Monday, May 25, 2020

Simpatico

Silent Partner (1978) - Duke
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Miles Cullen (Eliott Gould) is a mild mannered bank clerk in Toronto. His only hobby is collecting tropical fishes for his aquarium in his apartment. Even though oozes his musky charm around female co-workers, he doesn't seem all that interested in opposite sexes. It's Christmas time. Cullen notices that someone scribbled a robbery attempt in those triplicate carbon bank deposit slip but didn't go through with it and becomes suspicious of mall Santa Clause who frequents the bank which is located in the mall. Santa (Christopher Plummer) turns out to be a sadistic career criminal. Cullen devises a plan to swindle money from the bank for himself while waiting for the impending robbery. So he might be able to escape from the rat race of a life he leads, perhaps with Julie (Susanna York), one of his co-workers. After tripping the alarm and securing everyone's safety during the robbery and gets interviewed on a local TV, he becomes a hero.

So the criminal, Reikle, gets incensed that it was Cullen who made out with most of the money from the robbery. Now Reikle is out to settle the score. It is funny to see Gould as a sort of hang dog sex symbol with his trademark nonchalance. He is a natural ladies' man without trying to hard. It is also cool to see Plummer as a slick, menacing criminal with eyeliners and in a chain neckless. We even get to see him in drag! Since it's a Canadian production, we also get the appearance of young John Candy. Silent Partner is an odd movie following the Hitchcockian cat and mouse thriller tradition. It has tons of that 70s weird charm all over it.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Terrible Children

The Lodge (2019) - Franz, Fiala
the-lodge
Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the Austrian duo, behind Goodnight Mommy, is back with another terrible children's game gone wrong movie. This time, children are a little older (played by Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh). The film moves along in brisk pace to leave all the implausibilities and plotholes behind. And that is all the better for horror movie like this. Franz and Fiala, again as was with Goodnight Mommy, are very good at psychological horror. This time, it's Riley Keough, a stepmom-to-be who gets tortured and driven into a mental and physical breakdown.

The divorce takes a toll on a mom (Alicia Silverstone) of two children, Aidan and Mia. Dad (Richard Armitage) is dating Grace (Keough), who was the subject of his book about the only survivor of a mass religious cult suicide led by her father (the kids look her up on google). Not long after he tells her his intention to marry Grace, mom kills herself. Six month later, dad is planning on trip to a lakeside lodge for Christmas, thinking it is a good time to have Grace and kids get to know each other and accept one another. He has to do some stuff in the city, so Grace will have some time with the kids for a couple of days.

With creepy soundtrack and their glacial visual aesthetics, Franz and Fiala excels at building up tension and add another classic to "cold horror" genre. Kids can be innocent with their games, but they can be vicious. F&F seem to tell us with two features now that they think us humans are capable of unspeakable violence and cruelty and it is in our innate being. I suspect their next film will be about young people doing mean things? Oh wait, that was done and it was called Funny Games by fellow Austrian.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

An Experiment in Austerity: Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc (2019) - Dumont
Joan of Arc
On an intellectual level, I understand what Dumont, the famed contemporary auteur of French cinema, with Joan of ArcA. He has been fully exercising the Bressonian minimalist approaches to all of his cinematic outputs throughout his entire career. And he is doing it with the Joan of Arc franchise (if you will), but that doesn't necessarily make it an enjoyable movie going experience. If you find his exploration and experiment endearing and noble, you are in the right place. If not, you will be bored to death with intentionally bad, or if you will, natural, acting by non-actors, babbling in ancient speech style and strange intonations.

After Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc; a headbanger's ball that was part musical, part comedy of manners, part historical retelling of a young French maid who believed that she was god's messenger to take up arms and lead the French army to rid of the English invasion, Dumont continues to tell the other half of the story, following Charles Péguy's rhythmic prose from the later parts of his three part poem/play, which tells Joan's defeat, trial and burning at the stake, faithfully, word by word. There is a little bit of singing, but no rapping, synchronized dancing or headbanging in this unfortunately.

If you expect an exciting battle scenes or bloody battlefield, you are watching the wrong movie. Battle scenes are adroitly replaced with bird’s eye view of an extended equestrian cavalry display. It’s pomposity and unintended comic effect is the point. With minimal settings and mostly non-professional actors playing themselves- real life judges playing inquisitors, a Dominican monk playing a monk and so on, Dumont examines Joan (reprising the role is Lise Leplat Prudhomme, a ten year old girl who played the younger Joan in the first film). The real Joan died at the stake at 19. Obviously, Dumont is taking a gigantic artistic license here and even goes against his previous effort in terms of authenticity or chronology. But hey, that’s his prerogatives. Most of the film is comprised of Joan struggling to answer her accusers of heresy. She doesn't hear the voice that was guiding her to the battle anymore. Does she still keep her faith or admit that god might have abandoned her?

The tragic beauty of the story of Joan has always been her inner struggle and her unwavering faith in the face of torture and death. Again, Prudhomme does an admirable job and Dumont makes a point of using a child instead of a grown woman as innocent victim of sexism and hypocrisy of the church. But it doesn't make a compelling experience to watch as clergies dryly argue over Joan's fate in an ancient ways of speech as it was written in Péguy’s book, while the child screams on top of her lungs, "It is none of your concern!" over and over.

Even though I’m a huge fan of Dumont’s previous films, I think I am done with Dumont’s experiment in comedy or historical period pieces. It’s the tone that I find it off in his later work. Looking forward to his new, set in present day film On a Half Clear Morning, starring Léa Seydoux as a war journalist.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Political, Cultural Resistance: The Spirit of Third Cinema Lives On in Contemporary Brazilian Cinema:

Political, Cultural Resistance: The Spirit of Third Cinema Continues to Live on in Contemporary Brazilian Cinema: Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau and Gabriel Mascaro’s DivineLove/Divino Amor
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      Let's consider what's been happening in Brazil recently. In early 2018, Luiz Ignacio Lula de Silva, affectionately known as Lula, a much loved labor leader and former two-term Brazilian president, was barred to run for president again because of the trumped up corruption charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison, in all likelihood by opposing conservative Social Liberal Party, led by Jair Bolsonaro, a foul mouthed, all out bigoted racist who ran on his presidential campaign of fearmongering. It was widely expected that Lula was going to win. But with him being jailed, his Worker's Party's nominee Fernando Haddard ended up losing in the runoff. So now Brazil has the socially conservative and known racist Bolsonaro for president. His U.S.-friendly, pro-corporate, pro-logging, anti-regulation agenda with contempt for indigenous population has created perhaps the most serious eco-disaster in the Amazon rainforest in decades. The most devastating forest fire erupted in 2019, as the rest of the world helplessly watched it burn on the sidelines. Its oxygen rich ecosystem and natives’ habitats were irrevocably damaged.

      Brazilian film scene was having its renaissance in the last two decades under the Lula's Worker's Party leadership. The money was flowing into the arts and to the once neglected regions of Brazil. Pernambuco, a northeastern state with its multicultural capital Recifé has emerged as an economical, cultural center, producing many emerging local film directors like Kleber Mendonça Filho, Adirley Queirós and Gabriel Mascaro, taking the limelight away from the rich Southern part of the country - Rio, Bahia and Sao Paolo. Bolsonaro's austerity measures are undoubtedly hitting a hard brake on this growing Brazilian film movement which is perhaps the most significant since the days of Cinema Novo, and the result is still yet to be seen.

      Third Cinema, the term coined by two Argentines, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in their influential manifesto :Toward a Third Cinema (1969), decries neoliberalism, the capitalist system, and the Hollywood model of cinema as mere entertainment to make money. This is largely to do with the fact that both Marxism and Third Cinema are preoccupied with inequalities resulting from capital accumulation, of which colonialism is the most extreme manifestation. Aesthetically, the movement drew on Soviet montage, surrealism, Italian neorealism, Brechtian epic theater, cinema verité and the French New Wave. Cinema Novo in Brazil, along with other Latin American countries’ revolutionary filmmaking, was a big part of Third Cinema. Championed by Glauber Rocha among others, Cinema Novo saw an inseparable connection between political struggle and cultural production. Cinema Novo flourished under popular Democratic President João Goulart until he was removed by the U.S. backed military coup in 1964. But it continued to produce films until the mid-1970s. It was Rocha’s 1969 manifesto The Aesthetics of Hunger which directly lays out the principles for Cinema Novo.
This economic and political conditioning has led us to philosophical
undernourishment and to impotence - sometimes conscious, other times not. The
first engenders simply an alarming symptom; it is the essence of our society.
Herein lies the tragic originality of Cinema Novo in relation to world cinema. Our
originality is our hunger and our greatest misery is that this hunger is felt but not
intellectually understood…. We know- since we made those ugly, sad films, those
screaming, desperate films in which reason has not always prevailed- that this
hunger will not be assuaged by moderate government reforms and that the cloak
of technicolor cannot hide, but rather only aggravates, its tumours. Therefore only
a culture of hunger can qualitatively surpass its own structures by undermining
and destroying them.
      Rocha goes on to defend violence depicted in films of Cinema Novo as a noble cultural manifestation of hunger. It’s at the violence the colonizer suddenly becomes aware of the existence of the colonized. Some of the notable Cinema Novo films are Rocha’s Black God, White Devil/Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (1964), Antonio das Mortes (1969) and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s How Tasty was My Little Frenchman/Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês (1971). Rocha’s films drew from Western genre (both Hollywood and spaghetti Westerns), taking places in sertão (backcountry- the vast arid region in the Northeast Brazil) and cangaceiros (bandits) and land owners. Steeped in mysticism and political allegory, these films tell stories about class struggles and redemptions. In How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, Pereira dos Santos uses ethnological documentary aesthetics into a period piece that is a biting political/cultural satire which takes The Aesthetics of Hunger quite literally.

      This paper will be an exploration of Third Cinema and its influence and continuation through two recent Brazilian films Bacurau and Divino Amor by directors Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles and Gabriel Mascaro. The directors hail from Pernambuco, the formerly neglected northeast region of Brazil and its capital Recifé. Along with fellow Northeasterner Adirley Queirós (from inland Morro Agudo de Goiás, near the country’s capital Brasilia), they have been making politically charged, genre bending films, countering long dominance of more wealthy southern states’commercialized film industry and ratcheted up their antics after the extreme right wing politician Bolsonaro was sworn in as the country’s president in 2018. I will discuss current Brazilian cinema’s defiance against political tyranny, carrying on if not the aesthetics, but the spirits, of Third Cinema in two chapters. Chapter one will concentrate on anger: Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau. In this violent revenge fantasy, borrowing heavily from genre cinema and tapping into the anger of Third Cinema as expressed by Rocha, the film actively challenges the First World hegemony and recent political climate, critiquing impending ecological peril the country is now facing in the age of globalization. Chapter two will focus on the conseervative regime’s cultural crusade against what they see as decades of ‘moral decline’ under the communist-socialist ideological wing of the country. Mascaro’s Divino Amor, a dystopian tale set in the near future is a barely disguised critique on Bolsonaro’s agenda against minorities and the poor in one of the most culturally, ethnically diverse countries in the world.

Chapter 1: Anger
Bacurau
      Filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho’s two previous feature films Neighboring Sounds/O Som ao Redor in 2012 and Aquarius in 2016, both shot in his hometown of Recifé, were rather subtle, yet pointed critique on rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in a country where people saw growing middle class in a relative economic prosperity under the democratic government after decades of military dictatorship. Both films deal with gentrification and underlying tensions between different classes while giving historical contexts of the region - often written in blood with cattle ranchers and bandits. These tensions, not explicitly stated, were shown in spurts; in Neighboring Sounds, which is from the perspective of a young upper-middle class gentrifier, there is a bath scene where the waterfall turns into blood. In Aquarius, a middle class family matriarch who stands alone against a development company to defend her apartment that she spent her whole life in from being demolished. But she can’t hide her ignorance at her long time housekeeper’s living conditions; while walking on the beach with her old friends, she points to the invisible line in the sands, “Over this line is the part of the town where poor folks live,” and her housekeeper replies, “Yes, Clara. That’s where I live.” Both Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius are far from “ugly, sad films, those screaming, desperate films.”4 described in The Aesthetics of Hunger by Rocha. They are well made films with professional crew and actors and high production value. But they certainly have scathing moments of social commentaries. Still, they don’t prepare you for the tremendous anger felt in Bacurau. co-written and co-directed by Mendonça Filho and his long time production designer Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau is a Sci-fi Western that takes place in sertão in the near future. It’s also a revenge film with almost cartoonish violence inflicted upon its mercenary First World (mostly American) invaders. As Rocha and other filmmakers decried centuries old colonialism by the imperialist First World countries (first by Portugal, then by U.S. in the form of military coup), its repercussions 50 years ago, we get to witness a new kind of colonialism taking place in the globalization era in the form of foreign financial companies and corporations. According to Amazon Watch, a non-profit watchdog group, the devastating fires is the direct result of deforestation brought on by cattle ranching and soy farming, with beef and soy being the two major exports of Brazil. With deregulation and pro-foreign investment favored by Bolsonaro’s regime, big US agribusiness companies like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill, investment firms and banks- BlackRock, T. Rowe Price, Chase, City Bank, Bank of America are major beneficiaries in these transactions.5 In the Bolsonaro era Brazil, it is quite clear that the country is experiencing neo-colonialism.

      In Bacurau, Brazil in the near future is in a state of emergency and government troops are everywhere with road blocks and limiting people’s mobility. Bacurau is a dusty town too small even to be on the map in the Northeast region of Brazil. It 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 lawlessness in urban areas. Teresa (Barbara Colen) is returning to attend the funeral of the town's matriarch. Evading the law and roadblocks guarded by heavily armed government troops, she is bringing medical supplies and water to the residents of the town. There's a shortage of everything - food, water, medicine, household items, tampons, etc. Everything is brought in from the 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 to be falling apart. The town, like any other small town, 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 duly noted by its residents. They turn out to be a sort of a local guide for 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 (any) ‘Third World’ countries and killing its inhabitants with the support of the local government. After a few horrible massacres in the 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. By using Udo Kier, the blonde haired, blue eyed icon of European and American cult cinema (The Story of O, Blood for Dracula), as the leader of the deranged human hunting game expedition and Sonia Braga (Lady on the Bus, Kiss of the Spider Woman) the beloved legendary Brazilian actress (who also stars in Aquarius), as a matriarchal leader of Bacurau, the filmmakers are making an unsubtle point here; it’s us Brazilians versus Europeans and gungho gringos. The violence that Bacurauans inflict on the hunting party way over the top, especially when it’s performed by Lunga, a charismatic leader of the modern day cangaceiros, played by a famous transvestite stage personality and queer activist, Silvero Pereira. It is a bold choice to use Silveira in such a role since Bolsonaro and Pereira have been engaging in verbal jabs in public.6 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 multinational corporations backed by the Government military in a neo-colonial global economy.

Chapter 2: Christianity as a Form of Colonialism
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      Rocha warns in The Aesthetics of Hunger that “what distinguishes yesterday’s colonialism from today’s is merely the more refined forms employed by the contemporary coloniser.” and “Thus, our possible liberation is always a function of a new dependency.”7 In his first film, Black God, White Devil/Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (1964), he calls for denouncing all political and religious doctrine in favor of individual liberty at one with nature.

      2010 census reveals that sixty five percent of Brazilians consider themselves Catholic (down from ninety percent a few decades ago), followed by twenty two percent Evangelical Protestant with numbers of agnostics growing rapidly. Since the Portuguese colonial times, confluence of religions of African slaves and natives, Brazil has always maintained a diverse array of syncretistic practices under the overarching umbrella of Brazilian Catholicism. But it’s that tropical multiculturalism with diverse race, culture and gender is what Brazil has been always known for. While Catholics are evenly split between the right and the left in their political spectrum, Evangelicals are mostly conservative and over the years have become an increasingly influential presence in Brazilian politics. And Bolsonaro’s religious themed presidential campaign spoke to them. His retrograde message was a reaction to the advances they have seen since the 1960s in discussions about the family, the place of women, youth and sexuality. It was a Christian morality that tries to recover an idealized past that never existed. Bolsonaro brilliantly tied the message of ‘political corruption’ with ‘moral decay’, and the voters, suffering from recent recession in need to be dependent upon something, found solace in Bolsonaro’s conservative message.

      Gabriel Mascaro, filmmaker and visual artist, of such sensual films as August Winds/Ventos de Agosto (2014) and Neon Bull/Boi Neon (2015), have been subverting the stereotypes in gender roles. His films are filled with strong women and men with domestically inclined tendencies. With his new film Divine Love/Divino Amor (2019), Mascaro is charting a new territory, using Sci-fi genre (like Mendonça Filho and also Adirley Queirós with their films) to reflect on the current political climate. It's 2027 Brazil. The country has gone full Christian fundamentalist. Mascaro's version of it is all neon and electronic music. Joana (Dira Paes) and Danilo (Julio Machado) are a middle class couple. She is a notary public, working in a gigantic concrete government building and he is a florist, working in their ground floor apartment complex. They haven't been able to conceive a child even though they try every possible way, method and modern medicine. Something is wrong with Danilo's sperm. They belong to Divine Love, a Christian religious group exclusively for couples. It's a cult like therapy/support group for couples who've had marriage troubles before. They do trust-exercises and even share partners in bed. Joana, using her position of power as a bureaucrat, has been discouraging couples who seek a divorce at her job. Her sometimes aggressive tactics don't sit well with her clients as well as her superiors. She constantly visits a drive-thru, storefront church that seems to be in every other corner, to seek advice from a pastor. The god is silent on her questions and her husband's infertility and her faith is waning. Then a miracle happens. She is pregnant. But who is the father? Mascaro somberly reflects on life under the extreme right-wing, religious zealotry of Bolsonaro regime here. The film inserts in just enough details for us to see that the country has changed: women on the beach are wearing head to toe black garb - very much like burkini, every building, businesses and shops have customer identifying prompter at the door, by their name, marital status and whether they are pregnant or not. There is no mention or show of homosexuality whatsoever anywhere. In true Mascaro fashion, sex scenes are very graphic and honest, but only are limited to married couple or consenting adults and only heterosexual. The film is narrated by Joana's child who might be born out of immaculate conception and just might be the savior people have been waiting for, but left nameless and unregistered, because of he is born into religious fundamentalist country which was once was known as the most culturally, racially diverse country in the world that was Brazil, less than a decade ago.

      Along with other countries in Latin America - Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Columbia and others, Brazil was battered with financial crises over the years, but the sound financial structure in place with natural resources, their recovery was quicker and better than the rest of the world. Combined with political stability of Lula years, Brazil’s cinematic output has become more diverse, sophisticated and technologically apt, compared with the films of Cinema Novo days. The intellectual hunger that Rocha talked about in his passionate declaration in The Aesthetics of Hunger, has been largely satiated and anger subsided. But every living organism needs to feed itself constantly to survive. The pang of hunger comes back whenever their stomach is empty. The neo-colonialism brought on by globalization with Bolsonaro helping, that hunger is rearing its head again and in it, the anger is again manifesting. As Mendonça Filho and Dornelles tell in an interview conducted in early 2020, Bolsonaro’s regime is already cutting funding to arts, putting a halt on film productions, compared with record number of productions happening in 2018. But I have no doubt that they will keep making films, as long as they stay hungry.

Sources Consulted:
1. Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Film theory and criticism: introductory readings. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.

2. Chang, Dustin. “Interview: BACURAU Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles.” Screen Anarchy. March 13, 2020.
https://screenanarchy.com/2020/03/interview-bacurau-directors-klebermendonca-
filho-and-juliano-dornelles.html

3. Jeantet, Diane, “Far-right Bolsonaro fires latest round in Brazil culture war.”Crux, January 17, 2020.
https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-americas/2020/01/far-right-bolsonaro-fireslatest-round-in-brazil-culture-war/

4. Lappé, Anna. “Follow the Money to the Amazon.” The Atlantic September 4, 2019
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/follow-moneyamazon/597319/

5. Rocha, Glauber. “The Aesthetics of Hunger” [1965], in Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology, ed. Scott MacKenzie (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), pp. 218-20.

6. Solanas, Fernando and Octavio Getino. “Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences From the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World” [1969], in Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures, pp. 230-50.

7. Shaw, Lisa and Stephanie Dennison, eds. Brazilian National Cinema. Routledge. 2007.

8. Stam, Robert. Film theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 2000.

9. Stam, Robert. Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture. Duke University Press. 1997.

10. Xavier, Paloma. “Vou ali num tal churrasco Bacuralizar’ brinca Silvero Pereira, intérprete de Lunga.” Uai.com. May 9, 2020.
https://www.uai.com.br/app/noticia/mexerico/2020/05/09/noticiasmexerico,258242/vou-ali-num-tal-churrasco-bacuralizar-brinca-silvero-pereirainter.shtml

Friday, May 8, 2020

Self-Discovery in Snark

How to Build a Girl (2019) - Giedroyc
How to Build a Girl
Falling somewhere between Almost Famous and Ladybird, Coky Giedroyc's How to Build a Girl, based on a novel by journalist Caitlin Moran, who also wrote the script, is a fairy dust filled coming of age story that is at times almost too fantastic to be believed. But considering a story of a nerdy 16-year old high schooler from a crowded working class household in Wolverhampton becoming a overnight rock critic sensation has actually happened to Moran, it lends more credibility than one might expect- just a little more amped up with rainbow sparkles. And thanks to Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart, Ladybird)'s electrifying performance, How to Build a Girl is an enjoyable romp that puts an instant smile on your face.

The year is 1993. Feldstein plays Johanna Morrigan, a nerdy but imaginative high schooler who writes to escape her dreadful suburban existence. From the bedroom she shares with her supportive brother Krissi, she writes funny, witty stories and poems while conversing with her literary, philosopher, artist heroes (Sigmund Freud, Sylvia Platt, Elizabeth Taylor, Frida Kahlo, Maria von Trapp and others) who adorn their bedroom wall.

After appearing in a local TV poetry contest to build up her confidence, Johanna applies for a writing gig at a posh London rock magazine even though she doesn't know anything about music. Her funny take on "Tomorrow" from Annie the musical leads her a job interview. Initially brushed off by the cynical writing staff, her persistence pays off and she lands her first gig. Reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, with a fiery red hairdo and a Cabaret style slick outfit, she experiences a rock concert, a plane ride and sex, all for the first time. After interviewing John Kite (Alfie Allen of Game of Thrones), a soulful Irish singer, smitten Johanna writes a schoolgirl crush of a review of his music and gets rejected by her snarky co-workers. She is reminded that there's a difference between being a fan girl and critic, and that one has to be a bitch sometimes. Following that advice to the heart, Johanna turns herself into a queen bitch of the music publishing with a venomous tongue and becomes an overnight celebrity. The sudden fame brings money in and sexual escapades. But her cynicism bleeds into her family and friends and she is flunking school. All of this is happening and Johanna hasn't even turned seventeen yet.

How to Build a Girl easily could have been a 'fame got to her head' cautionary tale. But its sunny disposition never lets the party down. Feldstein's version of super awkward but funny and charming teen gets big laughs. So does Paddy Considine as forever supportive but illegally-breeding-border-collies-at-home-to-support-music-career dad who shows off his drum skills (as Considine is a great musician in real life) and Chris O'Dowd as a twitchy local TV host. Cameo appearances by Gemma Arterton (Maria von Trapp), Michael Sheen (Freud), Sue Perkins (Emily Bronte) among others as Johanna's heroes also lend a sense of levity to the film.

How to Build a Girl is a funny movie largely riding on the charm of its star. Appearing in her first lead role after building a reputation for playing an awkward, overweight besties in high school comedies and a college virgin nerd in What We Do in the Shadows TV series, Feldstein commands the screen as a wide-eyed teenager embarking on a road self-discovery and redemption.

How to Build a Girl is opens in select theaters, digital and cable VOD today 5/8.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Same Misery

Les Misérables (2019) - Ly
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Taking cues from Victor Hugo's eponymous novel, Ladj Ly's film zeroes in on Montfermeil, the suburb of Paris where Hugo's novel takes place. Ly makes a point from the get-go: Montfermeil's face might have changed- mostly North African/Muslim immigrants living in the projects, the poor and the oppressed are still as miserable as Hugo wrote two centuries ago, even though they are all French, cheering on for the same National soccer team at the 2018 World Cup.

Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) just got reassigned to the neighborhood. He is immediately nicknamed Greaser, for his slicked back hair, by Chris, his bigoted team leader and Gwada, his partner who grew up in the neighborhood. Doing the rounds through the neighborhood, Ruiz learns that this youth filled neighborhood has its own delicate socio-sphere where different figures occupying different positions in the community: there's self proclaimed mayor who thinks he is keeping peace, a kebob shop owner who doubles as the neighborhood Imam, a group of muslim brothers visiting and preaching young kids, a drug dealer who has a lot of influence and hot-headed gypsy circus folks with their own army. Ruiz's polite and well-intentioned behavior is frowned upon by Chris who often uses excessive force and intimidation. Chris sees himself as a realist. The world has been this way forever.

Things almost come to a head when the gypsies come charging in the neighborhood demanding the return of the lion cub which was stolen by Issa, one of the neighborhood kids. Chris diffuses the situation, promising the return of the animal. They track down Issa and corner him. But overwhelmed by protesting angry youngsters, Gwada accidentally shoots Issa with a flashgun in the face. And the whole incident is captured by drone camera operated by another neighborhood kid, Buzz.

The film becomes a chaser, where cops (Chris, Ruiz and Gwada) searching for Buzz to get the drone footage before it get put on the internet and ruin their career and Ruiz having ambivalent feelings about the whole situation.

After the lion cub gets returned and Issa, with his face mangled, gets humiliated by the gypsies and Gwada admits to Ruiz that shooting wasn't an accident but rather him losing his temper from all the stress of being a black cop in the neighborhood, The film gets more explosive at the end when the young angry mob take revenge on the cops and other grown ups in the neighborhood. The film ends with a Victor Hugo from the book - There are no bad plants or bad men: there are only bad cultivators", reminding all of us that the future doesn't belong to us but to the young. Les Misérables is a blistering, impactful film that needs to be seen widely.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Extracurricular Activities

La Bande des Quatre/Gang of Four (1989) - Rivette
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Not as playful as Celine and Julie Go Boating or Duelle, Gang of Four, Rivette's late 80s offering, nonetheless features and highlights young famale French actors' talents and charms on full display. They are Fejria Deliba (Anna), Laurence Côte (Claude), Bernadette Giraud(Joyce) and Inês de Medeiros (Lucia). They are roommates living in an old house in the Paris suburb, taking the same theater classes taught by Constance (Bulle Ogier). This leisurely paced film spends half of its time on stage as they (and others) take turns in various roles and play out scenes for Constance, their esteemed teacher, and the other half in extra curricular/theatrical activities outside the stage which involves a slight conspiracy with one of the students, Cécile (Natalie Richard), who just moved out of the house. It is slowly revealed that Cécile and her boyfriend is involved in some crime and it's affecting her ability to take classes and concentrate on her work.

In true Rivette fashion, things are light and fluid; our protagonists' lives reflecting Constance's stage directions sometimes, sometimes not, small intrigues that permeate and preoccupy some of the characters, interconnecting their lives in mysterious ways.

Interesting to see some of the faces who went on to a successful careers - I remember boyish Côte from Téchiné's superb Les Voleurs (1996), and Medeiros from two early Pedro Costa films, O Sangue (1989) and Casa de Lava (1996) and Irene Jacob (Double Life of Veronique, Red) in a non-speaking role as one of the students as well.

So what's next for me in Rivette's filmography? Noroit? Va Savoir? The sky is the limit!