Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015, Sept. 25-26

Some of these reviews are, essentially, my Twitter reviews - all I've had time for at this point! - and I plan to go back and write fuller reviews when I get a chance to breathe. I'm in the midst of fall quarter at the college, and I'm teaching Tuesday/Thursday classes this week.

This Thursday evening, Oct. 1, I'll be going back up to the festival for the weekend for two more days of, hopefully, 10 more films. Hurrah!

The films I've seen so far, favorite to least favorite:

Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One (Miguel Gomes, 2015)
Meta-texture exploded, stories, storytellers, tellings, interpretations. The cockerel crows, and we listen.

Inspired by the classic Arabian Nights, Gomes reflects on the socio-political situation of Portugal in 2014, by telling stories of his own - parables of sorts, though less direct - and layering story within story, and employing everything from magical realism to biting satire. Delightful, hilarious at times, and potent.

Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, 2015)
Narrative folded back over itself, through the looking glass. Perspective slides. See, feel anew.

Hong Sang-soo returns to his favorite meta textual themes and ideas, examining, in this tale told twice, how slight shifts in character, framing, and perspective change everything. Wonderful.

The Thoughts That Once We Had (Thom Andersen, 2015)
". . . image extends into movement of world, expansion of space, stratagem of time . . ."

Andersen reflects on quotations from the philosophical criticism of Gilles Deleuze by way of images and scenes from the silent film era to the present, responding to the quotations with cinematic images and music he's curated. A total delight to the cinephile heart.

A Matter of Interpretation (Kwang-kuk Lee, 2014)
Life is a muddle that dreams revise, dreams recast. Tell me your dream.

Making a nice pairing with Hong Sang-soo's film at the fest this year, Lee's film circles around story-telling and art and the ways that those interpret and intersect with the human heart and the mind. Great stuff.

Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One (Miguel Gomes, 2015)
Story nestles within story, and "evil is not epic"; there is only a "severe selfishness."

Volume 2 of Gomes's trilogy continues to delight, exploring the socio-political environment of Portugal via stories. This volume of his epic work features a "bastard" who becomes a local hero, a judge who - in a Greek sort of theater - must decide who is guilty and who is not among the mass of complex humanity before her, and a dog named Dixie.

A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung, 2015)

Melodrama in all the right ways (see, Dickens). But epic (I'll see your two cities and raise them one).

A romantic, epic film, spanning the years of Jackie Chan's parents' early, war torn lives in the 1930's-50's: their romance and separations from one another and from their children, their forced moves from the village of Anhui, to Shanghai, to Hong Kong.

The Last Hammer Blow (Alix Delaporte, 2014)

A fine central performance from Romain Paul, reminiscent of Thomas Doret's in THE KID WITH THE BIKE, in a story that follows a 13 year old boy's grappling with his mother's illness, a newly discovered father, a love for soccer, and an adolescent crush.

A slight film in many ways but deftly personal - and it's, at any rate, hard to resist the music of Mahler, which twines its way throughout - in both plot and soundscape - and forces the film away from a trite sentimentality and away from too neat a play on the title.

Paradise (Sina Ataeian Dena, 2015)

Dear daughters, cats, anonymous women behind exercises, veils, glass. Fish in a tank. Birds in the city.

Dena explores the everyday lives of women and girls in Tehran. Beautifully shot and perhaps most notable for its inside look at a girls' school - their rules, rituals, exercises, and restrictions.

Alice in Earnestland (Ahn Gooc-Jin, 2015)

More Cinderella than Alice, I think, following the title character who works her fingers to savage rawness, in pursuit of dreamed-of life with her prince - though Cinderella becomes Alice down the rabbit hole of increasing despair and violence.

Thematic cohesion fails, and ultimately does not justify the horrors done to the bod(ies), however stylistically skillful, visually textured, and at times neatly comedic the film is. Still, there is an interesting thread relative to how the individual pursuit of a dream skewers (maybe literally) those closest to the dreaming individual: sacrificing those in a broader community or those in a nearest personal relationship. And another parallel thread follows - even if it fails to follow through on - an idea about the way the even the most well-intentioned communities fail the individual.

The final image, victory from one perspective, is no victory from another - and the intentional compromise of the ending as well as the ambitious thematic patterns throughout and the filmmaking skill, make me hopeful that this debut feature film from its young director, Ahn Gooc-jin, is a promise of good things to come.

Rams (Grímur Hákonarson, 2015)

Beautifully shot, acted. Sheep swirl in pens around a single old man and another single old man, who remain in stubborn distance from one another - until they don't. And, through it all, the film veers towards metaphor and ends on a final image of trite symbolism.

Still, there's much to embrace if only in what it offers in its vistas of the sort of landscape that gets under one's skin - vast isolation and loveliness.

Friday, September 18, 2015

What's behind that face? : QUEEN OF EARTH (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

“My face hurts.”

“My face hurts all the time.”

Alex Ross Perry, in his new film, Queen of Earth, trains his camera on faces – and on interior and exterior spaces – in such a way that these faces and spaces take on an alien quality. The women’s faces are beautiful; the outdoor world location – shimmering water, sunlit leaves – is breathtaking; the rooms inside the film’s vacation home setting are spare and pleasing. But in the same way that a horror film might take a very mundane, ordinary space and fill it with inexplicable Otherness and dread, Perry’s efforts accomplish a similar effect. A lovely face, an ordinarily refreshing lake, a tastefully refined home – these all set my teeth on edge, or, at least, disrupt my usual sense of their essence. If horror is often a startling, unsettling defamiliarization of the everyday, then Perry’s film is that – and he uses discordant music, odd camera angles, and lingeringly long takes to achieve a sense of horror. But comedy might be described in a similar way – for it sets something very ordinary in a new, surprising frame – and the thing becomes ridiculous, even hilarious. Queen of Earth straddles that line between horror and comedy delightfully, making it something like black comedy but evading that definition just enough – perhaps because there is a certain poignancy running through it all – to make it one of the most unique film experiences of the year.

. . . Read the rest of my review over at Seattle Screen Scene.

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.