending fate. Marianne sympathizes while trying to get glances of her subject of the painting. Marianne paints a portrait quickly in a week. But since she feels guilty of not informing her subject, she wants to show it to Héloïse before she says goodbye.
Héloïse’s reaction takes Marianne by surprise. She thinks it’s lifeless. It is not nice to assume that she knows the subject. Deeply offended and ashamed, she smears the painting and asks the mother to give her more time. Héloïse, now intrigued, volunteers to pose. They get 5 more days.

Whether it was due to Héloïse jumping into the ocean, Marianne's lascivious (but professional) glances or Marianne seeing Héloïse’s dress catching fire by the bonfire at the beach, they fall in love. They have only few days together and when they depart, their heart will break.

What’s remarkable about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its timelessness. This is not another tragic drama about women trapped by their circumstances. There is a joyful vivrancy about the film. They fully accept their fate, laid out by period and society. Yet they enjoy their few days together and remember it forever. It’s super life affirming and uplifting, rather than sad. Certainly one of the year’s best.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Charming Klutz

A New Leaf (1971) - May
190121_r33585-2400
It comes as a big surprise to Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) that he is broke. It seems that his trust fund has run out and his contemptuous uncle isn't helping. What about his ferrari, what about his tailored suits, what about all the exclusive restaurants and clubs he frequents, what about his butler?

With the help of his butler whose job is at stake, Henry gets a brilliant idea of marrying some rich society girl for money in order to secure a loan from his uncle. He finds his intended victim in Henrietta (director Elaine May), a extremely klutzy botanist with big round glasses that don't seem to stay on her face ever. And she seems to gobble up all of Henry's sweet talk into marriage after three days of courtship.

Henry's scheme of marrying someone/anyone for money and killing her off takes a different direction as he becomes in charge of her estate which is in total disarray. He gets to like his position being a protector of a hot mess of a woman.

A New Leaf highlights May's comic talents - the toga scene where Henry and Henrietta is spending honeymoon and Henry cutting off price tag hanging from Henrietta's oversized clothes while she is wearing them are some of the many uproariously funny bits in the movie. Matthau's smarmy, nonchalance matches perfectly with May's discombobulated eclecticism. The movie is a blast. I can't wait to check out May's other films.