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.


15 October 2016


Early on in In the Last Days of the City, a filmmaker on a panel can be heard to grumble that he and his colleagues were there to discuss cinema, but that everything they've talked about has concerned politics. This is as close as this magnificently sloppy film comes to a direct thesis statement, for that is one of the key questions presented, if not answered in director Tamir El Said's first feature: can there be a division between the political and apolitical in art? And then the related question of whether there can be a division between the political and apolitical in everyday life, and then triangulating between those, how does the artist capture something of the actual stuff of life, whether it's political or not? It is an overstuffed movie, which at 118 minutes feels notably unfocused but not unconsciously so. The main character, Khalid (Khalid Abdalla) is a documentary direct lost in the process of turning his ideas and footage into a film, and at one point his editor (Islam Kamal) mutters that he has no clue what the finished movie is trying to be. And that is also something of a thesis statement.

The city of the title is Cairo, and these are its last days in that the film presents the first overt stirrings of turmoil that would, in the winter of 2011, explode into revolution against the Mubarak regime. In the Last Days of the City was in fact shot in 2009, and assembled at great length over the next several years, before premiering at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, and those seven years of post-production are no accident. For all its overreach and disarrayed structure, the amount of calculation that went into assembling this film from a towering mountain of footage (some of it documentary, most of it scripted) is absolutely evident. It's suffused with the knowledge of what would happen later on in history, delicately foreshadowing the events of 2010 and 2011 through cagey editing (by Mohamed Abdel Gawad, Vartan Avakian, and Barbara Bossuet) that links unrelated events and even lets them seem unrelated, while crafting an overall sense of the fraught mental state of Cairo and its people that clearly evokes subsequent events.

In the moment, this is the story of Khalid's artistic block, as he keeps trying to make sense of his footage, including a particularly thoughtful interview with an acting teacher named Hanan (Hanan Youssef), whose greatly expressive middle-aged face provides a rich canvass for Khalid's camera to linger over in a series of extreme close-ups pieced together without reference to the words she speaks underneath, creating an overall sense of great soufulness and hard-won philosophy. And I do, of course, by "Khalid's camera", I really mean El Said's camera, because on top of everything else it's trying to accomplish, In the Last Days of the City is a metacritical -like exercise in blurring the distinction between the movie we are watching and the movie that's being made in the movie we're watching, with the camera focusing on the screen that footage is playing on before both the image and sound snap over to the footage itself, and El Said generally proving a little more successful in trying to capture the lives of people and Cairo in relation to each other than Khalid is, though he still leaves many smudges and holes in place throughout the film.

While not drowning in his footage, Khalid is hunting for a new apartment rather petulantly, attempting to attend to his dying mother (Zeinab Mostafa), and simultaneously dealing emotionally with the fact that his lover Laila (Laila Samy) is leaving Egypt soon, leading him to obsess over her image almost as much as her physical self. And then, of course, there's the matter of the protests against Mubarak popping up over the city, in defiance of the cheery propaganda being pumped out from every source, events that Khalid obviously supposes he should be invested in filming, though he seems a bit at a loss to comprehend how. It is, in some way, exactly the right time for three of his friends and colleagues to show up for that aforementioned panel discussion: Beirut-based director Bassem (Bassem Fayad, by trade a cinematographer, including his work on this very film), mournful about his city's own political and social turmoil; Baghdad-based Hassan (Hayder Helo), spurred on to activism by the collapse of his country and city into sectarian violence after the failed American war, and Iraqi émigré Tarek (Basim Hajer), now living in Europe. It's by all means corny and forced to have a trio of filmmakers representing such precisely different aspects of life in the Arab-speaking world in the late 2000s crop up as something of a Greek chorus, or maybe the witches to Khalid's Macbeth, but this is the kind of movie whose flaws are a direct function of its giant ambition. As Khalid is situated in Cairo, so Cairo is situated in Egypt, and Egypt is situated within the MENA cultural sphere, and as much as the film is careful to be about just one city at a very specific historical moment, El Said also plainly wants it to be about Everything with a capital E.

How much he gets there is up for debate. Keeping track of all the layers of reality and the way that the status of Khalid's film informs the status of El Said's, determining why the reasonably deep bench of supporting characters - some of whom are worked into the film much more cleanly than others - are important to Khalid and how, and parsing the political chatter between himself and his friends can be genuinely exhausting, and that's strictly on a script level. There's just as much to pay attention to in the imagery, which combines painterly shots of Cairo with artless footage of the protests, asking us to evaluate whether one is "true" and the other's not, if one gets at the heart of the city and its people more than the other, or maybe the point is that they are both ways of considering a place and simply capture different aspects. That's on top of the film's really marvelous use of close-ups: Youssef is not alone in having a face that the movie falls in love with.

All of which is to say that watching In the Last Days of the City is legitimately hard, and the yield of the work it takes to get through it maybe isn't enough to earn the complexity. That's an awfully utilitarian way to think, though, and works of this much ambition and politically-alert intellect ought to be celebrated, not nitpicked. It is clumsy but gloriously so, and by all means a worthwhile slice of the invariably under-appreciated Egyptian cinema.



Over the 62 years of its existence, Godzilla has been anything and everything: metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dangerous animal, force of nature, warrior for the environment, psychic hangover from of WWII, friend to all children, giant hermaphroditic iguana. There's no such thing, really as a "normal" Godzilla or a normal Godzilla picture, and that's just the way it should be. Even so, I was not prepared for whatever the hell Shin Godzilla/Godzilla Resurgence turned out to be (about those titles: Toho officially christened it the latter, North American distributor Funimation has promoted it under the former, which is half of the transliteration of the original Japanese Shin Gojira. With some petulance, I'll use the former, but only in print & never in my heart). Not that I mind what it turned out to be - in fact, I find it rather altogether delightful that after all these years and all these movies, they'd be able to come up with a new take on the franchise that hadn't already been used, let alone one that feels so consequential and thoughtful.

Broadly, this is (as it must be) a post-Fukushima Godzilla film. Less broadly, it's a story about the whole force of Japanese governmental bureaucracy training its attention to the problem of a nuclear disaster that nobody was in any way prepared for, finding in the collective work of administrators, politicians, and scientists the solution to the problem, though one that clearly functions as a "for right now, this will keep us alive" band-aid solution and nothing but. In this case, the role of the melting reactor is played by a glowing bipedal lizard the size of a skyscraper, but it's all the same thing.

A movie in which the hero isn't any one individual, but the all-encompassing force of the government and the people it employs is odd enough. A Godzilla movie to do that comes across like some kind of badly-expressed fever dream; yet Shin Godzilla works, and it works better than any Godzilla movie has in a long time.

The first Japanese-produced movie in the franchise since 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars is also the first of all the many sequels, if I am not horribly mistaken, that performs a complete reset on the series. This is not set in the same chronology as the 1954 masterpiece Godzilla, which explains why the entire Japanese government is completely lost for an explanation when a huge boiling waterspout appears in Tokyo Bay one day, with what appears to be some kind of enormous animal inside of it. The creature, which looks like a cross between Godzilla as we know and love it and a Muppet worm, eventually emerges from the sea to tear across the city, devastating everything in its path and leaving a band of low-level radioactivity where it passes. Shortly thereafter, it mutates into a somewhat tyrannosauroid shape that leaves all the characters in the movie gawking in Lovecraftian horror, but for us? For us, it's like seeing an old friend after years apart. An old friend who kind of looks like hell, but even so. Plus, he brought along his old theme song, and the basic rule is that when you have any motion picture with Ikufube Akira's Godzilla themes in it, it is better than any motion picture without them.

It's not really worth recapping the plot of Shin Godzilla beyond this point, because it turns into such a uniquely pure procedural. What we have here is basically The Thick of It without the comedy or The West Wing without the aspiration: a lot of people from the Prime Minister of Japan (Oshugi Ren) down to nameless and faceless tank commanders try to solve the interrelated problems of what the creature is, where it came from, and how to stop it, all while fending off the Americans' rather awful insistence on leading a UN task force against the beast, which in practice really just means "it's been seven decades since we dropped nukes on Japan, don't you think it's about time to do it again?" There are characters we generally get to know better, primarily Akasaka Hideki (Takenouchi Yutaka), a high-level aide to the PM, and Kayoko Ann Paterson (Ishihara Satomi), a Japanese-descended American politician of dangerously high ambitions who won't let a silly old thing like romantic attachment to her grandmother's homeland get in the way of making sure the U.S. gets to assert its will over Japan, and especially, above all the rest, Yaguchi Rando (Hasegawa Hiroki), who has a pretty hefty level of ambition himself, and who rises through the ranks of the bureaucracy thanks to his sharp handling and leadership, the creativity of his ideas, and the success he has in drawing out the creativity of others (the film marks time via a running gag in which Yaguchi Is often introduced with a new onscreen credit indicating his most recent promotion). But individuals simply aren’t the point here: the process of collaboration is the protagonist, and Shin Godzilla accordingly offers up literally dozens of recurring characters that we're meant to recognise as they cycle in and out of the movie.

The film is positively fascinated with all of this, treating on it with bone-dry satire in the form of wall-to-wall captions identifying every character, piece of military equipment, and location, and a willingness to showcase the flop-sweaty desperation with which some people attempt to position themselves even during a nationally existential crisis. But at the same time, it's kind of not satiric at all; clearly, Shin Godzilla intends for us to see that this is all very admirable and, were such a thing as Godzilla actually to show up in the world, this is exactly the way we had ought to approach the problem, rather than the balls-out swagger of, say, those violent individualists across the Pacific.

Whatever the hell it is, it's unusual and genuinely intellectually stimulating in a way I'd never planned to find the 29th Japanese-language Godzilla film to be. That probably should actually come as a surprise: the film was written and co-directed by Anno Hideaki (Higuchi Shinji was the other director), who will never in his life make enough Godzilla films to not be first known as the mastermind behind the 1995 animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Perhaps it's shocking, perhaps it's not, but that lineage comes through loud and clear. Not always for the good, admittedly: Shin Godzilla shares with Evangelion the bad habit of assuming that once something has been explained once, nobody will ever need it to be explained again, no matter how convoluted the explanation was. The fascination with process and institutions as a bulwark against the totally inhuman is there, however, and so are the film's best visuals. There is not very much Godzilla in Shin Godzilla - maybe not even more than in the contentious (and horribly underrated, by this point) 2014 American Godzilla - but what there is counts for a lot. If the film has a signature image, it's a vast wide landscape of Tokyo with the buildings and Godzilla as smallish silhouettes down in the frame, suggesting the vastness of the monster in a human sense, but also its simplicity in a cosmic scale. For much of the film, Godzilla is merely standing still, a great edifice of sinewy lines and meaty bulk, and it seems powerful and profound and imposing even there, in no small part because of the sense of the epic and the poetic that Anno and his team bring to bear on the material, the same sense that dominated the battle sequences of Evangelion. For that matter, the battle sequences also have a certain Evangelion touch; the sequence where Godzilla demonstrates its famous atomic breath is an astounding triumph, staged with gravity and grandeur that suggest a roaring apocalypse coming down upon Tokyo, inexplicable and unnecessarily vast in its destruction. It's genuinely haunting and horrifying as no equivalent scene in any Godzilla film has ever been.

For all that it does terrifically well, I remain a little bit chilly towards Shin Godzilla for one insurmountable reason: I don't much care for the new Godzilla. As played by Nomura Mansai in motion capture, the title character is a wonderful bit of CGI designed to look as much as possible like a rubber suit, only with flexibility and mutability that no Godzilla suit ever could. But the possibilities of CGI lead to a superfluity of detail, most notably the ribbons of raw red flesh coursing over Godzilla's body, which really simply don't seem to add much. And oh my, how I do greatly hate this Godzilla's face: its little spike teeth are irritating (and the characters even comment on them, but worse by far are its incongruous beady eyes, exactly the shade of white-blue as an Aussie Shepherd's eyes. Which is a terrible thing to be thinking about when you're staring into the unknowable face of a godlike monster out of the depths of human nightmares.

It's never very exciting when you have a very good Godzilla film without a very good Godzilla to match; Shin Godzilla's not the first, and I hope it won't be the last. I assume you understand my meaning there. Whatever the problems it might have, this is an enormously satisfying return for one of cinema's all-time most iconic characters - and the 2014 just doesn't count, it has to be in Japan, and that is that - that instantly takes its place among the best films of the series. It might not climb the mountainous heights of the '54 Godzilla or the 1964 Mothra vs. Godzilla, but it's right up there at the top of the franchise's second tier.


14 October 2016


There's potentially a great thriller to be found in the content of The Girl on the Train. In fact, there already have been. A witness to a potential crime who isn't sure exactly what she saw, men using domestic authority to trick the women they love into doubting their own handle on the truth, someone who isn't confident that they didn't commit a crime in the period that they've inconveniently lost to a memory black-out, and a person who willfully misrepresents her identity to have access to a world she dreams about but could never be part of on her own: you don't even have to leave the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock to find a film on some iteration of every one of those subjects. Or you can just park yourself in the first half of the 1940s and find them all there, and then you get to add in the fact that The Girl on the Train is also a dipsomania picture, and add The Lost Weekend to the pile, and you're all set.

A lack of originality is hardly the film's problem. Being a bad movie is. I cannot swear to the reason why, exactly, The Girl on the Train doesn't work. The script, adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson from Paula Hawkins's celebrated 2015 novel, has enough of the crackling energy of a twisty whodunnit that it falls into a kind of grabby magnetism just by default. It's certainly not boring, that is to say. The idea behind the film is that Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), a low-functioning alcoholic, passes by the tony Hudson Valley neighborhood where she used to live with her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), as she commutes into Manhattan on the train. Here, she tries very hard not to spy on Tom and his new wife, Anna Boyd (Rebecca Ferguson), instead preferring to gawk at their sexy neighbors, the Hipwells, Megan (Haley Bennett) - who's also Tom and Anna's nanny - and Scott (Luke Evans). And oh, how this life as a shabby voyeur does please her and give her something of an imaginative inner life, up until Megan goes missing, presumed dead, right after Rachel has come out of a particularly bad bender, with nothing but a few fragmentary memories that might point to her having murdered the pretty young thing.

The film makes a feeble attempt at being Rachel's story and Anna's and Megan's, revealing the Hipwells' marriage to be founded on emotional abuse and the ravings of two very unpleasant human beings who have no clear reason to still be together long before Rachel notices Megan kissing a strange man, and resolving to confront the younger woman as a tawdry harlot. But it doesn't take: firstly, because Anna's plot doesn't even start to have a conflict until about two-thirds of the way through the movie; secondly, because Megan's plot takes the form of time-stamped flashbacks which are downright proud to announce how much they're not trying to fit in with the rest of the movie in a structurally organic or thematically resonant way; thirdly, because Ferguson and Bennett both suck. Actors sucking is no rarity in The Girl on the Train: Evans, playing a thuggish bully, deliberately eschews the brooding hunk charisma that's the one and only card he has to play as an actor, while Theroux is nothing but wallpaper, failing entirely to set up the secrets we learn about his character as the movie progresses, and never emerging as more than White Dude with Cleft Chin #287. By virtue of being inherently better actors, Édgar Ramírez and Allison Janney are sort of automatically more worth paying attention to than most of the cast, but their roles - lothario psychiatrist and unreasonably smarmy police detective, respectively - are very tiny, and so bluntly functional that they barely rise to the level of "thankless". But Ferguson and Bennett are both special kinds of awful even within the context of this cast.

That leaves it entirely to Blunt to be the human focal point of the movie, and she sure as hell does go for it: granted a whole cluster of everyone's favorite showstopping traits (alcoholism, sexual jealousy, sexual ardor, a soul-searching psychotherapy session, plate-flinging, gazing at a baby), Blunt dials everything up as far as it will go and plays the character with the virtuosity of a great violinist tearing through the Four Seasons. It is not, maybe, the most intellectually stimulating use of her talents, but by God, it does get the heart pumping. If the trashy melodrama that makes up the film ever comes to life, it's thanks exclusively to Blunt pouring everything she's got into the haggard expressions, slurred dialogue, animalistic moans, and hungry stares that animate her character.

It's certainly not anything done by Tate Taylor, a director who makes embalmed middlebrow mediocrity like it's his job (which, when you get down to it, it probably is: you don't hire the guy from The Help because you want a better movie than The Help, I guess), and who is I suspect responsible for the worst things about The Girl on the Train: its sluggish qualities, exacerbated badly by the momentum-crushing flashbacks to Megan's story, and its simultaneously predictable and muddled thriller plot. The film deploys red herrings so noisily that it quickly becomes obvious who the least-obvious possibility for the killer is, and figure that this is the kind of movie that's going to go that direction, but the actual expression of motivations and feelings among the characters is almost impossible to parse on a scene-by-scene level. Anna especially, who really only has the inner life necessary to justify inane plot points.

Besides which, it really is quite a tacky splat of exploitation. In principle, the film is exploring multiple different social messages about the World of Today: the crippling power of alcoholism, and the violent potential of the overprivileged man, mostly. In practice, these things are so obviously set dressing that it rather reflects poorly on the film than well, that it wants to steal some sense of gravitas from indicating these themes without in any meaningful sense absorbing them into its soul. The alcoholism plot is especially galling: the notion, I think, is that we're meant to read this as a stirring tale of how Rachel rebuilds from the ashy ruins of her vanished life, struggling to assert her dominance over all her demons. And that's basically how Blunt plays it, albeit histrionically. The tone of the movie, though, is like watching a particularly sudsy Susan Hayward vehicle, gawking at its lead actor with the bravura of a carnival barker hustling us to come see the gorgeous Emily Blunt play a sweat-slicked, burned-out wino. The crassness I could handle; the crassness wearing its very posh, Tate Taylory sense of being oh beg pardon, a very classy prestige picture, adapted from quite the literary sensation, you know – that I cannot stomach for even a second. Barely more than functional as a thriller and a star vehicle at best, I can only describe The Girl on the Train as trash: not the fun, feisty kind of trash (like, for example, Susan Hayward vehicles), but the kind that you wad up into a ball and toss into a bin and forget about an instant later.


12 October 2016


Dheepan is terrific right up until a point near the end where it becomes kind of actively terrible in a really bold, gaudy way; not the first time this sort of thing has cropped up, and not likely to be the last. At least Jacques Audiard, the director and one-third of the writing team (with Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré), has the unstinting courage of his convictions: the film's last act might be a trite failure, but it bears the mark of careful deliberation over every last detail, just like the rest of the film. And this should not be any real surprise: a decade after his international breakthrough, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Audiard has comfortably ensconced himself as one of the leading lights of French cinema. If he wants to spend his clout on brave madness that doesn't play, then God bless 'im, he should.

Before moving on, let me nod towards the elephant in the room: yes, this won the 2015 Palme d'Or at Cannes, and no, it shouldn't have. Not in the particularly strong competition year that witnessed The Assassin, Carol, and The Lobster, just for starters. At its absolute best, Dheepan does nothing stylistically that's new for Audiard or French cinema generally, and there's something weirdly safe about the carefully-appointed message of immigrant life in contemporary France, the kind of evergreen topic that's always good for some instant credentials as Serious Art. But let's not dwell on all of that: it's a solid damn movie, no masterpiece, but a welcome addition to Audiard's career and the corpus of French message films about urban minorities both.

The film has an unbeatable hook: in the wake of his side's failure in the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war, a former Tamil Tiger named Sivadhasan (Antonyhasan Jesuthasan, a Tamil-langage political novelist acting for only the second time) decides that it would be judicious to get the hell out of Sri Lanka. In order to leave the country, he teams up with a pair of strangers posing as his family: fake wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and 9-year-old fake daughter Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), and the trio, under protection of passports that obliged Sivadhasan to rechristen himself "Dheepan", relocates to Paris. Here, Sivadhasan/Dheepan finds that in its own horrible little way, the life of a brown-skinned immigrant in France is just as beset by violence as the life of a refugee on the losing side of a civil war, and is thereby thwarted in his efforts to carve out a new life; Yalini and Illayaal similarly stumble through as best they can, but it's clear before very long that the best case scenario is still pretty bad, as long as they all live in France.

The rules of ethical film reviewing forbid me from saying where all this goes in more than the most general possible terms, but I think that will be enough to get it across. Since the movie's premiere Audiard has been open about the fact that he and his co-writers wanted to make a variant on Straw Dogs, and decided to set it among the Tamil population of France, rather than the other way around, which is not on its face unreasonable. "Crime thriller set among the dispossessed" is the same screenwriting Mad Libs that got us to Audiard's A Prophet, and I'll not hear a single word said against that picture. That being said, A Prophet has a beauty of a script that weaves everything that will happen through everything that has happened, and Dheepan is real solid script that has a violent finale happen at it. The film replicates Straw Dogs's basic structure of having violence only explode near the end, as a sort of "enough of this damn bullshit" gesture, but it lacks Straw Dogs's feeling of clouds gathering over the course of a feature. Even so, I think I could probably find a way to like this passage if it wasn't for what followed: a shockingly trite and completely unearned overblown happy ending that's the worst of its kind since Minority Report.

Regardless of all of that, the bulk of Dheepan is quite a lovely thing: watching the three refugees play-act at being a contented family while trapped under the pressure of being Tamil in France is so finely-tuned that it becomes almost a joy to watch, leaving no trace of the fact that we're basically watching a message picture about immigration until you stop and think about it. Audiard's shooting style, which is basically the same as in his earlier films, goes in heavily for the handheld cameras and cluttered mise en scène that have mostly characterised "realistic" European cinema in the 21st Century, but he doesn't completely give up on style: Dheepan is unusually reliant on close-ups, much to its benefit, and those close-ups tend to place us in the confidence of the characters more than would be strictly necessary if this was just another "look at these people in society" film. The three leads are distinct, interesting, complex figures, especially Sivadhasan, owing in no small part to those close-ups on Jesuthasan's spectacularly good face. By virtue of focusing so tightly on the characters, all of the more generic, prestigey elements of the film tend to fall away, and it becomes an enthralling act of watching sharply-etched people dealing with problems, in a mostly plotless way.

That makes it all the more annoying when the plot suddenly swoops in with its violent operatic vengeance, with the style changing to capture the whole of that sequence with a kind of foggy nightmare atmosphere. Which is striking as all hell, and I don't want to pretend that Dheepan becomes in some way less interesting or watchable; it just becomes much less "good", and what is satisfying about the first 90 minutes is not really anywhere to be found in the remainder of the film. It's not a movie to dismiss or ignore: even setting aside, as a general principle, that it's probably better to watch Palme d'Or winners than not, Dheepan mixes a social message impulse in with a desire to use rich characters to entertain us that serves it well and sets it much apart from the ordinary sort of gravely serious movie about the Problems Of Today. It's a worthy movie, just not an especially capital-G Great one, and that will have to be enough.


09 October 2016


Update 10/9/16: A shamefully underproductive September and first week of October has left me with 43 reviews remaining. I will beg the patience of those generous donors whose requests haven't been filled yet - it's almost certainly the case at this point that I'll be unable to finish up in 2016, though I plan to get as close as possible. Keep watching this space.

Previously: Drumroll - the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy Cancer Fundraiser has ended, with a total of 172 donations reaching the AMAZING total of $5360 raised for the American Cancer Society and other cancer research foundations. That's almost four and a half times the total we raised in 2010! So a huge round of applause to everybody who gave.

It's especially gratifying for me to announce this at this point in time: quite by coincidence, on 18 June 2015, shortly before the fundraiser ended, I was given the all-clear by my oncologist. After 10 years without a trace of cancer in my body, I'm completely out of the woods and don't ever have to go back for a check-up. So this day isn't just exciting to me for the sheer fact of the fundraiser; it's personal celebration too.

Thank you again to everyone who donated, for making this such a roaring success.

List of Donors


A review requested by Andrew Yankes, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There is no film quite like the 1979 animated short Tale of Tales. I mean that in the most literal way. Just about every film is like some other film, but not this one - it is a complete singularity. Not even director Yuriy Norshteyn's other shorts - five of them in the eleven years preceding this, his most recent completed work (since 1981, he's been doggedly working on a feature) - particularly resemble Tale of Tales. It is without precedent in cinema - maybe in all of art, because although it borrows heavily from literature and poetry, it does so in a final form that does not to any real extent resemble those media. I assume that's the reason why it has been cited, more than once and by some damned prestigious institutions, as the finest piece of animated cinema ever made. I don't agree with that, though mostly do to the impossibility of the question: by what means does one even start to compare the technique of this with the technique of, say, What's Opera, Doc? or Grave of the Fireflies? At the same time, if we're going to anoint anything with that title, Tale of Tales earns it as fairly as anything.

The film is... and there we stop. What is it? A collection of images that generally seem to belong to certain subgroups, including contrasted moments of women dancing with men and men marching off as soldiers; scenes of a pair of small boys, or maybe the same small boy in two places simultaneously, eating a green apple; a sorrowful bull playing jump-rope with a little girl in a dress. There's something that implies that it might open up into being a narrative: an adorable little wolf with probing, soulful eyes watches a newborn nursing with its mother. It does not turn into a narrative, or at least not one that can be confidently described using the vocabulary of chronological relationships between events. The film is... and maybe that's exactly it. The film is. The film exists. The film offers us the interpretation that it is in some way an organism, and that it should be understood as a system of biological processes rather than a collection of storytelling tropes. It builds itself inductively and intuitively, largely on the basis of what moments are conflated through editing, or simply by the amorphous nature of Norshteyn's animation (which he completed more or less entirely alone), as well as what sounds and music we hear while absorbing the visuals, and even the visual style of the piece, which cleaves into at least three entirely distinct aesthetics.

There is, for example, a moment at which we see smudgy, ghost-like men and women dancing to Jerzy Petersburski's 1935 tango "The Last Sunday", during which time the whole image jutters and lurches forward, while the men vanish, one at a time, with a loud sucking noise. An instant later, we see soldiers with bayonets marching in place, as the scratches all over the yellowed image of the dance hall dissolves into rain. I don't think it's making some bold claim to see this as a commentary on war (primarily World War II, especially given the chronological placement of the song), wrenching young couples apart and sending the boys anonymously on to their death. Indeed, I think it would be hard to imagine the viewer who doesn't make that connection. A few minutes later, in an entirely different setting from an entirely different movie, a brightly-colored man who looks like a chalk drawing of a comic strip stands up from his similarly-designed female companion, where they sit in the snow ignoring a young boy idly feeding his apple to a pair of crows. Abruptly, his head is covered by a giant Napoleonic hat - a few moments later the same happens to the boy - and he marches off. Perhaps it's just wird surrealist comedy, but with the line of soldiers marching into their graves that we saw so recently still echoing in the mind's eye, it feels like we're somehow still talking about the hard cost of war, even though the whole tenor of the moment is completely different. But the Napoleonic war and WWII were profoundly important events in Russia, and connecting them while making sure to keep them apart is just... right.

So the first thing that Tale of Tales maybe "is": the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, done as an epic cartoon short. But it's also a bedtime fairy tale: the only words we hear spoken, outside of a few panicked ejaculations from the wolf, are the words of a traditional lullaby about the little grey wolf who'll come to kidnap children to the woods (a cheery people, Russians are), which in a fashion ends up happening, though the wolf who does it seems as confused as we are by why, and his astonishingly expressive face (astonishing in that it is a charcoal-like smear of shading where the parts of his anatomy can barely be distinguished, other than his intense eyes) suggests that he feels helplessly gripped by the fatalistic demands of the lullaby, in some respect. The second thing that we might call Tale of Tales: a story of childhood impressions, a story of childhood subjectivity given weight and shape.

What it mostly is, I think, is memory, something vaguely confirmed by Norshteyn himself (though he's said enough different things about the film that it's not necessarily a good bet to take him at his word; unless we want to assume that Tale of Tales is about the whole experience of life, which isn't necessarily untrue). Not "about" memory. The taste of madeleines in Proust is "about" memory. Tale of Tales is the process of dredging up memory from where it has been hidden: it is a film of things being barely formed into a coherent shape, or things not formed into a coherent shape. The surrealistic bull, a crudely-drawn and crudely-animated sketch presented as a line drawing on ancient white paper, feels more like a terribly misremembered detail stripped of its context and vitalising color (which is not to say that the brown and yellow-dominated Tale of Tales is bursting with color, outside of the scenes that take place in the winter forest - a gorgeous irony about which I do now know what to do), the way a memory fragment might do. Whose memory the film is, I cannot say: Russia's and a little boy's, maybe; maybe the little boy who heard the wolf lullaby and found some way to turn it into a cozy cartoon, and grew up and was horrified by warfare.

At any rate, the collage-like construction of the film's soundtrack, bits and pieces of classical music patched together; and its mixed-media approach to animation, unified stylistically only in that everything seems terribly aged and dried-up; these things suggest to me an incoherent subjectivity. It is not merely that Tale of Tales represents memories: it represents memories that are incomplete and arbitrary, with the rememberer trying and failing to collate them into a single history, as one might when one is in the blurry place between falling asleep and being asleep. The film feels less like a single argument (though there's a philosophy that creeps through: unmistakably Eastern European in its conviction that we are ultimately doomed to recreate past mistakes and lying stagnant in the present) than a series of emotional textures that we can perceive but not hold onto. It is a film of ghosts, some of them sadder than others. Memory, in this telling, is less what shapes our present and more the thing that haunts us, but it is not a hopeless film: there are small joys and triumphs to be plucked from the chain of experiences Norshteyn links together, like the pleasure of eating an apple. And that is maybe the profoundest thing Tale of Tales can say to us: that while the world is dark and cold, and while there is suffering, there is also happiness; and it can perhaps be the case that the little grey wolf is a comfort rather than a threat. This is a solemn film, but not a grave one; a stylistically dessicated film that finds beauty in the corruption of age, and it is one of the greatest cinematic poems that has ever been and could ever be.


08 October 2016


Let us not mince words: when the director of Drive makes his version of a Dario Argento movie that abruptly turns into his version of a Lucio Fulci movie, the question was never if I was going to like it, but if I'd be able to choke down my enthusiasm enough to admit that, objectively, it might not actually be the best movie of the current century. And of course, objectively, The Neon Demon isn't remotely close to being that good. The film is nastily superficial, and intentionally so: it's a story about Los Angeles, city of visual surfaces and industrial cultures that reduce women to the sum total of their outward appearance, and to make its points about that subject, it embodies the thing it tries to analyze. "The style is substance" is a phrase I've grown to despise, since I think there cannot be such a thing as a movie in which the style isn't the substance (it's a visual medium, after all), but if there was ever a movie to earn that description, The Neon Demon is it: a depiction of the horrible dehumanising abuses suffered by fashion models that works in large part by stripping its protagonist of her human depth, and letting us marinate in how empty and synthetic that feels.

What this all means, in the execution, is that director Nicolas Winding Refn's scenario (which he turned into a screenplay with the help of Mary Laws & Polly Stenham) hinges on one of the hoariest old chestnuts in the movies: a pure young woman arrives in Los Angeles hoping to make name, but she is beset up on by jealous rivals, rapacious power brokers, indifferent landlords, and all the rest, and there's just that one sweet boy looking out for her, but he's pretty much a pill and neither she nor we hope that they end up together. The girl in question is Jesse (Elle Fanning), 16 years old and possessed of an ethereal beauty that earns the wrath of models Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) when they see her cleaning up after a photo shoot conducted by the bland, nice Dean (Karl Glusman). A shoot in which we first see Jesse, in the movie's long opening take, slumped over and dripping fake blood in copious quantities. It's the first time the film makes the gesture of blending the sexual objectification of beautiful women with acts of messy violence, and assuredly not the last: this is, to an extent, the thesis statement of the picture. Jesse, Gigi, Sarah, and make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), whose fascination with Jesse's beauty is of a plainly more erotic register than the mere jealousy of the others, get to talking about how all lip coloring products are either named after fruit, or suggest sexual attraction, and Jesse is hit with the question, "Are you food or sex?" There's not much subtlety here, let's just say.

So it's about a culture that fetishises the youth and beauty of women and then devours them alive in attempt to possess and commodify that youth and beauty; not a new theme, nor has this the finest and most sophisticated screen treatment it's received, but it gets the job done. It's also about other things: like the color red, and the feel of negative space, and the psychological horror of being pursued and desired and treated as an object, along with more traditional horror, though this doesn't show up till the end. But when it does, it reveals that the whole movie has basically been a vampire film (Winding Refn has cited Countess Bathory as an inspiration), and retroactively makes things that merely seemed odd earlier in the film, or at worst prurient (Ruby's homoerotic leers, for example) turn out to be foreshadowing of the savage psychic and fleshy harm that the other women intend to mete on Jesse.

Even so, there's a profound sense throughout the film of an incipient threat lurking. Some of this comes through performance, and the way that Malone, Heathcoate, and Lee circle around the carefully blanked-out Fanning (who is much, much more gifted as an actor than this role requires or permits, but at the same time that sense of wasting Fanning's talents ties back into the film's themes) like sharks or wolves smelling blood. Some of it comes through what is depicted: there's no missing how the photo shoot with legendary photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington), who paints and otherwise manipulates Jesse's body, is a symbolic rape scene, with all the upsetting sense of danger and cruelty that implies. And there's a unique and special kind of horrifying feeling that comes from seeing a mountain lion appear suddenly and inexplicably in the film, almost like a Surrealist add-on, with thin edge lighting to give it the general aspect of a ghost, some half-seen threat stalking the darkness. There's also a terrific score by Winding Refn's regular composer, Cliff Martinez, that uses drawn-out electronic notes to create a generally dessicated, disquieting mood of dissonant textures.

Mostly, the film's feeling of danger comes entirely from its use of color and framing: Argento, I said, and I shall repeat myself. I have no idea if Winding Refn specifically intended The Neon Demon to borrow from Suspiria, but that's exactly what it does in bold, unmissable ways, with its routine use of fields of solid color against which Jesse is set (usually in perfectly centered compositions) to maximise the impression that she's being swallowed up by a sea of scorching, fire-engine red. Or other colors: the scene where Jack molests her is in the middle of bleak white, like some kind of hellish Apple commercial. But red is certainly the most telling color choice for a movie that's largely predicated on blood and lust, and Winding Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier use it shamelessly and to enormously great effect. The Neon Demon, befitting its title, glows: it is lurid, aggressive, overpowering, using the oppressiveness of its color palette, accentuated by the huge swaths of negative space that tend to fill (that is to say, not-fill) the frame, to rudely yank us from one extreme emotional response to the next.

The film is an exercise in pure affect: it employs only the barest slip of a plot, whose outcome we can see generally coming from the very beginning (though not, probably, the specifically tawdry and artfully repulsive form it takes), but it does fantastic work diving into the subjective feelings of the protagonist operating within that plot, using the most aggressive visual and auditory techniques. This is not a movie looking to be broadly liked, if only because of how acutely it doesn't bother so much as pretending that it's terribly worked up about storytelling, to say nothing of the violence. And it certainly does nothing to defend itself against charges of being absolutely ridiculous, particularly in the blend of visceral horror and juvenile gross-out humor in the last five or ten minutes - grotesqueness that's captured in the sharply polished textures and framing of a glossy fashion magazine ad, no less. The marriage of extremely beautiful images with barbaric content is of course the point, which doesn't make it any less trashy (however gleefully), nor does it make this film any easier to recommend or defend. The Neon Demon is devoid of delicacy or sophistication, but there's something wonderful about its blunt-force approach anyway, and its fearless commitment to non-stop sensory overload.

8/10 (but 9/10 in my heart)