It’s the dog days of summer and the perfect time of the year to hibernate in the cave of air conditioning and explore the stranger side of Netflix. Two weird films deserve special notice.
What is there to say about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor? I would say you don’t want to go into a Weerasethakul film cold, but one of his somnambulist odes needs to be your first, so why not this? In a rural hospital for injured and comatose soldiers, an elder nurse (Jenjira Pongpas, also from the director’s masterpiece, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) muses on nationalism and the world both seen and unseen. There she befriends a psychic who claims to speak to the comatose soldiers and delivers messages to loved ones (a wife calmly demands to know the whereabouts of her husband’s alleged mistress). Meanwhile, long dead kings wage battles with the soldiers in their dreams…a story told by two young women claiming to be the physical manifestations of the goddesses to whom the nurse delivers offerings. All of this might sound a bit fantastic, but it’s all presented matter-of-factly as mundane discussions about relationships and everyday life intertwine effortlessly with talk of spooky splendors. Continue reading →
For many, childhood is a war: a battle of wills with adults, a rage against growing up, a fight against awakening into the violent world of adulthood. It’s not surprising then that many of the greatest films about childhood and coming of age take place against the backdrop of actual wars. Three of the top five films in my list of the 41 greatest films about childhood involve war and how children and adults learn to deal with it in different ways. Many of the films on this list (including the film at number one) are no doubt sentimental favorites (arguments could easily be made there are grander artistic achievements further down the list). It should come as no surprise that these sentimental favorites were first seen in childhood and that many of the films come from directors delving deep into the wellspring of nostalgia and semi-autobiography; those indelible moments from our shared childhoods crystalized onto the silver screen.
I was about the same age as the protagonist, Billy Rohan, when I first saw John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. I loved every bit of it, and even at that young age I knew there was something unique about its point of view. It painted war as how I imagined I (as a child at the time) would’ve reacted to it: a blast of excitement in an otherwise mundane suburban life previously populated by games and make-believe. Here my soldiers and toys had come to life, dirigibles suspended in air over my streets, German bombers flying overhead, danger and adventure lying in the rubble of my neighbors demolished homes. The juxtaposition of adult horrors and children’s games (a juxtaposition dealt with far more seriously and catastrophically in films like Forbidden Games and Come and See) resulted in a picture of scrappy, working-glass survivors striving for a sense of normalcy and return to innocence in a world gone stark raving mad. Continue reading →
A corrupt mayor of a remote Russian fishing town (Roman Madyanov) waxes bluntly that “there are a lot of assholes at the bottoms of hills” but if his character proves anything, there are even bigger assholes at the top. He comes across like a Russian version of Toronto’s own Rob Ford – only without the charm.
Another character, the gruff fish-mongering wife of a cop (an excellent Anna Ukulova), muses on men while watching her rambunctious young son, “At first you’re pretty and then they kill you.”
*POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*
Andrey Zyaginstev’s Jobian melodrama, Leviathan, is full of these Russian-isms. Bookended by bleak but beautiful seaside photography from Mikhail Krichman shown in perfectly framed shots scored by Philip Glass’ tense minimalist music, the film tells the tale of Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov – who looks ripped from the stone-cold misery of a Ingmar Bergman film), a man who the mayor, the system, and the church demand be put in his place. His ancestral home has been seized by the government at an unfair price. His wife (a seductively sad and emotive Elena Lyadova) is sleeping with his lawyer and friend (Vladimir Vdovichenkov ). His teenage son (Sergey Pokhodaev) is surly and depressed.
The characters in the film drink, eat, go shooting and screw each other in more ways than one. Continue reading →
“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 →
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 →
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.
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.
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 →
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 →
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.