Monday, July 25, 2016

Grand Canyons: Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love"

It's telling of the parabolic nature of Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love" that the specified non-believer of the couple (Gerard Depardieu basically playing himself) is the one eventually shown the spiritual majesties of the other side. Guffawing and obese, he's been dragged to Death Valley by his ex-wife (Isabelle Huppert also playing a variation of herself) in the hopes of reconnecting with the dead spirit of their deceased son. For the first two-thirds of the film, "Valley of Love" concerns itself with the discordant nature of this middle-aged couple, divorced and basically unhappy in each other's company. To make matters worse, the setting is Death Valley's scorched barrens of land, offering nothing but repulsive heat and non-descript tourist motels. Nothing too extraordinary happens, yet part of the film's resplendence lies in the natural and lived-in performances from two of France's most recognizable movie stars. Then, things turn a bit metaphysical and "Valley of Love" slinks towards a conclusion that's both breathless in its audacity and mysterious in the way it can draw completely new variations on grief and the hollow center it often leaves behind.


Opening with a long steadicam shot that simply follows behind Huppert as she walks to her motel room across a winding sidewalk, "Valley of Love", doesn't get any more urgent after Gerard (Depardieu) arrives. This same unbroken, unhurried camera movement is duplicated later in the film, reversed to follow Gerard through the carpeted hallways of their motel and eventually outside to enjoy a smoke. The couple dine together, spend time at the motel pool (where Depardieu gets recognized by a man and then insults him by signing his autograph request with Robert DeNiro's name) and travel to select locations in the Valley where they await a sign from their son who committed suicide years ago and then promised to return on the given dates. The couple re-read their son's cryptic letters. They ponder on what type of person he really was, as both confess they didn't really know him after all. This lamentation of a child lost and a marriage imploded hang over the first half of the film. Completely devoid of fashionable performances, both Huppert and Depardieu exert a veteran calm that not only plays right into their roles as recognizable French faces lost in America, but adds gravity to the weary and low-key atmosphere of the entire film. Then, sudden unexplained events occur... once right after the aforementioned long shot that follows Depardieu outside Huppert's motel room window and the second at the very end.... and "Valley of Love" turns into something more than the study of a couple hoping, searching for answers and ultimately doubting their marital time together. 

The French are known for their penchant to fly outside the boundaries of reality-based cinema. Where "Valley of Love" succeeds in its metaphysical nature and other recent examples have failed miserably (such as Pascal Ferran's abysmal "Bird People"), a majority of the credit has to go to the methodical way Nicloux builds a sense of mounting frustration between Depardieu and Huppert. She calls him fat and he replies that, "yes, he knows he is". They are endlessly surrounded by clueless tourists or the oddball outcast who seems right at home on a scorched patch of earth yelling at televised baseball games in the motel restaurant. Life, love, habits and their own patience has run out with each other over the years. All of this is made candidly tactile throughout the first half of "Valley of Love" so that when narrative (and our own disbelief) about why they're there together begins to take shape, it washes over you with modulated force. Maybe there is something there or maybe it's all in the minds of grieving parents who simply begin to project their desires onto the blank canvas of Death Valley. Either way, "Valley of Love" proves to be a rewarding, evocative masterpiece.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Last Ten Films I've Seen, Sweaty Summer Edition

1. Camp XRay (2014)- Otherwise known as the film where Kristen Stewart emerged into the lauded young actress she's become over the last 3-4 years, culminating with the cover of "Film Comment" this month. She's good here and all, but there's still a hint of her emo-scowl and the film suffers from a bit of staginess.

2. The Infilitrator (2016)- Grimy and gritty undercover drug saga that manages to remain highly entertaining despite its been-there-done-that attitude and a relatively low-key performance from Bryan Cranston. The best part of it, though, is the casting of several unknowns in supporting character roles that not only represent the electric funkiness of mid-80's drug dealers, but emit a certain hollow eyed electricity found in the 70's films of the great Sidney Lumet.

3. Ryuzu and His Seven Henchmen (2015)- Takeshi Kitano's comedy, if it actually received some type of release outside of the random Asian film festival last year, would probably be compared to a Hollywood film like "Old Dogs"- that is paychecks for grey haired Hollywood stars a bit out of synch with the younger generation. Here, Kitano recruits a who's who of Asian film baddies of the 60's and 70's and has them reunite as "old farts" forming their old 'yakuza' gang to take on the new corporate sized gangsters of the neighborhood. Neither deconstructive of the genre or all that reflective, it does echo back to Kitano's sketch comedy style and probably only remains interesting for Kitano purists such as myself.

4. The Purge Election Year (2016)- I typically try and stay neutral in my communion of film and politics, but this film (and the entire trilogy) is a repellent example of a fictional work that contributes nothing but fuel to the current rhetoric of hatred, violence and divisiveness sweeping the globe.

5. The Professor (1986)- Been looking for this one for years. Guisuippe Tornatore's debut film stars Ben Gazzara as a mafia chief who rises to prominence behind bars and then takes control of the Naples 'cammorista' upon escaping. Lots of events and facts are compressed into almost 3 hours (culled from the original length of 5-6 hours as an intended TV miniseries) and it does feel long in the tooth at times, but its stark and ugly representation of violence and the role of Laura del Sol as the sister who actually runs things are inspired bits of narrative. It's also interesting in the way "The Professor" almost subverts the role of Gazzara into a secondary background character. He's the star and it's his film, yet he remains a deflected personality in this sprawling world of corruption, shadowy orders and political subterfuge.

6. Hello, My Name Is Doris (2016)- Sally Field is quite amazing in Michael Showalter's slightly berzerk little comedy about a 70'ish woman falling in love with her early 30's aged boss... how about that nifty age reversal for a comedy? Keeping some of its darker elements just at the edges (i.e. stalkerish tendencies) the film is a breezy 90 minutes. Plus it really makes me want a Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winter cd.

7. Cymbeline (2014)- Michael Almyreda is at it again, updating Shakespeare into a modern environment. Anachronistic and all, this one pits the bard's tale of deception, familial jealousy and star-crossed lovers into the world of biker meth dealer gangs and hipsters. It is quite fun to hear Dakota Johnson spewing Shakespeare.

8. Angel Face (1952)- Slight film noir about a young girl (Jean Simmons) and ambulance driver (Robert Mitchum) who fall in love amidst the death of her parents. Otto Preminger directs with a sure hand.

9. Heat and Sunlight (1987)- Coming off like a bad Henry Jaglom or Jon Jost, Rob Nilsson's surprising Sundance winnner reeks of everything pretentious and boring about early American independent cinema. Black and white photography. Self absorbed lovers fighting through their bouts of denial, self-doubt and solipsism. A tendency to carry on scenes way longer than patience allows. I suppose it;s early Sundance award is more about the time and place than the actual effort.

10. The Happiest Girl In the World (2009)- Radu Juda's film "Aferim!" has been one of the joys of film this year, and this sophomore feature length effort falls more in line with the typical traits of Romanian cinema. After a girl wins a car by sending in juice bottle caps, she's invited to the city to film a commercial. That's only the mind-numbing beginning of a day that sees her parents fight over the eventual financial windfall of selling the car, the pressing demands of a film crew who want the perfect commercial and an oppressive heat wave striking the city. To say the least, its one of the more ironic titles in recent film.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.6

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film is a synth-infused mood piece whose narrative has strayed even farther and loopier than even the rudimentary progression of "Only God Forgives". Parceled out like a glam-pop music video with bits of David Lynch dreaminess tossed in for good measure, ultimately, "The Neon Demon" suffers from a wallop of rote ideas and well tread commentary. We get it. The Los Angeles fashion/model scene is cannibalistic and treacherous. As the film winds down to its conclusion, all I could stop thinking about is "where the hell is that house with the swimming pool and why hasn't it been featured more prominently in an L.A. film before?" I'm sure Refin wanted more reactive passion than that from his film.



Hunt For the Wilderpeople

I can think of a handful of films in which a young boy is pitted against a curmudgeonly old man and, slowly, they not only form a bond but come to resemble something close to a family. That formula is followed here in Taika Waititi's comedy, "Hunt For the Wilderpeople" and it succeeds thanks to the wonderfully etched relationship between newcomer Julian Dennison and Sam Neill, as well as Waititi's acerbic sense of editing and perfectly timed laughs. The film also eschews laughing "at" something (such as those zany New Zealand bush folk) and imparts a generous sense of zaniness all around.






Friday, July 08, 2016

Frederick Wiseman: Deaf and Blind But Not Dumb

Frederick Wiseman's documentaries are a collection of dialogue, compromise, anger, observation and, in the case of his 1987 film "Blind", an exercise in pure cinemas as discovery. It comes at the halfway point when one of the very young blind children featured in the film (known as Jason) is followed in an extreme long take as he feels his way downstairs into one classroom and then back upstairs to another to talk to his teachers. There's no expediency or montage juxtaposition to hurry up the act. We simply exist to observe this child as his newly taught sensory skills are put to the test. It's a moment both bracing in its honesty and awe-inspiring in the possibilities of film to capture something non manufactured and real. In essence, that's what Wiseman has been doing for forty plus years.

As a companion piece to "Blind", there's also "Deaf", released a year earlier in 1986 but taking place in the same Alabama area school for the Deaf and Blind. Culled from endless hours of footage and whittled down to approximately five hours of film, both "Deaf" and "Blind" follow the framework of Wiseman's now pattern formula... i.e.basic exterior shots of the city and school welded around the inhabitants, leadership and tangential elements of an institution. In between, there are one or two extended scenes of discussion or conflict that serve as the identifying setpiece. In "Deaf", its a 35 minute discussion between a principal, a teacher, a mother and a deaf child whose been causing trouble at the school. Threats of suicide and intentional fights with other boys has landed this young man in the hot seat and through a carefully worded and patient conversation, his animosity about not seeing his real father and his mother's supposed lack of communication become the root cause. It's as if we're watching an intense psychiatric session, punctuated by sign language and the genuine care of all involved to arrive at an accepted and humane compromise.


Separating the visual style of both films- while "Deaf" is in color, "Blind" is black and white, naturally- both films are interested solely in the mechanics of thought, learning, perception and discussion... even when we don't fully understand the discussion. Several scenes in "Deaf" feature students communicating outside or by themselves in the hallway in sign language. There's no attempt to translate or cheapen the moment. The viewer is present, fully, in their world. Likewise, in "Blind", Wiseman sagely dispenses with compassionate leanings and shows only the strong moments of the blind students. Jason's confident walk. A classroom lesson where children learn about textures and feel as linen cloths are placed over their prone bodies. And a carefree dance where the energies and vigor of youth take over, regardless of their inability to see.

In both "Deaf and "Blind", the overriding message is that, yes, these children do have handicaps, but their immersion in life, relationships, and the everyday ebbs and flows of emotions are just as pertinent. Perhaps more so because they're learning to adapt without a vital sense many people take for granted. Wiseman doesn't. And the men, women and children featured in "Deaf" and "Blind" certainly don't.

Both films are available at www.Zipporah.com.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Top 5 List: Standouts From Halfway Thru 2016

5. Stellan Skarsgard in "Our Kind of Traitor"


Though the film itself is sturdy, efficient but completely unremarkable, the real pleasure of Susanna White's spy thriller is Stellan Skarsgard as the "traitor" in question. Playing a Russian mob accountant who wants to go straight and get his family out of dodge before they end up like the rest of his compatriots, Skarsgard plays his role like a bumbling good natured giant who not only seems to understand the complexities of the international game in front of him, but is prescient about his determined attempts in protecting his family. The rest of the cast is solid. Ewan McGregor is Ewan MvGregor. Damien Lewis hams it up as an MI-6 agent playing by his own rules, but its Skarsgard who registers the most.


4. Rebecca Hall in "Tumbledown"


Allow my Jason Sudeikis moratorium to expire with "Tumbledown". Sean Mewshaw's romantic drama not only provides him with his best and most affable performance to date, but its also a film of surprising warmth, humility and carefully crafted emotional manipulations. Oh, and Rebecca Hall is pretty damn amazing also. Taking the narrative of cult-songwriter worship to varying heights, "Tumbledown" initially wallows in grief as Hannah (Hall) struggles to come out from under the shadow of her late husband's death. Added to her grief is the fact he released one personal album that (as mentioned in the same vein as Kurt Cobain) still resonates around the world as a lost musical genius. Obsessed with writing a biography of the man, Sudeikis enters Hannah's world as the two try to manage their expectations and accolades for the man from drastically different sides of his persona. Packing a huge emotional wallop, "Tumbledown" is a film that builds slowly. Part romantic comedy and part backwoods New York cultural war, I wasn't expecting the ultimate wallop it delivers. There are no big dramatic shifts or surprise secrets, just a cautious and searching tale about the lives we lead after unforeseen devastation. Just watch the scene where Hall listens to a previously unrealized song and watch the shadows of memory, love and loss sway across her face. In that single moment, "Tumbledown" hooked its claws into me and never let go.


3. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in "The Nice Guys"


Shane Black's loopy, irreverent 70's noir has been one of the genuine surprises so far this year both in how it manages to tell a story (i.e. "The Big Lebowski" would be proud) and for its high-profile star duo who bounce and repartee off each other like Abbott and Costello. The denouement is less important than the sly comedy and almost accidental way this pair of private detectives bob and weave their way around Los Angeles trying to solve a scheme of kidnapping, murder and political infractions. It's a joy from start to finish.


2. Anya-Taylor Joy in "The Witch"


It's a film in which the character speak in mid 18th century English. It's taken from the annals of witchcraft history. It's dark, a bit glacial and certainly not the Blumhouse production most audiences were expecting. But Robert Eggers' superb atmospheric horror features not only features skin-crawling dread in just about every scene, but a terrific lead performance from wide eyed Anya-Taylor Joy. As the oldest daughter of a family experiencing some profoundly evil attributes, she grounds the film in realism with her anger, disbelief and misunderstood adolescent behavior that today would pass as simple tween angst. 


1. The Ensemble Cast of "Mustang"


In the opening scene of Deniz Erguven's devastatingly real tinderbox of female-emotion-drama, the older three of five sisters are waiting outside the school for young Lala (Gunes Sensoy) as she says her goodbye to a teacher. The three stand, half full of swagger and attitude, knowing that their budding sexuality and natural beauty are but moments away from blooming when they meet their boyfriends by the ocean. It's as if they're poised to star in an 80's teen drama and they're most certainly Kim Richards or Lea Thompson... i.e. the bad girls. But it's exactly this risque attitude that lands all five sisters in trouble when they get home, subsequently beaten and verbally abused for being such loose women and flirting openly with men. "Mustang" doesn't reside in John Hughes middle America, but the restrictive culture of Turkey. Gradually, their freedom (both of personal expression and choice) are eroded as they're locked inside their home and kept prisoners by grandmother and uncle until, slowly, each one is given away to womanhood and arranged marriages. "Mustang", the debut feature film by Erguven, works methodically and brilliantly, canvasing the girl's suffocation in gentle overtones. There are night time escapes to freedom. Outward displays of retaliation. And of course tragedy. Even though it's a Turkish film, "Mustang" is universal in its depiction of smothered youth via overwrought and antiquated traditions. By the time it ended, not only was I reduced to tears for these girls to make it out alive, but ultimately resentful of so many nationalities whose backwards belief system chokes the life from sparkling eyes.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.5

The Conjuring 2

Following a tried and true horror formula, director James Wan carries forward his 'off-shoot' franchise of famous paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren with "The Conjuring 2". Transitioning to England in the late 70's (immediately after they assisted on the infamous Amityville horror case), part 2 establishes much of the same shock and awe any Wan devotee will recognize- that being a disconcerting soundtrack, voices and eerie sounds cranked up to propulsive levels and an acute eye for jump scares. Thankfully, the theatrics are far from cheap thrills, stringently earned by the atmosphere. Mix in some genuine character sympathy (in the case of young possessed Janet, played by Madison Wolfe), a truly demonic evil spirit in the form of an electric-eyed nun, and a reflexive sense of humor and "The Conjuring 2" paints a nightmarish palette whose images and sounds won't diminish inside your head for awhile.


Dheepan

Beginning as immigrant drama where Dheepan (Jesuthasan Anthonythasan) and his make-shift 'family' struggle for survival in a French slum, things soon turn very "Taxi Driver"ish as their congenial existence is routinely threatened by the nearby violence and poverty of the local gangs. In the hands of French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, "Dheepan" is a modulated study of eroding morals and trust, featuring a score of authentic, sensitive performances... none moreso touching then the way he frames a woman and child in two dimly-lit apartment windows, begging for their father figure to return home. As he did in his masterpieces, "Rust and Bone" and "A Prophet", the sly affection for these outsiders slowly creeps up on the viewer. If the finale seems overtly jarring in its violence, its only because a parable about immigration such as this can only result in baptism through fire.



Cosmos

Andrzej Zulawski's final film is, sadly, his most labored and strained. Punctuated by tangents that play like a cross-patterned puzzle of his greatest thematic hits, "Cosmos" spins and whirls and digests itself into a pretentious mess. There's the country estate setting ala "The Blue Note" where everyone's fears, paranoia and repressed lust plays out in hysterics. There's the attention to weird linguistics that gave "Mad Love" a truly manic feel. And there's the beautiful Lena (Victoria Guerra) at the (partial) center that sets young Witold (Jonathan Genet) into a confused tizzy of stumped creativity and obsessive reasoning as to why various animals are being hung around the house. Guerra- and pretty much every one here- lacks the inner sultriness that Sophie Marceau brought to so many of Zulawski's pained efforts about the ineffectiveness of personal connection. It's as if Zulawski tried to merge his collective concepts into the 21st century after his long hiatus, but ended up with a hollow recreation at best.