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