Dec 18, 2014

Winter Sleep

Grade: B+/A-

*This review was originally published on Movie Mezzanine.

“I’ve never had a spare second to be bored,” exclaims Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), the protagonist of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s dauntingly titled, 197-minute long Palme d’Or winner, Winter Sleep. It’s a sentiment mirroring what one feels about the gargantuan and wordy film, which breezes through its running time without a sluggish moment. The Turkish master’s lush and absorbing latest work is complex and has no easy resolutions, but its multifaceted study of the Turkish society through the prism of its protagonist is richly rewarding.

Aydin is a former actor and current owner of a hotel compound and several other properties on the Anatolian steppe – Ceylan thus returns to the same geographic turf as his last film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aydin passes his days by writing think pieces for a local publication, while his right-hand man, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), takes care of the business side of things: collecting rents, running the hotel’s errands, and occasionally roughing up anyone whose payments are running behind schedule. Two women live with Aydin: his divorced sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), and his much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sӧzen). Aydin doesn’t spare either of them any of his holier-than-thou, snobby attitude, projecting onto the former his own insecurities and categorically accusing the latter of not knowing the ways of life and condescending to her regarding her financial affairs.

Having mostly locked himself up within the confines of his estate but for semi-regular visits from a friend, Aydin seems so closed off from the rest of the world that his ideas border on delusion. He’s an intellectual whose insistence on devoting an article to the shabbiness of the local imam suggests something about his character, especially as it is juxtaposed to the dire living conditions of his tenants in the nearby neighborhoods. Class division is a major theme of the film, and one that, unlike everything else being argued and philosophized by Aydin and his entourage, is more subtly suggested in the events on screen. Not that Aydin’s disdain for everyone beneath him is concealed at all, even when he’s alone in his study room.

Dec 15, 2014

Adapting le Carré in A Most Wanted Man

*This piece was originally published at The Film Experience as part of the Team FYC Series, in which the website's contributors make a case for an under the radar candidate for Oscar nomination.

Anton Corbijn’s latest film, A Most Wanted Man, is one of the year’s best American films. It’s the type of work that is elevated above the trappings of its overly familiar genre with superb performances and intelligent observations on the real world conditions that give birth to its story. It is arguably the smartest film made about America’s increasingly troubled relationship with, and its definition of, terrorism. Yet, it is surprising to compare the film's screenplay, penned by Andrew Bovell, to its original source, the 2008 novel of the same name by John le Carré, and notice the dramatic improvement that the adaptation has made to the text.

With densely plotted novels, particularly in the espionage genre, one of the biggest challenges of adaptation is the careful omission of narrative threads without disrupting the harmony or logic of the story. Le Carré’s book is one of his lesser works, a straightforward piece about Issa (Gregoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen fugitive in Hamburg, whose history of being tortured in his homeland is sufficient cause for authorities (German and American) to assume ties with terrorist organizations. Issa’s story is intertwined to three other protagonists who are afforded equal attention in the novel: a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Defoe), a lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and a spy named Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Bovell and Corbijn remove almost the entirety of Annabel and Tommy’s back stories and shift the focus of the narrative entirely, tightening the scope of the film but lending it more political resonance. They introduce Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) in the opening scenes instead of the latter half and make several crucial decisions that don’t just improve upon the book, but create thematic subtexts that were absent originally.

Two examples illustrate this best: first, the film eliminates the two most memorable exchanges of dialogue from the book: Bachmann’s Cantata, a long manifesto about the history of Hamburg and how it is interwoven with terrorism in today’s world. In this belligerent speech’s stead, the film relies on the subtlety of Hoffman’s performance and his dejected, knowing gaze, always aware that the anti-terrorist empire is one moment of misjudgement away from complete collapse. One memorable monologue is taken away; a delicate, slow-burner of a performance takes its place to more lingering effect. (Chris Ryan of Grantland has written about this omission at length here.) The second piece of dialogue is the book's finale, a rather explicit definition of extraordinary rendition delivered in lecture form. The film's silent ending is sublime in comparison.

The second example is the addition of Abdullah’s son, Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi), completely absent from the book in the present form. A secret collaborator with Bachmann’s espionage team, Jamal’s character does as much as Issa’s in painting a nuanced portrait of how Muslims as a whole are misunderstood in the West with regards to their views on terrorism. He is less a symbol of tolerance and more a complex figure of conflicted sentiments: peace activist on the one hand, guilt-ridden son on the other. As a smooth, perfectly paced thriller, the screenplay is structurally robust and extremely entertaining, but the sharp commentary on America’s convoluted, haphazard foreign policies – timely as ever in the wake of the release of the torture reports – create a text that is nothing short of outstanding.

Dec 12, 2014

List: Asghar Farhadi's Films Ranked

1. About Elly
2. A Separation
3. Tambourine (screenwriter only)
4. Low Height (screenwriter only)
5. Beautiful City
6. Fireworks Wednesday
7. The Past
8. Dancing in the Dust

Dec 6, 2014

Visual Effects in Under the Skin

*This piece was originally published at The Film Experience as part of the Team FYC Series, in which the website's contributors make a case for an under the radar candidate for Oscar nomination.

"Generally speaking, if you drop the adjective Best and replace it with Most, you come to a better understanding of what the Academy Awards are often about.”
That statement is taken from Nick Davis’ review of The Lives of Others written several years ago, but it’s a sentiment I have not only shared, but have come to recognize as the defining element of my relationship with the Oscars, responsible for the bulk of my disagreements with their choices. Nick called the application of his theory to the visual effects category “self-explanatory” and it’s hard to disagree with him. How often do we find nominees in this category that subtly work their visual effects into the narrative? Filmmakers who employ effects as a storytelling device rather than a show-stopping juggernaut of colors and flying objects? This isn’t to say that some worthy work hasn’t been rewarded in the process. No one can argue with the impressive quality of what is on display in Gravity, but the emphasis is on “on display.” Visual effects in Cuaron’s films are equivalent to an oiled up body in a tight thong, flexing muscles in your face, and that type of “most” visual effects is what the Academy has come to reward repeatedly, even when the results aren’t quite as impressive or innovative, which brings me to this year.

None of the films that are bound to be nominated in this category will have imagery that is as iconic or memorable as the understated work in Under the Skin.  Yet, Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece – his third from three tries – faces two very big hurdles on its road to nomination. First, the film isn’t in the Academy’s wheelhouse or likely to get any other nominations. Second, that the visual effects aren’t showy. In the words of its VFX supervisor, Dominic Parker, the techniques “are supporting the film, not the main event.”

Technically, Under the Skin isn’t doing anything that Kubrick didn’t do fifty years ago; one particular sequence – the disintegration of one of Alien’s preys, which is the only colourful segment in the film – unmistakably mirrors the colored vortex sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the application, completely at the service of the story and actively designed to go unnoticed, is what makes the experience memorable.

The plain black void in which the alien’s victims, lit in blue hues, float endlessly until their moment of implosion is the year’s most terrifying, unshakable imagery. The sense of inescapable horror that these sequences create is precisely due to their sleek emptiness. Similarly, the emotional gravity of the final moment, a literal stripping to bare the soul, or lack thereof, is conveyed with such weight because of the simplicity of the non-obstructive effects. Still, one need not look further than the film’s opening "creation" scene to see the genius of the effects. Glazer and his team trimmed down the concept of this scene from the formation of a full human body to just the eye and ended up with sheer minimalist brilliance. The gradual, shocking revelation of what it is we’re witnessing is the most wondrous sensation in the film, a moment of genuinely awe-inspiring quality. Here’s hoping Academy voters take note.

Dec 4, 2014

List: Top Ten Films of the Decade (2010-14)

1. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
2. Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
3. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonca Filho)
4. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
5. The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zurcher)
6. The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet)
7. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
8. Senna (Asif Kapadia)
9. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
10. Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
Honorable mention: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Dec 1, 2014

Screening Log: November

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

Foxcatcher (Miller, 2014, B+)
Foxcatcher doesn't quite explore the psychology of its two leads to the extent that a two-hour-plus film should, which is surprising coming from Miller who did the same to much greater effect in both Capote and Moneyball. Still, he exhibits his mastery of the craft; the best scenes in the film are exceptionally well-directed and the emotional weight of certain sequences, particularly ones involving the Schultz brothers, are hard to carry. 

Starred Up (Mackenzie, 2014, A-)
Absolutely relentless. Amidst the macho posturing, the clenched fists and the spurts of blood, Mackenzie finds a surprisingly tender story about broken hearts and camaraderie, and subtly suggests the regrettable myopia of modern punitive systems.

The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, 2014, A)
Strange little obsessions. I was astonished by the amount of details I remembered from my first screening of the film, a rushed event crammed in the hysteria of last year's tiff. Zurcher's static but searching camera is fixated on moments that more traditional films overlook in favour of plot developments: an unruly, rumpled collection of ideas and thoughts that occupy most of our head space unconsciously. Paradoxically, it is these seemingly unimportant details that turn the film into a truly memorable, unshakeable experience, elevating one insignificant family gathering to complete sublimity.

The Homesman (Jones, 2014, A-)
Much more complex than initially meets the eye, Tommy Lee Jones's graceful, gorgeously shot and patiently paced slice of American history is challenging in its depiction of gender politics a refreshing take on traditionalism – and intelligent about positing America as a nation cyclically predicated on violence.

Enemy (Villeneuve, 2014, B+)
The themes Villeneuve is exploring here – guilt, fear, identity crises, loyalty – are neither deeply analyzed nor uniquely looked at, leaving the film feeling a little bit thin, but he directs the hell out of it, creating a memorable atmospheric and eerie experience. 

Journey to the West (Tsai, 2014, N/A)
Tsai's evocative observation of a monk's snail-paced trek through the streets of Marseille is closer to a museum exhibition than a cinema experience. It subverts the attention of the audience from the subject of its gaze to those who gaze at him, thus quite literally turning him into an art piece. It is at times mesmerizing and resplendent.

House of Sand and Fog (Perelman, 2003, B-)
A lot is left to be desired in the film's characterizations, the overbearing allegories in the screenplay and the hokey directorial choices. Still, House of Sand and Fog is one of the few American films about Iranian characters that neither exoticizes nor patronizes nor demonizes them, instead giving them a fair shot as personalities whose actions can be contextualized on an equal footing. Kingsley and Connelly give stellar performances, too.

Obvious Child (Robespierre, 2014, B+)
Though the film is about abortion, Donna's character is by no means about that. There is an ocean of depth in the way Donna is written and in Jenny Slate's brilliant, touching performance. A sweet, small-scale gem that achieves far more than expected with sharp humor and astute observations on friendship, blooming romances and career pitfalls. 

The Sleepwalker (Fastvold, 2014, C) (review)
"In attempting to subvert our expectations of the genre, The Sleepwalker concerns itself with formal details and momentary pleasures that cannot mask the film’s regrettable lack of thematic depth."
Rosewater (Stewart, 2014, C+)
Insufferably patronizing and frankly lifeless and boring for the most part, Stewart's directorial debut exhibit's little of the man's political understanding on television. Rosewater eschews the nuances of Iranian society in favour of simplified politics.

Bob's Burgers Season 3 (Bouchard, 2012-13, A)
The genius of the show is that while every character's trait remains entertainingly consistent, they never loses the ability to surprise. Uproariously funny and frequently moving and resonant.

Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, 2014, B-)
The erotic charge between Franck and Michel is never convincing or evident enough to warrant the connection between them, or maybe I'm too boring to understand the appeal of risky sex with a murderer. Guiraudie's successful with certain suspenseful sequences in the film - Michel and Franck's first swim together, Henri's final scene, the ending - so it's a shame that the whole can't match the force of its individual parts.

Not Without My Daughter (Gilbert, 1991, F)
A repugnant, odious, atrocious pile of shit.

Listen Up Philip (2014, Perry, A-)
Perry's warm close-ups find layers of emotion in insignificant moments that lesser films tend to gloss over. Elizabeth Moss's performance is a work of measured, sublime introspection. It's the second half of the film, where the audience spend the most time with her character as she rebounds from a break-up with the titular Jason Schwartzman that Listen Up Philip demonstrates the depth and shrewdness of its observation on relationships and individual identity. The final third of the film redirects our attention, not so much justifying the insufferable behaviour of Philip but bringing to lights the challenging elements of his personality that others tend to miss. All of this is delivered through Perry's characteristically sardonic dialogue and Robert Greene's jewel cut pacing.

Interstellar (Nolan, 2014, C-)
It borders on parody that the plot of Interstellar hinges on an equation that solves the universe. Nowhere has Nolan's inability to find the spiritual, the sublime, in the middle of all the expositions and plot twists been as painfully evident as here, when the fate of the world is reduced to a mathematical equation. Interstellar might as well be filmed directly from a first draft, not just because the atrocious dialogue (Lazarus!) and the over-explaining is really tedious, but also because several subplots and characters can be cut to rein the film in below its wild three hour running time. Nolan has the technical and artistic capability to create truly sensational cinema, but the convoluted nature of his script (and frankly, its stupidity) really undermine him. Matthew McConaughey does one of his best works, however, keeping his character down to earth, for lack of a better term, amidst the grandiosity. A warm, touching and uncharacteristically lived in performance that makes itself felt even through Zimmer's loud screeching. 

Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987, A)
The devastating mental toll of war on those unfortunate enough to experience it. The duality of man. The cinema's most meticulous, intelligent filmmaker.

Bloodsport (Arnold, 1988, B+)
Cheesy, implausible and over the top, with exaggerated acting, poorly structured plotting and ostentatious one-liners to be butchered by weak acting, but... it's a heck of a lot of fun; the type of film that quite literally kicks ass.

Citizenfour (Poitras, 2014, A-)
Sensational filmmaking. Citizenfour is a riveting experience; not history being told, but history being captured as it is made. Precise, funny, enraging and absolutely vital, this is one of the year's best films.

Emptying the Skies (Kass/Kass, 2014, C+) (review)
The type of documentary film that coasts on its moving subject matter without challenging its audience. This is an informative, functional re-telling of Jonathan Franzen report about the brutal killing of migratory birds in Europe.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Innaritu, 2014, B-)
It's an entertaining film and hence, I imagine, a rewatchable one. There's never a dull moment and it's paced with a precision that Innaritu has not shown since his debut feature. But it's also a very uneven film, partly because it never settles a consistent tone, but also because certain elements undermine the experience. Lubezki's cinematography is distractingly showy and mistakes theatricality for conveying the experience of the theatre. Keaton's performance is rather lifeless. He's cartoonish in the big moments and dull in the smaller ones. Norton, Ryan and Riseborough all do very strong work and the innovative score is effective, but the philosophizing becomes tedious (even though the film never does). There are a lot of ideas at play here but quite what Innaritu is saying about them isn't clear. It feels as though Birdman has its head so far up its own ass and is so self-aware of its meta coolness that it forgets there is an emotional truth to be found in this story. Still, that undefinable, unquantifiable element was there: I had tons of fun watching this!

Tangna (Naderi, 1972, C+)
There are issues with the film's rhythm pacing has always been my biggest challenge with Naderi's cinema and its formal and thematic repetition borders on poverty porn, but it is an otherwise very confrontational study of lower class Iranian life in the years leading up to the revolution, discussing crime, rape and moral bankruptcy in ways few films dared, or were allowed, to do. 

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Sargent, 1974, A-)
This is everything the modern Hollywood action thriller isn't: measured, resonant, politically thoughtful and socially conscious, superbly-paced without suffocating the audience with its style.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968, A)
There is little that has not been written about this monumental work, but seeing it on the big screen on 70mm projection, I was inspired and overwhelmed by its majestic design and thematic depth more so than before. This is cinema itself.

The Overnighters (Moss, 2014, B-) (review)
"The Overnighters is painful to watch, in significant part because despite the large cast of characters that it considers, it never loses touch with them as individuals. They are not a disenfranchised mass, and the film isn’t a political rhetoric about caring for the poor. They are human beings with lives and stories and pains that transcend beyond their misfortunes and Moss’s greatest accomplishment is that he conveys that in spite of the limited time he spends with each person."

Nightcrawler (Gilroy, 2014, B+/A-)
Anchored by an astonishing performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is a relentlessly entertaining, beautifully stylized film about the corporate greed and rhetoric that defines American capitalism, infused with a satirical look at the mechanics (and agendas) of the American media, though this latter aspect of the film is more obvious and less original.

That Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, 1977, A) (thoughts)
"That all these ideas [about politics and sexuality] come together so seamlessly to create a timeless commentary on the clash of the old order with the modern world is no surprise: this is the work of two artists [Bunuel and Carriere] who had come to a perfect understanding without compromising each other's wild creativity, working together in complete harmony."

The Phantom of Liberty (Bunuel, 1974, B-)
An episodic, dream-like structure lent to a story with a bigger thematic reach than it can successfully harness. The episodes intermittently feel incoherent, though as individual pieces, they retain Bunuel's trademark mastery of structured chaos.

Nov 24, 2014


Grade: C

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

In Mona Fastvold’s debut feature, The Sleepwalker, Kaia (Gitte Witt) and Andrew (Christopher Abbott) are a young couple who have recently began residing in the former’s paternal house, a remote and gargantuan building surrounded with untamed nature and filled with remnants of a family whose dysfunctions are plain even in small, dusty photographs. Their serene stay consists of a gradual attempt at renovating the place, which is cut short by the abrupt entrance of Kaia’s sister, Christine (Stephanie Ellis). Christine is a troubled young woman whose nervous gestures betray something deeply broken inside her. Shortly after it is revealed that she is pregnant, her fiancé, Ira (Brady Corbet) also arrives, completing a quartet that is no less problematic than the original family.

Christine is soon proved to be the sleepwalker of the title, though not before an increasingly uncomfortable dinner-table conversation reveals a mysterious past relationship between her and Andrew. The primary force of the plot is the mystery surrounding their childhood and their potentially abusive father. The large burn marks on Kaia’s body are particularly a source of intrigue: possibly the result of a violent fire set to the home’s garage by Christine or a severe punishment by their absent father, or perhaps some other unknown secret the film cares little to expand upon.

These mysterious elements allow Fastvold – who co-wrote the film with Corbet – to create an eerie ambience that feels genuinely terrifying at times. One particular sequence, in which Andrew leaves the house for the next-door garage at night induces horror with such nonchalant ease that one wonders what could have been if a first-time director of such confidence had better material on paper to work with. For every moment of brilliance as such, there is one in which a clichéd horror trope is used to pointless effect – a knife for a birthday gift!