Thursday, October 6, 2022

Stupid Brave

Pacifiction (2022) - Serra PACIFICTION - TOURMENT SUR LES ILES (2022) Lush in its widescreen presentation, Albert Serra's Pacifiction is perhaps the most cinematically ambitious film I've experienced in a long time. Thoroughly absorbing from beginning to end, its 2hr 45min runtime is completely justified in my book.

Rotund Benoit Magmiel (The Piano Teacher) plays a sleek French High Commissioner named De Roller on the French Polynesian island. I'm convinced that all hunky sharp featured young French actors would eventually hit middle age and end up looking like Gerard Depardieu, without fail. He has to navigate through the angry locals, outside interests, a Navy commander and his marauding troops, to find out whether there is any truth to an international conspiracy that they, whoever they are, will be resuming nuclear bomb testing in the South Pacific.

De Roller, sweating profusely in pimpy white suit and loudly flower patterned shirt hanging out in his hotel resort and clubs, thinks he is wheeling and dealing, making deals to prevent, in the name of the Republic, what’s coming. It’s a glamorous game. At one point one of the character says it's like a James Bond movie but without all the explosions and action and stuff. But they don't get far. The suspects are too tight lipped and not easily swayed by all De Roller offers. You feel that there is a futility in his actions. That he is in way over his head. That whatever it is, is beyond his scope. Where are these men taking local prostitutes out on a boat in the middle of the night? Are there nuclear submarines lurking under the turquoise water? With this thin narrative, Serra paints his own Hearts of Darkness with big brush strokes.

Pacifiction is not dissimilar to Claire Denis's White Material or her most recent Stars at Noon, when it comes the hubris of White colonialism in its misguided superiority complex, and manifest destiny. But Serra's narrative scarcity makes Denis's films feel like reading a dense instruction manual for a washing machine by comparison.

But what's offered in Pacifiction is its grand scope and risk-taking in cinematic filmmaking, much like braving the unrelenting massive waves in the film - the surfing competition in real time with actors actually braving the choppy water, wakes your cinematic senses and wonder; the scene is so unbelievably stupid brave and stupid dangerous, you wonder out loud if this spectacle was meticulously organized or improvised on the spot (the after screening Q&A indicates the latter).

As the wild goose chase ensues for another two hours after the surfing competition scene, you are hooked, as if hypnotized by all the colors and beauty that only South Pacific can offer.

The cold war is never over in the minds of white colonizers. It's a dated stupid game they play, even in paradise. Yet as the world is hurtling towards the global climate catastrophe and a possible nuclear war, Pacifiction doesn't seem too far-fetched or too fictional. I loved every minute of it. It is undoubtedly my favorite film of the year so far.

Compulsion to Create

Showing Up (2022) - Reichardt Showing up Michelle Williams plays Lizzy in this wry comedy about perseverance of artists and their compulsion to keep on creating, directed by Kelly Reichardt (First Cow, Certain Women). Showing Up is as guileless and minimalistic as usual with all Reichardt’s films and conveys so acutely what it is like to be middle-aged working artists who struggle with self-doubt, professional jealousy, social ineptness, etc., yet keep chugging along, because creating art is the only thing they know.

Lizzy is a frumpy sculptor who works at an art college in a woodsy small-town Oregon. She has a new art show coming up at a small gallery in town but having a hard time concentrating on her work, because life keeps getting in the way – her landlord Jo (Hong Chau, Watchmen Series), who is also an artist and preoccupied by her 2 upcoming shows and keeps delaying fixing the boiler. Lizzy's cat is intent on destroying everything she owns, her divorced parents are always pestering and ever so slightly trying to undermine her achievements in that typical parents' way.

We are introduced to a smalltown art community that exists in every quaint college town where everyone knows each other – Lizzy’s mom is also an administrator at the college and shares an office where she also works. There are annoying colleagues who are less than cooperative at sharing the workload and others she has hots for but won’t reciprocate her feelings back, and even worse, sleep with her nemesis number one, Jo.

Many films on art and art-making, the centerpiece is usually the art itself. In those films, we are reminded of the transformative power of art and the suffering the artists must endure to produce such sublime masterpieces that inspire us all. In Reichardt’s film the art itself is secondary. The perserverance of their creators is.

Williams embodies this down and out creative person without all the backstories written down for her. It’s in her dour mannerisms. It’s in her unsmiling expressions. It’s in her pair of white Crocks and her baggy sweatpants. It’s in her stares of envy when she sees Jo’s large installation pieces.

Andre Benjamin is great as a hunky colleague from the school, so is Judd Hirsh as somewhat famous artist dad who is very supportive, so is Maryann Plunkett as judgmental mom. Hong Chau shines as Jo, a self-confident talented artist who is better in every department in life than Lizzy. But however different they are, at their stages in life, there is a mutual admiration for their craft because no matter what, they share the same compulsion to create.

Unlike the cynical satire of Art School Confidential or Ghost World, where every art school cliché is closely examined and made fun of, Showing Up is stripped down to concentrate on the act of creating. When we were young and in art school, we all thought that we were going to be a famous artist someday, having our work shown in New York galleries and become rich and famous. Some of our peers did become successful in their careers, but most of us didn’t.

As we grow older, us creative types take day jobs to make a living, and do our art on the side. We discuss and lament about not choosing the more lucrative professions, whatever that might have been. We lament about us getting close to making it. But as luck would have it, we didn’t while others did. There’s certain melancholy associated with that. But we don't dwell on that anymore. Life goes on.

Showing Up is emblematic of small pleasures we get from our creations that success doesn’t measure in fame and fortune. It’s self-satisfaction of showing up every day to your studio (or basement, or shed, or garage) and create.

This perserverance manifests itself in the form of a pigeon who was attacked by Lizzy's cat and taken in first by Jo, because of course, she knows how to fix the broken wing of a pigeon, then handed down to take care of by Lizzy, who secretly feels guilty. But the bird wouldn't die! And finally flies away at Lizzy's art show opening night.

Funny and light yet packed with so much daily life wisdom with great, natural performances by everyone involved, Showing Up continues to showcase Reichardt as a unique voice in American film scene.

Fallen Maestro

Tár (2022) - Field Tar I’m sure parallels between conducting and directing was not lost in Todd Field when he conceived the idea for Tár. With the film, he breaks 16 years hiatus after critical success of his dark suburban melodramas (In the Bedroom and Little Children), and proves himself to be a maestro, by directing, producing, and writing the film about the famed conductor, getting great performances out of great international talents. I’ve been closely following his career trajectory as he was supposed to adapt and direct Jonathan Franzen’s Purity as a showtime miniseries, since book has been my favorite of the last decade. And I was sad to learn the news when it didn’t materialize. But with Tár, he presents himself incontrovertibly to be Hollywood’s best kept secret.

Talking about gender equality in the face of sexual misconduct in the social media era, Todd Field's biting and grandiose character study Tár is at once current in its sexual politics and old fashioned in its rise and fall narrative of its subject. The film's astute observation of today's social climate and brisk pacing reminds me very of David Fincher's Social Network (but not its Adderall induced choppy editing). But unlike Fincher's precisely timed zeitgeist Facebook saga which was geared mainly toward millennials, where everything felt like kids-playing-in-adults’-clothes, Tár, heavily relying on the strength of Kate Blanchett's towering performance, feels very much a grown-up film.

Lydia Tár (Blanchett) is first seen nodding off on the private jet. Someone's recording her with their phone while texting. These first frames of the movie sets the somewhat ominous tone of what’s to come. Maestro Tár is one of the select few EGOT- Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards recipients, and a resident conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She divides her time between New York and Berlin, gives interviews, teaches at Julliard, drives her kid to school, takes meeting with her mentor and fellow conductors in fancy restaurants and hotel rooms. She is preparing the live music recordings of the much coveted piece within classical music circles, Mahler's 5th Symphony.

Field is quick to establish the ecosphere of the famed figure’s lifestyle - a Porsche, a private jet, a big cement architectural house in Berlin where she shares with a famed violinist Sharon (Nina Hoss, Barbara, Phoenix) and their adapted pre-teen daughter Olive. The lengthy TV interview she gives in the beginning also greatly reveals her public persona - a well-educated and well-traveled woman and how she broke the ceilings of white male dominant conducting world and how she learned to appreciate music from her mentor Leonard Bernstein. But perhaps being modest, she doesn't see herself as a trailblazer. 'Being a woman' was neither disadvantageous or beneficial to her success.

Another revealing, lengthy scene takes place at her Julliard classroom where she teaches young students. She mercilessly scolds a young man, who identifies himself as an BIPOC LGBTQ, for refusing to play Bach because he sees Bach as a white male misogynist who sired 20 children from several different women. She makes a point that but it's not the musician's private life but the music he produced that matters, which transcends gender, political, cultural, and even temporal boundaries.

It takes a long while, but the elegant, graceful, and glacial façade of Lydia sees little cracks appearing. There’s an early indication that Lydia is suffering from paranoia. She can’t sleep easily in neither of her houses – the big house she shares with Sharon and the small dilapidated flat she kept since her early Berlin days for work, and/or for secret rendezvous, because she hears noises in the middle of the night. She feels the presence that some one is watching her. She hears unseen woman screaming for murder in her jogging route in the woods.

The arrival of Olga, a young Russian Cello protégé, and Lydia's favoritism toward her also raises few eyebrows among the orchestra members. Surely young Olga is very talented and deserves the spot as a new cellist in the orchestra. But her incredibly obvious and almost creepy affection on display irks even her most ardent supporters, including Sharon, who stood by her all these years. Is Lydia’s self-deprecating U-Haul lesbian joke just another façade? Her trusty assistant Francesca (Nóemie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is unhappy with how Lydia handles the suicide of the pupil, whom they both obviously had affections for. After finding out Francesca still corresponded with the girl prior to her death, Lydia passes her up as her assistant conductor. Francesca soon disappears without any notice.

In the center of it all, is Blanchett in her blistering and physical performance. It’s a showy and hammy role specifically written for her by Field. Lydia Tár is just as much a juicy role for an actress to play as Daniel Plainview is for male actors. It’s a role that requires confidence and authority that no other actresses in her generation possesses. Blanchett is particularly suited for the role specifically because she was never young in her film career. It’s because she was always old. She has never been an ingenue. This is why she is perfect as a predatory older woman who can be just as ignorant and arrogant in her behavior as any man in power. It’s also her dedication to the role- learning to speak German, how to play piano and conducting that is truly impressive.

The long epilogue of the film and Blanchett’s performance as she confronts the sexual degradation is heartbreaking.

Field really achieved something remarkable with Tár. It’s one of those big character driven film that is rare to be made nowadays. With its mesmerizing closeups and Blanchett’s commanding performance, the film is spectacular on the big screen. Go see it big.

After Venice and New York Film Festival premiere, Tár opens in theaters this Friday via Focus Features.