Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Anatomy Lesson

Barbara (2012) - Petzold

As a leading figure of Berliner Schule, director Christian Petzold has been portraying 'lost' people in both literal and metaphorical sense: desperate souls cornered into making tough and sometimes wrong decisions brought on by economic hardships in the post-global recession era. In his new film Barbara, even though the setting is East Germany and the year is 1980, that portrayal of characters in (im)mobile state fits well and works superbly here.

It's East Germany and the year is 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a city doctor who gets banished to the country as a punishment when she applies for her exit visa to go west. In her new environment, she is under constant surveillance by secret police and subjected to inspections and body cavity search routinely. Deeply distrustful about her new neighbors and colleagues, she tries to keep a distance and concentrate on what she is good at- taking care of patients, all the while planning her escape to the west with her wealthy West German lover.

A young, good-natured fellow doctor Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) slowly wins her trust with his talent and sincerity. It turns out that he shares a similar history. Andre uses Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp as an analogy for what it's like to be living under communist regime in the 1980s: you want to divert the attention of the spectators (or in this case, of government officials) to obtain a little bit of relief/freedom in a rigid society. And this applies to Barbara's situation as well. There is a mutual attraction growing.

Things get a little more complicated when Stella, a teen runaway from a labor camp with meningitis is admitted to the hospital. She immediately latches on to Barbara. The official policy is to send her back to the camp as soon as she is well. Later Stella confides in Barbara that she is pregnant. Going back to the camp undoubtedly means an end to her unborn child. As the planned escape date approaches, Barbara's personal ethics and morality are being challenged.

Barbara is the fifth collaboration of Hoss and Petzold. As it is revealed at the skype Q & A session after the press screening, the role was written specifically for Hoss. And she is mesmerizing in it. She gives the character a quiet resolve and strength. Deeply moving and humanistic, the film concentrates on the small heroism of one person rather than looking accusingly at a failed ideology.

Barbara screens on Oct. 1, 6pm, Oct. 6, 12:15pm and Oct. 9, 1pm at Film Society of Lincoln Center. For tickets, please go to NYFF 2012 website.


Here (2011) - King
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Music video director Braden King (Bonnie Prince Billy, Dirty Three, Totoise)'s meta-road movie Here isn't quite what he hopes it to be. Filled with beautiful images of Armenia, affable actors (Ben Foster and luminous Lubna Azabal) and poetic audio-visual interludes (by different experimental film artists narrated by Peter Coyote), it tries to invoke a dream state. But the whole set up is pretty much grounded in reality- Will, an American satellite mapping engineer, Gadarine, a semi-famous photographer, a prodigal daughter coming back home. As they travel through Armenian countryside as their projects intersect, they fall in love. There are a lot to admire in Here: Foster and Azabal have real chemistry together and the film is gorgeous to look at. And I wish someone put up the compilation of all the Coyote interludes under one roof. Because I can watch them over and over and over again. I really do think wanderlust, being lost in somewhere not familiar is innate human nature. Will trying to eradicate 'the edge of the world' so everything can be viewed on google map and Gadarine's effort to preserve the fleeting moment of time and place clash despite their attractions. In the age of google, what does it mean being here instead of over there? Why do people have to separate? These are the questions King touches upon but never follows through. I would've liked it a lot more if King went all abstract and non-linear. It's a lofty concept he is playing with, but not fully realized.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beautifying Death

Dredd (2012) - Travis
If anything, the new Judge Dredd movie should be lauded for its unabashed visual aesthetics. Presumably unintentionally, it has taken JG Ballard's body/machine atrocity exhibition to a new height. Dredd's post apocalyptic future narcotic is called 'slo-mo'. It literally serves as stand-in for beautifying death in super slow motion- bullets penetrate and exit bodies, explosions makes human skin ripple like a plastic bag in the wind, flying bodies hit the floor from 100 story building Jackson Pollock style. Dredd (Karl Urban), Rookie (Olivia Thirlby) and Narco king pin Mama (Lena Headey in her quite possibly best role) have little or no back story. It's no nonsense comic book adaptation and doesn't seem to have any qualms being an R rated ultra violent 'this is your brain on drugs' campaign.

3D is totally unnecessary for this movie. If you are still curious, save your money and watch it in 2D.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

No Boys

17 Girls (2011) - Coulin
17 Girls, the debut feature of the Coulins (novelist Dephine and documentary filmmaker Muriel, hailing from Brittany), transcends its tabloid material and digs deeper into what it means to be young and female in the post-global recession era. Based on a real life story of the pregnancy pact in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where 17 girls became pregnant in the same school year, the film tells a story of a group of 16-year-old high school girls in Lorient, an economically depressed, grey seaside town in Brittany, who decide to get pregnant after one of their popular friends, Camille (Louise Grinberg) accidentally gets knocked up.

These girls, neglected at home by busy, working-class parents, living in the post-war-bright-future-never-delivered small town, decide to use their bodies the only way they know how, to express their somewhat distorted sense of rebellion and freedom. Dreaming of a utopian future where everyone takes care of each other and where the childhood friendship lasts forever, the girls decide to get pregnant together in one night at a beach party. Their idea should come across as childish and completely irresponsible, but it doesn't, thanks to the sensitive writing and direction of the Coulins and the portrayal of youth by many of its young actresses. The film achieves presenting something that is much more than a skin deep interpretation of the promiscuous girls gone wild scenario.

The film traipses a territory between Lynne Ramsay and Sophia Coppola sans their ethereal portrayal of youth. Sure, all the girls in the film are cellulite & blemish free and homogenous, looking like they just walked out of a Abercrombe & Fitch catalog, but their camaraderie seems genuine and their collective feelings of hope and despair ring true through their natural interactions. Shot on Canon 1D, 17 Girls almost feels like a documentary- intimate and immediate. More revealing are static shots of various girls in their rooms in their most private, contemplative moments- isolated, vulnerable and full of longing.

The one big difference of this film compared to other teen girl dramas is its lack of male characters. The boys are good for one thing and one thing only- an instrument for getting pregnant, but after that, they are almost non-existent. The girls' utopia has no room for them.

As the due dates approach, their resolve to stay together gets tested and their future seem more uncertain. But when it's all said and done, 17 Girls is a thoughtful memorialization of the fragile, fleeting beauty of youth.

[Premiered at last year's Critics Week in Cannes and featured in this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema, 17 Girls has a limited release on 9/21 in New York and will be available on VOD.]

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bye Bye Cinema

Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) - Tsai
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Minimal dialog, great use of large spaces and framing, Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn is a mesmerizing experience. Taking place almost exclusively in a grand, dilapidated movie theater, this atmospheric, moody, nostalgia driven ode to cinema doesn't sacrifice Tsai's usual theme - isolation and disconnectedness and a bit of eroticism. Exquisite. One of the best shot films I've seen in recent years.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Sea is His Mistress

Remorques/Stormy Water (1941) - Gremillon
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I'm slowly beginning to realize how these non Hollywood oldies are so exceptionally written- the characters are complex and dialog non derivative. It's as if they went against everything you were taught in modern screenwriting class. Surely there are melodramatic flare but nothing seems deliberate and there is no 'hitting right on the nose'. Note that Jacques Prévert wrote Port of Shadows and Children of Paradise among others.
Remorques tells an affair of a sea captain André Laurent (Jean Gabin). The films shows once again, Gabin's greatness- beneath stoney manliness, lies a complicated man who is just as fragile as his sick wife. Michèle Morgan once again, plays a girl who steals Gabin's heart.

There are some Wellesian craftmanship going on here- tracking shots in the wedding banquet and a zooming out shot from the second story window are truly gasp-worthy. Even though it's a seafaring movie and does have some spectacular rescue mission scenes with the miniature boats but everything takes a back seat to the main story. I really loved it.

Too bad I'll miss seeing it on the big screen. :(

Monday, September 3, 2012


Le Pont des Arts (2004) - Green
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Le Pont des Arts' highly theatrical style- actors talking directly into the camera, back to back reverse shots, no overlapping dialog and flat lighting almost threw me off in the beginning but I'm glad I stuck by it. There are two young mismatched couples: Pascal and Camille, both university students and Manuel and Sarah, computer scientist and a classical singer, respectively. It's a ponderous movie about the power of art connecting life and death. It's funny, tragic and touching. Eugène Green seems to have very unflattering view of the philosophy/music/theater establishment. The most hideous scene of all that shows his contempt is Jean-Astolphe (Olivier Gourmet), known as 'the Baroque genius' performing from Phédre in full drag in front of a male prostitute he just picked up. Natasha Régnier plays Sarah who is going through existential crisis. I gave in as soon as I saw her anxiety ridden eyebrows starting to twitch. The main attraction is of course, Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa, a mournful song which is supposed to transcend life and death in appreciation, is indeed heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Loved it.