Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Film Comment Selects 2018

Curated by its esteemed editors, Film Comment magazine's 18th edition of Film Comment Selects returns to Lincoln Center.

A great mix of old and new cinematic gold, this year's lineup includes Ildikó Enyedi’s Berlinale Golden Bear-winner On Body and Soul; Mrs. Fang, Wang Bing’s unflinching document of an elderly woman in her final days, which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno; the North American premiere of Katharina Wyss’s powerful debut feature Sarah Plays a Werewolf, about a woman who channels her fears into theater; Govinda Van Maele’s fiction feature debut Gutland, featuring Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps; the U.S. premiere of Slovenian director Rok Biček‘s The Family, a compassionate portrait of a young man’s life over the course of 10 years; and experimental artist Bertrand Mandico’s exhilarating, gender-bending Wild Boys.

The series opens with US premiere of Life and Nothing More, a moving docu/fiction hybrid by Antonio Méndez Esparza.

The Series runs Friday, February 23 through Tuesday, February 27. Please visit FSLC's website for tickets and more info.

Here are six films I was able to sample:

Wild Boys/Les garçons sauvages
- Bertrand Mandico
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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.

The Family
- Rok Biček
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Rok Biček's non-judgmental, uncompromising Slovenian documentary follows young Matej's troubled life for a decade. It shows that the life is very complicated and not at all black and white.

In a jumbled timeline, we first see the graphic moments of Nia, Matej and his girlfriend Barbara's daughter, being born. They both are teenagers at this point. They move in with Barbara's parents'. It seems Matej has a strong bond with Barbara's dad. But their domestic bliss is very short-lived. We see teary Matej moving out and back into his parents'. It is quite easy to see why Matej seeks his parental love elsewhere- with a mentally challenged brother at home, his parents are not quite the nurturing types- uneducated and lost control over Matej long ago, their communication is limited to slurring words, yells and insults. But it's not like his parents are monsters. Dealing with a teenage son who is glued to his computer screen and completely shut out of his world, his parents deal with issues like any other parents of teenagers in the world.

A session with the with a school councilor reveals this dilemma. The councilor points out to Matej's dad that his son is quite bright, yet his has learning disabilities and has some behavioral issues. Dad tells her that he is doing all he can to help him. And the councilor reminds Matej that his parents 'doing all they can' might seem not enough under their circumstances, but that doesn't mean they don't love him.

As the custody battle over Nia ensues, Matej seeks vasectomy. He doesn't want to get a girl pregnant. And the sensation is not the same with condoms, he explains to the doctor. His application is denied because he's only 23. He gets involved with a 14 year old school girl and gets heavily dependent on her kindly mother.

With titling the film, The Family, Biček deliberately provokes us to examine what it means in the current complicated, messy world we are living in. There are numerous gaps in the timeline and important events in Matej's life we are missing out- his father died, how? What happened to his front teeth? It's that truncated history that gives the film its punch. Life goes on, whether we are watching or not. The film ends with young Matej snarkily asking, looking directly into the camera "Isn't my life interesting?" Yet the film's theme goes way beyond its mere subject.

- Govinda Van Maele
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Starring pre-Phantom Thread Vicky Krieps, Gutland is a solid first feature from Luxembourgian director Govinda Van Maele. It's a slow burner that ultimately doesn't really pay off. It doesn't have a moral lesson or big revelatory ending. But it's all about maintaining that below-the-surface tension all throughout- Van Maele and co. do it very well with the help of effective dream/fantasy sequences and uneasy score.

It tells a story of a brusque German bank robber Jens (Frederick Lau) with a bag full of cash rolling into a rural farming community in Luxembourg. In order to lay low, Jens looks for a job as a farmhand for the harvest season. At first suspicious, the townsfolk warm up to the caveman-like Jens, especially Lucy (Krieps), the daughter of the towns mayor. A town's elder, the pillar of the community takes a liking to him. He warns him ominously of one thing though - do not get involved with any of the wives here.

Jens settles in with Lucy, making his stay semi-permanent, having a tranquil life. All the while, he has to deal with dirty secrets of the village, his own past and the bag full of money he buried in woods nearby. Is Jens a different man now he cut his caveman hair and beard off and plays in the town's orchestra? Is his second chance in life voluntarily asked for or forcibly given?

Gutland is an expertly crafted noir where you can't shake off that ominous feeling from beginning to end.

Life and Nothing More
- Antonio Méndez Esparza *Opening Night Film
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Falling somewhere between Roberto Minervini films and Florida Project, Life and Nothing More, directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza (Aqui y allá), brims with authenticity and empathy. If you were going in cold feet like me, the film is an extremely intimate documentary about a troubled teenager Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) and his overworked, but tough single mom Gina (Regina Williams). But a halfway through, you notice improvable, almost impossible camera placements in public places without being noticed and hear voice overs when they read letters. Then you realize that this isn't a documentary.

First, the focus is on Andrew, a quiet high school kid trying to stay out of trouble and taking care of his little sister while mom is at a diner working. He is bombarded from all sides (community groups and churches) that he needs to be good. Yet he is still a teen, trudging through a rough school and crime ridden neighborhood. With his dad incarcerated, he builds up his anger inside him. Then we shifts focus on to Gina and her budding romance with one of her customers, Robert (Robert Williams). She's done with men and doesn't have time for any bullshit. But very insistent Robert seems like a genuinely nice guy. What Andrew thinks of him is another matter though.

As it develops into a courtroom drama, the film charts a familiar territory - poverty, absent fathers, the inadequate, racist justice system, etc. But perhaps this uninspired story arc is the point - with little choices these characters have under the circumstances, this is how it plays out, just like in real life.

Quietly moving and beautifully portrayed by non-actors, Life and Nothing More is another moving, very human docufiction experiment about marginalized Americana.

*The California Film Institute's CFI releasing will theatrically distribute the two-time Spirit Awards nominee nationally this spring (TBA date). Award-winning filmmaker Antonio Méndez Esparza who is also a Guggenheim Fellow and professor at Florida State University will be in New York this week for the NY premiere screening and also participate in a Film Comment Free Talk on Race and Representation on 2/24.

On Body and Soul - Ildikó 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.

Sarah Plays a Werewolf - Katharina Wyss

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Sarah Plays a Werewolf paints a complex picture of what being a teenage girl is like. Sarah (Loane Balthasar) is a High School drama student in a picturesque Swiss town. She has a nice, well adjusted family - parents are well educated, cultured intellectuals & siblings are normal. Sarah has a penchant for dramatics - loving tragic figures in plays and opera, telling classmates that her imagined boyfriend is dead and Ben, her older brother who recently moved out to attend college, committed suicide even though he's alive and well. She doesn't have any friends or someone to talk to. It doesn't help that her parents are way too liberal with their parenting, encouraging her freedom in every which way, even condoning the thought of suicide. She and her Georges Batalle reading classmate Alice stage dramatic scene where Sarah plays a victim to Alice's torturer. Everyone, except for the drama teacher (Sabine Timoteo), is nonplussed and soon after Sarah loses Alice to a boy. She tries to make out with some of the boys but that doesn't work out either.

Sarah becomes more and more withdrawn and have schizophrenic episodes, until she attacks one of the student on stage. But her father refuses to medicate her or send her to therapy. "No one understands me," she keeps on saying.

Moody and melancholic, Sarah Plays a Werewolf is a clear eyed examination of being a teenage girl that reminds me of Bresson's films, especially Four Nights and a Dreamer and A Gentle Woman. Loane Balthasar's fearless performance is remarkable.

Mrs. Fang - Wang Bing

Mrs. Fang - Wang Bing

Death, the inevitable. It comes to everyone. It is part of life. We experience it more as we get older. But it never gets any easier. Wang Bing, the master chronicler of the shadowy side of Chinese economic boom, unflinchingly move forward with documenting an elderly woman's process of dying. Think of Mrs. Fang as real life version of Haneke's Amour, only less dignified and less poetic, just like death in real life.

We see Mrs. Fang, a plump, elderly lady silently looking in a dingy room. Six month later, she is skin and bones, unrecognizable, her teeth exposed, dying of Alzheimer's in the bed in a room she once looked in. Her family and friends flood the room looking in her condition. They argue loudly about the cost of her care, the funeral arrangement and her state of mind. As usual, through the series of long takes, we are confronted with a person dying in close up - her eyes staring nowhere, no voice and almost no mobility. People around her don't know about death, less about the Alzheimer's. They speculate endlessly in front of the dying woman.

Just like his other films, Wang depicts the rural, poor community. They are small fishing community. But there is no romanticism portrayed - they go off on their small metal fishing boat, cast the nets which makes buzzing sound, pull them in and come home.

Just who Mrs. Fang was is not Wang's concern to show. What she did, whom she loved is beside the point. The banality of death is. It's difficult to watch. Wang faces it head on. I admire that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Steamy Psychological Thriller Done Right: François Ozon's Double Lover

L'Amant Double/Double Lover (2017) - Ozon
Double Lover1
Based on Joyce Carol Oates' short novel Lives of The Twins, François Ozon concocts yet another sly, sexy psychological thriller starring Marine Vacth and Jérémie Renier. Vacth plays Chloe, a young woman suffering from intense stomach pain. Unable to find the cause of her symptoms, her doctor suggests seeing a therapist. So she becomes a patient of Paul Meyer (Renier), a mild mannered, handsome psychologist. At first, Chloe is skeptical to open herself up to a stranger, but the mutual attraction is palpable. With the help of compassionate Paul, she pours out her soul, appointment after appointment. And soon enough they fall in love. After Paul declares his love for her, they move in together.

While unpacking Paul's belongings, Chloe finds his old passport with a different sir name, Delord. He has a simple explanation - he took in his mother's maiden name when he went into practice, since Paul Meyer sounds better. She drops the subject, but a seed of distrust is planted: 'He knows everything about me. But I know nothing of him.' The stomach pain returns soon after.

On the way home from her museum watchmen job (she was a former model who lost interests after seeing the sleazy side of the industry), Chloe sees Paul or someone who looks exactly like him on the street talking to another woman. Paul denies that it was him, saying it must have been her job related stress. He recommends seeing another therapist for her stomach pain. She finds out that the man who looks just like Paul is his estranged twin brother Louis (also played by Renier), who's also a practicing therapist. Under the false pretense, she starts seeing Louis.

Louis turns out to be the opposite of Paul. He is cold, brutish and calculating. And naturally, Chloe can't help but being sexually attracted to him. Chloe starts wondering why Paul has been hiding the fact that he has a twin brother. And why Louis doesn't want her to tell Paul about their encounters. After experiencing aggressive sexual advances from Louis, Chloe gives in to her desires, and they become lovers.

Like many of his films, Double Lover is an absorbing ride. Carefully crafted with its twists and turns, the narrative pulls you in right from the beginning and never let you go. Visually, Hitchcockian elements are everywhere from the spiral staircases to the wall of mirrors. Vacth, working with Ozon for the second time after Young and Beautiful, shows her great emotional range as a woman who struggles with doubts, jealousy and desire. There is a darker dimension to her than Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby or Chatherine Deneuve in Repulsion. She is definitely not some damsel in distress. Renier, a Belgian actor who's been a Dardenne Bros regular. It's interesting to see the scrawny working class kid from La Promisse, ascending to one of the hottest romantic male leads in French cinema. He shines in a dual role, basically playing the good and the darker side of the same person.

There have been many great psychological, erotic thrillers involving twins both real and imagined - Dead Ringers, Sisters, The Dark Half come to mind when considering Double Lover. But it being an Ozon film, it's all about its protagonist creating a great, compelling narrative. Like Ozon himself, they are master storytellers, who is taking us for a ride. It's a highly seductive film with great many effortlessly sensual sequences.

I find it funny that the film is being released on Valentines Day against another Fifty Shades series. Let me put it simply - French does it better, effortlessly. Steamy and seductive, Double Lover will make an infinitely better choice for a date movie.

Double Lover opens on Valentines day 2/14 nationwide in US.

Love and Its Complications, Truthfully

Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble/We Won't Grow Old Together (1972) - Pialat
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Jean (Jean Yanne) and Catherine (Marlène Jobert) are on the verge of breaking up after 6 years. But it's always been tumultuous between them. Love works in a mysterious ways and they both can't get away from each other no matter how unhappy they both are. I've seen this in relationships and in families before- they've known each other for long enough time that they can be extremely mean to each other. Brutish Jean who works as a cameraman, says very hurtful things to Catherine. But he half expects that she will come back to him and they will get together since they love each other. After such one make up session, Catherine says that she loves him less now. However miserable Jean is, he doesn't see that he is losing her because he is still in love with her. And she being a little more adult of the two, breaks up with him. You fall out of love. Love fades. But it's never gone gone.

As usual, Pialat brings out virtuosic performances from his actors. We Won't Grow Old Together is an unsentimentalized grownup love story that rings true however painful.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Life in 24 Frames

24 Frames (2017) - Kiarostami
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Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's passing in 2016 was very unexpected. Among all the cultural luminaries who passed on recently, personally Kiarostami's death really saddened me the most. His deeply humanistic, genre and form transcending cinema has been truly unique and inspirational to my cinematic education, so his death was a devastating blow. So when I heard the news of 24 Frames, the film he's been working for 3 years, unfinished at the time of his death, is going to be released with the help of his son Ahmad, I was more than eager to see the late master's final work. And it's as usual, infinitely wise and achingly beautiful unlike anything.

Kiarostami's idea for 24 Frames is simple - try to bridge the gap between painting, photograph and moving pictures: we go great length to capture one still moment. That instant is frozen in time forever. But what about before and after that moment? They are usually easily discarded from and forgotten in our memories. Cinema as we know it, can prolong that moment for a little longer, to help us in imagining the narrative, in contextualizing the content within the frame a little more. Comprised of 24 4 1/2 minute static shots, the film most resembles his 2001 film, Five, where he held his camera to 5 static scenes in various length. And it's the same minimalistic approach without human presence (except for two scenes) he applies here.

24 Frames is, in large part, a collaboration of Kiarostami and visual effects artist Ali Kamali. Based on Kiarostami's photographs and videos, Kamali was responsible for digitally creating the multilayered images. Frame 1 is the famous winter landscape painting: The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel. Accompanied by the sound of hounds, wind, footsteps, and people playing on the frozen lake below, we see subtle animated movements - smoke billowing out of chimneys from down below, birds flying across the frame, one of the hounds coming alive and trots and pees on the tree, etc. while certain elements stay frozen, like the hunters themselves and the pheasant flying across the sky. Once again, Kiarostami offers us the chance to contemplate on various things - the power of our imagination, fleeting nature of time, immortality of art...all in one single frame.

Kiarostami's love of nature and landscapes comes to the fore - deer, cows, various birds, dogs, horses, cats, snow, rain, wind, ocean, forest, mountains. Each scene is quiet and static, just held long enough to have something happening within the frame. Windows figure heavily into the film as well- constantly framing the frame. If it's not windows, it is fences or columns. He wrote in 2009 about his photography:

I've often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us unless it's inside a frame.

As he championed shooting from the moving car throughout his films, one scene is dedicated to the snowy landscape outside the car window: a couple of horses run parallel to the moving car, we lose the sight of the horse as it lags behind. The car stops, the automatic window rolls down, the horses reappear. Now we are presented with two horses playing around in the blizzard through the car window. After a while, the car moves on.

Humans are not in the frame most of the times but with the sound of gun fire of hunters in many of these scenes, you can feel their presence. I don't think Kiarostami necessarily makes a nuisance out of humans or a threat to nature, he seems to say that this is the life as is, with us in it. But as always the case with Kiarostami's films, 24 Frames is only deceptively simple- there are a lot more layers than what meets the eye. These animals' behaviors, whether playing, fighting, cheating, waiting or moaning, resemble our behaviors closely. And they provide a lot of humor because of that.

There is a funny frame of a group of Iranian family looking at the Eiffel Tower from a distance, with their backs toward us. At first we don't know if this frame is a photograph or not. The voices from the crowd, then people working by in the foreground follows. It's another intoxicating concoction by the master: mixing the idea of 'the window to Paris' and current climate of immigration in the first world since it's hard to determine where this scene takes place.

The whole film closes with the powerful and one of the most striking images in cinema. Image can't move people is a lie. Accompanied by Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Love Never Dies", the last 'frame' will go down in cinema history as perhaps one of the most iconic and most beautiful imagery in history. It's even more sublime than the last scene of his film Taste of Cherry which ends with Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary". His son Ahmad did an admirable job choosing these 24 out of 30 'frames' or so Kiarostami considered using in the film.

Kiarostami was a true polymath. For those who are familiar with his artistry - his haiku inspired poetry, his minimalist landscape photography as well as his enigmatic films, 24 Frames represents the culmination of all his artistic practices. What make it so sad to me at least, is that there is no finality to the film. It's as if it can go on forever, completely consistent with what he had been doing all his artistic life. Nothing is comparable to his artistry. As Asghar Fahadi told me last year about his death:

This was the bitterest occurrence that happened in the cinema past year, because he was one and only. There was no one like him. There is no one like him. Many people tried to be like him or copy him but because their personalities are different from his, their films didn’t come out the way his films did.

The film is a great testament to his being as an artist and as a person. It's easily the best film I've seen this year so far.