12 Years a Slave.

12 YEARS A SLAVE

“You’re a slave!” is yelled at Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the early stages of the film while he has his back intermittently beaten on with force by some unknown Southern captive in the nation’s capital. He is chained to the floor.

The film opens in Saratoga, New York, 1841, where Solomon was and has always been a free man. He has a wife and family, though he does not seem absolutely close with his children it is clear he is just like all of us. In fact, he might have married into the family.
As with Shame, Steve McQueen opens on a dizzying montage that, at once, feels like an introduction to the film, but later is realized as a middle part of the story, the narrative later told. Sleeping on the floor in a room of a dozen or two, he is next to a woman he doesn’t know. This stranger presses up against him, grabs his hand and longs for some true loving feeling; perhaps she will never see any person she has loved again. Solomon allows her to use him to fulfill her desire, but when it is done she turns away and sobs while he turns over and looks evermore astonished. He is silent. Before she touched him, his face was full of unhappy thought and unrest. 

The conditions of slavery are equivocal to being a horse brought up on a barn. It is hell. These men and women work are considered someone else’s property and are beaten for not performing up to whatever standard their owner wants them to and sometimes just to break them into being who they want them to be – their perfect labor. Some slavers simply want extra hands around to maintain what they have – some of them are just lost souls looking for a way to make it work in the South, perhaps to compete with other men who do have such “free” labor. In any case, it is wrong and while Solomon knows that in his heart, there is nothing he can do about it. The same applies for the first man who buys him, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a preaching kind of man who views the black people he procures less as property and more as a fellow working being. That is what makes it absolutely heartbreaking when Solomon does good by him — in a way that will generate more productivity on his land — and his reward is a violin, followed by Ford’s happy supposition, “I hope this will bring both of us much happiness in years to come”.

The expressions Chiwetel Ejiofor brings to the forefront of the film are palpable beyond comprehension. It may be easy to assume you know what a character is feeling at any given moment, especially if they are trapped into slavery, but his eyes always carry with them an observation of the time that reaches far beyond any indignation or suffering. When he arrives with Mitsy (Adepero Oduye) after she has her children taken away from her and sold, William Ford’s wife says “My poor child… have some food and rest, soon your children will be forgotten”. He is wearing a sunhat as he passes by this dialogue and his face speaks a thousand words more than “You have no idea what kind of pain this is” or “Wow, you ignorant woman.” In this moment, I believe he also fears for his own future and why the ending, where he apologetically embraces his family, is more appropriate and dramatic than I first realized.
Though it isn’t heavily touched on verbally, though it is sometimes implied through emotion, it is clear that Solomon Northrup was at odds with his mind and thinking about his family. On one hand, perhaps he feared his family would forget about him — they didn’t know where he went off to and it’s impossible for anyone to have heard a word about him. Selling a free man into slavery requires much conspiracy and discretion. He’s lost his name now and is known only as Platt. At some point in the film, perhaps he doesn’t even know himself anymore, it has been that long from the city and people of whom he has developed a home, but one thing is for sure – his family is bereft of him, his presence and his income and he of their love. Before he was sold into slavery, his wife was preparing to work for the season. Black civilians don’t really have many people around them supporting them in 1841, or if they do then there are an equal amount of dismissive and outspoken dissidents, so maybe his wife has taken to another man, simply for the love and support of her family. None of this is explicitly stated in the movie — if I have only one qualm with the film it is that, even at 134 minutes, it is too short to fully chronicle the twelve years of Solomon’s pensiveness and its sense of time, where and when, is nonexistent — but perhaps that is because, though the narrative is particular for the time (a free black man sold into slavery) and compelling, like all film’s about slavery it is about slavery, that most dark time in American history three generations ago, and all of the encompassed slaves, their conditions and lives more than having an inexorbitant focus on one man and his journey. Slavery is bleak and timeless in its cruelty and here, it separated one man from everything he had known and loved, including his family.

For as much lamenting and apologizing Solomon does to his family at the end of the film for what has happened – being gone from home, forcing himself to forget about them, thinking they forgot about him (when he finds out his daughter named her son after him he is at his most sentimental yet, it is a heartbreaking and tear inducing moment for me) for his becoming hopeless and returning to them in this way – I would’ve liked to have seen him feel more devastated in forgetting his family from introspection. As it is, his fleeting hope for ever being reunited with his family slowly burns out as he watches his fellow people lose everything, their families too, and vanish. None of these are hopeful examples and there is no precedent. That is not to say these scenes do not do enough to help understand the deterioration occurring within Solomon, but it could have been reinforced by showing him alone more with his own conspicuousness and better see the concessions he makes; we could have had a better understanding as to what depths. You can see him repressing beautiful memories in the day time and in the night, but only seldom throughout and there, it is never explicitly stated; only felt. He is a thinking man and abates himself, but the only degrees of that we see are when his expectations fail him – which happens on a few occasions throughout – and ultimately cultivates in an emblematic moment when he destroys his violin; the one that William Ford presented him, the one that he carved the names of his family into, the one he was working toward to someday see them again. He does so after he snaps a string while haphazardly tuning them in the woods. He also poos in the woods but this is faintly touched upon. So faintly you may not even know he does it in the film, but he does. That is his life now. These are all of his concessions.

With them, we see men, gagged, bound and hung, women raped and widowed, children being brought up to be slave lovers and families torn apart. These are theirs. People without voices. People that have spoken with metal guards over their mouths. People, one of whom is named Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), have been brought up on plantations and who only know how to work for massa, sing for their souls and speak. These black people are people, but if they don’t relent and concede to being work-animals, then they will be beaten within an inch of their life or altogether disposed. What makes this story so extraordinary is that Solomon was an educated man in New York and before being brought to any ranch, a former slave gave him some inside understanding on how to survive on a plantation — “Do not speak, do not let them know you can read or write unless you want to be a dead nigger”. Clearly, there is self-deprecation and much sadness in his words – he is as helpless as Solomon and on a boat to be someone else’s property, too. Ironically, he is freed, his master saves him — he runs, like a lost and frantic pet right off the boat and into his arms. As a man born into freedom, he has never had to sell himself to another for shelter and work, he has never needed any master. Now he is alone left only with his thoughts. If he speaks he may die, but in order to be set free, he must speak (or magically break free from his chains).

From Paul Giamatti, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) buys both Solomon and Eliza. He wants to buy her two children as well, but the auctioneer will not allow that. In fact, he sells her son to another man in front of her eyes. Her daughter will be brought up to be a “beauty queen”. The expression on Mr. Ford’s face is of utter disbelief. He buys the two that he can and leaves. Cumberbatch’s performance in the role is perfect – not quite as limited as the few scenes he has, but far from limitless as I’d like it to be. He plays a man who owns slaves, has them work on fields, heartfully preaches gospel on Sunday’s and does right by Solomon, in that he treats him as an equal, if not for that he owns him.

Once William Ford passes “Platt” onto another slaver, a man to whom he owes a debt by the name of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who quotes scripture, but is by no means as eloquent or forgiving as Mr. Ford.

I could write a three-page paper on what Michael Fassbender brings to the role of Edwin Epps alone, if I so desired, but I will be brief because there is so much he does that is so good. Apart from being the main antagonist in the movie, the slave-owner Solomon does his best to subserviently appease and they are together along time. Edwin Epps is not an easy man to please if you’re another person, however, if you are alcohol or considered his property, perhaps you can make him happy the way a game of chess could. Some nights he’ll excitedly roust the slaves he owns and bring them into his house for a dance he despotically overseas. The crazy feeling Epps sometimes experiences when inebriated and restless is madly captured by Michael Fassbender, who I would venture to say actually got liquored up before said scenes. He turns a man from a story into someone wild and the evidence of his psychosis is overwhelming. In the role, Fassbender is that wild, unpredictable force.

There is a disturbing way to introduce a character into a movie and John Ridley has found one. Upon looking down at his slaves, he quotes scripture to justify lashings. Many lashings. When they have collectively worked very hard and done much for Epps and maggots and caterpillars destroying his cotton fields. “It’s that Godless lot… they are heathens and have brought me God’s scorn”. He looks, at once, on the verge of tears and seething with spite for his slaves. He decides to lend them to an associate of his for the summer one years and has some funny lines like, “Don’t give him any Biblical plagues, you hear?” When he is challenged and asked to ponder on a world where black men owned white men, his response is “…the hell?”

He’s very self-entitled and arrogant. Edwin Epps is clearly crazy. There is something wrong with his head. He might even have some mental disorder considering how twisted up he seems, lost in the Bible and surely feeling sinful as he gives in to the lustful desires for Patsy time and time again. Between quoting scripture and raping her, crying about her lifelessness and confusion as to why he wants this for himself, choking her to vent his frustration and to keep her aware (to the point of popping her blood vessel), you don’t need to see him threaten Solomon with a gun or chase him with a knife to see his unraveling. But he keeps it together with alcohol, or rather, it could be what’s causing his craziness. That is what fuels and motivates him daily and it might be the reason for all of his confusion.

Michael Fassbender intricately interprets Edwin Epps and the all of his decisions in developing his character strongly registered with me. The emotion in him is most human and to his character, he is empathetic by the way that he grants him understanding despite his vocation. It makes him very relatable and the performance shows you how people who could afford slaves probably felt in the ways that they lived. In that one scene, he almost illiterately preaches scripture to justify his means. He might be the most ignorant person in the world. I mean in an intellectually as well. For all this and more, he leaves an unforgettable impression as a raging and hatefully racist slave-owner in the South.

As Patsy, Lupita Nyong’o gives quite an incredible performance, too. She is so very subtle with her mumble/speech impediment – I think developed from years of not being allowed to cultivate the language – and gently devastating in that way. We see her go through a lot and at one point, she wants Solomon to end her life. He turns away from her, ignoring her plea so he might go to sleep, but these are the kinds of stakes we’re dealing with. In an early scene, she had an incandescent spirit, singing in the sun and living in bliss where everyone else around her – including Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) – look like they’re living in hell. She is beautiful, but has her beauty taken away from her and spirit put out – time and time again. Though her resilience is profoundly beautiful, it is absolutely devastating when she faints.

A seemingly perfect amount of significance put on every scene and shot. Thanks to this, there are moments where Solomon gets momentary revenge on one ‘master’ in particular and it feels really justified and good. There is bluntness within the dexterity. Then, there are some soft, timely beats impressed upon interactions – some of which are between Mrs. Epps and Solomon after Edwin says he prefers Patsy to her in just about as many words. Therein lies some sexual tension that most tacitly layers the film in ways you would not anticipate, between Mrs. Epps and Solomon at a point or two, although the woman has no idea what to do with it and it leads nowhere, (but that is frequently true in life anyway. This movie is universal.) If she were to sleep with him would it be fair retribution, would her intimate feelings for him be legitimate, or would it ruin her current way of life? Solomon evidently has no interest in her and has no concern for her situation, so she rescinds her independence to the abuse of her husband and is along for the “luxurious” ride.

Those men and women are all lost and looking for comfort, where, adjacently the slaves have all been gathered to one place and have none. The Epps’ and all slave-owners have a need for control and feel astonished when they don’t have a firm grasp of events. Edwin Epps quickly unravels when Patsy disappears one day, so when she returns with a bar of soap (that she claims she had to go next door to get because her mastress, Mrs. Epps, won’t allow her to clean herself with any) It is as pleasurable as anything for Patsy when Solomon has to lash her; he pops her with the whip and that feels like relief until Epps is forced to slice her because Solomon isn’t punishing her enough. Epps overwhelms Solomon, he hates his nonplussed way of being dissenting, especially in this moment now he has to take the whip to the object of his affection, though there is no love between them, only obsession and whips her so relentlessly that his sadness afterward confounds him. With his own inner torment, Solomon adds that there will be karmic retribution for the flesh he has inflicted off of her body, but it seems Edwin forgets about all that because we never see Solomon punished by him again. In this scene, there are so many different waves of emotions that rapidly change as time goes on, and it’s masterfully done in one take. For all I know, for as fraught has he felt Edwin Epps enjoyed whipping Patsy. This is why Michael Fassbender is the actor I would most like to work with. He is a fragmented soul; very dangerous and very confused.

Justice lies in karma and universal truths and the guilty convince themselves with any kind of justification until they are unaffected. That is said by some of the film’s characters late on in the film and is the basis for everything that happens in 12 Years a Slave. For all the pain and suffering we see, the filmmaker is trying to communicate that, on some level, this is okay. It is not okay in the sense that “this is the way the world works,” because no, it is fundamentally corrupt and inhumane; no, rather, they are saying it is okay in the sense that whoever passes on graciously from this life will be rewarded in the next, or if not some form of reincarnation then these slaves are beautiful souls and eventually, the walls surrounding these men who think they’re kings will fall onto them. We know what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is deceitful. We know Solomon is right in looking for a way home and his masters are wrong for holding him and anyone else captive. That is a universal truth. This is not pressed upon too much – through visuals or the text – but this theme is stated and tips its hat toward poetic justice in a world that may sometimes not feel so just.
I know seeing Patsy torn up the way she was broke Solomon’s spirit. The bloody reality of this flower was simply too much. I think in this moment he forgets about his family and loses himself to the reality in front of him. Too many unreal things are happening, things he never thought he would see are causing him to capitulate hope; he’s been dreaming about his family for so long and this world has broken him. It was perfectly captured on the face of Chiwetel Ejiofor and how he holds himself.

For some actors and the films themselves, the scene where Solomon becomes part of the group singing for Uncle Abe, who died in the field, might be played as a crowning moment as the actor has a loud moment and his character is submitting to being a slave; he’s finally participating in group song. Instead of being in a state of contagion with melancholy, they sing and raise their spirits and with it, their blinkered hope. But here, he does not want your attention. Not Solomon Northup, nor Steve McQueen. They play it straight; in this scene, Solomon is a man in pain bellowing out his catharsis. He’s played a violin for a living, but he has never opened up this throat in this way. He probably doesn’t want anyone looking at him either, but he’s singing like nobody’s looking and it is a powerful for that reason. Competently handled in one shot, but powerfully acted.

And then he quietly waits in the wind as the clouds overhead change his light to dark. He is vulnerable and looks over at the camera. What an amazing movie.

That reminds me of the scene where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is hanging by his neck waiting for someone to save him. Kudos to Chiwetel Ejiofor for that scene. It is the most vulnerable position I have ever seen anybody be in in a film. It was amazing, even breathtaking to watch, to see as my stomach sank. There is a reason why I have loved him for years and will always be grateful to watch him perform. He gives himself to the role with his heart, soul, undivided focus and all and demonstrates here that he can do anything, all the while maintaining a solid front to bide the time he needs in order to make it out alive.

Drenched with emotion and pensive ideas, the script does not entirely focus on the endurance of Solomon Northup and in almost every sequence he is reacting to an event or the words of other McQueen protagonists (Bobby in Hunger, Brandon in Shame), where the film, the protagonist and its emotion is slowly built in meticulous silence. For the lead character of not just this movie, but of any film, he spends a lot of time in the background; sometimes not even drawing any attention to himself in shots with five or six people in the frame. This film is highly emotional and artistically inclined; it is very text-heavy and verbose, yet concurrently stoic. In this sense, the film almost entirely captures Solomon’s journey in a symbolic and cinematic way, but on the same token I feel the writing leaves a little to be desired. There is more to be explored and felt with Solomon on his lonesome, I am sure. In one part of the film, on the boat with the other captives, it reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Perhaps if this film had as many silent sequences alone with Solomon the way that and There Will Be Blood do this would be the masterpiece it is crying out to be. It is far more elegant and soundly paced than what you might expect from a 135 minute film steeped in slavery to be, but that is part of the reason I find Steve McQueen’s direction to be flawless. It is beautiful without being sentimental. The last shot is picturesque and sets up Solomon’s retribution. Now, he can rebuild himself and take his life a new, happy direction. With the love of his family once again surrounding him, he has risen above it all.   ****

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Blue Is The Warmest Color (La vie d’Adele)



Blue Is The Warmest Colour
 is a great film about love and confusion and is sometimes good in communicating themes about taking that next, important step in your life. 

It begins on Adele in her junior year of high school, age 16 or 17. In walking to her bus stop, she has to use her hand to pull up her pants because they’re too big for her – she hasn’t grown into them yet – and at home, her parents are always drinking and uptight, but provide her with warmth in the form of a shelter and plentiful homemade food. If you’ve seen The Secret Of The Grain (also titled Couscous) you know how sumptuous Abdellatif Kechiche can make food look. Don’t see this movie on an empty stomach. (Especially if you love spaghetti which I do.) 

This sumptuousness visually translates into and all but becomes Abdellatif Kechiche’s misc-en-scene. The sex scenes, which is what a lot of the film is getting attention for, which is inevitable for any NC-17 rated film, are also compelling in that same way. 

One can call the images beautiful or pornographic – like everything, it is subjective and up to the viewer to decide – but I personally felt the acting in those scenes was perfect – both Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux were evoking a higher level of openness in their love – so what is performed is truly compelling on an emotional level. It is also adds interest to the character development as the actresses add layers to their characters when they are together and uninhibited. It’s comparable to, but not quite like Don’t Look Now. However, on another hand I felt there was a superficiality to the sex scenes in how they were composed visually, which is not at all present in the Nicolas Roeg’s film or those sex scenes. 

For this film, Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color, I noticed how different the lighting between this scene and any other in the film – especially the preceding one. Before Adele and Emma explore each other’s naked bodies they are together outside smoking under a tree on a sunny Parisian day. They kiss and they’re happy. They’re breathing in fresh air and it is so natural. One is a little dulcet-minded and the other a little pragmatic – we’re seeing how they play off each other as they’re only now becoming more and more acquainted. They haven’t really spent too much time together or even kissed much, that we’ve seen. Then, they’re naked and candles light them from behind — which would softly and romantically illuminate them — but what primarily lights the scene is a bright, additional light source that comes from behind the camera and (softly) shines onto them. Both sex scenes have this exact same lighting scheme. Not only that, they have the same establishing shot and utilize a very plain, almost complacent camera angle — which wouldn’t be bad but they revert to it a few times and one time again — that observes both women, their naked bodies and all their splendor. It even feels like it was shot in one day is how similar those sequences look. That strikes me as artificial, perhaps even a little devoid of artistry, which can be said for much of the film if these key sequences are not fully developed or explored a little more creatively within that time. Not in how it is edited or anything – on the contrary, it is cut together as marvelously as any sex scene(s) could be and without exploitation – but its look is a distraction. The passion is adamantly shown on Exarchopolous and Seydoux’s strewn faces, the acting of its open and intuitive stars. That is its greatest strength. However, I do feel the director provided them with great artistry and it not very compassionate, so it lacks a cinematic element — it’s like the book equivalent of a film — so for as dedicated as I’m sure they all were, it can feel like an emulsion of individual efforts and not a graceful mix of them. 

On top of this, there is no foreplay. Okay, I get it if you think it’s typically soft and artistic to show two young women situated beneath a tree playfully growing on each other in their own maturing ways, but then to have them stark naked in one of their empty apartments without the grace of showing them undress each other or maybe do something else is kind of ignorant. They don’t even show them light the candles. I mean that within the context for as much sex as is shown there is not much but two people really projecting their hormones onto each other. There is definite passion, sure, and some softness later on, but nothing that reaches the magnitude of these sex scenes. 

In my opinion, the acting is actually more thoughtful than how their characters were written. For the most part – the character-heavy writing is certainly good enough to invent and create enough interesting situations and circumstances for three hours to feel like two and a few minutes, so the writing is not without purpose and structure (unlike something like Shame which could have gone different ways depending on who directed it; implying incest for one, implying absolute hopelessness for another), so this isn’t so much a director’s piece as it is a vitally vivid realization of a good, solid script with some superb and bare performances. 

For the first forty-five minutes or so, maybe an hour, Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) has an emotional arc that I felt a lot of empathy for and some sympathy. The film is also called Adele: Chapters I and II and opens on Adele beginning a day and walking toward a bus for school. figuring herself out with some growing to do (pedantically symbolized in her having to pull up her jeans time and time again), but not knowing exactly who she is. At school, the clique of girls around her project her interest in a boy named Thomas and outspokenly support his in her. At some point, she has a realization about herself sexually–and when she does, she wonders it is worth embracing. Where it loses me is when it first explores the dynamic of Thomas being with Adele. In the story, it is understandable that she goes with it because of peer pressure and her own inner feelings of sort of friendly sympathy toward the nice boy in her school, but she has sex with him and it could have been her first time. The film isn’t explicit enough to explain that side of her, at least I don’t remember it so, but if so, the subtitles didn’t allude to her being a virgin. They are young and it hasn’t been implied that Adele has had sex, so if it was, it kind of ignorantly passes over the entire emotional arc going on inside of her during that first experience – one that she rolled with despite her true feelings, which are observed and compelling, sure, but there could be a lot more going on there. If she had lost her virginity in the past, I wonder what she feels about that, especially now. She knows she likes this Emma women, even if she only knows her by her blue hair on the street corner. Is the director making a commentary on how easily sexual young adults/teenagers are (in Paris/France)? That seems somewhat disparaging to say the least, but there is heavy rumination within Adele Exarchopolous’ face during every moment and subsequent moment in those sex and post-sex scenes that are laden with feeling and give off honest energy. 

I could really feel sad for her and want to help her, listen to her and counsel her, if I could, but there’s no way I could. I just had to watch her suffer and then, struggle with her isolation in grappling with her sexual confusion and frustration (having sexual thoughts about someone she may never see again, plus it’s a woman), so I did feel sad – but when hope came (in the form of Lea Seydoux) I felt happy – she would be relieved. I could relate to loving Kubrick and Scorsese, loving it all but “hard rock” and eating my scabs too when I was an adolescent. I can still relate to the former. 

Adele Exarchopolous is so good in this film that the movie’s simply a meditation on Adele. It’s almost entirely her story and she makes you feel for this docile creature – if Lea Seydoux didn’t do so well at capturing the determined artist that is the blue-haired twenty-year old Emma it would have. To Emma, Adele is ambrosial and the essence of her flowering sexuality; the feelings are mutual for her love. 

But in that formulaic kind of way. There’s seldom any tension or tumultuous between the two characters; it was a very agreeable and soft relationship, nice and simple, like two peas in a pod or two tacos in a combo box. No, the three hours warrants it in a way because why does it not? A film is a film – whether it be 70 minutes or 640 minutes, you take it for what it is. But for three hours, I’ve seen many more complicated scenarios depicted and this one takes its time to resolve it in a very “every day” sort of way, sort of like the Dardenne brothers do, but less powerfully. The writing/scripting of this film leaves a lot to be desired and in a way, it feels like an hour was missing. 

This might be because not much happens to her after she and Emma first become intimate. Adele is a solitary character – we never see how she deals with high school and society after being “outed” (or does it all just disappear? or does she stay those girls’ friends?) nor do we see her relationship with her parents evolve or dissipate. There might be a lot more of this character to know within the time frame of this movie that is completely ignored, so for three hours they didn’t do much more than cover the basics of adolescent Adele, her hormones and ambiguous confusion as to what to do with herself in life after making a regrettable “mistake”. 

You see, in the film Emma leaves Adele – forces her out of the house she lives in with her. It is more than that she is an ingenue or likes sex, she is crazy about Emma; her emotions and sex drive are absolutely integrated into that woman and she knows it. To Adele, it feels she is as her as she can be in Emma’s midst’s – naked or not – but when she loses her, it’s like she doesn’t know where to go. This is where a lot of heartbroken individuals will be able to relate to the story, but it doesn’t really go anywhere from there. It doesn’t, for example, hit you so deeply the way Blue Valentine does – or at least not to me, anyway – but the acting is a whirlwind and forcefully leaves an impression on you. 

I wondered why Emma castigated Adele and pushed her away from her as I didn’t find that side of Emma or their relationship thoughtfully explored one bit. Okay, I get it, she is an artist and passionately communicates her anger and distrust to the woman that cheated on her, she is outspoken and bursts at the seams when betrayed, but Emma might have done the same thing; she might have slept with another woman while they were together and there is never any clarity on that. Although it was never spoken of as a possibility that was a big part of the reason Adele went out and actually spent time with the male co-worker she sleeps with  (Benjamin Siksou) . She felt lonely and abandoned. Adele is left to resent herself with no sameness, compassion or lightness present – no one to say “It’s okay” and only one love who degrades her and maybe forgives her. Though her nature is changing to function within society the way her parents do – work to be stable – it feels like Kechiche left her to twist in the wind with the open-ended doubt Adele harbors and absconds with at the end of the film. That is, as she walks away from us. 

There is also this flaw in the direction. Time lapses are a problem – there is a lack of sentimentality in how the film communicates the time spans between from one moment to the next, so sometimes Adele’s state of emotion has little or no sense of context; we simply see her as a woman in some distress and there is sometimes a vague idea behind it, but mostly these are ten second shots of her tear-strewn face and it’s well-acted, but repetitive and yields her emotional arc for awhile, while generating lackluster drama for most of the second/third hour. A lot of drama not plundered leaves the film ultimately light and similar throughout for the two hours after the first and to little poetic reward. Now that isn’t Kechiche’s fault, but there is no elegance. There is no music or cross-fades. No love shown in the face of great sorrow — Adele has to escape the biting judgment of her classmates after being outed, she has to run away from Emma when she wants her out and she has to run away from the party when she is a success. This is beauty. This is love, is it not? But you do not show her love. Why? Director, you could have extended a tissue to her from behind the camera it would have meant something, but you chose to ignore her. It’s pretty sad, man. 

For example the film skates over Adele’s rendez-vous with her co-worker from the school where they teach. Apparently they slept together on three occasions, but we never see one of them. We see them passionately dance once and kiss twice, once before Adele is dropped off at Emma’s so it looks like it’s just a kiss goodbye from a night out or something, but in a film with some rather long and graphic sex scenes – not to mention being three hours long – this part of the plot is completely dismissed. It makes for a somewhat disenchanting scene when Emma confronts her about it. When she accuses Adele of sleeping with him, I was thinking “No? Why are you being so mad about this, don’t you love her?”

Adele, her guilt, desperation and the inception of her romantic confusion, or at least how she deals with loneliness and the feeling of abandonment are all avoided, so when that confrontation arises it lacks the thoughtfulness, pathos and the overall acknowledgment needed to help realize where she is in life – at that juncture – as the first part does so well in amalgamating. It seems the more the story progressed the less inclined the director seemed to create a whole, flowing picture; it is as if he was focused on Adele the helpless ingenue and didn’t allow her to grow with time; it’s as if he knows what he wants to passionately explore, does so and leaves the details — the small, human incongruities — for the audience to think about, neglecting to think deeply himself. 

Latter parts feel anticlimactic whereas the opening act has a flow; the film is so long, though, that the lack of climax in any particular spots and jarring, popping bits work as a kind of kinetic energy for the film. This may be because she is earnestly an ingenue in that time of her life, but does not grow later on in the film, so when things happen to her, when she is sad and all of a sudden she is no longer 16 but 20, you think, wow. That is the same technique imposed on the other feature of his I have seen, The Secret Of The Grain, although without the time lapses. This style works in a documentary kind of way in that it is inoffensive to the eyes and ears, it appears as if we are watching life as it is, so we can happily follow it as long as it is professionally observed. It is. 

If it’s any testament to the two actresses who forefront the film, it is that I have something to say about the romance and romantic love they displayed. They, Adele and Emma, both had their problems – Adele was still precocious and innocent, growing into a big change and learning to be herself in the world around her and Emma was fixed in her self-deprecating and hedonistic ways. Though I would have liked to have known why she ended things with her previous partner of two years before meeting Emma – I thought that perhaps the flame between she and Adele burnt so strong that her undeniable attraction separated them, but a little more elaboration on others matters like those would’ve added texture to the whole picture. 

This is a film about young people discovering and accepting themselves while growing up in the city – or if not, it mostly works when it focuses on the world around it – so for it to encompass more subplots and supporting stories would’ve been a good thing. Some of the best scenes are when Adele is in high school with her somewhat openly gay friend Valentin (Sandor Funtek), who she can be open with and who takes her out to the “gay social scene” district where she first meets Emma. These are all very good sequences, and so are the dinner scenes with Emma’s parents and then, Adele’s. They’re not the most emotional of scenes, but each piece adds a different and helps invest us in the worlds of these characters. That’s why I felt most cheated that the movie spans a year or two here or an uncertain amount of time (but probably another two years) there without any indication – I felt cheated of a lot of this journey because for as much as the two women clearly mean to each other, there is no real understanding between them. Whatever the reason, it feels spurious to span that much time and not have some, or at least some closure and hope for Adele. What are her days like? What are they now – is there any focus? If so, why? If not, okay… because of Emma? Wow. This doesn’t feel like Adele: Chapter 1 and 2. It feels like Adele: Chapter 1 – a very long chapter, but one nonetheless.

There is clearly a lot more story than what is depicted in La vie d’Adele’s three hours. For me, it is a base-level observation of a relationship that probably intertwined much more deeply and dwelt on a lot more feeling, the pain and the profound love, than shown in the movie. This film is mostly about passion and confusion. Adele’s curious passion for Emma, her identifiable passion for life (she loves kids, she loves food), Emma’s passion for art and her work, and her passion for Adele’s youthful openness and body. It works as a simple prose on those feelings – passion, romance and confusion – especially as they often play into each other, but they are different rewards that are taken from the story other than the profoundly beautiful sides it has to offer – like the dynamic shift in personalities the main characters undergo from before their relationship begins to well after. They have changed each other and it is for the better, but there is no way Adele sees that. That’s why I think Adele was more than some unforgettable person with whom Emma sexually bonded, if anyone thinks otherwise. They facilitate each other’s growths in a personal way – I think for Emma it was a big way, it made her feel more safe and want to have a family, whereas in high school that’s something Adele would’ve wanted, but now she only wants love. That right there is universal, but so is the pain of rejection and having to find yourself. There is great reward in finding yourself and for how much destitution Adele feels – from the beginning of “chapter one” to the ending of “chapter two” – she ultimately feels bad about herself and uncomfortable. 

It’s a great relationship movie. However, very little of it is elaborated on within the film’s text. The writing is very conversational, but there will be stretches of no dialogue, so there is an honest flow, but a lot more could have been explored. It’s pretty stripped down and stretched out. 

Review: Kinyarwanda

Directed by Alrick Brown and performed by a blend of amateur actors and witnesses to the Rwandian genocide, Kinyarwanda can be called wildly eclectic. Written by Ishmael Ntihabose, the script possesses a dignity that the film doesn’t always realize. Where he is surefooted in what he wants to say in each vigniette, Alrick Brown is sometimes confused by how and sometimes (and most worryingly of all) what exactly should be emphasized to get the point across. While Alrick Brown as director show promise as he observes lost souls reaching out for repentance, there are times where his technique can be criticized for being too cinematic; his use of slow-motion to capture relief or suffering accentuate his lack of concern for cadence, for the misc en scene. It is a melange of faith and strength, but also of unwarranted suffering and confusion. It is welcomed that Brown never goes for the throat and his direction certainly more optimistic than you would expect given the film’s setting, but at times it is fair to feel that the film would have been more effective had he insulated his entire film with the uneasiness that permeates the aforementioned scene of penitence. At times, the film doesn’t feel like the film we’ve been watching – the attitude toward the material changes drastically from vignette to vignette. The patient cinematography utilized to make the segment Re-Edukation Camp 2004 as affecting as it was vanishes when it comes to scenes with larger production value; more people and something cinematic like a death or a revelation. The idiosyncratic script that brings together all these storylines is quite ingenious, at times feeling like the writer was granted Shakespeare’s perfect sense of irony and tragedy, all while speaking articulately about Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and many of the circumstances that caused it and resolved it, going so far as to show a scene depicting the high acting Muslims of Rwanda discussing what led to the inevitable harmony of Rwanda, or at least momentarily dispelling the conflict and reviving a lot of the faith that was lost during.

This film is all about heart and the heart of all film’s come from the actors. A person can write and a person can direct, but if there isn’t an honest soul in the character on-screen, we are not going to feel a connection. We can feel a true emotion – if they’re vacant we can feel disdain, if they’re calculated we can feel reverence for their skill – but we’re not, or at least I’m not, going to feel love – and that’s the most important thing. For this reason, I must first talk about Edouard Bamporiki’s performance as the reticent Emmanuel, a character we first see in a Re-Education Camp* ten years after the genocide. From the first moment he appears on-screen, we know his performance is going to be special; that he is going to evoke an honesty we see more in these amateur settings than in more professional productions. He does not identify himself with anyone or anything; his energy is off, he looks trapped inside his body; he composes himself like onyx. We are drawn to him. With every expression tacit – with reservation identical to our own reserved reflections and quietly palpable inner turmoil – his acting is not acting but self-examination caught on film. Then, it is also true that his acting lacks tact and when he speak his cathartic piece at the end, more dialogue composure can be desired and his potential seen, but yet fully realized. Still, from the moment he emerges in the film and we feel his bitter, self-contained suffering, we want it to end. Immediately. And that isn’t for lack of backstory – when it comes, we still feel badly for him, for his pain. Acting like this revitalizes my appreciation of watching the performer perform because it reminds me that sometimes there is no discretion in the action – that the person performing has opened themselves up to the world and that honesty, that strength is what fills my heart with love.

Other performers range from honest to misjudged and that’s where the film’s greatest weakness is. If Bamporiki’s style of acting is true, so then is Cleophas Kabasita’s and Kena Onyenjekwe’s in their limited roles, and Cassandra Freeman honest in her strong, nobel way despite how she is shot in slow-motion to a detrimental degree. However, the focus of the film is a young Tutsi woman named Jean (Hadidja Zaninka) who is in a burgeoning relationship with a sweet, caring Hutu man named Ishmael (Hassan Kabera), has a tragic trouble freshly seated in her heart and a big moment at the end where her storyline and Bamporiki’s come together in a disheartening way, yet it all seems to have escaped her. Her effort is clear – her intention is good, so she can not be blamed for anything but being miscast. She is not an actress and was clearly uncomfortable succumbing and fluctuating between states of complete emotional devastation and losing herself in fleeting illusions of love for the screen. Most of the film’s players are not actors by trade so to say she is not an actress is not a slight, but those actors, for the most part, did expose their pains and open up on screen. If Zaninka has suffered, she is sadly in a state of circumvention. So to is Mazimpaka Kennedy (in the role of a priest at odds with his faith and seeing the goodness in himself), but he has more skill. He is probably the most skilled performer of the bunch as it’s easy to notice how he nails comic and dramatic cues where no other actors in the film do. Their cadences are natural and his are not – his emotional scenes don’t exactly render true and are actually jarring as you notice how much more comfortable he is being superficial. Though his emotional moments do lack what he offers to the film is a mainstream style that is welcomed in film drenched in too honest suffering. His segment is the only inconsistent one – the others are either good or bad and to varying degrees.

It’s an well-meaning, but inconsistent film with an ambitious scope to respect and a beautiful message. Without spoiling the film – think to yourself how many deaths are seen or implied? For a film that resolutely illustrates the fear and tension in Rwanda during its three month genocide in 1994, it is something, in the end, that almost completely avoids brutality to spread its hopeful message. If Kinyarwanda is not completely satisfying, it is ultimately beautiful.

* A Re-Education Camp is designed to relieve the minds of those Hutu’s who committed violent and mostly murderous acts during the 1994 genocide. They are told to forgive themselves for what they have done and ask for forgiveness to those they have hurt. None of them wield hatred or commit acts of violence – their minds do not need adjusting, they know what they have done is wrong.

Daily Film Thoughts: Youth, Boxing and Independence

Reviews for Trust, Whiplash, Cold Weather, I Killed My Mother and Aurora.

At 2007’s Toronto International Film Festival, David Schwimmer unveiled his directorial debut with Run Fatboy Run. It was received with more disapproval than tepidness and when I got around to it the following April (it had its theatrical release in late March) I despised it. So when I learned his sophomore effort about a teenage girl falling victim to an online predator was playing at TIFF last year, I assumed it would be as maladroit as is first feature and proceeded to picked Jack Goes Boating in its place as my final film of the festival. Soon after the film premiered, TIFF was abuzz with high praise for Trust with a couple of my new industry friends urging me to see it. I tried to get a ticket for it over the soon to-be-released Hoffman debut, but to no avail. I wound up hating that film and for months – until a few nights ago when I finally did get my chance to watch Trust – I wondered how, if at all, bad my complete dismissal of Schwimmer’s second feature was.  Turns out it was pretty bad.

Apart being released around the same time (March 28th for Run Fatboy Run, April 1st for Trust) Schwimmer’s first two features have very little in common. Although it’d be witty to pointedly compare the two features — like how although Trust is not at all a comedy its few moments of dark humor evoke more laughter than all of Run Fatboy Run (wink) — it’d be an exercise in ego and this film deserves a real review.

Now, this is not to say Trust is flawless or even technically great. No, Schwimmer still can’t manage to avoid all the trappings of conventional storytelling, but he’s showing much improvement. One of the film’s main problems is that it very much does conventional things with  unconventional and dark subject matter. Annie (Liana Liberato) is the protagonist in a typical teenage crisis – she can’t tolerate the sluttiness of her peers. Though she’s not quite demure and is far from being a loner, she longs for someone to understand her and find her attractive and romantically desire her. The problem with the initial set-up is that she comes from a really loving home with parents who don’t suffocate her with their love, but who are always there for her and kind to her; same applies for her brother. The “nobody understands me” cry is more in reference to a group of girls with whom she wants no relation, so the set-up to the girl’s psychology is a bit weary. As for not having anywhere to displace her nervous sexual energy, well, there are more trustworthy boys with whom to be with in person than an anonymous man you met on the internet. With her, it’s someone named Charlie and with Charlie, there is a never-ending string of deception. That’s another problem the film has and I’m exhausting myself thinking of ways to structure the flaws in the story’s set-up to care, so let me run them down.

First, when Charlie tells Annie that he’s 25 — after he’s lied to her about his age twice already — she yells at him and asks him why he keeps lying. We don’t see them makeup, but instead get a jumpcut to her on her bed smiling and enjoying his voice once again. Second, the whole loving family dynamic — the one that generally keeps children from logging onto a website and subsequently being lied to and raped — is necessary for the script to be given a superficially edgy dynamic with the father figure (Will, Clive Owen) lusting for blood and a mother figure (Lynn, Catherine Keener) who represents the “right” course of action when a family member is hurt; to tend after them and love them and not try to prevent other children from being hurt (which I think is damned far worse by the filmmakers than is justified because it is a wonderful altruistic gesture). Third, the father is the angry one and the mother is the calm one – okay, not out of the realm of possibility, but an obvious work of convention. The film has more problems toward the end where it relies on two essential pieces of information being imparted to Annie for it to reach its semi-satisfying conclusion which are more bothersome for how much the film relies on them than for how extraordinary they are.

When Annie’s parents go out of town to drop her brother off at college, she meets up with Charlie who is pushing 40. This causes her to cry, doubt many things, but she goes off with him to a motel after an ice cream serenade. Her friend sees her there – this sparks off the plot wherein the revelation of Annie’s “rape” (she doesn’t believe it was rape; the law and everyone around her insist otherwise) takes place and everything spirals out of control. Tears are shed, anger is shouted, lies become lies, and we wonder if the beautiful family that once was will ever be once more.

Now, my problems with the film seem quite heavy and I know the first few paragraphs read like I take plenty of issue with the film. I do in concept, but in actuality this is quite a good feature. Not for how it is constructed, but for how it addresses the layers of psychological mutilation that take place when a child is raped. What’s most fascinating is how the girl has been so broken that she doesn’t see the act as rape, but as one of love because her mind is too innocent to see the event for how cruel it was. Although run over by the screenwriter’s penchant to focus on the father’s revenge plot, when the daughter’s perspective is shown it’s a really upsetting sight to behold. Mostly because Liana Liberto gives the most fantastic child performance in decades — only surpassed by Madeleine Desdevises’ work in La drolesse which is a film that touches on a few of the same ideas as Trust — and creates a full character overflowing with emotions. If nothing else, this film is to be seen for her performance – and if you’re a fan of Clive Owen, Owen’s because he has never been better.

Then there are times where you’ll feel like the screenwriters are afraid of their own subject. Not completely – they dispiritedly handle the rape scene in a way that crushes our spirits – but things come about, like an hour after the rape we learn that before they met Annie was telling Charlie she wants to know what his cum tastes like and so on, but in an ephemeral scene. Her promiscuity so ignored as to (and this is my assumption) not offend viewers and blame her at all for what transpired.

One last problem – or rather an expansion on a quibble I had above – is how dismissive the film is of Will and his actions. The ending essential has him admit his trying to stop sexual predators with hopes of protecting other families is wrong and that the right course of action is to love your child and be sensitive to them and only them. I don’t know where I personally stand on this – “If I was in the same situation what would I do?” – but I know that no matter my choice I wouldn’t treat those who felt the other the right course of action with contempt. It’s a difficult state of contemplation that Schwimmer and company absolutely flatten by the end. It’s made all the more unjustifiable because the final act is essentially two ideologies repetitively clashing: Will acts, his daughter reacts; Will acts, his wife reacts. In a sense I get where the filmmakers are coming from – the character decides to change his outlook because it’s hurting his family too much – but he does it with such finality that it’s impossible to find the resolve at the very least a bit dishonest.

Throughout the film there is discussion about what is right and wrong when it comes to age difference in sexual and/or emotional relationships – it’s even a point of conversation at the beginning of the film where Will’s work associate (Noah Emmerich, six years older than the actor who plays Charlie) hits on a nineteen year old waitress. Subtract the six, the waitress is the age Annie is at the very start of the film and there’s your food for thought. Of course the way the film develops leaves little room for a rational discussion to occur since the film’s focus does brush it to the side, leaving that idea very unfulfilled and viewers dissatisfied.

In the end, Trust is mostly an exercise in traditionalist ideologies which knows what’s black and what’s white, too afraid to openly discuss or even believe of a gray. However, when it isn’t being a surface-y cautionary tale, it can be quite dark and as dramatically compelling as anything that has or will come out this year. It is technically flawed, structurally convenient and lacks panache, yet is commendable for how boldly it tackles pedophilia and the unconventional distress its protagonist undertakes. If nothing else, this film will attack your emotions and leave you drained. It is a mixed bag, surely, but for all its errors and irritants, Trust somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts and a film that is both worthwhile and memorable.

Starring “Who’s?” Dane Clark, Alexis Smith and Zachary Scott, 1948’s Whiplash is a film that has the appearance of a B movie, but comes together more like an A.

It’s the story of a man loving a mysterious woman only for her to up and disappear and for him to take no other course of action but to find her. Michael Gordon (Dane Clark) is an amateur boxer with a passion for painting and his woman is the wealthy, but lonely Laurie (Alexis Smith). When she disappears, he follows a package from the beaches of California to its New York destination and discovers that she’s married to former professional boxer Rex Durant (Zachary Scott), a man who was forced into retirement before his chance at gold when was involved in a serious car accident. Self-flagellating at the news of Laurie’s depressed intent to remain with Rex until her last breath, Michael allows himself to be managed by the pernicious Rex who, since the crash, lives vicariously through his prospects in hopes to achieve the gold he himself was never able.

This film has many very interesting psychological underpinnings – especially in the Rex and Dr. Vincent (Laurie’s brother, Jeffrey Lynn) characters. It is plotting is very unconventional; straying from formulaic structure the way I’m sure Rex wish he could have before his accident and keeping interest at a high until its end credits. The lead performances leave something to be desired — this film would have been a classic if John Garfield played Michael as opposed to Dane Clark who tries to channel the preliminary method actor and if, lets say, Gloria Grahame had the role of his hopeless love interest — but all in all this is a perfectly structured little film that really only lacks inspiration in the least offensive of ways. The music could have been better, the cinematography (which is actually quite neat) could have been more elaborate/more noiry, and the lead performances could have been deeper, but nothing that is offered is remotely bad and for 90 minutes you’ll be charmed, and maybe even impress, with what this little feature has to say about how the mind and conscience struggle to coexist in times of great sacrifice.

Retracing his steps back to his roots in Portland, Oregon, director Aaron Katz has left the quiet city of New York to dabble in genre and present to us his spin on the mystery genre. For about forty minutes, Cold Weather is a film about a young man who has lost his scholastic ambition to become a crime scene investigator who works part time at an ice factory. For forty minutes, the only mystery to behold is “Where is that young man’s personality?” because its protagonist, Doug (Cris Lankenau) does nothing but waif around like a hipster with a lobotomy. For the following fifty minutes, there’s plenty more in terms of plot and character relationship – not development, just in how its characters interact with one and other – but that first question still strongly burns.

Though purposely vague, the story is essentially about a Sherlock Holmes loving 20-something teaming up with his coworker and sister to uncover the reason behind his ex-girlfriend’s questionable disappearance. Carlos is the easily fascinated coworker; Gail marked by the same blandness as Doug (must be in their DNA – guess that solves the ever-burning question); and Rachel is the ex-girlfriend who is sweet and has verve and who I personally couldn’t believe would have any interest dating someone like Doug at any point in her life (then again, I can’t see anyone being interested in the anhedonic Doug, especially romantically).

For as poor as the development of story (forty minutes? really?) and character (why is Doug this way?) are, Cold Weather is worth a watch on its genre twisting merit alone. It certainly won’t have any value on a rewatch, but the unpredictability of independent artistic control coupled with the uneasiness of the film’s settings — dimly lit bedrooms and cold, dark corridors — make this mystery one of potentially fatal consequences and subsequently, a rather engrossing watch.

However, when Katz is not deftly focusing on the mystery at hand, his feature has a tendancy of being and feeling monolithic with its monotony; its too frequently misplaced wry humor which is neither clever nor funny and its aforementioned lifeless protagonist.In turn, the scenes in which his protagonist cracks jokes are severely misjudged because it encourages his viewers to doubt the competence and morality of its protagonist; competence and morals being the only two positive aspects Doug possesses. For example, he spends crucial time that should be spent figuring out clues which may lead to the rescue of Rachel driving to a smoke store and picking himself out a pipe with hilarious consequences because, oh, he forgets to purchase tobacco, and oh, he makes low energy remarks on how underwhelming his pipe is.

Another point of ridicule can be the fact that Doug neglects to inform the police about Rachel’s mysterious disappearance. Now, personally I had no problem with this because it is meant to be a journey of self-discovery and his renewed appreciation for sleuthing, but at the same time this can be characterized at nepotistic (which it is, but the degrees of annoyance vary on how much you buy the set-up) and then what you’re left with is this dimwitted guy willing to risk someone’s life so that he can kill time doing something fascinating on what is essentially his lonesome.

From my perspective, Cold Weather is half of a great movie marred by complete self-indulgence on the part of Aaron Katz. It’s not quite offensive, but it is onanistic and resultantly only for like-minded nepotists. Passable for the tension amassed in the final stretch, but negligible for its tediousness.

In 2009, at the age of 19 — every critic remarks on this — Xavier Dolan debut his feature debut I Killed My Mother at Cannes, winning a few prizes out of competition in Un Certain Regard. Being a Canadian film, I passed on it at TIFF that year. It had had its cinematic run in Quebec a few months prior and I figured either the DVD would be out soon and I could rent it or the film would be soon released in cinemas. February 2010: it gets its Toronto release (nine months after its run in Quebec). It plays at Varsity theater for three weeks – I miss it. The film is never released on DVD in Ontario or anywhere else in the world with English subtitles. It was only until a few weeks ago when it made its DVD release in the UK did the film have any proper English subtitles and thus it has been two years since its debut cinematic release for this highly talked about film for be viewable by myself or any other non-French speakers. And really, after all this wait, the most positive thing I can say of this film is that it is an easy watch only because its style is so present and never once intrusive. (I apologize for the prelude, but believe me, when you’re waiting for subtitles to arrive every month for nearly two years, you’ll want to vent about it a little when it passes.)

Exuding teenage angst in every scene featuring sixteen year old protagonist Hubert (Xavier Dolan), I Killed My Mother does exactly what you’d anticipate a film by a teenager to do. Where it succeeds in stimulating the senses, it fails in presenting an unbiased account of a teenager’s loneliness. In fact, Dolan does the opposite for his image and struggling teenagers by making his protagonist appear as insolent and unsympathetic as a character has been in recent memory. If this were a satire on the selfishness of Generation X, it would be hilarious if rather abrasive. As it is, it’s simply a self-indulgent, self-satisfying feature.

However, the key to appreciating this film is in its mother-son relationship. In order to feel for Hubert we must look toward his maternal combatant to understand why he is the way he is. In this way, the film partially works by having one abhorrent – and again, selfish – person resulting in the psychological makeup of another. But then at times Hubert is much worse than his mother (Anne Dorval) – he’s far more snide and spiteful toward her than she is of him – which, by the end, makes her the more sympathetic character… and she’s not sympathetic herself.

Here’s a rundown of all the things I disliked about Hubert: He’s too shouty, he’s very hyperbolic, he’s completely insincere – even in the self-recorded monologues he says things wherein I doubt the truth – he tells his father that he’s hanging out with a girl when really he’s studying with his boyfriend, he feels superior to everyone and everything around him… there’s nothing to like about the guy. It’s made all the worse because Dolan isn’t a very convincing actor. He has a few good moments – the scene where his father/mother confront him; the little tirade he puts on is great – but for the most part he lacks genuineness. Even in the self-recorded monologue he sneers in a false way. If he weren’t so busy also directing the film, perhaps the performance would have been more honest and consistent and the character more redeemable, but it doesn’t work as such.

The script has great problems too. Xavier Dolan wrote the script (he really put all of himself into this) which has good bits of dialogue here and there and one really hilarious scene involving his mother meeting his boyfriend’s mother at a tanning salon (brief, but had me in stitches) but on a whole it does a poor job in piecing together how Hubert regards his mother. There’ll be scenes where be derides her for being a slob while eating or lambasts her for treating him poorly, and then that’ll be all the communication they have for the film, but he’ll say in his monologues how, if they met each other as strangers they’d be friends, or that he loves her. I don’t see this in any of the encounters he and she share — not even remotely — so it’s impossible to buy these sympathetic offerings as true.

That brings me to the film’s most impressive aspect: its direction. Although I have great reservations with the script and Dolan’s performance, I must give him high marks for how he composed the feature. It’s very derivative, but its done in such a way which harkens on films aficionados love and admire. Framing devices are ripped right out of Jeanne Dielman, a slew of Godard films and a few others from the French New Wave, but it isn’t at all offensive because Dolan handles these shots with such poise and respect. He knows he’s not doing anything new, so it all comes together in a very modest way. Same goes for the music – he’s using pieces that he holds dear to himself, from classic orchestrations to a track by Crystal Castles – which has the exact same effect. So while I Killed My Mother wasn’t a good film, I’m still really interested in what Xavier Dolan will do with his career. He’s got a great handle on how to craft a film from a director’s standpoint – all he needs is to mature as a writer and actor (or cast other people and focus on his strong suit) and he’ll be a great asset to cinema.

What can I say about Cristi Puiu’s Aurora? It’s large (three hours long), it’s cold, it’s distant, it’s bleak… it’s monolithic. It’s intelligent, it’s suspenseful, it’s fascinating, it’s engrossing… it’s brilliant.

I’m not going to reveal the plot of this film, so you’ll have to trust me when I applaud it. If you’d like a taste, it’s essentially an hour of a middle-aged man, Viorel (played by Puiu) walking around collecting debts and getting pieces together for a gun. The next two hours are him planning to use the gun and using it in mysterious and never completely understood ways. When I wrote my review for Tuesday, After Christmas I said of the Romanian New Wave – (it) has only worked perfectly when the script possessed and required in its direction ominousness – and Aurora is replete with exactly that.

While watching the film, it was funny to think to myself all of the relationships Aurora has with other features. Be it Puiu’s debut work Stuff and Dough wherein we don’t know what’s in the box the teenagers are transporting (the same can be said for Viorel’s psychology and what exactly it is he’s trying to convey with his actions) or The Godfather which runs at the exact same length, is about the criminal underworld, and strives to say a lot more and present a lot more to its audience in its run time than Puiu’s latest. The last comparison isn’t one many people will have, but for me it was surprisingly to be far more engaged by the sparsity that is Aurora in comparison to how I felt watching the word-heavy, action-ready Coppola masterpiece. They’re each successful for different reasons, but I’d say Aurora is all the more so by so adeptly representing human psychology. The final twenty minutes are outfitted with more dialogue than the rest of the film – perhaps a page out of Police, Adjective‘s playbook? – which, unlike Porumboiu’s second feature, doesn’t outwardly express what the feature had been about up to the point of confrontation, but rather diverges its course from what we would expect or desire him to say (something conclusive) and says something much more profound about how we judge one and other. We can’t know a person from their actions, from what they do in the privacy of their own room, from how they speak; this is Puiu’s outcry for society to readjust its speculative ways and resist the urge to rumor and know that you only know yourself to be sure. An observational masterwork by the best director going. His performance is wonderful, too.

Daily Film Thoughts: Wim Wenders

I saw Land of Plenty last night and Paris, Texas months ago. I wish I would forget the former already; I hope to never forget the latter.

To put it plainly, this film is a mess. There are too many montages played to the tune of disquieted Radiohead, too obvious of points to make and a bonding session that requires the protagonist, Lana (Michelle Williams) to be the most patient and kind person on the planet. Is she? Of course she is. Is her uncle, the paranoid, terrorist-seeking Paul (John Diehl) going to discover that his racial profiling ways are wrong? That’s there’s more to people than the color of their skin — or in his case, the turban on their head? Yep. Is there any reason to watch this film? Not unless you’re a big fan of The Wire and want to further behold the soulfulness of Wendell Pierce in a supporting role, and oh yeah, love Michelle Williams.

For all the  self-conscious self-indulgence of the film, a cinematic stomping ground is made for dedicated performers to shine. As aforementioned, Michelle Williams is as indelible as ever and if not for her unadulterated countenance and loving meditative approach to acting – which in turn earns her our love as the viewer – this film simply would not work at all. The same can be said for John Diehl who plays her erratic and prejudice uncle. If he doesn’t look like the archetypal theorist nut, the film doesn’t function as well as it does which isn’t much. Herein lies a great irony of the film, though, that everything had to have been assembled for a superficial acceptance of these characters to occur; this in a film which possesses a “Don’t judge a book by its cover” axiom at its core. Because of this and many other plot points which completely favor Paul’s change — when girl and uncle go to find out more about a dead middle-eastern man they discover how pure he and his step-brother are — it’s hard to take at all seriously. The accuracy of the performances, however, do make this two hour trek easier to endure – I won’t go as far as to say completely so – and while that alone doesn’t warrant a recommendation, I guess if you love Wim Wenders and want to see how he slings Radiohead tracks into a film about post-9/11 hysteria with a completely dedicated Michelle Williams performance pulling it along I can mildly suggest it. In all seriousness though, this is only worth watching to see how Michelle Williams works; how she creates full characters with the slightest of nuances and how flawlessly she can do it. Certainly a footnote in her career as the most insightful prelude to her Oscar nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain. So my final word on Land Of Plenty: see it for her or don’t see it at all.

Just as Michelle Williams’ performance as Lana was in Land Of Plenty, Wim Wenders’ approach to Paris, Texas is meditative. If nothing else, and as this film demonstrates beautifully, Wim Wenders is nothing if not a patient filmmaker. Though this 1984 feature is a bit taxing at two and a half hours, in the end it is a fully rewarding experience replete with fascinating text (the joys of family) and even more inciting subtext (how Western living, in lieu of its luxuries, devalues the human experience). This, not to mention mesmerizing cinematography which expresses loneliness more forlornly than any Shakespearean soliloquy and illustrates the beauty of togetherness equal to that of a painting by Joseph Turner.

Simple in concept, Paris, Texas is about fifty-something year old man named Travis who walks out of the Texas desert to be then diagnosed with amnesia. His brother Walt, who Travis clearly knows not of, comes to pick him up and restore his life in any way he can. It’s a tug and pull at first, Walt not knowing what to do and Travis being incidentally wayward make the opening act a little bit worse for ware, but it does set the main idea up and present the aforementioned idea that Western living is destructive and “easy to lose yourself in” as the allegorical shots of vast, vacant plains illustrate.

Though there’s little to discuss at surface level, there is plenty of appetizing discussion to be had about the story’s implications. We learn Travis has a young son, the son is situated quite comfortably with his brother and sister-in-law, but wants to reincorporate himself back into the child’s life. Later, when we meet Travis’ ex-wife Jane (Natassaja Kinski) she’s remarkably young (early 20s) and four years divorced from Travis. Coupled with the bits of dialogue implying Travis’ obsession with her and his mad love for her, we can surmise a few different scenarios and laboriously try to figure out the man who is trying to figure himself out. Was he obsessed with her youth and beauty and occupied himself with her because he wanted to possess her or was he honestly enamored with her and had the purest of romantic intentions? Though it is one of the film’s few notes of ambiguity it is one that lingers long past the end credits and adds a mysterious element to this already intriguing existential enigma.

True to his form, Wenders’ Paris, Texas is full up with a drearily hypnotic scope, unpredictable structure and an exceptionally cast each with the virtue of being completely honest to their characters and not manipulating their audience in anyway – each are flawed and we know it. It’s one of the more honest films I’ve ever seen and I imagine it will play out similarly to anyone who views it because even if they’re deterred by the Wenders’ distended approach they will agree that Paris, Texas is very much a film of this world.

Like Rainer Werner Fassbender, Werner Herzog and Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders was instrumental in the German New Wave movement of the 70s. A year ago I checked out some of the early work of the aforementioned – never got around to Schlöndorff, though The Tin Drum is still kicking around here – and because I’m not of the school that thinks one should check out a director’s biggest or most acclaimed title first I flipped through his filmography and pulled out the one with the most intriguing synopsis. The film is 1972’s The Goalie’s Anxiety At A Penalty Kick and it’s about a man’s disconnection from an unremittingly progressive environment.

Now you must not negate my opinion because my first and only screening of this film was a year ago because that is in fact the point I am trying to make with this feature. When I was watching it, it was, to say the least, a very enduring and tireless viewing; at 100 minutes it feels longer than Paris, Texas. Wim Wenders is perhaps most denigrated for how distended his features feel. And I, too, was of the opinion that this film doesn’t work for that particular quality, and in retrospect (albeit a twelve-month retrospection) that reason is precisely why it works. In this film about Joseph Bloch (played by Arthur Brauss), a goaltender (convenient name), Wenders examines isolation in a micro and a macro way. The micro is, as the goaltender sublimely expresses, the alienating paradox of protecting the net at a penalty kick; the macro is, as the film indulgently expresses, the death and great emotional loss at hand when the world is inhabited with those who feel it must revolve around them and them alone. In this instance the micro sets off the macro and our protagonist makes love with and thereafter murders a woman enchanted with his minor celebrity.

After murdering this woman Joseph hops on a bus and stows away in a pocket of a city. For the most part his adventures in the town involve him halfheartedly trying to get laid and find some sort of excitement in this weak-pulsed town. The high point is an incidentally overheard conversation between two of the town’s longstanding patrons conversing about a mute child who drown. Of course this further articulates the quiet tragedy that the inability to communicate affords, but it also works in context with the disjointed plot as a harrowing little portrait of common loss.

Not much else happens during his stay; the visit is essentially him riding buses to bars and checking out the little scenery to the intermittent tune of Jürgen Knieper’s very ominous, but ill-fitting original score. In fact it is this very score that makes being of the viewing such a task. It contradicts the simplicity of this neo-realistic mystery with a booming and esoteric soundtrack that would feel right at home in a psychedelic thriller made in the 80s… and at times a semi-professional pornography from the same era. It is, sometimes at the same time, a very transitive and a very annoying feature. It’s extremely difficult to digest and it certainly isn’t much like any of the acclaimed Wenders in that it is compact, esoteric, yet blunt.

However, as I said, it is for these qualities that it is worth watching. After I first saw it I appreciated what it tried to convey, considered it in a favorable light and moved on. A month later I changed my score from a 6 or 7 to a 7 or 8 (I’m not really staunch when it comes to superfluous epithets) because it and its theme – most importantly the final scene and how perfectly it was elocuted – had completely stuck with me. Eleven months later when doing a brief writeup on two films I’d recently seen by Wim Wenders I decided to review it. It’s all still intact in my memory bank and really, how many “okay” films can you say that about one year and four-hundred films later? Not many. In its own particular and obtrusive way it works and if it doesn’t work for you, well, wait a year, see how it still resonates with you, and watch yourself be surprised at how willingly you’ll march to its tune in retrospect.

Coincidentally, I caught Wings of Desire last night. Loving the concept, knowing the director can be brilliant and being susceptible of a great cinematographer’s charm, I figured I would love this. And you know what? I wasn’t wrong.

A lot like Paris, Texas in construct, Wings of Desire takes its sweet time establishing a plot. Rather than jostling you and snapping through myriad plot points with which to earn your interest, Wenders instead opts for the lyrical repetition. For the first fifteen minutes or so, we experience life as an angel. It’s not so much a boring or meandering routine for Damiel (Bruno Gatz) who moves around Berlin finding the most hapless of souls and comforting them, but rather one that, when juxtaposed to the beauty of human existence, lacks fulfillment. Later we learn that many angels develop an ego that pushes them from their sacred position and transforms them into becoming human; most circumstances, we’re led to believe, are because of love.

However, the transformation doesn’t come until an hour and a half into this 130 minute film, so for the first ninety minutes we view humanity through the eyes of an angel and watch as he forms a bond with the people he watches over. Even the most misanthropic of viewers will understand Damiel’s desire to be human because Wim Wenders paints such a perfect picture of human life. The best part is that he convinces us that life is beautiful even while showing us the great tragedies we experience on a daily basis. From having your heart broken or dreams momentarily dashed to corpse-filled streets of yore to committing suicide in front of concerned onlookers, this is as grim a depiction of life as it is positive. But even if financial worries may befall Damiel and his life may bring nothing but pain, he plunges into it because there’s nothing more exhilarating than the human experience – the draw of spontaneity being a particular draw to this omniscient being.

Now it isn’t all wonderful. There are a few conceits throughout. One being that a fellow angel-turned-man is able to help him out financially late in the film so that he can exist as carefree as possible until the closing credits because if that wasn’t the case, it’d be fascinating to see an angel work for pay and live the pedestrian existence he once stated as wonderful. Another is more bothersome in concept than it is in execution – this is how fascinating the people Damiel watches over are. Of course we see him spiritually assist destitute train riders and school-stressed teenagers, but for the most part we focus on three people: an old poet nearing his death (Curt Bois), a fairly complex movie star (Peter Falk as himself) and the reason for Damiel’s desire to be human, a tragic circus performer named Marion (Solveig Dommartin). The ponderings of these three people are, of course, drizzling with appeal; the first two for their philosophical ruminations (the first more poetic than the second) and the third for her emotional and very sympathetic queries on life. These segments play out beautifully, are acted in wonderfully, and are the film’s essence, but one can’t help but feel that if these people were more ordinary that the story wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as it was.

In addition Wenders overshoots his scope and truncates his feature with ambition by trying to discuss the entire evolution of humanity in one scene. Two angels – Damiel and his partner Cassiel (Otto Sander) – discuss this the way two low-IQ’d buddies would when reflecting upon a party they once attended together. “Do you remember that?” “Yeah” “Wasn’t it fascinating? “Yes”. It just doesn’t feel right to throw that in the middle of everything and messes up the simplicity of the story. Another slight flaw was the use of sepia tone vs. color scenes; color is shown when we perceive life from a human perspective which too easily implies that life is far better than being habitually altruistic and helping humanity reach happiness.

Then of course there’s the rest of the film which is pretty much flawless. Simple ideas like the two angels discussing their detection of spirit (when they look at someone who has had an epiphany or whose reaction encompasses living) are executed germane to the concept and not at all blown out of proportion the way filmmakers do sometimes when they know they’ve got a great scene on their hands. Then there’s the visual wonder of Henri Alekan’s camera which is not only beautiful to bare eyes to, but crucial to the inner workings of the film and Damiel’s desire. If cinematography was ever more important to the success of a film, I’ve yet to see it, or perhaps I have but it certainly didn’t work out the way it did here.

The film closes on a fifteen minute scene where Damiel finally finds the courage to be around Marion after wandering for a day not knowing what to do. He could help her as an angel by literally touching her soul, but as a person he is vulnerable to saying the wrong thing and scarring her or just misspeaking and making a bad first impression. When they speak together at last it isn’t the result you’d imagine and at first it’s simply too esoteric to understand and verbalized too acrimoniously to make any point besides the obvious ones that had be made previously anyhow. After sleeping on it for a day – just like how my opinion of The Goalie’s Anxiety At A Penalty Kick grew – I grew into this scene. It is a rigorous little diatribe which does nothing to conclude the film, and while it does contradict the axiom that “life is beautiful” it does close on the perfect note: “To be continued”. It is a thoroughly beautiful and wise film and quite handily the best Wim Wenders I’ve seen (the four reviewed here). Like each of his films, this is a meditative look at life, but unlike each of his films, this is wholly consuming and certainly heartbreaking – if not for the ending, then for Damiel’s distressed “Nein!” when the young man kills himself.

Daily Film Thoughts: The New Year

On the docket: Sang-soo Hong’s HaHaHa, Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay, James Gunn’s Super, Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas & Semih Kaplanoglu’s Honey.

Sang-soo Hong’s latest is a story wherein two friends, Munkyung (Kim Sangkyung) and Jungshik (Yu Junsang) who have spent some time in Tongyeong (a small city nearby Seoul) meet up just prior to the former’s departure for Canada. They hadn’t met during their few weeks together and now are sharing stories about their peculiar time in the small town. It gets extremely ironic — re: the title, HaHaHa — and their stories intertwine in way a Woody Allen feature might. While Sang-soo has been invariably compared to Michelangelo Antonioni in their cinematic sensibility, I’ve always felt that Sang-soo’s content is more comparable to Woody Allen’s if Mr. Allen had grown up in the far East. Anyway, the stories the two share ignorantly weave into each other and never fully collide sustaining the gentle rhythm that Sang-soo Hong first established with his debut feature, The Power of Kangwon Province. In viewing this you will not encounter cacophony or any permissible plot twists that would invigorate an obvious thinker; just an ironic breeziness with an funereal quality and plenty of irony. Like each of Sang-soo’s features before this, this is for the occasionally self-reproaching solipsist.

It would be difficult to summarize the film given the abundance of serendipitous plot points without spoiling the film, so I’ll stick to the philosophical rudiment of the feature. First, the film is about these two men and their two objects of affection. While visiting some of the historical landmarks of the city Munkyung stumbles upon an history instructor/guide Seong-ok (Moon Sori) and his first impression is an unintelligent “she has nice legs – her face is average, but her body is great”. He’s unfamiliar with the city, sees her as desirable amidst the otherwise unimpressive sexual offerings of the town and thus becomes enamored with her. On the other hand, Jungshik is already settled in a relationship with the dowdy and emotionally restless Yeon-ju (Ye Jiwon). He is, in turns, sincerely in love with the woman and resentful of her. While she affords him the emotional and intellectual reassurance of which his home life had neglected him as a child, subsequently she is also suffocating and objectively not worth much – she isn’t much sexually appealing, nor does she offer intellectual engagement. As the film explains with a delicate touch: man is bad.

In discussing each character’s psychological makeup, Sang-soo discusses a myriad of philosophies, but focuses most on Socrates’ “theory of forms” philosophy wherein the philosopher details that, for example, what we perceive as an apple is a material thing and not of the real world, whereas if we bite the “apple” and experience it for ourselves then and only then we may realize it as of the real world. In short, the philosophy encourages amnesia so that we may experience things as opposed to have a preconceived notion of them by how we’re brought up. This idea courses through the two leads and the one other male, the poet Jeong-ho (Kim Kangwoo) who associates with each in extremely different ways. In fact this philosophy is most vocalized by the poet when he has lunch with Jungshik and randomly pontificates “if you take the clothes away from a beggar is he no longer a beggar?” And it’s an interesting idea – one I find to be very true – that we assign judgment to things based off of our preconceptions and really shouldn’t do that. Of course the virtue in the statement is nullified — and subsequently the humor implied — by what Jeong-ho represents: the archetype in adolescent angst.

The story gets trickier when Jeong-ho is the boyfriend of Seong-ok and also the close friend of Jungshik. One may find an incongruity in the fact that neither of the men discussing their stories are able to put 1 and 1 together, but at the same time perhaps they did and are enjoying the irony for themselves; if not, they’re being nondescript and it’s still understandable. A lot of humor derives from the Jeong-ho character who sifts through different ideologies and philosophies hoping to find one that will stick with him, yet purports each to be a true facet of his character. In turn, the pragmatic Jungshik calls him out on it and damn if that isn’t one of the funniest scenes of the year.

A major problem people have with Sang-soo Hong is his lack of sympathy towards his characters. In fact, he’s rather self-flagellating in the way Lars von Trier is in the way that they both base their protagonists off themselves and flagrantly ridicule and demean them while also leaving the door just open enough for similar or sensitive souls to understand their dilemma, respect it, and empathize regardless of how putrid they may appear. Personally, I found both main characters to be endearing and sincerely cared for what happened to them. Sure, they’re flawed and perhaps purposefully obstinate, but these are the struggles of the mildly privileged baby boomers coming into adulthood. They may be insolent, mistreat others and have hidden agendas, but beneath it all these are absolutely fragile people. As per usual, the indelible work of Sang-soo’s cast is essential to the humanity of his feature, and here, the director has been blessed with his best band of performers yet. Each of the six who makeup the primary cast (the sixth being Mun-kyung’s mother Jeong-hwa – played by Kim Gyuri) are fantastic. Even with three top shelf performances (the two main leads and Moon Sori) it’s difficult to find a favorite. Do you prefer the hilarity that is seeing a grown, petulant man hysterically cry or do you prefer the self-assigned sadness of a man who has diagnosed himself with chronic depression or do you prefer the buoyant woman who is, as Clementine once said, a girl looking for her own piece of mind? You cannot go wrong here.

In floating ideas like the false pride, false wisdom and false love of man, it’s evident why this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It might play too sardonically or tiptoe too fancifully around the big picture with little plot redirections so that the story may continue in its entertainingly ironic fashion, but for some (like myself) this is a brilliant film and the definition of what cinema is best for: stimulating the mind. It’s hilarious, touching, repulsive, disheartening and fantastic. And while the ending might offer the greatest irony of all — a man shaking his own preconceptions to ultimately secure love — the film will not close on a big laugh, but rather a piquant and wholly satisfying note which is made all the more so by a rare implementation of music on Sang-soo’s part: the refined version of Jungshik’s improvisational piano piece. Perfection through and through.

I figure this review will be rather concise because although the film runs at two hours, Brilliante Mendoza’s Kinatay has very little say.

Although fans of arthouse may be quick to dismiss those who consider Mendoza’s latest feature formulaic, this feature certainly is of a Hollywood minded construct. From the opening act which parallels The Deer Hunter wherein we learn about the protagonist through simple and innocent gestures — his love for his family, his thoughtful looks for a man threatening to jump from a billboard to his death, his getting married — so that we may be persuaded to care for Peping (Coco Martin) in the most simple and facile of way. Give him the dilemma of having no money and the ambition of wanting to be part of the police force and you’ve got the most good guy; the most generic setup for bad things to happen and the easiest kind of person with which to project moral contemplation.

Also known as The Execution of P. to American audiences, Kinatay actually translates simply to the word “Butchered” which is a far more fitting title as it tells the audience what the films focal point is in the utmost blunt way. I won’t reveal the pungent set piece for those who’ve yet to see the film, but as a friend of mine discerned, “it feels out of place”. You see, the film strives to make adamant points about societal pressures and uses this grizzly scene to slam home the thought that circumstances such as poverty make monsters, and on the most basic of levels, sure, the film succeeds. We see Peping’s transition and contemplation — the entire feature rests on his gaze, fortunately unlike most other gritty thrillers the atmosphere works conjointly with its lead actor’s countenance as opposed to against — but a lot of the feature is expressed through pontification. For example, the villain Vic (Julio Diaz) is given no characterization: he is the generic bad guy. First time we see him he shoves a stripper’s face and states “I don’t fuck niggers”. He’s given the iconic low angle shot to further perpetuate his fierceness and if this is a film that wants to convey the change from point A (Peping’s innocence) to point B (Vic’s inhumanity) then the film fails on multiple levels because we’re given contrasts rather than juxtapositions. For example, Peping is an officer in training while Vic is the captain of the police force. If you take away the cuteness of this irony what meaning does it really have?

While the plot is stingy on the side of originality, Kinatay does work simply for the atmosphere created. Mendoza is nothing if not a lucid visualist and with a film such as this the atmosphere is the key. There is no gritty handicam photography, but rather refined pans, absorbing tracking shots, and a good variation of angles utilized primarily to further express its protagonist’s trepidation. This, however, is stilted for a few moments when the director consciously cuts away from his protagonist to show what’s happening in the basement with the kidnapped woman. These are the only scenes where Peping is not within the vicinity of the action, let alone the focus of the shot. In more ways than one the basement scenes are, for lack of a better word, contrived. And while these scenes imbue the film with a horror-esque mood, it is of the New French Extremity variety and certainly nothing of which to be proud when you’ve acutely labored over a better and more honest aura.

In the end, Peping is a new man and the centerpiece a symbolism for the character’s deconstruction, but what does the film say? Peping’s baby cries and that’s the final shot. Is to be young nothing but to yet experience the sadness of the world? Does Mendoza’s artistry consist of anything more than a dyspeptic panache? Perhaps to some, but to this viewer the film is all style with a little grace; the kind of movie that will play better in retrospection than it will in real time.

Since Batman’s revival in 2005 with Begins the non-superhero subgenre has emerged. The problem with this genre is that its target audience is such a specific pocket of society: those who love silly vigilantism. I say silly because the protagonists in each of these films are mostly pedomorphic men or boys firmly situated in their adolescence and the films themselves are written and directed by like minded types, so the general output has been, well, what you’d surmise from what I just wrote. It started with uber-indie Special which got the most obscure release of these films and starred Michael Rapaport. On one hand that was an interesting examination of a man’s struggle to find an identity in the world even at its slowest pace. He lost himself and suddenly becomes this heroic vigilante — or does he? The film worked because it played the story down to such an extreme that it’d be impossible to criticize the feature for being too “out there” with its ideas. It isn’t a grand feature or even all too ponderous, but it’s certainly solid. As of now the “solid” Special has been the best entry into this soon-to-die subgenre, Super included.

James Gunn (Super’s writer/director) begins his feature with an alright use of narration, if only because it impassively informs us about how vanilla Frank’s life has been up to that point. It’s a quick summary, but what we take from it is that he’s lived a very self-suppressive existence and has taken nothing from his experience on Earth. He believes in God and when he takes those first steps en route to becoming a handy superhero, he allows God to guide him. Unfortunately James Gunn presents this in the form of a question – “is God guiding him or is he insane?” – and for me, the person who sees the serendipity to be too convenient, too frequent, and too instrumental in encouraging Frank to become The Crimson Bolt, it’s obvious God played a hand in this. So it isn’t like the wrongfully slated The Book Of Eli where the writers commit to making their protagonist virtuously indelible, but rather a whole questioning of a character’s mental facilities so that it may hold some psychological gravity. Well it doesn’t and is offensively constructed, too.

Then you’ve got his partner-in-crime Libby (Ellen Page) who at one point rapes Frank in the dumbest manifestation of a teenage boy’s wet dream come true. Ellen Page is a fine, if droll actress and here, well, she’s required to sport a manic laugh which is one of the film’s few high points when used properly and one of the most sick-making when overdone. It’s usually overdone.

So yeah, the plot is about Frank trying to rescue his wife from drug pushers. Later it’s revealed they’re also rapists, child molesters, murderers and thieves. Later one of Jacques’ (the main baddy played by Kevin Bacon) henchmen asks a fellow henchman if he’d rather have sex with his grandmother or a corpse. Guess who you’re supposed to care for.

Overall this is just a terrible film made not the worst thing ever by a few genuinely funny moments (cracking skulls with wrenches is fun) and less irritating by running for a mere 90 minutes. It’s an order of stupid fun with extra stupid and hold most of the fun. So it’s like a hot dog with a lot of ketchup, but instead of a wiener there’s a half-cocktail weenie. I’m hungry.

So if you want to see a film where the vigilant mind is examined, well there’s Taxi Driver, but if you want to see it done in this subgenre even Defendor does that better (though I’d hardly recommend that); if you want to see cool action and watch one guy crumble an entire criminal organization with his hands and whatever items he may stumble upon, Mirageman is the way to go; and if you just want to see a better version of this film, watch Special.

If you know me you know I love, love, love Romanian New Wave. From Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough, to Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, to Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue I feel that this last decade goes to Romania. Even the non-New Wave films like The Rest Is Silence are of excellent quality no matter the way you slice it. Yeah, Romania has been tops.

As I thought about what didn’t work with this film while working my way up to review it, I’ve realized that Romanian New Wave — with its static shots, non-soundtrack, and decrepit backdrops — has only worked perfectly when the script possessed and required in its direction ominousness. Its present in my three favorite New Wave films and while I didn’t love The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu it’d be fourth on my docket. To me, this appears to be the New Wave’s glaring hole – that the stories, while generally well-plotted and well-acted, lack atmosphere. They’re homespun and honest, but there needs to be more for a film to be great. This film about adultery is exactly what I’ve described.

In today’s society, men with vast amounts of money are often revealed to be in or have had copious infidelities – almost as if each million landed the fella an affair. In Tuesday, After Christmas, the protagonist handles a lot of money, and while he isn’t wealthy himself, the millions of Lei that have passed through his fingers seems to have given him the same lust as those celebrities we hear about weekly. As a recent episode of South Park alluded to (along with many, many, many texts that are undoubtedly more profound) men with money are men with power and men with power take what they desire. Unlike the actions of a John Edwards, the protagonist’s problems feel more palpable than that of a tabloid and they’re often uncomfortable.

The film opens on the middle-aged and typically built Paul (Mimi Branescu) in bed with the cute young Raluca (Maria Popistasu) being sexually playful. This scene plays out for about ten minutes and with each passing minute the feeling of pure affection and warmth is made all the more genuine. And we’re sucked, or at least I was, into this pure, unaffected togetherness. It’s inconsequential, sure, but it’s pleasant.

The next scene Paul’s with his wife Adriana (Mirela Oprisor) at a mall shopping for their daughter’s Christmas present and he is bored out of his mind. Immediately we can understand why Paul would much rather be around Raluca. Where Adriana is very much in reality and crunching numbers and bringing about stresses, Raluca is self-sufficient, adorable and inclined to the cosmos. This isn’t to suggest that Paul is right, that we should feel sorry for him, but the differences are explained enough from the get-go so that we can at least identify Paul’s feelings.

Surprisingly, characterization is a problem with this film; we get impressions of people and their authentic emotions, but no psychological underpinning. While I don’t subscribe to this thought, I believe that a problem a lot of people will have with this feature is that it appears misogynistic. To be frank, Paul has no personality to call his own. He is what he is surrounded by; rearranging his personality given the physics around him.So why do women love him? Does Raluca have an oedipus complex? Is she trying to subvert her mother’s desires simply because she views life as delible if not lived as an iconoclast? Does she find him warm, loving or anything marginally worth spending time worth for moral and emotional gain? If so, why? These questions aren’t answered, but rather left open for interpretation when they should be straightforward so as to not confuse viewers trying to ascertain a position on the morality of the text.

However, a point of great intrigue with this film is how it has decided to, not only not reproach the Ceausescu regime and communism, but support its foundational ideas. While there is little to be seen as anti-communism – as if Muntean has given up beating that dead horse – there is plenty that can be read into as pro-communism in one of the more shocking, if perhaps unintentional pieces of subtext made in the past decade. Especially in concerns to the unknowingly, but somewhat bratish and definitely spoiled daughter of Paul and Adriana. A person who draws similarities to the annoying children in the Western world; a personality trait that would not exist with communism in the picture. The same applies to Paul’s object of affection, Raluca who is 26 and therefore only lived six years of her life under a dictatorship. Although she isn’t spoiled she is certainly more wayward than Adriana. Perhaps this is more of a criticism against the wreckless way capitalistic ideals can be wielded, but in that sense it is still a support of communism. In addition, and I know I’m saturating here, Paul bails on dinner with his wife and goes to McDonalds instead so that he need not be around her for nourishment of any kind. McDonalds first established a restaurant in Romania in 1995, five years after the Romanian Revolution. Although it isn’t an explicit scene or one marked in anyway like the director wanted to convey this thought, it’s true that with fast food restaurants and that missing element of togetherness at the end of a day with one’s family has taken its toll on the Western-minded household. Here, when the marriage falls apart it can be attributed to a number of reasons and one is that Paul was never invested in his homelife and that may be because he was never at home – required or not. I’m not suggesting he should writhe in a situation where he is unhappy or that being forced to be faithful is a good thing, but I do feel that the more options a person has the more divided they become and with this marriage, like so many others, the more options that are available — an easy affair here, an easy way to be alone there — the less likely things will succeed. I myself feel this marriage would’ve been perfectly functional if the film set thirty years prior, the family tightly bounded by love and absolutely unpretentious, but of course you may not and thus find what I’m saying faux-intellectual babble.

Like all Romanian features (that awful Outbound excluded) Tuesday, After Christmas can be recommended for its solid representation of simple ideas and minimalistic performances, but unlike the best it simply lacks fervor and can be considered omissible for that and that alone. It’s more commonplace than contemplative, but I do mildly recommend this for the performances of the two women and that perfect final sequence. Muntean’s done better — Boogie examines the male mind in a similar way and reaches great success because the protagonist is a more interesting and approachable character — but far more have done worse.

In the scene above, you feel the hardness of the man on the left and the fragility of the boy on the right; in the scene above, you see that the father and son are divided by rope, by the lengths of their lives and you will surmise how a soft child like this can grow up to be a rugged outdoors man like that; in the scene above, you completely understand why the child, the film’s protagonist, has a stutter and feels utterly insignificant and empty inside despite probably not what insignificant even means.

I saw this film over six months ago and it has stuck with me like none other since. There isn’t much to discuss when it comes to Bal because its the kind of film which only works if you feel what the director feels; its about connection, not intellectualism. There are a lot of scenes founded on nothing but expressions and the sounds of the outdoors and to summarize the plot would to write a single sentence: A seven-year old boy struggles with life. To put it simply – it’s heartbreaking in theme, yet beautiful in scope. Although concluded by an ending that’s more of a taper off than anything else — which left a pungent taste in my mouth after one hundred minutes of serenity, but I’ve come to accept it as representative of the journey of youth — this is a wonderfully handled elegiacal tale which has been done before, but not as deftly and certainly with more maudlin. This is essentially a masterpiece and one of the few films which asks you turn your brain off, but doesn’t follow that request up with explosions or half-naked women. It’s a mood piece and it captures the melancholy of childhood perfectly. Comparable to a film like Where The Wild Things Are but incomparable in quality, I urge everyone who has been a kid to see this film because chances are it will resonate with most.

Daily Film Thoughts: Whistle Blowing

Whistle blowing means a lot of things.

Occasionally a movie comes out which seems impossible to describe. It reaches us on such an inherent level that we think that a piece of art has touched our very soul; that it is no longer a movie, but rather a part of us. And occasionally the opposite happens where we reject a film with our entire being and more because it’s a condescendingly inept bullshit redoubled with contradictions and exploitation aplenty which should have never have ever been made… ever. This is one of those two – to give you a hint as to which it is a word I’d use to describe it lays in the film’s title: The Whistleblower.

This movie opens on a scene with two Croatian teenagers unengaged in the art of conversation which is as esoterically written as it is inversely ominous in its foreshadowing. “You should do it,” the more zealous teen says “you don’t want to live here forever, do you?” she caps off indolently. Next thing you know the two are getting fake passports put together so that they can “serve” in Bosnia. Alright, first, these people are really stupid. I mean, you’re getting fake passports done by a shady, easy-to-anger guy in a room void of any life apart from the shady guy’s wife who looks at you as if to say DON’T DO IT YOU’LL BE SORRY. Oh, they absorb her intrepid looks, but never realize that, hey, this isn’t a good idea.

Boom, we’re in Nebraska now. Our protagonist, Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) is cutely wording her way to the direct implications of what’s happening in her life – her husband’s leaving with her children, yet she doesn’t want to lose her shit because along with Eilis Kirwan, writer/director Larysa Kondracki would rather be obnoxiously artificial and banal in writing dialogue for her characters than be expository which, to be fair is annoying, but not as annoying as smarmily diverting the matter at hand. For a good percentage of the scene you’re sitting there thinking that the husband and children are leaving for some vacation — the direction is sunny enough and the conversation flippant enough to interpret as this — but no, they’re leaving because Kathryn is too closed off from her family because of her work. Okay, cool, an interesting female dynamic is going to be shown — the career-dedicated nepotist who is misunderstood by man. Girl power.

A few scenes later when she’s stationed in Bosnia because it pays a lot more than being a cop in Nebraska (money = providing for her children better, noble enough) she’s handily seduced by a coworker at a pinball machine. How? I DON’T KNOW. HE MIGHT HAVE TAUGHT HER PINBALL FROM WHAT I SAW.

Boom, next scene they’re having sex in her room which is shot with a grungy filter that does nothing at all. It isn’t foreshadowing something bad – the guy is perhaps the most genuine of all that we see in the movie (we don’t know this, I just assume it from the transparent dumbness of the guy) – it’s just artsy.

Then we cut back to Croatia where the teenage girl’s mother is worried as to the whereabouts of her daughter who, when she last saw, cussed her off for being restrictive (original) and which (doesn’t) give the desire to see her daughter safe and sound again the sentiment it desires. Actually, although this storyline is pretty stupid too, the most sincere thing about it is the performance by Jeanette Hain as the mother, Slava. Her concern is quite real and despite being forced into a character who only worries a lot and finds outrage in one of the film’s many attempts at “plot twists” she presents herself rather well and is one of the only aspects of the film which come out clean after this shitstorm.

So Kathryn is championing feminism in a country without it. We’re shown women with their faces brutally bashed in and policies that we know are wrong. A woman comes into a hospital seven times bludgeoned within an inch of her life and we learn that it’s her fault unless there’s undeniable proof that she wasn’t in the wrong. No one wants to prove that she was in the right, Kathryn does and becomes a hero of the movement. Yep – the woman who treats her body as currency for a few beers and forgettable pinball pointers is the leader of a female rights movement. That could be a really interesting contradiction to discuss if the filmmakers weren’t too busy showing us women getting shot in the head for being insubordinate and raped with pipes for wanting freedom. The only mystery here is “Which hole did it go in?” because before that there’s no sleuthing or curiosity as to who is perpetrating these morally wrong acts against women. We know whose doing it really early into the film — fellow Peace Workers (oooooooh) — and then the plot gets sillier.

Monica Bellucci is unrecognizable as herself at fifty and David Strathairn is the nice guy.

At the end of the film — before the final scene in which we’re shown the opening scene again but more sentimentally scored so that we may be reminded of the emotion that the filmmaker wants us to feel — Kathryn is asked whether she regrets what she did or not on a talk show. What she did cost her the ability to find employment as a police officer again or anything other job with which to protect community, but she unflinchingly replies yes. Boom, feminism; boom, strong morals; boom, a woman to admire. But then, a huge concern in this film is her being with her daughter — at one point she cites this as the reason she cares about woman’s rights which is as stupid as it sounds, maybe even more so — and at the end she doesn’t get that because she just can’t do it anymore apart from trips that she takes to visit her in the Netherlands or whatever small encounters they get to have from there-on-out. Know what would make for a far more fascinating story? That one. The one where a woman has to feel that for all of the good she did for a gender in a country that she loses on a more personal level and can never feel complete ever again because of those decisions. Sort of like Nothing But The Truth except more interesting because greed wasn’t the motive and her martyrdom not false.

This movie is bereft of what it takes to make a great movie and without most of what it takes to make a bad one. And if anyone has a problem with this review, it was a review in the least formal way possible. There is no way to pontificate what is so wrong with a movie that is so wrong, so I’ve resorted to this. This is just one of those movies that never should have been. To exaggerate only slightly, Larysa Kondracki should willingly renounce her gender a la Gainsbourg in Antichrist for this entirely counterproductive attempt at feminist art.

Lenny opens on a woman being interviewed retrospectively about her relationship with Lenny Bruce. Honey(Valerie Perrine) doesn’t speak about him with sentimentality, but rather like if he and her had just been momentarily disconnected during their passages through life. This film was made in 1974 – Lenny Bruce had died eight years earlier.

If you know the briefest history of Lenny Bruce — he was a failed stand-up comedian before he started to unpolitically rant on stage, he married a stripper and developed the life of a rock star (adultery, drug abuse, self-loath, etc.) — then you know the entirety of this feature. All of these understood character traits of the hard rolling entertainer aren’t particularly delved into and what we get is a portrait of the most influential comedian of all time filled in with poke-a-dots rather than an entirely shaded one. We see him fail on stage at the beginning, be entirely enchanted with a stripper based on her appearance — love at first sight is never implied here, so it plays off completely superficially — and being a part of a car crash which resulted in the death of a woman. The problem with this, like most biopics, is that it isn’t a representation of a person but rather a passing on of the major events in their life. There’s no intimate account of the inner being here — Hoffman does his best early on with his gentle eyes and succeeds where the script does not — because there is no intimate account. In fact, Lenny’s story isn’t the most interesting one because we sift through his life transitively and never get Lenny Bruce the person – only Lenny Bruce the guy that things happened to and then died. To speak impersonally for a moment – I really wish writers would learn that an important person does not equal an interesting story.

However, Honey’s story has anything but these faults. Sure, we may not know anything of her outside of her experiences with Lenny, but she is examined with the utmost scrutiny and is given an emotional backbone. She is in constant flux because Lenny is constantly fluctuating (why? I don’t know – read above as for why) and tries to sustain her love with him despite what he wants at the time. Her scope is micro where Lenny’s is macro and while no pleasurable rhythm ever coalesces between the two the face value juxtaposition is pretty nice. The same can be said for the performances of Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine who brilliantly represent many feelings and one line of feeling, respectively. Again, like the difference between how their stories function, Hoffman’s is too bolstered to ever hit you as more than a representation whereas Perrine’s is a more soulful and replete turn.

Though Bob Fosse did do a brilliant thing by leaving his camera far-off and stagnant during Lenny’s last destructive stand up routine there is little by way of iconography for the film because black-and-white cinematography doesn’t naturally intimate atmosphere. On a whole, this is a pretty by-the-numbers story that I’m actually surprised by in that it was as successful as it was upon its release — six Oscar nominations, Best Actress at Cannes and several other industry lauds — simply because Lenny Bruce’s death was still a talking point at the time. Everybody knew of his life — at least the significant events of which this films sews together as its narrative — and really, if anything, this is the kind of film that would peak in appreciation decades after the release when talks about Lenny Bruce had ended and knowledge of the man stilled. For the film viewer ignorant to Lenny Bruce’s life this film would play out tremendously. It’s written and directed with a sense that the protagonist lives through the entirety and offers a glimpse at the original bad boy. For many today this should play out very well as a candid look at the destructive mores of the fast-living, with Charlie Sheen’s recently absurd nascence I think a tale like this might be at its most recognizable, but for some (like me) it might just not hold up as a narrative simply because it isn’t a narrative but the most interesting parts of an man’s lifestory ripped out and stapled together interpolated with an effectively simple look at a woman’s undying love and self-inflicted tragedy. Either way you’ll be taken with the great acting.

If you’ve seen Last Tango In Paris, you’ve seen a better version of this film. Directed by French provocateur Patrice Chereau, Intimacy is the story of a man and a woman who have sex every Wednesday at around 2pm, who know not each others’ names and who don’t speak to one and other. This trend began when they hooked up one afternoon and the woman, later named Claire (Kerry Fox) decided to show up at the same time each week. Because her intentions aren’t particularly known until the final act the film relies on Jay’s contemplation of their relationship. At once he’ll regard it as something throwaway, incendiary to his freedom and crucial to his existence. Therefore Jay is a very contemplative character – if a bit difficult to tolerate given what he does throughout for no particular reason other than he doesn’t know what else to do – and because of this the audience is treated to a mesmerizing physicality of Mark Rylance.

Mainly what this film is about is hedonists awash with self-inflicted problems. There isn’t any particular theme to be offered — sex is wonderful might be the only thing — and if you’re looking for a feature with an ending that will deliver you’ll be peeved by the random ambiguity it offers (a split screen of Claire leaving or staying) and considering all of this it isn’t a bad movie. It isn’t a good movie, but it isn’t nearly as offensive as you might anticipate an NC 17 feature with nothing to really say to be.

As it is essentially an extension of Last Tango In Paris, this 2001 flick is mostly about the man stalking the woman because he becomes progressively needy — or rather, wanty. The first 30 minutes establish Jay’s routine, his gripes and his relationships by way of coldly bouncing from scene to scene – only offering him to be thoughtful in between the bits important to the set up. After this marginally extended first act, Jay begins to stalk Claire. This is an excellent scene depreciated by Chereau’s poor choice in music. Sadly, that isn’t an isolated incident.

When Jay finds out Claire is an aspiring actress and has a husband (Timothy Spall) and child he immediately familiarizes himself with her family which goes unbeknown to her. What results are a few scenes where Jay belligerently toys with Claire’s husband who is too sweet a man to deter Jay’s extemporaneous ravings or indirectly direct cruelty. Watching Timothy Spall squirm indecisively when Jay alludes that he’s possibly been screwing his wife is the real highlight of this otherwise middling feature. The interplay between Rylance and Spall in said scenes – there’s more than one, and though pretty redundant, they are the most enjoyable aspect of the feature so I say the more the better – is fantastic and while the unbelievable dialogue does hamper their emotional inundations it isn’t nearly as vitiating because performers synergy is brilliant. It’s them who create the mood and not Chereau. Unfortunately this is the case for far too much of the film.

Although marked by insincerity and accusatory writing, the actors manage to convey honest emotion with which we may feel real sincerity. Because the cast is mired with cold, invasive dialogue which represents only the screenwriter’s inability to trust that his actors could convey thought tacitly these moments only come at speechless times. Rylance has a peculiar countenance which is perfect for a bemused character; Fox’s is similar but represents a form of hedonism that is more, well, earnest because her character’s husband becomes suddenly becomes a heel in the final few scenes; and Spall, well, Spall just crushes every scene he’s in and gives all those watching a lesson on how to act. It’s a performance piece from head to toe and one of the few contemporary films that would translate better as a silent feature. 

Although it’s unfair to write so little about the best film of the four, I feel there’s little to comment on when it comes to Midnight Cowboy. This review will mostly just be a memory tool for me to recall what I like about the movie, so you can skip this review and read some other blogger’s more insightful one if you’d like.

What makes this film is Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Rico Rizzo. He’s got the Bugs Bunny voice going full tilt, a pimp limp and a life so repulsive that it would make Lee Daniels squirm. The protagonist, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) isn’t a particularly interesting character on the surface, but the script and direction aggressively ply into his background with barely palpable combination flashbacks. Voight’s performance is a tricky thing because he doesn’t have the theatrical license that Hoffman does and the character is pretty much stuck on one gear through the entirety because his past has altered him to be as such – that’s made damn clear and Schlesinger gets my ultimate respect for conveying that flawlessly – so Voight is stuck in a kind of predicament. He does very well for the most part – Hoffman makes him step up his game when they’re together, that’s evident in how Voight composes himself so openly because Hoffman makes us believe that Rico is being so open, too – but I can’t help but feel if there were an actor with more expressive eyes in the lead role that we’d have a slightly better film.

The only gripe I have with the movie is the party sequence which tends to drag and become tedious in juxtaposing Buck’s duality with Rico’s singularity. It’s overly garish and mostly useless in the grand scheme of things.

All in all this is a beautiful film with one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen. For as rigorous and unremittingly bleak as this film is I’m surprised it won Best Picture in 1969. Then again that was the year where the Academy nominated They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and Z. I wish they’d show their bravura more.

On a final note, I saw Jakob der Lugner over a year ago and loved its ending. With time I’d forgotten how I interpreted its ambiguity and last night I spent a good half an hour reconstructing my thoughts on it. Yeah, it’s one of the finest endings ever which poses the most interesting, yet commonly asked questions – “What good is there to lie?” Beautifully ambiguous – I miss Vlastimil Brodsky. If you care about my opinion at all, you should check out 2001’s Autumn Spring. Wonderful performance – the man was a true legend.