Archive for the ‘Reviews and Opinions’ Category

Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) Film Review

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

 

deuxjoursunenuit

‘Triumph’ and ‘understatedness.’ They are two unlikely verbal bedfellows. It is sensibly rare and uncanny that a film evokes both (I am less familiar with other mediums, so if this is a common thing elsewhere, do let me know.), so when one does, it is a fine piece by my books.

In the closing shot of Deux Jours, Une Nuit, directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) walks away from the camera on a nondescript, if well maintained road. It is an unceremonious final shot, especially when compared with that of Tangerines, which I saw last week. No swelling music, soaring camera on a jib or helicopter. The last expression we see from Sandra is a delicate smile. It is certainly not a “happily ever after” ending — and Marion Cotillard does not play it as such. Her smile is not so wide as to show any teeth. She looks downward, figure looking encumbered by the bag she is carrying at her side. Nonetheless, it is made triumphant in comparison to the struggle and glumness displayed through the preceding runtime. Marion Cotillard’s face gives the film an uplifting ending without testing believability. Cinema, at its best — some finality for a particular chapter; life continues.

As suggested above, the film follows a character named Sandra who has been on leave from a job at a solar panel foundry because of depression. Her specific job is never mentioned, but with the talk of welding and fabrication, it is implied that she has a blue collar manufacturing job susceptible to economic and managerial pressure. That her specific position is never mentioned further sets her up as a representation of the modern, replaceable worker, a cheap cog in a machine.

At the start of the film, Sandra is notified by a friendly coworker, Juliette, that the employees at her company, Solwal, were forced to choose between allowing her to come back to the company or getting €1000 bonuses, That they voted for the bonuses, in part because of intimidation and prodding from the foreman, Jean-Marc. Sandra obviously reacts grimly to this news. She is still afflicted by symptoms of depression and does not appear to be ready to go back to work, but her family needs her salary and she has told her colleagues that she is ready to return. Juliette and Sandra’s husband, Manu, convinces Sandra to meet with the Solwal CEO, who decides to allow another vote because of the foreman’s tampering. Through the rest of the film, Sandra tracks down her colleagues over the course of a weekend to lobby them to vote to keep her in the coming Monday vote.

The scripting of this film was impeccable, not insulting to the cognitive faculties of its characters or the audience. It is biased toward Sandra’s cause, but is not a polemic on the evil and selfishness of all humans. Counterarguments are not shunned — Sandra frequently falters in her unconfident pitching and pleading, and members of the pro-bonus camp mostly justify their positions with simple, reasonable, and relatable defenses that are painful to argue against. (As is the case with reality though, some people are not reasonable though and some justifications sound better than others.) The writing anticipates concerns the audience may come up with by having characters cover a few angles in articulating their reluctance and unwillingness to vote to keep Sandra. Demonstrating a confluence of good direction, writing, and acting, many of the Solwal colleagues manage to exude contradiction, hypocrisy, and multifacetedness despite only getting minutes of screen time. There are not many outright caricatures.

Rather than lamenting human self-interest, the film is more an indictment against managers, executives, people in power, who force contrived and artificial decisions onto their constituents, employees, serfs. The CEO and foreman characters are the closest the film gets to caricatures and straw men. More than once, Sandra is accused of being an instigator and divider, but with his passive absence and the repeated highlighting of the false dichotomy set up by the vote, the filmmakers implicate the CEO as the wrongdoer. The notion of false dichotomies perpetuated by those in power reminded me all too much about the fractious political debates being waged in the United States and Europe.

The realistic, informed manner in which depression was portrayed was another standout aspect of this film. Sandra’s condition was consistently inconsistent throughout the film, swinging between anxious sobbing and despondent catatonia. I feel that many works of cinema do not acknowledge the inconsistent and lingering nature of mental illness. For example, in Silver Linings Playbook, whose calling card was all about its portrayal of mental illness, I recall the characters played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (forgot their characters’ names) ostensibly being symptom free past a certain point in the film. They behaved steadily and regularly through their scenes, permanently improving after clearing checkpoints in their character development with little in the way of lapses or erraticness. This is not the case in Deux Jours, Une Nuit, where Sandra was prone to lapses and impulses, her momentum easily deflated by awry remarks from her colleagues. Capably transitioning from stupor to euphoria to anxiety and then back again in single scenes, Cotillard does some admirable physical acting with remarkable postural and facial control. (See Foxcatcher for more recent examples of dedicated and attentive physical acting.)

In regards to technical aspects of the production, I do not have much to say. I was glued to the plot of the film and did not pay too much attention to the editing or cinematography, which indicates competency. I do not remember anything in particular about the editing — Walter Murch and Edward Dmytryk would be proud. In terms of cinematography, the approach was minimal and workmanlike. Natural lighting, handheld photography. No spectacular compositions or how-the-heck-did-they-do-that?! tracking shots. Unlike the case for Tangerines (which again, I still enjoyed — just truthfully a less polished film), I can recall nothing odd and distracting from the camera movement. I do remember that the camera movement moving between character’s faces to capture their expressions as they reacted to dialog was sublimely timed, particularly for the in-car sequences.

“We put up a good fight,” Sandra says in the last shot. Indeed, the film mounts an effective, but not overbearing indictment against those who force false dichotomies onto their toilers and dependents. Deux Jours, Une Nuit is a work of heartfelt and respecting empathy. Up there with Nightcrawler and Force Majeure as one of my favorite films of the year.

Tangerines (Mandariinid) Film Review

Monday, December 8th, 2014

 

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Hats off to the Georgian and Estonian embassies for sponsoring the post-film reception. I exited the theater after the credits had finished rolling to find trays of this Georgian cheesy bread, apparently called khachapuri, arrayed in the lobby of the AFI Silver Spring, along with some other decent Estonian and Georgian hors d’oeuvres. That investment on their part now compels me to think of those two nations as future travel destinations.

Now, onto the film itself —

Tangerines, written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, follows a simple premise. An old Estonian man named Ivo lives in a conflict zone of the Georgian Civil War. One day, a skirmish between Chechen mercenaries fighting for the Russian-supported Abkhazians and Georgians spills over onto his land. Ivo rescues the two sole survivors of the skirmish, Ahmed, a Chechen, and Niko, a Georgian. Both are gravely wounded. Ivo and his tangerine-farming tenant, Margus, decide to nurse both of them back to health under the same roof.

This screening had terrible subtitles. Typos everywhere, bad timing, lazy pasting of dialog from multiple characters on screen at the same time. The untimed pasting can actually spoil the plot, when you have a case like so:

Character walks into a forest, looking for his missing friend.

“Margus, Margus, Margus,” he shouts. “Where are you?”

Suspense builds.

However, the subtitles read:

“Margus!

-Hey!”

minutes before the character finally appears on screen.

I have been spoiled by some of the anime subtitling I used to watch, where I can almost find myself not even aware that there is text on screen, but from watching the DVD extras about subtitling and seeing people try their hand at it in fansubs, it has become apparent to me that good subtitling requires plenty of training and dedication. There are subtleties to the process. One might be faced with questions like, “What words can I cut off to fit the sentence on the screen while still preserving the gist of the translation?” “At what point do I break the text of a longer sentence without interrupting reading flow for the audience?” Even an excellent translation (which is not what one usually gets when distributors seem to pick people of the street in lieu of hiring more expensive professional translators) cannot guarantee a good subtitle experience if the timing is not up to par.

I held my breath for the introductory stretch of the film, not only because of the subtitle quality, but also because of some of the dialog delivered, which was apparently stuff along the lines of, “Nothing good comes from war,” “War is such a waste,” “Why must we kill each other when we are all people?” and the like. Though a single person might, nations and populations tend not to go to war for a single reason alone; I therefore tend to be wary of anti-war aphorisms, despite my considering myself to be a pacifist. I am willing to trust the translation on those lines, because the delivery and staging seemed hackneyed as well. Imagine, two grizzled guys smoking on a porch. One looks up at a night sky, face lit by HMI light beams coming in from an unnatural angle. “War…it kills many innocent civilians.”

On the note of visual technicalities, the cinematography helped to start me off on pessimistic footing. From what I remember, almost everything at the beginning seems to be a tracking shot. I found the tracking to be unmotivated and irritating, especially all too blatant when juxtaposed with the static character blocking that we see a lot of in the introduction.

The film won me over, however, as it moved away from wooden aphorisms into humorous, pastoral territory. The men swear at each other, and then make peace as they cook and share meals. The characters are simple, sane people who do not rehash doubts or go back and forth on their word. They are grateful for help and appreciate of respect. They do not set absurd thresholds that must be cleared before they can trust each other. When excited and anxious, they can be calmed down with appeals to reason and prevented from reacting to threats suicidally. This may sound dramatically glacial and unsuspenseful (perhaps even unrealistic), but I found this to be refreshing. I could be confident that the choices made by the characters would not frustrate me and induce facepalms. The same cannot be said for many other works of fiction where characters are abruptly devolved by writers and complications rehashed.

The short length of the film at 87 minutes works in the characters’ favor, preventing them from growing stale in their simplicity and contradicting themselves. In longer narrative threads, particularly those running through multi-sequel franchises and TV shows, character consistency is, more often than not, an issue.

The climax is representative of the film’s pithy and economic nature. It is an appropriately unspectacular and solidly executed fight scene that accomplishes much over the course of a few short bursts of gunfire. In what I believe to be the film’s most impressive stroke, a character bond is solidified with the toss of an AK. No extraneous dialog needed — the clanking of the AK on the ground is all that is necessary for payoff.

Tangerines will not leave too much to ponder in its aftermath, but it is a satisfying, bittersweet appeal to pacifism and hospitality. Certainly, it was a decent enough film to entreat me to go on a swashbuckling adventure in the Caucauses.

Nightcrawler Film Review

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

So, Nightcrawler. My favorite film to have come out this year. I still cannot speak objectively about it. This film is a vicious, delightful, nimble satire of media, unpaid internships, the state of the job market, and Randian beliefs.

Ridiculously well-written and well-acted. Writer/director knew when to pull back and push forward in terms of what he showed on screen. The cast was awesome. Jake Gyllenhaal puts in one of the best performances ever. You know how I’ve complained before about stereotypical psychopathy in Hollywood? Jake Gyllenhaal bucks the trend with his character, Lou, and is scary as fuck. In turn, Rene Russo unhinges her own character, allowing Lou to increasingly pull her away from groundedness. Ted Chaough is here as the one weak voice of reason, and Riz Ahmed embodies what old people think of Millennials as an itinerant young person.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors this generation. I say this without sarcasm. Dude has understatedly put in great performance after great performance.

This is one film where the acting and writing really stand out, where no line feels written and dictated by some greater Aaron-Sorkin-god and no inhuman sounding piece of dialog interrupts suspension of disbelief. I was engaged and distracted enough by the humans on screen that my mind was never allowed to pondering the technical aspects of the film. I cannot recall much about the cinematography or editing.

Also, social media is invoked tastefully and minimally to acknowledge its role in the present distribution and proliferation of news without making the film feel like one that is easily dated. I find the deployment of social media in cinema to often be too obnoxious, jarring, and obsequious to the era, as if the writer/director is pleading, “Please, we mention Facebook and Youtube. We are thereby socially relevant.” I repeatedly cringed throughout Easy A, Frank, and Birdman as decent scenes were ruined by some character earnestly spouting about numbers of views or followers. (By the way, I feel fortunate that I do not have to hear this e-penis bragging in real life.)

In fact, despite the appearance of Twitter and cell phones, this film doesn’t feel like it belongs in any particular date. Los Angeles will always look the same, with gasoline stains everywhere and yellow-tinted residential buildings. Its streets will always be a showcase of vehicular diversity, with cargo vans, Escalades, Prius’s, rusting Datsuns, corvettes bumper-to-bumper in a particular 100-feet clog.

Indeed, I feel that little would be lost to audiences watching this film in 2050 or 1950. As long as Rip van Winkle is faintly aware of seedy, superficial Los Angeles culture, attention whores, and media sensationalism for the sake of ratings/views/clicks/zoinks, the film should be critiquing the familiar.

Boardwalk Empire Series Finale thoughts

Monday, October 27th, 2014

I have always felt Boardwalk Empire teeter and totter between embracing and subverting cliches and neatness. And usually, to my disappointment, it fails to escape them. To my great disappointment, it failed to do so for its final scene last night. For the unexpected ending in Season 2, the bleak torment of the Season 4 conclusion, we have had invocations of the dead lesbians stereotype, self-flagellating pious man, repeated use of brother-betraying-brother retreading pre-existing ground, Gyp Rossetti, and in this season, adherence to the everyone-must-die-in-a-tragedy (almost) and history-must-repeat-itself in a way that is too clean.

It felt like the writers were set on making a few things happen, so that characters whose paths had seemed far more muddled and unsettled ended up being picked up and dropped onto wide, well-defined roads for the sake of having unresolved and unconfusing endings. I was very disappointed to see that Tommy Darmody was Tommy Darmody, and that Nucky Thompson gets shot in the same exact place that Nucky shot Jimmy in. Killed my suspense of disbelief, and soured my taste on what I thought was actually the best season so far, despite all the characters needing to be killed off and seeking death against the current of their character (only “earned” death I felt was for Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden).

I prefer fiction closer to life, with ambiguous, uncertain endings. What fun lies in finality?

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

In my attempt to describe my experience of the film, I struggle to find a starting point. Ordered, lucid verbal analysis  just feels, for a lack of a more specific word, wrong for me when applied an Alejandro Jodorowsky work.

Dance was a ghost of a film. I took an extra long lunch break from work to see it today and for the rest of the day, have felt uncomfortable and restless. It seemed like the film broke open the floodgates that typically hold back my societally improper and unsanctioned fetishes, impulses, nightmares, thoughts, imaginings, which I typically try to ignore, avoid, repress, and deny over the course of a typical day, to spur an interior psychoanalytic party. My personal mental imagery spurred on by the film that ran simultaneous to what I was physically seeing became very much a part of my experience. And this makes reviewing my experience of the film in detail an inscrutable and discomforting task.

I found The Holy Mountain to be fun, entertaining, and a breeze to get through. What I have seen of El Topo I found to diverting, as well. The Dance of Reality is more normal, more accessible, more conventionally structured and written than all of Jodorowsky’s previous outings, but yet, I found it far tougher to get through. There’s less a sense of unhinged, off-the-wall craziness. It is a more a melancholy-tinged, acrimonious craziness. With the exception of the stretch where Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky) serves as the groom for the Colonel’s horse, I was not mesmerized by the film, switching between fidgeting my butt and legs and dancing with shadow voices and recollections from my former, younger selves.

Though Holy Mountain and El Topo have imagery that is a lot more “disturbing” and “exploitationist-flavored,” this one also left me feeling more sick and morose. One particular moment that made me feel queasy and induced me to groan audibly in the theater — Sara (Pamela Flores), a full-bodied soprano vocalist (she sings all of her lines), raises her dress to reveal her naked lower body, straddles her husband Jaime and then pees on him as part of a frantic ritual prayer to an Abrahamic God to cure him of a flesh-rotting plague. Mid-piss, she queefs, which jets this uncanny, miraculous ball of mist downward toward Jaime’s face. (Don’t get me wrong though — that I felt queasy did not mean that I disliked the scene. In fact, I found it to carry an indelible grace, courtesy of Jodorowsky’s brazen direction and the actors’ steadfast performances.) Additionally, whereas seeing actors without limbs in slapstick situations in his previous films had me feeling a manic glee, in Dance, their antics weighed me down with guilt and pity, an emotion I usually try my damndest to repress because we are taught that people do not like pity to rain down on them from the heights of privilege.

I wonder why Jodorowsky is so fixated on people without limbs. And I am not sure how I feel about his usage of amputee actors. On one hand, I am glad he is paying people from unfortunate circumstances, meager as their pay may be. On the other, there is a patina of mockery and exploitation that accompanies their appearances.

******

Having now seen two Jodorowsky-related films in one year, Jodorowsky’s Dune and The Dance with Reality, I would like to proceed by reading Jodorowsky’s scifi comics, which from a cursory glance on Amazon look to be highly regarded, but unfortunately, also look to be highly out of print.