Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.5

The Tribe

Eastern European miserablism strikes again in Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's "The Tribe", except this time its long-take gaze interrupts the lives of deaf teenagers in a derelict boarding school acting out their base intentions with little repercussions or explanation. Adding to the extremism is the fact the film disregards subtitles and allows the story to be carried out through its characters use of sign language. In between the sobering depictions of hierarchical violence, prostitution, and an especially abrasive scene that rivals the unquestionably tough abortion moment in Cristain Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", the film's subtle power comes from its silence. Emotions are expressed through small emissions of sound or the rapidly expressionistic thumping of hands and fingers as words are conveyed through the air. It's an especially unique narrative twist. That gimmick aside though, "The Tribe's" hall of terror these kids go through- partly out of economic strife and basic emotional indifference- doesn't quite rank with the indescribable, sad observations of Mungiu or Cristi Puiu because they're simply empty ciphers beyond their physical disability....or more specifically, they're pointed metaphors for the troubled situation of the Ukraine itself. "The Tribe" puts one through the ringer, but it lacks the residual effect of the sadness achieved in similar efforts simply because Slaboshpitsky wants to attack rather than delineate actual people caught up in the margins.


Like "The Tribe", Claudia Llosa's "Aloft" belongs squarely within the framework of a particularly listless style of filmmaking.... that being the heavy handed 'indie', complete with redemptive story arch, metaphorical allusions (Cillian Murphy's character trains falcons but can't control or return to his own lost childhood) and a nervous handheld camera. Remarkably, "Aloft" overcomes all these redundancies thanks in part to three strong performances by Murphy, Jennifer Connelly and Melanie Laurent plus a committed sense of time and place. Tracking two separate timelines in the life of Ivan (Murphy)- the first dealing with the tragedies facing his ten year old self and complicated matters of mother Connelly and the second jumping ahead in time thirty years when French woman Laurent comes searching for answers connected to the mysterious aura of his family- "Aloft" deflates some of its power through the awkward hand of writer-director Llosa as if she were trying to incorporate every gesture and feeling before someone woke up and tugged the slight Hollywood rug out from underneath her. Regardless, she aligns herself supremely capable of capturing immense pain in the faces of her three actors and what emerges is a moving and fierce confrontation between mother and son that kind of bowled me over unexpectedly.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Having not seen "The Fault In Our Stars", I can't attest to the oncoming rise of teen sickness weepies, but if that film is half as moving or sincere as Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl", then I'm really missing out. As the "dying girl", Olivia Cook is all bright eyes and a bundle of pixie love, so its easy to see why Greg (Thomas Mann) and his movie-drunk partner Earl (RJ Cyler) slowly gravitate towards her atmosphere. Not only does her sickness encourage the pair to create one of their gleefully anarchaic and no budget movies to her, but the film we watch is endlessly name dropping and half camera shot stealing within itself. Based on a script and novel by Jesse Andrews, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" penetrates the clouds of twee that often circulate the films of fellow homage crafters like Richard Aoyade or Michel Gondry by creating a generous core of attachment between its three central characters. Even as the finale wound to its conclusion, I had prepared my defenses, believing the film hadn't quite burrowed into my head, and then there's a moment between Rachel and Greg as images roll across their faces that not only establishes the grace and humility we all deserve to experience with someone in our lives but also emphasizes the unexplainable power of moving images and the thunderous sway they often hold over us.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Genius Sounds: Love and Mercy

Bill Pohlad's "Love and Mercy" gets two things right. First, it reveals the fractured genius of singer-songwriter Brian Wilson in two distinct times of his life without losing momentum in either section. Too often, the balance and dynamic force is weighed distinctly towards one portion of the film or the other, but in "Love and Mercy", they coalesce and compliment each other beautifully. Secondly, it exalts and analyzes the frustrated, creative mindset of a musical icon while he's still alive and kicking on this mortal coil- which makes the film that much more respectful. We can seek out, experience and savor the man's artistry without resorting to testimonials of his marginalized existence while the actual artistry was being created. Beyond that, "Love and Mercy" is an actor's movie that digs deep and allows the masterly performances of its principals (Paul Dano, John Cusack and Elizabeth banks) to convey the complicated, scatter shot emotions involved.

Picking up well into the Beach Boys' mid 60's success, "Love and Mercy" hones in on the increasing uncomfortable pause exuded by Brian Wilson (Dano) as their fame grows and a Japanese tour looms. Convincing his brothers to tour without him, Wilson shutters himself off in the studio to work out the now revolutionary melange of sound that would eventually bracket their album "Pet Sounds". Considered a flop in its day, pressured by other band members to resort back to their hit-making standards and emotionally stunted by his abusive and overbearing father (Bill Camp), Wilson's fragile and active psyche begins to fissure under the stress.

While simultaneously telling this story, "Love and Mercy" jumps ahead in time to 1985 where middle aged Brian Wilson (Cusack) is just as stunted as ever, both creatively by the monstrous hand of Dr. Eugene Lundy (Paul Giamatti, who can do this type of role in his sleep) and emotionally, such as when upon first meeting who would be his ultimate savior in life, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), he cordons himself off in a car with her and zigzags through a conversation that is both creepy and achingly lonely. Their relationship is the heart of the film. It doesn't overshadow the strong formations of mental sickness exhibited by young Wilson and Dano in an equally memorable performance, but it strikes at something more human and restless.

By blending both portions of Wilson's tortured life together as if they're happening at the same time, filmmaker Pohlad and screenwriter Oren Moverman elicit a fully formed and wide-eyed portrait of a cliched subject with fresh acuity. There may be a bit of armchair philosophizing involved, but no scene is as incisive as the first date between Melinda and Brian.... while opening up about his father, the camera holds on Elizabeth Bank's range of expressive reactions, followed up with a wry, half-hurt uneasy dismissal of "well, shit!" Lots of films have focused on the conflicted nature of creative personas well ahead of their time, but "Love and Mercy" shows us that paradigm and then allows something beautiful, besides the art, to flourish from it.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Last Few Films I've Seen: Soggy Texas edition

1. Tomorrowland (2015)- Take a spoonful of "The Matrix's" well-tread ideas of a 'chosen one', cartoon action sequences and George Clooney doing his best Disney-dad superhero figure, and one gets Brad Bird's "Tomorrowland". It's a good film, just ordinary and non adventurous fun for the whole family. If that's your thing....

2. Aloha (2015)- Filmmaker Cameron Crowe has some genuine things to say about the messy and intricate crashes of affection between people, they just can't be found here. Reviewed at Dallas Film Now.

3. Police Python 357 (1976)- Doesn't quite rise above its implausible French 'policier' instincts, but filmmaker Alaine Corneau manages to shroud most of the film in his dour, harsh vision, such as the central murder scene and cop Yves Montand disfiguring himself.

4. Two In the Wave (2010)- Hum drum documentary about the budding relationship and career trajectories of Godard and Truffaut. The problem is, it never tells us anything new about the duo or their circumstances that hasn't already been written about or discussed at length over the past two decades. Or at least for us nouvelle vague affecionados.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)- Holy hell, what a ride. I'm usually highly averse to the split second style of cutting in modern action films, but director Miller not only manages to create a cohesive vision of amplified violence and insane creativity, but the continuity of the action is splendid. See a body being thrown from a rolling vehicle one shot and there's the body falling in the background of the next. One of the great pleasures of the year so far.

6. Maggie (2015)- Slow burn and contemplative, and a film whose intimate drama is just as compelling as the melee on "The Walking Dead". Full review at Dallas Film Now.

7. On the Edge (1985)- Bruce Dern as a banned athlete bucking the system and running in a California race anyway. Director Rob Nilsson may be a far left-wing nut in his beliefs, but the few films of his I've seen respectfully and dutifully evoke a very specific time and place (Northern California) like the best indie filmmakers.

8. The Seventh Companion (1968)- Finally tracking down the first film of Alexie German's career (and completing my retrospective of him here and also here), I have to admit disappointment with his debut. The oblique nationalist references are there, but it plods along without the same caustic energy of his later efforts.

9. Kid Blue (1973)- Another long time track down, James Frawley's western starring Dennis Hopper as the title character easily takes the prize for most hippie western ever. Sure, lots of filmmakers "claim" to have made a hippie western (Monte Hellman and any number of z-grade Italians) but this one-featuring "The Man" constantly trying to halt Kid Blue's reformed status and a possible "free love" relationship between Hopper, buddy warren Oates and his wife Lee Purcell, sidesteps the veiled references and settles into 'hippiedom' pretty readily.

10. We Are What We Are (2013)- Devastating. Director Jim Mickle is the absolute best guy working the horror genre today. Not only is this remake better than the original film it's based upon, but it's a unique, measured pressure-cooker of a film that would be remarkable even without its gory accentuates.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Continuing the Strong Year for Female Rockers

New band Hop Along certainly rocks, mostly due to lead singer Francis Quinlan's sharp, pained voice that sounds as if it's going to shatter into a million pieces at any second. Terrific new album.

I'm not sure what else can be said about indie darling St. Vincent that hasn't already been printed in every music publication and online web source. Being a local girl Dallasite certainly helps in the exorbitant praise, but her latest track called "Teenage Talk" (from her self titled 2014 release)  is simply brilliant songwriting that encapsulates so many moods, sounds, emotions and remembrances that it plays like a musical memoir. Don't let her icy, choreographed stage presence scare you away. Just listen and absorb.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

70's Bonanza: Le Serpent

French filmmaker Henri Verneuil hit his stride in the late 60's and early 70's with a trilogy of films including "The Sicilian Clan" (1969), "The Burglars" (1971) and "Le Serpent" (1973)..... highly entertaining (and star studded) "policiers" that have yet to find their due in widespread distribution here in the States. The Austin Film Society recently included "The Burglars" in a repertory screening under the auspicious title of "The French Connection", but that's the extent of Verneuil's impact on American screens. Even though I love the frenetic pace of "The Burglars"- in which Omar Shariff and Jean Paul Belmondo engage in one of the finest car chase sequences ever put to film- Verneuil's "Le Serpent" is the better film of the bunch.... a cerebral, coolly detached spy tale that spends much more time on the diagnostics of a lie detector test than the various dead bodies that wash up along European shores. Like John Huston's "The Kremlin Letter"- which also trades in skulduggery without a hint of pretension- "Le Serpent" details the carousel of double crosses, political innuendo, 'spyspeak' and Cold War fixations with an icy gaze. It's only fitting that, in the finale, when head spook Henry Fonda makes a swap with the Russians to bring back a downed Air Force pilot, not only does the film's biggest enemy get off easily, but its prefaced with a line of dialogue where Fonda says the intel of the American officer in "explaining just how the Russians were able to shoot him down at 30,000 feet" becomes more important than anything we've observed over the past two twisting, convoluted hours. I can only imagine this nonchalance is apt par for the course in the world of high stakes spy games.
Beginning with the defection of KGB agent Yul Brenner, his information to the Americans (and namely Fonda) sets in motion the devious wheels of "Le Serpent". His intel- that there are highly placed spies in all echelons of governments around the world- kick starts a series of murders, wearisome eyes and urgent secret memos in both France and America. Philippe Noiret is one such agent cast under suspicion. British officer Dirk Bogarde, seemingly with his fingers in every cookie jar, plays both sides. Fonda is unsure of Brenner's real intentions. And all the while, bodies of agents turn up dead, others go missing and seemingly innocent photographs belie sinister intentions. All of this is handled in Verneuil's no-nonsense approach, refusing to telegraph anyone's actual motive and creating a paranoid atmosphere where anyone could be "le serpent" working their magic to eradicate the others.
I can't see "Le Serpent" existing in any other time period than the 70's. Echoing the later American thrillers of Sydney Pollack and especially Alan J. Pakula, "Le Serpent" is an arid exploration of the callowness involved in world politics. The basic sentiment of wanting our world to be safe, but not knowing just exactly how we make it so safe, continually runs through the veins of this film. It's a thriller, yes, but also a pretty frightening document of plausible denialability.

Friday, May 15, 2015

In Praise of Maggie Cheung #2

The following is an ongoing exploration of the prolific work of actress Maggie Cheung

In the Mood For Love (2000), directed by Wong Kar Wai

Probably the pinnacle of Maggie's western attention came in her fourth collaboration with filmmaker Wong Kar Wai in the elegiac, heartbreaking "In the Mood For Love". Widely hailed as a masterpiece, Cheung's performance is all body language, eye gestures, unrequited glances and slow soft finger movements to her mouth as she puffs on a cigarette. It's an extremely seductive performance.

Set in 1960's Hong Kong, Cheung plays neighbor to Tony Leung, newly arrived at the tenement, and the two immediately form a sexual attraction, but decide not to pursue carnal lust since they're both married and their social structures (plus the confines of stifling moral code of the time) won't condone such a relationship. Filmed in dreamy slow-motion, which only heightens the beauty of both Cheung and Leung, "In the Mood For Love" is a two hour tease, revealing that its often much more powerful to portray repression than all-out passion. For fans of Cheung- or cinema itself, this is required viewing.

Full Moon In New York (1991), directed by Stanley Kwan

Made just before Kwan's masterpieces of the 90's, "Center Stage" and "Red Rose, White Rose", "Full Moon In New York" feels like the blander companion piece to "Farewell, China"... as if the woman Maggie Cheung embodied in that film actually settled herself and carved out a respectable (and sane) lifestyle in the carnivorous city. The story here involves three women, including Sylvia Chang and I-Chen Ko, who become friends and bond while they deal with a series of problems ranging from an unhappy marriage to the pitfalls of couch-crashing in between acting gigs.

Cheung has the juiciest role, though, as Lee, a lesbian flailing against her inner voices and falling for a real estate buyer in the meantime. Although "Full Moon In New York" repudiates any explicit actions of homosexuality (instead lingering on a sole knee grab and an emotionally charged confrontation when her lover walks in on her kissing a man), Cheung does just enough to almost make one wish the entire film had focused on her instead of the marginally involving issues of the others. Sadly, "Full Moon in New York" didn't quite live up to my expectations- based on the few Kwan I've seen- yet it should be good for Cheung completists.

A Fishy Story (1989), directed by Anthony Chan
Suspect title aside (probably from a broken translation or blurb I'm not familiar with), "A Fishy Story" stars Cheung and Kenny Bee as neighbors who struggle together during the 1960's. She wants to be a movie star and he simply wants to outlast the local riots and get back to earning money driving a cab. The film starts off unsure of itself, but, as it works towards its slightly cliched but tenderly rendered finale, it builds momentum. Cheung, resplendent in all hues of orange, gold and blue lighting, is again wonderful. Plus, its use of The Platters' "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" predates its use in Hou Hsiao Hsien's tales by a few years and imparts the same woozy, atmospheric tone.