Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Tentacles

La región salvaje/The Untamed (2016) - Escalante
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Mixing naturalistic portrait of domestic disintegration and Lovecraftian Sci-Fi, Mexico's other bad boy of cinema, Emat Escalante creates an intriguing but ultimately empty study of toxic masculinity in a still very much religious and patriarchal society.

We are introduced early on to an alien creature through its fat, dirty-pink tentacles near the naked body of Veronica (Simone Bucio). It seems that two aging scientists couple living in a cabin in the woods have been keeping the creature in their barn ever since it landed on earth carried on by a meteorite (as seen on the first shot of the film). The old couple warns Vero not to come back. See, the creature gives them extraordinary pleasure but it's also very dangerous.

So this is the set up of the film:

Veronica, waifish, socially award girl on her motor bike, injured by the creature (the alien being gets tired of its sex objects and becomes violent), feigns her wounds on her side as a dog bite in the hospital. There she strikes up a friendship with Fabian (Eden Villavincencio), a kind gay nurse who's been having an intense sexual affair with his brother-in-law, Angel (Jesus Meza) who has repressed sexuality issues and happens to be a brutish construction worker (naturally!). Fabian's sister Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) is an unhappy, unfulfilled house wife with two young boys, dreaming of getting away from bleak reality.

With Vero as a lure, Fabian gets to experience the alien encounter. He gets his head bashed in and falls in to a coma (alien don't go that way?). According to the police, he also suffered sexual aggression. With their explicit sexual texting and eye witnesses accounts, Angel gets the blame and goes to jail. Vero then introduces Ale to the scientists and the creature.

Escalante dedicates the film to Zulawski, the Polish master known for his emotionally explosive, psychological dramas and whose film Possession is an obvious inspiration for the film. But unlike the tentacled creature in Possession which was more of a personification of a couple's tumultuous relationship, it seems thinner here in its metaphorical meaning - the reptilian sense of carnal desire. It's very much flesh and blood rather than the work of imagination or will.

There lies very thin line between the boyish horse playing of two grown men (construction workers) trying to grab each other's dicks in the field and the gay sex in a club bathroom. But Escalante is too timid for showing male nude or penetration on male subjects (there are some but not explicit). With alien encounters it's all one sided, male gaze. All women are waifs, except for the monstrous mother-in-law. If you want to shed a light on rampant sexual violence and repressed sexuality and make folly of male dominant macho culture, the tentacle porn would be the very last thing I would think of using to make that point.
But Escalante thinks he can have the cake and eat it too. So here we are, we end up seeing tentacle sex, all flesh and blood, explicitly. I feel bad for its actors.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Going Up the River

Crosscurrent (2016) - Yang
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Yang Chao's Crosscurrent is an ambitious undertaking- he tries to show China's changing times up through the Yangtze River, both literally and in metaphysical sense, on a small cargo boat. And it's a glorious one.

Gao Chun (Qin Hao), just lost his father and as the tradition calls it, he needs to keep a black fish caught in the river in an urn until it expires naturally, so he can set his father's soul free. But he also inherited his father's tattered small cargo boat, a broad headed hunk of metal all rusted blue and red with age. Hired by some hotshot shady businessman, he is tasked to carry some unseen illegal cargo up the river. With an old man and an impatient young deck hand, and narrated by a diary found inside the boat -poems on each port Chun visits, he embarks on a long metaphysical journey through waterways, from Shanghai all the way to the source of the river near Tibet.

Chun lays his eyes on beautiful An Lu (Xin Zhilei), first as a prostitute on a floating riverboat in Shanghai, but she appears on every port Chun's boat docks along the river, waiting for him. Sometimes they meet, sometimes they miss each other, but without fail, she is there on the next port, reappearing again and again in a different form or another. An Lu in Mandarin is safe road/inner path, therefore the presence of An Lu serves as a nature spirit/old China left at a port as the ship sails.

As we go up the river, we are presented with China old and new - ruins of flooded towns, pagodas on top of the mountains, natural beauty of the waterways contrasting with ultra modern bridges and gigantic steel walls of Three Gorges Dam. Tears roll down on Chun's face when he observes the wonders of human ingenuity of the dam and when he encounters An Lu for the last time, indiscriminately.
Yang's approach might be too broad and can be seen as too arty farty and pretentious as the film tackles grand themes like the country's identity and its past and present in a poetic and spiritual way. And it many ways it is. But who cares. Mark Lee Ping Bin's cinematography is insanely gorgeous here.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Long Live the Flesh

Caniba (2017) - Paravel, Castaing-Taylor
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Issei Sagawa killed a Dutch woman in Paris and ate part of her body in 1981. It was a case of strong fantasies that twisted one's mind and giving way to violent urges. He was declared insane and sent home. Now in his 60s and partially paralyzed, he is in care of his brother Jun. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the duo behind Leviathan, plunge into face the darkest of human desires and capture only way they can. The result is one of the most deeply disturbing love story ever told.

Long takes, in mostly extreme close up and out-of-focus most of the time of Issei's aging, almost reptilian face, Caniba is a fascinating watch. It's usually Jun carrying on a conversation off screen with his semi-comatose brother on the foreground. Issei blurts out almost haiku style answers, often trailing off to yonder. For us audiences, Jun flips through a crudely drawn but extremely graphic manga of Issei's deeds (published a long while ago- Issei's been living off of his notoriety) while chastising his brother the whole time, "This is too much for me," "some people like this I suppose," "you weren't eating her while she was alive?" and so on. It goes on forever. In it, Issei is always portrayed as little orange creature, the worst caricature of an Orientalized person craving for a fair skinned white woman. After Jun dissing the book as 'disgusting shit' and putting it down, Issei says, "C'est fini."

Caniba contains footage of fetish porn where a girl pisses on a man's face. It also has 8mm home movie of young Sagawa brothers. They were just like any other home movies, showing happy days when they were children. Then it turns out that Jun is a lifelong masochist and has been inflicting pain on his body with barbed wires, kitchen knives and pins for over 60 years. This part of the movie is perhaps the most difficult to watch. When he confesses his vice to his brother, it's as if they are in competition - Jun passive aggressively belittles himself and his brother - "You aren't shocked because my fetishes pales in comparison to yours." "I wasn't shocked." Issei replies. Their relationship, just like any other siblings is on a base level, very relatable. Issei, aging and invalid, knows Jun is the only one who truly understands him and loves him even though he is a murderer and a cannibal.

In theory, Caniba is what I look for in filmmaking - technically daring, psychologically complex, intellectually stimulating, etc. But its subjects' sexual fetishes are too far extreme and disturbing, I can't say I enjoyed the film. I did not like its somewhat happy ending involving cosplay maid in her black and white uniform taking care of Issei, either.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sentient Beings

Testről és lélekről/On Body and Soul (2017) - Enyedi
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A handicapped, lonely and aging financial director, Endre (Géza Morcsányi) at an industrial slaughterhouse is intrigued by Maria (Alexandra Borbély), a new quality inspector who lacks any social niceties. It happens that they dream the same dream every night - that they are a deer couple, roaming the snowy forests, enjoying each other's company in silence. But even though they share the serendipitous events, unlike a regular romance, they have some big huddles to leap through - Endre has given up his love life a long while ago and Maria suffers from haphephobia for whatever reasons.

Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi (My Twentieth Century) does whimsy right while contemplating all animals as sentient beings. On Body and Soul is a grown-up fairytale (as opposed to grown-up's fairytale). I liked that Enyedi doesn't rely on cuteness of the premise. It's mature and beautifully realized. I hate when a film makes sex as a clutch that solves every problem its characters have. Even though Maria's characterization is shorthanded, I loved the idea of her ethereal being coming down to earth by her elopment with Endre, realizing the love is accepting breadcrumbs on the table.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Selfish Love

The Day After (2017) - Hong
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The Day After is just as delicious as Alone on the Beach at Night. Clocking just over an hour, it tells an illicit love affair of a small time book publisher (Kwon Haehyo) and his mousy employee (Kim Saebyeok) from the point of view of a new employee named Arum (beauty in Korean, played by Hong's muse Kim Minhee). Arum gets tangled up in the publisher's messy life on her first day on the job, when she gets assaulted by his suspecting wife. After half-convincing the wife that Arum is not the one, and telling her that the girl he was seeing went away, and asking Arum not to quit after one day at the job, to complicate the matter, the mousy lover comes back the same night. So he has to let Arum go (he can only afford one employee) after all. Arum is dejected and disgusted by this love affair she was involuntarily ensnared into, but ultimately could care much since it's not her problem.

As always in Hong fashion, The Day After is shot unremarkable and is in ugly black and white. Don't matter, it's still great human comedy about fickle relationships. Not as angry as Alone on the Beach, but just as confessional, Hong makes a case for how hurtful affairs can be. He and the publisher know too well that the affair is not going to end well. But when you are in love nothing really matters- you will sacrifice everything including a stranger who just happens to be there. Love can be a very selfish and ugly thing.

It's sad, funny and poignant all the same. Grown to love Hong's naturalism. There is no movie phoniness or over the top self-reflexiveness in his work. Kim's natural performance, as a kind of shy, yet frank beauty is a great fit in his films.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Clear-Eyed Humanism

Le fils de Joseph (2016) - Green
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Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) is a good kid. He's a kind of kid who shies away from fellow schoolmates torturing the rat in a trap and steals from a Hardware store but only to put the item back later, smiling to himself. He is also a serious kid who'd have Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Issac on his bedroom wall. Raised by a hardworking single mom (Natasha Régnier), he has never known his dad. He becomes increasingly unhappy about this and starts resenting his mom.

After snooping around the house, Vincent finds out who his dad is- Oscar Pomenor (Mathieu Amalric), a big time playboy and important literary figure in Paris. After gaining access to one of Pomenor's parties by pretending to be one of his literary pupils, Vincent sneaks into his posh office only to witness his dad's extramarital thryst. It turns out that Pomenor is a grade A asshole and a terrible human being, not worthy of being a dad. He makes a decision to kill him, Abraham style. But when the moment comes, he can't do it. And there in the hotel bar where Pomenor's office is located, he meets Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), who has just been rejected a loan by Pomenor.

Joseph, a never-do-well brother of Oscar, who dreams of owning a farm in Normandy where he grew up, strikes up a good friendship with troubled Vincent. The kid, longing for a good dad and a family, in turn introduces him to his mom. The romance blossoms.

Even though Le fils de Joseph is steeped in religious references, you can't not be moved by its clear-eyed humanism. Green, a unique filmmaker whose Bressonian approach might need some getting used to, once again, makes a deeply touching parable showing that goodness exists in people. Solid performances all around. Régnier's beautiful in this. SHer subtle, warm, vulnerable performance really shines.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Good Time for Whom?

Good Time (2017) - Safdie
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I understand what Josh and Benny Safdie are going for. From what I've seen and heard, their films are all about small moments - not narratively gregarious, concentrating on small encounters, naturalistic settings, characters in motion. And there are quite few of those moments in Good Time. When they work, they work great. But does the movie work as a whole? I'm not so sure. Good Time has many things going for it - solid performances by wide eyed Robert Pattinson, playing a small time crook taking charge over his mentally handicapped brother (Benny Safdie), heart pumping score, 16mm gritty cinematography... But it also is very unsatisfying especially when there is no one you can root for. Pattinson's Connie is a hard character to sympathize with, as he works his charm over various women and resort to violence when things get dire. I get that he cares for his retarded brother but there is no indication of his background or what his real motives for the bank robbery is - in short, who he is.

OK, so those moments. Loved the interaction btwn Pattinson and Safdie in the bathroom of Pizza Hut after their robbery has gone horribly wrong. Loved the teen black girl in the house in Queens where Connie invites himself into. It's very unlikely that a sassy, pot-smoking black teen would be hanging out with an older white stranger, but I let that go because their interactions are really great. Loved the idea of breaking into an amusement park at night. But that moment's also somewhat tampered by that Somali actor (Barkhad Abdi) who is in everything now- the treatment he gets (from Connie) was almost racist.

People stop comparing Good Times to 70s NY movies. The Safdies ain't no Lumet. Their aim is quite different- it's smaller and narrower. But it's as if they don't ever wanna bite off more than they can chew. If getting those couple of moments are their aim for two hour movie, that's fine. But I feel they are putting emphasis on the wrong things- for instance, extensive (and surely expensive) aerial shot of the city in the beginning and following Connie's car on the street from aerial view. Good Time feels like as if they are afraid to tackle something bigger, grander things. I don't know. I guess I don't like their timid ways.