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

Second verse, same as the first.

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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

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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

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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

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.

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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

 

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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.

Trumbo

Director: This was directed? (Jay Roach)

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Does this look like a real movie?

Release Year: 2015

Rating: 2 out of 10

I can’t even really vouch for seeing a movie this time. Trumbo, has the appearance of a motion picture, and has actors performing in it. But nothing even remotely cinematic takes place in the two hours I gave towards this mediocre HBO wannabe. I was surprised to see the director, Jay Roach,  had even directed another film before. Unsurprisingly, his other credits include Game Change, an HBO film than reeked of incompetence at every turn. Roach hasn’t learned from his mistakes it seems, for Trumbo offers no artistic flare, no passion, and no real reason to exists beyond winning Academy Awards.

We follow the trials and tribulations of esteemed writer Dalton Trumbo, who’s blacklisted from Hollywood, but continues to find ways to write screenplays and eventually becomes credited for his own work. Trumbo (Brian Cranston) has an absolutely compelling story, unfortunately John McNamara takes this and wrings out a shapeless family drama with a completely overcooked narrative on “fighting for what’s right!” Overcooked seems to be the word here, because nothing can just be what it is. Instead we’re given performances from great actors that borderline on that of community theater. Cranston chews the scenery every change he’s given, taking little mannerisms past their breaking point to try and add some life into the dull screenplay. Helen Mirren, who plays Hedda Hopper, seems lost in a sea of random appearances that serve to try and add drama. Everyone else seems to try with what little material they’re given, but it’s all for naught.

Roach’s approach to directing largely consists of: 1. Shooting every scene straight on and 2. Have actors act and give them nothing to stand on. No directorial flare even begins to emerge here. This all seems to be an elaborate joke if anything. You know how in films they’ll sometimes show the characters watching a movie and it’ll look purposely terrible for a quick laugh? Trumbo is a feature length version of those mini-films, with all of the humor sucked out. The only thing that’s stopping me from giving this a dreaded one out of ten comes from its inoffensiveness. Nothing that happened here was particularly evil or made me feel sickened in any negative way. I walked out knowing I’d forget about everything that took place. Writing about it for such a short length even feels like giving this too much credit.

The only reason I even saw this mess was because for some reason this has been picking up nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, and probably from the Oscars come January. To be fair, a nomination from any of these organizations does not suggest a film has the highest of quality, but they normally don’t go for stuff this horribly bland and inexperienced. I can only hope this scores no nominations and everything up till now has been luck. I say that for the Oscar completests out there (including myself). No one should have to endure this mess.

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.