Titane

Release: Friday, October 1, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Julia Ducournau

Directed by: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Agathe Rousselle; Vincent Lindon; Garance Marillier; Bertrand Bonello; Adèle Guigue

 

 

 

*****/*****

Really the best way to follow up a critical success is to make another, while further pushing boundaries to see what you might get away with. Titane certainly tests some limits. This is a potent, unpredictable and morally challenging exhibition that will either have you recoiling or marveling at the audacity of the artist.

A story involving cars, sex and violence sounds pretty mainstream but then this is Julia Ducournau, far from your garden variety director. Thus, gearheads and Fast & the Furious fans need not apply. For the moment, Ducournau seems enamored with transformative narratives that fixate on the body and alienate her protagonists from their own skin. But where her cannibalistic début feature Raw was more literal, in Titane it’s more about skin as one’s interiority, their sense of self. Though vaguely thematically related I suspect not even Raw‘s hard-to-stomach content would serve as adequate prep for the wild and uncomfortable ride she offers with her follow-up.

Titane deals with a young woman named Alexia who we first meet as a child (chillingly played by Adèle Guigue) in the jolting opening sequence — a car crash caused by her distracted father (Bertrand Bonello) which leaves the little girl with a titanium plate in her skull. Jumping forward in time Ducournau’s camera shadows older Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) as she heads in for another shift as a sexed-up model working seedy auto shows. When not writhing around suggestively on top of shiny hoods she’s signing autographs for desperate dudes . . . and murdering them when they try to get cute.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long to appreciate Alexia’s wired differently than most, the scar on the side of her head a kind of red marking to warn off her prey. And her prey turn out to be alarmingly susceptible. Acts that begin in self-defense become upsettingly random. We also quickly learn her sexual preferences are in constant flux and, uh, exotic.

There’s a girl, Justine (Garance Marillier), and a steamy moment where you begin to believe the movie is about to course-correct into a more familiar drama about being lost and desperately hoping to be found. However all bets are off when lovemaking with a car turns out far more productive than with her coworker, the former leaving Alexia pregnant and the latter devolving into a multi-room, multi-victim bloodbath that forces her to go into hiding by committing to an elaborate ruse that will have profound physical and psychological impacts.

Though the surreal, foreboding atmosphere never relents and disbelief and discomfort remain constant companions, Ducournau’s monstrosity (a term of endearment, in this case) evolves as a tale of two measurably different halves, distinguished not by quality but rather purpose as well as a noticeable shift in tone away from something fiercely feminine and toward brute masculinity. All the while this moody, bathed-in-neon head trip also morphs into something that for awhile seems out of reach; it becomes relatable.

French screen veteran Vincent Lindon provides a crucial link and the sledgehammer performance needed to match his co-star. He plays an aging fire chief who continues to mourn the disappearance of his boy Adrien ten years ago while blasting himself through with steroid injections, often to the point of collapse. When Adrien seems to reappear in police custody joy is soon replaced by concern over his son’s mute, sullen behavior. He attempts to integrate Adrien back into society, with mixed results.

In only her second film the 37-year-old provocateur is a rising star in her own right. The fact that she manages to turn so many negatives into a small but notable positive takes serious talent. But let’s not get things more twisted than they already are. There are many aspects that help inform the off-kilter vibe she’s going for — the rattling, industrial score and disturbing make-up work loom large — but not one thing, not one person commands your attention like newcomer Agathe Rousselle, an androgynous actor who burns up the screen, leveraging her lack of A-lister conspicuousness into one of the most compelling characters and performances this year has to offer, one that’s hauntingly human-adjacent.

The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 2021, Titane might be memorable for timing alone, winning in a year in which the pomp and glam returns to the French Riviera after the event’s first hiatus since World War II. But Ducournau has the bizarre content and undeniable confidence to justify the strong reaction. Titane isn’t a crowdpleaser, it’s a crowd shocker, designed to start a conversation or quite possibly end one.

Not quite Titanic

Moral of the Story: I stop short of saying best movie of the year because ‘best’ is such an awkward term to apply to something so uncompromising and unusual, a movie touting a very challenging character to root for, no less. So to be more accurate Titane sits comfortably among the most unique cinematic experiences you are going to have in 2021. For all that is bizarre and unpleasant, I put it in the category of must-see-to-believe (or not). A stunning effort from a name already making noise in the industry. Spoken in French with English subtitles. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “My name is Alexia!” 

Strap in and hold on for dear life in the Official Trailer from Neon Productions here!

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.chicago.suntimes.com

Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019

It’s Oscar weekend, so I figured now is as good a time as any to announce my ten favorite movies of 2019. There’s not a whole lot of science that goes into my process; it’s mostly gut feeling that determines what goes into this list and how I’m arranging it. The emotional response is the most reliable metric I have — how well have these movies resonated with me, how long have they lingered in my mind? How did they make me feel when I first saw them? To a lesser degree, how much replay value do these movies have? Do I want to watch them again? Would I pay to watch them again? Not that the money makes that much of a difference, but these things can still be useful in making final decisions. 

With that said, these are the ten titles that made it. I suppose one of the benefits of missing a lot of movies last year (and I mean A LOT) is that I’m not feeling that bad for leaving some big ones off of this list. So I suppose you could call this Top That fairly off the beaten path. What do we have in common? What do we have different? 


Aw hell, there goes the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the place that made him super-famous (and super-rich) turns out to be far more “mellow” than expected. Sparing one or two outbursts, considering the era in which it is set — of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate and a whole host of hippie-culty killings — this is not exactly the orgy of violence some of us (okay, me) feared it might be. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, tonally, a different and maybe more compassionate QT but this fairly meandering drama also bears the marks of the revisionist historian he has shown himself to be in things like Inglourious Basterds. He gets a little loosey goosey with facts and certain relationships but that comes second to the recreation of a specific time period, one which TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, BFF and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not so much strolling but struggling through. It’s the end of the ’60s and their careers are on the decline as the times they are a’changin’ in the land of Broken Dreams. Once Upon a Time does not skimp on capital-C characters and is quite possibly his most purely enjoyable entry to date.

My review of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood 

It’s not often you see Mark Duplass in a bonafide tear-jerker, so if nothing else Paddleton proves his versatility as an actor. Don’t worry though, this movie is still very quirky. He plays Michael, a man in his early 40s dying of cancer and who chooses to forego chemo in order to spend his remaining days doing the same things he’s always done with his upstairs neighbor and best friend in the whole wide world, Andy, played by a heartbreaking Ray Romano. Over the span of a very well spent but not always easy 90 minutes we wrestle with the philosophical ramifications of someone choosing to end their life on their own terms, contemplate the possibility of the afterlife and, of course, watch kung fu, eat pizza and learn the rules of this pretty cool game called Paddleton — think squash/racquetball played off the side of a building. Beyond the controversial subject matter, Paddleton offers one of the more tender and honest portrayals of male friendship I saw all year. And that ending . . . wow.

My review of Paddleton

Thanks to a random visit to my local Walmart Redbox I got to catch up with this ingenious little chamber piece from Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller. It opened in America in October 2018 but I didn’t see it until March 2019. I was so impressed with the set-up and eventual payoff I just could not leave it off this list. The Guilty (Den Skyldige) is about a recently demoted cop working the phones at a crisis hotline center near Stockholm. He clearly doesn’t want to be there. His day livens up when he fields a call from a woman in distress. As the situation deteriorates we learn a great deal about the man and the officer, who finds himself calling upon all his resources and his experience to resolve the crisis before his shift is over. The only other main characters in this fascinating drama are inanimate objects. It’s the kind of minimalist yet deeply human storytelling that makes many Hollywood dramas seem over-engineered by comparison.

My review of The Guilty 

Without a doubt one of the feel-good movies of 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is to some degree a modern reinvention of classic Mark Twain that finds Shia LeBeouf at a career-best as Tyler, a miscreant with a good heart living in the Outer Banks and trying to make ends meet . . . by stealing other fishermen’s stuff. When Tyler encounters Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has found his way aboard his johnboat after having eluded his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the nursing home in which he’s been placed by the state, the two embark on a journey of discovery that — yeah, you know where this is going. TPBF may be predictable but this is the very definition of the destination not mattering anywhere near as much as the journey itself. That destination, though, is pretty great. Especially when you come to the realization that it’s none other than Thomas Haden Church who is the vaunted “Saltwater Redneck.” I haven’t even mentioned Zack Gottsagen as the break-out star of this movie. He’s nothing short of fantastic, and one of the main reasons why I’m such a fan of this little indie gem.

My review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Two words: Space Pirates.

And I’m talking about legitimately lawless assholes running amok on the dark side of the moon — more the “I’m the Captain now” type and less Captain Hook. The escape sequence across no-man’s land is like something out of Mad Max and even better it’s one of the most obvious (yet compelling) manifestations of Ad Astra‘s cynicism toward mankind. Of course we’re going to colonize the Moon. And there’ll be Wendy’s and Mickey D’s in whatever Crater you live closest to.

But this (granted, rare) action scene is merely one of many unforgettable passages in James Gray’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic space sojourn about an emotionally reserved astronaut (Brad Pitt) in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero thought to have disappeared but now is suspected to be the cause of a major disturbance in deep space. My favorite thing about Ad Astra is the somber tone in which it speaks. This is not your typical uplifting drama about human accomplishment. Despite Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography Ad Astra does not romanticize the cosmos and what they may hold in store for us. I loved the audacity of this film, the near-nihilism. I understand how that didn’t sit well with others though. It’s not the most huggable movie out there.

My review of Ad Astra 

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari almost feels like a response to the vocal many bashing Hollywood for not making movies “like they used to.” The ghost of Steve McQueen hovers over this classic-feeling presentation of a true-life story. Ford v Ferrari describes how the Americans went toe-to-toe with the superior Italians at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that takes place annually in the namesake French town and tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. It’s truly remarkable how the director and his team juggle so many moving parts to make a movie about a fairly esoteric subject not only cohesive but endlessly entertaining. That’s of course in no small part due to the performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the leading roles, and a strong supporting cast who are a lot of fun in their various capacities as corporate executives, passionate motor heads and supportive family members. The movie this most reminds me of is Ron Howard’s Rush, which was about Formula 1 racing. As great as that one was, Ford v Ferrari just might have topped it. Not only are the racing sequences thrillingly realized, the real-life sting at the end adds an emotional depth to it that I was not expecting.

I’m going to be blunt here: The Academy screwed the pooch by not inviting Todd Douglas Miller to the party this year. Forgive me for not really caring what the other documentaries achieved this year, I’m too upset over this one right now. Assembled entirely out of rare, digitally remastered footage of the successful Moon landing in July 1969 — the audio track culled from some 11,000 hours of tape! — and lacking any sort of distractions in the form of voice-over narration or modern-day interviews, this “direct cinema” approach puts you right in the space shuttle with the intrepid explorers Neil Armstrong (whose biopic First Man, which came out the year prior, makes for a killer double-feature and also what I suspect is to blame for Apollo 11‘s embarrassing snub), as well as Buzz Aldrin and the often forgotten Michael Collins (he orbited the Moon while the kids went out to play). Just like those precious first steps from the Eagle lander, Apollo 11, this time capsule of a documentary is a breathtaking accomplishment.

Waves is the third film from Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults and in it he has something pretty extraordinary. Set in the Sunshine State, Waves achieves a level of emotional realism that feels pretty rare. It’s a heartbreaking account of an African-American family of four torn apart in the aftermath of a loss. The cause-and-effect narrative bifurcates into two movements, one focused on the athletically gifted Tyler (a phenomenal Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and how he struggles to cope with an injury that may well derail his life plans; the other on his neglected sister Emily (an equally moving but much more subdued Taylor Russell) and how she deals with her own guilt. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted.

This was a brutal thing to do, putting Parasite at #2. It’s sooo good. It’s actually my very first experience with a Bong Joon Ho movie and I feel like I have caught him in peak season. True, the application of metaphor isn’t very subtle in this genre-bending, history-making thriller (its nomination for an Oscar Best Pic is a first for Korean cinema) but then not much is subtle about the rapidly industrializing nation’s chronic class divide. The story is as brilliantly conceived as the characters are morally ambiguous, with a few twists stunning you as just when you think you’ve nailed where this is all going, the movie turns down a different and darker alley. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is going to win Best Pic this year, but you won’t hear me complaining if some-crazy-how Parasite ends up stealing the hardware.

My review of Parasite

Nothing else 2019 had to offer immersed me more than the sophomore effort by Robert Eggers, the stunningly talented director behind 2016’s equally disturbing The Witch. The Lighthouse is seven different kinds of weird, a unique tale about two lightkeeps stranded on a remote New England island and running on dwindling supplies of booze and sanity while trying not to die by storm or via paranoid delusions. It’s got two firecracker performances from Willem Dafoe (whose career to date has arguably been just a warm-up for Thomas Wake) and Robert Pattinson, who are expert in selling the desperation here. Beyond that, the story put together by the brothers Eggers is bursting with metaphorical meaning and indelible imagery. Best of all it becomes really hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. Man, I tell ya — this movie cast a spell on me that still hasn’t worn off.

My review of The Lighthouse


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Photo credits: IMDb

Mission of Honor (Hurricane)

Release: Friday, March 15, 2019 

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Ryan; Alastair Galbraith

Directed by: David Blair

David Blair’s World War II film arrived on American shores earlier this year as Mission of Honor. It was originally titled Hurricane. Just to be clear this is not an account of violent weather but instead one of heroic actions taken by a cadre of mostly Polish and a handful of Czechoslovakian fighter pilots who joined the British RAF in August of 1940, united in the cause to stop Hitler and specifically motivated by their love of their own country.

Mission of Honor isn’t exactly destined for the Library of Congress for its contributions to cinema or society as a whole, but it’s too well made to ignore and the story it tells is equal parts inspiring and devastating. Director David Blair is a patriot but he isn’t afraid of exposing some uglier truths. He’s made a suitably grim movie about an utterly thankless assignment. He directs a story loosely based on real events by Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith.

Mission of Honor follows the exploits of a group of hardened fighter pilots led by the stoic Jan Zumbach, played by Iwan Rheon (you might recognize him as the psychopathic Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones), who escape the oppression in Poland and enlist with the British RAF. They want to do whatever they can to help. They are to be overseen by Canadian RAF pilot John Kent (Milo Gibson). The sixth son of Mel Gibson is graciously provided one of the few moments of levity the film can muster, shown having an amusingly difficult time corralling the troops. It gets a bit silly through here, but trust me — you’re going to want to stuff some of that comic relief into a flask and take it with you from here. Impassioned, steely-nerved and at times combative, these are well-qualified, highly skilled pilots who, as time progresses, become increasingly distressed by the reality of what’s happening back home.

The drama depicts multiple battles being waged. The dogfights between the Hawker Hurricanes (hence the film’s original title) and the enemy Messerschmitts comprise most of the action. These sequences are fairly engaging but are somewhat undermined by poor computer renderings and some awkward tight zooms that insist we really notice the actors “in” the cockpit. When it comes to demonstrating skill, emphasis is placed upon ace pilot Witold Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorociński), who was single-handedly responsible for 17 confirmed kills, while in stark contrast to that deeply religious Gabriel Horodyszcz (Adrien Zareba) is shown grappling with the philosophical ramifications of killing.

On the ground at the Northolt Base we have the internal clashing of culture and personality, the Poles often at odds with the refinement of the British RAF. Language barriers and emotionality generate a lot of tension within the ranks. The actors bring an everyman-like quality to proceedings, though these good-old-boys are ultimately overshadowed by the quietly raging Zumbach, the striking Welsh actor using his piercing green eyes to convey something about war that words cannot. Meanwhile battles for common decency are being waged as women fight their way into positions previously occupied by men. Blair examines the working lives and social environment for women at the time, using Stefanie Martini’s (fictitious) Phyllis Lambert and her uncomfortable interplay with Marc Hughes’ boorish CO Ellis as a less-than-subtle nod to #metoo.

During the Battle of Britain, No. 303 Squadron RAF had more success than any of the other 16 Hurricane squadrons, downing as many as 126 Messerschmitts. They were officially operational August 2, 1940 and disbanded December 11. Of course, the movie cuts off before we can actually get there (although it offers an acknowledgement at the end with some text) but fate — and the Western Betrayal — looms large on the horizon and is constantly foreshadowed by the way the British characters in this movie routinely wrinkle their right honorable noses up at the scrappy underdogs trying to make a difference.

But it wasn’t just governments failing to uphold their military, diplomatic and moral obligation to their besieged Eastern/Central European neighbors. An opinion poll showed that 56% of the British public wanted the Poles and Czechs to be repatriated. Their efforts are considered significant factors in turning the Battle of Britain in Churchill’s favor. And yet they returned home, many to face persecution, imprisonment or their own death. It’s this darkness toward which Blair’s war film treads a weary path. It’s not an uplifting picture, and he’s pretty brave in the way he candidly describes his fellow countrymen in what history tells us is their finest hour.

Checkmate.

Recommendation: Mission of Honor gets a firm recommendation on the basis of the true-life story it depicts (with an apparent loose interpretation of events), and some solid if far from awards-worthy acting and a suitably bleak milieu. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Wandering Earth

Release: Monday, May 6, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Gong Ge’er; Junce Ye; Yan Dongxu; Yang Zhixue; Frant Gwo

Directed by: Frant Gwo

Describing The Wandering Earth as an ambitious movie is an understatement. That’s like saying Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad had cult followings. The sheer scale and spectacle on display make the likes of Michael Bay and Peter Jackson look like film school students operating on shoestring budgets.

The movie presents a doomsday scenario to end all doomsday scenarios. In the year 2061 we face annihilation as our Sun is dying and will within a century swell to encompass Earth’s orbit and within 300 years the entire solar system. In order for us — or what’s left of us — to survive we need to find a new galactic home. We’ve targeted the Alpha Centauri system as our destination. Building a bunch of space-worthy life rafts is neither practical nor egalitarian — who knows whether the darned things would survive the 2,500-year odyssey, and at $30 million a ticket that basically ensures only the Jeff Bezos of the world would be able to go.

So get this: We’re going to push the entire rock out of harm’s way using thousands of fusion-powered thrusters clamped on to the Earth’s surface. Each one the size of a city, they require an incredible amount of human ingenuity (and cooperation) to work properly. (There’s the operative phrase in movies like this — you just know something will go wrong with them at just the worst time.) We’ll use Jupiter as a slingshot to get us out of the solar system and a leading space station manned by a few brave scientists/engineers who defer to a computer that’s cribbed right from a certain Stanley Kubrick film to guide us through the cosmic dark. If all goes according to plan we should avoid getting sucked in by the giant planet’s strong gravitational field and dying a very gaseous death.

Yikes.

When it comes to the human side of the equation, The Wandering Earth is much less ambitious. Admittedly, human drama isn’t the reason this Chinese blockbuster has become a global sensation. But it would be nice if there were compelling characters to further bolster this awesome visual spectacle. I suppose therein lies the difference between American and Chinese filmmaking — The Wandering Earth certainly emphasizes collective over individual triumph. That’s compelling in its own way. But then half of the running time is devoted to the rebellious — downright reckless and seriously contrived — actions of a resentful Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu) and his less-resentful but just-as-thrill-seeking adopted sister Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho) as they become thrust into a last-ditch attempt to restart the planetary thrusters after sustaining heavy damage due to an unforeseen gravitational spike near Jupiter. A promise made and then broken by their father (played by famed martial arts actor/director Jing Wu) sets the stage for an attempt at intimacy but that simply gets lost in all the catastrophic disaster set pieces.

Just as the story finds humanity in a major transitional period, The Wandering Earth finds director Frant Gwo undergoing a major one himself. Prior to filming China’s first “full-scale interstellar spectacular” he had only two feature film credits to his name — neither of which hinted towards his next project being anything like this. In an industry largely built upon plush historical/martial arts epics there was understandably some reticence toward forging a new frontier. There was such little faith in Gwo’s ability to deliver that actors not only sacrificed paychecks but personally invested in the film to ensure the show would go on and became real-life saviors for the film. Wu, for example, was never intended to be a lead; he initially agreed to be in only one scene but the film needed star power and so Gwo rewrote the script, tailoring it to a father-son dynamic that, at least in theory, forms the emotional core of the movie.

The Wandering Earth, since its release back in February, has gone on to become the second-highest grossing non-English film ever made, earning $700 million in China alone. Netflix picked up the rights to distribute and well, here we are, navigating perilously between episodes of cataclysmic destruction, each one of them enough to wipe us all out on their own. The challenges that face Liu Qi and co. alone make 2012 look like a quaint little indie movie.

It’s a lot to process — or, you know, not process. State-sponsored messaging aside, it’s totally down to the individual as to whether you can take this puree of nonsensical, approximated science and unearned sentimentality at face value — “hey, it’s all in the name of good old-fashioned, goofy fun” — or whether the absurd physics required to save us again (and once again) are just a bridge too far.

Asking me? I appreciated the lack of Aerosmith, at the very least. The Wandering Earth presents a dire situation in a way that’s easy to watch with your jaw slacked and brain on autopilot. At points it becomes surprisingly dark. And boy does the thing look gorgeous. Despite the computer rendering essentially subbing as Characters they help you invest in the visual spectacle. Yet The Wandering Earth, just for the simple fact someone conceived of this, earns a spot on my shelf of guilty-pleasure, geek-tastic sci fi blow-outs. It slides in well above the likes of Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow while never coming close to competing with more intellectually-stimulating adventures like Interstellar and Sunshine.

Catching a red-eye.

Recommendation: A classic example of popcorn-destroying, mindless entertainment that feels like a Hollywood production but one without an American hero in sight. Filled with as many impressive visual effects as plot holes, The Wandering Earth should entertain sci fi fans in search of their next epic space adventure — one they can consume right in their laps (or via their cushy little home theater set-ups). Spoken mostly in Mandarin with English subtitles. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Decades Blogathon — Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927)

Here we are in the penultimate day in the 2017 edition of the Decades Blogathon. It’s been a really fun one to co-host yet again with the sterling Mark from Three Rows Back. With any luck this is a trend that will continue, it’s just so great having the contributions we’ve had three years in a row. So with that, I’d like to clear the floor for the featured reviewer of today — Charles from the wonderful blog, Cinematic. Please do check out his site if you have some time. 


Although cinema has always been continuously evolving since its inception, 1927 is perhaps the critical turning point in film. That year saw the debut of The Jazz Singer, the first major “talkie” that led to silent cinema’s decline and introduced the concept of spoken dialogue to the screen. 1927 also greeted audiences with the inceptions of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, two films that epitomized the power of silent era of cinema within the medium’s final years.

Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is of equal note to the above- mentioned films. An example of the burgeoning “city symphony” genre, Berlin is a quasi-documentary capturing the vibrant life and activity within a single day of the eponymous German capital. Alongside Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer’s People on Sunday, Berlin details German society’s naivety and supposed innocence before the rise of the Third Reich and the horrors of World War II.

Translating the theory of Soviet montage to German cinema, Ruttmann sought to utilize Eisenstein-esque editing to capture the breath of movement and action throughout Berlin. Ruttman opens his picture with a series of abstract images replicating a sunrise, before abruptly cutting from two animated bars dropping across the screen to railroad gates closing. The director utilizes an array of similar graphic and spatial match cuts linking the many objects of Berlin together. Like the Soviets, Ruttmann appears fascinated by the connection between man and machine, combining the motions of city dwellers and bystanders to that of cars, trains, and bicycles. Through such juxtaposition, Ruttmann appears to be noting that urbanites, like technology itself, are becoming increasingly organized and mechanical within the modern world due to the demanding schedule they are enslaved to.

A brief scene displays a Berlin audience eagerly watching The Tramp.

While Ruttmann well replicates the excitement of the Soviet montage to Berlin, the film isn’t able to quite sustain the level of exhilaration throughout its duration, and too often it feels that the director has stymied his work through repetitive shots of bystanders that lose their thrills after a while. The ending too feels abrupt, lacking a climactic conclusion that rivals a film like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Although Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera may have opened two years after Berlin, it better captures the fury and elation of the Soviet montage within the city symphony genre; in that comparison, Movie Camera is Berlin on steroids.

Yet despite its shortcomings juxtaposed to Man with a Movie Camera, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is a remarkable landmark in cinematic history that introduced the Soviet montage to the western world. Like Sunrise and Metropolis, Berlin symbolized the massive changes cinema would embark throughout the rest of the 20th century and encapsulates silent film just as the medium began to disappear.


Under the Shadow

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Babak Anvari

Directed by: Babak Anvari

For the better part of the 1980s tension between Iran and Iraq had been escalating into large-scale armed conflict, an eight-year period of violence recognized today as the Iran-Iraq War. Then-president Saddam Hussein, hoping to pounce on Iran in post-Islamic Revolution turmoil, invaded without warning in September of 1980. Cut to four years in: Iraqi forces, at best at a stalemate on the ground and increasingly on the defensive, began strategically targeting Iranian cities and civilians in a series of concentrated air strikes, but not without opposition.

This ensuing chaos, dubbed ‘The War of the Cities,’ serves as the backdrop against which Babak Anvari sets his directorial debut Under the Shadow, a quietly disturbing horror film that tells of a mother and her daughter defending themselves against malicious spirits in their apartment as the outside world crumbles around them. The film takes place in war-torn Tehran, the Iranian capital and one of the heaviest-hit areas during the conflict. This nightmarish reality meshes with aspects of ancient Arabian mythology to form a uniquely chilly, claustrophobic atmosphere.

The film opens with Shideh (Narges Rashidi) being denied an opportunity to resume her medical studies given her pre-war affiliation with politically active students. This is devastating news for her, especially since her recently deceased mother had been so supportive and had given her books to study. She returns home to an unsympathetic husband (Bobby Naderi) who bluntly tells her to get over it. Being a doctor himself, he is soon called away by the military, and advises Shideh to leave the city with their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) for his parents’ house in a safer part of the country.

Embittered by her husband’s reaction, Shideh of course doesn’t take the advice. She’d prefer to weather the storm in the comfort of their home, often taking to the building’s makeshift bomb shelter along with several other terrified tenants. After a particularly close encounter with an undetonated missile that lodges itself in the upper part of the building, the exodus begins in earnest. But Shideh and her daughter are still hanging back when young Dorsa’s favorite doll, the thing that is supposed to keep her feeling safe, goes missing.

Once Anvari guts the film of its extraneous parts he allows the true horror to settle in. A sudden ghost town turns into a breeding ground for the menacing “djinn” — supernatural creatures of Islamic theology believed to have the same capacity for good and evil as man, though in this context it’s plain to see what kind we are dealing with. Especially as their presence begins to have adverse effects on both mother and child. Nightmares, visions, inexplicable behavior — many of the hallmarks of the classic American supernatural thriller Poltergeist are on display here.

All throughout Anvari’s approach treads a fine line between being economic and becoming tedious. Under the Shadow is an understated horror that will likely frustrate viewers who demand more stimuli. Regrettably, Anvari seems unwilling to, maybe even incapable of committing to his high-concept vision all the way through, resorting to the Rule Book far more often in the waning moments. It’s not enough to completely undo what the rest of the film manages to accomplish, and yet it’s enough to make Under the Shadow just that much more forgettable.

Recommendation: A lot of buildup for minimal payoff makes Under the Shadow a little underwhelming. That said, the combination of social/political commentary with supernatural elements compels me to suggest this to anyone looking for a horror film that’s just a little different. (The version available on Netflix is an English-language overdub, which I need to mention because the incongruity of the character’s mouths with the words being spoken also considerably impacted my experience.) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 84 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Your Name.

Release: Friday, April 7, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Makoto Shinkai

Directed by: Makoto Shinkai

To say Makoto Shinkai’s massively acclaimed anime is ambitious would be an understatement. Your Name. seems to be an opus on everything from teen awkwardness to the relationship between time and memory to astrology. At its core it’s a grand romantic tale but fastened to that are numerous other bells and whistles that make the prospect of caring more of an ordeal than it ought to be.

Your Name. tells of a country girl named Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) who’s grown tired of her adolescent life in the hills and yearns to live the life of a handsome city boy, perhaps someone like Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) who lives in Tokyo. One morning Mitsuha awakens to find she has body-swapped with this boy and he with her. Dismissing the phenomenon initially as a dream, both are soon corrected with reminders from their own friends of how strange they have been acting recently.

That they seemingly can’t control when this happens, or even explain why it’s happening, is disconcerting to say the least. But as they experience the switches over and again the pair learn to establish “ground rules” so as to not leave too much of a footprint in one another’s daily lives. The opening third of the film is spent playing in this esoteric sandbox, approaching concepts like astral projection (or something like) pragmatically so that all of this, merely the set-up for the film proper, can feel both whimsical and “believable.”

Indeed, Your Name. doesn’t really get going until the body swapping stops and the perspective switches to that of Taki, who has once more become fidgety in his mundane existence. Determined to find a way to actually, finally meet this mystery girl, Taki begins exploring all his options. Understandably, his friends become concerned over his obsession. Armed with only a drawing and his rapidly fading memories, Taki makes the trek out to the fictional town of Itomori, only to find it destroyed in the aftermath of a comet that fragmented and collided with earth three years ago. For Taki, distance seems to be no object to finding true happiness. But traveling through time, well that’s another prospect entirely. Will they ever find a way to reunite?

More importantly, will anyone care by the time they do? I still haven’t really addressed the proper, metaphysical significance of that cosmic event, but at this point I’m starting to mimic Shinkai’s worst habits, I’d be stuffing more …. stuff into an already exposition-heavy review. Not that a more complete examination of the plot would rob potential viewers of the surprises in store, because quite frankly there are too many twists and turns to remember, much less ruin. Perhaps this is me not doing my due diligence here, but there’s so much about the film that I just don’t understand and have come to accept as that which I never will. Like how we make the leap from Mitsuha wanting to BE Taki to her actually falling in love with him. Or how each can forget the other’s name seconds after learning what it is.

The mental gymnastics that are required to keep up with everything ultimately make this romantic epic a chore to sit through. And it’s not enough to have a labyrinthian plot to sort through; we have to try to make sense of it alongside two prototypically “annoying” and angsty characters. It is all a little too precious and pretentious. But, to damn with faint praise here, at least the photorealistic animation makes all that mental taxation somewhat worthwhile.

Recommendation: I’ve often described my reactions to anime as something like binary code: there are ones and zeroes. I either love these films — like, really, really love them — or feel totally turned off by them. Alienated. If you are anything like me in that regard, you might do some research on the film before you buy a ticket. Shop around for similar films, maybe things you’ve seen before and make an informed decision. There’s a ton of stuff to absorb here. I can’t even say Your Name. is a “bad movie;” it’s just a little overwhelming, especially for those of us who aren’t devotees. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.goldposter.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Train to Busan

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Yeon Sang-ho

Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho

Train to Busan is a breathless and brutal South Korean zombie flick that broke a number of records last year, becoming the first Korean feature to breach the $1 million mark at the Singaporean box office. Over the past several months it has taken the world by storm, becoming one of the most commercially and critically successful zombie apocalypses ever.

Yeon Sang-ho’s first live-action feature does for zombies what James Wan’s The Conjuring did for haunted houses. It’s a superlative genre film of uncommon intelligence, exuding all the elements that characterize such films as uniquely entertaining and disturbing, while never really making an attempt to “be different.” Simply put, movies like Train to Busan and The Conjuring prove that tropes are tropes for a reason; they can be powerfully affecting if nurtured properly. It also helps the cause when your actors are this good at selling them.

Train to Busan improves its stock by investing more in human relationships as opposed to obsessing over how many zombies it can overload the frame with. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a divorced hedge fund manager who doesn’t have the time to pay attention to his young daughter, Soo-an (a marvelous Kim Soo-an), evidenced by the fact he has bought her for her upcoming birthday yet another gaming console, identical to the one currently sitting on her TV stand in her bedroom — the one he got her as a recent Children’s Day gift. All she wants is to go stay with her mother in Busan, and she’s determined to go alone so that she doesn’t hassle daddy. But when Soo-an shows him a video of her recent singing recital, which she was unable to finish due to his absence, Seok becomes racked with guilt and decides he will in fact accompany her on the nearly 300-mile train ride.

The next day they board the KTX in Seoul, along with a number of passengers we will become familiar with over the course of this harrowing journey. There’s the surly, working-class Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung), a pair of elderly sisters In-gil (Ye Soo-jung) and Jong-gil (Park Myung-sin), a homeless man (Gwi-hwa Choi) whose strange behavior and thoroughly unkempt appearance nearly gets him thrown off, a group of high school baseball players and, last but absolutely not least, the COO of a major corporation, Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung). While these supporting parts don’t necessarily go beyond archetypes, they’re ably performed and, more crucially, give the story depth.

Joining these travelers as well is a visibly distressed young woman who just manages to board the KTX before it departs the station. Her leg is severely bleeding and something about her just seems off. Writer-director Sang-ho, waiting patiently for just the right time to release his finger from the pin of the grenade, brilliantly sets us on a collision course with chaos as the deadly consequences of an apparent biohazard disaster inadvertently make their way aboard one of the world’s fastest trains. (Achieving speeds upwards of 200 miles an hour, the KTX redefines the excitement of traveling. As does the action forthcoming.)

Train to Busan hurtles along at a breakneck pace with hard-hitting action that can be difficult to watch. I’ve always responded more strongly to those zombie flicks that actually make you dread The Turn — or films like Maggie that focus almost entirely on that transition and use it as an allegory for real people succumbing to real diseases in the real world. Sang-ho’s careful consideration of what it means to become one of the undead invokes the seminal 28 Days Later, if not in terms of atmosphere then in the way hope is slowly stripped away from the living like flesh from the bone.

Sang-ho’s decision to (mostly) isolate the drama within the confines of a moving train exacerbates the terror of being in proximity to the zombie. Mass hysteria combines with claustrophobic tension to form the ideal conditions for the uninfected to begin losing their humanity in other ways. Meanwhile cameras are often found sitting at eye-level with the young and impressionable Soo-an as she bears witness to the atrocities committed. This perspective, of a child trying to understand why people treat each other the way they do, brilliantly reflects Sang-ho’s own despair.

Word is that Train to Busan finds the Korean director tempering his anger a little bit (his previous animated efforts apparently offer the kind of acrimony and villainy that make the vile COO and his wildly selfish acts throughout this film seem innocent by comparison). But the injustices he has experienced, if not directly then through simple observation, manifest themselves in some brutal ways in a film that, historically, has no compulsion to offer anything more profound than icky special and/or practical effects and inventive kills. Train to Busan can sometimes overwhelm with the sense of hopelessness it provides. It’s dark and dangerous and deadly, and it’s just so damn good. Especially for a zombie movie.

Recommendation: Powerful and surprisingly hard-hitting, Train to Busan announces itself as a modern classic. It’s a film with something for everyone — the zombie purists and those who just want to have their nerves rattled for a solid two hours. Be sure you check this out on Netflix, unless of course movies about the undead are completely dead to you. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 118 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Divines

divines-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Uda Benyamina; Romain Compingt; Malik Rumeau 

Directed by: Uda Benyamina 

Divines provides a bleak but brilliant look into the lives of two teens in the Parisian banlieue. It follows Dounia and her best friend Maimouna as they seek out ways of making quick money so they can one day break free of their oppressive environs, an urban sprawl so neglected it almost looks post-apocalyptic. Small-time hustlers turn big-time drug pushers in this searing indictment of the socioeconomic climate of modern France, where the rich get richer “because the poor aren’t daring enough.”

Powerful female performances dominate but the French-Moroccan Uda Benyamina in her feature debut stops just short of making a film explicitly about female empowerment, and in so doing she creates a film that’s a little more open to interpretation. The narrative is more concerned with economics and how simply the lack of money so often coerces good people into making poor decisions. It just so happens to feature two impressionable young women going to extreme measures to realize a dream. Along the way Benyamina also examines the prominence of religion in poor communities. It is no accident the film opens with a sermon.

Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, the director’s sister) comes from a broken family, her mother an exotic dancer who sleeps around and is more often drunk than sober. There’s no real father figure as such, aside from a cross-dresser who hangs around for casual sex and to feign giving emotional support to the quietly angry teen. Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) comes from a more well-to-do family, her father a prayer leader at a mosque. The film’s major themes — poverty and religious devotion — become increasingly apparent through the perspectives and conversations had between the two girls. They are first seen peddling whatever items they have been able to thieve from a shopping mall on the streets to whomever will give them cash. When Dounia discovers a potential fast-track to success she starts cozying up to a drug dealer named Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda).

Divines is hardly the first film to filter the political and economic turmoil of Western Europe through the experiences of young and naïve characters — in this case, young women from a Parisian ghetto. It will not be the last. That doesn’t mean Divines is a predictable or insignificant affair. Quite the contrary, actually. The story revitalizes tropes and breathes new life into expected character arcs, patiently building toward one of the most punishing endings you are likely to see. Julien Poppard’s cinematography, a heady combination of gritty realism and ethereal experimentation, forces viewers to acknowledge Paris as something other than just the City of Lights. This is a city of darkness. It’s worth noting the juxtaposition of these slums against iconic landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe. Poppard often frames the city in a contradictory manner, imprisoning the characters within a crumbling square betwixt decaying buildings while tossing in plenty of romantic stimuli to assure viewers are where the street signs say they are.

While the edifices certainly could use some attention, Dounia in particular is desperate for it. Or at least some sort of positive influence. As the narrative expands she is shown a door to an altogether different life with a dancer named Djigui (Kévin Mischel) whom she has been spying on from the rafters of the theater she and Maimouna frequently break into. (Initially I was put off by their ability to sneak in so easily but then I realized the set-up was quite intentional, that perhaps the motif is microcosmic of Benyamina’s frustrations over the French government’s failure to protect and look after all its citizens, as any good government should.) Djigui seems an odd sort, if only to the girls who don’t envision men as dancers. His commitment to his craft is what could lead him to better things. Dounia becomes fascinated by his devotion.

Divines is at its most heartbreaking when it offers the wayward teens a choice. As is the case in reality, they are forced to make decisions over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes that no teenager should have to make. The economics that have outlined her past as well as determine her future make Dounia an utterly tragic character (the less said about Maimouna’s fate, the better). Yet she’s far from an entirely empathetic person. She carries a lot of anger inside of her, and she often makes the wrong choice when it is plain to see there is a better one. She is seen in the film’s opening in temple with her best friend. By the end she couldn’t seem further from salvation. That contrast is not only heartbreaking but wholly convincing. It is the world we live in.

divines-2

Recommendation: Richly textured, occasionally symbolic and often breathtaking cinematography and some artistic but not distracting stylistic choices — some portions of the film are created such that we are “receiving” Snapchat videos — make Divines a physical beauty to watch. The story is dark and saddening and a conclusion that’s nothing short of devastating makes this a noteworthy film for the politically minded and the socially conscious. And fans of unorthodox directors need to add this to their shortlist. Good for Uda Benyamina for getting this film made. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 105 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.variety.com

Cemetery of Splendor

cemetery-of-splendor-movie-poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016 (limited) 

[Vimeo]

Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul 

Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul


My  first review of a Thai film is brought to you courtesy of Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. James is the guy running the show over there and he graciously made this incredibly unique and moving film available to me. Please check out his site if you have a few moments. 


The transition from movie back to reality is rarely as jarring as when you are forcibly removed from the most recent effort of (judging by one film) cinematic poet Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), the Bangkok-born filmmaker’s eighth directorial credit, plums the depths of the soul in a meditative and meandering narrative that simply defies categorization.

Let’s get one thing clear: if you’re searching for the literal, the low-hanging fruits of traditional storytelling — a conflict that arises that must be resolved, barriers to that attempt to overcome, resolutions that, tidily or not, seal the deal in one fell swoop — you’re probably going to hate Cemetery of Splendor. I mean hate it. On top of that, patience is absolutely key; this is a very deliberately paced production. At times it can be testing. It might be evident how radically different an experience we’re in for judging merely by the way Weerasethakul starves us for the very first image in an unusually protracted cold open — heavy machinery digging a big hole adjacent to a hospital in the Thai village of Isan — and how deliberately the vast majority of his shots remain static, filmed at a distance such that viewers must pick and choose what it is in the frame that interests them most.

This makeshift hospital is where our journey begins. We’re not traveling far and wide; rather we’re delving into the human consciousness, into the dreams of a man who has been struck with a mysterious sleeping sickness and who gains the friendship of a kindhearted volunteer named Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner). In this hauntingly quiet space we see several cots lined up with bodies in each one, all on the drip and seemingly lifeless. They’re soldiers but they’re not dead, nor do they seem like they’re suffering from physical ailments. Instead they’re sleeping — all day and all night. The camera eventually settles on one man all the way in the back corner, a man named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) who has had no visitors. Jen decides she will take care of him.

This seemingly innocuous facility — a school that has been converted into a temporary clinic — has been said to possess ethereal power, having its foundations built directly upon the graves of ancient kings. The juxtaposition some believe is the very cause of the soldiers’ sickness: their strength in the real world is being manipulated by these kings who remain engaged in an eternal spiritual war. The clinic’s staff, housewives who are volunteering perhaps for no other reason than out of the goodness of their heart, have taken numerous approaches to ease their suffering. The most striking and perhaps most abstract method is their light therapy technique in which vertical tubes of neon light are placed beside each bed, the colors ever so slowly transitioning between red, green and blue.

Theoretically each color holds some sort of cultural and/or political significance (red symbolizes national pride; green represents Thailand’s military forces and blue indicates royalty and privilege), though if anything their application in this film contributes most apparently to the physicality of the experience. As Cemetery of Splendor opens up, these colors begin bleeding into the film reel itself, affording a psychedelic quality to proceedings. Even more experimental than this technique is Weerasethakul’s bold decision to have his actors reenact the process of communicating with the spiritual world. Early on we are introduced to a young woman named Keng (Jarinpratta Rueangram), a medium who helps visitors reach out to their loved ones — those soldiers imprisoned by silence. She decides to use her extraordinary gift to help Jen interact with Itt.

In one of the film’s most ambitious sequences, Jen and Keng take a walk about the quaint village, through a wooded park that’s more like a relic of a forgotten history than some place families go to take a stroll. And so develops a scene in which words simply do not do justice; in fact to actually detail what happens here would be ultimately to spoil its essence. Suffice it to say the moment is seized brilliantly by all involved, the actors bravely trusting in their director that they won’t look silly demonstrating what could arguably be the most complicated and most abstract concept any filmmaker could imagine recreating.

Here we have our best shot of actually witnessing the spiritual and the physical world colliding, at least thematically speaking. The young soldier, vicariously through Keng’s gentle mannerisms, “reveals” to Jen — whose American husband, by the way, has been intentionally kept out of sight throughout most of the narrative to give the impression Jen’s personal life is a wee bit complicated — precisely what he’s experiencing in his sleep. It is also in this protracted scene where we find out the devastating truth behind Jen’s physical deformity. One of her legs is significantly shorter than the other, which has prompted her to get around on crutches and with a specially-fitted shoe to help her balance. Heretofore the issue has gone unaddressed, but Weerasethakul has patiently waited for the right moment to drop the bomb.

In the name of hyperbole, words will inevitably fail me when a friend asks what this movie is all about. I’m of a mind to tell them that it’s about everything. That’s simultaneously the least satisfying and the most accurate (and most concise) way of putting it. Unsatisfying in the sense that it’s hardly a descriptive response and it seems cheaply broad; accurate in that Cemetery of Splendor opens up so many doors for viewers to walk through and interpret things as they see them. This is going to be a different film to different viewers. Or I could be completely wrong and Weerasethakul actually has a much more specific, narrowed focus. I, a Westerner, might just be the guy who came before King Arthur who tried to wield Excalibur.

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Recommendation: An exquisitely complex, psychosomatic kind of experience that I am hesitant to say is one of the best films of 2016. I hesitate only in the sense that not everything in this Thai film will translate well (if at all) for international audiences. But Cemetery of Splendor is undoubtedly one of the most unique and entrancing films I’ve yet seen. Even if I don’t personally fully grasp it. This is nevertheless an incredibly profound piece and further confirmation that some of the most original works really do stem from foreign markets. If I were pressed to make comparisons, Terrence Malick and Nicolas Winding Refn come to mind.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “I’d prefer a European husband. Americans are too poor. Europeans are living the American Dream.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.recentmovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com