Spring Breakers.

SPRING BREAKERS (2013), by Harmony Korine

I just came out of this one and I think I’m in love. Before I write about the film, let me say that I went into this film with no expectations. I didn’t know if it’d be funny or weird or mainstream or uncomfortable. As a fan of Harmony Korine, I know what he is and is capable of, I know he’s a joker, but I know he’s also a unique person who follows his vision to its end, whatever it may be, but you can never tell if you’re going to get something you’ll like. He gives you images and leaves you with thoughts. You don’t have to think too much during his movies — he doesn’t much either, so I doubt it having much subtext — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something worth talking about when they’re over. You may feel it’s a little, or it may feel like a little, but if you can appreciate what he’s trying to depict, there will always be life to talk about once a film of his concludes.

When I said you don’t have to think much during the films of Harmony Korine, that is not to say you should not think about them afterward. If you’ve shown given him your time and patience and watch the film to its ultimate conclusion, I doubt anyone can say they didn’t like or take something away from it. James Franco’s performance seems pretty revered – I would call it amazing. Some sequences will stick with you — Korine himself says he doesn’t really remember the plots of all the movies he’s loved, instead sequences or scenes — like Britney Spears’ “Everytime”. Okay, I was in a theater of five — three of them left, one of them during that segment. But if you sit through it all you’re certainly not going to forget it! And if you leave, well, you’re certainly not going to forget it, but you will resent it for the time and money it took, but that’s silly, don’t resent that stuff. Just enjoy the movie you see.

The film could be divided into halves – the first being the prelude to Spring Break and Spring Break and the second with James Franco. During the film, and it’s awful to think like this during movies because it only distracts you from the movie, I thought to myself “The direction is kind of shapeless, the juxtapositions could be sharper, but it does have edge and the repetition is effective, it’s vivid and it’s making me sick,” in a good way. That could be how I could summarize the film for someone, if they wanted, but the direction finds itself in the end. Otherwise those words can be my basis of thought for this movie, which is an otherwise unique movie-going experience.

As I write and think more about the film (I just got back) its nonstop audio/visual indulgence is so effective. Spring Breakers is a film that is very telling for this generation, if a little insane with its concept. “Just do it like a video game :: This is paradise :: Spring break forever ya’ll” things people today feel like. And of course, the repetition is done to unforgettable effect, but especially the line “You’re scared, aren’t ya? Scaredy cat” toward the end. Mmm… this is good cinema.

There’s a lot going on, a lot of ideologies passing and being shook up. The film doesn’t harp too much on these subjects, but they’re well realized. The writing and understanding of the characters are top notch – Alien and Faith in particular had touching storylines. Really towards the end of the film, as Alien talks more and we see more of him and Franco’s incarnation alone, it – his storyline – takes on an almost epic look at the contemporary gangland attitude. Why people do it, how hurt they are, what they seek, how lost they are – it’s touching. Unfortunately it’s hard to sell that way because it’s also very ugly in places and depressing and sickening.

The film begins with Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites to a montage of people having fun on a beach, but mostly overselling the bodies of women, which later become naked. Harmony Korine understands the flow of life, it’s probably because he’s lived so much, but there’s something to how he structures films that is special. The opening alone juxtaposes that — the music starts off jumpy and nice, the people are more clothed and wholesome looking, but then the song gets distorted and people are naked, people are drinking too much and it’s nuts. The next scene is of four friends passed out together in the same room – they’re all lying around, uninspired and one of them gets high while one of them is asleep. It’s a sad sight and intended to show you how these naked, happy people are also unfulfilled, at the end of the day. Even though we later learn — through details, it’s very incidentally understood — that those four girls have yet to go to spring break and that they want to go there (the opening scene could even be interpreted as a collective fantasy of theirs), our brain has a different impression at first. And that’s why Harmony Korine’s movies have to be watched and not thought about too much until the end because he’s trying to do something during and for after. Most filmmakers are so ideally all movies would be watched without too much thinking.

But those characters, they want to escape.. Eventually they get to spring break — everything is even funny and fun, they’re dancing all openly (even trying too hard and being slutty) on the bus. We get a lot of shots of that – the last film Benoit Debie shot was Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void. There is a lot of camera movement and a lot of attention to detail within the frame, but a lot of editing that keeps it delirious. A lot of bouncing and a lot of things to see, so the cinematography itself isn’t easy to note, however it effectively stimulates and desensitizes you and for that you know it’s done its job. You know it’s done its job because it has captured so many exciting images to such an excessive degree that it hardly registers after, I don’t know, the third scene of zealous promiscuity. It becomes no longer eye catching. An hour into the film when Harmony Korine has Alien use the term “double penetration” I felt sick. Then he shows us the primal looking twins that would do it. The second half really pushes you – it is his vision.

Most important, thematically, the film is about our ideals and the journeys we must take to find our own. For Grace, the quietest one of the group, without any blonde hair and a firm belief in God, she finds solace in spring break and escaping the regiment of school and family. Staying in touch with everyone, staying in the same city — all of the girls are sick of the city, but she’s struggling with her faith. On the Florida beaches, she has so much fun as there is so much openness – she believes it’s the most spiritual place she’s been. I might too, after years of sameness and cyclical piousness. Someone behind me laughed at the idea of a spring break beach being spiritual. I myself thought it was beautiful, but it is funny. The movie is many things.

Then in a pool, Faith says she wants to live there forever. “Buy a house and all of us live in it” Her friends laugh at her — it’s completely unrealistic — but then they wind up in a situation where they can remain ocean side, indefinitely, and she fears it the most. It would be the only way all four of them could live there, like she believes in, but it scares her. It’s as if he dream came true only to become a nightmare. At the same time, the friends of her that were skeptical of her idealism wind up on a path towards her vision; ultimately climaxing with an unforgettable ending.

The end sequence — with Alien and the girls and the same speech when Faith was talking to her grandma — possesses many ideas and will likely leave everyone with a distinct impression. It’s idealistic, lost and hopeful all at once, but the juxtaposition is funny and disturbing. If this film is meant to be “the wildest spring break you can imagine” put to film, Korine’s vision is unremittingly wild and captures it all.

A lot can be said about Alien, too. Alien is an interesting character with a past surrounded by people struggling in the ghettos. Apparently he was the only white boy growing up – and now his best friend is his enemy on the block. Suddenly, there are two women he feels compelled to call soulmates (and it feels real, Franco makes you feel its authenticity for this character) and later on, during one of the scenes before the finale, it feels like a sad romance – at least to Alien. All for that money, all for that fame — everything to do with him is fascinating. His bashful smile when he says people recognize him on the street for one of his songs’ hooks. If James Franco were a less concerned actor, he would have portrayed this character as a more extreme Saul (from Pineapple Express) but he goes way beyond that in terms of thought, consideration and approach. There’s so much humor, but it’s also quite disturbing and sad – and in the end, there is poetic justice and for that, for me, the film is poignant in its approach to humanity.

Alternating between humor and despair – Harmony Korine captures the rawness of life with young characters with respect to their struggles and ideals and desires, but also showing the folly in them, as well as the righteousness. The good and the bad. Find yourself and find your path.

If you think about it, if the film were to have a sequel, how would their paths look like, once the credits have rolled? I think it’s beautifully in alignment with the nature of the world and the film’s characters. All of their paths, everything we see them go through all makes sense, doesn’t it? Cotty’s path, Brit’s path, Candy’s path, Faith’s path, Alien’s path, Archie’s path – it was more than satisfyingly realistic; it’s also cinematically satisfying. It doesn’t have a form and it is shapeless, but it does end and when it does, that gives its shape – both artistically, in its poetry, and literally as final bits of film, ending the reel. It happens that way because that’s how it is – I imagine it’s partly because Harmony Korine doesn’t believe in the end of films. “It never made sense to me. There is always more to life,” so I believe, then, that he sees life as it is – the past, the present and the future, whatever it holds, which is natural, rather than within of within the context of cinema, or artifice. The thing is, people are probably going into this movie expecting The Hangover rather than Trash Humpers – it’s super realistic and weirdly cinematic, not the other way around. It’s something else. Like Mister Lonely and his films before that, it is something else. Hypnotic or poetic. A slice of life you’ve never seen or understood before. At least I hadn’t – not with compassion, which Spring Breakers is steeped in; mostly for Harmony Korine’s observational approach, which could be voyeuristic, but there is a warmth in what he wants to communicate and does so effectively with tone. If the film has greater ambitions than being solely about spring break, it certainly feels it.

Good, measured acting from Selena Gomez, a wild, unhinged approach from Vanessa Hudgens and a solemn undercurrent of a score by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex complete the film. Rachel Korine’s chameleonic work should not go ignored – she really disappears into that most lost role – nor should Ashley Benson who was finely unsettling. Ya’ll did good.


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.

2011 SAG Predictions

I don’t write on my blog much very more, but these are announced tomorrow (9am ET / 6am PT).

Best Ensemble Cast:

The Artist
The Descendants
Midnight In Paris
The Help

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:

George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Michael Fassbender, Shame
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:

Viola Davis, The Help
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:

Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Patton Oswalt, Young Adult
Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:

Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Carey Mulligan, Shame
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

My 2011 TIFF Schedule

This is the schedule I want and am confident I will wind up with. I wish I was able to do more probing into the title releases beforehand – and blog about it – but that’s okay.

1pm – 2:33pm: Le havre (AGO)
4pm – 5:35pm: Restless (Bell Lightbox 2)
7pm – 9:08pm: Wuthering Heights (Bell Lightbox 2)
9:30pm – 11:07pm: Oslo, August 31st (Scotiabank 1)

11am – 12:38pm: The Ides of March (Visa Screening Room)
4pm – 5:35pm: Hick (Winter Garden)

9:15am – 11:08am: We Need To Talk About Kevin (Bell Lightbox 2)
12:30pm – 2:16pm: Keyhole (AMC 3)
3pm – 4:30pm: Mavericks: Sony Pictures Classics (Bell Lightbox 3)

10am – 12:14pm: Faust (Bell Lightbox 2)
12:15pm – 1:46pm: Your Sister’s Sister (Bell Lightbox 1)
3:15pm – 4:54pm: Shame (Bell Lightbox 1)
6:15pm – 8:52pm: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Bell Lightbox 1)

9:15am – 11:15am: Damsel in Distress (Scotiabank 4)
12pm – 1:45pm: Like Crazy (Ryerson)
3pm – 4:33pm: ALPS (Bell Lightbox 2)
7:30pm – 9:07pm: Michael (Bell Lightbox 2)

11am – 12:25pm: Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Visa Screening Room)
2:45pm – 4:16pm: Breathing (AMC 3)
7:45pm – 9:13pm: The Kid With The Bike (Isabel Bader)

9:30am – 11:20pm: Hors Satan (Bell Lightbox 2)
12pm – 2:03pm: Machine Gun Preacher (Scotiabank 1)
2:15pm – 4:15pm: Take Shelter (Scotiabank 3)

9:30am – 11:28am: The Skin I Live In (Bell Lightbox 2)
12:00pm – 1:35pm: Peace, Love and Misunderstanding (Ryerson)
2:45pm – 5:01pm: Melancholia (Ryerson)
6:15pm – 7:53pm: The Deep Blue Sea (Bell Lightbox 1)

3:00pm – 4:45pm: Rampart (Ryerson)
6:00pm – whenever: Cadillac People’s Choice winner (Ryerson)

TIFF 2011: Anticipation Meter

I would have liked to have kept up with the TIFF title announcements as they came, but my internet was down for a few weeks, so I’m dealing with the titles collectively in my blog as I have in reality. I’m excited, and if you’re reading this, odds are you are too.

Since I will be seeing less films this year – maybe as low as ten, but I’m doing my best to get to thirty – I’m only going to include those which I really want to see because I will eventually end up with a lineup consisting of those titles. And since I have little time, I will simply copy and paste the synopses.


SHAME — starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.  Brandon is a thirty-something man living in New York who is unable to manage his sex life. After his wayward younger sister moves into his apartment, Brandon’s world spirals out of control. From director Steve McQueen (Hunger), Shame is a compelling and timely examination of the nature of need, how we live our lives and the experiences that shape us.

RAMPART — starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. A genre-bending, 1990s Los Angeles police family drama, Rampart explores the dark soul and romantic misadventures of a never-changing LAPD cop (Woody Harrelson) whose past is finally catching up with him in the wake of a department-wide corruption scandal. Along the way, he is forced to confront his disgruntled daughters (Brie Larson, Sammy Boyarsky), his two ex-wives (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon), a tenacious Deputy DA (Sigourney Weaver), an investigator on his trail (Ice Cube), a homeless witness to his crimes (Ben Foster), his aging mentor (Ned Beatty) and a mysterious new lover who may or may not be on his side (Robin Wright), as he fights for his own sanity and survival.

OSLO, AUGUST 31ST — starring Anders Danielsen Lie and Ingrid Olava. Anders wanders the city, meeting people he hasn’t seen in a while. Long into the night, the ghosts of past mistakes will wrestle with the chance of love, of a new life, with the hope to see some future by morning. An adaptation from The Fire Within (Le feu follet).

WUTHERING HEIGHTS — starring James Howson and Kaya Scodelario. A Yorkshire hill farmer on a visit to Liverpool finds a homeless boy on the streets. He takes him home to live as part of his family on the isolated Yorkshire moors where the boy forges an obsessive relationship with the farmer’s daughter. Starring James Howson and Kaya Scodelario.


360 — starring Jude Law and Rachel Weisz. In 360, director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Peter Morgan combine a modern and dynamic roundelay of original stories into one, linking characters: from different cities and countries in a vivid, suspenseful and deeply moving tale of love in the 21st century. Starting in Vienna, the film beautifully weaves through Paris, London, Bratislava, Rio, Denver and Phoenix into a single, mesmerizing narrative.

THE IDES OF MARCH — starring Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman. An idealistic staffer for a newbie presidential candidate gets a crash course on dirty politics during his stint on the campaign trail. Based on the play by Beau Willimon. Directed by George Clooney.

TAKE THIS WALTZ — starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen. A funny, bittersweet and heart-wrenching story about a woman struggling to choose between two different types of love. Sarah Polley’s latest.

A FUNNY MAN — starring Nikolaj Lie Haas and Julie Zangenberg. Opening in the seductive style of the 1960s, A Funny Man uncovers the perennial loneliness that comedian Dirch Passer (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) has found himself in after a fast-track rise to fame, despite being surrounded by a mélange of wealth, women, alcohol and infamy.

ALPS — starring Aggeliki Papoulia and Aris Servetalis. A nurse, a paramedic, a gymnast, and her coach have formed a secret, illegal company. The service they provide is to act as stand-ins for the recently deceased, for the benefit of grieving relatives and friends. The company is called “ALPS” and the ALPS members, taking inspiration from the life of the deceased, adopt their behaviours and habits, memorizing favourite songs, actors, foods, familiar expressions. Although the members of ALPS operate under a disciplined regime demanded by the paramedic, their leader, the nurse doesn’t.

MICHAEL — starring Michael Fuith and David Rauchenberger. A mousy insurance salesman keeps an under-aged boy locked in his basement, while doing his best to appear ordinary to the outside world.

VOLCANO — starring Theodór Júlíusson. This coming of age story follows a 67-year-old man who proves that it is never too late to change. Hannes is a bitter old man who finds renewed purpose in life in the wake of a family tragedy. For years, Hannes isolated himself from his wife and his now grown children. Determined to care for his wife for the first time, Hannes slowly discovers sentiments long buried within him.


DAMSELS IN DISTRESS — the latest by Whit Stillman. Damsels in Distress is a comedy about a trio of beautiful girls as they set out to revolutionize life at a grungy American university – the dynamic leader Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), principled Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and sexy Heather (Carrie MacLemore).  They welcome transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into their group, which seeks to help severely depressed students with a program of good hygiene and musical dance numbers. The girls become romantically entangled with a series of men – including smooth Charlie (Adam Brody), dreamboat Xavier (Hugo Becker), the mad frat-pack of Frank (Ryan Metcalf) and Thor (Billy Magnussen) – who threaten the girls’ friendship and sanity.

JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME — starring Jason Segel and Susan Sarandon. Penned by the writer/director team of brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (Cyrus), this is the story of one man searching for the meaning of life while running to the store to buy wood glue.  Using the universe as his guide, Jeff looks for signs to help determine his path. However, a series of comedic and unexpected events leads him to cross paths with his family in the strangest of locations and circumstances. Jeff just may find the meaning of his life… and if he’s lucky, pick up the wood glue as well.

YOUR SISTER’S SISTER — starring Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt. Still mourning the recent death of his brother, a bereft and confused man finds love and direction in a most unexpected place. It also stars comedian Mike Birbiglia and Mark Duplass, and is directed by Lynn Shelton (Humpday).

PLAY — starring Kevin Vaz and Yannick Diakite. Play is an astute observation based on real cases of bullying. In central Gothenburg, Sweden, a group of boys, aged 12-14, robbed other children on about 40 occasions between 2006 and 2008. The thieves used an elaborate manipulation scheme called the ‘brother trick,’ involving advanced role-play and gang rhetoric rather than physical violence.

MELANCHOLIA — starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. In this beautiful movie about the end of the world, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Despite Claire’s best efforts the wedding is a fiasco, with family tensions mounting and relationships fraying. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth… Melancholia is a psychological disaster film from director Lars von Trier.

LOVE AND BRUISES — starring Tahar Rahim and Corinne Yam. Hua, a young teacher from Beijing, is a recent arrival in Paris. Exiled in an unknown city, she wanders between her tiny apartment and the university, drifting between former lovers and recent French acquaintances. She meets Matthieu, a young worker who falls madly in love with her. Possessed by an insatiable desire for her body, he treats Hua like a dog. An intense affair begins, marked by Matthieu’s passionate embraces and harsh verbal abuse. When Hua decides to leave her lover, she discovers the strength of her addiction, and the vital role he has come to play in her life as a woman.

CENTURY OF BIRTHING — the latest by Lav Diaz. A grand meditation on the roles of the artist, Filipino director Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing tells two seemingly unrelated tales: one focusing on a filmmaker who has spent years working on his latest opus; the other about a Christian cult leader in a rural region. (Six hours in length.)

MONSTER CLUB — starring Eita and Yôsuke Kubozuka. Having abandoned modern civilization, Ryoichi lives an isolated, self-sufficient life on a snow-covered mountain and sends mail bombs to the CEOs of corporations and TV networks. One day, he encounters a mysterious creature in the forest. That night, his older brother, who had committed suicide, appears before him at his cabin. The apparition takes Ryoichi beyond a door, where Ryoichi learns the truth about his family.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN — starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. A suspenseful and psychologically gripping exploration into a parent dealing with her child doing the unthinkable.

KEYHOLE — starring Jason Patric and Isabella Rossellini. Idiosyncratic, cheeky and uncategorizable, the films of Guy Maddin are testaments to the singular vision of a great contemporary cinema artist, and Keyhole may be his boldest film yet. A surreal indoor odyssey of one man, Ulysses Pick  struggling to reach his wife in her bedroom upstairs, this hypnotic dreamlike journey bewilders and captivates.

CUT — starring Hidetoshi Nishijima and co-written by Shinji Aoyama. An obsessive young filmmaker becomes a human punching bag to pay off the yakuza loans that financed his films. A love poem to cinema classics from the acclaimed director of The Runner, Vegas: Based on a True Story, and A,B,C…Manhattan.

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS — starring Mathieu Amalric and Isabella Rossellini. Tehran, 1958: Nasser Ali Khan, the most celebrated violin player, has his beloved instrument broken. Unable to find another to replace it, life without music seems intolerable. He stays in bed and slips further and further into his reveries from his youth to his own children’s futures. Over the course of the week that follows, and as the pieces of this captivating story fall into place, we understand his poignant secret and the profundity of his decision to give up life for music and love.

HIMIZU — starring Megumi Kagurazaka and Denden. The story is about a teenager who aspires to be ‘ordinary’ within a world of chaos. Following an incident that can never be erased from his life, his wish becomes something impossible to achieve, turning him into a person obsessed to sanction evil people in society.

FOOTNOTE — starring Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar-Aba. This story chronicles the outcome of a great rivalry between a father and son, both professors in the Talmud department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Halfway Awards: 2011

I’ve not been reviewing much, and I don’t think I really will be for the next little while (though perhaps when I rewatch The Tree Of Life I’ll do one up), but here’s some superfluity. Going by US release to make this a far more interesting affair than it would be if I were to exclude, say, HaHaHa.

Bal (Honey)
Meek’s Cutoff
Midnight In Paris

Mitsuru Fukikoshi – Cold Fish
Benoit Magimal – Little White Lies

Hunter McCracken – The Tree Of Life
Cristi Puiu – Aurora
Jun-Sang Yu – HaHaHa

Marion Cotillard – Little White Lies
Liana Liberto – Trust
Takako Matsu – Confessions
Michelle Williams – Meek’s Cutoff
Jeong-hie Yun – Poetry

Michael Fassbender – Jane Eyre
Ryu Kohata – City of Life and Death
Brad Pitt – The Tree Of Life

Corey Stoll – Midnight In Paris
Christoph Waltz – Water For Elephants

Jessica Chastain – The Tree Of Life
Zoe Kazan – Meek’s Cutoff
Melanie Lynskey – Win Win
Maria Popistasu – Tuesday, After Christmas
Moon So-ri – HaHaHa

Woody Allen – Midnight In Paris
Benjamin Heisenberg – The Robber
Semih Kaplanoglu – Bal (Honey)
Cristi Puiu – Aurora
Kelly Reichardt – Meek’s Cutoff

Bal (Semih Kaplanoglu)

Cold Fish (Shion Sono)
HaHaHa (Sang-soo Hong)
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt + Jonathan Raymond)
Midnight In Paris (Woody Allen)

Not good enough to even try.

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.