There are a lot of Assholes at the Bottoms of Hills in Leviathan

Leviathan

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

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

His Name is Mud and it’s a Helluva Thing

Mud - in the trees

Look up there…it’s a helluva thing.

Mud, despite its name, is anything but muddy. It’s a finely tuned man’s-man tearjerker about boys coming-of-age, fathers realizing what’s important, the women they love and the trouble we’re all capable of making for ourselves and others. Writer director Jeff Nichols (who previously haunted us with another fine piece of blistering Americana in Take Shelter) crafts the film like an adaptation of a long-lost great American novel, framing it with a strong plot and filling it to the brim with fulfilling character arcs, character foils, and visual motifs of migrating birds, slippery snakes, open windows and the great wide flowing waters of the Mississippi.

Mud sure is a tale, but it’s also a man – a man called Mud, played with crafted precision by good ol’boy Matthew McConaughey, who in the past few years with roles in films like Bernie, Killer Joe and now Mud, has eradicated the stank left on him from years of bad rom-coms and “sexiest man alive” shenanigans to emerge as a truly great (dare I say method) actor. Here he’s a man in hiding on an island out in the middle of the Mississippi River running through Arkansas. He’s discovered by a pair of young teenage boys: good-hearted, sensitive and eager-to-throw-a-punch Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who previously only got to cry and play in The Tree of Life, but here emerges as an appealing young actor worth watching for in the future) and shit-talkin’ smart-as-a-whip Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who ventured out to the island on the promise of finding a cool-ass boat lodged in a treetop (“A helluva thing,” says Mud). Turns out Mud’s been living in that helluva thing, and boy, does he have some stories for them boys. Continue reading

Lynchian Legacy and Family Matters in Top of the Lake, Stoker and Bates Motel

Many shows have tried...and failed...to recapture the spirit of "Laura Palmer."

Many people have tried…and failed…to recapture that spirit of Laura Palmer. But there will only ever be one Laura Palmer. And one Twin Peaks.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 23 years now since Twin Peaks graced the small screen, but even though it aired for only a year and a half, its legacy can still be felt today on television and in film in works like Top of the Lake, Stoker and Bates Motel – though only ones of these, thanks to the amazing lead performance of Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel, hints at anything memorable.

Jane Campion's TOP OF THE LAKE attempts to be haunting, but comes up all wet.

Jane Campion’s TOP OF THE LAKE attempts to be haunting, but comes up all wet.

Currently on the Sundance Channel, the New Zealand set slow-boil mystery, Top of the Lake, borrows liberally from David Lynch’s signature series. Film auteur Jane Campion follows in Lynch’s footsteps by turning to television with this melancholy miniseries chronicling a Sydney detective (Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss, boldly against type) returning to her remote New Zealand home town (an eerie down under mirror of Lynch’s Pacific Northwest with its mountains, lakes and dark woods) to care for her cancer-stricken mother only to get sucked into the local mystery surrounding the disappearance of a pregnant twelve-year old who just so happens to be the illegitimate daughter of the town drug lord.

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The Quick Spin on Pi, Sugar Man, America and Sleaze

Ah, to dine on filmlandia’s smorgasbord and taste the world!  Behold, the treasures and the trash recently uncovered by the Spin that took us to India, the High Seas, South Africa, Detroit, Middle America and the backwoods swamps of the Deep South.

In Theaters:

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Salty Sweet Pi: I was finally able to catch a screening of the much ballyhooed Life of Pi (in 3D no less, which no joke, is used brilliantly in this film and rises far above its typical gimmick status) which means Haneke’s sure to depress Amour is the only Best Picture Oscar nominee I have yet to see.  Adapted from an international best-seller I never bothered with, Ang Lee’s film is a sure-fire visual stunner featuring some of the best use of 3D ever (I especially loved the opening credits and the sinking of the ship sequences).  You’d have to be blind not be enthralled for two hours, but sadly the film is left adrift by surface level discussions on religion and an all too twee “parable/fable” ending.  Continue reading

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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White Trash Melodrama in Elena and Killer Joe

Stylistically the cold Russian film Elena and the perversely American film Killer Joe couldn’t be further apart.  Yet they both are prime examples of neo-noir and in their own unique ways wallow in the melodrama of the downtrodden.

In Elena, the title character (Nadezhda Markina, a modicum of pent-up middle-aged rage) trudges through the routines of her day in her posh Moscow penthouse living with the wealthy husband she hooked ten years ago when she nursed him back to health.  Her son is the epitome of the post-Soviet downtrodden, living in a trashy tenement tower underneath the shadows of nuclear silos with his lazy teenage son, do-nothing wife and an infant.  He begs his mother for money constantly, and she eventually becomes obsessed with funding her grandson’s college education even though we all know he’s not college material.  Her husband refuses to continue to support her loser family, even though he continues to dutifully spoil his own screw-up of a daughter.  When he has another heart attack and decides to revisit his will, Elena must resort to desperate measures.  Continue reading

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

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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