Friday, November 17, 2023

Empty Lust

Saltburn (2023) - Fennell Saltburn Oliver (Barry Keoghan) is a nebbish freshman at Oxford; the year is 2007. The soundtrack is all MGMT and Bloc Party, The Killers, etc. All around him are wealth and privilege. Only friend he can find is a weird math nerd with no social skills. Then there is Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a very tall, handsome kid from an aristocratic family, whom everyone is swooning over. Felix's life is a never-ending party and drinking and girls. "Did I love him," Oliver asks over the series of close-up shots of present and near future Felix engaging in sexy activities. Oliver's lustful stares from a distance betrays his emotionless narration, or does it? "No I wasn't in love with him," he declares. But his luck would have it, Felix takes a liking to Oliver's poor scholarship kid with an addict/alcoholic parents sob story and off they go on the summer break to a sprawling Catton mansion, Saltburn.

The Cattons, unimaginably wealthy family of Felix, consists of frazzled dad- Sir James (Richard E. Grant), ice queen mom- Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), nympho sister- Venetia (Alison Oliver) and snooty, gossipy cousin and fellow Oxford mate, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), leading gilded life pampered by a group of servants. Golf, swimming, tanning, champaigns, lounging around naked in the garden, the works. The Saltburn manor is even equipped with The Overlook Hotel-style hedge maze. The film rapidly develops into a cross between Teorema and Talented Mr. Ripley, where everyone's giving Oliver sultry looks and he in turn, taking advantage of their curiosities, one by one.

Saltburn is unapologetically horny film. It's all about sweat, saliva and other bodily fluids. There are copious amounts of flesh shots of shirtless Felix as he is Oliver's de facto object of desire. Elordi as spoiled rich brat with a heart of gold (as his Elvis in Sofia Coppola's Priscilla) is perfect for the role. So is Keoghan, doing his creepy turn again (Killing of a Sacred Deer, Banshees of Inisherin), as an obsessive kid with dark desires. Fennell's script, bristling with sardonic wit and irony tickles your funnybones and gnarly, yet beautifully photographed transgressions (captured by Linus Sandgren, La La Land, Babylon) tickles your senses. But what does all of this amount to? Where do all these plot twists and turns and revelations ultimately lead us to?

Oliver's methodical plan to get closer to Felix come crashing down when the trip to his home reveals that he's not whom he pretends to be. With Oliver's planned birthday celebrations that would mark an end to their friendship, things take a dark turn. And this is where Fennell's steam runs out. Saltburn loses its rudder and ends with a massive hangover and disappointment.

There's no subtext to its period setting, there's no lessons to be learned about class disparities, not that there has to be. But with her last film Promising Young Woman, Fennell seems to be an ambulance chaser when it comes to topical issues of the day, but only on the surface level. Oliver, with his fuzzy motivations, is not consistent enough to make the film a character study even. Grant, Pike and Mulligan and others become toys to be played around and tossed (off screen even). Why do they deserve such cruel fate? Fennell never addresses. All we are left with is images of Keoghan slurping bath water, humping a fresh grave naked, and dance around full frontal in the empty manor. Keoghan is a major talent and a risk-taker obviously. I understand the film's concentrating on very narrow Gen Z and young LGBTQA+ audience. The promotion for the press screening made it very clear. But Saltburn ends up a titillation of flesh and nothing more.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Wrestling Picture

Neirud (2023) - Faya Neirud Brazilian filmmaker Fernanda Faya's Neirud is an intimate and affecting documentary that tells a larger-than-life story of a woman whom Faya thought she knew. Using wealth of family home videos, photos and historical news reels, Faya sets out to solve her family mystery like a good detective and constructs a beautiful portrait of her family friend, aunt Neirud, who happened to be a trailblazer in a country where things were still very much steeped in traditional ways.

With the Roma heritage on her father's side of the family, the filmmaker’s family has a long history being in the circus business. And her ancestral history is a fascinating one - they fled the persecution during the war in Europe to Brazil, moving place to place to avoid prejudice and racism. Faya's grandmother, Nely, a trailblazer in her own right, became the first in the family to be educated, and became a well-known actress in a traveling theater group. After a stint in Europe, Nely came back to her roots and start managing the circus theater group as an artistic director. That's where she met Neirud.

Aunt Neirud is seen in many home movies shot by Edgard, the filmmaker's father, gleefully holding the baby Faya on many occasions with Grandma Nely in the background. They are joyful family occasions. Donning full afro, Neirud, a towering black woman was a gentle giant. Her life story, told by herself in an inquisitive interview conducted by Faya, which was filmed when Neirud was nearing the end of her life, is as dramatic as any great fiction - after being abandoned by her biological mother in the small village to be cared for in a better to do household (as it was a common practice back in the day), young Neirud, being black, was put to work while attending school, not like other white children. At 8, she was already very tall and strong.She ran away to the city and asked to be hired as a nanny. At 12 when the circus was in town, enamored by the spectacle, she runs away again to join the circus. Strong as she was, she quickly established herself as a pivotal member of the troupe, then a main attraction. The legend has it, Neirud was the only one who can wield two hammers, one on each hand to put the spike in place to pitch the circus tent. The female wrestling, forbidden by law in still a conservative society, was allowed as the circus act. Developed by Nely, the female performers took on their own special characters -a pretty one, a vampire etc. In the ring, Neirud was the kimono wearing, 200 pounds of pure muscle, invincible Gorilla Woman.

Faya, finding wealth of pictures and footage of Grandma Nely, as she was the matriarch of the family and the face of the family business, but none of aunt Neirud from the wrestling days, sets out an investigation into her family history. She tracks down the only living remaining wrestler, Rita, from back in the day. In series of phone interview, Rita reveals that most of the photos were lost in the flood. She sends her a poster featuring "the Gorilla Woman" from that period. It's a towering picture of Neirud staring down. Neirud never wrestled again after Nely's passing, retired from the business, and lived in the house by the beach that she shared with Nely. Rita also informs the clue to Nely and Neirud's relationship. From all the materials she gathered, to her surprise, Faya finds a fantastic love story between the two women whom she dearly loved. It is also revealed that how they fled together on a road trip all over South America and ultimately formed their own circus troupe.

Neirud is not only a great love story, but an acute survey of Brazilian history and progress made in women's place in society. Aunt Neirud, along with Grandma Nely turn out to be a trailblazer in more ways than one. Switching gracefully between intimate home movie and a historical documentary, the film is also a wistful love letter to a person who meant a lot to the filmmaker. Gently bookending with the reenactments of her childhood memories of aunt Neirud driving with big colorful inflatable balls strapped on the roof of her station wagon on the beach, Faya possesses a kin eye for visual lyricism that conveys yearning and sweet sorrow.

Along with this year's Kleber Mendonça Filho's Pictures of Ghosts, Neirud chronicles changing Brazilian society through the bounds of first-person home movie narrative. Neirud works as a playful cinematic investigation with great warmth and heart.

Neirud plays part of DOC NYC. It has a theatrical premiere on 11/11 at Village East by Angelika, NYC.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

A Ghost Anywhere

Schlafkrankheit/Sleeping Sickness (2011) - Köhler Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 9.26.06 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.32.14 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.35.24 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.26.56 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.27.29 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.28.03 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 9.27.17 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.28.33 AM Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness examines a complicated relationship between Europe and Africa. It also shows how losing one's identity (in this case, being a German) is indirectly, but yet deeply connected to Germany's colonial, post-war revival past.

Epidemiologist Dr. Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma) and his wife Vera have been stationed in Cameroon for a long time. Velten is there to eradicate Sleeping Sickness, the insect borne disease that causes neurological problems if untreated. He has been successful and therefore, he has no reason to stay there any longer. It's time for him and his wife to go back to Germany. But something is nagging at him. Their sullen teenage daughter's visit only exacerbates his ambivalent feeling about going back home to his mundane life as a pharmacist, according to his expat doctor/industrialist pal Gaspard (Hippolyte Girardot), "prescribing pills for a living in the suburbs."

We see the whites' arrogance and the locals peddling for their money everywhere - at checkpoints, in restaurants, in Velten's home with guards, peddlers in city streets, in medical board meetings. The colonialism and free market enabled this ugly relationship to perpetuate and made any meaningful relationship between them impossible. The wife and daughter go home. Three years pass by.

A well-meaning, young doctor Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly) who works for the World Health Organization is first seen at a medical conference where a black representative is advocating cutting off relief funds to Africa and letting the free market take care of everything. He scoffs at the speaker. After Alex deflects his colleague's racist joke with 'I am born here,' speech, he is sent to Cameroon to evaluate Velten's project on sleeping sickness. The problem is, when he gets there to his compound/clinic, in the remote jungle, the German doctor is never around to meet with him. After failing to perform a Cesarean birth by throwing up and passing out on Velten's pregnant Cameroonian wife, Alex finally meets Velten. But it seems the illness is almost eradicated in the region. Then why does Velten ask for an evaluation on his progress?

It becomes slightly clear that it's Velten's cry for help, who is in the country he doesn't belong to and perhaps doesn't belong anywhere. He is pulling Colonel Kurtz. He is completely lost and wants someone else to decide his destiny.

The film ends with Velten and Gaspard taking Alex to a night time hunting in the jungle. Alex has no idea what they are hunting for. Again, for Alex, it's a wild goose chase.

Sleeping Sickness is a complex film that says a lot about colonialism and its ugly symbiotic relationship in capitalist society. As a German directed film with a German main character, the subtext of losing one's identity in a global capitalist system and yearning for some sort of metamorphosis is quite striking.