26 October 2016


Thanks to Travis Neeley for his second contribution to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser. This time around, Travis didn't exactly make a request, so much as offer me a present: he wanted me to select a movie that I'd already reviewed but had changed my mind about in the intervening years, and revisit it. It was an easy choice to make: my unreasonably hostile initial review of this film has been bothering me for years.

In fairness to those of us who got it wrong back in 2008, Speed Racer was harder to make sense of when it was new. To that point, sibling director-writer-producers the Wachowskis had only been involved in the creation of various adults-only action fare: the lesbian crime thriller Bound, The Matrix and its sequels, and (as writers and producers only) the satiric comic book adaptation V for Vendetta. Other than a certain joy in the freedom from physics that it shares with The Matrix, there's not much about the candy-colored children's movie Speed Racer that particularly resembles any of those other films, particularly when we move beyond the realm of narrative content and into the craft of filmmaking itself, in which respect Speed Racer owes more to the realm of the avant-garde than it does the tradition of classical Hollywood continuity practices, which the Matrix films still largely do even at their most bent (in fairness, Speed Racer borrows more from anime than anything else, but we'll get there). Eight years on, the Wachowskis have added Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, and Sense8 to their CV, and suddenly Speed Racer feels a lot less like an outlier: now that the sisters' career consists in large part of making visually overstimulating fantasies pieced together like a music video made according to the principles of Russian montage theory, there's at least something concrete in which to ground Speed Racer. Even as I concede that the editing (by Roger Barton and Zach Staenberg) is still a hell of a lot more difficult here than in anything the filmmakers have overseen before or since.

The film is an adaptation of the North American version of a 1967 anime series, the best-known work of Tatsunoko Productions; it is a show whose charm is no greater than any of the other desperately cheap animated series produced in Japan around the same time, though it has the benefit of a pretty terrific theme song composed by Koshibe Nobuyoshi to have helped keep it alive in the memories of aging boomers. It's certainly nothing like the kaleidoscopic orgy of color and shapes that the Wachowskis made of it with the assistance of production designer Owen Paterson, costume designer Kym Barrett, and cinematographer David Tattersall. The plot, however, remains essentially similar to the kinds of things that the show dealt with: there's this kid, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), who comes from a family tradition of race car enthusiasts, probably because with the surname "Racer", it was easier just to give into it. Pops Racer (John Goodman) is a designer and engineer, who with his wife Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) owns and operates Racer Motors, a scrappy little mom-and-po... Anyway, they're independents in an increasingly corporate-dominated industry, their reputation resting primarily on the ingenuity of Pops's creations and the legendary skill of their eldest son, Rex Racer (Scott Porter), who died many years earlier on a famously dangerous rally, the Casa Cristo 5000.

The film starts on the moment of Speed's greatest triumph: he wins a major race while just barely failing to take the course record held by his brother in the greatest triumph of his own career. This brings Speed to the attention of the entire world, and the sponsors are clamoring at his feet: the most clamorous is a gregarious slimeball named Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), who wants to make Speed the latest in his stable of world-class racers, and is willing to promise the Racer family the moon to entice the boy. But Speed is quite the traditionalist, and doesn't want to let the ol' family business turn into one more line-item on a corporate spreadsheet, so he declines. At this point, Royalton uses all the forces that a heavily corrupt sporting industry can supply - that's a lot of corruption - to bury the Racers under bullshit lawsuits and tarnish Speed's own reputation. Soon, the only way Speed can win back his good name and prove that Royalton is all kinds of pure evil is to team up with Racer X (Matthew Fox), a conspicuously mysterious masked man who can drive better than anyone else in the world, and Taeko Togokahn (Rain), the scion of another massive industrial corporation that makes key components of the very best racing cars, along with the support of his helicopter-pilot girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci). And as part of this team, he must win the very same Casa Cristo 5000 where his brother met his doom.

All well and good, if maybe a touch esoteric in some of the particulars (the actual conflict driving the most of the middle of the film - corporate gamesmanship, and the institutionalised corruption at the highest levels of athletic sponsorship - is beyond the ken of any reasonable children's movie, though Royalton is a hissable enough villain that it doesn't particularly matter). It is of course entirely inappropriate that this has a running time of 135 minutes, but I will say about the Wachowskis' screenplay: it is jam-packed with a never-ending array of stuff, adding and subtracting subplots and layering in flashbacks all through the first half-hour in a largely successful attempt to make sure that the film never slows down (as is, of course, entirely appropriate for a film with "racer" right there in the title). Not all of the stuff is equally good. Even allowing that this is a children's movie when you get right down it it, and children's movies have a longstanding tradition of beefing up the role of the Designated Audience Surrogate Kid, I insist that Speed Racer goes in for too much of Spritle (Paulie Litt), the youngest of the Racer brothers, a pudgy candy enthusiast and general-purpose awkward nerd, and too readily aligns itself to his perspective, despite his almost-complete lack of importance to any plot development. And it probably has a touch too little of Mom and Pops, though what movie ever had too much of either Sarandon or Goodman?

Regardless of all that, here's the thing about Speed Racer: seriously, fuck the plot. It's boilerplate with only the slight gloss of noncommittal science-fiction to give it any real identity, and most of the characters are undercooked - Hirsch is a charmless actor, and while Ricci looks amazingly perfect in the role of a live-action anime girl, she's given practically nothing to do besides spit out reaction shots, and the film offers nobody else to give any emotional depth to the thing. What the film offers instead is an astonishingly rich, astonishingly persistent arrangement of colors, shapes, and movement, filling every minute of the feature and several of the credits with an ebullient exercise in kinetic energy and pop art fantasy (the thing I got most profoundly wrong in my original review: suggesting that only about thirty minutes of the film was operating at this level. In fact, there's hardly a ten-second span where the Wachowskis let up on the florid stylisation). The film, shot digitally against greenscreens and then fleshed out with the most hectic world Industrial Light and Magic could concoct on an indefensibly large budget - well-spent, but it's here that we see the birth of the trend of Warner Bros. giving the Wachowskis a pile of cash that would never come back on the back of such a blatantly non-mainstream "mainstream" film - is full of every hyper-saturated color you could want for, eagerly sacrificing realism in favor of bold four-color skies and backgrounds. The early flashbacks to Speed's childhood feature skies the thick blue of crayons and houses standing as slabs of cheerful yellows against that sky, and there's no real sense of physical plausibility to any of it, even as ILM was devoting its considerable talent to making the texture seems physically tangible.

That's where the film's style starts, not where it ends. More than any other movie I can personally name, Speed Racer has given considerable thought to how the visual language of manga and anime function, and have put considerable, successful effort into replicating that language through editing and framing. I could readily add another 1300 words to the 1300 I've already written just talking about how Speed Racer is cut together and still not feel that I'd done a good job of it, while undoubtedly boring all of you to hell on top of it. So let's just try for the short version. One of the things the film does superbly well is to incorporate some highly idiosyncratic transitions, in which a foreground element serves as a wipe, of sorts: a character's head will appear in one space, and they'll walk across frame (or the camera pans past them, it's the same effect either way), and we'll see another space appear behind them, and they're also present in that space. It also relies extensively on graphic matches, replicating the shape and composition of one frame in the next, and on the audio version of the graphic match, in which a fragment of one line answers the fragment of the line previous, said perhaps by a different character in a different space. And so on, and so forth. The main effect of all this is the creation of an uninterrupted flow: there's almost no sense of the film having discrete sequences or scenes, just a series of events tumbling one after the next. It is very much the feeling one gets from plowing through a comic book, letting the images all blur together in an undifferentiated stream, and if it sounds a little tiring, it honestly probably is. This is a lot of stimulation packed into an extensive running time, and it doesn't really understand things like "moderation" or "the rules of human visual perception".

But taken in little, or even medium-size bites, it's marvelous, creating a perpetual motion machine that somewhat creates the impression that all those colors and shapes are falling towards us, or us towards them - somehow, anyway, we're diving right in to the overwhelming mise en scène like a dive into a Technicolor waterfall. The images are all a perfect evocation of the limited anime style that the original Speed Racer was made in: blur lines for backgrounds, dramatic angles of fixed-expression close-ups, strong poses rather than natural human movement. It wants very badly to look like a cartoon, from the swaths of solid colors everywhere right down to the jerky movements of crowds and the way that flashbulb flares are all perfect circles with a cross-shaped point of light in the middle. It's a movie that's simply joyful to look at, and that joy never lets up across more than two hours. It's just so much movie, and while I wouldn't want everything to be this over-the-top in every way, I'm deeply happy that this exists in all its shameless excess.


24 October 2016


A second review requested by Chris D, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

First, shame on me. I've known for years that seeing Battle Royale was a thing I certainly ought to do, and I've had access to it for a number of those years, even during the dark times when it was officially impossible to come by it in America. And for whatever reason, I never got around to pulling the trigger on watching it. Little did I know what I was missing: a multifaceted metaphor satirising the way that teenagers are treated by adults and each other in Japan and throughout the whole world hiding (but only barely) inside the skin of a rollicking exploitation film that holds nothing back in its depiction of violent acts. All told it adds up to maybe the best film about high school that I've ever seen - certainly the most conceptually and stylistically audacious, anyway.

Quickly adapted from a 1999 novel by Takami Koushun, the 2000 movie was written by Fukasaku Kenta, and directed by his father, the great Fukasaku Kinji, who was never to complete another feature before dying at the age of 72. It's not exactly a characteristic film for Fukasaku père, best-known for his '70s gangster films (and, to a certain audience, for his attempt to oversee the giddy, impossible Japanese-American sci-fi horror film The Green Slime, a 1968 multilingual train wreck that probably couldn't have been made into an effective motion picture by anybody), though the strength of his earlier work turns out to be the strength of Battle Royale also: intense commitment and untrammeled energy. You would never suspect that a 70-year-old man made this film: it positively hums with youthful lust and rage, as invested in the violent robustness of adolescence as any film this side of if....

The hook of Battle Royale is known so much more than the film itself that I wonder if I even to repeat it. But here it is anyway: at some point, owing to widespread student disobedience verging on flat-out revolution, the Japanese government enacted legislation popularly known as the "Battle Royale Act". What this precisely is and why it was put into practice are issues the film doesn't quite manages to cover - probably the only real flaw of note I can come up with - but it's easy enough to describe the effect: entire high school classes are scooped up and dumped in isolated locations. Hhere they are fitted with collars that have a small explosive charge just in the right place to rip a huge hole in the jugular, and told that they have to fight to the death. For the benefit of any pacifists, there's an additional rule: after three and a half days, if more than one student is still alive, all of those collars will be triggered. The overlap with the scenario of the book and movie versions of The Hunger Games are self-evident, though with the important caveat that Battle Royale is more thematically tight and focused and intentional, more willing to stare its concept in the face.

This, then, is the situation in which the 42 members of class 3-B find themselves about a year after an unfortunate incident where the whole class rebelled against the authority of teacher Kitano (Kitano "Beat" Takeshi), in an unfortunate incident that left him with a knife wound in the thigh. Now retired, Kitano is in charge of running the Battle Royale event for the 3-B kids, and his enthusiasm at the chance of using the official levers of power to get revenge on the kids is just one of the many means by which Battle Royale lands a few well-aimed satiric punches (about the banal evil of bureaucrats, that old chestnut; but still true). As for the students, we get to meat nearly all of the 42 students, some for only a few seconds, but a handful are clearly set up to be primarily important: Nanahara Shuya (Fujiwara Tatsuya), whose best friend was the demonstration subject for the exploding collars during the introduction to the battle; Nakagawa Noriko (Maeda Aki), the sole "Nice Student" in the class; Mimura Shinji (Tsukamoto Takashi), a computer expert who thinks he can hack into the Battle Royale system itself; and Souma Mitsuko (Shibasaki Ko), who is alone in not merely being okay with killing her classmates off, this seems to be an opportunity she's waited on for years. There are also two transfer students: the unspeaking Kiriyama Kazuo (Ando Masanobu), who's at least as good at killing as Mitsuko is, and Kawada Shogo (Yamamoto Taro), a keen strategist with a good sense of humor and a unique history with the Battle Royale system that makes him a valuable ally and possible source of hope.

The cast is indelibly etched: Shuya and Noriko especially, but there's no end, really to the number of finely-honed characters we meet in Battle Royale, including quite a few I didn't mention. Ever since its blockbuster first run in Japan, when it enraged the government and met with no end of rhetorical censure (though never actual censorship), the film's reputation has been entirely about its damnably visceral gore effects, particular in connection with the fact that nearly all of the bodies we see getting ripped apart, or otherwise having the life taken out of them, belong to 15-year-old characters and in many cases 15-year old actors. That's fair on both the counts of age-related cruelty and the enormous quantity of stage blood on display: this is a massively violent film, and I don't know that it entirely manages to avoid being celebratory. All that being said, the focus on violence shortchanges the movie fierce: this is an ensemble character piece first and foremost, more Nashville than Friday the 13th. These characters are vivid psychological actors, with conflicting personalities and elaborate internal narratives that we only imperfectly get to see as they all jostle together.

What Battle Royale does, in fact, is to take the torments and psychodramas and nervous sexual energy and sense of devil-may-care optimism of early high school, and drop it into a fantastic context so that its stands out more strongly through unfamiliarity. A metaphor, I called it and in part I had in mind that it was a metaphor for the interpersonal war zone of school, but even "metaphor" is overstating things: really, it's just a transposition of the exact circumstances of school into a violent battleground, heightening the incongruities that are already there. Metaphor is still part of it: a metaphor for any government that tries to over-legislate its way to healthy, well-ordered teenagers, and a metaphor for the very specific educational system of Japan, with so much more urgent, neverending stakes than the average Western student will ever know. But the beating heart of the movie is too real to be subsumed into a literary device.

It is clear, at any rate, that Fukasaku loves and admires teenagers (he spoke before is death of a formative event during World War II, in which he learned never to trust an adult, and how it influenced his treatment of Battle Royale). That is the thing I was not expecting of the film at all: that it would spend so much time slowing down and switching into close-up to learn as much as it can about the characters and their very teenaged way of thinking through things - idiot sacrifice in the name of puppy love is a trope that shows up more than once - from a position of absolute affection for them. The movie is, at any point, juggling quite a few elements, including a population of flashbacks that explain at key moments why this character or that makes the choices they do, incredibly proficient high-speed editing by Abe Hirohide, that makes the violence feel even more disruptive. But with all that it has going on, it never tries to move past the character drama faster than is wanted.

It's for that exact reason that Battle Royale is so effective as an over-the-top exercise in gore: it has made us invest, deeply, in the characters' lives. This means that when they die, we feel it profoundly. And just in case we don't, Fukasaku throws out one final trick: every death is accompanied by a title card reminding us briefly that this person had an identity, while also coldly reminding us of the number of deaths yet to come. It is a film entirely about the human cost of violence, and this is true even of the most enthusiastic displays of violence: there's nothing cartoony or absurd in any of it, just the very detailed and horribly imaginative depiction of what would happen to a real human body when this kind of punishment is doled out. It doesn't even need to be hyper-gory violence: one of the film's most deeply affecting scenes finds a quintet of students, having formed a cohesive bond of mutual protection, turn on each other almost entirely by accident, until there's not a one of them left. That's where Battle Royale is at its strongest: when it can make us feel, through all of the splashes of stage blood, the simple act of being human, with the attendant desire to be alive and unharmed as much as possible. The scene of scared girls overreacting and massacring themselves in pure fear, the sad suicide pact near the beginning of the battle, the look of disappointed shock on so many faces in the moment they realise they're dead; in different ways, these all get to the heart of the film, which is its righteous anger at seeing adolescent life cut short or even just needlessly constrained and corralled by rules and the pettiness of adults. It's a very special film, one whose genre trappings, though essential, obscure how universal it truly is.


NB: There are two cuts of the film: the 2000 theatrical cut, and a special edition with eight extra minutes of footage shot following the film's titanic box office run. Other than a flashback which gives Mitsuko a surprisingly sympathetic backstory right at the moment we least expect to ever sympathise with her, the extended version consists mostly of window dressing, and I'd be inclined to say that the version worthier of viewing is the version that comes to hand easier.

23 October 2016


At some point, I imagine it will get old to keep watching sardonic dark satires about life in the Communist days made in the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Bloc; they've been all but a cliché on the film festival circuit for as long as I've been going to film festivals. For whatever reason, though, they tend to be very good, and as long as they keep being as utterly terrific as The Teacher, I hope and pray that the genre never dies. Director Jan Hřebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovský have graced us with one of the sharpest, meanest, and most unpleasantly hilarious post-Communist satires I've seen in years, while at the same time expanding their scope just enough that you can never retrench to the comforting thought that it's only the Communists that they have in mind to critique.

The action takes place in Czechslovakia in the 1983-'84 school year; just far enough from the death of the regime that nobody was quite aware that it was right around the corner, but maybe close enough that the sort of people inclined to being miserable little mid-level toadies drunk on their own hint of authoritarian power were really going for it, because there wasn't too much left to be had. One of these people is Mária Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry), a relatively recent hire at a middle school in Bratislava, who is generally disliked by the rest of the faculty and considered as something of a selfish tyrant. Which might not be such an intractable problem, but for one thing: she's also the school's official Party representative, giving her an incredible amount of power to pursue her shabby little fantasies of control. Mostly, these take the form of blackmailing her student's parents for various favors and presents by holding the children's grades hostage.

The film takes the form of a meeting between the parents of Drazdechová's students and a pair of appropriately nervous faculty members, the school's head teacher (Ina Gogálová-Marojevič) and her deputy (Monika Čertenzi), with the stated intention of informing the rest of the parents about a complaint that has been semi-officially made against Drazdechová. The unstated intention is to secure the signatures of enough parents that the dreadful teacher can be reasonably ousted without any undue fear of political repercussions. At the onset, only three parents can be counted on: the Kučeras, Marke (Csongor Cassai) and Iveta (Zuzana Konečná), whose daughter Danka (Tamara Fischer) was a particularly helpless target of Drazdechová's wrath, and Jaroslav Binder (Martin Havelka), a loutish blue-collar drunk who nevertheless has a firm set of principles and refuses to give in to the teacher's nasty little demands; the result is that his son Filip (Oliver Oswald) has been forced to give up his wrestling practice, just as Danka has been pressured out of gymnastics. The other waverer is Václav Littmann (Peter Bebjak), newly arrived in the area and anxious to make a good impression: his wife, a genius astrophysicist, has defected to the West, leaving him and their bright son Karol (Richard Labuda) under considerable suspicion - Václav himself has been forced to abandon the research he was completing with his wife, to take a job washing windows. He has maybe the best reason of everybody to hate Drazdechová: rather than simply asking him for idle favors, she's been openly pressuring him into a romantic relationship. Opposing these four are the rest of the parents, operating from a number of motivations: belief in Drazdechová's mission, a willingness to overlook unsavory behavior as long as their kids get good grades, or just a whole lot of fear that Drazdechová's Party ties can make everybody's life agonizing.

As with any good movie, the appeal of The Teacher isn't simply in what story is being told, but how it's being told. Here, Jarchovský offers an elegant little puzzle box, perfectly simple in its complexity: the stories of the three main children are told in parallel to their parents' humiliating attempts to sway the mood of the room against Drazdechová, overlapping with each other and filling in each other's gaps, and generally making a little bit of a game of uncovering the full extent of Drazdechová's wickedness with the same sense of dawning horror that the parents themselves feel (the film editor, Vladimír Barák, does an extraordinary job of matching the two timelines up points where the images and narrative momentum echo in each plotline in wonderfully intuitive ways). That is to say, there proves to be one major incident that triggered this meeting, and the whole room knows what it is, but The Teacher makes us wait for it: indeed, it makes us wait to even realise that there's information we're being deprived of. And that waiting neatly makes us work to clarify our feelings about the teacher, just as her antagonists do.

When it's not being a nifty structural game, The Teacher gets by on being a hell of a great satire, doing a wonderful job of depicting how easy it is to abuse the system for a person who lacks any sort of moral center, and even more wonderfully depicting the hopelessness of the parents for whom this kind of abuse is so much a part of life that it's hard to even imagine fighting it. Naturally, a great deal of this comes down to the character of Drazdechová, who is an impressive piece of writing to start with, all passive-aggressive sugar and unctuousness, brought to life by Mauréry in a sublime performance of smiling meanness. It's not the most nuanced or creative performance in the world - she is, to all intents and purposes, Communist Dolores Umbridge, and Mauréry plays her with a lot of the same tricks Imelda Staunton used in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - but endlessly delightful and impossible to get around; every time we think that we'll stopped being appalled by the character, Mauréry throws just a hint more acidity into her portrayal.

It's not exactly new in any way, but Hřebejk keeps the spiky, cutting humor flowing, and the film's handful of missteps (the repetitive dialogue in the middle, an odd decision to do "where are they now?" cards for the three children) are certainly swallowed up by the things it does so damn right, like it's exhaustingly snug editing, impressive depiction of social pressure, and a great final scene that caustically points out that Drazdechová's brand of small-minded control was given a certain shape by Communism, but was not invented by it and outlived that system's collapse. It even earns a crowd-pleasing ending that by all rights should be entirely hokey. I don't know that it's any likelier to have an extensive second life than any of its genre stablemates (this kind of movie tends to disappear once its festival run is over), but it's certainly as good as or better than anything similar I've seen in a long while.


22 October 2016


Moonlight is one kind of thing I do not like much at all: a coming-of-age story involving the protagonist's sexual awakening (it is, to be fair, an excellent one; but it's my least-favorite genre in narrative art. Consider my bias fully disclosed). It is also one thing I like very much: a structural experiment, in which giant time jumps are used to move us through enormously consequential developments in the life of the main character and the supporting cast alike. The effect isn't that we're meant to solve it like a puzzle, figuring out what happened when we weren't looking; it's much more to quietly insist that, whatever might have happened, these moments where we spend time with him are what really matter, and no matter how much we might be frustrated by the apparent elisions, they're not what the character cares about, so we just need to get over it. I entirely adore this, but not nearly enough to put the film anywhere near the hallowed title, "Best of the Year", which I mention just to forewarn you that by the standards of the rapturous reception the film has received so far, I think that this 8/10 review is still enough to make me count as a "hater".

Expanded from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight a story of three African-American men, who all happen to be the same person. In the first of the roughly equal-length, non-overlapping segments, the film touches upon the 9-year-old child Chiron, known to the few people who have any idea he exists as Little (Alex Hibbert), a quasi-orphan in Miami who is found one day by a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take Little in and as much as they can offer him the shelter and affection that are both deprived to him by his mother Paula (Naomie Harris). Also providing aid and comfort is fellow boy Kevin (Jaden Piner), who is a proper little pint-size tough man in all the places that Little is tentative and delicate, and who provides Little with the advice and tools he needs to survive a hard world of bullies and cruelty. Seven years later, Chiron is going by his given name (and is played by Ashton Sanders), when he and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) cross paths again, this time with a charge of sexual attraction: years after being attacked by the other kids for being in some indistinct way unmanly, Chiron is starting to figure out that he's gay, and Kevin has come along at just the right time to help him work out those feelings and experience physical love for the first time (the boys kiss; it's not clear exactly how far they go beyond that). Many years later, Chiron has embraced the most stereotypical persona of African-American masculinity he can muster up, with gold-capped teeth and all, and is going by the blunt-force nickname Black (Trevante Rhodes). But when the camera moves in close, we can still see the boy-that-was in his eyes - as, indeed, writer-director Barry Jenkins has indicated that he cast the three roles based primarily on seeing similarities in the three actors' eyes; and while they only kind of look alike (Sanders looks absolutely nothing like Hibbert and Rhodes), it's impossible not to sense the shared spirit moving between them. Anyway, Black and Kevin (André Holland) end up meeting once more, and to say anything else would be very shabby, though it's not a typical ending or easy way out that Jenkins gives the characters or the audience.

The last third of Moonlight is, for this reason and others, certainly the most invigorating (which is annoying, because for reasons of spoiler sensitivity, it's the one I'm obliged to be the cagiest about); it's no coincidence that it's also the one most completely invented by Jenkins for the movie, with no analogue in McCraney's story. Which means, among other things, that it's saved from the somewhat overly-stagey, hyper-litery metaphors that at times trip up the first two segments, especially the Little plotline. In a film whose cast is supernaturally good throughout, Rhodes manages to give the best performance, and that despite being one of the most untested actors with easily the hardest part to play. Black has learned to deal with the world by closing himself off from it, and so spends most of his screentime watching and not speaking; the deep emotions Rhodes manages to put over even despite being deprived of even one solitary acting showpiece are absolutely staggering. We see his wounds, we see his longing, and we see his defensively hostile response to the world's hatred of people who look like him and have his background, and we see these things almost solely in the way the actor positions his head as he sits in a diner booth, for example.

The end of Moonlight genuinely is that "one of the year's best movies" that people talk about, but as for the rest, I have my reservations. There's not a solitary "bad" thing in the film. Certainly not in the performances or the characters, who collectively make up the kind of community rarely seen in movies except on the very edges, and who are never treated with this amount of dignity. Take Juan: it's a miraculous strength of the script to depict him as a kind, fatherly figure, while also noting without any moral panic or judgment that he is mostly responsible for suffering, and Ali plays the role to perfection: take the moment when he watches Little making the painful mental calculation that, since his mother is a crack addict and that's why she's kind of terrible, and since Juan sells crack, that means... The shame that flickers across Ali's face, but with no indication that he'll stop selling crack, or that he'd even refuse to sell crack to Paula if she asked for it, is pretty powerful stuff.

For all that generosity and insight, it's all a bit overdetermined; the enormous superiority of the final act relative to the first two speaks to how much of the material needed to be reconceived a little bit more thoroughly. People talk like they're in a play, not like they're in a movie, in the way we rarely see any more given that prestige theatrical adaptations aren't the big deal they were in the '50s and '60s; the actors do a huge amount to compensate for that, but it still an omnipresent flaw, one that tends to flatten the emotional tenor of the material.

The other convention of stage-to-movie transfers that Moonlight suffers from is an erratic visual style, which is different from saying that it doesn't work, and certainly doesn't mean that Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton weren't putting an enormous amount of effort into their choices. It is in fact a very palpably thought-through visual schema, sometimes to its enormous benefit (the shots from behind Little/Chiron/Black's head throughout the movie are close to genius in the way they let us perceive his sense of the world while forbidding us to get a clear sense of the inner turmoil of this most aggressively insular, defensive young man), and sometimes not. Frankly, a lot of the film's imagery is heavily overdetermined, attempting to mix boots-on-the-ground realism in capturing the physical essence of the neighborhood in Miami where both Jenkins and McCraney grew up, with lush and self-consciously poetic gestures that never feel quite as organic as they might. It doesn't help that the film opens with its most unnecessary, even aggravating stylistic flourish: the camera revolves around a conversation, making several complete circles and generally being a tiny bit nauseating, while adding nothing of value other than to confirm that, like so many ambitious indie filmmakers, Jenkins thinks very highly of Martin Scorsese's aesthetic.

I would probably sum up the visual direction this way: it is great, but laboriously so ("visual", I say, but it extends to the soundtrack as well: Moonlight grabs from both rap music and classical music to flesh out its sonic landscape, and the results are a noble failure like I haven't seen since Sofia Coppola couldn't decide how heavily to commit to pop music when Marie Antoinette was in post). You can feel the effort it took to make the film this good, which is a little bit deflating, but on the other hand: it is very good, and much better this than the kind of slick indie that was easy to make and looks that way.


21 October 2016


A second review requested by Jackie Theballcat, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I would fear that nothing can be left to say about The Room, but then, is not The Room inexhaustible? I've seen it multiple in times in a number of wildly different contexts, and every time, it feels as completely new in every way as the first time I ever crossed its path. Few films, even the very worst of the worst of the worst, are so impossibly unfamiliar as this: it truly does not feel to have been constructed by artists who understood, at even the most basic level, what the inner lives of human beings are like. The number of movies that I have seen which are so divorced from the emotional reality of the human animal is small indeed; honestly, outside of Robot Monster, I'm not sure that I can think of anything that so thoroughly misses the mark in depicting even the most basic, fundamental behaviors conducted by flesh-and-blood people.

The film is both the severest attack against the implications of auteur theory, and an unusually strong proof of its validity. Simply put, there is nothing that happens in this film that did not come directly from the mind of Tommy Wiseau, who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in one of the most profoundly insular vanity projects ever created. Wiseau is a famously mysterious individual, having carefully hidden as much of his history as it's possible for a cultishly-loved filmmaker in the internet age; but The Room is a work that appears to have been carved out of the most secret corners of his very soul, revealing a deeply personal vision that it's hard not to ascribe to one very offbeat man, and even harder not to psychoanalyze. I cannot name any film, other than experiments made by individuals in the garage and such avant-garde things, which feels so completely the work of one solitary personality, with everybody else onsceen and off simply fulfilling his vision. And the results are, of course, sublimely terrible.

At heart, this is a tragic love story: Johnny (Wiseau) and Lisa (Juliette Danielle) are future husband and wife, living together in San Francisco. He adores her in the most passionate, lavish ways possible, but she's gotten bored with his attention and everything else about her life, and to stave off ennui has started flirting with Johnny's best friend Mark (Greg Sestero, also the film's line producer, and source of most of what we know about the film's production, thanks to his book The Disaster Artist). This disgusts and horrifies her mother (Carolyn Minnott), whose name is randomly revealed to be Claudette several scenes later, courtesy of a character who has no reason to be aware of it. Claudette considers that Johnny is so sweet and loving, more than willing to take care of Lisa emotionally and provide for her materially, possessed of a kindness uncommon among men, and altogether so rare a catch that Lisa is just the most absolutely worst for even thinking about leaving him for his best friend Mark. Lisa, for her part, oscillates between agreeing with this, in a grasping way stripped of any affection, and finding her future husband so unappealing and Johnny's best friend Mark so sexy and smoldering that she's willing to junk her entire future.

I warned that it's a little too tempting to psychoanalyze Wiseau, and this is the thing I'm primarily talking about: once you've carved out all of the inscrutable dead ends and leave just the driving conflict of The Room, you have the story of a man that everybody thinks is just the best, who is kind to his future wife and gives her everything she could want to have, and yet she decides not to bother with him, even knowing that it means that every other character tells her to her face that she's a terrible person as a result. This is a pervasive theme, presented with over-the-top earnestness, particularly in the scene where Claudette just will not fucking shut up about how great Johnny is, and I can't stop myself: is this Wiseau trying to make sense of the fact that someone as rich as he is can't buy love? Because four times out of four viewings now, that's the sense I have been profoundly struck by. This is, in effect, the story of greedy women who don't know a good thing when they've got it, and refuse to let bizarre inarticulate troll-men pay for their affection with nice things. Which is weird - the nice guy misogyny is one thing, but bemoaning the fact that a woman isn't a gold digger is beyond conventional misogyny and into some weird universe where normal social codes don't apply, where human behavior itself is at some entirely acute angle to anything that goes on in your and my everyday world.

So, you know, The Room itself, which is a little like glancing into the reconstruction of what human culture circa 2003 looked like, as conducted by the sentient cockroaches who'll replace us as the planet's dominant species a few tens of millennia down the line. This isn't merely bad screenwriting, though there's certainly that. In the usual fashion of bad movies, scenes begin much too early and end much too late, characters are introduced at random when the film needs a new subplot to kick in (The Room introduces new subplots that it forgets to resolve, or even extend as far as a third scene, on the order of once every ten minutes), and so on and so forth. This is normal; it is the most normal thing that happens anywhere in the confines of The Room, which is full of moments that even the hackiest idiot screenwriter of Z-grade '50s programmers would know better than to include, like a series of scenes in which Michelle (Robyn Paris) and Mike (Mike Holmes) are interrupted having sex by Claudette - you know, Michelle and Mike, those characters we already know and care about so much! - and Mike leaves his boxers behind despite never having removed his pants, and then tells Johnny the whole story about how he had to find his underwear and embarrass himself in front of Claudette, except he calls it "me underwears", which is a phrase never used to describe any article of clothing in the whole history of apparel. I think, if I had to justify this monstrous, repetitive passage, that Wiseau thought of it as comic relief, but that would honestly make me think less of it, not more.

We could run just about every scene of The Room through a similar process, because just about every scene contributes to some plotlet that doesn't end up referring back to everything. There's the matter of the orphan boy Denny (Philip Haldiman) who looks up to Johnny as a father figure, which is presumably why he wants to watch Johnny and Lisa having sex (that is, at least the only way a literate human could interpret the dialogue, so it's probably not what Wiseau intended), and who gets in deep with a drug dealer named Chris-R (Dan Janjigian) at one point in the movie. And I do mean "at one point". Denny is in so damn much of the movie, and he just keeps getting weirder and creepier, and it's completely unclear why's there or why he's so creepy or anything.

In fact, it's so creepy that I think what's going on is that it's not creepy at all: I think the leering, smutty tone that squats on The Room is somehow a complete accident. It's a strangely pre-sexual film: Mike talks about "making out" with Michelle in the same gee-shucks tone that the word "handjob" is employed in Rushmore, and for much the same effect of implying that the character doesn't really know what sex actually is. Though in Rushmore, this is the point, and in The Room, it's simply the case that the whole movie is stuck in a phase where the characters all act somewhat like five-year-olds, with approximately the same sense of petulance and the same spirit of play-acting romance as the act of setting up house and talking about marriage and giving each other presents (one of the film's signature bad lines of dialogue - I dread starting down that road, for fear of not being able to get back off - is "Anyway, how is your sex life?", which speaks to the same "people who have no idea what sex is discuss sex" tone). This tone of pre-pubescent naïveté clashes in the most horrifying way with the film's four (count 'em, four) soft-core sex scenes, set to godawful '80s holdover music. Except when Lisa screws Johnny's best friend Mark, and it's a '90s holdover we hear, perhaps indicating that their love is more mature. We have in front of us, in effect, an erotic thriller made by kindergartners, who studied a few cheesy pornos as the extent of their research into what the word "erotic" signifies.

It's all part of the film's primal sin, which is that Wiseau simply does not comprehend people, which is why he has things like Denny's cheerful request to kiss Lisa and her equally cheery rebuff; Lisa's bored lies of abuse and the way that Michelle is horrified for two seconds until, like a rabbit, she bounces off to some other topic; the infamous announcement that Claudette has breast cancer; the equally-infamous football game played in full tuxedos; the stomach-churning order for a pizza that's half Canadian bacon with pineapple, half artichoke with pesto, light on the cheese, thought that last one could just be because this is fucking California.

This is all, every bit of it, secondary to the fact of Tommy Wiseau himself. It's genuinely fascinating that a man could be responsible for writing every word he directs himself to say, and still come across like has no idea what any of the lines mean. The most famous moment is undoubtedly his rooftop rant, delivered in a strange angry monotone: "I did not hit her! It's not true! It's bullshit, I did not hit her! I did naaaaht. Oh hi Mark". But you could just as easily pick any individual line and line reading and get the same perfect blend of barbarically simple language and emphasis that suggest the dialogue was learned phonetically and without the aid of a translator. Wiseau sounds alien - he looks alien, with his tendency to react seconds too late and let his sunken eyes fall back in his face as he attempts to act solely with his teeth. The movie follows the erratic rhythm of his curious whims; in one signature moment, he stops a scene cold to ad-lib pat an ancient dog on the head with a flighty "Hi doggie" (the dog, for its part, seems to have enjoyed this), and the whole movie has the same sense of a bumblebee-short attention as the writer-director is distracted by every new story beat, which invariably feels totally disconnected from whatever has happened before and after, and has nothing to do with the characters involved, since they are all incoherent. It's a whole feature's worth of noticing a dog and patting it on the head and forgetting that that there's supposed to be, like a movie coming out of all these random notions captured for prosperity. The result, I'm happy to say, is one of the only films from the whole of the 21st Century to live up to every fragment of its hype: it really is one of the most outstanding bad movies of this or any other age.


20 October 2016


Let nobody say that Woody Allen is really as redundant and uninspired as all that. After 46 feature films spanning 50 years, the director's Café Society finally catches him doing something brand new: for the first time, he's made a film in color that is a genuine triumph of cinematography, as opposed to just reasonably good-looking by the standards of a generally ugly career. Working for the first time with the generally magnificent cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Allen's latest is an exercise in sunny nostalgia for the 1930s that goes beyond merely capturing Los Angeles locations in a golden hour haze, though there is that.

The digitally-captured film - a first for both Allen and Storaro - uses the sharpness and color latitude of the format to great effect, depicting the images with the woozy beauty one would anticipate from an unabashed love letter to the glamor of the past, while also drawing on a very similar spirit as Storaro's Reds or The Conformist of the pre-WWII 20th Century as a lightly smoky world of leathery textures and soft focus interiors (the exteriors are generally much sharper and cleaner and use color more aggressively, with a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge at twilight that's one of the most striking images I've seen in a 2016 movie, the kind that makes you gasp in joyful shock when it swings into view; the understated but clear distinction between how insides and outsides are shot is probably the most interesting thing about the film's visuals). Obviously I'm not saying that Café Society looks better than, or even as good as The Conformist, but if I were to point out after you'd seen the film that they shared a cinematographer, I don't imagine that you'd be totally incapable of believing me. Given how many world-class cinematographers Allen has wasted over the years - Sven Nykvist, Vilmos Zsigmond, Darius Khondji - that's not a thing to take for granted.

As for the story and all that... look, Allen's great days are behind him and we all know they're not coming back. Coming hot on the heels of the truly dreadful Irrational Man, and two years after the merely unlikable and joyless Magic in the Moonlight, the bar here was not all that high, and Café Society clambers over it without a whole hell of a lot of room to spare. But clamber it does, and if damn little that goes on here will come as a surprise to anybody who's been keeping tabs on Allen's late career - which at this point has been going on for a solid 15 or 18 years, anyway - it hits all of its marks in a generally satisfying way, carried over the line by one of the most enticing-on-paper casts that Allen has worked with in years.

The place is Los Angeles, the year is 1935, and the setting, as promised by the title, is the world of the glamorous people of Hollywood. One of these is power agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell, whose innate likability nuances a stock "charming asshole" role in some interesting ways), a player of some note, who is known and respected by all the people it pays to be known and respected by. He's also the black sheep of a family that includes sister Rose Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin, such a natural fit for an Allen movie that it's an unforgivable scandal that they've never worked together before), all the way back in the Bronx, who calls him up one day to let him know that her son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is coming to California to learn a bit about life and try to make it in Hollywood in some ill-defined aspect. Phil barely has time for his nephew, but Bobby does manage to meet up with Phil's secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who shows him around town, and who catches his dreamy, romantic attention in the process. For her part, Vonnie is too hung up on the married man she's been seeing, who she loves and who loves her, and who happens to be Phil himself.

Allen has indicated that he wanted the plot of Café Society to unfold like a novel, and that's impressively close to what ends up happening. Without spoiling anything, the film's last two-fifths or thereabouts make a rather complete geographic, chronological, and emotional break with everything that happened before, not exactly starting a new movie so much as following along as Bobby dramatically reshapes his life in an attempt to fix it. The genre changes into a classic Hollywood-type story of gangsters and the wild life of '30s New York (though the genial light comic tone, more wistful than funny, remains), the stakes move around, and the nature of the Bobby/Vonnie relationship evolves into something that is, yes, very literary. Perhaps in the derogatory sense of "literary"; as so often happens the case in Allen's filmography, particularly latter-period Allen, characters have a tendency to speak in suspiciously over-articulated sentences, and the themes have the distinct upper-middle class mustiness of, say, an Atlantic short story from somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century. Which is also, of course, quite typical of Allen.

Even so, the film is mostly a pleasure to watch thanks to its lovely imagery and the efforts of a pretty sharp cast: Eisenberg, in particular, gives a performance leagues beyond his clumsy nebbish in Allen's To Rome with Love, and should certainly be reckoned among the top echelons of actors who aren't Woody Allen playing the Woody Allen surrogate. Partially this is because his idling position as an actor isn't terribly far from Allen's own, though Eisenberg tends to be shorter tempered. That's not on display here, and yet there's still the feeling that he's filtering the Allen Character through his own sensibility to make something that's unique from either man individually. The result is one of the freshest leads in an Allen movie in quite a long time, right up at the same level as Owen Wilson's similarly personalised version of Allen in Midnight in Paris, and on top of everything else that's going mostly right in the film, Eisenberg is more than enough to make deeply overfamiliar material feel, if not "new", then at least thoroughly pleasant as a better-than-necessary diversion.


19 October 2016


The Romanian New Wave that stormed into international prominence with The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu in 2005, 12:08 East of Bucharest in 2006, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2007 is still with us, though I think it's fair to say that it lacks the sparkle of the new. Some while ago, the basic ingredients of a Romanian art film that would hit it big in the art houses and film festivals of the world started to ossify: long takes with a typically hand-held camera, bitter comedy, and an unresolved ending to a plot that offered a look at the dying culture of Romania under Ceauşescu, the dying culture of Romania in the 21st Century, or ideally the way that the former influenced the latter. And it has been a little easy to take these films for granted as a result.

Hence I am very glad to have crossed paths with Graduation, a bold and tremendously well-made reminder of what it felt like when the Romanian New Wave was still bright and new. It's the second film written and directed by Cristian Mungiu since his 4 Months... became, for many people (though not me) the high water-mark of the whole national cinema (the interestingly ineffective Beyond the Hills came in between), and if it's not as clearly important as that movie, I honestly don't know that I could argue that it's much, if any, less accomplished a work of art. The politics are more muted, and the story a bit looser, but it sketches out a rough and brutal depiction of corruption in contemporary Romania that feel deeply consequential even as the material of the plot remains pointedly low-scale and intimate.

The generically slippery film centers on middle-aged Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), who lives and works in Cluj, where he remains barely married to Magda (Lia Bugnar) while having an affair with teacher Sandra (Malina Manovici), some 15 years his junior. But the only woman in his wife he truly cares about is his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), in her final year of high school and an academic triumph who has recently received the excellent news of a scholarship to a major university in England, just as soon as she passes her final exams with at least 90% scores. For Romeo and Magda, to whom Romania has been a miserable place to live ever since their hopes of a progressive revolution puked out in the aftermath of Ceauşescu's fall, the thought of Eliza being able to leave the country is the focus of all their hopes. This being a European art film, it's obvious that the inciting incident of the plot will be something that critically endangers this hope.

In particular, Eliza is attacked by a stranger walking through a construction site near school (Romeo had to drop her off early in order to make it to an assignation with Sandra on time; or at least, that's what the editing suggests, and it's all the same thing). Despite Romeo's flustered assurance that it wasn't "rape" according the narrowest definition, Eliza's been thoroughly gutted emotionally by the experience and has no capacity to take her tests, which are inflexible scheduled for the day after the assault. After the first round of tests go poorly, Romeo decides to take initiative in securing Eliza's future, diving head-first into the circle of favors and influence-peddling that makes up the life of any bureaucratic civilisation, taking part in the same system of corruption that he's spent his entire adult life decrying.

There are two primary threads at play in Graduation, the one personal and the other political. On the personal side of things, we have the fact, quickly established and never challenged, that Romeo is a bit of a pathetic shit. His treatment of the two women in his house perfectly encapsulates how and why: he's someone who is only able to deal with problems if they take the form of puzzles to be solved, and the moment that these transmutes into the realm of the psychological, he's useless. Magda is transparently suffering some kind of all-encompassing depression, or at least a crippling case of ennui, which wouldn't be much of a data point except that Romeo's treatment of his daughter is exactly what we can imagine his treatment of his wife looked like years ago: minimising the reality of her emotional pain (whether what happened was a rape or a near-rape, or even that it was sexual in nature at all, is obviously secondary to Eliza's feeling of insecurity and her growing rage at having that feeling left unrecognised), trying to answer it by means of fixing a situation that, so far as we can tell, Eliza doesn't even want anymore. Watching him hectically and desperately ignore the young woman shutting down into depression right before his eyes is more than slightly horrifying; watching him sell his soul in order to do so is tragic in the most classical sense of the word.

That's the other half, of course: how does a person of ideals turn into one more strand in the web of casual corruption eating the country from inside out? And while Graduation would be less gripping without the personal material, it's clearly this social commentary that chiefly energises Mungiu, who depicts the chain of backroom deals and quid pro quo arrangements with the documentary energy that he previously employed in observing the process by which illicit abortions were arranged and executed. There's no moralising presented: there doesn't need to be. It's clear enough watching Titieni's face how much Romeo hates himself for becoming part of this system, and that's all the argument Mungiu needs. Indeed, for all the general excellence of the script, Graduation is a film largely built on the strength of Titieni and Dragus's marvelous performances as two descents into varying forms of depression: self-loathing on his part, post-traumatic shock on hers. They're quite enough to push the film from very good to actively great. Moreover, coupling their intense screen presence with Mungiu generally directing the film with the pacing of a thriller, cutting scenes off before they've quite ended to keep propelling the action forward, and the whole thing ends up being enormously watchable, for something so sober-minded and mirthless. It all ends up as a particularly high point for mid-2010's art cinema, and the best moment of Romanian art cinema in particular from the last several years.


18 October 2016


The Accountant has a pretty bad screenplay, and no mistake. If it wasn't already dragging its feet rather terribly as it headed into the second hour, two sequences would be more than enough to finish the job: one is an exposition dump that... well, after all it's an exposition dump in the second hour. It's information we don't need, and would probably have been better off without; mostly, it just serves to add some sympathetic depth to the titular character, and try to morally situate his action movie badassery to that point in the movie. A point at which we've either agreed that it doesn't matter, or we've likely passed the point that the movie can win us back. The other sequence is a twist very near the end, though "twist" makes it sound more consequential than it is. It's more of a "reveal", and it's anyway some real dopey bullshit. I don't suppose I could possibly have been enjoying The Accountant enough to feel good about it.

Anyway, those are the bad points, and the good points still aren't great. Throughout, the film relies extensively on barely-coherent Thriller Logic, a female romantic lead who seems herself unsure why she's getting herself attracted to the male, and a general sense that the filmmakers enjoy obfuscation for its own sake. I still didn't hate it, though I am not entirely sure why. It moves well enough: director Gavin O'Connor's career hasn't exactly swung from peak to peak (there's a very good possibility that the pleasantly forgettable male weepie Warrior is his masterwork), but he has apparently watched enough thrillers to know more or less how they get made, and while at 128 minutes, we cannot credit The Accountant with being efficient, it clips along at a good pace and true.

The accountant is a certain Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), who we first meet as a child being diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder that leaves him with that favorite version of Movie Autism, the one where you can do math like a computer, in exchange for relating to human beings much the same way (I say we meet him in childhood; in fact, one of the many, many flaws with Bill Dubuque's script is that it rather avoids ever drawing a connection between the flashbacks and Christian's contemporary life, to such a conspicuous degree that I thought the film was setting up a different twist where we discover he wasn't that kid all along. Nope, just lazy screenwriting). Nowadays, Christian is an accountant for two different kinds of people: sweetly boring suburbanites who visit his strip mall tax accounting office in Plainfield, IL, and international criminals, such as cartel lords or terrorist leaders. The second group of clientele have brought him to the attention of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, with chief agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons) so anxious to ferret Christian out before his retirement that he blackmails former criminal, current T-man Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to devote all her energy to finding the accountant, in exchange for career protection and even advancement.

Christian realises none of this, but he's about to have a different set of problems anyway: his two worlds are about to converge, as the process of trying to figure out which executive has been skimming money from the health technology company run by the Santa Clausian philanthropist Lamar Black (John Lithgow) leads him afoul of some very awful people who've hired a smug hitman (Jon Bernthal, wearing 2016's worst wig) to wipe out every loose end that might reveal the depths of their corruption. This includes Christian and his liaison at Black's company, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), but there's good news: back when Christian was still a kid, his father (Robert C. Treveiler), trying to ensure that his son would be able to survive a world so hostile to people like his son that even the boy's mother (Mary Kraft) preferred abandoning her family to dealing with his condition, took him around the world on a martial arts tour. Add that into the very dangerous people he works for on a regular basis, and it turns out that Christian is a Jason Bourne-level badass, ready to protect himself and Dana from whatever comes.

It's not... totally irredeemable, as scenarios go. Wonderful movies have been made from worse concepts. It is awfully rocky in a lot of ways, though. Like, the whole subplot involving Medina's attempt to track Christian down: there's almost no measurable benefit to the overall story from including any of this, though it makes the exposition go down a little bit easier. But we see virtually none of her investigation, and it's not actually clear that Christian is at any point in the film aware that she exists. So it's just kind of a big wad of movie, doing absolutely nothing and reminding us constantly that this film has snagged itself J.K. Simmons and has no idea what to do with him (could be worse, though - it also snagged Jeffrey Tambor and gave him so little to do that I couldn't even work him into the plot recap). The bigger issue is in the actual beat-by-beat screenwriting, which fails the characters (particularly the abyss where the romantic development between Christian and Dana) was meant to go, and fails the story, by depriving us of information in weird ways and offering up unclear, unpersuasive stakes. This fella rubs shoulders with the biggest gangsters in the world, the U.S. government is on his tail, and the film is being driven by somebody cooking the books of a company that makes prosthetic arms?

Granting all of that, O'Connor keeps pushing the movie along, and he makes sure to highlight the jokes, to give us some sense that maybe this isn't even meant to be taken as more than a dippy lark to begin with. It's also blessed by its cast, most of all Affleck: I would be a liar to say that he convincingly plays someone with autism (though on the scale that includes Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, it's like watching a documentary), but as a taciturn John Wick-style tough guy, he's infinitely better here than he was back in the early '00s, when he was trying this kind of material out the first time. Age and weathering have made him a better actor, or at least a more interesting slab of actorly concrete. Anyway, it's reasonably diverting: 128 minutes for this material is too many, but even with the despicably out-of-place flashbacks and Treasury scenes, it doesn't feel like it's anywhere close to those 128 minutes. The action is staged with an effective sense of weight and thrust: when Christian beats a generic henchman in the bathroom, the impact of the moment is tangibly there, and when there's a shootout at a farmhouse, it's staged with enough disorienting close shots that we feel realistically as trapped and confused as Dana. It's not a great piece of cinema, no matter how hard we curve it for genre, and I wouldn't recommend it. But I would also not recommend against it, and that somehow feels like it counts for almost as much.


17 October 2016


There's a single characteristic about Sieranevada around which all the others revolve, and that is duration. The film is 173 minutes long. Other films, of course, have been longer, but that's by all means an impressive span of time, and Sieranevada makes sure we feel it: a solid 150 minutes or more of the film takes place inside of a single apartment, generally in extremely long takes from one of just four or five repeated camera locations, and it takes place in something very close to real time. You can't in good faith call this "boring", because that would suggest that in some way the film got away from director Cristi Puiu, that it was an accident that caused the film to be this long and this slow, and obviously that can't possibly be the case. This is a very intentional film, in fact: one that uses its extreme duration for exact and purposeful reasons.

It is the story of a family in a particular fraught moment: paterfamilias Emil has died, and following the special custom of the branch of the Romanian Orthodox Church to which he belonged, his widow Nuša (Dana Dogaru) has assembled most of her family to a special ritual, in which a man symbolically representing the deceased is invited to join the family's dinner, thereby allowing his soul to settle in the afterlife and reify the belief that the dead watch lovingly over the living. We learn that 's children don't take this ritual seriously even before we learn what the ritual is, or for that matter that there has been a recent death: the unhurried opening scenes between 's son Lary (Mimi Brănescu, in the film's de facto lead role) and his wife Laura (CătălinA Moga) includes, besides her acrimonious sniping that he bought their daughter the wrong Disney Princess dress for an upcoming school play (the first nod in the direction of global consumer culture, a thread the film weaves throughout), the hope that this family thing won't take too long, because the couple really does have to get to another engagement later in the day.

After Laura drops Lary off at Nuša's home, we meet the rest of the family, most of whom share Lary's sense of slightly amused ambivalence, at the whole thing. Puiu's script makes limited effort to explain who these people are and how they are interrelated, but over the course of three hours, I think I picked up on the essentials: Lary's sister is Sandra (Judith State), and she and her husband Gabi (Rolando Matsangos) have an infant daughter. Nuša's sister Ofelia (Ana Ciontea) is a sobbing basket case for reasons we'll learn later on, and her son Sebi (Marin Grigore) is on hand to serve as Emil's avatar at the ritual, though worked up by the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, he'd rather spend the day ranting about world politics, and sharing his theories about how 9/11 really happened. Nuša's other sister Evelina (Tatiana Iekel) and her husband (who is, I think, Bogdan Dumitrache?) are also on hand, as is the twenty-something Cami (Ilona Brezoianu), whose relation to the family is entirely obscure, though it's not helped out by the fact that she's brought as her guest a strung-out young woman who alternates the whole party between sleeping and vomiting, both of them entirely offscreen. Eventually a contingent of priests are added to this cramped assembly, and after them comes Ofelia's husband Toni (Sorin Medeleni), not exactly with an invitation and not exactly without one; Ofelia having just discovered that he's been having an affair and Sebi ready to disown the old man, the right course would surely have been to stay away, but in a bully, blowhard way, Toni is confident that this is the right situation to atone, or at least claim to atone. Sebi, piqued, refuses to fulfill his duties in the ritual until Toni leaves, and Nuša refuses to permit anybody to eat until Sebi has taken his seat at the head of the table, and so the whole cluster of folks grow hungrier and hungrier, drunker and drunker, with an enormous tableful of food that cannot be eaten, like an ultra-realist version of The Exterminating Angel.

So let's return to that running time. Sieranevada is, above all things, a film about the dreary inescapability of family: it story depicts the process by which unspoken resentments and petty frustrations start to get spoken when thrown into the pressure cooker of a small space where nobody can leave and everybody's getting increasingly impatient to eat. The almost unbearable running time of the movie is a natural way of depicting that process in vivid real time. Here is the core truth about Sieranevada: we are meant to find it aggravating. If it is possible to complain about the film, as I guess I'd be inclined to complain, that it's nothing but an endless imprisonment with a bunch of people who are in many ways completely annoying and unlikable, it is also valueless to do so, since that's the whole point. When the film is funny - and it is surprisingly funny for most of its running time, but then mordant pitch-black comedy isn't new from the director of the ur-text of the Romanian New Wave, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu - it's after the fashion of the member of the family who has the blessed luck to view his relatives as charming goofballs rather than soul-sucking monsters (Lary fills the role of the amused observer in this scenario, and he does it splendidly).

Here's my question: is there an actual reason for having done this? It's done extremely well, mind you. The acting is perfect and the dialogue, especially once the wheedling, whingey Toni arrives, is note-perfect in capturing the desperate irritation of being surrounded by people you would rather not be; the handful of key revelations (one of which serves as the punchline to an enormously prosaic scene outside, the last time we leave the apartment) are so organically drawn out of the surrounding material that it's almost not till they're over that you realise you've just been handed the solution to an entire character arc. And there's not enough praise in the world for Puiu and cinematographer Barbu Bălăsoiu's visual handling of the material: the movie takes place almost exclusively in the form of a tripod-mounted camera which pans back and forth, across as much as 270° of the interior spaces, glancing between different conversations and moments of activity in precise mimicry of an unseen guest trying to capture as much of the party as it's possible for one observer to manage. It's not exactly that the images remain fresh and new: by the end of the first hour, you've seen pretty much every single type of framing that the film has to offer. But the incredible sense of of place is stellar throughout: we feel, emphatically, the tightness and closeness of that party, and it is utterly maddening to us just as much as the characters.

And... then I don't know. Sieranevada is a huge investment: of time, of intellectual energy to follow the barely-expressed screenplay (intentionally so: we are watching an established family in its natural environment, and it's our job to keep up with them), of emotional stamina to handle the non-stop barrage of people being mad at other people, being hurt by other people, being annoyed the point of comedy by other people. It repays that investment with, frankly, nothing very innovative on any level: aesthetically, this is just more of what the Romanian cinema has been cranking out for over a decade now, and thematically, it's full of observations about family that I cannot imagine qualifying as startling to anybody who wasn't born an orphan, or has ever seen a film or play in the broadly-defined category of "domestic drama". The aesthetic remains appropriate and immaculately-executed, and the thematic argument does not become inaccurate simply by virtue of being familiar. But if familiarity isn't inherently a sin, it's even less inherently a virtue The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu is long and hard, but it also feels like nothing else. Sieranevada feels like a whole lot of things, and that's simply not a great end point for a film that makes so many demands of its viewer.


16 October 2016


Starless Dreams is an exercise in pure heartbreak. The documentary has more on its mind than simply making the viewer feel terrible (it is, in fact, a social problem film, though one that offers nothing resembling a solution for the seemingly endless nightmare of human suffering it depicts), but feeling terrible is an unavoidable side effect of the movie's real goal, which is to give voice to the lives and experiences of a group of teenage girls living in a juvenile detention center in Iran.

If that makes it sound even slightly sentimental or cloyingly life-affirming, rest assured that it does not. The young women that filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei (a most highly-regarded documentarian in Iran, I am told) trains his attention on have not lived pleasant lives, and they have not learned preternatural wisdom from their misery: they have suffered, and for some of them, their suffering has turned them hard, cruel, and proud of their cruelty; for others, suffering has merely robbed them of the ability to feel much beyond a deep sadness that's ready to burst out any time and for a number of different reasons. It has been an ennobling experience for none of them. That's the primary lesson Starless Dreams is on hand to provide, along with a thoroughly devastating portrait of how misery moves in cycles. Most of the girls are in prison on drug-related charges, talking with extraordinary frankness about their histories of addiction; as they reveal their life stories, either in unabashed monologues or dribbled out through numerous evasive appearances onscreen, the common element seems to be that they turned to drugs to escape the savage treatment they've received at the hands of family members or to stave off the feeling of isolation at having been functionally abandoned, and the family members usually prove to be addicts themselves.

The film sketches out a system of mutually reinforcing abuse, in which the young subjects have been so systematically deprived of any tenderness in life that many of them seem almost incapable of understanding what positive, generous emotions even look like. It's not hopeless: we see a one of the teenage prisoners doting over her infant daughter with the kind of love that is, if maybe doomed to being unsustainable in the long term, powerful in the moment, enough so that even the rest of the girls are visible affected. One of the young woman the film devotes the most time to is reunited with her family in a way that strongly suggests that she, at least, will be able to escape the trap that many of the other young prisoners will not. And indeed, the scenes of her quiet triumph are paired with another girl's rising terror at realising that her grandmother has no real intention of taking her back once she's released, over the course of a phone conversation that evolves from cheerful optimism to terrified sobs, in a sequence that is almost impossible to watch, it's so painful and so tightly focused on the simple, literally childlike humanity of the figures within.

It's all too raw for words, and made more so thanks to Oskouei's greatly satisfying filmmaking technique, which brings us into a most intense intimacy with the young girls - uncomfortably so. Oskouei's method seems to have been to ask his interviewees a standard list of questions, some profoundly distressing ("Did anyone ever 'bother' your?" he asks, and I assume "bother" is the translation for some equally sobering euphemism in Farsi; for some girls it means, "sexually molest", for at least one it means "my mother held my arm in an open flame", but not any of them are seen to answer "no"), and some as trivial as "what name would you give your child, if you had one?", which is filtered through some dark worldview even despite being innocuous; one interviewee avers that she'd probably kill a girlchild if she ever gave birth to one, and another subject makes the same statement about a boy, both with guileless looks of calm on their face. Neither one seems to be joking.

In the early going, the film combines these interviews with the detached quality of a direct cinema production, enough to lend the impression that we're watching a sort of Iranian Frederick Wiseman film. As it evolves over its concentrated 76 minutes, it turns into something even richer and more complicated, as they girls start to absorb the presence of Oskouei and his camera, and the filmmaker drifts from being the calm voice with the questions to being obviously concerned and invested in their lives, however much of an academic, journalistic tenor he tries to leave clamped around his throat. This can be charming, as when one of the more boisterous members of the community grabs the boom mike to lead an impromptu karaoke session, or when she and a friend play-act at Oskouei's interview process with a coffee cup microphone. It can be utterly devastating, as when Oskouei is accused of being a chilly outsider who just wants to exploit the prisoners so he has something to show his students. Mostly, it is in between those two extremes, with the director's presence and the young women's obvious awareness of the camera leading them to treat him as a sort of therapist and the lens as a confessional. It is, in the old tradition of '60s cinéma vérité, a movie about the engagement of subject and artist, working together to find emotional reality. It would be so easy for this to turn into exactly that kind of misery porn that Oskouei's accuser fears; instead, what comes across is that this is a collaborative act, with the young women deciding what story they want to tell about themselves, and how they want to use the film to communicate something important about their lives that would otherwise never leave the dingy cement block room and ancient metal bunks of their dormitory.

The results are devastating, in the best way: over the short time we see these people, and their tiny universe, and the regimented regularity that Oskouei captures in repeated camera set-ups and movements, it's hard not to grow deeply invested in their lives, to celebrate the joys that some of them manage to stumble into and weep with frustrated rage at those whose lives will continue through hopeless suffering. It is extraordinarily empathetic filmmaking. Of course, the goal of all movies is to capture a feeling of shared humanity, and to get us invested in the lives and feelings of people who don't exist, or who we'll never meet. But it is a rare and precious experience when a film achieves that as thoroughly as Starless Dreams has; it is an exemplary piece of craftsmanship and a sterling example why documentary filmmaking must exist.