Sunday, October 14, 2018

Three stunning debuts and a charming follow-up

This will be my wrap from Montreal's Festival du nouveau cinema, which ends today.

Danish director Gustav Moller’s The Guilty is an obvious tour de force for actor Jakob Cedergren, who plays Asger Holm, a Copenhagen police dispatcher. The entire film is focused on Holm, as he answers emergency calls. It’s therefore reminiscent of 2013’s Locke by Steven Knight starring Tom Hardy, as the sole subject driving a car on a British motorway yet communicates with disembodied voices via Bluetooth. In The Guilty, the disembodied voices are the alleged crime victims, and one in particular, a woman (Jessica Dinnage) kidnapped in a domestic dispute, and with whom Holm tries to stay in touch and dispatch police units to intercept the vehicle that is taking her to danger. It’s an extraordinarily realistic drama that takes place all in one setting.

Another debut film, Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, from Paraguay, tells the story of two women friends, middle aged Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún), both adrift after recent financial losses (Chiquita temporarily ends up in jail) with no men in their lives and human vultures purchasing their treasured assets – furniture and car – to make ends meet. The real focus, however, is on Chela, a shy but open-minded woman, and an artist, who tries to come to terms with her life, conceding it’s not over yet. The performances by little known actors are extremely nuanced and highly believable.

Yet another debut was Martin Skovbjerg Jensen’s Sticks and Stones, a coming of age drama. In the story, Simon (Jonas Bjerril) and his mother move to a small Danish town from Copenhagen and try to come to terms with its provincialism. As the new kid in class he soon meets fellow teenager Bjarke (Vilmer Trier Brøgger). The two form an irreverent team and use a class video assignment to go launch guerilla journalism against the owner of the town’s one local industry that is subject to corporate takeover. Their antics go too far and are denounced by their liberal-minded teacher. And Bjarke, who clearly has some psychological issues, descends into the realm of a Dylan Klebold. 

Daisuke Miyazaki’s Tourism (not his directorial debut) isn’t quite the movie I thought it would be given his introduction in person prior to its screening. Yes, it’s about the growing sameness of cities around the world made homogeneous with the same stores, cafes and cultural references. But, really, it’s a human-interest story – a very cute and endearing one at that – about two young naïve Japanese women, Nina and Su (Nina Endo and Sumire), who win a free trip abroad. They decide on Singapore – the first time they’ve travelled beyond home – and find themselves prototypical tourists, trying to hit all the city’s major sites. Drama breaks out, but the film’s spell of innocence and charm never gets lost.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Far from Fame or even Dirty Dancing

Reporting from Montreal's festival du nouveau cinema.

Gaspar Noé’s’s latest, Climax, measures up to some of his best thrills and is certainly better than the last of his films I have seen, Enter the Void (2009). He has only made five features and I have only missed one, Love (2015). But whether Climax is better than Irréversible (2002) or I Stand Alone (1998) I think not. And there’s a major problem with it. Like Enter the Void, it starts off with lots of commotion, color and loads of energy but this soon gets repetitive. In the film, we meet a group of dancers practicing in a rented hall. They are extremely good and apparently tireless. But how much dancing can we – and they – take? Finally, it’s break time, and we see that a party has been prepared. There’s a table with drinks, including inviting sangria. All this – including perhaps 20 minutes of quick-cut viciously gossipy conversations among the various dancers – takes almost half the film’s length. I even started to get bored - this is all, this is it? Then, and only then, we realize someone has spiked the punch. Those who consumed the liquor start to experience weird effects. The story is based on a real-life episode though Noé took some liberties. LSD had been dropped in the bowl. Some of the dancers begin to get deranged. Is this what LSD does, can’t it provide good trips as well? These people seem to be spiraling downhill as if arsenic had been injected. Fights break out, some of the characters, like the lead, Sofia Boutella (Selva) look like they're losing their minds or have entered some dystopian hell. One dancer starts cutting herself and a troupe mate kicks her in her pregnant stomach. The troupe’s leader, Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), who prepared the drink but denies spiking it, locks her young son in an electrical closet to prevent him from being exposed to the mayhem; she loses the key and we hear his shrieks, perhaps being clawed over by a rat. Now, this is the kind of terror we’ve come to expect from Noé and in a way he doesn’t disappoint. Depravity in all its human misery is on display. At one point a text message crosses the screen, saying collective life is impossible. Thus, continues Noé’s theme: deep down humans are incapable of love and, given half a chance, descend to animals. What audiences find thrilling in his movies is the frenzy by which it’s depicted. There are also a couple of typically unconventional technical touches. The movie’s end credits are plastered on the screen at the movie's beginning. And midway through – just before the plot's human damage kicks in - there are gigantic acting and directing credits in all manner of celebratory fonts. Ironic? Yeah, probably.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Pushing the edge at Montreal fest

Currently attending Montreal's festival du nouveau cinéma, at which the films reviewed below screened.

Holiday, Swedish director Isabelle Eklof’s stylish and diabolical thriller, depicts in all its horror the amorality of a certain class of people. Okay, they’re the criminal class.  A group of Scandinavian underworld types, on some unspecified holiday on the Turkish coast, looks like any charming group of people yearning for a little southern exposure. And it certainly seems that way when Sacha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) arrives with suitcase in tow at the local airport. We soon see her as passenger in a car with a slick well-dressed sunglass wearing Euro-type, a la Jean-Paul Belmondo. Problem is, he’s not taking any of her nonsense. A lapse in her spending necessitates a car stop and a couple of hard slaps to the face. Anguished, she recovers quickly. Next, we see her with her pals of seeming hoods – who look a lot like you and me – lazing about in the Mediterranean sun. All appears well. But under the surface there are complexities, as her “boss” plots out a significant swindle and woe to anyone who screws up. And she’s his play thing. He rapes her on the condo’s ground floor as one of the group’s kids comes down the stairs; her resistance is futile. She meets a couple of Dutch guys at an ice cream shop ad inevitably becomes friendly. Until they discover what she’s all about. As violence is done to her, she does to others, all in her sunny innocent way. I guess a yacht-sailing southern vacation is worth the price.

In All Good, from Germany, director Eva Trobisch, intends to show how women, or a woman, cope(s) after being raped. The immediate conclusion is that for many women, they deny or subsume the experience, and go about life as if nothing happened, while their insides are tearing apart and they suffer deep psychological trauma. In this film, the lead actor Anne Schwarz as Janne, an intelligent up and coming book publishing editor, not only pushes away her trauma but continues to engage the co-worker Hans (Martin Löw) who did this to her. After being raped following a party, Janne proceeds about her daily routine seemingly untraumatized. She is on the surface calm, almost maddeningly so. She even continues to engage Hans, though as the film goes on her interactions take on the form of subtle satire and then the odd caustic remark. Yet her relationship with her assailant is part of a matrix with several men in her life, including Piet (Andreas Döhler) her lover with whom she’s falling out. An intellectual, he’s also psychically brutal. Then there’s Robert (Tilo Nest) her boss, a 50-something who is having relationship problems of his own (who knows how he behaves in them?) but seems the least threatening of all the men she knows. The audience may be frustrated at Janne’s overt inability to stand up for herself. But she does land some subtle verbal punches on the hapless Hans who in his seeming guilt, acts like a little puppy only wanting to make things right. But it’s this very subtleness, the nuances of her relationships, and the frustrations it might invoke in us, that makes the film much better than the polemic it could have been.

Touch Me Not by Adina Pintilie, a German-Czech-Bulgarian co-production, examines the depth and intracicies of sexuality, and aims to look at its extremes. “Touching” here could mean physical touch or psychological touching, opening the psyche or breaking down personal defenses to understand how we approach intimacy and attraction, and indeed our sexual preferences. At times the film seems a straight-ahead examination of the psyche itself whether sex is involved or not. The main character, Laura (Laura Benson), who wants to understand her own inner life, attends therapy sessions with a counsellor who seeks to extract her anger by pushing/punching her, which she releases almost as a set of primal screams. The camera takes us into sessions with people who may not be stereotypically glamorous, indeed those we might consider “handicapped” or “differently-abled” as one of the most intelligent of the subjects in the film, Christian, describes himself. It explores a S & M club, an effort by the filmmaker that is not voyeuristic but simply to show on a continuum the meaning of sexuality for certain types of people. This is a film - it won the Golden Bear in Berlin - that may seem uncomfortable for some and that, to appreciate, yes, might entirely depend on your attitudes towards sex and the exploration of the inner self.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Two Norwegian greats - on film

One of the things about being close to New York City, as I am currently, is the proximity to special events including film premieres. And so it was last night at the Walter Reade Theatre, part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, when the documentary The Other Munch, had its North American premiere. But this wasn’t just any premiere It featured an on-stage discussion by the film makers Joachim and Emil Trier with the celebrated Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard. That’s because the 55-minute movie depicts Knausgaard, who has long had an obsession with Norway’s greatest painter, Edvard Munch, being invited to curate an art exhibition of Munch’s work. For the vast majority of us, including Munch’s Norwegian compatriots, the artist’s oeuvre is stereotyped by about a dozen paintings, such as The Scream, which depict angst and alienation. But Knausgaard, author of the six-volume epic My Struggle, a contemporary literary phenomenon, wanted to present a more well-rounded, indeed decidedly different or flip side of Munch. So, he chose none of “the masterpieces” that depict those primal outpourings but numerous others – after all, the artist painted almost 2000 works - that show a variety of subjects, from starkly vivid landscapes to telling portraits. Indeed, as Knausgaard smilingly tells the directors in the film, many of these paintings are “light and airy.” During the film the writer (on right in above photo) is in conversation with Joachim Trier as they visit the places where Munch painted those 100-or-so years ago. There are scenes where Knausgaard goes into the museum’s vaults and chooses paintings that, while favorites to him, were considered not very good by art experts, which forces Knausgaard to shake his head over his critical acumen. Or perhaps he’s on to something. This doesn’t mean Munch’s portraits of emotional abyss are ignored; at least in the dialogue between author and director, they are discussed at some length. And, during the discussion, the hypothesis is put forward that Munch, much like the film director Ingmar Bergman, are artists whose work best exemplifies the emotional cry of the inner life, exactly because of the “post-Protestant” Scandinavian culture of emotional repression. Joachim also compares Munch, who constantly painted day in and out, to “the process” of creating art, just like the voluminous Knausgaard. But, the writer pointed out during the discussion, Knausgaard has never considered himself a writerly version of the painter. “I never thought about it at all.”

Monday, September 24, 2018

Up and down the northeast coast

This has been a busy month for watching films, partly because, being on vacation on the US east coast, I have greater access to Turner Classic Movies as well as the independent art houses in New York City. Herewith are capsule reviews, in reverse chronological order.

Far from the Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger 1967), TCM, a three-hour period piece showcasing the lovely Julie Christie, with suitors played by Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. Christie is wonderful and there are some good 1860s period scenes, especially the circus carnival and village life.

A Simple Favor (Paul Feig, released Sept. 14). CinemaSalem, Salem Mass.  (Photo above left)
Everything about this comedy-thriller is terrific, from performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively to the score of French pop (I want to own it), and the mysterious twists among the Connecticut suburban set.

The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener Sept. 12) Netflix. This was sold out at the only theatre in New York where playing; a week later it wasn’t in any theatres but on Netflix. A disappointment from one of my fave contemporary directors, also set in well to do Connecticut, near where I’m based. A tale of divorced ennui and torpor that falls in on itself.

Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville 1967) FilmStruck. It’s always fun to watch Alain Delon but for all the accolades for this classic I found his performance as a hit man rather affective if bordering on the giggly.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (José Quintero 1961) TCM. Quintero’s only film (he otherwise was a theatre director and interpreter of playwrights like Tennessee Williams) is a stunner, with an amazing nuanced performance by Vivien Leigh. You don’t want to take your eyes off the screen.

Made in Paris (Boris Sagal 1966) TCM. a star vehicle for actress-singer-dancer Ann-Margret who, in the plot, faces two less than desirable sexist suitors (Chad Everett and Louis Jourdan) – it was 1966! But unlike any Hollywood film today her character opts in the end for life in the suburbs - ho hum.

The Big Lift (George Seaton 1950) TCM. A fascinating portrayal of post-war Germany during the Belin Airlift, a quasi-comedy with some good insights into democracy vs. communism, and great scenes of the rebuilding of a decimated Berlin.

Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger 1954) TCM. This take on Bizet’s Carmen has Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in the romantic leads of an all-black cast, including all the background characters and in street scenes, a riveting rarity for 1954. The singing is great of course; the story affecting and tragic.

Split Second (Dick Powell 1953) TCM. This noir is intriguing, set in Nevada during a nuclear test, with the bad guys kidnapping the good ones, holed up in the desert facing imminent annihilation.

Born to be Bad (Nicholas Ray 1950) TCM. Joan Fontaine isn’t just caught between two lovers she wants her cake and eat it – big time – as she wreaks havoc among three people in a tale of personal selfishness bordering on sociopathic.

Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster 1940) TCM. John McGuire’s performance as a soul-searching reporter who has the tables turned on him as a witness in a murder case is the standout role. Peter Lorre as the real murderer (of course) has an unexpectedly - and unplanned? - minor presence.

The Loved One (Tony Richardson 1965) TCM. The stellar cast is wasted in this terribly silly film based on the Evelyn Waugh novel but Robert Morse as the central character shows he indeed is a great actor.

Antonio Lopez: 1970 Sex Fashion & Disco (James Crump) IFC Center, NYC. I bought a ticket for this after being unable to get into the sold-out screening of The Land of Steady Habits (above). Lopez, whom I’d never heard of, must have been a fascinating character in the world of 1970s New York fashion. But for me the 1970s was about as bad a time for style as there ever was.

Un Flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972) FilmStruck. Alain Delon is better in this role than in Le Samourai (above) and the plot is riveting enough despite a certain artificial look.

The Wife (Björn Runge, released Aug. 17) Avon Theatre, Providence RI. Based on the book by Meg Wolitzer, this is a stylish husband-wife drama with good performances by Jonathan Pryce and especially Glenn Close, who is nuanced to a fault and likely will be up for a Best Actress Oscar.

A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood 1935) TCM. More merriment from the brothers three (Zeppo isn’t in it), especially with ocean liner hijinks.

Petulia (Richard Lester 1968) FilmStruck. Julie Christie (I have a crush) is caught between her abusive husband (Richard Chamberlain) and would be paramour (George C. Scott) in a late 60s San Francisco setting very much of its time.

Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer 1964) TCM. A Frankenheimer political thriller about a planned military coup of the US government with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, dramatic enough but no doubt even more so upon its release right after the Kennedy assassination.

Dead on Arrival (Rudolph Maté 1947) TCM. Also set in San Francisco, Edmund O’Brien, who has only days to live, tracks down his killer after being mysteriously poisoned in this heart-pumping noir.

A Cry in the Dark (Frank Tuttle 1956) TCM. Also starring Edmund O’Brien as an over-the-top protective father and detective in this shortish kidnapping drama, with Natalie Wood as his daughter. Hard to tell if Obrien’s character is supposed to be that way or if O’Brien is over acting.

Monday, September 10, 2018

A genius all the same

Ethan Hawke’s new film Blaze is about a great deceased country and western musician Blaze Foley, a love story, and most of all about not selling out. This last point might be evident to an average viewer of the film. But I learned of its seminal quality during a talk I attended by Hawke last week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. The central character, Blaze Foley, is one of those legendary musicians few if anyone has ever head of. Sort of like Detroit’s Rodriguez, best known for the hit Sugar Man, and who had a renaissance a half decade ago including the film, Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012). Hawke told the audience that his film Blaze (he directed it), as have recent others he has starred in, including First Reformed (Paul Schrader 2017) and Juliet, Naked (Jesse Peretz 2018), is about the idea of artistic or intellectual integrity that manifests in any number of people, though they never had commercial success and the wider world may never have heard of them. In some cases, like Blaze’s, the artist deliberately decided he would be his own man, or as Hawke put it “I won’t participate in society.” The musician, played by Ben Dickey, is a good old southern boy who really has no ambition beyond playing his guitar day and night and writing the most beautiful songs, like Clay Pigeons and Election Day. When he occasionally plays a club the audience is so distracted by their own conversations they don’t recognize the greatness in front of them. How many times have you walked by a street musician and not paid the time of day yet he could be as great as Lennon or Dylan? According to Hawke if success is just measured by commercialization, as admittedly it also has been for truly great artists like Lennon and Dylan, “we don’t know what success and failure are.” Or, in the film, as friend and fellow musician (played by Charlie Sexton) tells a radio interviewer (played by Hawke himself), “he took a vow of poverty and saw everything through that lens.” As for the film as a film Blaze has a dreamy intimate quality, depicting Blaze’s genius, faults and humor, and the love story between he and his wife Sybil Rosen, who co-wrote the movie with Hawke (Rosen is played by Alia Shawkat)). In the final scene, after his death Rosen visits his grave, festooned with paraphernalia like beer bottles, and half jokes that he must really be a legend now. A legend in obscurity but an artistic legend nonetheless.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Funny, fluff and even some substance

Number one at the box office for the second week in a row, I sauntered out on a whimsical – and hot – Sunday afternoon to catch, of all things, Crazy Rich Asians. As the old Mad magazine cartoon had it, it wasn’t because of the movie but to get inside air-conditioned comfort! Just kidding. Crazy Rich Asians turned out better than expected. It has crisp direction by Jon M. Chu, interesting enough characters, and a story almost as serious as it is funny and fluffy. And if for no other reason, the sumptuous setting of Singapore is almost enough to make you want to book a seat on the next flight and check out the city-state itself. But, come to think of it, few other North American films have had as their subject matter Asian-Americans. Yet, with more than a 20 million population, they’re the third largest ethnic and racial group in the U.S. They’re grossly underrepresented in film, television, advertising, and popular media altogether. Still, I wondered if this movie was stereotyping in, you know, a negative way. Yes, it is stereotyping, but in the best of fun, just as other movies have stereotyped Blacks, Irish, Italians, and even Greeks. Based on the somewhat autobiographical novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians depicts (some) Asians as possessing vast wealth, of a kind even the richest non-Asian Americans have hardly touched. Opulence in clothing, cars, homes, parties and indeed weddings - the focal point of this film – may have no equal. Of course, the movie is a love story and arguably a chick flick, but it’s an enjoyable ride for anyone who’s watching.  The central characters are Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding). They’re young Americans in New York, he from a fabulously wealthy Singapore family, she from a lower middle class Chinese broken home. On the occasion of his best friend’s wedding, Nick asks Rachel to accompany him to his ancestral home and meet his family. She has no idea what she’s getting into, and that’s the fulcrum upon which the plot rests. At turns hilarious, exhilarating, outrageous, heart breaking and sad, Crazy Rich Asians introduces us to a cast of characters in a roller coaster ride through the upper echelons of the Malaysian elite, with a wedding ceremony that may be the most ostentatious you’ve ever seen. But it’s not all fluff. There is drama, class consciousness and, yes, outright discrimination that no society seems to be without. For mass entertainment Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hot summer hours.