Ann Arbor Film Festival Day 2: Minotaur, News From Home, and Couting

Second verse, same as the first.

1b3c6872e38381ccba6b9f98c94c2a68.jpg

Minotaur: Imagine Tsai, only with more of an emphasis on the uselessness of human bodies. Here characters lie around aimlessly, falling asleep right in front of others. Their languid bodies match up with the slow pace, giving a feeling of time standing still. Taking place in seemingly one apartment, three bodies occupy the space and use it as a festering hole. The interiors are painted pure white and furnished perfectly. It’s the humans who are in trouble here. This was shown after two other shorts, “Ofrenda oaxaqueña” and “Impresiones para una máquina de luz y sonido,” both of which gave context for this one. Mexico in its current turbulent state needs change to occur. The three main apartment dwellers block themselves off from the outside world. In shelter, books can be read and days can go on peacefully. But the ultimate sacrifice for this inactive life comes with the slow decay of their bodies. There’s a semblance of nostalgia here for earlier times (there’s not one smartphone to be seen in the whole short), and yet that nostalgia doesn’t get nobody anywhere. It’s a film stopped in time, one that may collapse in on itself at any moment. I’m still relatively new to slow cinema, but this movie is formally accomplished enough that boredom never became an issue. It serves its purpose then ends, an excellent use of minimalist filmmaking tendencies to express quiet outrage.

Rating: 7 out of 10

news-from-home.jpg

News From Home Ever since her passing, Chantal Akerman’s work has received newfound recognition that sadly comes to many only with passing. I had never seen a work by her until today, and I still feel a bit out of the loop on discussing her work. Akerman narrates letters sent from her mother over footage of New York, creating a feeling of longing for separation and comfort from one’s family. Multiple times throughout the film, the narration is drowned out by outside noises in New York. This could be done to either a) give a sense that Akerman’s new life begins to overshadow her former one with her family or b) to reinstate the power of the images at hand. My biggest problem with this is that the film’s sole point of focalization comes from the letters Akerman reads. Without them, all personal connection to the story ends. What you largely end up with is images of New York, sometimes barely populated and other times with onlookers taking notice of Akerman’s camera. It’s interesting on its own, but never engaging. This is where I start to feel like a bad cinephile. Maybe there’s something here I’m just not getting, or I need more experience in the world to understand the emotions Akerman is channeling. I’m willing to accept either, but for now I’m a bit hesitant to pursue her other works (although I will eventually seek them out).

Rating: 6 out of 10

maxresdefault.jpg

CountingI’m a bit surprised this film has flown so under the radar, considering what preceded it. Museum Hours garnered a decent critical following, yet this film was in theaters for about a week in New York before seemingly disappearing. I would argue Cohen’s newest feature isn’t any better than his last, but it still perplexes me a little. My biggest problem with Hours was its determination to stick with a philosophy that I don’t really think merits discussion (“Everything is interesting and worthy in life,” something I would argue for in fifth grade), so it surprised me that Cohen has gone to the opposite spectrum with Counting: having no real center to tie everything down. A film in 15 chapters, the individual moments are usually interesting on their own (the one with all of the mirrors could’ve been it’s own feature), but fail to build a cohesive message. By the halfway point, everything begins to have a hint of tediousness to it that boils over into full on monotony. There’s only so much filmmaking I can take before I call bullshit on a film’s (lack of) overall view.  There’s a loose thread that comes toward the end about Cohen’s sick mother, but he drops it relatively quickly. The only thing that could be considered a grand thesis here is Cohen going, “THIS IS HOW I SEE THE WORLD. ISN’T IT WEIRD AND ODDLY CONNECTED?” And to that I would say this is at least an hour too long for something so simple. It’s a piece with parts greater than the whole, making me want to now check out Cohen’s shorts more than anything.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Advertisements

Ann Arbor Film Festival Day 1: The Mermaid and Psycho-Pass: The Movie

I’m at the Ann Arbor Film Festival this week, and will post little thoughts on everything I’ve seen here. The first day was weird, in that I actually didn’t see anything in the festival. I saw two other films playing close by, so I’ll just log them here.

landscape-1457514601-movies-the-mermaid-2016-still.jpg

The MermaidMy first Chow, largely because the trailers I’ve seen haven’t seemed like my thing. (My only reason for seeing it now is because it’s the largest grossing movie in China.) So I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Chow takes a stab at China’s pollution problem (this could just be me grasping at straws, for this is A Dumb Movie) and envisions a world where slapstick comedy is second nature to most and cartoonishly insane things happen. The CGI looks atrocious, but that’s the desired effect here: a live-action cartoon. I never found myself fully embracing that aesthetic, but I was slowly being worn down by the movie’s likability. The more personal moments captured my attention most, with the silly instances seeming more sentimental. The larger set pieces are impressive on just how wild they can be but feel cheapened by how fake they look. (I know, it’s the desired effect. Still doesn’t mean I like it.) There’s certainly a lot going on here, with Chow taking different angles for oddball comedy at every turn. One scene has a woman trying to hit a man with several objects, with all of them later coming back to hit her. Another has men rolling on the floor to exit a room for no apparent reason other than “it’s funny.” Scatterbrained indeed, yet adds to the madcap humor being presented.

Grade: B

 

tumblr_inline_nklm2ha8Tl1rsz4lo

Psycho-Pass: The Movie: Probably the best movie that could’ve come from the Psycho-Pass universe. Urobuchi returns to try and clean up the mess the (horrible) second season of the show made, and largely acts like it never happened. More babble occurs about living free versus government control, philosophers are quoted for no reason other than for the film to sounds smart, and horrible violence occurs to add a dark element that’s not needed. It’s a fitting conclusion, but one that doesn’t really resolve anything. More of a “one last job” type of film, which is good, for in my eyes the material has been mined enough. There’s interesting glimmers here and there, but my biggest problem with the whole series is this unbelievably self-serious tone given the ridiculous premise. This became apparent with the (again, horrible) second season and once again here with the ending. There’s some nice closure to the relationship of Akane and Kogami and the action is relatively impressive, so it’s still of some interest to fans. Just don’t come to it expecting all of the series’ misgivings to be gone.
Grade: C+

And that was it for my first day. Coming up will be new film from Jem Cohen and an older classic from Chantal Akerman.

The Top 10+ Films of 2015

ASSASSIN-THE-Still-2.jpg

I’m not sure how I did it, but I was able to outdo myself. In 2014, I watched 101 releases (U.S. releases, mind you) and in 2015 found a way to see 104 films (and even a couple from 2016). It’s funny to see by the end of this long journey what films fade and what films stay. But first I want to list the films I didn’t see. I am only human and couldn’t see every last thing under the sun, and the most glaring omissions are:

 

Tangerine

The Princess of France

Eden

Welcome to New York

Victoria

Girlhood

Mustang

Arabian Nights

The Walk

Theeb

In Jackson Heights

By The Sea

 

For the films I didn’t care for but others like, all I can say is everyone likes and dislikes something out there. These are films I can easily add to my dislike pile:

The Martian

The Tribe

Steve Jobs

Blackhat

Hard to Be A God

The Hateful Eight

Inside Out

Youth

Mistress America

Room

The Revenant

Straight Outta Compton

 

And now here are the runners-up:

 

  1. Taxi– For a film about Iran’s restrictive nature toward art, this was an absolute joy. Jafar Panahi’s films have felt heavy-handed in the past; with his newest, however, he sidesteps the pitfalls and reaches new heights in his search for artistic freedom. (Original review here.)

 

  1. Joy– Coming from someone who hated American Hustle, this film almost seems like a tiny miracle. Russell’s wacky antics actually have weight here, with Lawrence giving the most realized performance of her career. After all, she’s not a businesswoman — she’s a business, woman.  (Totally got that one from Graham L. Carter.) 

 

  1. Aloha– Don’t listen to the critics unless you want to miss out on one of the most enjoyable motion pictures of the year. Cameron Crowe understands how to use faces better than most, and here he practically constructs a whole movie with people staring at each other. There’s a plot in there somewhere, but with an emotional journey like this, you just have to trust where it’s going. Aloha indeed.

 

  1. The Duke of Burgundy– The 50 Shades of Grey art-house remake, with fluttering hearts and human toilets aside, crafting one of the finest love stories that explicitly tackles what loving someone truly means, and the lengths one goes for that love.

 

  1. Queen of Earth– Alex Ross Perry stopped  the millennial whining and made a richly complex film about being a failure to everyone you love. Color me shocked and pleasantly surprised.

 

And without further ado, my favorite films of the year:

17.jpg

  1. The Mend

A vicious little film, The Mend grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. Unconventional characterizations and oddly rhythmic disruptions add to the mystery of John Magary’s first feature, one where agony and despair are commonplace. From moment to moment, there’s a forewarned riff between characters, a dividing line that serves to define these relations, while also blurring the line between them. Josh Lucas’ sneering facial expressions and annoying vocal tics only add to the winding nature of the film, acting like a bomb ready to go off at any minute. There’s nothing else this uncompromisingly aggravating and cynical. Yet it has stayed with me longer than most other films I loved. That’s its real potency right there, not to mention some Kafkaesque moments that I won’t forget soon.

(At the time of writing this list, The Mend is on Netflix Instant)

 
magic-mike-xxl.jpg

  1. Magic Mike XXL

Moving from a film about how toxic masculinity can become, we have men using their sexual charms only for good. While not the feminist manifesto some other critics believe it to be, XXL gets by on simply being a complete joy, start to finish. You won’t find a movie this breezy, this unconcerned with plot, released in 2015, with this level of quality. Soderbergh moves from the director’s chair to cinematographer, adding a more layered depth to each performance, utilizing light and shadows to construct a more adventurous level of space in each scene. Characterizations are built on simple dynamics, with nothing getting too bogged down to stop any of the high energy illuminating from the film. Finally, can you point out to me another movie where the climax involves a beautifully choreographed striptease to an R. Kelly song? Yea, that’s what I thought.

(Magic Mike XXL is available on Blu-Ray/DVD)

 

6024.original.jpg

  1. Li’l Quinquin

The French Twin Peaks, Quinquin’s just so unbelievably odd from the opening scene, and continues the tone through its three-plus hours. The surreal nature of Bruno Dumont’s project takes on many forms from the zany escapades of the bumbling police to a racial commentary on France, with casual racism serving as a backdrop in theme. What starts as a police procedural turns into a study of France’s social engineering, with everyone guilty of some form of prejudice. The length may turn some people off, and its humor doesn’t exactly stand out with a first watch. The subtle nature of the project may seem hidden beneath crass comedy, so for those who actually want to take the plunge, be prepared. All looks are deceiving, with evil lurking around the corner.

(Li’l Quinquin is available on Blu-Ray/DVD, and streaming on Netflix and Fandor)

 
960.jpg

  1. Office

Johnnie To’s gangster films are known around the world, with his movies’ constant  (and signature) use of human bodies to display action in unique ways. So it’s only natural that in his first musical, about corporate corruption and the ’08 financial crash, he uses bodies to convey most of the conflict in a collective manner. No walls surround the massive set, with all activity being displayed. To has enough trust in his direction to allow this, swooping effortlessly from floor to floor, to capture the chaotic nature of the environment. Everything is fully defined here, with interactions bouncing off each other to play harmoniously into the film’s excellently staged musical numbers. While the music itself may not be the finest to grace the screen, the presentation of the music comes off so expertly that you’d expect the director to be a veteran of the trade. And you’d be right: To’s skills are highlighted beautifully here, to the point that I would be heavily disappointed if he never journeyed back to the genre.

(Office is available on Blu-Ray/DVD in regions outside the U.S.)

 

63547@2x.jpg

  1. The Look of Silence

What we can’t see in front of us, we tend to ignore. What we have seen, we tend to forget. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful follow-up to The Act of Killing, we’re not given those options. With most documentaries becoming by-the-book HBO films at best (Amy, Best of Enemies), what is so powerful about Oppenheimer’s films is how to question the truth, or what we have defined to be the truth. What the killers believe can be seen as a sort of truth, but the genius of both these documentaries is their commitment to being non-judgmental. There’s no hand-holding — only what’s given and what can be interpreted. There’s a lot to be commended about this project, from its existence to the actual content. To openly go against a government’s teachings is bravery most other documentaries would never touch. To open the personal wounds of the past this exquisitely takes craftsmanship few posses.

(The Look of Silence is available on Blu-Ray/DVD)

 

CannesJauja.jpg

  1. Jauja

Coming from a film obsessed with questioning the truth, here we have a film that’s preoccupied with everything that we don’t know. Characters constantly look off-screen toward spaces we, as an audience, cannot see. The restricting aspect ratio of 4:3 cuts corners, creating a picturesque view of the freshly conquered region. The world that Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) explores never conforms to his ways, and as he becomes savaged by the unknown, we slowly start to understand one thing: the unobtainable always haunts us. From it’s gorgeous cinematography to its baffling ending, Jauja is an enigma from slow cinema master Lisandro Alonso, one that crafts a vision of blinding uncertainty. A damnation of colonialism, what we get is an uncontrollable piece of art that challenges the notion of comprehension.

(Juaja is available on Blu-Ray/DVD and streaming on Netflix)  

 

the-forbidden-room-montage-620.jpg

  1. The Forbidden Room

Guy Maddin’s magnum opus, The Forbidden Room, may be as impenetrable as Jauja, but not from lack of insight. For here, most incomprehension comes from not being able to keep up with the film. Stills morph together mid-scene, with edits seemingly taking place at random intervals to recreate Soviet style filmmaking to the ultimate extreme. Stories spring up within stories, each one becoming more absurd than the next. It’s a fever dream of a film that seems ready to tear at any moment. The sheer tenacity of Maddin’s vision can be commended, with the result being beyond impressive. Everything Maddin has made in his impressive career has built to this: an all-encompassing epic that redefines what cinema can accomplish. Not one other film I saw in 2015 could keep up with this one.

(The Forbidden Room will be available on Blu-Ray/DVD in March, and is streaming on Fandor)

 

2015-07-28-1438105833-2263296-horse_money.jpg

  1. Horse Money

The haunting imagery that lingers throughout Pedro Costa’s masterpiece should qualify it as the most horrifying movie of 2015. Ventura, our film’s protagonist, ventures through the dark recesses of his mind, trying to find some ray of hope in the country that destroyed it. Stark images of war-torn Portugal haunt Ventura, with the Carnation Revolution as a backdrop for this self-searching. While many call this Costa’s first narrative feature in years, the line between fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurred, especially in terms of the actors’ history to the events portrayed. As a man who celebrated the revolution, Costa made this film to help his friend find the light, to figure out for himself and for us the mental trauma that stems from societal problems. The most memorable scene follows a 20-minute exchange between Ventura and a soldier statue in an elevator, an absolute feat of filmmaking prowess. Absolutely essential, in every sense of the word.

(Horse Money is soon to be available on Blu-Ray/DVD and is currently streaming on Netflix)

 

the_assassin_header-620x380.png

  1. The Assassin

Quiet lingers over every scene in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. It’s a silence that complements the framing of every scene, one where every shot’s beauty can seem exhausting to decipher. Inhabiting this landscape are people whose view of home, like Hou’s, is constantly changing. Their morals and motivations are in constant question as they search for meaning in this radical new era. The feeling of uncertainty comes easily to Hou, who captured it so well in Millennium Mambo, and here uses it to heighten the action. Most of the fight sequences are short, to the point, and brief, never putting character drama on the sideline. What Hou’s protagonists find in themselves serve as more interesting action anyway, with constantly shifting points of view to reflect the times. It’s a balancing act of internal and external struggles, one pulled off beautifully and effortlessly.

(The Assassin is available on Blu-Ray/DVD)

 

maxresdefault.jpg

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Wow, shocking, right? Another Top 10 list with Fury Road in the No. 1 spot. Well, there’s a reason for all the love. After seeing it four times in the theaters and twice on the small screen, I almost don’t want to talk about the expertise displayed. It’s such an unbelievable film achievement that trying to describe any aspect of the movie seems a bit frivolous, but I’ll try to sum up why I adore it so much.

In its most basic elements, it’s about movement. The constant movement of time, bodies, bullets, desires and home. Its most keen instincts rely on the visual components the film provides. The premise is more minimalist than anything, only George Miller provides us with what can only be described as maximalist entertainment. Nothing small is on display here, with incredible detail given to render the world surrounding Max and Furiosa. Miller takes these pieces to craft some of the finest action ever put on celluloid (shot on digital, but whatever) by constructing distinctive, yet gratifying, set pieces reliant on the merging of outside forces into one. And that’s really what makes the movie: the merging of two entities. Whether it be Max and Furiosa, or its commitment to excite audiences and subvert traditional gender roles.

Most importantly, it merges story with action in a way that seems simple yet feels revolutionary. Every shot fired and every accelerator floored is in service of moving the plot forward. The notion of having action scenes to “turn your brain off” are nowhere to be found here. On the craftsman level, they’re gorgeous to look at, and there’s always a sense of furtherance that keeps you engaged. There’s a singular vision here, one that has such faith in itself that it appears natural.

While people were looking forward to the film, no one was expecting the sheer impact of what was released. For how chaotic and nonconforming it is, I’m shocked a studio gave Miller the funds to make the movie. I’m even more shocked that the fourth film in a long-dead franchise has blown me away this easily. Zach Ralston said it best by calling the film an atom bomb, one who’s side effects I’m still suffering from. 

(Mad Max: Fury Road is available on Blu-Ray/DVD)

 

And that’s a wrap! Coming soon (I hope) will be lists for my favorite songs and albums of the year. Below are the Paulies, my personal award given to films of excellence. All the winners should be proud.

 

BEST FILM: Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST DIRECTOR: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actor: Josh Lucas, The Mend

Best Actress: Elisabeth Moss, Queen of Earth

Best Supporting Actor: Joe Manganiello, Magic Mike XXL

Best Supporting Actress: Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mike XXL

Best Screenplay: The Duke of Burgundy

Film I Hated To Admit I Liked: Southpaw  

Taxi

Director: Jafar Panahi

Release: 2015

Rating: 8 out of 10

There’s a small moment in Jafar Panahi’s newest film, where the filmmaker’s niece tries to make a movie from his phone. She’s in a taxi cab by herself and begins to shoot a small boy who takes some money off of the street. She calls the boy over and tells him to put the money back, for her movie due in class needs to follow Iranian censorship laws. Since the boy has broken these laws, she can’t release the movie. While the boy has had nothing to do with the film, he’s still asked to change his actions and attitude for government reasons. Like any viewer of film in Iran, they’re forced to conform unconsciously to the banning of certain art. Everyone is expected to follow this, for the sake of decency. The public, the boy, and Panahi himself, all must conform.

Jafar Panahi has been banned from making films for a 20-year period and sentenced to house arrest by the Iranian government. Since this ruling in 2011, Panahi has made two other features, the in-house documentary This Is Not A Film and the semi-surreal Closed Curtain. I’ve only seen the latter of the two and wasn’t terribly impressed. It came off as a tad bit whiny, understandably so at the horribly treatment Panahi has received over the years. but never evolved past that point. A creative struggle of artistic expression versus depressive thoughts consumed that work, though it’s biggest shortcoming was only having Panahi ‘s suffering shown. In Taxi, the camera focuses less on the director and expands it’s horizons. Oddly enough, it achieves all of this by not moving outside of a taxi cab.

The films stars Panahi as himself, a passive observer to modern day Iran. He drives around the city’s capital of Tehran in an aforementioned taxi cab, and picks up seemingly random strangers. The film’s shot in a somewhat documentary style, with emphasis placed on action being seen though a camera placed in the front of the taxi. (How many of his encounters are true to life is hard to figure out. A handful of encounters are too incredible to actually happen  randomly and some angles are obviously taken without the cab’s monitor camera. If all or none of these events are true doesn’t really matter in the end.) With each person he picks up, discussions of government brutality, sexism, religion, and moral rightness take place. All of a sudden, Panahi’s biggest weakness has been reversed. No longer are we only concerned with him, but Tehran’s population as a whole.

The film transcends the limitations of not only the Iranian government, but  of basic filmmaking. So many ideas, stories, and snapshots enter and exit the taxi, with the camera never leaving the vehicle. One of the residents is a film student, who asks Panahi what films he enjoys and what’s good cinema. The response: “Everything is worth watching.” Panahi takes all people into account, understanding their needs above any idea of what’s filmable. Everyone deserves to be represented.  Everyone matters in the creation of art. That’s what the Iranian government will never be able to stop: the need and want to create beyond any boundary.

It becomes a bit more preachy by the end, and I’m not certain by that point a full on discussion of “the truth” had to be spoken. By this point, the audience realizes that the truth comes through art and the government will do anything to repress that. It’s a small complaint from a miraculous film however. It’s a love letter to cinema, the truth, people’s ability to create, and how all three can intertwine beautifully.

The Headless Woman

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Release: 2008

Rating: 6 out of 10

Being left cold after a film viewing is something of a complaint I never really understood up until now. So a film’s supposed to register with you on all emotional levels? Seems a bit more of a personal problem then one the film actually has. What’s changed my views on this was my icy opinion of The Headless Woman, a film I was somewhat enjoying, but felt shut out by how it progressed.

The film follows Verónica (María Onetto), the said headless woman, who has recently hit something with her car, with it appearing to be a dog. Some doubt begins to kick in however, and it seems like a child may have been hit instead. What has been struck by the can doesn’t really matter. All that does is the guilt Verónica tries to suppress from this action and how she slowly becomes unhinged from reality.

If one knows anything about the atrocities committed over the years in Argentina to the aborigines, the film can be seen as a metaphor for the historical repression of guilt. Like the Argentinian government, Verónica chooses to ignore any feeling of remorse for her actions. Her rich family encourages this behavior, but noting she does can help her move past the horrendous thing she’s done. It haunts her, and in the film’s most poignant moment, she visits a dying relative with dementia. This relative speaks of the voices in her furniture, the ghosts that inhabit her house. Trying to ignore these voices is all one can try to do in the end.

This would make for some riveting psychoanalytical exploration over the haunting nature of guilt, but the film seems pleased at stopping at the above mentioned metaphor. We seldom understand Verónica beyond her status and basic mental state. Compositions cut off the heads of others, asking who’s the crazy one her: the ones oblivious or the one who understands? It leaves the film feeling empty however, with most other characters being just as underexposed or flat-out nonentities.  For stretches the film has the power to unnerve, with subtle uses of audio tampering or focusing techniques to create an out-of-body experience. Two instances of lighting (one outside and one in) come across horrifically, highlighting the weakening psyche of our lead.

It could just be my low understanding of the Argentinian history beyond its most basic measures, and I’m willing to give the film another look after my education. Until then, this all seems too unexplored for me. A chilling topic, and one that deserves a more richly explored treatment.