Thursday, August 13, 2015

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2015)






Ash, ash–
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

. . .

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

~Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”


I confess, I found myself a bit disappointed when I learned Christian Petzold’s new film, Phoenix, would be “about the Holocaust.” There is a certain weariness that arises out of the fact that so many use or have used the events of the Holocaust as a reference point, whether artistically, for a film’s central story (see Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, among others) or socially, for a cheap point in a debate gone awry (see my Facebook feed). I wondered whether I was up for seeing yet another movie centering around the much-documented tragedy.

But great artists work familiar things in such unfamiliar ways that even the cliché can take on unexpected, fresh resonance, and I see the familiar thing as I had not seen it before. It is both old and wholly new. Artists use myths, for example, in this way, and myths, in deft hands, never lose their power; Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without his unashamed foraging through Ovid. Like myths, then, the Holocaust can be a powerful touchstone for describing our world. It can be a story that artists return to it over and over, mining for its significance, finding in it a means of plumbing the human soul, locating parallels with which to describe and understand the world.

And it is with a delicate, deft artistry that Petzold, in Phoenix, not only tells a fresh Holocaust tale but weaves it together, with beautiful ease, with two myths: three old and familiar tales together becoming an astonishing, new thing. . . .

Read the rest over at Seattle Screen Scene.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ricki and the Flash (Jonathan Demme, 2015): The Concert Film That Wasn't



Meryl Streep’s joie de vivre is undeniable. She throws herself into the roles she chooses with thoroughness and vigor, and even in her more serious roles, she seems to perform with a kind of joy that’s always flowing just under the surface. One feels she truly loves her craft, and no matter the role, she’s in it, with all her heart. And she’s good, of course. The best, maybe. Everybody knows that. She can play it camp, she can play it serious, she can play it comic. She’s a master of voices and tones, on screen and off screen, big roles and small (my children and I love her superb narration of the Kevin Henkes’s picture book, Chrysanthemum). And she sings, too, with that same mastery and joy we see in her acting. Her early training, as she told Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2012, included opera, and she’s proved her vocal quality and her skill in musical performance in films like Postcards from the Edge, A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia!, and Into the Woods. Never mind her acting, I’d go to a concert just to hear Meryl Streep sing.

And that’s a lot of what we get in Jonathan Demme’s latest film, Ricki and the Flash: a Meryl Streep concert film, featuring full length, live performance songs, where Streep not only sings but plays guitar, and she performs with professional musicians: Rick Springfield, Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale, and Bernie Worrell. Extraordinarily, she seems like one of them. It’s unfortunate perhaps, then, that the film isn’t fully a concert film . . . Demme using Diablo Cody’s script, takes a more traditional route and, while his concert film interests are clear, he returns to the kinds of themes, story, and characters of his 2008 film, Rachel Getting Married. Like the more successful Rachel, Ricki and the Flash is intended as an intimate and complex family drama. . . .

. . . Demme has made superb concert films, and he made a strongly compelling family drama in Rachel Getting Married, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this film, a merging of his two interests, so thoroughly fails to work.

Read the rest of my review at Seattle Screen Scene.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

GEMMA BOVERY (Anne Fontaine, 2014)



The premise of the newest film from director Anne Fontaine, Gemma Bovery, holds a good deal of promise for lovers of both the cinematic and the literary, particularly for those who welcome witty or playful re-tellings of classic works of literature. Adapted from Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel of the same name (a novel originally conceived as a serial in The Guardian), the film’s story centers around perceived parallels between the literary characters in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – particularly Emma Bovary, her husband, Charles Bovary, and Emma’s lovers – and the film’s characters. When Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton) and her husband, Charles ( Jason Flemyng), move from London to a small town in Normandy, the town’s excitable, bourgeois baker, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), is certain Gemma is the real life equivalent of the fictional Emma, and he makes it his mission to discover her in love affairs and prevent the tragic suicide that plays out in the novel.

Such a set up has all the ear marks of wonderfully droll farce or of a sly satire, a satire that could work on any number of levels – critiquing, perhaps, the often fraught French-English relationship; or the middle class, provincial prejudices; or literary pretensions; or male-female relationships. The premise also suggests the story might hold some genuine pathos, a tender examination of love, heartbreak, and misunderstandings, perhaps. And by many accounts (here’s one, for example), Simmonds’s original work does function on all those levels. (After watching the movie, I immediate ordered the graphic novel.)

(Continue reading at Seattle Screen Scene.) 

REBELS OF THE NEON GOD (Tsai Ming-liang, 1992)


TV screens, arcade game screens, mirrors, windows – all of these offer reflective surfaces, some more and some less reflective, some promising immersion into another sort of state, some seeming to immerse but offering very little in the way of escape from lonely self and quotidian present. These surfaces are everywhere in Tsai Ming-Liang’s newly restored and re-released feature debut of 1992, Rebels of the Neon God, a quietly absorbing film that suggests a set of startlingly germane meditations on the modern self, a thing that is simultaneously isolated and connected, revealed and covert.

The story centers around the lives of two people: one, a 20-something young man, Ah Tze, living by petty theft and residing in a lonely, constantly flooded apartment, and one, a teenaged boy, Hsiao-Kang, chafing at his bondage in cram school and living at home in uncommunicative silence with his anxiously watchful parents. Both Ah Tze and Hsiao-Kang, though they have companions who surround them – a parent or a brother, a friend or a girlfriend – and though they pass through the teeming city of Taipei, stand as alienated figures, whose selves ricochet in the mirroring surfaces surrounding them.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Caving to Quirk, or Something: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)



(My expanded review now available at Seattle Screen Scene. Below is an excerpt.)

A good deal of my enjoyment of this one must have been reactionary. I found The Wolfpack so thoroughly depressing (and not for the reasons I think the filmmaker wanted) that going directly afterwards into a screening of this - a cliché-ridden load of indie quirk that did almost nothing surprising - was somehow just the ticket.

I ought to have been annoyed by the cute title cards; the ridiculous portrayal of a hipster tattooed high school history professor (who somehow has his own office and sports a Persian carpet in his classroom?) and of a tenured sociology professor father (who, because tenured never has to work?); the manic pixie dream dying girl who lives, er, dies, to serve the protagonist's emotional development; the bordering on racist depictions of black characters (because Earl, his brother, and the limo driver are funny, it's ok, I guess?); the look-at-me-I-know-all-these-films film references; and on it goes.

I dunno, maybe it was The Wolfpack; maybe I was just so barraged with cute quirk that I caved; or maybe there is some cheap satisfaction I find in knowing and being able to laugh at those movie references and I'm shallow. Whatever it was, I admit it. I had fun.

Also, "Eyes Wide Butt." That's pretty funny.



Friday, July 3, 2015

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015)


(My expanded review available at Seattle Screen Scene. Excerpt below.)

A maddening documentary for opposite reasons: sloppy story framing and contrived framing. In many moments, context, chronology, and even character are so muddled, that even the compelling subject matter fails (and I was left feeling guilty that I just didn't care), and in other moments, the purportedly candid, spontaneous scenes (the trip to Coney Island, the phone call) feel anything but candid, and I wondered, uncomfortably, just how much the director was directing (eg. I imagine this: "Could you say that again, but include how many children you have and how long it's been since you've seen your mother?").

The sloppiness, I think, is an aim at artfulness - and in the hands of a more experienced director and editor, the cuts from one contextless scene to the next could have added up to emotional depth and a clearer arc. There are enough poignant moments - the camera held on the face of one boy or of their mother, a scene of vibrant dancing and running down tight hallways - that I can see the glimmers of a powerful film in the tangle. As it is, so artless, I felt uncomfortably complicit - in the act of watching - in something bordering on the exploitative and sensationalist.

The choice to make the boys essentially nameless is also unsettling; we get a recital of their names at the beginning, but throughout the film, those names are lost in the "pack." It is a deliberate choice, of course, to show the boys as so tightly connected to one another - a survival mechanism, a mechanism forced on them, too, given the tight, prison-like living quarters - but the effect of the choice is that it alienates me from the boys as individuals, from their stories. The larger story remains fuzzy, distant, cold.

And then, wandering round the edges of the film, acknowledged once initially and then mostly forgotten, is the sister who is "special," a lonely vulnerable figure who holds the deepest poignancy for me; I left the cinema worrying for her most, and, ironically enough, it is her name, Vishnu, alone that I remember though even the director herself doesn't seem very interested in her.

I believe Crystal Moselle's heart is in the right place - the film feels like a sincere effort to tell a story and to tell it truthfully - but the skill, or lack thereof, undermines the effort too much to be able to recommend the film. As my friend said to me as we walked out of the cinema, "I wish we'd just read an article about this family instead." And given the cinematic interests of the boys in the family - their own love for film, and film, like their pack grouping, being a tool of survival for them - it's a real shame. I wonder how they themselves will feel about this documentary about them, particularly when they (re)watch it years from now, more distant from the situation of their growing up?



Friday, June 19, 2015

Bland Barry: An Epic about a Thoroughly Mediocre Fellow: BARRY LYNDON (Stanely Kubrick, 1975)



One of the most interesting things about Barry Lyndon is that he's boring. He's a bit stupid - but not enough for me to feel sorry for him; he's a bit pompous - but not enough for me to hate him; he's somewhat good-looking - but not enough to inevitably draw the eye; he shows some bravery - but it's a workaday sort that anyone might show; his beginnings are poor - but not too desperately poor; his end has some tragedy - but it is not terribly so (he does get to keep his knee and 500 a year).

And so the grandeur of the vehicle that carries him - an epic film - epic in length, epic in beauty and filled with wars and duels and love affairs and wealth - is perhaps the great joke: an essentially average person, someone I neither love nor hate, gets the title card.

Is Stanley Kubrick giving me a conspiratorial elbow to the ribs or a mocking grin? I am not sure if I am in on the joke or the butt of it, for while I can see the irony of the thing, I cannot, in the end, easily distance myself from it. I am uncomfortably suspicious of two things: one, that every film, every story I've ever watched or ever read is not really about a hero at all (perhaps even the idea of a protagonist is bogus); they all feature average, boring people; I've just been fooled by the accoutrements. Two, that we are each terribly average - and well, a bit boring - in spite of the central role we each feel we play in our own lives.

When presented finally at court, a title carries no real consequence, and the king, however polite, cannot really place the man with the grand title as one of those among his acquaintance and within his respect.

Barry Lyndon is only Redmond Barry after all.