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.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

SLIFF 2014: The Overnighters

Title: The Overnighters
Country: US
Rating: 9.5
                The best documentary I saw at the festival, or anywhere else this year, comes from a rather unlikely place: Williston, North Dakota. There thousands of diverse, desperate, often brave and frequently troubled men have descended from all over the world to make their fortunes, and very often risk their lives, in the booming gas and oil extraction industry.  But the small rather rigidly conservative community isn’t exactly pleased with the inbound hoards, an iterant population whose legacy is environmental degradation, escalating crime rates and an insuperable housing crisis.
                But local pastor Jay Reinke takes pity on these strangers, inviting them to sleep in his church, eat at his table and find consolation in his ministry. He calls them the overnighters. So many flock to his building that they have to sleep in their cars in the parking lot. His church’s regular members are, unsurprisingly, overwhelming against his Christian charity and want nothing to do with these men, who they regard as trash at best and criminals at worst. In truth, many of them do have police records, but Reinke believes in giving them a second chance and points out that sinners are those who need saving most. When he finds out that an unregistered sex offender is staying in the church he realizes that he could lose his job, and makes the tough call to move the man into his own home (after a family meeting with his wife and daughters), rather than risk the bad press rebounding on the church itself.
                The film also follows several of the men. Reinke’s ex-convict right-hand man who finds new purpose in administering the overnighters program. A young guy, the first to leave his home town, who is rapidly promoted to supervisor because of his hard work and reliability. A man who leave his wife and kid in Kentucky and builds his own house from scratch in preparation for their reunion. And many of the overnighters who, after years of neglect, suspicion and rejection, find comfort and understanding.
                But it all crumbles to dust. There are few happy endings in Williston. This is a heartbreaking film, where you see the incredible possibilities of providing hope but also the rarely shown pain of taking it away. Reinke, reflecting in hindsight on his personal and vocational failings, ends by dubbing his overnighters ‘broken men’ and considering himself the most broken of all. I have rarely been so devastated as I was watching his good works come undone.
                I will mention that I have a fleeting connection to Williston. I few years back I lived in Rock Springs, WY, for reasons associated with the natural gas boom, and pretty much hated my life. When the vagaries of the industry took me to Williston, I remember thinking that this was a place even worse off, and that’s saying something. Watching The Overnighters made me ashamed that my reaction to the misery and exploitation (both human and environmental) that I saw was so self-interested; I just wanted to leave, to get away. A man like Jay Reinke, even with all his not-inconsiderable flaws, tried to do a whole lot more.

SLIFF 2014: The Major

Title: The Major
Country: Russia
Rating: 5.5
                Police commander Sergei Sobolev gets the call that his wife is in labor and rushes through the winter streets to the hospital weaving in and out of traffic. He spins out of control, both literally and figuratively, at a remote bus stop, killing a young boy in front of his mother. Horrified more by the legal consequences for himself than about the magnitude of the mother’s loss, he calls in his pals on the force and arranged to cover up the crime. The parents don’t take this sitting down and a fellow officer ends up dead in a tense police station standoff.
                [Spoiler paragraph] Sergei repents of his crime, rather tardily, after realizing that his partner, Pavel (played by the director Yuri Bykov, who gives the film’s standout performance), plans to kill the mother before she can testify against them. He becomes her unlikely rescuer as the two try to lay low until Internal Affairs can arrive. But Pavel won’t leave them alone, and gives Sergei a terrible choice: either the woman dies, or his wife does.
                The Major is a cop movie with a lot more on its mind than most. While a lot of cop movies deal with police corruption, few start with the hero being so unsympathetically corrupt himself. This makes Sergei rather fascinating, but it also makes his later conversion rather implausible, even inexplicable. The more the moral high ground shifted around, the more the story intrigued me, but the character’s psychology escaped me. A found the ending to be powerful, but strangely unconvincing.
                What The Major could probably use is a lot more talking and a lot less shouting. Characters express themselves in brooding silences and sudden outbursts rather than in conversations. Cop movies have taught me that this is just the way cops are, both in the US and apparently in Russia, but I could have used something more humanizing.
                I’m probably unfairly lukewarm about The Major because I saw the far more audacious ex-Soviet corruption expose drama The Tribe a few days earlier (review coming soon!), and by comparison the former is pretty tame and conventional. But still, there is some good material here and a willingness to tweak the established cop movie formulas in a meaningful way.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

SLIFF 2014: Listening

Title: Listening (2014)
Country: US
Rating: 6
                What if you could read people’s minds? Would you want to? What if someone could read your mind… or plant thoughts into it? What would it mean for privacy NS free will? Would you trust people more or less?
                David and Ryan are graduate students working on a thought-to-text program. You attach a device to your skull and think clear, simple words and a software program matches the readings from your brain with a dictionary of recognized patterns. They are getting fairly promising results, but are broke, relying on stolen equipment and dealing with a lot of personal problems: Ryan’s dying grandmother, David’s limping marriage. Enter Jordan, a beautiful blonde with a neurochemistry degree, who turns the heads of both men in more ways than one and gives them the breakthrough they need. Realizing that no computer is powerful enough to process all the data going through a brain in realtime, they switch to the only thing that can: another brain. They will send thoughts, one-way only, from one mind to another. Technologically-assisted telepathy.
                But knowing each other’s thoughts has dangers of its own, and plenty of powerful forces are interested in their work for their own ends.
                In the days of Twilight Zone and Astounding magazine, sci-fi was all about good ideas. Thought experiments. Explorations into the unknown. Many of the best works took up an intriguing thread and kept us rapt while the author followed it through to its logical conclusions. Writers and readers alike didn’t worry much about style or character development. Listening kind of reminds me of that. Not that the writing, characters or filmcraft are bad, but an appreciation for low-budget constraints and a healthy suspension of disbelief will definitely help you enjoy the movie.
                First time director Khalil Sullins follows in the footsteps of Aronofsky’s Pi and Carruth’s Primer in terms of showing indie inventions going wrong, and he seems to have an ear for the language and eye for the laboratory life of scientists and engineers. The acting is rough around the edges, the villain pointlessly cliché and the thriller elements don’t do the sci-fi bits justice, but my biggest complaint is also a kind of compliment: the premise is so good I wish it’d been explored in even greater depth, especially the interpersonal friction of a tightknit group uncomfortably aware of each other’s resentments, fantasies, fears and desires.

SLIFF 2014: Human Capital

Title: Human Capital
Country: Italy
Score: 7
                Like other great Italian works I could name, this one starts with two families: The Bernachis and the Ossolas. Giovanni Bernachi is an obscenely wealthy financial funds manager and his wife Carla is a former actress trying to rescue a historically important theater. Dino Ossola runs a small real estate business and is comfortably middle-class, but with upward aspirations. His wife is a school counselor. Their kids, Massimilano and Serena, are dating. Dino and Giovanni start to play tennis regularly. On the strength of their inchoate friendship, perhaps overstated, Dino asks if he can buy into Giovanni’s fund, but the move proves disastrous. Meanwhile Serena and valedictorian near-miss Massimiliano drift apart, and she finds herself more interested in one of her mother’s cases, student-artist and self-described f*ck-up Luca. Somewhere in the middle of all this is a dead cyclist, driven off the road by an SUV owned by the Bernachis. Identifying the driver is the name of the game.
                The best thing about Human Capital is its Rashomon-style structure. We see the same time period through the eyes of first Dino, then Carla and finally Serena. The murder mystery element keeps the stakes high, but it is hardly necessary; the families themselves are such a tangled mess of personalities, psychoses and interactions that they hold our interest in their own right. Seeing their actions first and then learning their earlier motivations or later consequences is quite fun.
                Unfortunately, the large cast of characters and the need to cover the same ground multiple times is a mixed blessing, and too many of the central players don’t have time to be fully developed. Their roles are a little too prescribed (the rich jerk husband, the bored housewife, the gauche social climber, the rebellious teen) to feel completely real.
                Director Paolo Virzi ends his film on a strange note. On one hand he lets all his characters off the hook (which I have problems with) and on the other hand he gives us some white text on black background explaining what human capital means (which is way too heavy handed). I’m not sure the presumed theme, of how callous society has become when human lives and filthy lucre are weighed on the same scale, should have been the film’s marquee. This idea has been worked through in movies many times before and better. It’s especially sad because Human Capital has a much better theme going: the way we, rich or poor, get so caught up in our own problems that we remain blind to the problems of others.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

SLIFF 2014: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Title: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Country: Iran
Rating: 8.5
                Have you ever been to the Iranian netherworld of Bad City? No? Well it’s awesome! Black and white, ultra-hip, throbbing with 80’s music and vintage cars. Of course, it is ravaged by plague, haunted by vampires and burdened by drugs, crime and male violence. But nowhere is perfect.
                I could talk to you about plot. There’s a young guy who appropriates a cat. And this cat gives a great performance! And the dude’s trying to pay off his dad’s debts, the legacy of an opium addiction. He meets a rich girl and something starts to spark, but he steals her earrings instead of her heart. The girl he falls for next is a bit more bohemian, and a vampire. They meet after he leaves a party high, dressed as Dracula, and asks her for directions. Every second of the scene is witty. Oh, and they have a prostitute friend in common. But not like that sounds.
                So yeah, the plot isn’t really the point. Director Ana Lily Amirpour is more interested in making individual shots and scenes work then in worrying about the big picture. That’s mostly fine with me. Especially since the shots, immaculately lit, crisply composed and tightly staged, are so incredibly good. That said, A Girl Walks Home isn’t exactly style-over-substance: the subtext here is frightfully loaded with delightfully weird feminist vibes and bristles with little daggers pointed at parental, patriarchal, political and religious authority. And even if I’m not really sure what anyone is thinking or why they do what they do, I like the mystery.
                This is a horror film for people who enjoy their chills moody, modish and a bit hard to pin down. It is destined for culthood.

SLIFF 2014: Elegy to Connie

Title: Elegy to Connie
Country: US
Score: 6.5
                In February of 2008 Charles Lee Thorton walked into Kirkwood City Hall and killed six people, including council member Connie Karr. Elegy to Connie is a grassroots, experimental animated documentary about the neighborhood, the shooter and most importantly, Connie, a hardworking down-to-earth public servant who brought people together and improved the city she loved.
                Elegy to Connie is up front about being an elegy, or even more accurately a tribute, which is both good and bad. It is filled with a genuine sense of love and loss for Connie (who ironically had many of Thorton’s issues at heart), a local crusader of the type that rarely gets the recognition they deserve. It also means that this is not an intimate character study or nuanced profile, but a reverential treatment of a private and public figure whose untimely death was a tragedy to friends, family and community.
                I couldn’t help wanting this film to be more though. It is so formally artistically bold (more on that in a second), and yet structurally and politically shy. The information on Kirkwood’s history is a good start, but feels light. The sections on Thorton and the shooting spree didn’t tell me any more than my memories of the news coverage. At a time when St. Louis is dealing with the Michael Brown shooting and having some hard-hitting debates on race, poverty, crime, zoning, city planning and corruption, it might be time for the kid gloves to come off. And yet, this film is likely in keeping with Connie Karr’s own style: a light touch backed by sincerity and conviction; an understanding instead of inflammatory approach.
                And now to the animation! This is where the film blew my mind. Director Sarah Paulsen, working with a very small team of assistants, has managed to present a sort of crash course of animation styles that writhes with creative energy and visual originality. Paper cutouts, photos, puzzle pieces, mosaics, stop-motion, traditional hand-drawn, wet paint on glass, etc., etc. This film literally brimming over with techniques, and fresh ways of seeing and yet they are blended together and united in tone such that the film never feels incoherent or disjointed. This is animation that is honestly more interesting than 90% of the multimillion dollar productions that come of big name studios and I hope Paulsen goes on to create much more of it!

Monday, December 1, 2014

SLIFF 2014: Diplomacy

Title: Diplomacy
Country: France/Germany
Score: 5.5
                August 24, 1944. Paris. Germany is losing the war. General Choltitz is planning to withdraw from the capitol. He has orders from Hitler to blow up the city’s great landmarks and grand bridges behind him, killing potentially a million or more in the resulting floods and leaving Paris’s cultural heritage in ruins. Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul, overhears the plans and sneaks into Choltitz’s hotel room to talk him out of it. What results is a verbal game of cat and mouse that will run through the night and into the next day.
                It a good setup, and the acting and much of the screenwriting work hard to do it justice. The art direction is strong, and the room where most of the film takes place is impeccably – one might even say too-impeccably – littered with historical artifacts. The problem is that the usually reliable director Volker Schlondorff falls into many of the pitfalls that so often plague both adaptations of history and of plays: he doesn’t have enough faith in the source material.
                The verbal sparring is the heart of the film and the focal point of everything Diplomacy does right: high-stakes tension pitched softly low-key, thoughtful debate ranging from the value of posterity to the balance of duty and morality, and a character study of world-weary but far from soulless men. And yet, presumably wanting to ‘open things up’ from its one room setting, these scenes are interrupted by a B-plot in which a message must be delivered to the demolition team. They, of course, regardless of the final order, behave senselessly so that there can be a little action and violence for the denouement that is both thematically and structurally out of place.
                Then too, the writing works much better as a showcase for the two central performances than as a truly deep think piece. In the first half of the film Choltitz’s appear to have only spurious unsatisfying motivations, hardly worth the defense he puts up. When he reveals in the second half that his family is being held hostage to enforce the order, it invalidates most of the previous argument (and one rather wonders why he didn’t bring it up first thing) and leads to a tedious debate about whether it is better to save your loved ones or faceless thousands. It’s a debate screenwriters love, but I do not.

SLIFF 2014: The Dark Valley

Title: The Dark Valley
Country: Austria
Score: 8
                Black-clad figures on horseback silhouetted against alpine snow. A taciturn stranger, calling himself Greider, arrives in a remote Austrian village that squirms restlessly under the thumbs of the six brutish Brenner boys. Greider is here, so it seems, to take some photographs. His camera, like a Winchester repeater that he stows in secret, is a novelty on this frozen fringe. But Greider’s real purpose, sealed away inside but almost oozing from his eyes, is revenge. Some men are going to die.
                The Dark Valley is a western that would drip with atmosphere if it wasn’t too cold for dripping. It has an immediate lived-in look and feel, albeit a time and place we wouldn’t want to live in, look at or touch. None of the timber is machine sawn. The dark, heavy and dirty clothes are hand-made and utilitarian. The snow isn’t fake; the actors (led by a mesmerizing Sam Riley) are clearly freezing their asses off.
This is a film of raw elements: water, wood, stone. Man, horse, gun. Even the characters are stripped to their essence, sans psychological complexity or explicit dialog. There are some florid touches in the edgy soundtrack and the arguably injudicious use of slow-motion, but mostly the film succeeds on its lean ferocity.
The first half of Dark Valley is a patient exercise in mounting tension. Then the tension is released, in an inevitably violent bloodbath. There is a scene where the villagers are sending fresh lumber down the mountain, after the first snow has caked the flumes with ice that has a palpable sense of cold and danger and death. The shotgun blasts and swinging fists of the climax, well-choreographed as they are, just don’t have the same subtlety. But another might just as easily feel the other way around. This is a film with a lot to like in it and a must-see for fans of revisionist westerns.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

SLIFF 2014: The Congress

Title: The Congress
Country: USA
Score: 2.5
                Actress Robin Wright (of Princess Bride and Forrest Gump fame) plays a near-future version of herself. Out of work and worried about her son’s narratively-convenient illness, she considers an offer (from the painfully on the nose ‘Miramount’ studio) to have herself digitized so that a computer likeness of her can star in endless crappy blockbusters. After initially demurring she takes the plunge and for the next hour plus the movie switches from live action to animation. Fast forward a few decades and we find Robin on her way to the titular congress, in a bustling world of the mind where she will preach clumsily about the sins of media and commodification before a riot or a revolution or something breaks out. Then she gets rescued by a slubby animator and they fall in love and get executed and fly around in fantasy land with angel wings and talk in forlorn voices about how lost humanity is and then go looking for her son because she’s a good mother and that what they do. It is rather hard to follow and generally even harder to care.
                I’m a self-avowed fan of excessively ambitious SF failures (witnesses can testify that I’ve defended Interstellar, Southland Tales and Waterworld to name a few), but The Congress is so many drafts away from working that I wonder how production even got approved to begin. There are tons of ideas, many of them interesting, none of them fully baked. The acting is served up with generous portions of ham, all the more intolerably because these people should know better: Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, Jon Hamm. (Robin Wright, in her defense, is the least bad.) Only the animation has sparks of creative genius, but the futuristic world-building is ceaselessly undermined by the screenplays bitter finger-wagging at Hollywood studio crudeness, celebrity worship, corporate fascism, audience pleasure-seeking, virtual worlds replacing reality and other typical technology fears that you can probably guess.
                The director seems unaware that telling a good story can make these themes clear without literally having an authorial mouthpiece present them in a speech. Nor is there any sense that societal, cultural and technological change is complicated enough to have both positive and negative results. Instead we get a film that tiresomely points out how we are obsessed with celebrities, but which is itself jam-pack will ill-fitting celebrities. And we are force fed a lot of bad art ranting about how studios put out so much bad art.
                Go see Ari Folman’s previous “Waltz with Bashir” (I even wrote about it here), and pretend this shrill satire didn’t happen. Folman has demonstrated that he’s good with material that is close to his heart and his own experience, but this big, loud, fuzzy dust bunny of ideas does nothing but ruin a perfectly decent Stanislaw Lem novel and a handful of reputations.

SLIFF 2004: #ChicagoGirl: The Social Networks Take on a Dictator

Title: #ChicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator
Country: US/Syria
Score: 7
                19-year-old Ala’a Basatneh, a Chicago resident and college freshman, says she used to spend her time at the mall hanging out with friends. Now she runs a revolution in Syria from her computer. She still has friends, but now they are a network of activists, protestors and journalists ‘on the ground’ in a country she hasn’t been to since she was 6.
                Her contacts send her news, photos and videos from the inside and she posts these on internet outlets that many of her contacts don’t have anonymous access to and tries to get them enough exposure to be covered by the mainstream international media. She plans protest marches with built-in escape routes. She runs campaigns to spread awareness in the US. She brokers between various anti Bashar al-Assad groups that don’t necessarily know about or trust each other. In the course of the documentary she deals with the death of two physically distant but very close friends. She sees others give up on peace and resort to violence. Even on US soil, she receives death threats from the foreign regime. This is not an ordinary gal.
                For me the moment that really drove home ChicagoGirl’s shocking discipline and responsibility occurs while she is trying to balance her college attendance with her activist duties. She gets a text that a friend has been captured alive. Her job is to drop whatever she is doing, even an ‘important’ exam, and log onto their social media accounts (they trust her with their passwords), deactivating them before their login credentials are tortured out of them and their networks compromised.
                #ChicagoGirl as a documentary is interesting for two reasons: 1) because Ala’a Basatneh herself is so interesting and the disjunction between her and American teens as we typically think of them never gets old and 2) because of what this particular example of online activism implies in a broader sense about social media, nonviolent resistance, mass communication and political evolution. If the film doesn’t quite break through into brilliance it is because it tries to tackle both the personal story and the wider scope at the same time, but can’t quite capture the latter. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

SLIFF 2014: The Bit Player

Title: The Bit Player
Country: The Philippines
Score: 7
                The Bit Player is a day in the life of an extra on a popular Filipino soap opera. The film is surprising for the detail, dignity and compassion it holds for Loida, a single mother struggling to earn enough to pay for her daughter’s schooling. She wouldn’t mind a little bit of local stardom either.
                  However the majority of her job is excruciatingly dull and routinely thankless. As she says herself, crowds are important: they lend life and realism to an otherwise empty artificial fictional world. You can’t do without them. And yet extras are treated like talentless, brainless dirt. They are served lousy food and little of it. They are barely listened to, and then mostly to make sure their accents aren’t off. Even the very space they take up is resented, as demonstrated in an early scene where the extras are sent packing from every shred of shade as they mill about waiting for their scene. When it comes, they are faking farm work in the back of a cheesy bucolic romance; figures so small and out of focus that they can’t be recognized.
                It’s humbling, but Loida and her friends are good-humored about it all. Their fundamental likability and fathomless energy helps keep the movie upbeat even as the story makes it clear that they will never be stars. Loida has what she would probably think of as her ‘big break,’ but it doesn’t amount to much. Her celebration of this middling just-enough-to-get-by success, tainted by an almost overwhelmed by disappointment that she bottles up inside, is what makes the film resonate as profoundly real.

SLIFF 2014: Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain

Title: Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain
Country: India
Score: 6
                This is a fictionalized docudrama about the 1984 Bhopal industrial accident, following a range of characters in and around a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the days leading up to a chemical gas leak that kills thousands. The best aspect of the film is its fair-mindedness, asking viewers to consider characters and decisions that would typically be portrayed a lot less sympathetically: the consequences-averse CEO who built the factory up from nothing and really does want the region to prosper, the frighteningly underqualified rickshaw driver turned safety engineer who can’t say no to a job that would put food on his family’s table and provide his daughter’s dowry and an unselfconsciously manipulative – but in a charming way – journalist who has cried wolf too many times to stir up serious concern.

                But while the characters are often interesting individually, they fail to mesh, in part because the casting is so scattershot: Martin Sheen in full-on corporate American mode, teen TV-star Mischa Barton as a fashion reporter who contributes little to the narratives, Kal Penn alternatively glib and serious, Indian comedian Rajpal Yadav in a questionable dramatic role, some evil British dude acting generally callous and colonial, etc. Ultimately the film is competent and admirable, and at its best provokes both sobering thought and strong emotions, but it doesn’t particularly distinguish itself.

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