Friday, November 28, 2014

SLIFF 2014: The Apostle

Title: The Apostle / O Apostolo (2012)
Country: Spain
Score: 6
                During an escape attempt, a career thief learns that his cellmate once hid stolen treasure under the floorboards of an old lady’s house. After tracking down the location, tucked away in a dark and gnarled forest frequented only by weary pilgrims, it is abundantly clear that the whole hamlet is creepy. There are only six citizens, all elderly, sepulchral and suspicious, and they clearly have ill intent of their own in store for anyone they can trick into staying the night. Our roguish hero is too busy sneaking around in the moonlight with money on his mind to fall into their initial schemes, but he’s doesn’t escape unscathed. He eventually unveils the town’s dark secret, but in the process gets cursed by a mysterious ghost parade. His only hope of rescue come from an unlikely quarter.
                I love stop-motion, and if you also love stop-motion then go ahead and stop reading this review and make plans to see The Apostle. The character design conveys a lot of personality, the miniature sets are rich with gothic detail and the director sprinkles in some interesting 2D and CG animation sequences to mix things up. You won’t be disappointed in the way this film looks.
                Unfortunately, the story isn’t nearly as full of life and imagination. It has the feel of an old folk tale or classic ghost story, which while that lends it an air of timelessness, it also means you’ve heard this one before. It’s a little too simple and straightforward for my taste, and it often feels like the pacing drags just to stretch things to the feature length 70 minute mark. The villagers are so obviously evil, their machinations so easily overturned (half a dozen geriatric innkeepers, barkeeper and a priest just aren’t that much of a threat, especially to a strong young thief) and their secret so run-of-the-mill that it will be tough for adult audiences to get very invested. And yet it might be too scary, thanks to the impeccable production design, to be a safe bet for little kids. That said, the right type of kid (or adult) will love this movie, and I hope it finds its audience.

SLIFF 2014: Introduction

I’m going to post review coverage of the 2014 St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) over the next few days. Since I copped out of writing a novel this November, unlike so many of my more dedicated friends, I don’t have a good excuse not to!

This year I saw 20 films. It feels as though the caliber has only gone up (or maybe I’m just getting better at avoiding the flops), but as a result I’m grading a little harder than usual. I’ve created an overview below, and will post the full reviews (in alphabetic order) in what passes for me as rapid succession.

--Highly Recommended--
Stations of the Cross – 9.5
The Overnighters – 9.5
Winter Sleep – 9
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – 8.5
Zero Motivation – 8.5

The Tribe – 8
The Dark Valley – 8
Patema Inverted – 7.5
Human Capital – 7
The Bit Player – 7
Still Life – 7
#ChicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator – 7

--The Rest--
Elegy to Connie – 6.5
Listening – 6
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain – 6
The Apostle – 6
The Major – 5.5
Diplomacy – 5.5
Uzumasa Limelight – 4

The Congress – 2.5

Monday, May 26, 2014

Film Atlas (Haiti): Moloch Tropical

Country: Haiti
Title: Moloch Tropical (2009)
Moloch Tropical follows 24 hours in the life of fictional Haitian dictator Jean de Dieu Theogene (unbeknownst to him, they will be his last as president), while he prepares for a sumptuous Independence Day celebration at his palatial mountain fortress. Jean’s day gets off to an ill-omened start when he steps on a shard of glass during his austere, lonely morning ritual, sustaining a minor injury that will leave him limping the rest of the film. American celebrities arrive (predictably commenting, with vacuous sympathy, that it’s “such a beautiful country, but so poor.”) though, one by one, ambassadors from various countries back out and send their regrets. Jean, incensed, perceives these cancellations, particularly from his white ex-allies, as personal snubs that undermine his political legitimacy. He fails to realize the full seriousness of his situation, discernible on the televisions and radios around him, namely that a popular uprising is underway in the capital.

Michaelle, who despite her stunning good-looks is clearly a lot more than the trophy wife Jean signed up for, has seen the writing on the wall. A former American lawyer, her high-ranking connections have hinted that Washington plans to drop Jean and advises them to evacuate immediately along with their children. Michaelle has long since become estranged from her husband (not to mention objecting to his politics), but fears his violent rages. Jean gets his sexual gratification from various maids, a habit which is clearly well established by this point in their lives. His latest prey is, at least, savvy enough to demand he pay. She’s saving the money in the hope of escaping the country with her boyfriend, a dopey saxophonist who is, likewise, pressured into a sexual liaison with a high-ranking cabinet member. 

Jean surrounds himself with a conspicuous majority of women (the only two males being his most fawning yes-men), including the sadistic ‘Mother Theresa,’ general of a bloodthirsty paramilitary horde. It’s perhaps all part of Jean’s revealing conflation of sexual and political authority, his meticulously built defenses against his own insecurities; his fears of disempowerment and emasculation, of receiving hatred instead of the love he demands, of rejection by his people and peers.

One grows to appreciate that Jean, beyond the crimes and compromises in which he only dimly recognizes his own responsibility, is also the victim of larger forces. He discusses his lapsed idealism, his disappointing term as president and his humiliation at being an American puppet with a recently captured and brutally tortured prisoner, a former comrade turned anti-regime radio host who, through pre-recorded broadcasts, is leading the revolution outside. Meanwhile Jean's mother, a peasant ignored by pretty much everyone, sits with the cynical kitchen staff and wonders what it all means. The next morning the CIA arrive and force Jean, who has stopped taking his medication and spent a surreal splenetic night scampering about his jungle castle in the nude, to sign a prepared resignation and pack up his family into exile. As he drives away he passes his maid hitchhiking and hears a single gunshot as his doggedly loyal bodyguard shoots himself.

Moloch Tropical is a big, bold, thoroughly brilliant ensemble film led by veteran actor Zinedine Soualem as Jean and Sonia Rolland as Michaelle, both of whom deserve to be better known. The same could be said for director Raoul Peck, who’s been making tough take-no-prisoners political films in both his native Haiti (The Man by the Shore) and his adopted home in the Congo (Lumumba), but getting more-or-less ignored by Western audiences and critics. With his earlier films I think I understood why they hadn’t caught on. They were maybe a bit too earnest, literal, topical and geographically specific to reach international appeal. But with Moloch Tropical he has made his best work: a multi-layered multiple-perspective and yet economical deconstruction of power, corruption and collapse. The number of characters he juggles is impressive, and even more so that each actor turns in an excellent performance, makes larger-than-life figures psychologically accessible and contributes something new to say on a spectrum of complicated topics.

And yet there is also time for quiet character moments, too, where Jean, clearly an intelligent man despite his many faults, struggles with his conscience, his emotions, his longings, his speeches, his state duties, his broken family, his slipping sanity. A favorite moment is when Jean looks over his parapets at a corpse, a former friend turned critic, and almost falls before being saved from himself by a bodyguard. We never know whether he is truly suicidal, temporarily emotionally overcome, or just off-balance from stress, lack of sleep and his injured foot. We never know quite what ratio of sorrow, regret and guilt plague him. There are only these sad glimmers, visible through his official facade, that even he would welcome assassination.

The title, in addition to its referencing the cruel Biblical monster-god of the Phoenicians, is also a nod to Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s totalitarian trilogy: Moloch, Taurus and The Sun about, respectively, Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito. Peck’s decision to extend this series to a Caribbean dictator (and Haiti has had its share, though the film’s most obvious targets are Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Jean-Claude Duvalier) is a stroke of both intertextual genius and an insightful, innovative way to modernize our understanding of authority, and those who wield it; abuse, and those who perpetrate it. 

Major Directors:
Raoul Peck

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Film Atlas (Zimbabwe): The Legend of the Sky Kingdom

Country: Zimbabwe
Film: The Legend of the Sky Kingdom (2003)
In this visually distinctive stop-motion adventure, a trio of orphans team up with a pair of accented eccentrics to escape the underground gold mine where they're enslaved. After their first attempt fails they come across Telly, essentially a talking Bible, who helps guide them out of the city via an invisible bridge (a scene which introduces the gang to the film's central catchphrase: "Believing is seeing"). Once in the open air above ground, the group is aided by a variety of new friends: a teleporting bird, a forest full of kindly monkeys and a hooded man who supplies them with magical weapons and armor. They proceed to overcome a battery of obstacles and enemies, including a hungry crocodile, a smooth-talking chameleon, a sword-fighting baboon, a snobby professor and The Emperor of Evil himself. They triumph largely through their faith in the Sky King and his only son Ariel, eventually ascending to heaven in a chandelier spaceship.

The Legend of the Sky Kingdom is reminiscent of Veggie Tales, both of which are animated, targeted at kids and informed by an unambiguously Christian agenda. I've got extremely mixed feelings about children's movies that push specific religious beliefs (see my full length review and discussion from a few years back), but I'm unequivocal in my love for the film's artistic design. Director Roger Hawkin's didn't have much budget to work with, so he invented a technique he calls 'junkmation,' literally dumpster diving for the materials to make his characters and sets. His resourcefulness is staggering.

TV remote pirates!
You can't help noticing endless smile-inducing little details, which range from the cleverly practical to the creatively bizarre: arrow fletches made from origami playing cards, hyenas with alligator clip jaws, a spider villains made from an expandable tool kit with monkey wrench limbs. The latter's progressive shrinkage, due to his waning powers, is accomplished by switching in successively smaller caliber wrenches. And that's not even mentioning the more obvious set pieces, clearly labors of love: a baffling maze made of circuit boards, a tempting forest of candy wrappers, a beach umbrella island in an undulating plastic sheet sea and a desert whose cacti are melted toothbrushes.

The visual are sure to impress anyone, but the plot less so. By focusing on such an overwhelmingly metaphorical journey where each clearly defined chapter teaches a specific spiritual message, the story ends up feeling preachy and schematic. However the colorful characters, with their expressive if somewhat dodgy voice acting, makes it easy for kids to root for the plucky heroes.

The Legend of the Sky Kingdom, despite laying almost certain claim to being Africa's first stop-motion film, has never attracted much attention. At the time of this review it has only 25 votes on IMDB. I had to order the DVD from the makers when I first watched it in 2009, but nowadays you can stream it for $2 on Amazon (in the US), so if you're at all interested in the medium you should check it out. Similarly South Africa's little-seen claymation dramedy Tengers, aimed at a considerably more adult audience, is currently also available.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Film Atlas (Vietnam): When the Tenth Month Comes

Country: Vietnam
Film: When the Tenth Month Comes / Bao Gio Cho Den Thang Muoi (1985)
Duyen, a young Vietnamese actress in the local community theater, is ferried home in the waning months of the Vietnam War after heading to the mountains to visit her husband, a soldier. She bears a letter informing her of his death. Still in shock and overwhelmed by bottled-up emotions, she faints and slips into the river. We learn later that she was rescued by Zhang, the village teacher and an aspiring poet. He afterwards unwittingly discovers the letter while drying out his poems that tumbled overboard in the excitement. The two begin spending time together and strike up an unusual relationship, with Zhang forging fake letters home for the widow to help spare her child, Tuan, and dying father-in-law from the learning the tragic news. 

Duyen, haunted not just by vivid memories but by literal ghosts, is slower than Zhang to realize their growing love. Having vowed to keep her secret, Zhang can't defend himself when the village begins suspecting a scandalous affair (from their point of view she is still a married woman with a husband loyally serving his country), alienating him from the town and especially his well-meaning girlfriend. Zhang, dejected, goes into self-enforced exile. Duyen's father-in-law sinks into the final stages of his illness. Tuan runs away from home to find his dad.

Low-key and touching, When the Tenth Month Comes is a film about healing, a tough topic in the aftermath of a painful war, which nevertheless finds delicate romantic expression in Duyen and Zhang's unconsummated love. The film is also about learning to balance the sorrows of the past with the necessities of the present with Duyen's instincts pulling her in two directions: her undiminished feelings for her late husband compel her to keep his memory sacred and endure a sort of survivor guilt penance, while her youth and vitality draw her back into life and love. The film, though dealing with the heaviness of loss and recovery, guilt and innocence, honesty and secrecy, treats its characters gently and, though they are never free of problems, they are unanimously endowed with good intentions. In the hands of a less talented director this would, perhaps, have too great a flavor of official nationalist rhetoric, but instead it feels like genuine compassion and gives us a rare post-war film devoid of anger or moralizing. 

The characters manage to have a simplicity of spirit that doesn't rob them of the full range of emotional experience or the need to question and soul-search; they are given the time and dignity to work through their pain and confusion over the natural progression of day-to-day trials, and their transition is felt in scenes as explicit as Duyen's tearful breakdown during an all-too-close-to-home play or her dream-time search through an eerie ghost market, and in moments as quiet as a mother and son guiding the ascent of a handmade kite. The films is shot in black and white, with expressive camerawork that, along with the music, captures the warmth of daylight and the melancholy of nighttime with a lucid poetic grace reminiscent of Ozu or Renoir.

My Favorites:
The Scent of Green Papaya
When the Tenth Month Comes
Owl and the Sparrow
Buffalo Boy

Major Directors:
Tran Anh Hung

Friday, May 23, 2014

Film Atlas (Venezuela): Araya

Country: Venezuela
Title: Araya (1959)
For 400 years Araya has been the site of one of the world’s largest salt mines. A small Venezuelan town sits on tip of the Araya peninsula overlooking a vast stretch of sand, salt flats and lagoons where no trees or crops can grow. The community survives on fish and the meager income from their endless toil harvesting, transporting and washing salt. 

Araya the documentary begins in the small hours of the morning and follows a handful of families through their harsh, thankless daily routines. One family sifts, dries, carts, carries and bags the salt leaving it in 40 foot high pyramids that line the coast and await boats to ship it around the world. They walk barefoot and develop ulcers on their feet. The sun beats down on them and by midday they must take the long trek home for the only sleep they’ll get. In the night, they will begin again. Throughout the day the camera leaves them to follow a father and son harvesting chunks of salt from a lagoon, a group of fishers drawing in nets full of sea creatures and the women’s labor selling fish, collecting kindling and cooking.

Margot Benacerraf’s film is a major work, transcending the confines of the ethnographic documentary through its poetic sensibility. The lives of the people of Araya are intrinsically fascinating in themselves, and the task of mining salt, too, is interesting stuff, thoroughly explored by the film. Benacerraf ‘single-day’ structure not only clearly lays out all the steps in the process but gives us an insight into the mind-numbing repetition and taxing difficulty of labor. But the film itself is never mind-numbing or taxing, because Benacerraf’s graceful cinematography captures the alien beauty of the region while her editing gives us a holistic view of the community’s bare subsistence. 

She allows her camera to wander; to take breaks from its implicit ‘job’ to follow tiny but unforgettable details like a child collecting seashells for a graveside bouquet. The narration attempts neither scientific detachment nor angry condemnation (but make no mistake, these salt mines are exploitation at its most soul-crushing), and instead adopts a compassionate, lyrical approach towards understanding a voiceless corner of the world.

My Favorites:
The Smoking Fish / El Pez que Fuma

Major Directors:
Roman Chalbaud

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Film Atlas (Uzbekistan): Man Follows Birds

Country: Uzbekistan
Title: Man Follows Bird / Chelovek ukhodit za ptitsami (1975)
On a Central Asian mountain Farukh, a kind and sensitive boy, witnesses the blossoming of an almond tree and rushes home shouting with joy. The townspeople, less than enthused at being woken by news of this minor miracle, give Farukh a thrashing, but he’s rescued by a travelling beggar. 

Later that day we see that Farukh is the object of Amandyria’s love. Amandyria is a passionate and sensual girl who desperately wants Farukh to elope with her, but Farukh lacks the confidence to take the initiative and has his drunkard of a father to look after. Besides, he isn’t entirely sure he reciprocates her feelings. One night Farukh’s father passes away and during the funeral his creditors strip their home of valuables. Meanwhile, Amandyria is locked into an arranged marriage, and can offer the newly orphaned Farukh nothing but a little charity. He decides to hit the road with his best friend Khabib and the two hike across the countryside as travelling entertainers. Throughout their journey, roving bandits plague them. 

They finally stumble upon a paradisiacal mountain lake and settle in for the summer. After a flood upstream, they rescue a girl named Gulcha, a fellow orphan, and the three enjoy a few precious months of leisure and happiness. Both Farukh and Khabib develop feelings for Gulcha, until Farukh, sensing Khabib and Gulcha’s mutual attraction, bows out and continues his walkabout alone. Soon after departing he sees a dying peacock (their symbol of a happy life and a powerful premonition) and, too late, rushes back. Khabib is slain by a dishonorable bandit lord in an underwater duel and Gulcha, horrified, drowns herself. Grief-stricken once more, Farukh despairs of coexisting in a world where cruelty and callousness reign, until he again meets the beggar who rescued him from bullies a year earlier. The man turns out to be a great warrior and Farukh becomes his disciple, committing himself to a life dedicated to defending his country.

Ali Khamraev, a prolific Uzbek director best known for comedies, osterns (Soviet westerns shot in the Great Steppe) and documentaries, departed from his usual material to make this historically-set coming-of-age drama. Man Follows Birds begins as a neorealist slice of life, transitions into a fantasy tale, is shattered in the fashion of classical tragedy and finally ascends into the realm of national myth. Farukh’s journey can be seen as a metaphor for both the passage into adulthood and the rocky road of Uzbekistani history. Farukh is constrained by the demands of community, tradition and poverty. He breaks free by running away to live in harmony with nature and other like-minded children. Their inevitable fall from Eden is precipitated by internal tension, as their friendship grows into an untenable love triangle, and is ultimately destroyed by outside forces beyond their control. The final scenes, with their abrupt shift to militancy, imply a renewed sense of personal and national identity.

Khamraev was clearly influenced by Sergei Parajanov in his use of tableaux compositions, folkloric themes and surprising bursts of color (Khabib and Gulcha sleeping on a bed of yellow apples is one of many superb examples). He regularly shows us startling imagery from Farukh’s dreams, including an otherworldly motif of characters on black backgrounds lit by projections of flowers and ferns. The climactic underwater battle, devoid of dialog, is also quite wonderfully disorienting; a scene of beauty, confusion and tragedy all stirred together.  The film is thick with these visual flourishes, but Khamraev’s underlying compassion for the children and the genuine emotion in their performances, saves Man Follows Bird from feeling like a purely aesthetic exercise.