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.