Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Current Cinema (at home) 20.2

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Filmmaker Eliza Hittman seems especially attuned to the vagaries of adolescent torture.... as if this cesspool of emotions and stunted psychology doesn't get its fair share of examination. But with her latest film, "Never Rarely Sometimes Often", she scrapes away at the trauma of a teenager (Sidney Flanagan) not only dealing with a major life choice, but setting her afloat in the concrete jungle of New York with little compass or means besides her cousin (Talia Ryder) who tags along for support. Both young actresses give astounding performances, where confused glances and pursed lips say more about their pained understanding of the uncaring world than any dialogue ever could. Filmed in hectic, handheld bursts whose images seem fleeting but ultimately tell just the right amount of story, "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" tackles complicated themes without compromising its characters. Like she did for male anomie in her previous (and also wonderful) "Beach Rats", Hittman has fashioned a lean, acute oeuvre of young outsiders struggling and coping with some heavy stuff. That all her films come off as bracingly honest is the highest praise one can receive.


"Tommaso" is Abel Ferrera's most personal film since tearing the sheets from James Russo and Madonna in "Dangerous Game" (1993) and revealing the existential/psychological hell that is making a movie. And since one of his previous films explored the tortured landscape of legendary Italian filmmaker "Pasolini" (2014), this time around Ferrara simply re-calibrates the idea as his own tortured landscape. Starring Willem Dafoe, "Tommaso" portrays a burned-out filmmaker living in Europe with his wife and young daughter (Ferrara's own wife Cristina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara), filmed in Ferrara's own home, and refusing to follow any major narrative thoroughfare simply observing the man as he confronts the stasis and paranoia bubbling beneath the surface. There are moments of weakness and infidelities. There are unsubtle bouts of madness. And there's one especially magnificent scene as Dafoe confronts a screaming homeless man beneath his loft window- and it hardly goes where one expects, creating one of the most absorbing scenes of the year so far. "Tommaso" is ragged.... unruly.... unconventional.... and a brilliant progression of Ferrara's frenzied creative output that, hopefully, will continue to avoid the hypnotic stagnancy put forth in this autobiographical stunner.

Recent reviews at Dallas Film Now:

My Spy:  Uneven family comedy with a plot rehashed from a 90's Arnold Schwarzenegger pilot.

7500:  It's not long before the cockpit in this action thriller becomes exhausting. And not in a good way either.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Cinema Obscura: Seventeen Years

Released in 1999- during the explosive and now legendary year of new Hollywood classics produced by expressive individualistic talents- Zhang Yuan's "Seventeen Years" deserves its overdue status as a masterpiece in the midst of this towering cinematic year. Essentially an observational travelogue film about a recently furloughed prisoner and the prison guard who unselfishly escorts her to her holiday destination, it eventually becomes an overpowering examination of regret and forgiveness. I dare anyone to watch the final few minutes and not get emotionally floored in the way Yuan stages a reunion scene where eyes, guarded body language and the gentle unspoken curl of lips says more about the inner workings of this family's trenchant relationship than any screenplay could ever deliver.

But before that, Yuan establishes a cadre of characters in a family during 1980's China, stepping back in time seventeen years. Now on his second marriage, Yun (Liang Song) is barely able to keep his household together. His wife and her daughter Yu (Liu Lin) seem to provoke and taunt his daughter Tao (Li Jun) at every turn. When the issue of missing money comes up one morning, the two stepsisters (urged and inflamed by both parents) argue before leaving for school. On the way there, something happens that sends young Tao to prison for the aforementioned time span.

The tragedy of how Tao got there takes up only a fraction of the film's swift but effective run-time. "Seventeen Years" resumes those years later when Tao is released from prison for the duration of a Chinese New Year holiday. Also traveling from the prison is guard Chen (the wonderful Li Bingbing in an early role). Initially helping Tao find the right bus route and then realizing her indifference to actually getting anywhere at all, Chen decides to help her find her way home.

It's in this quiet relationship between Chen and Tao that "Seventeen Years" shines. Not much is said between them, but the moments they encounter together, such as Yuan's sly comment on China's destructive march of progress when Tao discovers her family's home has been demolished for years for urban renewal, echo the nostalgic sentiments proposed in so many of fellow countryman Jia Zhangke's films.

By also presenting two women as the protagonists in an era where Chinese films mainly treated them as simple matriarchs of a family through the passage of time or second wheels to the more dominant men in their lives, "Seventeen Years" stands out as something special for treating their problems....their worldview.... their sympathies for one another as equally haunting and monumental as that of male figures during the time. It's in the quiet, reserved performances of Jun and Bingbing that "Seventeen Years" really surges, however. The way they silently eat together or walk with hunched shoulders.... and especially the dignified reaction and slow turn Bingbing gives during the final scene when she realizes the magnitude of her unselfish mission with Tao... the two actresses seem to "existing" more than acting. It's a wonder to behold.

Though not an art house/household name, filmmaker Zuan (who did gain some acclaim a few years prior with his "East Palace West Palace") has carried on making films for the past two decades, but none with the exposure or impact of his 90's work. It's a shame. I desperately want to to see more of it. If the sensitivity and acute purpose of realizing the harsh truth of real forgiveness as exhibited in this film is present even remotely in his other work, than we have a talent who's sorely underappreciated. "Seventeen Years" reveals that time doesn't always heal all wounds, but the simple act of facing up to them can help dull the pain.