Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Cthulian Horror in the Age of Ecological Devastation

The Beach House (2020) - Brown
The Beach House
Jeffrey A. Brown's low budget debut feature, The Beach House, is a fast moving, effective Lovecraftian horror. It's heavy on mood and light on exposition, which is the best kind of horror in my opinion. An ominous deep-sea underwater sequence with active hypothermal vents releasing plumes of black smoke and heat, even before the title, sets the tone nicely, signaling what's in store for us.

A young attractive couple, Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros), hoping to reconnect, arrives at a remote beach house that belongs to Randall's family. Emily is unsure about Randall's plan of just crashing at the house unannounced. But he insists that they will be alone and undisturbed. Soon they find out that there is an older couple, family friends, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagle), already staying there. But they are kind enough to accompany the two young lovebirds' sharing the house, only if they are OK with it.

It is revealed that Jane is seriously ill and it is kind of a last hurrah for her and Mitch being there at the beach house. While chatting over dinner, Emily is revealed that she is a beauty with the brain, as she is finishing her degree in Organic Chemistry and planning to continue her study in Astrobiology in Grad school, unlike Randall, who has but all dropped out of college. She corrects Mitch on astrobiology that it is less to do with outer space but more about how organisms can survive in extreme environment, on earth. That there's still so much we don't know about the mother earth. But even after all that primordial soup discussion, Emily refuses to slurp down oysters. It's an acquired taste, others quip. That night, they find organic, gooey phosphorus substances have overtaken trees in the surrounding area, glowing blue, both beautiful and otherworldly yet creepy. Is it edibles they have taken together acting up or is it something else?

The next morning, Emily discovers Jane being in a bad shape and Mitch missing. Randall's stomach is acting up too, probably from oysters. Mitch shows up next to Emily on the beach says some creepy stuff and walks into the sea. Emily goes after him only to step on slithery, moving organic creatures strewn about the shoreline. They seem like pods of some kind with tentacles stretching out. Emily freaks out as one of them infects the bottom of her foot. Jane, in the process of turning into something else, is now a crawling mess, and attacks Randall. Those things are in the water system too. Then, a mysterious fog engulfs the area, rendering everyone into a zombie like, crawling creatures in transition. Emily desperately needs to find a vehicle to drive away.

The Beach House keeps moving things along, giving the audience no time for dwelling on why or how and it is better for it. It builds on our preconceptions about the Cthulian myth and other creature horrors we grew up with and leaves it to us to make connections. With countless eco-disasters on the news in our daily lives- global warming, arctic melting, offshore drilling, hurricanes, massive forest fires, unfortunately, it is not hard to accept what's happening in The Beach House is entirely possible.
Liana Liberato, with her raised eyebrows and great athleticism, has a great potential to be a next great scream queen. It's also good to see always great Jake Weber (Snyder's Dawn of the Dead) being in the film.

With 'we come from the sea, we go back to the sea' theme, The Beach House is a top rate gross creature-feature and welcome addition to Lovecraft inspired horror we hold dear.

The Beach House Comes out in the US, Canada, UK & Ireland on AMC's horror streaming platform Shudder on 7/9.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Macho Dance

And Then We Danced (2019) - Akin
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Tradition and love collide in a superb new film, And Then We Danced. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is a dedicated dancer in National Georgian Ensemble, a prestigious and traditional Georgian dance academy under Aleko, a stern disciplinarian. Merab's estranged father was also a dancer who didn't see the future in the traditional dancing and now a mechanic. His delinquent brother David is also in the academy, but his foot is always half-way out the door. A new dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), catches Merab's attention - his skills and masculinity, are well suited for rigidity of Georgian traditional dance, which Merab lacks (according to Aleko). Along with Merab's long time dance partner and childhood friend Mary (Ana Javakishvili), friendships blossom among them.

There is going to be an audition for a male dancer spot in the national dance team, vacated by a dancer who is accused of homosexuality and committed to a clinic. Naturally, Merab and Irakli are strong contenders for this audition. They practice hard while juggling jobs and family life. But their attractions to each other is growing. At the Mary's birthday party, Merab and Irakli make out. The forbidden affair takes hold of Merab, as it's his first love. Irakli disappears and David gets kicked out of the group. In despair, Merab injures his ankle during a practice run. At David's shotgun wedding, Irakli reappears, citing his absence to attending his dying father back home and a girlfriend he will probably need to marry for his father's wishes. And he will probably not come back to the academy. Now Merab is determined to express himself at the audition.

Anchored by Gelakhiani's stellar performance, And Then We Danced is a life affirming coming-of-age film and also a resistance film in the face of rigid and traditional society. Akin's portrayal of young loves and self-expressions are captured with pulse pounding energy and grace.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Familial Truth

The Truth/La Vérité (2019) - Kore-eda
The Truth
Born out of forever adventurous French actress Juliette Binoche's years of insistence to work with Kore-eda Hirokazu, The Truth marks the famed Japanese writer/director's first film shot outside Japan and in non-Japanese language with international cast. And still, it is, in many ways, a very much Kore-eda film: about family dynamics with thorns and all, yet unmistakably gentle and humanistic. The only departure from his filmography I detect (other than not being Japanese) is that the characters aren't ordinary middle to lower class people that he usually portrays in his films. But I guess the prospect of working with a legendary French film star, Catherine Deneuve, made Kore-eda taking on a different direction. If the appeal of Kore-eda's films is in their universality, especially concerning adults in his films such as Still Walking and After the Storm - the innate goodness in people, admitting their shortcomings, small redemptions and letting the past go, The Truth shows that no matter the class distinctions, the concept of a 'family' still rings true to all of us.

The story concerns Fabienne Dangeville (Deneuve), a legendary French film star and her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). Fabienne's memoir titled The Truth is coming out and to celebrate the occasion, Lumir and her American, second-rate TV actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their bi-lingual preteen daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) pay her a visit in a secluded grand mansion where Lumir grew up.

Upon reading the memoir, Lumir finds there are glaring omissions and falsehood from her childhood. For instance, Fabienne never picked up Lumir from school, like ever, unlike she says that she always picked her up even during her busy schedule. Fabienne's defense is , "Actors never tell the naked truth" in public. Everyone's memories are subjective anyway, she quips.

To make the matters worse, Luc (Alain Libolt), a long time devout assistant to Fabienne, calls it quits over not mentioning one word about him in the memoir. Now all the personal assistant duties fall on Lumir - receiving messages, accompanying Fabienne to movie sets, etc., whether she likes it or not- after all, she is her mother.

The catalyst for Fabienne happens when she takes an acting job, a supporting role in a low budget Sci-fi movie, aptly titled Memories of My Mother, by an unknown young director. Her co-star, a rising actress Manon (Manon Clavel), reminds her of her acting rival and close friend Sarah back in the day. It was kind-hearted Sarah who became a mother figure for young Lumir in Fabienne's absences.

Memories of My Mother, this movie-within-a-movie, is about a woman who is terminally ill, so she takes off to space in order to stop the advancing disease. She only comes down to earth every seven years to see her daughter, Amy, grow. She, herself forever young, gets to witness her daughter grow old. Fabienne is playing the old Amy part.

First, Fabienne tries to outdo her perceived rival in acting, scoffing and jabbing with pointy remarks at everyone around her, using her diva status indiscriminately. Then she realizes that Manon, like Sarah, is a genuinely warm-hearted soul and also a talented actress with great potential. This makes her to reassess her relationship with her daughter and people around her.

Is Fabienne character a thinly disguised reflection of Catherine Deneuve? Is The Truth a sly take on real life and movie industry and stardom in the likes of Postcard from the Edge? It is pretty clear that Kore-eda's interest is elsewhere. Given the opportunity to utilize a screen legend, he makes it larger than life, but at the core, The Truth is a superb family drama full of heart.

Fabienne says to Lumir in her defense things like, "I'd prefer to be a bad mother, bad friend but a great actress." It is true that we say the meanest, most hurtful things to those closest to us. Like it or not, we've all experienced it in our family. It's not because we mean it, but rather, because we can (and often shouldn't), precisely because we are family. For Kore-eda, who often examines the concept of family, understands this and creates beautiful, three-dimensional characters and great dynamics here. Deneuve is flawlessly in the role of aging diva. Binoche, a struggling daughter always in the shadow of her mother is also great. Ethan Hawke assumes his goofiness and brings in much needed (self-deprecating) humor and warmth.

With no huge emotional explosions and tearful scene-stealers, The Truth might come across as too subtle. But that's how Kore-eda always has been operating. Even though there is nothing Japanese about the film, he proves that there is universality in family dynamics anywhere. Quietly affecting with superb performances, The Truth is a welcome variation from always reliable Kore-eda.

The Truth opens July 3. Please visit IFC Films for more info.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Outsourcing Feelings

Family Romance, LLC (2019) - Herzog
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Family Romance is a company that provides rental services for human relationships. And it's a fitting concept for Werner Herzog who has always been a filmmaker, documenting vagaries of human life since the 60s, in both narrative and non-narrative forms. Even though his recent 'documentaries' might not be grandiose enough when compared to such classics as Aguirre, The Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo, I think he is an unsung chronicler of human existence, not only to an extent of extreme and obsessive tendencies of us humans, but rapidly changing technology and its philosophical implications with his string of recent films.

Herzog's stance as a filmmaker always has been that films are all an illusion, therefore, there are no distinctions between a narrative or a documentary. Family Romance, LLC certainly plays out like a documentary, with some of the real life subjects playing themselves. But we all know that it is scripted, with unmistakably Herzogian touches in dialog in it. The master filmmaker is again, searching for that ecstatic truth.

We are introduced to Ishii Yuichi, the head of Family Romance, having a rendez-vous with his client's daughter, Mahiro. He is hired to play her long absent daddy because she is bullied in school for not having a father. We see her sheepishly passing by many times, among crowds enjoying cherry blossom festival in a public park. They finally meet and talk. Mahiro, a shy 12 year old girl, slowly opens up over time, accepting Yuichi as her dad.

It's probably Herzog's insistence that Yuichi stops by at Robot Hotel, to ask its owner about incorporating the technology to his business. The filmmaker is obviously making a tenuous connection here with impersonality and dehumanization of face to face service industry and preposterousness of its theatricality and performance. They have creepy male and female robot attendants at the counter, as well as robotic fishes in the fish tank. Family Romance also services 'web influencers' as hired actors posing as paparazzi, following the client on the street, taking pictures in busy streets.

As the 'lie and deception' on Mahiro continues, Yuichi is having an existential crisis. He expresses his fear of getting caught by 'playing many roles' in a fox shrine adorned with fox statues all wearing cute red scarves. Fox is known in Japanese folklore as shape shifters and Japanese people prey often to them when they want change in their lives.

There are Herzogian touches and humors everywhere: in the middle of a session, an old blind oracle gets a loud phone call and of course, Herzog doesn't call it cut or pans away from her but stays with her until she turns off the phone. Yuichi asks the robot hotel manager, "Will robots have dreams?"

Family Romance, LLC is shaped as Yuichi confronting his role as a lie. You feel for Mahiro as she comes to love Yuichi as her father. Where does this relationship take them in the future? Herzog lets us know that it's that sinuous relationship we have with each other as human being that can't be faked with any artificial means.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Majesty shmajesty.

A Hidden Life (2019) - Malick
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His abstract visual poetry of two previous films that left many of his pre-Tree of Life fans in the cold, Terence Malick is sort of back in a straight narrative world with A Hidden Life. Based on a true story of a farmer named Frantz, a conscientious objector in Nazi Austria during WWII. It is a slim and simple film stretched out for almost 3 hour running time. "Injustice is better being suffered than do", says one of the characters in the film. Frantz believed what is right and couldn't bring up to himself to pledge his loyalty to Hitler. He and his family were ostracized by their community and religious leaders for not conforming. And worse, called traitors. The theme rings resonant now with all the horrors that are happening everywhere in the world. Franz Jägerstätter was deified by Pope Benedict XVI (yes that pope who called it quit) into sainthood. His portrait of nature and that of a higher power is admirable. And it's beautiful in its Malickian way as usual. The Austrian Alps is breathtaking in his wide-angle cinematography (by German cinematographer Jörg Widmer). A Hidden Life should be seen on the big screen to experience its majesty.

I admire Malick's world view and his philosophy in general and his use of it in his beautifully photographed, elegant films. But we know that the world we live in now is not that simple. Evils of the world is not that cleanly and conveniently defined. It is not anyone's fault but ours that we live in a complicated society where morality is as murky as milk in tea. Malick's world view, that of the boomers, is nostalgia ridden, black and white world of yesteryears. And clocking at 172 minutes, it's way too long even with all the pretty pictures.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Best Friends

Fourteen (2019) - Sallitt
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Former film critic Dan Sallitt's latest, Fourteen, is an absorbing observation of a lifelong friendship of two women as they struggle through relationships, careers and life. This finely tuned, exceptionally written and superbly acted work is a thing of a beauty. It concerns Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), who have been friends since middle school. They are both in late 20 early 30ish, treading edges of their middle class existence in New York precariously. Mara is a school aid, working on her Masters in education to get a permanent teaching position and Jo is a social worker. As a New Yorker who struggled in my twenties and thirties, their lives are immediately relatable. Mara is a responsible one, Jo is a hot mess. This also, depending on where you fall in the spectrum, completely relatable and have known a friend like Mara or Jo. Naturally, it's Mara who's there whenever Jo is in trouble and needs support. Jo, who has questionable work ethics, possible addiction problems, fucks up a lot at the job and always in need of another. They both are not lucky in romance. Blonde and pretty, Jo attracts a lot of men in her life, but they one way or another realize that she is trouble and end up leaving. Mara is dating on and off bookish programmer Adam (C. Mason Wells) but see other men as well. All their conversations are all natural and go from one subject to another like real life conversation among close friends.

But as Mara slowly settles in her life, Jo's losing a grip on it. It's gotten bad that even the staffing agency wouldn't return her call. She threatens one of her boyfriends with a knife and the incident pushes him to call Mara in the middle of the night. Jo also ends up hospitalized and Mara has to visit her in her parents house on Long Island as she recuperates.

Time passes us by. Life comes at you fast. However we try to care for each other, adulting means less time for your friends. Sallitt is fully aware of this. We can't be there for our best friends 24/7. Is fourteen/hitting puberty the end of all the fun in life? Are we just carrying out a death sentence after that? Mara gets pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl named Lorelei. Jo promises to come and meet her. We don't get to see their encounter, like many events in their lives in the film, until at Jo's funeral. With astonishingly economical edits, Sallitt let us witness the passage of time without missing a beat. With his extremely slim and straightforward filmmaking, Sallitt accomplishes something that is both deeply poignant and beautiful. One of the year's best films so far.

Let’s Get Physical

Aviva (2020) - Yakin

aviva-02 It seems dance movies are in vogue again as of late, with Gaspar Noé's Climax, Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria, Levan Akin's And Then We Danced and Luka Dhont's Girl, among others. Writer/director Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Remember the Titans)'s new film Aviva is a stunning new vision about gender fluidity, in close collaboration with dancer/choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith.

The film starts with Eden, or a part of Eden, played by Smith, in bed and naked, directly looking at the camera, telling us she is indeed playing a part in a movie we are watching. She states the movie is written by a man, and for all intended purposes, she is playing a man named Eden (also played by Tyler Philips). She says it's about her best friend, Aviva. Aviva also is played by a woman (Zina Zinchenko) and a man (Or Schraiber). Confused yet? Yakin plays around with our society's perception of the typical man/woman dichotomy and polysexuality within us all, in an exuberant, sensual, free form filmmaking with the help of the all-professional dancer cast.

Eden (Philips) is a New Yorker recovering from a devastating breakup. He is introduced to Aviva (Zinchenko), an ambitious Parisienne by a mutual friend in Europe. They start their email correspondences and hit it off and they both feel that they are a great match. Aviva takes a leap of faith and decides to come to New York and meet Eden. He is happy about the news of finally meeting Aviva in person, but his expectations are so high, he is somehow afraid of disappointing her or himself.

Whether it was social conditioning, or his preconceived notion, Eden seems to be regarding women not being equal to men. Through the flashbacks of their childhood, we get to see Eden's deep seeded distrust and antagonism toward his feminine side. Can his best friend be a girl? Are all women sexual objects like in porn he incessantly watches?

After they get together, and Aviva decides to permanently move to the US, Eden has a hard time truly connecting with her. He avoids eye contacts while having sex with her, and he'd rather hang out with his buddies at the bar by himself than inviting her in to the fold.

At the same time, with the male part of Aviva (Schraiber), Eden has great time sexually, even though he feels ambivalent about not being on top. In order for Aviva to stay in the US, they have to get married and after a considerable persuasion from his feminine side (Smith), Eden reluctantly marries her. Aviva pursues her ambitions in being a film director and starts exercising her creativity.

If the above description of Aviva's plot is a little melodramatic, that's because it is. The film's strength lies in its daring physicality and energy. To be honest, even though there are plenty of beautifully choreographed dance scenes in the backdrop of New York and Paris streets, in bars and empty warehouse spaces, I still wanted less talking but more dancing. It could've been a little more abstract just seeing graceful human bodies moving in close-up and let them convey the all the meaning.

Using 2 compact, highly mobile Canon C300 high-resolution cameras, Yakin succeeds in capturing those moves in fluid motion. Sensationally choreographed, Smith and co.’s dance interpretations of the push and pull of gender politics, heartache and loneliness, triumphs and soul searching that reside within all of us are all exhilarating to watch and at times, extremely moving.

The traditional notion of gender roles is still a hard concept to let go for many, because of centuries of social conditioning. The dominance of male gaze in mainstream media is well-documented facts. Male nudity, depiction of nude bodies and gay sex are still very much taboo. But as Aviva says with a hopeful smile, at the end of the film that things are changing. Yakin seems to want to challenge these evidently uncomfortable notions with Aviva.

The film's free flowing style doesn't always work - like the scene where little white kids break out rapping in the streets and subways, or male Eden thinking out loud if he wants to spontaneously start singing even though he hates musical are too precious and too self-conscious to work. But its bold, energetic and progressive representation of gender and body politics is sure to be a modern classic in the making.

Aviva opens a virtual theatrical release on June 12. Please visit Outsider Pictures for more info.

Sunday, June 7, 2020


In My Room (2018) - Köhler
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The apocalypse or extinction of human race comes in suddenly and without a bang in Ulrich Köhler's In My Room. The Sci-fi tinged dystopian near future has been the genre of choice for many prominent filmmakers working today. And Köhler, one of the Berlin School directors, is no exception. And he delved in to it previously, in Bungalow (2002). Rest assured, In My Room is not a wistful comedy or action thriller of Hollywood's view of the future. It's realistic version of what if and the reflection of the current consumerist society we live in.

Armin (Hans Löw) is a slovenly TV cameraman in his 30s who is prone to fuck ups. Living in a tiny, unkempt apartment alone and not getting any younger, he is wasting away his life by chasing young girls and getting fucked up. He visits his dying grandma at his father's house. His devorcee father is dating someone new. Other than that, life is uneventful. Then grandma passes away. His father doesn't want to be consoled. So Armin leaves and get wasted looking at party boats floating by in his car, under the elevated highway.

The next morning, he realizes that everyone has vanished. There are empty cars and motor bike strewn about on the road, no attendants at the gas station. The phone has no signal. After building a makeshift pyre for his grandmother in her bedroom, Armin takes off, leaving his father's house on fire. During a joyride in a cop car through the empty streets of small town near Switzerland where he grew up, he finds trapped horses in the tunnel and frees them.

Next time we see Armin, shirtless and fit, is working on some type of hand rigged watermill using the stream. It turns out the rig powers his make-shift home where he irrigates land and grows animals. He goes supply runs on a horseback with a hunting rifle that used to belong to his neighbor, to empty shops and grocery stores. He seems efficiently settled down living by himself, as the possibly only man on earth. One night, a dog snatches his goat calf and he goes after it and falls off his horse after dog attacks him. It turns out the dog belongs to Kirsi (Elena Radonicich), an Italian speaking woman who's been living in a small RV. They haven't seen anyone other than themselves. They could be the only people on earth. They become close. There are still plenty of remnants of the human civilization, like canned food and DVDs and Techno music which they enjoy. But while Armin is pretty much settled in to the environment and accepts the new world, Kirsi remains curious and searching. He wants a child, she doesn't. She wants to see the world and doesn't want to stay with him.

In My Room realistically imagines the apocalypse where you might be the last man on earth and infinite choices we might encounter living in the comfort of the advanced capitalism or remnants of it. You can choose Armin's way, a city boy who seems to be enjoying being a self-made man and content being domestic or Kirsi, who is from a small town, trying to experience the world. The tragedy here is, the comfortable society we led so far gives you way many options, so even if you are the only man and only woman on earth, there is no guarantee that you will end up with each other. Sex and intimacy? Yeah sure. But the couple is seen in a DVD store browsing not only Ben Affleck movies (Kirsi's favorite) but the store's massive porn collection. Köhler seems to tell us that we have so many things to entertain ourselves with, companionship and loneliness take a backseat even at the world's end.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Hatchet Murder Love Story

Lizzie (2018) - Macneil
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Lizzie Borden has been a subject for folklore and American popular culture for a long time. Accused of her parent's sensational, grizzly hatchet murders but never convicted, Borden story has been constantly gossiped and dramatized ever since. Since everything about the murder is a pure speculation, director Craig Macneil, writer Bryce Kass and producer Chloë Sevigny tackle the subject from an unrequited lesbian lovers' angle in an aggressively patriarchal era. And it's an interesting angle indeed.

Sevigny plays Lizzie Borden, a woman past her prime and never married (by the time of murder, she was 32), probably due to her health conditions (she was epileptic). Confined in a victorian house with no electricity (family was wealthy but frugal) with her overbearing father and stepmother, Lizzie rebels, questioning her father's shaky finances and wanting independence.

Maggie (Kristen Stewart), a new young servant from Ireland catches Lizzie's eye and they become close confidents, especially after Lizzie finds out her father started frequenting Maggie's attic room in the middle of the night.

Things build up to the murder like a good thriller - Lizzie's father beheading all her beloved pigeons as a punishment for her insolence, her sexual affair with Maggie, her creepy uncle's shady financial scheme against her father's wealth. As story unfolds in non-linear fashion, we see the murders taking place while the court case plays out. In filmmakers interpretation, it was a completely exacted premeditated murder, not a crime of passion - Lizzie killed her stepmother first, since if father dies first, all his family wealth will go to the widow's family. And to make things easier for clean up, Lizzie (and Maggie) strips naked, sneaked around their victims with the hatchet (the same hatchet her father used to kill her birds) in their hands.

It's a very unsentimental, drama free interpretation of the incident. Cinematography, being in a electricity-less household, is minimal and dark. The main point is made when Maggie visits Lizzie in holding cell during trial. She asks her mistress what she wanted from her. Lizzie says she want them to try. Maggie responds, "You are dreaming. You don't see it. You can't see it. We live in this world, not another." In fact, Maggie moved away to live in Montana where she died of an old age, Lizzie defiantly remain in her home town in Massachusetts. It's very similar to Celine Sciamma's acclaimed hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but with blood and murders, yet strangely subdued. Not bad.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

This Dream We Call LIfe

Der traumhafte Weg/The Dreamed Path (2016) - Schanelec
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Angela Schanelec told me last year that she starts her films with one or two images in her head. Der traumhafte Weg is full of those striking images that might or might not be in communication with each other. The film is probably the most elaborate and complex film in her filmography. It can be seen as less abstract and enigmatic because there is a semblance or ghost of a narrative this time. Yet, it's still all about small gestures, disembodied framing, minimal dialog, seemingly impregnated images - pretty much everything I look for in films. There are two slightly interconnected stories. It begins in a Greek Island in 1984. Theres (Miriam Jacob) and Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) are seen busking in the street, serenading a super lo-fi version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. In the background, there's a clumsy celebration of Greece becoming the member of EU. The young organizers lose control of their white banner and it flutters in the wind. Kenneth collapses at the phone booth at the news of her mother's fatal accident. He will need to fly back to his home in England. With little dialog they exchange, we get the aspirations of these young people before they go their separate ways- he wants to be a musician and she, probably a teacher like her mom. "Do you think that's boring?" She asks before he leaves. No, he says. Kenneth, back in England, tends to his dying mother and his near-blind father. TV is showing caravan of East Germans fleeing Soviet Bloc, taking dangerous routes. The year is 1989. The family tragedy has destroyed him pretty much. Theres, now a single mom back in Germany, gets an acceptance letter at a school in Berlin and she moves there with her young son.

A married couple is on the verge of breaking up in Berlin: they are Ariane (Maren Eggert, Schanelec regular), an actress and David (Phil Hayes), a famed photographer. They have a young daughter. It seems they both are often neglecting their parental duties, partly due to their busy career. Ariane behaves either erratically or absent-mindedly - breaking a glass display case in the bookstore to get her estranged husbands book and having toilet paper stuck to her behind like a tail, flying in the wind like some celebration banner (is she a stand-in for EU?).

These stories very slightly intermingle as if they are total strangers brushing past each other by chance. Schanelec toys with the idea of dissolution of relationship whether it's by unseen life circumstances or self-inflicted. Theres and Kenneth meet again in Berlin after unspecified time (years/decades) has passed in a heartbreaking scene. And they are wearing the same outfit they wore when they were last together. Does the time exist? Is the life all a dream or vice versa? Ken is now a street beggar with a dog. They recognize each other in silence and Theres just walks away. There are a lot of impregnated silences in Schanelec's films and this is no exception. All the things that her characters want to say or could say never get their chances to be heard. Time is a machine that chugs along mercilessly. Ariane is being interviewed at the end of the movie. She is asked if she chose acting as a substitute for conversations she didn't have growing up, as a lonely child. She answers that she is not less lonely because of acting. Der traumhafte Weg traces a path of life and its disappointments. It's very life-like. It's also a profoundly sad film done with very little drama. Grander in scale than any other of her films and much more affecting, it is undoubtedly my favorite Schanelec so far.

Monday, May 25, 2020


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
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
      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 putting a hard brake on this growing Brazilian film movement which is perhaps the most significant since the days of Cinema Novo, and the full impact 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), with cangaceiros (bandits) and land owners. Steeped in mysticism and political allegory, these films tell stories about class struggles and redemption. 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 ratcheting 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 conservative 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
      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” 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) and its repercussions 50 years later, we get to witness a new kind of colonialism taking place in the globalization era in the form of foreign financial conglomerates. 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. 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. 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
Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 5.14.57 PM
      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.” 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 that were 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.

3. Jeantet, Diane, “Far-right Bolsonaro fires latest round in Brazil culture war.”Crux, January 17, 2020.

4. Lappé, Anna. “Follow the Money to the Amazon.” The Atlantic September 4, 2019

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.

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.