Thursday, October 27, 2016

Herzog Vs. The Volcano

Into the Inferno (2016) - Herzog, Oppenheimer
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It's not the first time Werner Herzog has delved into an explosive subject.

In 1977, he rushed down to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, because he was told that La Soufrière, the island's looming volcano (and also the title of his resultant film), was about to erupt. All its inhabitants fled. But that eruption never happened. Instead, he found three people who stayed behind and ended up talking philosophically about their attitude toward death and their belief system.

During another volcano trip in 2006, this time in Mt. Erebus while filming Encounters at the End of the World, a film about Antarctica and its quirky inhabitants, he met enthusiastic young volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer. Even though Mt. Erebus and Oppenheimer never made it into the film, the two men struck up a friendship. After the volcanologist's book Eruptions that Shook the World was published in 2011, they decided to make a film together.

This collaboration here is special. Unless the person is his subject, never in Herzog films have I ever seen this kind of rapport before, but Oppenheimer, a Cambridge academic who prefers field work, does the great job being the filmmaker's surrogate. The questions he asks the various subjects here are most definitely Herzogian. It also helps that he is a big fan who is familiar with the filmmaker's filmography.

In Into the Inferno, this dynamic duo, in true Herzogian fashion, takes us to various volcanoes around the globe -- from North Korea to Ethiopia to Iceland to the Vanuatu Archipelago -- and touches upon the impermanence of human existence on literally 'thin crust' and the awesome power of nature and our belief system. Because he is armed with tons of awe-inspiring archival footage of molten lava flowing inches from the screen and exclusive access to the remote, isolated places, we are once again at the hands of a prolific master storyteller who keeps on churning out his contemplations on the vagaries of human existence every chance he gets. (The funding came from Netflix and the film will be premiering globally on October 28.)

We start in Vanuatu, where the team is looking down at the center of the active volcano. The bright orange of bubbling magma has a hypnotic effect. Herzog's long time cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger too seems having a hard time looking away from it, following its glowing, spewing trajectories over and over. Then we travel to Indonesia's Mt. Sinabung where they narrowly escape a deadly eruption, and then visit Mt. Merapi on Java, one of the most sacred volcanoes to its people. The chief and his son of the tribe, discusses the spiritual implications of living on the slopes of the volcano.

The film talks about the pivotal role volcanoes have played in everything from farming, migration and religion. So we find ourselves in an archeological dig in Ethiopia, serendipitously come across a renowned paleoanthropologist Tim White and his team, working on digging up bones of 20,000 year old human, remarkably preserved because of volcanic activity nearby. Oppenheimer helps out, brushing off dirt in Danakil desert, the lowest and the hottest place on earth.

We are hoisted over to volcanic island nation of Iceland where national identity is closely co-mingled with volcanoes: Codex Regius, Iceland's most precious posession, an ancient text that tells of a tenth-century volcanic eruption. As we all remember the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull volcano that caused massive air travel disruptions. All these surroundings spawned religion and myth making.

Then we are in North Korea, on Mt. Paektu; a dormant volcanic mountain with a giant caldera lake. The mountain is the sacred setting for the Korean creation myth and also the communist revolution led by Kim Il-sung, the nation's eternal leader. Herzog places emphasis on how Kim co-opted the symbol of national identity to his own myth making.

Mt. Paektu garners little interest outside Korean peninsula but Herzog explains that through Oppenheimer's connections, he jumped on the opportunity to film in North Korea, the most secretive, isolated country in the world. Even though Herzog can't get personal opinions out of North Korean guides and its scientists, he and Oppenheimer gets unprecedented access (I'm sure it took Herzogian persuasion and mind-controlling of his own) into the seldom seen, majestic view of the mountain.

We move on to the religion in Vanuatu that centers around American G.I. named John Frum, who will return and bring 'cargos' of prosperity and wealth. Its literal combination of Waiting for Godot/My American Uncle is fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

Herzog, once again, demonstrates his unparalleled ability in storytelling, weaving vastly different elements from world over -- music, belief systems, natural phenomena, and contemplates the entire human existence build upon the not-so-permanent ground. It's also not short on Herzogian quotes: "The volcanoes could care less about scurrying roaches or retarded reptiles or what we are doing up here." The Ethiopian desert and North Korea scenes runs a little too long without contributing much, but they showcase Oppenheimer as our very likable guide and a scientist who can explain things in very easy terms.

Many of his films have been about man's desire to conquer nature, and failing miserably, Herzog makes a point that however benevolent the volcanic activities are to us, such as creating breathable atmosphere and nutrient rich soil for farming, it might cause the end of the world as we know it. Into the Inferno is yet another entertaining philosophical musing -- the second offering this year, after his Lo, and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World -- from the master storyteller. And I couldn't be happier.

Into the Inferno opens in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 28. It will also be available to stream on Netflix worldwide on the same day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Top Ten Great Underseen Horror Movies Suggestions for Halloween 2016

I've been thinking of compiling list of some great, underrated, underseen horror movies for Halloween for the longest time. But I never got around to it. This year, before October is over, I decided on accomplishing this task, even if it takes my precious weekend or two. So without further a do:

Pontypool (2008) - McDonald
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Pontypool gets played more than any other film in my household. A virus in the language is making people get stuck in the loop and turning them violent. It has great, always watchable Stephen McHattie (poor man's Peter Weller or vice versa) as Grant Mazzy, a redneck shockjock in Pontypool, some snowy north nowhere up in Ontario, holed up in his radio station with his producer Sidney (McHattie's real life partner Lisa Houle) and their young assistant. They have to figure out how to stop the outbreak before hordes of infected break in to the station. Snappy dialog, claustrophobic setting and plenty of great humor, Pontypool is a great example of what can be achieved with very little. It's so much fun!

Wolfen (1981) - Wadleigh
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A surprisingly elegant urban legend film. Drawing a parallel btwn gentrification and territorial war, Wolfen is a very well done atmospheric supernatural horror. A lot of great 80s actors- Al Finney (cop), Tom Noonan (zoologist), Gregory Hines (coroner), young Diane Venora(looking like a brunette nastassja kinski and not annoying for a change), and Edward James Olmos (sexy Native American construction worker) all take parts in the plot with a strong environmental message. It also has a lot of great visual details and gritty NY settings. The Bronx looked like a war zone back then, victim of years of neglect, drugs and landlords intentionally burning down tenement buildings for insurance money. And there are spectacular shots of Manhattan skyline from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. With lots of dusk and morning shots, New York looks all very empty and lonely. And how they managed to wrangle all these real wolves in Battery Park is anyone's guess. Pretty awesome movie.

Mulberry St (2006) - Mickle
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Nowadays I find surprises and originality in low budget horror movies more often than not. I hate movies which I can guess where it's going within 5 minutes. Just like this year's some of my favorites, Mulberry Street surprised me. It is shot in such a way even snobs would find pleasing: natural lights, minimal showyness and meandering tracking shots. Unknown actors look like they came off the set of a new Carlos Reygadas movie with a dash of New York ugly realism. And they are all very good.
Mulberry St concerns a group of working class families in a tenement house about to get evicted because of a big time developer. Rats are gone crazy and start attacking people and turning them into a ravenous rat zombies! Sounds ludicrous I know and the sappy ending was disappointing but it has a lot in it that you don't see in movies much these days. I recommend this.

As Above, So Below (2014) - Dowdle
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The concept of As Above, So Below poses a metaphorical quandary- dig deep and you will find a personal hell, deeper still then, you will find your way out. All the genre trappings and stupidities aside (a token black dude, attractive 20 something professionals with multiple Ph.Ds, the Philosopher's Stone, etc.), the film is an effective and creepy horror thanks largely to its narrow, snug, claustrophobia inducing underground tunnel setting.

Phase IV (1974) - Bass
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The planets' unusual alignment in the solar system causes ants in New Mexico desert to gather collective intelligence and advance their territories, killing off all the other animals around them. From a shiny, teched-out bio-dome, Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, sort of workingman's James Mason) and his reluctant, number inclined assistant James (Michael Murphy) are trying to gather information on these super ants. Hubbs is a determined man and he will stop at nothing, even if it means sacrificing other humans around him. And soon they find that they are no match for these pesky creatures.

After being (accidentally) orphaned, a young, horse-riding, luminous country girl (Lynne Frederick) from the nearby ranch, also becomes marooned inside the dome and under attack.

Phase IV is a fascinating film. It's like Jaws but instead of one shark, you got thousands of ants trying to outsmart you. With effective extreme closeups and unexpectedly gorgeous visuals and the 70s pseudo science wtf-ness, it is a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Parasomnia (2008) - Malone
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A creepy 90s throwback of a movie in terms of tone and look, Parasomnia is an all together a different, fresh horror film compared with the current, too-clever-for-its own-good horror trend. While visiting his friend at the hospital, art student Danny falls for Laura (Cherilyn Wilson), a virginal sleeping beauty who suffers from a medical condition which makes her sleep away most of her life, only waking up for short period. Determined to 'save' her, Danny sneaks her out of the hospital into his pad, only to find out that she is under the spell of mass murderer and mesmerist Volpe, who is chained and gagged in the same hospital she's been staying at. Bloody murders are happening around Danny and Laura even attacks him in her sleep state. And cops are looking for Laura and the murderer. Danny has only one way to save Laura, kill Volpe!

Part Nightmare on Elm St., part deranged Tim Burton movie charting almost Clive Barker territory, Parasomnia is a totally above average horror/fantasy flick. Willam Malone's imagination is up there with early Bernard Rose (Paper House, Candy Man) in my book. Oh, horror great Jeffrey Combs shows up as a cop.

Starry Eyes (2014) - Kolsch, Widmyer
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Perhaps the best satire on Hollywood since Mulholland Dr. Alex Essoe kills it as Sarah, an aspiring actress dreaming a big break while working at Tatertots (fictional equivalent of Hooters) and sharing a bungalow apartment with other twenty something dreamers who spend their time talking about making it near the pool. It's a life of daily humiliations and heartbreaks. Lanky and awkward, Sarah suffers from anxiety attacks where she distorts her long body and pulls her hair out. She auditions for a mysterious horror project, Silver Scream. The audition doesn't go well, but a scary lady who was at the audition witnessing Sarah's fit in the bathroom gives her a second chance. She has a meeting with a sleazy, old producer of the project. He wants her to bare it all, body and soul. He wants her to go all the way and she gets scared and runs away.

Starry Eyes is part body horror, part devil worshiping cult and part boulevard of broken dreams movie. Essoe's pretty amazing in a demanding role with unusual vulnerability and ferocity. She is our new Barbara Steele. A superb horror.

Eddie, The Sleepwalking Cannibal (2012) - Rodriguez
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A once famous Danish painter Lars (Thure Lindhardt) gets a job in some snowy art college in a small town Canada. His intention is pure - he wants to teach and maybe start working on a new project ten years after his initial success in a tranquil, solitary environment. The town's suspicious inhabitants are hostile and the college folks are eager to use him as a savior as the school is in need of cash. In order to make good with the folks at college, he agrees to take care of Eddie, a big mute manchild whose aunt had been a sole funder for the school. There is one problem though. Eddie has a tendency to sleepwalk in his underwear and eat small animals in the woods.

Lars finds his new friend's appalling habit but also compelled by the carnage the sleepwalker leaves behind. He finds an inspiration for blood and gore for his new painting, just like he broke out in the art scene ten years ago after experiencing a catastrophic accident. In order to pump out new paintings, he needs to encourage Eddie to sleepwalk and ...kill. The great Stephen McHatty and his Pontypool co-star Georgina Reilly make an appearance. Another fun,wry horror comedy from Canada.

Triangle(2009) - Smith
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Jess (Melissa George) is having a bad day. She is invited to take a day trip with a group of people on a yacht by Greg who frequents the restaurant she works at. But by the time she gets to the harbor, she is exhausted by taking care of her autistic son at home. Not long after they set sail, a freaky electrical storm capsizes the boat, the crew gets on board of a giant, empty ocean liner that appears out of nowhere. For Jess, everything seems so familiar. She is experiencing nightmarish deja vu.

A talented Brit Chris Smith (Creep, Black Death) directs this tightly done mindfuck of a movie, reminiscent of Time Crimes and Memento. The logic and moral of the movie are highly questionable if you think about it too hard, but while watching it, it's great shameless fun. Aussie George is fast becoming my favorite scream queen, ever since her appearance in Mulholland Dr. as the freaky 'it' girl.

Goodnight Mommy (2014) - Franz, Fiala
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As far as creepy twins movies go, Goodnight Mommy tops it all. Impeccably executed and acted, this Austrian chiller rubs shoulders with Funny Games on cringy inducing level. It is no surprise then that the film is directed by the wife and the nephew of Ulrich Seidl. It's quite an achievement what they pulled out from the young real twin brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz.

We are introduced to preteen twins, Lukas and Elias, playing in the corn field, then near the lake. Colors are lush and vibrant you can almost smell the warm Summer surroundings. Something dark and sinister is hiding just around the corner. You can feel it. Then there is mom (brave Susan Wuest), whose face is bandaged like a mummy. She is cold and distant and barks orders at Elias and doesn't seem to acknowledge Lukas's presence. It becomes pretty clear that Lukas doesn't really exist and that something terrible has happened before. But there is scarcely any dialog for the first half of the film. They are in the hiding in the ultra modern house in the country, away from Vienna. Lukas is feeding his brother some unspeakable thoughts: our mother isn't really our mother. We need to find out where our mother is from that woman who is not her. From then on, Goodnight Mommy slowly slips into very dark, dark territory.

Franz and Fiala really know how to build tension without the help of music or dialog. Goodnight Mommy is quite a feat for visual storytelling. Images, shots and editing matters. Not quite formalist approach of Seidl but the images have power in this film.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Lost City of Z, for an adventure movie, lacks bravado

The Lost City of Z (2016) - Gray
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The Lost City of Z, an unabashedly old fashioned, bows-and-arrows school boy fantasy based on David Grann's non-fiction bestseller of the same name, stars Charles Hunnam as a British army officer turned explorer, Col. Percival Fawcett, who had a perilous obsession with the Amazon jungle.

Despite years of being stationed overseas and proving his leadership abilities, according to his sneering superiors Fawcett "had a bad choice of his ancestry" -- his father was a drunkard and a gambler, and therefore forfeited his advancement in the army. With the help of the uppity Royal Geographical Society, together with Britain's interests in rubber industry in the Amazon, Fawcett is granted an expedition into Eastern Bolivia to map the fuzzy Bolivian and Brazilian border deep in the jungle.

The two-year expedition means being away from his spirited wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his young son, Jack. But man must do what he's got to do -- to restore his family name in good standing in a rigid society and be a hero and whatnot.

Fawcett's small team, including Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Manley (Edward Ashley) with an Indian guide, goes up the river only to be attacked by various Indian tribes and suffer diseases and hardship. But the explorers not only find the source of the river, they also find evidence of an ancient civilization: broken potteries and sculptures of human figures.

After returning home, Fawcett becomes an advocate against the general notion of the natives of America as arrow chucking, cannibalistic savages who are forever stuck in the early Iron Age. Finding the lost civilization in the Amazons becomes an obsession for him.

With the backing of rich patron/fellow explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyan), Fawcett and his team set out a second expedition, despite angry objections from Nina. When disease and the unforgiving climate of the jungle becomes too much for out-of-shape Murray, they have to abandon the mission. At home, the accusations fly and Fawcett strains his ties with the Royal Geographical Society.

The first World War interferes with Fawcett's obsession as he is sent to the frontline, where he sees many of his friends die and himself getting injured in the horrific battle of Somme. Now nearing 50, and his son Jack a young man, father and son try once again to find the lost city.

You can't escape the shadow of Werner Herzog when it comes to making a film set in the Amazon. Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, about a man's obsession and his futile attempt to wield the course of nature both spiritually and physically, are towering examples to measure up to. All the hardships and suffering in the making of these films are justified by the breathtaking end results.

It might not be fair to compare, since Gray is a very different kind of filmmaker, who prides himself in emotionally fine-tuned dramas. Despite all the glorious pretty picture show, well-rounded characters and fine acting don't really suit the adventure genre. But that's just it. His attempt at showing 'it's the journey not the destination' lacks a proper bravado and zeal, constantly interrupted by Fawcett struggling with domestic life and in finding his stature in the rigid society.

Shot on 35mm by Darius Khondji (who also shot Gray's period piece The Immigrant), The Lost City of Z is a very handsome movie. Gray does his best to be faithful to the source material and instill every character with humanism. But I find Nina Fawcett's proto-feminist character too propped up to be believable in otherwise this male-oriented adventure film.

There is nothing particularly wrong with The Lost City of Z. I buy that one man's obsession -- 'a man's reach should exceed his grasp' -- is a worthy subject for a movie. Obviously, it's much less offensive than that last Indiana Jones film or Apocalypto when the depiction of natives are concerned. But do we need another film about a white man's journey to validate another culture's worth in this day and age?

The Lost City of Z (and as well as The Immigrant), as a sumptuous and elegant epic it might be, doesn't quite justify all the effort put in by everyone involved.

The film had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. It is being distributed by Amazon Studios in theaters in early 2017.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Elle: Paul Verhoeven Doubles Down on Making a Rape Comedy

Elle (2016) - Verhoeven
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In the age where a presidential candidate says he's grabbed women by the pussy and still has a chance to win, Verhoeven doubles down on the impossible task of making a rape comedy. The king of bad taste, known for such classics as Starship Troopers and Showgirls, Verhoeven has always been walking the fine line between vulgar entertainment and satire while enjoying pushing buttons a little too much. It's a rare gift for a filmmaker to be having a cake and eat it too -- there are no wink-wink moments or obvious strings of the puppet master seen in his films and actors all seem to play straight without irony. But whenever you watch his films, you can feel 'all the world's a stage' vibe. And Elle is a terrific entertainment.

Elle is made possible because of Isabelle Huppert. The most fearless actress of our time, she dives right into the role of Michele, a callous woman who gets raped by a masked intruder and has to deal with the aftermath. The film starts with the said rape in black screen with the sound of glass breaking and beating and moaning. After the incident, Michele carries on as if nothing has happened. She changes all the locks in her luxurious apartment, chides her cat for not gauzing the rapist's eyes out while it was happening, goes to work and dinner parties. As the head of the company which makes sexually violent video games, she complains to her much younger male programmers that the prototype graphics for the next project is not shocking enough. When she announces her experience matter of factly at the dinner party to her friends and her ex, they were flabbergasted by her not calling the police and how calm she is. She gets dirty texts from the assailant and gets somewhat aroused by them. But who is he?

Elle is not a revenge thriller per se. Not quite whodoneit either. Like many of Verhoeven's other films, it is a hard to pin down film. Not as over the top and sentimental as Almodovar nor as clinical and visceral as Cronenberg, but it's so deftly and slyly done, you can't not enjoy it even though rape is not a light subject to joke about. Destined to be controversial and definitely a conversation starter, Elle highlights two artists at the top of their game.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Kelly Reichardt's Back in Form with Certain Women

Certain Women (2016) - Reichardt
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Certain Women signals that American indie auteur Kelly Reichardt is back in form.

In my opinion, Night Moves, her attempt at an eco-thriller starring Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, was a small misstep in her otherwise spotless filmography. Her strength lies in her minimalist approach to depicting the inner lives of lonely people inhabiting her beloved Pacific Northwest, not in complicated plots or building up tension or presentation of violence.

If her newly restored/rediscovered debut film Rivers of Grass gave a nod to Bonnie and Clyde and old noir films, with Certain Women, Reichardt does Altman -- an ensemble cast and loosely connected stories, based on short stories (by a Montana Native, Maile Meloy). But it's still very much Reichardt's film: with muted tones, a sense of melancholy and loneliness, Certain Women excels at dramatizing small, minimalistic character studies that are distinctly small town Americana. Also, many of her films placed women in precarious situations to observe, but I think this is the first time that she is exclusively telling women's stories.

Three slightly interconnected stories, taking place in Montana -- still very much Reichardt's territory -- feature Laura (Laura Dern), a small time lawyer; Gina (Michelle Williams), an overachieving professional and wife/mom; Beth (Kristen Stewart), a newly minted adjunct teacher of a nighttime adult education class; and Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a ranch hand who has a crush on her.

Laura's story has to do with a client of hers, a disgruntled mechanic (Jared Harris) who was injured at the job, but took an early settlement. So he can't sue his former employer. He keeps coming to her office, asking her to check his file again and again. Until she takes him to another lawyer for the second opinion on the case, fully knowing that the other lawyer is going to tell him what she's been telling him for months: he doesn't have any recourse; he lost.

Harris gives an extremely sympathetic performance as a man who has lost everything because of his injury and is trying to hold on to some kind of human connection. Because Dern is attractive, attentive and warm, and because he's lonely and desperate, he just wants to prolong their futile if sexist relationship. The hostage situation ensues. It is beautifully drawn by Dern, who deftly handles sexism without losing her humanity and compassion.

Gina, a high-strung woman married to a mild-mannered, less assertive husband (James Le Gros) and an unresponsive teen daughter, is trying to build a new house for her family. She wants to have a good foundation and is attempting to ask a local kook, if he could sell her a pile of historical sand stone bricks on his otherwise barren lot. The old man doesn't like her sassy attitude and her husband isn't helping much to persuade the man.

Her attempt at building a harmonious family is failing and as we the audience know something she doesn't, it involves her husband. It's delicate, fine-tuned, unhurried storytelling and all the actors involved are fantastic. Michelle Williams might play the least sympathetic character of the three, but she does a very convincing job as a tough businesswoman who has to act a certain way to survive, never letting her guard down.

The most poignant story follows Jamie, a lonely horse ranch hand in the remote town of Belfry. She leads an uneventful, repetitive life, looking after horses day after day. One night she follows some folks into a classroom and meets Beth, a brand spanking new teacher on her first day, reading off an index card full of information on school laws.

She is instantly attracted to Beth and they go to a local diner before Beth drives off to Livingston, a two-hour commute she has to make every Tuesday and Thursday. The only reason Beth, a law school student who also works at a shoe store, took the job is because she thought she got the job at Belgrade, about thirty minutes from Livingston, not Belfry.

Now Jamie has something to anticipate. Their brief late night diner encounters become some kind of ritual, at least for Jamie. They have a moment when Jamie takes Beth to the diner on a horseback. But Beth doesn't show up for the next class and Jamie is told that due to a long commute time, Beth is no longer coming back. On impulse, Jamie drives up to Livingston the same night, in the hopes of seeing Beth again.

Stewart, who's been shedding her teen-idol image by choosing various interesting roles, continues to impress here, playing a straight-laced, awkward young woman whose presence is still magnetic. But she takes a step back, allowing clear-eyed Lily Gladstone to shine in her role. Gladstone's depiction of an ordinary woman with a crush and heartbreak is beautifully realized. Her silent gaze alone speaks volumes.

With the exception of the presence of cell phones, Certain Women has that distinctive, melancholic, 70's American movie vibe. Reichardt masterfully draws these sad and poignant human encounters with the help of director of photography Christopher Blauvelt, who has collaborated with her since Meek's Cutoff, lensing underpopulated, Ed Hopper-ish small towns and the beautiful scenic vistas of Montana. Perfectly tuned for its quietude imbued in loneliness and longing, Certain Women is certainly one of her finest films to date.

Certain Women premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will open in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, October 14.

Death and Irony

The Death of Louis XIV (2016) - Serra
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Death is a grisly business. It comes to all of us. Even if you happen to be the King of France who's been reining the kingdom for 72 years. From all the documented evidence indicates Louis XIV died of gangrene on his leg caused by diabetes. The year was 1715, without modern medicine, he died a painful, horrible death surrounded by physicians who were perplexed by his conditions.

Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra has been tackling literary/historical figures in his films -- Don Quixote in Honor of the Knights, The story of Magi in Birdsong, Casanova and Dracula in The Story of My Death; approaching them in minimalist, aggressively formalist fashion. Armed with extensive court medical documents and writings of Duke Saint-Simon and the French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as the king, Serra sets out to make a straightforward account of the last days of Louis XIV.

Except for the first few minutes of the film where we see the king on the carriage outside, coming back from a hunting trip, the entire film takes place in the stuffy ornate interior bedroom of the Versailles. Gangrene has set in on the king's left leg and physicians are rubbing it with herbs, hoping it will go away. The old king mumbles and shouts in pain while eating grapes and sweets administered by the same physicians who argue endlessly among themselves what to do about the situation. People try to entertain and laugh at everything his Highness says, priests are called in to give the last lights but then sent back because he feels better, and so on. Even the learned physicians of the Sorbonne have no idea about the king's illness. His leg starts to stink and turns completely black. Everyone's waiting on the inevitable.

There are some funny bits with a snake oil salesman played by great Catalan poet and art critic Vicenç Altaió (whose turn as Casanova in The Story of My Death was hilarious) with his 'cure all' tonic made out of bull's sperm and other animal parts. After the initial success of the king's improving health after taking the tonic, the condition worsens and they order the phony physician's arrest.

Léaud, 72, has been keeping his restless, adventurous New Wave spirit alive by working with many daring contemporary filmmakers (Tsai Ming-liang, Bertrand Bonello, Olivier Assayas just to name a few) over the years. Here, he accepts the physically confounding role and fully collaborating with Serra, whose filmmaking charts new territories in cinema.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film is forever bedridden Louis XIV receiving his 5-year old great-grandson (the future Louis XV) and giving him advice. Having seen countless war and suffering of people in his time, he recommends the young kid to relieve his people’s suffering and avoid war as far as possible.

Even though Louis XIV’s health deteriorated quite rapidly in a month, the film feels like an eternity. But Serra never waivers in his aesthetics and keeps a straight face until the end.

The irony of the king's death is heightened by its straightforward presentation and procedural approach. The Death of Louis XIV is a very singular formalist filmmaking in its highest order.

The Death of Louis XIV is acquired by Cinema Guild for Spring 2017 release. please check their website for more details.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Bi-continental Romance

Hermia & Helena (2016) - Piñeiros
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Matias Piñeiro's Hermia & Helena begins almost identically as his last film Princess of France, looking down at the soccer field. But they are two very different films. Even though his usual light-as-feather approach at twenty-something's bohemian lives and romantic entanglements might be the same, but the tone, the tempo, the setting of the film is noticeably different in Hermia & Helena.

Taking the cue from A MIdsummer Night's Dream, Piñeiro builds up bi-continent tales of love and friendship, in his unique way without ever heavily delving into anything resembling of a plot. Just clocking in at 70 or so breezy minutes and like his other films, it solely relies on seemingly complicated, incongruous structure and charms of his regulars (mainly María Villar and Augustina Muñoz) and some new faces Piñero acquired during his 2 years living in New York.

Divided by chapters with characters names, we loosely track the flight of two friends: first, it's Carmen (Muñoz) finishing up her writing fellowship stint at 'the institute' in New York, living in the institute provided housing in Chinatown in winter, looking over the soccer field and the Coumbus Park. Then we are back to Buenos Aires, where her friends are. It's Carmila (Villar)'s turn to go. Camila, a small time theater director, at first, seems very much in love with her boyfriend (another Piñeiro regular Julián Larquier Tellarini), but not so much as we find out later. She feels ambivalent about the trip, leaving behind all of her friends for New York, translating A Midsummer Night's Dream into Spanish for her upcoming production. She embarks on anyway, and we follow her the rest of the film.

In snowy New York, Camila meets knick-knack of characters: there is Lukas 'the tall guy' (Keith Poulson) from the institute, who is kind of cute, Carmen's secrete friend/lover Danielle (Mati Diop, a filmmaker/actress who's been popping up in many international productions), a fellow fellowship artist/writer/performer whathaveyou from France, traveling across the United States sending postcards from each state she visits to Carmen, because she doesn't know Carmen finished up her time in NY and went home, her former lover (Dustin Guy Defa) who is a filmmaker and her father (Dan Sallit) whom she never met who lives upstate.

Just like his other films, H & H is extremely talky, but the feel of the film is much slower even languid at times. It's not more contemplative, per se. Perhaps it's New York's snowy winter landscape that's bringing out certain melancholy to the film. Because of Camila's journey takes unexpected turns (in romance or otherwise) and because of the people she meets and we get to see her (sort of) motives, the film comes closer to a character study and feels more personal than any other Piñeiro films I've seen.

Shot gracefully by his long time cinematographer Fernando Lockett, but H & H showcases some other beautiful elements - long cross-fades to signify two different cities, almost Woody Allenesque, chirpy piano music, and black and white, movie-within-a-movie in the middle.

There are elements he plays with the bard's work- be that in dialog or objects that are passed around or a father figure (or an idea of one). It's not a bad choice for inspiration or starting point to be playful, intermingling his love of books, music, poetry, good friends and other personal things and project that on the screen. It seems with Hermia & Helena, Piñeiro is upping the ante a little bit and put more cinematic playfulness in his small ways. And it's lovely.

Indiscreet Charm of Bourgeoisie

Aquarius (2016) - Filho
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Just like Filho's Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius is a clear eyed observation of changing times in Brazil. It deals with the class differences, rapid gentrification, generation gap, among others. The film's aided by blistering central performance by the 70s sexpot Sonia Braga (Lady on the Bus, Kiss of the Spider Woman). Now 65, raven haired, tiny but extremely fit Braga commands the screen as Clara, a retired music critic, who is the family matriarch and moral compass of the film. Aquarius is a small condominium complex right on the beach where Clara lives in an affluent Recife neighborhood. The building's blue exterior has faded over the years, but it's well kept. But it's all but overshadowed by glitzy glass towers that surround it.

Clara remains the only resident (with her faithful elderly maid) of the building. She weathered her husband's death and all the children growing up and moving out. A Goliath real estate company's young, US educated project manager is trying to make an offer to buy out Clara, but she wouldn't budge. There are just too many memories associated with the place. Her furniture, her LP collections, everything inside that apartment has a backstory and meaning-- the film starts in 1980 in the same apartment where they are celebrating the birthday of Clara's mother. While people are congratulating her and having a good time, mom's eyes are fixed on a bureau in the middle of the room. She is reminiscing about great sex she had on the bureau long ago. And that bureau remains in Clara's apartment, imbued with the memories of people who are long gone.

Filho doesn't shy away from human sexuality. Even though Clara had a breast cancer and had a mastectomy on one of her breasts, she engages in a steamy sexual fling with a male escort whom her friends recommended. She accidentally walks in on her young nephew and his new girlfriend having sex in the morning. She quietly backs out smiling. She flirts with a young lifeguard friend. Sex and desire are portrayed in a very frank, healthy light.

It is clear that slowly but deliberately, the developers want to force Clara out. They start engaging in psychological warfare with her- one day it's loud music and thumping, the next its drug fueled orgy that's taking place in the upstairs apartment which is supposed to be empty. The general upkeep of the building becomes shoddy. It's also Clara's daughter Ana Paula (Neon Bull's Maeve Jinkings), a cash strapped single mom, who is approached by the company to put pressure on Clara to sell the apartment. But when confronted with accusations, the young project manager plays innocent, as if everything is one big misunderstanding, that it's Clara who is always being unreasonable.

Even though the film's perspective is from bourgeois class through and through, and Filho clearly sympathizes with the main character, he takes jabs at the rifts between haves and have-nots matter of factly. When Clara's family and friends are gathered and walking on the pristine beach, her friends points where the sewer feeds into the ocean: "This is where the rich part of the town ends and where the poor part of the town starts" she says without irony.

Dense and richly textured, Aquarius works as a strong anthropological study of changing society and proves the cultural center of Brazil is not in the south and Rio and Favelas anymore. Along with other filmmakers from the Northeast Pernambuco region, Filho shows sophisticated, nuanced yet still sensual side of Brazilian cinema. With Braga's commanding performance and the quite explosive ending, Aquarius goes down as one of the finest films of 2016.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Juxtaposition of the Refugee Crisis and the Old Europe

Fire at Sea (2016) - Rosi
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Europe's refugee crisis is perhaps the biggest humanitarian crisis the continent has ever experienced since the WWII. Gianfranco Rosi, an Italian filmmaker whose observational documentary Sacro GRA made a splash in 2014, here focuses more narrowly on Italy's refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa, a tiny island between the African continent and Sicily- the case clearly being served as a synecdoche concerning the state of whole Europe. Fire at Sea a devastating look at the human toll juxtaposed with the old way of life the homogenic white Europe has enjoyed for years.

In a parallel action, we see the flight of refugees, mostly from North Africa and some from the Middle East crammed in on tiny ships, being rescued by Lampedusa's patrol team, armed with helicopters and patrol boats, then we follow Samuele, a typical engergetic school boy and his everyday life on the island.

Due to bad weather and communication problems, sometimes the rescue team get there too late. Reportedly 15,000 people lost their lives of starvation, exhaustion and drowning off the coast of the island.

Slingshot wielding Samuele is destined to be a fisherman, just like his father and grandfather and great-grandfather but only if he gets over his sea sickness first. He has a lazy eye problem and suffers from hyper tension.

A local medical doctor who experienced the human misery first hand, tells the harrowing account of what he witnessed - piles of dead bodies of women and children, chemical burns on bodies caused by diesel fuel mixed in with sea water, dehydration, hunger, etc. It's the same doctor who treats Samuele for his hypertension.

In a crowded refuge camp, harrowing journeys of refugees of watery death (or near death) are sung by a Nigerian preacher who continues to document their flight in oral tradition - they fled their home countries (Eritrea, Mali, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan...) because of bombs were going off, they crossed the Saharan desert, drinking their own piss, they were tortured and driven out from Libya, then they were forced out to sea.

But there are sparks of joy in the camps too, as makeshift soccer games between many different countries, resulting in momentary eruption of cheers and laughter.

We observe simple lives of the fishing village in the island - people requesting Sicilian love songs for their spouses on the radio, diving in a wet suit into a roiling sea for sea urchins, kids being kids without any interjection.

Fire at Sea refuses to be a rhetorical documentary. There are no narrations nor sit down interviews with locals or 'experts' about how they feel about the tides of Immigrants coming ashore or what could be done about it. It is more of a straight up reportage on the ground, simply showing the magnitude of the crisis that begs your attention and understanding.

And it is a gut wrenching experience at times. Bodybags, tears and wailing are as common as Samuele and his friends shooting airgun at the sky. Simply juxtaposing the crisis and the tranquil, simple, traditional lives which I'm sure have continued unchanged for hundreds of years, Rosi lets viewer to take in and think for themselves about the situation without judgment.

Fire at Sea won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale and was selected as the Italian entry for the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language film.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Masks We Wear: Why Toni Erdman is the Best Film of the Year

Toni Erdmann (2016) - Ade
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Hollywood would have made a terrible film out of the premise of Toni Erdmann- starring the late Robin Williams and Kate Mara perhaps as goofy clownish father trying to teach his uptight, humorless grownup daughter to not take life too seriously and enjoy the moment or something. He would die and there would be a funeral and it would be a tearjerker and Mara does something goofy and... the end. It would've been a comedy that is best described by its tagline, "It's the 'Take Your Father to Work' Day!"

Toni Erdmann, even with its 2 1/2hrs running time, like the practical joke prone father character's favorite word choice, "spontaneously", is full of surprises that makes you laugh at every turn. Winfried (Peter Simonischeck) and Ines (Sandra Hüller) are very real and their interaction funny and touching. But it's not daddy nostalgia type movie. It's the first film I've seen that takes the father daughter relationship between two adults: one person putting on a ridiculous persona to mirror another playing the role of icy queen in the corporate world. That's why birthday scene works so well. But Ines's unraveling, or loosening up a little comes in even earlier in another ridiculous scene involving a naughty pastries. Even in its most riotous moments, involving, ehm, Whitney Houston song, it's not nostalgia but making an ass out of yourself/letting your hair down once in a while. It goes the same way with the prolonged ending- grown ups don't change drastically. Letting your hair down once is not going to change your life. In this sense, Erdmann doesn't have a happy ending. Ade doesn't end her film in Where the Wild Things Are style. She is too smart and mature for that. But it's not a sad movie either. We live out lives hoping that we are making some kind of impact on people you expect the same from others on you. That is what we hope for anyway. Toni Erdmann deserves all the accolades. It's amazingly acted, best written film I've seen this year.