Monday, December 8, 2014

SLIFF 2014: Zero Motivation

Title: Zero Motivation
Country: Israel
Rating: 8.5
                Comedy is pretty hard to judge. I hardly ever see comedies in theaters because what the big US studios consider funny these days just doesn’t get a laugh out of me. I don’t think of myself as a grumpy person, though, just a picky one. That said, Zero Motivation cracked me up!
                A group of young women serving their mandatory military service in the IDF, kill time in admin positions at an obscure and strategically minor dessert outpost during peacetime. They compete for ‘world records’ in MS minesweeper, intermittently shred miscellaneous documents and jealously guard their most valuable possession: twin staple guns. The film is divided into several acts following Daffi, who is so desperate to transfer to Tel Aviv that she may even endure officer’s training, Zohar, a natural rebel and unhappy virgin who manages to destroy everything in her wake without ever feeling at fault, and their commanding officer Rama, a highly-driven authoritative workaholic with plenty of conviction and almost no charisma.
                This is smart, character-driven comedy with excellent timing, a brisk cycle of realism and absurdity and the boredom-born wisdom to recognize that drudgery and whimsicality are very near neighbors. It’s also a movie that genuinely cares for its characters, even the ones who it uses as the butt of jokes, while never giving them a free pass or excusing their bad behavior and poor judgment. Anyone who has every worked in an office environment, especially one cutoff from common sense by layers of calcified bureaucracy, will find moments of recognition and laughter.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

SLIFF 2014: Winter Sleep

Title: Winter Sleep
Country: Turkey
Rating: 9
                In the ancient and dazzlingly scenic cave city of Cappadocia, Mr. Aydin runs a hotel, writes a smalltime column called 'Voices of the Steppe,' and serves as landlord for pretty much the entire nearby population though he is so hands-off that even he admits he wouldn't necessarily recognize their faces if he passed them on the street. A former actor, he's also intermittently researching a history of Turkish theater.
                But mostly he talks... and talks... and talks. He talks with his groundskeeper/chauffeur, his dissatisfied and much-younger wife, his bitter stifled sister, his few and far between guests (offseason is descending) and, when he can't self-servingly avoid them, his hard-pressed poverty-mired locals. One of these latter is Ismail, a hot-tempered heavy-drinking man who served time for a fight that got out of hand and has had trouble finding employment since. After failing to make rent, his TV and refrigerator are repossessed in front of his family, shaming him. The incident takes place offscreen before the movie opens. Our story begins when his son, Ilyas, throws a rock at Mr. Aydin's car.
                Over the past decade the internet has been having some really great discussions on privilege, discourse and authority; the contemporary first-world expressions of power hierarchies and class structures which are perhaps more subtle than in the past but no less pervasive and powerful. These discussions rarely ever make it to the big screen and rarer still in forms that capture the incredible complexity and breadth of perspectives that make them meaningful. But if any of those topics are of interest to you, then Winter Sleep is a movie you will want to see. And if they aren't of interest to you, then Winter Sleep is probably a film you should see.

                But I hate it when critics tell me I 'should' see a film, so instead I'll talk about why I'm glad I did see it. It woke me up a little. At times I was Mr. Aydin, or recognized him, loathed him or sympathized with him, found him impenetrable or saw right through him and through myself. Mr. Aydin is a fantastic character, and his every interaction with the people around him are mini-masterpieces of mutual, conflicting and self deceptions. It's almost worse when he hits upon truth. His erudition has brought him little personal insight and less redemption, but it has brought him eloquence and armed him to the teeth with rationalizations for his ideas and his way of life. He's not quite unaware, and certainly not blissfully unaware, of his pettiness, vanity, cowardice and mediocrity, but he has largely accepted these faults, excused them and taught himself not to dwell on them. Instead he dwells on the faults of others (when he isn't completely consumed with his incredibly niche hobbies) and seems to think that if there are things wrong with the people he is arguing with, then he himself must be right.
                This film is 196-minutes and slow. But it is by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which for me has come to mean that it is worth the time and effort no questions asked. I won't even go into the cinematography except to say that it is every bit as good as the writing. I'd rank this ever so slightly below Ceylan's Three Monkeys, but it is surely his most penetrating and ambitious in a brilliant oeuvre that continues to mature and impress.

SLIFF 2014: Uzumasa Limelight

Title: Uzumasa Limelight
Country: Japan
Rating: 4
                Seiichi Kamiyama is one of those highly trained and yet borderline uncredited extras in Japanese sword-fighting films that gets bloodily dispatched, sometimes dramatically and sometimes offhandedly, by the top-billed actor. After the last great chanbara TV series is canceled, Seiichi's rather specialized skills are no longer needed, and he loses part of his pride and most of his purpose. Disliked by the company's new producer, he rarely gets roles even after the genre is revived with a younger, handsomer and trendier cast. Eventually Seiichi finds a calling teaching Satsuki, an ambitious and heartfelt young lady, how to stage-fight. She will have her day in the limelight.
                The concept looks great on paper. Casting Seizo Fukumoto, a real-life oft-killed 'Thug #2' and 'Samurai guard #4' in many films from the 1970s, is also inspired. But everything else isn't. The direction is flat and over-earnest. The look is bland and overlit. The story beats are predictable to the point of mechanic, making it easy to get bored since you know where a scene is heading before it’s halfway through. The young actors are not very good, just like the young actors they are portraying. This is a film that is supposed to be feel-good, but it too often it doesn't earn it.  

Saturday, December 6, 2014

SLIFF 2014: The Tribe

Title: The Tribe
Country: Ukraine
Score: 8
                Sergey is a new student at a boarding school that looks like it gets about as much government funding as an empty lot with a city park sign. Paint peels off the walls. Kids are packed 2-4 to a dorm room. The wood shop looks like a factory floor for exploiting child labor. And exploiting is definitely the right word, given what goes on at this place. The alpha males of this student ‘tribe’ bully whoever they please, sell drugs, mug locals and prostitute female classmates at a seedy truck stop nearby. It gradually and rather matter-of-factly becomes clear that the staff are in on, if not all of this, then at least the worst of it.
                Sergey initially takes his lumps, but earns a measure of respect from the upperclassmen and is entrusted by them with various gang tasks. After one of the pimps is killed, in a scene of expertly choreographed anticipation that is excruciatingly hard to watch (although far from the hardest), Sergey is promoted. He soon falls in love – although I use this word in the broadest possible sense – with Yana, one of the girls. She doesn’t exactly reciprocate his emotional attachment, but she’s seems grateful for sex she can actually enjoy. But since this isn’t the fantasy land of most onscreen romances, the relationship just brings down trouble on everyone’s heads. Appealing to a higher authority for justice is clearly not even a thought that would cross Sergey’s mind, since corruption extends in every conceivable direction that he could take. He has no other option then to take matters into his own hands.

                I’m giving you the plot first, but the plot isn’t what has the festival circuit abuzz over this film. Most reviews lead with this: all the characters are deaf. They speak exclusively in sign language. There is no dialog. There are no subtitles. There is no translation.
                One possible theory as to why is that most deaf audience members have to watch movies in this state all the time: lacking complete information; trying to piece together what is happening from body language and context. You will quickly figure out how, or you better leave the theater. And if you are squeamish, you probably might want to leave the theater anyway, because this is a very grim, unpleasant movie. But it is saying a lot about marginalized vulnerable communities, about youths coming of age in neglected corners, about living in a cutthroat society and an unstable country. And even the deaf, especially the deaf, will want to hear what The Tribe is saying.
                The intimidatingly hard to pronounce Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy is also a master of his craft, employing long-take mobile camerawork well-suited to his strutting, ruthless material. As I hinted at above, the locations are also spot-on: wretched cubbyholes of post-Soviet pitted concrete and tarnished metal.
                This is easily the most disturbing fiction film I’ve seen this year, but the fact that I can’t get it out of my head isn’t because it bombarded me with senseless shocks and grotesquery. It has gotten into my head and under my skin in the way that provocative cinema should. This may be a film I’m able to like more as I get a little distance from it.

SLIFF 2014: Still Life

Title: Still Life (2013)
Country: UK
Score: 7
                Still Life (winner of this year’s juried SLIFF interfaith award) is about loneliness and death, two topics most films and most people try not to think too much about. Even when films go after such downbeat material, they often treat it glibly. Still Life is a counterexample. Still Life is sincere. Very, very, almost oppressively sincere.
                John May’s government job is to search for living relatives, or failing that, friends, of people who are found deceased and alone. If he can find no one he arranges their funeral for them, often picking out the religious denomination of the ceremony, the music and the coffin (or urn), himself. He even writes the eulogies, based on photos and objects around their homes.
                John is working on a particularly tough case, a relatively unlikable and probably abusive ex-military, ex-convict, ex-husband named Billy Stokes, when he finds out this will be his last case. His job is being made redundant. His facile boss points out that John is notoriously slow and expensive anyway, what with his ‘excessive’ respect for the dead. Mr. May decides to go the extra mile, and manages to track down clues that take him to many who knew Stokes, including coworkers, lovers, fellow soldiers, bums and even his gentle daughter, Kelly.
                Both Eddie Marsan, who is sadly all-too-frequently typecast as a thug or villain, and Joanne Froggatt, who I love from Downton Abbey, give extremely sensitive and note-perfect performances. Though Still Life is a bit too monotonously respectful and gloomy for my taste, it does have occasional moments of quiet, graceful humor that worked consistently well. In fact, the film takes almost no missteps until it almost falls off a cliff at the end, with a twist that is clearly supposed to be bittersweet irony, but instead struck me as distastefully cheap. It sets up the films undeniably poignant conclusion, but my mood has been too poisoned by the tonal cost to fully appreciate it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

SLIFF 2014: Stations of the Cross

Title: Stations of the Cross
Country: Germany
Rating: 9.5
                Dietrich Bruggemann’s ambitious, challenging, rigorous Stations of the Cross is 107 minutes and only 14 shots long. You do the math. Actually, I’ll do the math: that’s more than 7 and a half minutes per shot. And if you are versed in Catholic trivia, you can readily guess that each shot will be structured around one of the events that chronicles Christ’s carrying of his own cross towards his crucifixion at Calvary. Knowing this is a slow, German religious-themed film is either going to make you run away screaming or play on your curiosity.
                The story is focused on a devout teenage girl named Maria (Lea van Acken giving one of the year’s best performances), who struggles with her ultra-strict mother and ultra-traditional faith. Preparing for Confirmation, her priest warns about such evils as non-ecclesiastical music, looking in mirrors and eating cookies. At home she takes care of her brother, who is mute and possibly autistic, and frequently clashes with her mother over chores, responsibility and the purity of her motives. Things get worse when she meets a boy at the library who invites her to his choir, at a church that allows ‘the devil’s rhythms,’ and Maria lies to her mother while trying to get permission to attend.
                One of the many things to Bruggemann’s credit is that each shot is different and engaging, even for the conspicuous lengths of time they are held. The compositions are obviously very strong (they better be!), but his blocking and attention to expression and delivery are also exquisite.
                Stations of the Cross is never patronizing, never lazy and never wastes your time. It has a fresh, intense immediacy and a deep respect for its characters, who in a lesser work would be quickly reduced to symbols. Instead, the parallels to the actual Stations of the Cross (which are displayed onscreen before each shot), range from subtle to seemingly incidental and several are largely open to interpretation. For example, ‘Jesus is stripped of his clothes’ is a hospital visit in which Maria has to take off her shirt for the doctor to examine her. Though that isn’t the main point of the scene, it hints at feelings of vulnerability, exposure, shame, defeat, secular practice railroading spiritual qualms, etc.
               I actually misremembered my long-since-lapsed childhood rearing and thought the twelfth shot, the powerful climax, was the last. When the movie continued I had my doubts there was anything left to be said. I was wrong.

SLIFF 2014: Patema Inverted

Title: Patema Inverted
Country: Japan
Rating: 7.5
                Super Mario Galaxy, Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014). These days it seems like everybody is attracted to gravity. Patema Inverted has its own twist on the popular fundamental force: Patema comes from a clan that lives underground where all the people and objects are pulled upward by gravity. She meets Age, a boy from the surface where people and objects are pulled downward by gravity. The two team up to fight Age’s oppressive government and end up discovering strange new places and long buried secrets about their world’s past.
                Patema continues an anime tradition of having strong young female leads exploring a fantasy/sci-fi world and overcoming an evil threat to their community, and while that specific formula isn’t new, it’s one that has survived a lot of worthwhile variations. Director Yasuhiro Yoshiura (Pale Caccoon, Time of Eve) doesn’t waste his gravity gimmick here, and the film does a fantastic job working through the ups and downs of opposing forces.
                The visuals really sell some of the ideas that would otherwise be pretty hard to convey: the terrifying fear of falling into the sky, how to interact with someone or something with a different ‘gravity persuasion’ than your own, the new possibilities in terms of fighting in or navigating through an environment designed in another direction, the difficulty of capturing someone you can’t hold down.
I really loved the way that all the characters in Patema insist on using terms like top, bottom, floor, ceiling, upside-down, invert, etc., from their own perspective. There is no ‘correct’ or ‘established’ gravity. Even the camera is democratic about which way is up, a move that is smart for a lot of reasons, not least because of the delight one finds in seeing familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. 
                Whether intentional or not, deciding to translate a ‘person with non-locally-standard gravity’ as ‘invert’ also means the movie is open to a very welcome pro-LGBT interpretation, but I won’t belabor that point.
                Patema didn’t knock my socks off, but it does characters, story and art well. I would only have suggested changing or entirely removing the villain. This one is ludicrous, lacking in sound motives and leaned on overtly as a crutch to move the story forward. In actually he only holds the movie back.