I Can’t Live in a World of Dressed Up Dogs

The Dance of Reality

“I can’t live in a world of dressed up dogs!  It makes me sick!”

Famous last words.  A would-be assassin somehow ends up at a dog costume contest where his “kangaroo dog” wins worst costume.  It gives him the opportunity to be on stage as his target…the tyrannical Chilean president…makes an appearance at the canine debacle.  He pulls a gun on the man, gets wrestled to the ground by a competing would-be assassin and then turns the gun on himself when he realizes the absurdity of it all.

This is just one of many moments of hilarious lucidity amidst emotionally bombastic absurdity in Alejandro J0dorowsky’s carnivalesque nostalgic coming-of-age crackpot epic, The Dance of Reality.  It’s one of my favorite moments – the others being the comically melodramatic demise of a beloved horse scene and the signing in the church full of freshly sanded chairs sequence – and these moments prove the old adage that you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water, even if that bath water is filthy and the baby is deformed.  Jodorowsky is in a bit of renaissance period as this first feature film in over twenty years comes on the heals of the documentary detailing his failed attempt at a Dune film back in the 1970’s.  I’ve never seen a film of his all the way through before this (I’ve sampled bits of El Topo and have been too scared to taste Santa Sangre), though he’s the stuff of midnight movie legend and I’ve read plenty about him.  I’ve always howled out loud at one of his more infamous quotes – “Most directors make films with their eyes.  I make films with my balls.”  Well, okay then.  He proves that again here.

Clearly sampling from his own childhood growing up in Tocopilla, Chile, the near ancient Jodorowsky has turned his Oedipal issues and desire for his Communist father’s approval and warped it into a psychedelic freakscape with a paradoxical sweet undercurrent amidst reverent, uplifting music and bright colors.  It’s a minor miracle that once you get through the weird circus-centric opening moments, the weirdness just is and the episodic narrative following the boy (as he struggles with his fears) and then later his father (on some kind of botched assassination turned vision quest to get back home) is shockingly coherent in the way “that really crazy dream I had last night” is.  Continue reading

Secrets and Lies in The Past

Father and son wrestle with the past.

Father and son wrestle with the past.

A troubled young girl is always looking at the past over her shoulder.

A troubled young girl is always looking at the past over her shoulder.

Asghar Farhadi’s simmering and subtle The Past opens under brilliantly conceived layers bathed in quiet – a hallmark of his searing talkies.  An Iranian man we later learned is named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is looking for his luggage on one side of the glass at the Paris airport while a French woman we later learned is named Marie (Bernice Bejo) is trying to get his attention from her side of the glass.  It’s a silent film moment, all the more clever on Farhadi’s part as he must assume the international audience knows Bejo best from her role in the silent film, The Artist, a trifling flick that won Oscars in the same year as his substantive masterpiece, A Separation.  It turns out Ahmad is there to finalize his divorce with Marie, nearly four years after he left her.  Marie awkwardly brings him to her home (the home they presumably once shared) where Ahmad is happy to see Marie’s two daughters while shocked to find her new lover Samir (Tahir Rahim) living there with his young son (Elyes Aguis).  Marie is hoping, apart from the signing of the divorce papers, that Ahmad will speak with her increasingly distant teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and hopefully divine what’s troubling her.  What’s uncovered is best left unwritten by this reviewer, as to dive any deeper into Farhadi’s tumultuous seas would be a disservice to those viewers who should want to go into the film knowing as little as possible in order to derive the greatest pleasure.

The Past is a subtle powder-keg of a film built moment by moment, character by character, slowly blooming into grand melodrama hung on secrets, lies and repressed emotions.  It’s a film about men longing to be wise and wanted and over-staying their welcome in dying relationships.  It’s a film about women acting on spite and overflowing with curious emotions that could destroy the world they’ve created.  It’s a film about children navigating the minefields of life and misinterpreting the complexities of adult emotions while succumbing to their own feelings of guilt and fear. Continue reading

Sympathy for the Devil’s Children in Lore

Saskia Rosendahl has a bright future ahead after her expert depiction of Germany's dark past in LORE.

Saskia Rosendahl has a bright future ahead after her expert depiction of Germany’s dark past in LORE.

At a posh German estate, a gaggle of beautiful blond-haired blue-eyed children have been ignorant of the horrors of war but are now suddenly brooding when news of their Führer’s death hits home and their once stalwart and dependable parents suddenly lose it. Nazi officer dad and crumbling mom dash off on different paths headed for prison or death at the hands of the invading Allied forces. As is so classic in German folklore (notice the double meaning behind the film’s title – both our young protagonist’s short-hand name and representing a bit of modern volk-lore) the abandoned children led by Lore (a devastatingly natural Saskia Rosendahl – running hot and cold, confident and scared, petulant and innocent at the flip of a switch) disappear into the Black Forest headed for Grandmother’s house.

Adapted from a novel by Rachel Seiffert, Australian director Cate Shortland delivers in a realist way what The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (for all its power) fumbled heavy-handedly with in its attempt to declare Germany’s actions in WWII as a form of nationalist murder-suicide. Much like the children in Haneke’s The White Ribbon who grew up to become the people who joined the Nazi party, the children in Lore represent Germany as a whole…complacent, seduced and all too willing to follow a madman promising decorum and riches. When that madman dies, the cause is revealed as a vicious hoax, and the children are left to literally wander in the woods scrounging to survive.

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Evolutionary Melodrama and Triumph of the Human Spirit in Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone

Like Melville’s great white whale or the dogs in Amores Perros, the orcas and puppies in Rust and Bone (De Rouille et D’os) are meant to be symbolic. Here in Jacques Audiard’s audacious new film they represent the unpredictable id of nature and the strained relationships of the ego-driven humans who interact with them. Brilliantly, all is foreshadowed in the opening credits shot like a dream…or is it a nightmare? But there’s a constant movement and a focus on legs with somewhere to go. Life is fluid and on the move. We are all travelers in this drama.

Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts, in another physically demanding performance following last year’s Bullhead) is a Belgian man living on the fringe with his five-year old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), and who eventually hitchhikes his way to Antibes where his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) takes them in. There Alain finds random security gigs while plotting a return to underground fighting. One of his gigs is at a nightclub where he first meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard, a revelation), an orca trainer at a local resort starving for real human connection.

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A Separation, White Lies and Blood Money

Damn, Iranian domestic melodramas, where have you been all my life?  After a season of over-inflated Oscar-bait films (see The Descendants or The Artist) it’s nice to finally watch a movie that delivers the goods as advertised.  Asghar Farhadi, the writer and director of the simultaneously insular and universal film, A Separation, pulls off a rare feat by creating a painfully intimate look into the domestic lives of middle-class Iranians that touches on themes common to all of humanity and thereby highlighting the shades of moral ambiguity in us all.

* POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION *

Farhadi pulls no punches and throws us right into the thick of it from the start.  Simin (the sternly beautiful Leila Hatami) has worked tirelessly to secure visas for her family’s emigration – however, the dream of leaving Iran is not a dream shared by everyone in her family.  A flummoxed Nadir (Peyman Maadi – a modicum of bearded middle class frustration) can’t fathom leaving behind his Alzheimer’s riddled father to follow his wife to a new life abroad.  “He doesn’t even know you’re his son!” his wife screams heartlessly at him.  “But I know he’s my father!” Nadir replies.  It’s instant heartbreak within the film’s tightly controlled opening moments.  Continue reading

Sarah’s Key and the Privilege of Choice

What choice did little Sarah have in a world gone mad?

 
It’s tempting to look at old pictures and imagine the history and stories of the people in them.  It’s a way to reach into the past.  It’s a way to invoke nostalgia.  It’s a way to uncover secrets.  It’s become a growing trend amongst Holocaust scholars to move away from the almost unfathomable statistics and instead focus on the faces…the pictures…the singular stories…the individuals.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Manhattan’s equally magnificent and somber Museum of Jewish Heritage, where an entire wing is dedicated to the display of thousands of family photographs that give the horrors of war a back story and a face. 
 
At a crucial moment in the new French film, Sarah’s Key, our privileged protagonist comes across the photographs of two small children during the course of an investigation.  Up until that point, she was merely crafting a story – but now there were faces to that story.  It was real.  One can’t help but think this notion weighed heavily on the mind of novelist Tatiana De Rosnay as she penned her shrewd Holocaust tale.  Sarah’s Key is part of the complimentary literary/film movement to this Holocaust scholarship where faces replace stats.  Like Sophie’s Choice, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film is an adaptation of a novel thick with moral complexities where the audience is asked not “Why did this happen?” but instead “What would you have done?”  In these elaborate historical fictions inspired by decades of staring at old photographs, we are asked to step into the shoes of those who did anything to survive and those whose lives were threatened leading to complicit acts that made them explicit accomplices or blindly apathetic to the crimes against humanity. Continue reading

The Incendiary Game

I spent the weekend visiting friends in NYC.

On Saturday night, I suggested we see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. They shot me down – I get it, not everyone wants to look at 30,000 year-old cave paintings – and then they suggested In a Better World. Darn – I’ve seen it already, and it’s not worth a repeat.

Wait!  They say, what about this movie Incendies?

Okay…I remember seeing the preview for that.  Looks dramatic as hell.  It’s gotten some great reviews.  It was nominated for an Oscar.  Let’s give it a shot.

There’s drama in hell.

Hot holy hell – what a trial it was to sit through this film.

- POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD –  Continue reading

Making the Case for Susanne Bier

Danish director Susanne Bier allows her work to speak for itself...if you would just take the time to watch and listen.

Interconnected stories, family secrets, dead or absent parents, broken relationships, emotional distress, and people struggling to reconcile the stubbornness of their ideals with the harsh nature of their realities — these are the recurrent themes in the works of Susanne Bier.

Danish auteur Susanne Bier is the greatest female director working today.

There, I said it. And why do I have to qualify my statement by pointing out that she is a female director — why can’t she just be one of the greatest directors working today? Well, I would argue that she is. But female directors often don’t get a fair shake. Let’s be honest. It’s a man’s world out there, especially when it comes to directing and producing films. Also, while female directors are just as capable of honing their own unique styles as their male counterparts are, they often have a harder time expanding their horizons outside of the niche they build for themselves. Hence we have Sofia Coppola seemingly lost inside the dreamy world of privileged princesses, Nicole Holofcener quite pleased sticking to her astute dissections of bi-coastal bourgeois guilt, and glass-ceiling breaker Kathryn Bigelow hellbent on directing almost every film as if it was a personal f-you to her ex-husband James Cameron and all the big boys out there who think women can’t direct from a man’s point of view.

Meanwhile, male contemporaries of Bier’s like Lars Von Trier or Joe Wright create visuals just as experimental as Bier but have consistently applied their signature avant-garde styles to films across genres and outside of any niche (though one could make an argument that lately Von Trier has been trapped inside his own personal hell). Wright’s ability to put his stamp on films as seemingly disparate as Pride & Prejudice and Hanna is something no female director I know of has been able to do (which isn’t to say they can’t).

All that aside, I’ve never met a Bier film I didn’t like…a lot. In many ways she does for family melodramas what Christopher Nolan has done for crime thrillers. In fact, she seems to enjoy repeatedly killing husbands (see plotlines below) with as much relish as Nolan enjoys killing wives.
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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

All beings great and small…stirring in the night.

The eyes are watching you.

Writer/Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (say that five times fast) has created Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to be even more ponderous than his name or the film’s title.  In Thailand, an ailing farmer named Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is cared for in his final days by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) while restless spirits lurk in the jungle around them.

The film’s central conceit is that as one approaches death, memories flood the mind, and loved ones living and dead pay a visit and watch over us.  As a Buddhist, Unlce Boonmee recalls not just his current life, but also past lives.  What was done for Christianity in films like Dreyer’s Ordet or Reygadas’ Silent Light is done here for Buddhism.  The spiritual lives of the characters are presented as if programmed in their DNA.  It is not questioned; it just is.  But whereas the other films presented a linear, “We live, We die, We rise,” narrative, here there is cosmic fluidity where one life or one being flows into the next for all eternity.  This inner knowing is translated onto screen in a mesmerizing cacophony of sound design and imagery that evokes that cyclical flow…the stirring…of all beings great and small…past and present and future…in the night (symbolic of death).

The recollections are presented in a quasi-Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness.  Continue reading

It’s Not a Grave, It’s a Niche

Hey, Dad, do you know what happens to owls when they die?

A Review of Biutiful

**Spoilers Ahead – Read with Caution**

It’s not a grave, it’s a niche.  It’s a seemingly innocuous piece of dialogue, a clarification on the not-so-final resting spot of our protagonist’s father – a father he never knew, a father who fled Spain as a political exile only to die in Mexico of pneumonia and be shipped back to Barcelona to be tucked away by his widowed wife in a niche.  But it’s also symbolic of the niche this family has carved out for themselves over the generations where fathers are sent to early graves.  Progress and globalization threaten this niche – a mall is to be built, the niche destroyed, and the corpse cremated – as do calamities and ailments including cancer both literally and figuratively.

Our protagonist, Uxbal (Javier Bardem in a devastating performance) is trying to make do in a Barcelona that is coming apart at the seams.  He deals in knock-off goods and illegal workers.  He’s also trying to raise his two young children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estralla – both naturalistic and deserving of sympathy) while being estranged from his bipolar wife (Maricel Alvarez in a wonderfully complex and flighty performance in perfect pitch through all her mood swings) who is sleeping with his opportunistic and corrupt brother (Eduard Fernandez).  But in the all the varying shades and undulations of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s maddeningly complex and perversely intertwined world, nothing in what it seems on the surface. Continue reading