Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lost In America: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Nathan and David Zellner's latest film, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter", takes as their main character a woman not far removed from the socially inept, slacker-aesthetic formula that drove the emotions behind the man (David Zellner himself) fixated on finding his lost cat amid his crumbling relationship in their terrific film "Goliath". How many times have we all convinced ourselves of a certain lie or created a unique diversion to stiffen some oncoming problem? The Zellner Brothers have exorcised those devious personal caveats and created a full length fairy tale wherein the fragile Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) travels halfway across the globe, partly to escape her deteriorating life in Japan, in search of a fictional bag of loot from the 1996 Coen Brothers movie "Fargo". Whether its a crumbling marriage and furry animals or a life-altering event in a faraway new world (as its subtitled once she lands in Minneapolis), the Zellner's seem to have a knack for elevating the inherent sadness found in socially acceptable structures such as marriage and cultural obligations.

For Kumiko, those cultural obligations include a job she despises, working as an office lady for a man who snidely alludes to her status of non-marriage and a team of fellow peers far more interested in their new eye lash treatments than actual human interaction. In between taking her boss' suits to and from the cleaners, Kumiko's only pleasure involves the incessant watching of a worn out VHS tape of the movie "Fargo", which she found discarded. Adding to her malaise is her mother, heard but never seen, racking her with guilt-trip phone calls to either marry or come back and live with her. Between all that undue, inchoate pressure, it's no wonder Kimuko slowly invents the rationalization that the "based on true events" titles at the beginning of the film are there to lead her to the money buried by criminal Carl (Steve Buscemi) along a desolate, snow-covered fence line in North Dakota.

As Kumiko, actress Kikuchi (of "Babel" and "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo") is a revelation. Never completely belying the nature of mental derangement most likely in her young character, she gives a modulated performance. Just watch the scene where she inadvertently runs into an old friend, Michi (Kanako Higashi), on the street. Kikuchi is restrained, protective, frail..... as if the ordinary albeit numbingly casual words that rise from Michi's mouth hurt her with every breath. Expressive through her eyes only, Kikuchi realigns her performance into something more determined once she arrives in America, unable to fully communicate with the people she comes into contact with, transferring her presence into a wide-eyed but defensive sponge. It's one of the more remarkable performances of the year so far.

But perhaps the most striking effect of "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" is its ability to rotate our expectations of a land I fully thought I understood. Like the best works of German auteur Wim Wenders, where his poetic and free-spirited men and woman traverse through the vast yet marginal corners of this great nation, there was always an outsider's perspective which made the familiar expanses feel antique, slightly deranged and even weird. We often felt their spatial and cultural dislocation. Even though the Zellner Brothers are Texas natives, they duplicate this same fresh perspective to dizzying heights, such as when Kumiko enters a roadside cafe and the camera slowly slides behind her, partially hazy at the edges, and the place's kitschy, baroque flavor looks and feels downright anomalous. It's a wonderful moment in a film full of them.

Even though, ultimately, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter", supposes a dark denouement, it also rallies hard for the belief that, sometimes, the best medicine is to lose ourselves in a totally inept faith of something... anything. Even if we never find that cat, the search is more rewarding than the catch.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.3


I've almost forgotten exactly where Yann Demange's "'71" falls in the hectic line of new Jack O'Connell films. And yes, we get it, he's going to be a star. But here, he's asked to do very little besides wheeze and look exhausted the entire film as he plays a British soldier lost behind the slum lines during the Irish "troubles". That's not a knock on him. Substitute anyone in this role and the results would probably be the same. Demange's kinetic, frenzied tale isn't really about this single man, but his unwilling initiation and observance of the constantly shifting politics behind any good country's civil strife. The violence is swift and brutal. The sides, although supposedly clearly drawn, secede into a swamp of uncertainty as undercover cops play both sides, genuinely decent people try to make sense of the conflict and unflinching loyalty- even when one sees that allegiance is damning- coalesce into a muddy portrait of hopelessness. It's a powerful film driven by a simple action film conceit- be superman and get out alive.

It Follows

It may seem rote to attempt a new subversion of the horror genre, but writer-director David Robert Mitchell does just that in his latest film "It Follows". Taking the act of sexual intercourse, which often spells disaster for teens in all those slasher horror movies of yesteryear, is stretched to full length parable here. Often a very vulnerable, short-circuit-head moment for young people (or really anyone of any age), the act of sex is shrouded in guilt, paranoia and complete fear in "It Follows" as "something" begins to stalk poor Jay (Maika Monroe) after having sex with Hugh (Jake Weary). Immediately knocking her out and subduing her, she awakens to his wild story of having to do this to her so "something" would quit stalking him and be transferred to her. In full control of every facet of the film, from its precise camera placement and movement to the moody synth soundtrack, Mitchell has created a deeply unsettling experience that understands the psychology of scare is always more penetrating than the scare itself. In his debut feature, the wonderful "The Myth of the American Sleepover", he perfectly accentuated the universal emotions of suburban teen aimlessness. Though far removed from my own current generational outlook, the film felt true and purposeful, as if he tapped into my own half memories and daydreams of being fifteen again. In "It Follows", the teens from that film could have graduated to these more grown-up acts, still aimless, but now struggling with not only the pangs of young adulthood, but the spectre of real consequences. It's one of the year's best films.

The Gunman

I spoke of O'Connell huffing and wheezing, well Sean Penn does it here too. Not a very good film but it fed my cheesy 80's action vibe. Full review can be read here.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

In Praise of Maggie Cheung #1

 Part of an ongoing series exploring the prolific, long-standing work of actress Maggie Cheung

 Clean (2004), directed by Olivier Assayas

My initial thoughts on "Clean" back in 2006, in which it placed number 5 on my best films of the year list:

"The most criminally under appreciated film on this list, French auteur Olivier Assayas strikes subtle gold again as he charts the day-to-day survival of the gloriously pretty Maggie Cheung, fresh out of rehab after the drug overdose of her rock star husband. The film’s main conceit is the unobtrusive manner in which the camera hovers on Cheung’s shoulder as she struggles to reconnect with her son, now in the possession of his grandfather (played with tender precision by Nick Nolte, an Oscar worthy performance). Assayas works best in casual modes, and the beauty of “Clean” lies in the unpredictable narrative turns between Nolte and Cheung. Plus, no director films “hanging out” quite as easily as Assayas does."

Still holds true today, not only as one of Assayas' most overlooked great films (or perhaps that honor goes to "Boarding Gate"?), but for Cheung's effortless performance. Shaggy hair, decked out in a punk rock aesthetic (which probably wasn't too far removed from her own personal stylization of the time) and imbuing every movement with a dreary, labored swagger bemoaning the burned-out rehab mood her character struggled with, "Clean" is a heavy film made all the more desperate by Cheung's role. See it now.

Farewell China  (1990), directed by Clara Law

For her 1990's representation this time, "Farewell China" remains one of her more underrated (yet unavailable) efforts. Directed by Clara Law and winning several awards (including a jury prize at the Torino Film Festival for Cheung), the film is a bitter take on the Chinese immigrant experience in America. It's only after the first ten minutes that Cheung leaves her husband (Tony Leung) and departs to New York after finally acquiring a visa. Through her initially prolific letters, she becomes more distant from him and their young baby, eventually and curtly asking for a divorce. Unable to reconcile her reasoning, Leung departs for America himself to find his wife.

Not without her grandstanding moments, Cheung is a marginal character in "Farewell China"- the wife of Leung who sets him upon his Orpheus adventure into the underworld known as late 1980's New York City... a city whose anarchic tensions are bubbling through the seams like an Abel Ferrara picture. Roving Harlem gangs, scrappy 15 year old prostitutes (Hayley Man), homeless men who randomly steal shoes and a nighttime punk rock street party that borders on the openings to Hell are just some of the hurdles facing Leung as he spends several months looking for his wife. It's all carried out in histrionic fashion, but not without its subtle feelings between Leung and Cheung (a pairing that would mutate over time especially in the works of Wong Kar Wai) especially in the moment when they finally come face to face again. But, like a majority of the immigrant stories to America, they find "home" is usually far better than their new home, and in "Farewell China", the denouement is specifically angry and pointed. Not only has the city itself gone mad, but Law inverts the damage psychologically and Cheung/Leung become the unwitting victims to its mercilessness. 

Moon Sun and Stars (1988), directed by Michael Mak

Of the three films discussed here, "Moon Sun and Stars" is most likely the least seen Cheung effort. Yet, even though its not a very strong film, it's elevated by Cheung's performance.... which is typically one of the highest compliments an actor can be given. The fact that Cheung holds her own- and even carves out small pockets of real empathy and depth- in a sub standard comedy/drama about three "service girls" fighting to keep their heads above water during their various trials and tribulations speaks to the credibility of her on screen persona. While the young, beautiful women in "Moon Sun and Stars" endure every type of voracious hardships in the guise of abuse, rape and general dismissal by men even when the promise of true happiness is dangled in front of them, its the simple reaction of Maggie's crestfallen girl when her suitor backs out of a promise that resonates. The overall film may trade unevenly in wild emotions, poor translation and straight up soap opera dramatics, but its Cheung that provides the lifeline for reality otherwise.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Top 5 List: The Con's the Thing

5. Nine Queens (2000)- The loss of Argentinian writer/director Fabian Bielinsky in 2006 was a massive loss to international film making. If one hasn't seen his 2005 "The Aura", then you're missing a flat out masterpiece. But his calling card to larger acclaim came five years earlier with this film, "Nine Queens", about the hustle and bustle of two men (one of whom is the terrific Ricardo Darin) attempting to pull off a massive con involving a rare set of stamps. Bielinsky understands the tension of the con lies in good characterizations... men and women who inhabit the full spectrum of good and bad and everyone in "Nine Queens" deserves a varying degree of observation. Infused with a kinetic Tarantino-esque inertia and a script that flies by with pure adrenaline, this is one film to seek out.

4. The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Starring Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody as grifting brothers who choose the eccentric but wealthy mark played by Rachel Weisz, "The Brothers Bloom" establishes itself right away as another entry in the cinema of "New Cool" as I call it. Director Wes Anderson being the godfather of this movement, of course, Johnson employs some of the same stylish techniques (whip pans, cutesy acoustic music, vibrant color schemes) but creates characters and a story that feel all their own. Perhaps too whimsical for some, I absolutely loved the way Johnson films Brody and Weisz falling in love through a simple dolly tracking shot as they walk the streets of Prague, disappear behind a row of stone pillars, and re-emerge holding hands. Self conscious and definitely aware of its coolness, "The Brothers Bloom" doesn't beat one over the head with it though. Keeping the sweetness intact between child-like Weisz and impressionable Brody as the story (and con-game) grows convoluted is the single masterstroke of Johnson's "The Brothers Bloom". Their relationship isn't a con, and that makes the whole thing work. While the black suits and shades worn by the brothers remains consistent throughout, there's a great scene towards the beginning of the film where we think the action is happening in some burlesque in 1920's Chicago, and then the brothers emerge in broad daylight on a graffiti-filled rooftop overlooking a very modern downtown. Again, some of the images in this film are breathtaking. Johnson seems to relish telling small stories against the fabricated backdrop of embedded narrative styles. And with "The Brothers Bloom" he does this magically.

3. The Spanish Prisoner (1997)- David Mamet has etched a glorious career out of his razor-sharp words. The second Steve Martin suddenly appears and tells Rebecca Pidgeon "I'll give you a thousand dollars for that camera...." in response to inadvertently snapping a blurry picture of him and his (supposed) private plane in the background, nothing is what it seems. As the hot-shot designer of the classic "whatsit" and the technological breakthrough that seems to drive everyone's conniving angle in the film, Campbell Scott is perfectly dry and suited to the Mamet-fold of sheep being led to the slaughter house. I remember first watching "The Spanish Prisoner" in an empty theater in Waco, Texas, feeling awestruck by the mood and tone of Mamet's control. I went back that same night for a second viewing, hoping to connect the dots even more. Yes, its a brilliant con film, but what's not said is more pertinent to the film. It's silences, eye movement and mannered performances are the essence of good suspense cinema and "The Spanish Prisoner" wades exuberantly within these unspoken characteristics. Yes, I even appreciate the stiff performance of Mamet's wife and muse Rebecca Pidgeon here, whose odd inflections and theater-like cadence add a special dimension to the quicksand atmosphere. I think this film is ripe for a re-watch. And looking over the reviews again, I really forgot how well received this film was, garnering special praise from Ebert and really breaking out of the gates from an early premier at the Sundance Film Festival. Special mention to Mamet's "House of Games" as well.

2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) - Oh how much I laughed as a kid at the iteration of "Ruprecht" by Steve Martin. Yes, its juvenile and slapsticky and obviously catered to the 80's (which is a whole other post), but "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" also holds up today as a terrific comedy with a smart con at its core.

1. Hard Eight (1996)- Yes, it's not "The Sting" or "The Hustler" (although those are very obvious honorable mentions), but P.T. Anderson's mid 90's debut tracks the sleazy exploits of a down-on-his-luck drifter (John C. Reilly) and the mentor (Philip Baker Hall) who takes him under his wing, teaching him how to survive and thrive in Reno. Sharpened from an earlier short film work print called "Coffee and Cigarettes", the film brilliantly announced the prowess of Anderson through gritty performances, astounding cinematography and a strong sense of mise-en-scene as their relationship grows in complexity and danger. Choosing to set the film in Reno instead of the prototypical lush Vegas also adds a sleazy luster to "Hard Eight", succinctly conveying the smoke stained walls and greasy-fingered tables that dominate the film's settings. Very few films are as astounding right out of the gate as this.