Friday, August 29, 2014

Badman’s Territory

Through an administrative oversight, Badman’s Territory lies outside any official law-enforcement jurisdiction. When Sheriff Scott rides into town, he finds a community much like any other, except that most of the inhabitants are genial and long-settled outlaws. He’s not after trouble however, pals around with the James boys and the Daltons (with improbable cowboy Tierney as Jesse), flirts with Belle Starr, and is obviously destined for the strident lady newspaper editor, inevitably unpopular in her demands for a local police force. The crooked marshal from back in Texas stays conveniently out of the way, and things meander gently until his final-reel return initiates an unremarkable conclusion. Aimless but good-natured.

d Tim Whelan p Nat Holt sc Jack Natteford, Luci Ward ph Robert de Grasse ed Philip Martin Jr. ad Albert D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller m Roy Webb cast Randolph Scott, George “Gabby” Hayes, Ann Richards, Ray Collins, James Warren, Morgan Conway, Lawrence Tierney, Steve Brodie, Isabell Jewell
(1946, USA, 97min, b/w)

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Tepepa (aka Blood and Guns/Long Live The Revolution)


An obscure Welles paycheck that not even his presence can enliven. He’s a Mexican colonel with the eponymous firecracker (Milian) in his jail, an ex-revolutionary betrayed by the new ruling class. An English doctor rolls up, with his own reasons for wanting to off the grubby campesino, and flashbacks roll out to a by-the-numbers Morricone score and no great revelation. As an ostensible spaghetti western, its worst crime is that it’s just not that exciting, neither politically nor in the set-pieces; it has almost enough ambition to be surreally bad (almost), but the kindest thing one can say is that it helped pay for Chimes at Midnight.

d Giulio Petroni p Franco Clementi, Alfredo Cuomo, Richard Herland, Nicoloò Pomilia sc Ivan Dell Mea, Franco Solinas ph Francesco Marín ed Eraldo Da Roma pd Guido Josia m Ennio Morricone cast Tomas Milian, Orson Welles, John Steiner, Luciano Casamonica, Angel Ortiz, Annamaria Lanciaprima, José Torres
(1968, It, 136m)

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Que ta joie demeure (Joy Of Man's Desiring)

The cinema of Denis Côté is frequently concerned with banality, be it work, or the superficially drab existence of out-of-the-way communities, in the hotel-room cleaning of Tennessee (2005), the watching and waiting of Les lignes ennemies (2010), or the near-standstill slowness of life in rural Quebec in various features. The fascination, however, is in observing, in finding a way of looking that brings out the strange and, potentially, profound undercurrents. And so the off-season zoo of Bestiaire (2010) becomes a mysterious space full of animal parts and unreadable gazes, rather than an urge to anthropomorphism; the battened-down feelings and fears run deep beneath inexpressive surfaces in Curling (2010); and the junkyard of Carcasses (2009) takes on the air of some used-up science fiction setting.

The fact that we frequently have no idea at what kind of machines we are looking in Côté's latest, Que ta joie demeure (literally: "let your joy abide", the – almost – French title of Bach's Jesus bleibet meine Freude) produces a similar effect of slightly alternate reality, from an opening montage of shunting, Seuss-like contraptions and their mechanically musical soundtrack. Soon we see humans engaged in the wordless, repetitive work of operating, although cut briskly enough to avoid the easy allure of hypnosis.

For, ostensibly similar to Bestiare, this is an observational non-documentary look askance at an enclosed, normally unseen environment and its inhabitants. This time, however, Côté offers prompts to interpretation in a more explicit manner. We begin with a scripted prologue of teasing opacity, as a female worker talks over her shoulder in serious tones of the need for trust, how she is not a machine herself, and how her unseen listener may find "good times" if he succeeds "here". Who the listener might be is unclear – a new co-worker, possibly the viewer, although as the intimate tone suggests, perhaps even a lover. And in actual reality, of course, she is talking to the film-maker behind the camera.

She can indeed trust him. The camera style is unobtrusive (and careful in framing as ever), observing not only the work, from large machine shop to mattress factory, woodshop or coffee packers, but also the downtime: quotidian work tales, some stilted ribaldry, the indistinct burble of canteen conversation. We may wonder how much of the talk is strictly observational, however, as opposed to scripted, or indeed how many of these people are actual workers (Quebecois actors may not be easily recognizable on an international level, but some will recall the hangdog face of Olivier Aubin from various other Côté pictures). Around the 45-minute mark, set-ups have begun to take on the discreet air of staging – a rolled-up garage door acts as a raised curtain for the space we see from upstage, later to be the setting of the most theatrical of the film's few monologues. Even the shadow of a narrative emerges: a young woman changes workplace to be given something to do, to feel more fulfilled. Likewise, the downtime conversations increase in portent: a parable about a crooked employer; the question of who desires to work at the same machine for ten years; the floor-workers' attitude to the company as a whole. This in fact is one of the few moments wherein we get a real glimpse of the humanity at work in these inhuman settings but, depending on one's sympathy, it is either universalized or undercut by being repeated verbatim – each of two of the machine workers separately asserts that although they may seem not to care about the company, they do, for "this is half my life".

In fact, there is no real attention paid to the relationship between these bottom-rung workers and their management, a significant part of human experience under any working conditions; furthermore, whilst the effort to stay away from anthropomorphism in Bestiaire ended up suggesting a more intriguing sense of self for the animals, the uninvolved view here has an opposite effect, reducing the workers to repetitive drones and barely-scripted mouthpieces. One teasing semi-exception is a young man, seen usually on his own, repeating mantra-like the Reaganite slogan "hard work never killed anyone. Why take the risk?" We see him finally declaiming from a vantage point above the factory floor (we assume) but have no view, or clue, as to his listeners, nor the significance of his place within this film.

Thus, as the hand of the artist becomes more apparent, the near-mystical effect of framing and measured montage – Bestiaire's success story – starts to cede its power to more discernible manipulation. Some commentators suggest that Côté has fallen fatally between two stools, spoiling the uncanny effect of detached, askew observation, yet conjuring nothing from his more direct interventions. This is not entirely unfounded, but the whole is at last coherent in its gear towards tentative investigation and suggestion. We do notice what is missing, however: where is the workplace camaraderie, and where, indeed, is the joy? One worker is happy he works at his own machine rather than the dull one of the old man in the corner, but this feels like a very restricted and contextual form of happiness. Even the fulfillment that the displaced girl craves cannot help but feel ironic – she seeks "a job that gives me strength and courage", but ends up cleaning a ceiling sign for drinking water. The only thing like joy is found in the final sequence, as a child saws away at his violin, joyful only if one finds this more charming than aurally irksome.

As his career proceeds, Côté is increasingly careful not to lead us by the nose, but his gentle nudging here down various avenues of thought do not send us far. We may wonder about the nature (and the potential for fulfillment) of such manual labor, reliant entirely upon machines, as opposed to the moments of physical finesse like cloth-cutting and melamine-trimming (although here too, both are notably simple operations in traditionally hands-on crafts). Never mind wondering about the workers' lives and sense of self outside of the workplace, we may also wonder about the distinct implications of working exclusively in these artificially-lit, enclosed and metal-crowded spaces, as opposed to outdoor manual labor at a comparable level – the grunt work of construction, or crop-picking, for example. The scope of the film is too narrow to embrace any of these questions, and one cannot help but feel, therefore, that the subject has been exploited somewhat below its full potential. 

d/sc Denis Côté p Denis Côté, Sylvain Corbeil, Nancy Grant ph Jessica Lee Gangé ed Nicolas Roy m J.S. Bach cast Emilie Sigouin, Cassandre Emmanuel, Hamidou Savadogo, Ted Pluviose, Guillaume Tremblay, Olivier Aubin
(2014, Can, 70m)
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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Frank

A provincial young man dreams of writing songs. He is not very good at it. A chance encounter with a touring American band with an unpronounceable name leads to his stepping in for their sectioned keyboard player, travelling to Ireland to spend a year of musical experiments and recording and, through slightly underhand methods, getting the band booked at a big-time US festival. But at what cost? Is he a weasely manipulator, or just blindly self-serving? Is art compatible with commerce? Is genius born from mental distress? Is it in fact essentially unfathomable? And why does the band's leader/singer/guru Frank never take off that large cartoon head?

These are questions asked by the film, and in fact it rather spoils things to outline too clearly the how and why of their asking. Director Abrahamson handles the issues with a lightness of touch and a fair amount of humour, whilst maintaining, however, the serious undercurrent they deserve. One of the most interesting and quietly unusual things about the film is that our hero, the young man Jon (Harry Potter's Domhnall Gleeson, now an uncanny Cate Blanchett doppelganger) is in fact a bit of a stupid shit – "a mediocre child" as he's labeled near the end – on a fundamental level unable to understand or appreciate what the band is seeking, the pushing of the corners that Frank encourages, but gaining after a while the self-awareness to know that he could never attain to anything like their artistic achievements. Thus, the next best thing is to ride, and steer, the coattails.

Gleason nicely conveys the gradual transformation from rabbit-in-the-headlights to quasi-Svengali, and does keep us guessing as to how far the damage of his manipulation is inadvertent – his talent may not be for music, but like some idiot-savant, he inexorably gets where he wants to go with blithe disregard for those around him.



The promotional materials are not reticent about which fairly-famous actor is beneath Frank's mask, although in some ways this too is not worth spoiling, if you happen not to have heard by now. The mystery of Frank is persuasive, as are the claims by all around him that he is a genius. From beneath that unmoving, slightly disturbing, and oddly sad-looking head come words of both wisdom and childlike enthusiasm (and, amusingly, helpful reports of his facial expressions), and an apparent ability to spin a decent song out of even a stray thread of upholstery. And, most importantly, this is really a pretty good band, of satisfyingly hard-to-pin-down genre, with scowling Maggie Gyllenhaal on theremin and electronics, Jack White's current drummer Carla Azar, and sullen Frenchie François Civil on guitar, bass, and Blixa Bargeld hair.

That they wind up doing über-slowcore covers of unlikely Americana folk tunes in a dive bar is played initially for laughs, but it turns out they do it really well, and the final low-key reunion confirms what we've suspected for a while, that this is quite a special group of people, with deep-running mutual sympathy and understanding, whose musical explorations are sincere and worth attending to, and that the likes of Jon have no place amongst them.



Internationally it will be apparent to only a few, but Frank's face is instantly recognisable as that of Frank Sidebottom, creation of eccentric Mancunian musician and comedian Chris Sievey. Sidebottom was a slightly unnerving man-child character whose cult status in the late '80s/early '90s might see him turn up equally on Saturday morning kids' TV or playing a side stage at Glastonbury. Sievey was a rather fascinating character, but not the inspiring experimental soundscape musician of the film. I really do not know how much he is present here bar the name and the head, but co-writer Jon Ronson was a member of his band, adapting his own memoir of a US tour (also admitting to drawing from the lives and myths of Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart). Sievey gave his blessing to the project before his untimely death in 2010, and the tone appears to be one of honouring his memory rather than plundering the persona. In any case, the film-makers have conjured a story both funny and quietly thoughtful, told in part through nicely-judged use of onscreen tweets and voiceover blog posts by an unusually yet unobtrusively flawed protagonist, with just the right amount of mystery and lack of romanticism surrounding Frank's mental state and character in general to make the finale genuinely moving.

d Leonard Abrahamson p David Barron, Ed Guiney, Stevie Lee, Andrew Lowe sc Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan ph James Mather ed Nathan Nugent pd Richard Bullock m Stephen Rennnicks cast Domhnall Gleason, Michael Fassbender, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhall, François Civil, Carla Azar
(2014, UK/Ire, 95m)
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Das groβe Museum (The Great Museum)



Behind the scenes of the great Künsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, as a close pan up Brueghel's Tower of Babel at the end of Das groβe Museum suggests, there are a lot of people doing a lot of work. This is in fact the only moment akin to commentary in this hands-off documentary – without talking heads, voiceover, or music – unless one counts also the gentle puncturing of the traditional sanctity of such grand repositories of fine art scattered through the opening sections: an employee gliding through the narrow passageways of the office/library on a scooter to pick up a photocopy; a workman violating the parquet floor and echoing silence of an empty gallery with a pickaxe; the dusting of the groin of some giant marble Greek dude (it's Theseus), a cheap but surefire titter-getter.

With a camera as stately as the museum, and as carefully respectful as the museum workers are towards their objects, director Johannes Holzhausen shows us various aspects of the staff's work, from bug-trap inspection, to fixing the fiendish mechanism of an automaton, consulting with visiting specialists about possible over-painting, or archiving the file of a retired employee. To be expected, there is a meticulous professionalism on display here, and the passages of conservation have a wordless tension that recalls the most celebrated of fictional bank-heist sequences, all steady, careful fingers and held breath. Likewise, a visit to the Dorotheum auction house has its inherent excitement, even if the curators depart empty-handed.



This is apposite, however, for so do we in a similar way. The film's focus is not on the art contained in the museum, but on those who care for and present it. We see only a fraction of the collection, and most of that denuded of its artistic halo, objects to be examined in their physicality more than appreciated for their powers of spiritual transformation (this is a given). As such, the film makes an uncanny companion piece to its festival-circuit confrère, Denis Côté's Que ta joie demeure, in that it is the work that is significant, not that which is being worked upon. And if the museum seems like an artisanal sanctuary of serenity and beauty, and the film itself something of a promotional tool, Holzhausen also reveals some of the inevitable discord: a docent's meeting in which one of their number pleads to be treated not as the lowest level of employee, and to be introduced to the other departments; a dead-end budgetary meeting where accounting gently but firmly butts heads with curatorial solipsism; or simply the dullness of reciting the schedule for the president's signing of the visitor's book.

The president is coming because this is not quite an everyday look at the museum's operation, however. The couple of years Holzhausen spent filming were the last of a ten-year program to renovate, restore, and rehang the Künstkammer galleries. Thus much of what we see is concerned with bringing off the reopening, an exceptional occasion in the museum's history, and one through which it aims to rebrand itself, allowing the museum director and her staff to voice various concerns about how best to appeal to the modern public. Holzhausen has spoken in interview of his dismay at the current state of museum administration, for whom lack of funding necessitates more concern for visitor quotas than for the continuity of custodianship; he also disdains the multiple signage-use of the word "Imperial", researched as being "particularly attractive to tourists". Yet there is no disapprobation apparent in the documentary – we are left to wonder for ourselves if this superficial way of attracting visitors is a good thing or not (and it is taken by the museum staff as a fact of life outside of moral, ethical, or cultural value). Likewise, the immense historical, cultural, and political weight of the Hapsburg Empire – it is the collection of their final scions that makes up the Künstkammer – is touched upon a couple of times, but left hanging as the elephant one would rather not ponder. This is no investigation nor, really, a detailed portrait, but a snapshot, albeit handsome and mostly engaging.



 d Johannes Holzhausen p Johannes Rosenberger sc Johannes Holzhausen, Constantin Wulff ph Joerg Burger, Attila Boa ed Dieter Pichler
(2014, Austria, 94m)
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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Curling


A slow-burn observation of a small circle of off-centre individuals in an isolated, snow-bound setting, Curling is not without a certain dry, almost absurd humour, but the direction displays an unusual rigour and discreet formal range, and it is one of the most beautifully photographed films (by Josée Deshaies) that I have seen in recent years. Despite some obtrusive loose ends, it ends up an impressive, disquieting, and rather moving achievement.

The deadpan humour is exemplified by a scene where our “hero” Jean-François is dressed and face-painted as a giant bowling pin in the alley where he works, talking to his colleague, an impeccably foxy goth girl in a platinum Marilyn wig. They look bizarre, but their conversation is serious, about self-imposed isolation, fear, and connection between people, the film’s fundamental concerns. This is followed by another scene of borderline absurdity, as Jean-François is bothered by a grotty child, rather bearing out the motivations behind his semi-disturbing home life.

We learn at the start that his daughter, Julyvonne, is home-schooled, but discover gradually that this but one aspect of a weirdly cloistered existence. The mother is absent, her single appearance suggesting trauma, and adding sinister weight to the already disquieting situation. There’s little hint of anything physically untoward, however: Jean-François loves his daughter very much and keeps her hidden at home through fear of all the danger that could occur out there in the world.



Their relationship, in the brief domestic scenes, displays a strange equality of respect. But he is also the strict rule-maker, withholding dessert because good behavior has already been rewarded, and occasionally allowing Julyvonne to dance to music on the living room stereo. Does he choose the music or does she? The first is a hammer blow of elucidation – “I Think We’re Alone Now”, with its opening “children behave..” the pointed awkwardness heightened by Tiffany’s desperate, synthetic cheerfulness and the couple’s incongruously quiet contemplation.

The second such scene makes a similar point, to Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts”. The irony is as heavy-handed as Jean-François’s frightened fatherhood, and we sense he might know this too. He has withdrawn from the world, and taken Julyvonne along with him, but his love is not entirely blind, and that is no small part of his pain. He knows that his mind has been twisted by some crippling, inchoate fear of interaction, of contact with others; restrained pace here is no stylistic frippery but a fundamental, tragic character trait, a near-paralysis stunningly literalized in portraits, long takes, cropped compositions, and perfect use of the short zoom (there’s a couple of perfect focus-pulls also).

Jean-François is not beyond redemption. His amusing boss Kennedy at the bowling alley encourages a friendly relationship, and Isabelle the goth draws him out a little in kindly fashion – he seems like a good man who cannot help himself. Kennedy, behind his bluff exterior, tries in gentle ways to introduce some sweetness and fun into Julyvonne’s life. Her joy at being allowed a rare outing to play with other children is palpable. Debutante Philomène Bilodeau’s mostly blank performance is appropriate for the character, described as having “nothing in her eyes”. But that is not quite true – she is an obedient little girl, but can speak up to her father in a mature, equal way; and we see and are touched by her excitement at the pleasures he allows her.



The opening scene explains that she has an astigmatism, advanced and undiagnosed. This life is not good for her health, emotional or physical, and is actively eroding her ability to relate to the world at large. Her father is played by veteran Emmanuel Bilodeau, and for the role of Julyvonne he suggested his own daughter. There is certainly an intimacy to their relationship which must come from real life, but this is his film – what a face! – and his own closed-down performance nonetheless includes a glimpse of the inner life of conflict, and the tragedy of self-awareness, revealed gradually, just as our sympathy replaces mistrust.

Coté’s script is measured, unafraid to delay explanation: this is the sort of film that a couple of scenes later one can find oneself wondering, what was with that kid’s body? Not all the explanations arrive. The danger Jean-François so fears is presented obliquely: it is intimated that there is a killer on the loose; bodies in the woods are Julyvonne’s only playmates; and there’s blood in the room of the motel where Jean-François also works (presented in first-rate fashion through dialogue before image).

Not everything comes off: Julyvonne finds a caged tiger in a snowy field which may or may not represent her burgeoning pubescence. There is otherwise no sexual dimension (or is her father looking too hard during that second song?). Those unexplained bodies: the dead kid is a particularly distracting irrelevance and Julyvonne’s “dolls” are a pat morbidity. The apparent irrelevance of the film’s title is thuddingly eroded – we can achieve something if we do it together (unlike the individual efforts of the ostensibly similar sport of bowling, of course, of which we see rather more). Likewise, Jean-François’s recuperation feels all too easy: his dream is finely presented but still too pat, and the only other thing he needs, it seems, is a good lay, even if the run-up is a lovely escalation of friendliness and growing comfort with surely the most tenacious whore in recent cinema.


That said, the slight missteps don't matter. In the theatre, the opening shot actually brought tears to my eyes for the colour, composition and grain. Some of that quality even survives on the DVD screener, and it makes one ponder, now that we’re well into the digital age, whether a real distinction may be necessary between film and video, as one distinguishes, say, between a daguerreotype and a photograph.

Natural wintery light is used to gorgeous effect, composition is scrupulously precise, and the hopefulness of the ending is as much to do with Jean-François’s actually cracking a smile as it is to do with the colors of the final shot, outdoors, with crowds of tobogganers, black and red dotting a snowy hillside beneath a sky of a perfect, optimistic blue. One beautiful but pointless shot of a door jamb, however – at a tense emotional moment – betrays the third, secret, central character.

This is not invisible direction. That Coté used to be a film critic contributes perhaps to his film’s being slightly over-calculated, willful, and frequently brilliant. His control is highly impressive, the emotional line of the film valid and affecting, as much due to conception as to sensitive playing, and Deshaies’ photography will make you swoon. Hobbled by a few distractions it may be, but this is seductive and intelligent film-making of an impressive order.

d/sc Denis Côté p Denis Côté, Stéphanie Morissette ph Josée Deshaies ed Nicolas Roy ad Marjorie Rhéaume cast Emmanuel Bilodeau, Philmène Bilodeau, Roc LaFortune, Sophie Desmarais
(2010, Can, 96m)
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Monday, June 16, 2014

United Red Army - the Path to Asama Mountain Lodge (Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama sanso e no michi)

Japanese director Wakamatsu Kōji was best-known for popular pinku eiga softcore movies until this burst on the festival circuit in 2008, but even such lurid titles as Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969) and (especially) Ecstasy of the Angels (1972) had a marked political content (and to produce Oshima's Ai no corrida was a bold political move in itself).

The film divides roughly into three sections across its three-hour running time and culminates in the infamous 1972 mountain lodge siege, the last-stand defiance of five members of the radical leftist student group, the United Red Army. A title announces at the start that the film is factual, but with fictional elements interpose; it begins with a dizzying documentary recap of radical student action from 1960 to 1971, blending newsreel footage, statistics of actions and arrests, and a frankly bewildering number of name and age captions for the actors and actresses who gradually pop up. From humble beginnings in objection to raised tuition fees, the various student groups combine, divide, get bitten by the bug of communism, fight amongst themselves, hijack aeroplanes, train in Palestine and eventually two of the paramilitary factions join forces to become the United Red Army.


The group retreated to a base in the mountains at the start of 1971 ostensibly for military training, but here in the second part of the film, in an isolated, claustrophobic cabin, we are witness to the terrible face of ideological fanaticism as the standard practice of self-critique is taken to extremes. Rather than fighting the war on the outside, the Army’s attention turns itself inward as the intimidating and unflinching leader Mori Tsuneo and his homunculus 2IC Nagata Hiroko pick on one member after another, and the quest for ideological purity becomes a purge: the first individuals are tied, beaten, and left outside to die of exposure, and the later ones simply executed. So powerful is the sway of the leadership and the intensity of the revolutionary ideal that one young woman is induced to beat her own face to a bloody pulp. There’s no doubt that Mori’s demented zeal is in part due to shame over his desertion of a group operation in the late ’60s, before begging to be readmitted; and evil-eyed Nagata seems to relish her power no more than when jealously needling one of the attractive young women and effectively sentencing her to death. We see all of the twelve victims meet their end, each commemorated with a caption of name and age (all in their early twenties) and the whole extended sequence is frightful; if the fundamental roots of how the striving for ideological purity can become so twisted are not exposed, the path it then takes from fanaticism to semi-fascist insanity is at least laid clearly and horribly before us.

With the police closing in, the remainder of the group splits and disperses. The leaders are picked up and most of the others arrested, but five pursued men make their way through the snowy mountains to a ski-ing lodge, where they hole up with the inn-keeper’s wife while the police surround them. It has the self-knowingly tragic air of a last stand as they prepare to fight and die for the memory their murdered comrades. As in the secret retreat, we are kept entirely inside the lodge, hearing only voices from outside, and experiencing the impressively disorienting water and smoke attacks with the subjectivity of the radicals. After ten days the five were in fact taken alive, and the film closes with a textual wrap-up of Japanese radical activity since then, beginning with Mori’s suicide in jail, and culminating in the self-immolation of a former member in 2001 in protestation over the treatment of Palestine. It is an incisive reminder that if what we have just seen is history, the commitment of the protagonists has a directly traceable relevance and importance to present-day international politics.


Wakamatsu’s film was a project close to his own heart. He had affiliations with the radical left in the sixties, even joining the Red Army for training in Palestine which resulted in his making a film about them and the PFLP in 1971. In order to make United Red Army, he mortgaged his home, used it as the ski lodge location, and completely destroyed it for the finale. Nonetheless, the viewpoint of the film is mostly detached and objective: the first third is almost pure documentary, with brief re-stagings of meetings, and the second third is unflinchingly detached, a cold eye the only way to try and comprehend the insane spiral of zealotry, with no excuses made. Allowing us no view of the outside, the third section encourages closer identification with the radicals, but on a more humanistic than political level as, isolated in the lodge, their political ideals become more abstract than ever: Nixon is shaking hands in China; fear and futility reign; the eating of a cookie can become anti-revolutionary; and the only remaining action in which meaning can be found is resistance on principle. It’s on this more subjective ground that Wakamatsu makes his only false move, as a pleadingly plaintive song lyric plays under a moment of emotional desperation; otherwise the score by Jim O’Rourke is impressively low-key, chugging urgently along to the first section’s barrage of information, and elsewhere underscoring with a distant guitar reminiscent of Neil Young’s Dead Man. For the rest, the film is note perfect: long and involved to be sure, harrowing in places and too dense for the casual viewer, but a ultimately an important and heartfelt bearing of witness.

d/ed Wakamatsu Kōji p Ozaki Noriko sc Wakamatsu Kōji, Kakegawa Masayuki ph Toda Yohishisa, Tsuji Tomohiko m Jim O'Rourke cast Sakai Maki, Iura Arata, Namiki Akie, Jibiki Gô, Ohnishi Shima
(2007, Jap, 190m)
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Monday, March 24, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

It is apparently of little concern to Jim Jarmusch, the common journlistic shorthand that labels him as some "high priest of hip". He seems actively to be courting the title in fact, with Only Lovers Left Alive, the most languorously cool movie of his career (amidst stiff competition). It is a love story, intrinsic to which is the fact that Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are vampires (their third wedding was 1868) whose relationship has strengthened and deepened to a near-mystical level over the years; as has their knowledge and appreciation of science, nature, and cultural figures and artifacts, allowing for the fetishisation of all kinds of musical instruments and equipment, books and literary figures: an impossible level of hipness attainable only via several times a normal human lifespan. And of course they dress to kill, and wear sunglasses at night.

As the opening sequence demonstrates, to the accompaniment of a needle dropping on a scratchy (and of course deliciously rare) soul 45, their existence is zonked-out placid, she in unmatched boho-chic in Tangiers, he in a shadowy, crumbling, dark-wood mansion in an abandoned part of Detroit, recording his music amidst towers of vintage audio gear. Eve is several thousand years old, Adam more like 500, but by this time both are above the old-fashioned traditions of beastly behaviour, instead sourcing uncontaminated blood from doctors and labs, and in the case of Adam, shunning almost all contact with the human world ("fucking zombies" he likes to spit).

Although living half a world apart at the start - proportionate to their hundreds of years together, something like a weekend break - Eve travels to Adam to console his world-weariness. They may both be vampires, strongly and believably in love, but they deliberately positioned as yin and yang. To help us get the idea, she dresses most frequently in white, he almost exclusively in black. She upbraids him gently for his self-obsession, as a waste of time which could be spent living, enjoying the world, nature, dancing. He, on the other hand, is like "Hamlet played by Syd Barrett" (Jarmusch's first direction to Hiddlestone). It is hardly the latter's fault, therefore, if his character feels both like a box-checking archetype of hipsterism, and a little second-hand (right down to his photo wall of heroes, from Poe and Kafka, to Buster Keaton and Joe Strummer, to the slightly dubious - pace Jarmusch's filmography - inclusion of Neil Young).

Hiddleston plays well with Swinton (although certain Americanisms in the script sit ill on his English tongue). They do make a beautiful couple, believably at ease with one another, and actually conversing as a long-term couple might, but the onus of bringing warmth and beauty to the love relationship thankfully falls to Swinton, and the movie would be a far less attractive proposition without her. It is all too easy to forget that beneath the Bowie-alien alabaster appearance she can command a beautiful sense of openness and wonder, enthusiasm and love, conjuring a real deep-rooted bond with her dear friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), speed-reading her beloved books with her fingertips in almost ecstatic excitement, and rendering believable the central, enduring relationship.

Adam denies his heroes: the insecure egotism of the artist. Eve never would, for she is ready to appreciate all. Thus when he drives her past Jack White's childhood home, her happy reaction is one of affection rather than the reverence of Adam's photo wall. Her outlook is largely one of wonder; his one of cynicism, and disgust at those who lack his refined taste (and at those who thwarted his scientific heroes from Gallileo to Tesla).

There is of course a third approach to these relationships with culture and beauty, and that's not to give two hoots. This is embodied by Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) who turns up halfway through to cause a bit of chaos. She is much younger, and wilder, and hails from LA ("zombie central", as Adam describes it). Wasikowska is delightfully willful and bratty (although like Adam, to quite a degree predictable - why on earth would the elder couple leave her alone with an obvious victim they'd prefer to keep around?) and departs calling Adam and Eve a pair of "condescending snobs".

What she refers to is their seclusion from the human world, with the appearance of being above such things, rather than doing so for their own self-preservation - something Ava too might learn with age - but it holds also for the esoteric rarefication of their existence, which Jarmusch packs to overflowing with empty cultural references. Even those already listed amount to an excess, and that's barely the half of it, denied individual significance in and of themselves in the context of the film, and rarely with any specific relevance: the fact that they travel with passports in the names of Stephen Daedalus and Daisy Buchanan, for example, provides no additional subtext - it's a throwaway gag.

The most egregious example of this is the character of Marlowe who as a cultural figure, beyond just being a dear friend of Eve's, adds nothing to the film except a chance for Jarmusch to state bluntly his anti-Stratfordian views, with no need for supporting argument, and the lightly touched-upon issue of getting one's work out there without the need for personal recognition. This more or less represents the film's superficial hipness to a tee, references as badges of cool, of rebelliousness, of knowledge, without emotional import, significance, or even appreciation as endless nods are made. By this time, one expects little profundity from Jarmusch, particularly after the damp squibs of his last two pictures (Broken Flowers and Limits of Control). Beyond the hang-out cool atmosphere of his movies, their saving grace is usually the deadpan humour, on display in only fits and starts here: following a startlingly swift acid bath Eve blinks out "Well that certainly was visual".

This is a decent summation of the film. It looks fantastic, from her yak-hair wig to his glorious lute, and the vampire's leather gloves that the film-makers include to invent their own bit of vampire mythology (unexplained, but basically as some form of protection when they are outside their home turf). One cannot fault its cool, and it looks and sounds terrific. DP Yorick Le Saux (veteran of several Ozon films) shoots a lovely shadowy night-time world; production and costume designers Marco Bittner Rosser (V for Vendetta, Hellboy, Inglorious Bastards) and Bina Daigelier (Che, The Limits of Control) have really gone to town, from the (slightly too-precious) goblets from which the vampires drink their blood, to Hurt's (500-year-old!) waistcoat; and Jarmusch's band SQÜRL with lutist Jozef Van Wissen provide the perfect, narcotic score, drenched in feedback.

But in the service of what? The film raises all sorts of intriguing questions and trains of thought - how the human race has degraded itself and the planet; vampirism as drug addition; how one could possibly keep oneself sane living for thousands of years, or remain engaged as a couple for that long; the significance of authorship; even artistic endeavour as as a kind of vampirism on one's predecessors - yet never worries at them. Adam and Eve's frequent talk of Einstein's spooky-at-a-distance theory, as though they are the separated particles operating on one another, feels like an easy and not-quite-justified shorthand; and even the title is poetically opaque to the point of meaninglessness. Other commentators have described the vampire state on display here as a metaphor for hipsterism, an eternal seen-it-all-before / I-have-a-better-record-collection-than-you ennui, and in Adam's case this certainly holds. I realised as I watched that as a 15-year-old, say, I'd have found it just about the coolest thing ever. At some years' distance, however, the relentless and superficial litany of reference palls, however sincere and celebratory; surface dominates at the expense of substance. The gloves were added not least because they look cool, "a very important criteria [sic]" Jarmusch admits. At some point the urge to be cool begins to undermine its very self.

d/sc Jim Jarmusch p Jeremy Thomas, Reinhard Brundig ph Yorick Le Saux ed Affonso Gonçalves pd Marco Bittner Rosser m Jozaef van Wissem cast Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi
(2013, UK/Ger/Fr/Cyp/USA, 113m) 
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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Vic + Flo ont vu un ours (Vic + Flo Saw A Bear)

This is something like an expansion on Côté's last, the strictly observational non-documentary Bestiaire (2012), although that in turn was a distillation of his favoured practice of looking at slightly odd characters shut away from the world. In Curling (2010) and Carcasses (2009), for example, it was by their own volition, as distinct from the animals of Bestiaire, and in Vic +Flo the same is true, although that volition is rather weighted since both women are not-long released from prison.

Vic goes to stay with her invalid uncle in some Quebec backwoods. As incarnated by Pierrette Robitaille she is magnificent, stern, sardonic, and beautiful at 63, with a funny loose-limbed, wide-legged stance, and a well-guarded streak of vulnerability. Her lover Flo soon joins her (Romane Bohringer),, if anything more feisty. These are women used to standing up for themselves, although as a pointedly wordless flashback makes clear, they are used also to the chat and camaraderie of the yard, whereas now there's just the pair of them to sit in the glade outside their house. Exchanging one prison for another is eating at Flo a little, so no wonder Vic worries she may lose her, herself unprepared to move to a city since "I'm old enough to know I hate people."

 
She doesn't entirely, however, almost too willing to make friends, not that you'd notice. Unfortunate since, in the way of these things, the past is about to catch up with the ex-cons. The air of not a lot happening is perfectly off-set by this slow burn, and when it comes, it hits hard. The point of the film is more to observe these outside people, people who've fallen through the cracks, making what they can of their lives, forming small alliances, connections, and joshing friendships (particularly with the decent parole officer). The thriller elements intrude in a realistically brutal way, without unnecessary explanation, and serve to influence and illuminate Vic and Flo's relationship more than to thrill (that said, the baddie is terrific).

Shot with ugly-beautiful high contrast and woven with humour both bitter and sweet, this shows Côté becoming perhaps more cinematic-romantic with an ending that is both tragic and touchingly, impossibly happy. It is capped by a final shot, however, which cannot be described in detail without spoiling (ditto the title), but comes off as a weak and irrelevant joke. A shame, since up to this point it is a film of fine, affecting performances and perfectly restrained direction, that otherwise does not put a foot wrong.



d/sc Denis Côté p Sylvain Corbeil, Stéphanie Morissette ph Ian Lagarde ed Nicolas Roy ad Colombe Raby cast Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-André Grondin, Marie Brassard,  Georges Molnar, Olivier Aubin, Pier-Luc Funk
(2013, Can, 95m)


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L'inconnu du lac (Stranger at the Lake)

It’s understandable that Guiraudie won the best director of Un certain regard at Cannes this year, since for the most part L’inconnu du lac is a very tight piece of work, effectively exploring the time and place of a single location and milieu and unobtrusively depicting the mores of a gay lakeside cruising ground, as well as charting the uncertainties that blossom as a new relationship deepens, and building with a skillful slow-burn to a long final shot of exquisite tension.

Since it occurs at the end of the film’s second day, it’s giving little away to reveal that handsome young Franck observes a murder at dusk (in another remarkably long, tense shot). Much of the rest of the film is a dance of avoidance, denial, and animal attraction between Franck and his new lover, playing out as it might between any new couple, slightly wary of giving too much away, except here the stakes are much higher.

The other part of the film’s project is a depiction of this very particular place. We arrive each day in turn with Franck (and the film confines itself exclusively to the lake and its environs) and gradually get to know a few of the regular habits of the cruising ground, along with some of the regulars (the most prominent being the harmless podgy man who wanks in the woods – his function is nothing more than comic relief but he’s more than funny enough to justify his presence). Most effectively, the banality of the opening shot – cars parked haphazardly at the edge of the woods – becomes an important signifier through repetition, depending on which cars are, or are not, there.

 
Guiraudie’s camera (under DP Claire Mathon) repeatedly turns itself skyward, to the treetops, the lowering sun, and ominous clouds, or descends to catch the noonday or evening light on the waves in rather lovely abstract compositions. Like the repeated view off the parking area, these apparently empty shots gain power through accretion, transitions of afternoon to evening clearly and beautifully delineated to capture the sameness of those lazy, identical summer vacation days. The blazing sunlight and lush greenery, however, give way come nightfall to the startling beams of headlights and the sinister blackness of the woods.

One may as well mention too that Guiraudie does not shirk on the main point of the place. Most of the cast and extras are naked most of the time, and there’s a healthy amount of love-making, occasionally explicit though never solely for titillation. A lengthy coupling between the main pair is shot and cut to rank with the best sex scenes in cinema in terms of presenting both physicality and feeling, and they also get a couple of nice romantic moments in crepuscular silhouette on the beach.

All this is excellent, but the two main supporting characters are a little problematic. The spidery police inspector (a perfect Jérôme Chappatte), who pops up with amusing unexpectedness, seems to have a bugbear about the apparent callousness of these people; his comments and disbelief at the lake’s habitués’ easy return to routine mere days after the death of “one of your own” is meant presumably to demonstrate how even an astute and observant outsider may not fully understand the workings of this community, but comes off at best as stating the obvious, at worst as uncountered moralizing which therefore takes on a tinge of directorial comment (the question is: is it ok to take the stand that one dude’s as good as another and some dude got killed, so what?)

The other significant character is the lonesome, fat-bellied Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), sitting a little removed from the main cruising ground each day. Franck swims up to him on the first day and a rather sweet friendship develops. Henri too is an outsider, with no interest in picking up men, and although he does not judge, his sincere assumption that most of those here have wives or girlfriends at home, and are just homo on the side, from time to time, is an almost unbelievable anachronism. The real problem, however, is that the finale reveals his presence to be most useful as a device to facilitate the film’s denouement, in a display of character motivation that feels far more familiar from fiction than from real life.

A couple of other instances of motivation require a pinch of salt also: this is an astonishingly foolhardy place to commit a murder, a place full of heads ever-ready to turn and look, and where searching eyes prowl the woods. The act can be read as a spur-of-the-moment decision, but the lack of character development in the perpetrator (quite the opposite, in fact, in the final scene as what few implied shadings are stripped away to reveal a basic bogeyman) gives no clue; likewise Franck’s willingness to put himself in danger, at first in general, and later in a specific replay of what he witnessed.

That said, Pierre Deladonchamps’ performance is spot-on, proverbially young, dumb and full of cum, with active, often wounded eyes that convey the thought processes, but suggest that these are nonetheless none too profound. And as the object of his lust, dashingly mustachioed Christophe Paou is a convincing-enough hunk of meat to make the blind attraction wholly believable. The flaws are minor: these attractive performances, presented with an impressive control of pacing, time and place, and the no-nonsense handling of the whole cruising scene, are more than enough to paper over a few cracks.

d/sc Alain Guiraudie p Sylvia Pialat ph Claire Mathon ed Jean-Christophe Hym ad Roy Genty, François-Renaud Labarthe, Laurentt Lunetta cast Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, Gilbert Traina, Emmanuel Daumas, Alain Giraudie
(2013, Fr, 100m)
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Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)

 
Wunderkind Xavier Dolan never seems to make it to the AFI festival because he's always off shooting his next movie (four movies by the age of 24 and Cannes prizes galore). He was in production on this one when last year's Laurence Anyways screened, a continuation and expansion of the high-pitched emotional drama of his first two films. Whether these were conceived as a triptych or not, Dolan switches tack for his fourth, adapting a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, and serving up a psychological thriller that borders on grand guignol.

Dolan himself plays Tom, with a mop of sloppy dyed blond hair, a dusting of stubble, and a chunky biker jacket. He is marked out as an urban creature, arriving at a remote farm, where the script will convey with neat economy that he is there for the funeral of his dead lover, whose mother did not know her son was gay, and whose brother is a (suspiciously) vehement homophobe.

Less elegant than the exposition, however, is the insistently ominous music that accompanies Tom's arrival, wandering around the empty (but otherwise entirely unsinister) farm buildings. Gabriel Yared does a good Bernard Herrmann pastiche, later explicitly evoking themes from Psycho and Vertigo amongst others, and this is not the only hint of Hitchcock (there's even a cornfield chase). The jolt of incongruity when this music first strikes up, however, is symptomatic of the tone - or rather, lack of even tone - that Dolan pursues.

 
It all plays out in a perfectly entertaining way, and Tom's first reversal is in fact prepared in a careful and fairly believable way. We come to realise that we know nothing about this young man except that he is articulate and well-spoken and grieving to the point of self-hatred, and that there is no reason to suppose he is the healthy and well-balanced protagonist we might hope for. Yet one has to swallow not one but two complete motivational volte-faces on Tom's part, and an almost comic-book bogeyman in the form of brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), his face conspicuously obscured until a shock reveal (given the shadow of Hitchcock, guess where). And simply given the isolated rural setting, there has to be some ghastly secret connected to the family: when revealed it's both more banal in its cause and more grotesque in execution than one could have imagined.

Dolan is so good at orchestrating scenes of intense emotion, however, that the several of these scattered throughout make the rest of the film's more extreme psychological elements look a little silly: in particular, Tom's account to the mother of his phone conversation with the (fictional) girlfriend, putting his own heart-rending words into her mouth; and an astonishing scene in extreme shallow focus as the mother goes through her son's box of schoolboy mementos.

This imbalance is partly tied to some half-hearted business to do with what is real or not - nothing is obviously "unreal", but Tom deludes himself that life on the farm is "real" in the sense of authentic, and the dark secret is finally revealed in a bar beneath a prominent neon sign reading "The Real Deal". The emotions here are real, certainly, but the characters never quite ring true, with the psychology ramped up to such a feverish pitch. One could hope for a more interesting brother given the hints - learning to dance with his gay sibling, and the odd bond that develops so easily between him and Tom - and at one point this looks as though it could be another story about an intense mother-son relationship, as the mother lashes out unexpectedly and a sly look from Tom reveals how easily he could slip into the role of favourite son.


This disjunct of psychology and emotion makes for a shaky ride. The genuinely moving moments make of these characters at times something more than mere components of an entertainment (à la most of Hitchcock), but the more extreme psychological elements result less from character than from the requirements of the thriller mode. Dolan is a good enough film-maker however, with as usual a few flashy touches, to serve up a perfectly enjoyable entertainment, ultimately lightweight but spikey enough to intrigue, even if it does not quite play to his strengths.

d/sc/ed Xavier Dolan p Xavier Dolan, Charles Gilibert, Nathanaël Karmitz ph André Turpin ad Colombe Raby m Gabriel Yared cast Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyn Brochu, Manuel Tadros
(2013, Can/Fr, 105m)
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Documenteur

Varda has cited this as her favourite of her own films, presumably because even more than Les plages d’Agnès (2008), it is her most personal and most emotional. She was apart from Demy on her second trip to Los Angeles, at the start of the ‘80s, to develop a script (turned down), deciding instead to make her documentary Mur Murs (1981) about the city's mural art. During this time she was inspired both by her own sadness of separation and by the sense of disenchantment and exile she found in Venice, to make a film that fully justifies its subtitle of an “emotion picture”.

That emotion is pain. Emilie (Sabine Mamou, editor of both the LA films), is recently split from her husband, left looking for a home with her young son (played by Varda’s own, Mathieu Demy), typing a script for an absent film-maker, and observing the slightly forlorn figures who fish off the Venice pier or glean the trash for who-knows-what, accompanied by bursts of Georges Delerue’s exquisitely melancholy solo piano pieces (performed by Michel Colombier).

The pain of separation is compounded by a sense of dislocation, as the frequent and lengthy voiceover revels in French words that are of little use to Emilie where she is, to the extent that they start to lose their meaning: a litany of lists, synonyms, and alliterative associations as though she is trying to keep the words and the language alive for herself. One of the first things she says (though it’s actually the dulcet tones of Delphine Seyrig) is that “faces are more real than words” and the film’s very title (menteur = liar) indicates the mixture of fiction and observation that Varda is after. The murals make an appearance – starting, appropriately enough, with the edge-of-the-world “Isle of California” (nowhere left to go) – and the film is as much a document of Venice in 1981 as anything else.


Yet even this observational viewpoint is does not pretend to objectivity. Varda has spoken of the sad air of the place, as far west as one can go in search of one’s dreams, and thus for those who do not find it, a sort of graveyard. So to capture this air of disenchantment she avoids the sunshine, filming instead the grey atmosphere of the marine layer, rain-slicked streets and overcast skies, avoiding the boulevards and the boardwalk in favour of narrow alleyways, a late-night laundromat, or the dismal grey concrete of the pier. Even Emilie’s ocean view from her beachfront work desk feels more like a desolate boundary than a destination for pleasure-seekers.

The sad air that Varda is after, the palpable emotion, is undercut however, by a marked dislocation of the audio track, none of which appears to have been recorded direct, and none of which matches the movements of the mouths we see. Deliberate or not, the effect is off-putting, even alienating, in a way that is hard to ignore even for aficionados of, say, Welles’ independent films. It does at least add, however, to the sense of Emilie’s dislocation and isolation, both from her surroundings and from her language.

This sense of isolation is not quite complete, for Mathieu is Emilie’s almost constant companion. Yet she must try to teach him to be alone also, repeatedly refusing his pleas to come and sleep in her bedroom (pointedly without reverse cuts to her half of the conversations) and when they are apart, it is he who looks inquisitively out of the window and around the neighbourhood, whilst she retreats into herself, contemplating her naked self before a mirror.

 
It may sound like it, but the film is not in fact all doom and gloom. Mamou is an attractive presence who does not wallow in self-pity but is simply overwhelmed to the point of numbness; still, her bright eyes show that she has not been entirely beaten. And although the change of location is not signposted, the film ends on a note if not of optimism, then at least of happiness, as we move inland to the bustling community of Olvera Street, with a mariachi band on the playing from the balcony. To Mathieu’s pleasure, when one is sad, one can always go outside and dance a polka.

d/p/sc Agnès Varda ph Nurith Aviv, Affonso Beato, Bob Carr ed Bob Gould, Sabine Mamou cast Sabine Mamou, Mathieu Demy, Lisa Blok-Linson, Tina Odom, Gary Feldman, Charles Southwood, Chris Leplus
(1981, US/Fr, 65m)
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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Pardé (Closed Curtain)

Jafar Panahi continues to defy the 20-year ban on film-making imposed on him by the Iranian government with a new feature, co-directed and starring his colleague and frequent collaborator Kambozia Partovi, and it is an intriguing magnification of his last illicit achievement, This Is Not A Film (2011). That title was wittily, bitterly disingenuous, whereas Closed Curtain specifically evokes the shut-in existence both of the writer-protagonist of the film’s first half, and that of the film-maker himself. There is an opposite sense as well, however, since more even than the previous experiment, this film both opens itself to what kind of cinema can be made under such straitened circumstances, and opens the consciousness of its writer-director; and, despite his palpable anguish, the curtain of possibility remains open at the end.

Confined once again to a single interior location – this time Panahi’s remote seaside villa (which the camera pointedly never leaves for almost the entirety of the film), the film begins with a very long shot through barred windows. This and the initial story are all that is needed to emphasise the notion of imprisonment. A man (Partovi) arrives with a dog in his hold-all. Dog-ownership, horribly emphasised in a TV snippet, is banned in Iran so this man, a writer, is in hiding.

The first surprise is a pair of fugitive visitors whose circumstances are obfuscated, their pursuers shadowy (a beach party with alcohol, it seems, was broken up by police). The second surprise is that around the halfway mark the ‘reality’ of the film is turned on its head as Panahi makes a stunningly unexpected and understated entrance, stepping across a distinctive threshold as though through a mirror (an act photographed through the until-then tantalisingly under-used giant mirror of the villa’s second-storey living room no less.)

 
This is a point much like that in This Is Not A Film when Panahi abruptly gives up his enactment of the script he was going to make next, for what is the point of telling a story with no actors or sets but only tape on the floor? It is as though he loses his faith in fiction itself and that perhaps the experience of making This Is Not A Film revealed that the most fruitful exploration he can make is of himself.

So what we are now to make of the writer and the young woman who arrived in the night is not simple. They start to occupy shifting (but not necessarily contradictory) allegorical roles, as detached fictional characters, and as projections of Panahi’s psyche, elements to be gotten rid of or embraced, as is suggested in their increasingly ghostly voiceovers. They are elements with which the film-maker is reluctant to part, particularly Maryam Moqadam’s Melika, with her wide eyes pleading to be noticed as Panahi makes his resolution at the end.

Until these final moments it is with her and her walk into the sea that he has been most fascinated, the bleak, suicidal melancholy she projects, so tempting and difficult to overcome, but they have no direct contact. She in turn is given to intriguing pronouncements (to the writer) such as "Why am I even talking to you? I should use a different language" and "one of us must leave so he knows what to do." They represent unspecified, conflicting elements of Panahi's creative life (for he tells his neighbour that things outside of work mean nothing to him) and it is this struggle, literally fatal at one point, although that reveals itself to be a fiction, that illuminates Panahi's glumness and lends the film a tragic, moving power.

Not that this is a sob-story of special pleading, despite Panahi’s admitted depression during the shoot. Specific reference to his situation is played almost for a laugh when a glazier declines to have his picture taken with the director because for him, it is “too risky”. The film’s most powerful direct comment on all this comes near the beginning in a rather stunning shot of the writer and his dog sitting before their large, blacked-out window that just happens to be the shape of a ‘scope frame: the logical final consequence of a mindset that can ban film-making: a black screen, the end of cinema.

The tricky play of various and possible realities, their obscure meanings, and the feeling that they vaguely have no final “truth”, is correlative with Panahi’s clearly conflicted feelings, and if he turns his back on bleakness at the end, what he accepts instead he seems to know is still a necessary compromise. Under such circumstances, however, it is still some kind of victory. Even leaving aside the real-life situation, it is this which makes such a complex, confused and confusing film of highly restricted production circumstances an achievement more moving and personal, troubled and intriguing, even than his last.

d Jafar Panahi, Kambuzia Partovi p/sc/ed Jafar Panahi ph Mohammad Reza, Jahanpanah cast Kambuzia Partov, Maryam Moqadam, Jafar Panahi, Hafi Saeedi
(2013, Iran, 106m)
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Friday, January 3, 2014

A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness

One wouldn’t necessarily guess it, but this a collaborative effort by two of the leading lights of international experimental film Ben Rivers (UK) and Ben Russell (US), is an enquiry as to where utopia(s) may exist (as noted in interviews and screening introductions). Possible locations, it is suggested, are in the present and in cinema (an art-form, the film-makers posit, which is permanently and exclusively located in the present). The film itself is nothing like as explicit.

The project draws on preoccupations dear to both film-makers – community and solitude; landscape and the individual’s place in it; and Russell’s particular fascination with trance states, most pointedly in the final section, under the influence of loud, violent music – but the result betrays no division of influence, playing as a truly collaborative vision.

It could be described as an experimental, tripartite, non-narrative documentary. The long opening shot goes some way to preparing (or warning) us for the film’s contemplative mode. The camera pans slowly back and forth along the far shoreline of a lake in dim pre-dawn light. The thick rows of trees and their reflections in the water gradually devolve into semi-abstraction, coming to look rather charmingly like the huddled peaks of a digital waveform. This impression, and the incitation to a trance state, is reinforced when finally a gentle, looping, non-verbal a capella piece grows on the soundtrack – an opening that suggests that something like utopia can be found in a blissful surrender to sensation, under the influence of what is basically a very simple, but elegant combination of sound and image in the cinema.

The main body of the film is divided into three distinct sections. We begin with handheld observations of an Estonian commune, all beards and girls with no bras, varieties of accent, children running free, woven hippie jackets, and a high-spirited sauna. We see a man deciding to nap with his baby instead of attending to the lunch he is expected to prepare – someone else will make it – and shortly after this a young woman observes that the abdication of responsibility is one of the temptations of communal living. Nonetheless, the group seems perfectly harmonious, building a geodome, face-painting, or simply passing the time as smoke floats beautifully in the sunrays piercing the forest, but the closest this section comes to finding a utopia is in an amusing story told of another commune, at another time, where the participants achieve something like the ultimate in ease with each other and each other’s assholes.

Amongst this group there is a man with a soft openness and self-possession to his face like Eric Dolphy if he’d let his beard grow wild, who strums an acoustic guitar and wanders into the now-completed dome for a smoke, whence we hop to a beautifully-forested Finnish lake. This kind of utopia is solitude in nature, comprising plenty of nice but never transcendent shots of our man hiking through the forest, rowing, or reading in soft sunlight, interspersed with close-ups of the muted colours of Finnish teen magazine covers and patterned home-furnishing fabrics, along with plenty of semi-abstract inserts of lichen, moss, water under ice and so on. The effect is underwhelming until the two previous campfires of the film are magnified in a rather striking, if inexplicable conflagration that marks the transition from peace and quiet to the onslaught of the film’s final section.

The locations are not indicated in the film until the closing credits, and nor is the viewer aware that this man is artist and musician Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. The final section is a little more specific, however, as the film-makers put him in the distinctive face-paint and context of a Norwegian Black Metal performance. This kind of utopia – if a trance-state can be equated with utopia – is familiar from Russell’s records of the transformative power of hardcore music, audiences sweating and carried away by the incessant power of the sound. Here it is primarily the band captured in their reverie (though the drummer looks a bit bored), by a roaming close-up camera of varying focus, in what plays like a single half-hour shot. In fact it contains two near-invisible cuts, one of which facilitates a pan across the dim audience, their faces stonily impassive until the current song ends and electronic drone waves take over, and heads start to nod. It seems to be a deliberately concealed disjunct of audio and video to give the impression that the audience is so transported that they no longer need the thudding rhythm of the music; a valid point about possibility, but ringing unavoidably false.

The overwhelming nature of this near-relentless noise is undeniable, but the power of the sequence is undermined if one finds such music simplistic and emptily bombastic. Also undeniable is the commitment of the band, in particular Lowe, views of whom are withheld until near the end, by which time he is screaming full-throatedly the sole word repeated over and over throughout the set (“Lie”? “Why”?, “Die”?) As he walks quietly off-stage, apparently returned to his former state of serenity, the camera follows close on his shoulder (as it has done several times already), as he walks out into the night. The well-worn shot-choice is given a nice spin, however, as towards the end of another lengthy take, Lowe dissolves gradually into the darkness accompanied by a breathy electronic delay loop and escalating red noise. It conjures a pair to the seductive trance-state of the film’s start and suggests that, for the duration, the spell has indeed worked, but outside of thee cinema, darkness prevails once more.

d/sc/ph/ed Ben Rivers, Ben Russell p Julia Gayet, Indrek Kasela, Nadia Turincev cast Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe
(2013, Fr/Ger/Est, 95m)
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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

R100

The title R100 is a joke on the ratings system because director Matsumoto Hitoshi (Big Man Japan, 1997) claims that no-one who has not lived a century will understand this film. Such a pronouncement is in keeping with the striving absurdity of the movie, frequently funny, but ultimately a somewhat laboured litany of craziness.

A docile furniture salesman signs up with a mysterious, private, and philosophical SM club, accepting that for one year shiny leather-clad dominatrices may show up at any time to beat, whip or even spit him into blissful submission. These unexpected encounters are mostly as amusing as one might hope. He's not allowed to cancel his contract, however, so of course that's what he finds he wants to do, once they start involving his child and his coma-ridden wife. Thereafter the confrontations escalate. But there's no humanity here at all – kid can be gagged and hoisted on ropes for laughs - and the pathos of grandpa weeping at his daughter's beside is wasted, particularly given the absurdity of their eventual fates - no more than a sarcastic joke, as it turns out therefore, and so not all that funny.


A more interesting movie threatens to emerge when the title card appears halfway through and we cut to a trio of casual suits (censors? Distributors?), the first of several interludes where they dim-wittedly question a pair of young representatives for the film's 100-year-old director, the group having just watched the section we have just watched. But it's all just another gag, of a piece with the interviews with dominatrices around the "Water Lounge" pool, amusing enough, but with no real metafictional power.

The notion of joy obtained through extreme submission is nicely, if uglily, realised through a simple rippling CGI effect and bulging cheeks (the leached-out color throughout is also strikingly unattractive), and the film's best gag combines those throbbing concentric rings with Beethoven’s recurrent “Ode to Joy” and the stave-like slats of the wooden shed where our hero gets his ultimate kick at the hands of an impressive giantess. The approach to S&M seems to be fearful and sneering, however, rather than approached with fond mockery, which leaves one with a slightly sour taste. A frippery, entertaining enough, but unable to live up to its extravagant claims, which is also an unsatisfactorily self-justifying part of the joke.


d Matsumoto Hiroshi p Keisuke Konishi, Natsue Takemoto sc Hiroshi Matsumoto ph Kaziinari Tanaka ed Yoshitaka Honda pd Etsuko Aikô m Shûichi Sakamoto cast Omori Nao, Suzuki Matsuo, Tominaga Ai, Daichi Mao, Katagiri Hairi, Terajima Shinobu, Katagiri Hairi, Sato Eriko, Watanabe Naomi, Lindsay Kay Hayward
(2013, Jap, 100m)

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Le passé (The Past)

Like Farhadi's previous film, A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011), this is a superb feat of narrative construction and mise en scène, keeping three to four characters at the centre of attention, and balancing their motives and desires with careful equanimity. The problem is that there's little more to recommend the film than this cleverness, since none of the characters is especially interesting or likable, and the third act develops into a twist-too-far detective story, before ending on a note that, albeit presumably not deliberate, is a thudding sequel set-up, and for a film of far more lively desperation to boot.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has come back to France to sign divorce papers for Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who, to his surprise, is about to get married to Samir (Tahar Rahim). The film's first two thirds are a negotiation of this territory and the frictions it creates with Marie's two daughters and Samir's young son (Elys Aguis, giving the film's best performance). Ahmad proves himself too good to be true, taking on the chin Marie's thoughtlessness, withholding, and perpetual irritability, calming the children, fixing a bicycle, dispensing wisdom all round, and even getting on civilly with Samir. Meanwhile, Marie is insufferably selfish, bratty, and generally unpleasant to be around, and Samir displays little more character than his over-the-top teary eyes brought on by a paint allergy.


This is a dinner party movie par excellence for those who go to the cinema maybe every couple of months, ready to be prompted to incapable discussions of ethics, motivation, and inferred emotion, and gasp excitedly "wasn't it a shock when.." etc. (and this is not a film for those allergic to exclusively first-world problems). It is all about guilty consciences being assuaged; there is nothing here of substance. Hints that feelings from the marriage may still exist are not exploited; the new relationship has no depth at all; the youngest daughter may as well not be in the film for all the relevance she has; and one cannot fathom why anyone puts up with Marie (to be fair we are told she has a history of men leaving her).


The elder daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is the most interesting character not in a coma, and does the most interesting thing in the film (before it starts, in fact) but even she is a standard-issue sulky teen. This is a film where nothing is at stake save the characters’ comfort, and for the audience it is hard to care. The final act question of who is to blame for a terrible act (again, prior to the film's timeframe) is vaguely answered as "everyone" by the multiple revelations. All except goody-two-shoes Ahmad, who's going to have to come back for the sequel and sort everything out again.

d Asghar Farhadi p Alexandre Mallet-Guy sc Asghar Farhadi, Masssoumeh Lahidji ph Mahmoud Kalari ed Juliette Welfling pd Claude Lenoir m Evgueni Galperine, Youli Galperine cast Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabbrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi, Valeria Cavalli
(2013, Fr/It, 130m)
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Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism (When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism)

Porumboiu ups the formal rigour of his last, Police, Adjective (2009), with a film composed of 17 shots, most capturing conversations for a full reel's 11 minutes, and filmed with an almost entirely static camera. His subjects are film director Paul and his actor and new bedmate Alina, rehearsing, eating, discussing the restraints (those 11-minute reels) of film versus digital, or how national cuisines developed according to the utensils used, with a subplot about Paul’s ulcer and his producer’s concerns. Paul and Alina contrast in his shlubby demeanour and her careful, dancer-like movements; they misunderstand one another over dinner; and he wearily humours her working over the fine details of a scene, in order to achieve his aim of getting her naked onscreen.


One gets the impression that Porumboiu has orchestrated everything down to the tiniest detail of hands moving a cigarette packet, for example, but to what end is unclear - the rhythms of the downtime evening after a long day's work; the lack of effective communication between people; the sly schemes of a film director to get what he wants, perhaps. Reviewing Paul's (faked) endoscopy the doctor says that something is missing (some identifying text on the screen) and that in film-making one puts what interests one at the centre of the frame, not in the margins. But what does he know? He's only a doctor. What seems to interest Porumboiu here is not the power of language, as in his previous film, but how language and behaviour can become banal at the end of the working day; the small, apparently insignificant occurrences, interactions and reactions which allow life to continue (that's metabolism, folks); and, explicitly, how form dictates content, pinning down the actors in long takes, realistic in their lack of ready-made climaxes and consequences - like Paul's gastritis, it's nothing dramatic, and as impressively-controlled as the direction may be, the film's take on what happens in the hours between shooting is, by its implied admission, less interesting than the process itself.

d/sc Christian Porumboiu p Sylvia Pialat ph Tudor Mircea ed Dana Bunescu pd Mihaela Poenaru cast Bogdan Dumitrache, Diana Avramut, Mihaela Sirbu, Alexandru Papadopol
(2013, Rom/Fr, 89m)
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Exhibition



A title at the end reveals that Joanna Hogg's third feature is dedicated to the recently-deceased architect James Melvin, which should come as no surprise since the film is as much a portrait of the sleek, modernist Kensington townhouse in which it is almost exclusively set, as of the mildly disfunctional marriage that resides therein.

Hogg employs a shooting style as self-consciously spare and striking as the house itself, all clean lines, barely-there reflections in the windows, with figures sliced through by venetian blinds or obscured by exterior foliage in suggestive fashion (suggestive of nothing too specific however), and short snippets of scenes that give little away (or do they speak volumes in their reticence? Not so much) intended to accrue into something like a portrait of the protagonists' relationship.

Both are artists. D (ex-Slit Viv Albertine) seems to draw (not a lot) and dabble in performance, though most of the time is withdrawn, unable to get down to work, and sexually withholding. H (conceptual artist Liam Gillick) is apparently successful at fiddling with architectural figures on his Mac, but is hurt that she wants him more for his companionship than his cleverness. They communicate a great deal by intercom (in different offices on different floors), but can share an intimate moment reading in bed (he aloud to her, a description the complete opposite of her character, from Steppenwolf - literary bona fides are further confirmed by Cocteau on his nightstand and Rimbaud on hers). Love and closeness remain - this is not a fundamentally ruined union - but H seems unable to draw D out of her shell, and D seems in a permanent state of fearful malaise, retreating from both work and husband into a masturbatory world of her own, or creating her own exhibition in the large picture window of her study, unblinded, she wrapped in duct tape like some punk nun, at which sight, on his way home, H can only gaze from outside with bewilderment and a little sadness.

Both (debutant) leads do a decent job, Gillick in particular avoiding the pitfalls of pretension and patronage. Although it is essentially her film, Albertine has a harder time with a script that gives little clue to her inner life and troubles, closing us off from her as she closes herself off from all around her. How or indeed whether she will step up to the exhibition opportunity offered to her at the film's close is anyone's guess. Her notion of making it up as she goes along, welcoming all to see her mistakes, is appealing but not promising. Perhaps her sadness is caused solely by the imminent sale of the house, their home for 17 years, put on the market per H's deliberately pat and evasive explanation: "because it's time". D seems to have little to say on the subject beyond a comment that the previous occupants' long marriage is "in the walls", and the film's only really moving moment is late on when she lays around mutely hugging walls and tables. But whether her apparent reluctance is due to emotion or habit is unclear.

It's easy to describe both the house and the film as frigid and soulless, which was presumably the intention of neither architect. Hogg's approach, however, leaches the life out of her characters and their story - another potentially moving moment, when the couple clasp hands at the sounds off of the slick estate agent (Tom Hiddlestone) dealing with an attentive surveyor, is merely mechanical. This is the sort of film where one hopes mischievously for a violent home invasion at the end to liven things up. As well-controlled as it all is, it's hard to give a fig about form or content.

d/sc Joanna Hogg p Gayle Griffiths ph Ed Rutherford ed Helle le Fevre pd Stéphane Collonge cast Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Mary Roscoe, Carol McFadden, Tom Hiddlestone
(2013, UK, 104m)
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