Monday, October 29, 2012

After Lucia (Philadelphia Film Festival)

Michel Franco's "After Lucia" is too insular for its own good, not bringing enough to the table thematically to attempt a small-scale analysis of bullying, or really anything in particular. The perpetrators seem pulled from a PSA. Alejandra, the victim of the harassment, is just as underwritten, and credit should go to Tessa Ia for gleaning any sort of emotional response from the audience. Everything is pared down to fit Franco's static style, which occasionally allows bits of tailored emotion, most of them courtesy of Hernan Mendoza as Alejandro's father Roberto ("a disgruntled chef," as the problem says, pretty hilariously). Mendoza gives the film some of the spark it needs, but all the same, even his characterization feels familiar. Franco goes for a mix of subdued and unhinged, but it all feels poured on, tired, and not really justified, including the apathetic and abrupt last scene. The film's aesthetic is predominantly trashy and repetitive, with a couple of nice compositions sprinkled in due to luck or motives unknown.  How this movie has gotten so much attention (the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, Mexico's cosign for Best Foreign Film) baffles me, and the more I think about it, the less sympathy I'm willing to give it. C-

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reality (Philadelphia Film Festival)

Having seen Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah" will not prepare you for his new film, this year's Cannes Gran Prix winner "Reality." It's pretty much an 180* turn from that grounded, despairing work. Garrone her shifts to a much lighter and brasher tone and a flashier style, drawing from Fellini and Max Ophuls to craft a sendup of trivial ambition and religious devotion. His greatest asset comes in the form of Aniello Arena, apparently an imprisoned member of the Mafia (whom Garrone may have found while doing research for his previous film). This may be the only film he's ever in, and he surely gives the performance of a lifetime, playing his Luciano as vivacious and awed and out of his mind. Uniformly strong, he helps the film through its bland setup and patchier sections to help Garrone bring his emblematic story to good fruition.

We first see Luciano in his favored habitat, entertaining at a wedding. He hams it up as a drag queen alongside Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a vapid celebrity who got pretty far on "Big Brother." Much praised for his amusing antics, Luciano wants the stardom and admiration Enzo has. His current life as a seller of fish and cooking robots lacks those things, but it takes the incessant pressuring of his daughters and the support of his large family to get him to try and audition for the show. 

Now, obviously, men in their 30s and 40s are unlikely to compete against hot and fit people a decade or so younger than they are. Nor should they: at that point in one's life, the time for lazing around in pools and fucking everyone in sight is most likely diminishing. But, for whatever reason, Luciano gets incredibly into the idea of being on this empty show. Following an audition where he said he gave his all, he starts thinking his behavior is constantly monitored. Previously focused on making every dollar he could, Luciano starts being more charitable, to the delight of his Catholic assistant Michele (Nando Paone). At this point, the film begins making clearer analogies to the pursuit of salvation. It follows this trajectory all the way to the final sequence, which I thought was transcendent but which will annoy or turn many off. 

The last shot (rhyming with the first) is a work of genius. Throughout the film, Garrone shows his range, carefully composing certain shots and letting the camera run often for minutes on end. He lets himself loose, showing a side that was unseen in at least "Gomorrah" (though I know he's made crazier films in the past). The music, too, is also key in determining the mood, and though it cloys at the start, it helps things literally soar by the end. Maybe it's a little dated (though it's kinda beside the point), and maybe it won't leave a totally lasting imprint, but "Reality" is worth taking in. Arena's acting alone totally validates seeing it. B

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Caesar Must Die" and "Simon Killer" (Philadelphia Film Festival)

The Taviani Brothers' "Caesar Must Die" and Antonio Campos' "Simon Killer" are two films about bad communication, hopelessness, and predestination. However, in how they examine physical and mental prisons, the movies differ drastically. The Tavianis possess a sentimentality and belief in transformations that Campos almost completely veers away from. The Italians also maintain a distracting artifice that ultimately undermines their film's strengths, while the American largely strives for verisimilitude in depicting boredom, sexuality, violence, and heartache.

Berlin Golden Bear winner "Caesar" follows prisoners putting on "Julius Caesar" in Italian, which means that Shakespeare's language has been translated into a different tongue and (for our English-speaking benefit) back through the subtitles. This essentially turns the brilliant dialogue of this great play into bad, blunt screenwriting. Sure, certain sections are preserved, but for the most part it feels watered down. This diminishes the experience of watching the play, which is a shame, since the production itself is well-done and strongly acted. 

Another huge thorn in my side was the bothersome use of what appeared to be staged docudrama. A raw documentary style, though perhaps impossible, would have suited this film much better, as moments of transcendence are made trivial by their probable fabrication. The whole film would have felt like more of a revelation if it didn't feel scripted; this is especially true for the bits that are compelling nonetheless, such as Salvatore Striano's devotion to his role as Brutus and the grandeur of Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar. But unfortunately the Tavianis pour this artifice on, in hopes of hammering their thesis into place. The film peddles some interesting ideas and stunning images (courtesy of Simone  Zampagni's incredible B&W cinematography), but the whole is repetitive and scattershot, if enjoyable in certain moments. 

"Simon Killer," Campos' similarly cerebral follow-up to his haunting and successful "Afterschool," was a real handful while I was watching it, but after the final monologue ended, it came together to hit me, and hard. Simon (Brady Corbet), its main character (read: definitely not a hero, more of a total asshole), doesn't deserve any of what he stumbles upon, but due to his charms, he continues to end up in potentially worthwhile situations that he continues to squander. He's on a self-imposed exile outside of the US following the dissolution of a stable relationship. He starts out pathetically lonely, aimlessly wandering to Parisian museums, listening to the same few songs, writing notes to his ex, hitting on random French women, and videochatting with his mother. 

He ends up finding a beautiful and hopeful prostitute (Mati Diop) with whom he starts to spend his days. Though their first meetings seem full of good (intensely sexual) chemistry, one can sense a rift due to their disparity in terms of French. One scene, where "Victoria" (her real name isn't listed online) tries to share a horrible memory from her past and Simon (out of ignorance most likely) doesn't understand, is devastating, and kept me in the theater when I was close to walking out. The film often doesn't seem to be going anywhere, but on closer study it definitely is, and it eventually comes into the clear as a work of repetition. 

The setbacks are technical mostly, as Campos is too reliant on empty, common Dardennes-esque formalism when he's capable of much more (take the long take of the opening monologue, the stationary camera during the first sexual encounter between Simon and "Victoria," and the shooting of a disturbingly callous scene in a club set to "Dance Yrself Clean"). However, I really liked the "Enter the Void"-esque psychedelic transitions. The whole film feels pretty empty at points. But I give Campos credit ultimately, as he pushes all the way to a dispiriting, wrenching finish where a stuttering letter motif is repeated for a final time. I can see why this film has only played sparingly since its Sundance premiere, since it angers you, bores you, and eats at you in an uncommonly unsettling way. Yet I see those things as more valuable than most of what "Caesar" had to offer. 

"Simon Killer" is ingenious in its slow playing out of a previously doomed relationship in microcosms for all to see and gasp in horror at. Campos, in his provocative way, stresses how important good communication of various sorts is (stranger/stranger, lover/lover, mother/son, brain/eye), especially in this increasingly disjointed age. It's the kind of film that you might have to see again, even if you can't really muster up the courage to do that. 

Caesar Must Die: C+
Simon KillerB

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"No" and "Leviathan" (New York Film Festival)

I've never seen Pablo Larrain's dour-sounding "Tony Manero" or "Post Mortem," but it seems as if his new film "No" is something of a departure. Both of the other films, I read, were set in the 70's, in Pinochet's rule and at the transition into it, respectively. "No" tells of how Chile took up the dictator's offer to overthrow him and ended up doing so with the help of some well-thought-out advertising. It's a fascinating subject that offers Larrain the chance to examine both the creative process (especially under pressure) and the idea of how to sell something in a respectable way. But "No" would be a much weaker film if it allotted screen time only to the side opposing Pinochet. Its greatest strength is a willingness to look at all sides of situation, and to see that these advertising opponents were much more connected than one would've liked to believe.

Gael Garcia Bernal's Rene Saavedra, the man whose audience-friendly ideas ultimately fueled the NO campaign, is also valuably not portrayed as a beacon. He's a cool, careful, cynical man whose family life is a bit of a shambles and who is nervous about risking his job to work with "Communists," especially when his boss Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro) is big-time Pinochet supporter. The relationship between these characters epitomizes the film's evenhandedness, and Bernal and Castro both deliver strong, complex performances. The film itself is an intricate venture, that looks honestly at motives (Saavedra wants to win this particular standoff, not necessary completely change Chile) and what it takes to appeal to everyone. Most importantly, this is a film that earns its celebratory close by looking at the pain that's been born and how much of a relief it is to try something different. Larrain's idiosyncratic choice to shoot the film on U-matic video (the same format as the ads Saavedra worked on) and edit as if he's directing one of those commercials is both inspired and a distraction, but it ends up feeling like a good move once the film settles in. B+

"Leviathan" by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (two highly-regarded young documentarians) is not a film you can describe easily. It's a movie that must be watched to be understood. That's not necessarily true of the talky and historic "No," or seemingly many of the other films at this festival ("Life of Pi" seems to be an exception, despite it being an adaptation). "Leviathan" is magnificent and monotonous, a focused work of sound and image that makes you aware of the fisherman, the fish, the boat, the bird, and the sea. It's so good, it may make you seasick. It contains some remarkable footage, both above and underwater, of the systematic catching, cutting, and disposing of various types of sea life off New Bedford, MA. There's also a focus on the wear that such a job puts on the fishermen, manifested in an unrelentingly long take of the captain slowly falling asleep. 

I can see why this film only was scheduled one time in the festival. It's more hardcore and stripped-down than even Frederick Wiseman would usually go (to be sure, he usually shot on land and in workspaces). The only audible speech is an ad played on the radio. As I mentioned before, it possibly could cause motion sickness. And it's as devoted to its style as Bela Tarr was on his similarly textured "Turin Horse." But I feel, even if it could have been slightly cut down from its sparing 87 minute runtime, that "Leviathan" is an example of true, pure cinema: an experience that can't be reproduced in any way other than actually going out on a boat. A-

Friday, October 12, 2012

Oslo, August 31st

There are two elements that elevate Joachim Trier's "Oslo, August 31st" beyond the normal crop of well-made, faceless festival films in the grim style of the rightfully sainted Dardennes brothers. The first and most important is the exceptional lead performance by Anders Danielsen Lie, previously seen (by people other than me) in Trier's first film "Reprise." He plays a rehabbing drug addict named Anders, and though it's probably a coincidence in casting/naming, Lie burrows in and does everything he can to make us feel for a self-destructive man whose potentially fruitful life has been rewritten by abuse. We pick up certain details about the past along the way, but credit to Lie for radiating the burnt out and cautiously optimistic demeanor  such a character would. The second factor that distinguishes this film is the flawed but fitfully extraordinary screenplay by Trier, who works from a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. The film's use of monologues/narration and observation of the random people around Anders shows its origins in the literary, but these techniques end up feeling wonderfully evocative instead of turgid and flat. However, these bursts of unlikely invention are ultimately unable to lift "Oslo" to a higher cinematic tier due to Trier's overall blank and restrained style that works extremely well in certain instances but leaves little imprint on the viewer when all's said and done.

My feelings about this film feel bizarre to me, considering how much I appreciated the way Trier told his story and how well I responded to the attention paid to the subtle dynamics between characters. The pinnacle of the film (outside of the aforementioned narration) is a 20 minute portion dedicated to a long conversation between Anders and his friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner, who reminds me a lot of Michael Shannon). Though Thomas cares deeply for Anders, he also seems to have been consistently hurt by him in the past. This is conveyed through Thomas' sporadic conversational arrogance and offering a recovering alcoholic and druggie a beer with his meal. It's a complicated relationship, and Trier steers it in interestingly conflicting directions. Outside of early scenes depicting a suicide attempt and a (close-up heavy) drug-abuse meeting, his style best suits this scenario. His oft-used slow dolly-ins build tension and beauty, drawing attention to his dialogue. And in this case it's devastating. I was somewhat disappointed with the rest of the film for never reaching the emotional clarity of this section. That's not to say it isn't depressing (read: it is). But it's not quite as heartrending, which is what I think is what's missing. B