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May 17, 2015

Cannes 1995

The introduction shall be kept short. You may have seen already on twitter, if you follow me, or at Nick's Flick Picks, if you read Nick Davis's website -- and if you don't, seriously reconsider your life choices -- that Nick has decided to revisit the 1995 Cannes Festival on its 20th anniversary. Furthermore, he's assembled a distinguished group of film enthusiasts, and also me, to accompany him. This page, which will be updated daily, is your reference for my contribution to the series. I will also be tweeting about each film but those will be too numerous to link to individually here. You can read the details of the series here and follow the other contributors' share of the game here.

Ed Wood (Burton, 1994, B+)
A remnant of a time when Burton was still capable of making films that expressed human emotions, full of nostalgia for the simpler times of the past -- the perennial state of Hollywood in any era -- and, like Wood himself, genuine love for the medium. Depp's performance is all pizzazz but it's Martin Landau's heartbreaking performance that elevates this stylized romp to something sublime. No wonder that the film's final minutes falter so roughly in his absence.

Underground (Kusturica, 1995, A)
Kusturica's film is essentially comprised of a series of allegories -- for more than half of the film's running time, these are placed within an overarching allegory -- and yet, unlike most films that try to construct their narrative entirely based around a single trick, it manages never to lose its surprise factor. The symbolism, the allusions and the jokes are increasingly clever. With biting humour and at a relentlessly energetic pace, Underground draws a historical map of Yugoslavia through the 20th century that is at once accessible and precise, heartfelt and bitter, and prescient and timeless. A masterpiece.

The Madness of King George (Hytner, 1994, B)
One of the most entertaining film of the competition lineup of the festival. Hytner's film packs all the punch and pizzazz missing from the other English-language period dramas of the festival. It conveys a sweet love story beneath the opulence of regal clothes and wigs, and offers a comic glimpse into the rituals and relationships of the court and the archaic medical system. Hawthorne is remarkable in this film, impossibly balancing farce with a heartfelt, if unsubtle, portrait of mental illness.

The Convent (Manoel de Oliveira, 1995, C-)
One of the prolific director's lesser efforts. Although there are interesting experiments with the musical score of the film, its formal rigidity -- whereas de Oliveira's austere formal approach can at times feel liberating, here, it is rather drab -- and the literary nature of the dialogue trap the film, preventing its metaphysical elements from feeling, well, metaphysical.

Don't Forget You're Going to Die (Beauvois, 1995, B-)
The rare experience of a film that is exactly my neutral: innocuous enough not to actively dislike -- though innocuous might not be the best word to use about a film about sex, drugs and military violence -- but so unexciting that it's difficult to find the positives. Beauvois promises a strong directorial career ahead of him, exhibiting a powerful grasp of mood and colour palettes, but his film fails to register the emotional responses it aims for. We know a scene is meant to shock but it doesn't; we know the character wants sympathy but he gets none. It would be more than a decade before Beauvois would direct another film that also concerned itself with "the morality of man" and knock it out of the park. 

Ulysses' Gaze (Angelopoulos, 1995, B-)
The experience is akin to reading a novel, written in an old historical iteration of a language we speak, but find rather outdated. The dialogue doesn't feel as though it's comprised of normal conversations, but prose taken from archetypal texts. There is a theatrical quality to the film's look, a stiffness to the movements of the camera that, combined with the literary nature of the script and the indulgent running time, certainly test the patience. The film is deeply and intimately rooted in its milieu, but maybe three-hour lectures on Balkan history are not everyone's idea of a rewarding university course film experience. The sequences wherein A (Harvey Keitel) seamlessly interacts with the past are the best passages in the film.

Shanghai Triad (Yimou, 1995, B+)
Yimou does what Yimou does best. An ostentatiously stylized, traditionally narrated story, set in the Chinese crime world of the 1930s. The gorgeous cinematography is the highlight of the show. The film's intricacy only hits in the last couple of scenes, but when the loose ends of the story are finally tied up, the intense finale overshadows much of the slowness in the preceding buildup. Gong Li is heartbreaking in this final scene.

Neon Bible (Davies, 1995, B)
Anatomy of violence; a gripping experience that incisively charts the roots and consequences of religious oppression and sociocultural monotony in white Middle America on a grand scale, but also finds moments of bitter, moving truth in each individual person it keenly observes. As expected from Davies, it looks gorgeous, too, though the emotional experience lacks that indescribable quality that made Davies's earlier in works in Britain so transcendent.

Nasty Love (Martone, 1995, B)
There are surely aspects of Italian culture at play here to which I'm not privy. I recognize that is my shortcoming, not the film's; and Martone's film is visually captivating, with several individual shots that linger on far longer than the film. Yet, the sense of mystery in Nasty Love doesn't fully translate to suspense before the loose knots are tied in the end, and the film never successfully sells the history of the characters' troubled relationships.

Salaam Cinema (Makhmalbaf, 1995, B+) (review)
"A timeless rumination on the process of filmmaking and, paradoxically, a time capsule for the director himself, a bewilderingly unique persona caught at his artistic peak, immediately following the end of his religiopolitical sermons and a short while before beginning a process of rebellious emancipation."

Good Men, Good Women (Hou, 1995, B+/A-)
This critic's notebook tends to be left blank at two types of screenings: when the film is not worth the effort of scribbling in the dark, or when it is so transfixing, it simply breezes by without allowing a moment to be spent looking away from the screen. Hou's film is of the latter variety. Composed of three(?) different stories on various time and mind frames -- film within in a film, past reminiscences, figments of imagination -- Good Men, Good Women is not consistent, or even coherent, and makes one wish each thread had received its own separate treatment. Yet, each section is almost hypnotic in effect, and intensely powerful as an individual experience. Hou's precise, atmospheric direction -- he really doesn't let a single frame go to waste -- means that any moment resonates in isolation, even if the entire picture requires repeat visits to fully reveal its thematic facets. This is a work of formal and emotional grandeur.

Kids (Clark, 1995, F)
It is rather remarkable that a film of such low ambition and even lower achievement made its way to the competition lineup of the Cannes festival. The biggest question this film poses is whether the title refers to the insufferable protagonists within the story or Larry Clark and Harmony Korine themselves.

Land and Freedom (Loach, 1995, C+)
Individual moments of brilliance -- such as the execution of the priest in the first half of the film, certain moments of debating and strategizing amongst the activists -- are highlights in the film, but the whole is much less than the some of its parts. Land and Freedom has a clear political agenda, but Loach's lethargic tone fails to bring the audience to the side of the protagonists. If your audience doesn't want to win the war with you, what is the point?

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Hansel, 1995, C-)
Mind-numbingly monotonous and despairing; any moment with the potential to make an emotional impact comes across as amateurishly forced -- yes, as the wife of the sea-sailing protagonist tells us in a voice-over that she's cold and needs an embrace, we are shown an image of the protagonist embracing a lonely cat. Worse yet, the arc of the film's narrative -- a budding friendship between a Belgian sailor and a young girl on the ship -- can be predicted within seconds of their first encounter, leaving little to the imagination or anticipation.

Carrington (Hampton, 1995, N/A)
So poorly cut together that all causal, logical and emotional links between events, characters, and the audience and characters are diminished. On three separate occasions I tried to finish this film but something just didn't click. Evidence from reviews suggests there is more beneath the surface that merits a fourth try, and this is certainly not the worst film in the Cannes competition lineup. Maybe some other time. 

Jefferson in Paris (Ivory, 1995, D+)
One expects no less of a Merchant/Ivory production in the visual department, and the design of this film is reliably elaborate and ostentatious, but the less spoken of the film itself, the better. The intricacies of the French revolution are understandably the background, but the fact that the complicated story of Jefferson's relationship with his slaves is treated as a sideshow is inexcusable. Nolte's performance falls flat, too; he's unconvincing as a conflicted lover and implausibly meek as a future president.

The White Balloon (Panahi, 1995, A)
A remnant of Kiarostami's pre-90s socially conscious concerns with children's stories, The White Balloon is an exercise in deceptive simplicity. A rich, delightful combination of Kiarostami's sparse, observational writing and Panahi's verve on his first try behind the camera; and one of the most memorable films about the Iranian Nowruz celebration, too.

Angels and Insects (Haas, 1995, C+)
Nasty Love would have been a more appropriate title for this film. The opening passages are rather tedious, and what begins as a touchingly melancholic performance by Rylance teeters dangerously on the brink of repetitiousness, but Angels & Insects bursts into life with the revelation of that relationship, and with it so does Rylance's performance, offering gut-wrenching sincerity. Kristin Scott Thomas's work is exemplary, too, though we have seen various reincarnations of this very since.

Beyond Rangoon (Boorman, 1995, D)
It's hard to think a film can simplify its politics to the extent that Rangoon does and still qualify for a competition slot at Cannes. Immediately positioning the locale as "The Exotic East" -- the idea is explicitly verbalized -- Boorman's film only slips further downward. On-the-nose political allegories and cheesy emotional beats form the entire film, and the unnecessary voice-over narration makes it nearly unbearable.

Sharaku (Shinoda, 1995, B-)
Immaculately designed like the tender portraits of Sharaku himself, and curiously funny like the grandiose Kabuki performances, Shinoda's film has the ideal execution, but at the service of a story that is limited in appeal and too restrained, culturally and historically, to connect with today's modern audience.

The City of Lost Children (Caro/Jeunet, 1995, C-)
Much ado about nothing. An aggressively over-stylized work without any of the emotional resonance or flighty pleasures of Amelie. The off-kilter humor falls flat in the absence of any human connection, which the makers of the film seem completely intent on never pursuing. Such a niche aesthetic experience has very limited appeal unless it engages the audiences on an emotional level. The City of Lost Children misses that point entirely.

May 10, 2015

Screening Log: April

Ex Machina

(T)ERROR (Sutcliffe/Cabral, 2015, B)
Quite an exciting experience, not because any of its revelations are unexpected or groundbreaking, but rather because in affirming what one presumes about the unethical practices of the FBI, (T)ERROR explores all the nuances of screening programs through a riveting narrative. 

From This Day Forward (Shattuck, 2015, B-/B)
A personal and intimate film that re-examines old wounds on the director and her family, an exploration of the intricacies of love, difficulties of being a transwoman and the realities of living in mid-America.

Pervert Park (Barkfors/Barkfors, 2015, B+)
Unapologetic, frank and confrontational, Pervert Park takes a group of people -- sex offenders -- for whom there seems no possible way to feel sympathy and paints a complex and empathetic portrait of them. Perhaps it is the fact that in the USA, sexual offenses have become an "industry" that makes this one such an absorbing watch?

Jesus Town, USA (Pinder/Mintz, 2015, C+)
Funny and sweet and, irrespective of the viewer's religious affiliation, a bitter nostalgic trip to simpler times. Ultimately, the film falls short, making us wish it had been a short film

Warrior from the North (Jerspersen/Farrah, 2015, B) 
A fresh and rare perspective, stern and sobering in confronting heinous terrorist activities but always mindful that blind religious faith is rarely the only root cause of such crimes.

Best of Enemies (Gordon/Neville, 2015, B) (review)
"The best parts of the films are excerpts from the original debates. The vicious and hilarious cat-fighting leaves one pining for that golden age of TV."

The Nightmare (Ascher, 2015, C+) (review)
"While the oddity of the topic and the horror scenes are intermittently interesting, they are not enough to keep the film from falling into a repetitive cycle of tedium from which it can never escape."

Ex Machina (Garland, 2015, A-)
What an incredibly exhilarating adventure! The rare modern science fiction film that offers something worth thinking about long after the immediate impression of the imagery wears off. Visually impressive and performed with superb precision by the film's three leads -- Gleeson's determination and naivete, Vikander's impeccable mix of curious human emotion and robotic monotony, and Isaac's balanced act of wild scientist and cool dude; all three walk tightropes here successfully -- Ex Machina's every twist keeps the audience on board, and better yet, makes exciting, unexpected gender commentary in the process, subverting two cliched tropes: the science fiction imitation of the "happily ever after" and the savior who frees the princess from the top of the tower.

Listen to Me Marlon (Riley, 2015, A-) (review)
"That the actor has been deceased for many years further lends the film a sense of novelty; yet, the truly astonishing feat is that the director – who also edited the film– accomplishes the gargantuan task of shaping a coherent narrative from the massive treasure trove of information at his disposal so seamlessly that it appears as though we spend two hours with Brando’s stream of consciousness without the presence of a mediator."

La Jetée (Marker, 1962, A+) (thoughts)
"In the hands of a visionary filmmaker like Marker, a simple concept – “Only in retrospect do memories become memorable by the scars they leave” – can be shaped into a film that is at once delicate and challenging, ground-breaking and heartbreaking."

The Salt of the Earth (Wenders/Salgado, 2014, B+)
Though the film owes much to the staggering beauty of Salgado's photography, it manages to use that resource in all the right ways. That the film -- co-directed by his son, no less -- manages to avoid possibilities for hagiography but still leaves one with the feeling that Salgado is one of our most important artists working today, as a photographer and as a human being, is sensational.

Possessed by Djinn (Al Kury, 2015, C-)
Perhaps interesting on some level for those unfamiliar with the Islamic concept of Djinn, this unadventurous, aimless film can neither decide its position on the religious belief, nor about any possible thesis for the story. The filmmaker states her intent to discover the topic in depth and understand its roots, but only leaves the audience with the unsatisfying feeling of having left everything unexplored. 

The Dictator's Hotel (Hoffmann, 2015, B) (review)
This short film about an unoccupied hotel in the Central African Republic which has been kept in pristine condition -- having never opened for business after the death of its owner, Muammar Gaddafi, is quite a haunting experience. Sharply humorous and concisely told, the film leaves us pondering the desolation of the society that surrounds this ostentatiously built hotel.

Gone Baby Gone (Affleck, 2007, B+)
The convoluted plotting and rare glimpses of unnecessary style -- "Hollywoodizations" that become the shortcomings in The Town and the catastrophic failure of Argo's finale -- hurt the film's emotional impact, but this low-key debut feature from Ben Affleck is impressive, engrossing and unpredictable.

Furious 7 (Wan, 2015, F)
An abomination. A series that once radiated the cheesy sweetness of its central "family" and devoted itself to showcasing cool cars and exciting chases -- even at the height of its artificiality in the sixth film, there was an endearing quality to the saccharine taste of two people jumping across a bridge to meet one another perfectly in time -- has now plunged the depths of the worst of Hollywood's action blockbuster. Nothing new to see here, folks, just the universe ablaze again and a savior needed immediately.

Alex of Venice (Messina, 2015, C+) (review)
"Messina’s film is an admirable effort, one that feels personal and intimate but bears the mark of its director’s and writers’ inexperience."

Attack the Block (Cornish, 2011, A)
One of the strongest and most entertaining science-fiction films of recent years, made all the more impressive because of the small budget and minimal visual effects it functions with. Boyega's presence is magnetic.

Nargess (Bani-Etemad, 1992, B+)
Bani-Etamad's courageous film was revolutionary in many regards for its time, surveying topics like pre-marital relationships and post-war economic adversity for the everyman in Iran with a frankness that was unprecedented, and all the more impressive given that The First Lady of Iranian Cinema had to overcome obstacles put on her path because of her gender. Nargess's storytelling feels overtly melodramatic in some key sequences, but this is an audacious film and essential viewing for cinephiles interested in Iran.

Kids (Clark, 1995, F)
It is rather remarkable that a film of such low ambition and even lower achievement made its way to the competition lineup of the Cannes festival. The biggest question this film poses is whether the title refers to the insufferable protagonists within the story or Larry Clark and Harmony Korine themselves.

Neon Bible (Davies, 1995, B)
Anatomy of violence; a gripping experience that incisively charts the roots and consequences of religious oppression and sociocultural monotony in white Middle America on a grand scale, but also finds moments of bitter, moving truth in each individual person it keenly observes. As expected from Davies, it looks gorgeous, too, though the emotional experience lacks that indescribable quality that made Davies's earlier in works in Britain so transcendent.  

Captain Khorshid (Taghvai, 1987, A)
Taghvai's sturdy adaptation of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not nationalizes -- and further, localizes -- the story to the crime-ridden south of Iran and creates out of the titular smuggler one of the most memorable characters in Iranian film history. A politically and morally challenging work, Captain Khorshid manifests Taghvai's unparalleled insight into the milieu.

The City of Lost Children (Caro/Jeunet, 1995, C-)
Much ado about nothing. An aggressively over-stylized work without any of the emotional resonance or flighty pleasures of Amelie. The off-kilter humor falls flat in the absence of any human connection, which the makers of the film seem completely intent on never pursuing. Such an niche aesthetic experience has very limited appeal unless it engages the audiences on an emotional level. The City of Lost Children misses that point entirely.

It Follows (Mitchell, 2015, A-)
Expertly directed, without a single frame out of place. It Follows is the rare horror film that lingers with the audience long after the film is over, giving any slow walker on the street the aura of a blood thirsty monster. A genuinely exciting film.

What's the Time in Your World? (Yazdanian, 2015, A-)
Safi Yazdanian's first fiction feature film is brilliant, delicate, funny, tactile, heartfelt and impossibly, almost shamelessly, romantic. It broke my heart a thousand times and mended it again. At certain moments, it has an unfinished edge to it, but it's nevertheless very affecting, and depicts a very unique Iranian experience, one that is tinged with poetry, nostalgia and French influences on Iranian local cultures.

Beyond Rangoon (Boorman, 1995, D)
It's hard to think a film can simplify its politics to the extent that Rangoon does. Immediately positioning the locale as "The Exotic East", Boorman's film only slips further downward. Obvious political allegories and cheesy emotional beats form the entire film, and the unnecessary voice-over narration makes the film nearly unbearable. 

Carrington (Hampton, 1995, N/A)
So poorly cut together that all causal, logical and emotional links between events, characters, and the audience and characters are diminished. I couldn't bear to finish the film, but on the evidence of its first half, I'm astounded that it found its way to the Cannes competition lineup.

A Separation (Farhadi, 2011, A+)
A miracle of a film, with a flawlessly complicated narrative, cut like a diamond and acted superbly by an ensemble only a director of Farhadi's immense talent could put together. Because of its moral complexity and escalating stakes, it's an experience that becomes increasingly rewarding on repeat visits. One of the best Iranian films ever made, and one that, along with About Elly, will forever give Farhadi a free pass in my books.

Shanghai Triad (Yimou, 1995, B+)
Yimou does what Yimou does best. An ostentatiously stylized, traditionally narrated story, set in the Chinese crime world of the 1930s. There is nothing particularly exciting about this film except for the gorgeous cinematography, and the film's intricacy only hits in the last couple of scenes, but when the story is finally tied up, the intense finale overshadows much of the slowness in the preceding buildup. Gong Li is heartbreaking in this final scene.

The Convent (Manoel de Oliveira, 1995, C-)
One of the prolific director's lesser efforts. Although there are interesting experiments with the musical score of the film, its formal rigidity -- whereas de Oliveira's austere formal approach can at times feel liberating, here, it is rather drab -- and the literary nature of the dialogue trap the film, preventing its metaphysical elements from feeling, well, metaphysical. 

Cinderella (Branagh, 2015, C+)
There's nothing particularly exciting about this revision on the old tale, but despite its chintzy designs and predictable rhythms, Cinderella is rather entertaining, which is far more than can be said about other Hollywood revisions of classic stories in recent years.

May 1, 2015

Hot Docs: Best of Enemies; The Nightmare; The Dictator's Hotel


*This column was originally posted at The Film Experience as part of the coverage of Hot Docs 2015.

It is hard to imagine today that there was once an America where political debates in the media were sensational, not just sensationalized. Harder yet is to envision a time when conservative political commentators weren’t complete buffoons, but rather eloquent, smart thinkers. That is exactly the time that Best of Enemies transports us to, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s film about the televised debates leading up to the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions. ABC, then trailing as America’s third network and in search of a ratings boost, decided to pit two of the country’s most famous commentators against one another: the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. The two were known to dislike each other and their pairing on live TV was sure to cause a stir.
Their prediction proved to be correct when on the 8th night of a series of incendiary discussions, Buckley reacted to Vidal’s name-calling and being labeled a “crypto-Nazi” with a momentary burst of anger...
Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Buckley regretted this lapse of judgment for the rest of his life and was haunted by memories of that night. Vidal, the more outrageous of the two characters, carried the memory with a triumphant smirk. Best of Enemies creates an energetically paced, consistently entertaining narrative out of these debates. It is formally trapped in the familiar structure of similar documentaries, with several talking head interviews that contextualize the significance of the debates and the ramifications of it for American TV and the two. Not all of these inserts seem necessary, though most of them – such as conversations with Buckley’s brother and TV executives who knew both commentators – are exciting. Still, the best parts of the films are excerpts from the original debates. The vicious and hilarious cat-fighting leaves one pining for that golden age of TV.

A more unconventional structure is at play in The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher’s follow-up to the acclaimed Room 237. Based on the lives of eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis, the condition that was the inspiration behind Nightmare on Elm Street, the film explores the world of this strange and, literally, unbelievable disease. Those who suffer see all kinds of monsters and ghosts in their sleep, and they fall into paralysis at once, unable to move or talk at all as these demons infiltrate their bodies. Employing animated sequences and visual effects to show the nightmares of these eight people, Ascher’s film is the rare documentary that doubles as a horror film. As the subjects delve deeper into their nightly terrors, the film also raises the stakes, faithfully recreating the claustrophobic sense of indefensibility against these creatures.

The most intriguing aspect of these horrific experiences is how much their share in common, not just in their nature, but in the specifics of the violent imagery. The Nightmare traces the origins of these visions and arrives not just at recent pop culture icons, but even classical art in which shared elements of sleep paralysis – demons with red eyes, black cats sitting on a dormant person’s chest – appear across works that were produced in different countries in different era. Whether it is the familiar imagery that feeds the nightmares of the subjects or whether it is artists who have brought to life visions that terrified them is the most interesting question the film raises. But beyond the curiosity of this rare condition, Ascher doesn’t know how to deal with the material. The film touches on a superficial level the medical, religious and personal reasons behind each subject’s condition, but never fully engages with them on a deeper level. While the oddity of the topic and the horror scenes are intermittently interesting, they are not enough to keep the film from falling into a repetitive cycle of tedium from which it can never escape.

The Dictator’s Hotel proves a much more rewarding experience, despite its concise, 15-minute running time. Directed by Florian Hoffman, this one visits a newly built but completely abandoned hotel in the Central African Republic, owned by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi before his death. Still supervised by its diligent staff, the hotel’s equipment and furniture have never been touched, but it remains ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The building’s ostentatious structure and vast landscape is splendid and at utter odds with the poverty that surrounds it, though rather cleverly, we are only exposed to the surroundings through the iron gates of the hotel and the few words spoken by one of the employees. This brief visit of the building, during which a North African hotel manager acts as tour guide, is haunting, serving as a reminder of the atrocities committed by political leaders in the region and the sense of entitlement that at once secludes and protectes them from the abject destitution of people in their countries. That the film does this with so few references, and no visual depictions, of political or economic turmoil, and remains entirely within the confines of a single building, is truly extraordinary. The Dictator’s Hotel might not travel outside of specialized festival circuits, but it’s a sharp, humorous and unique film that deserves a much bigger audience.

Apr 26, 2015

Listen to Me Marlon

Grade: A-

*This review was originally published at The Film Experience.

The best film of last year’s Hot Docs festival was Robert Greene’s Actress, a rich and moving film about the life of The Wire’s Brandy Burre. It went on to become one of the most praised films of the year; and it’s easy to imagine the same level of acclaim for this year’s buzziest title at the festival, the similarly actor- centric Listen to Me Marlon. As the title suggests, British director Stevan Riley’s film is about Marlon Brando, and it defies any expectation one might have going into a documentary about a deceased actor. That this film has been made is something of a miracle to begin with. Brando apparently recorded more than 200 hours of audiotapes about himself, of which none has been available to the public heretofore. Riley has been granted access to these by Brando’s estate and has assembled and edited them for the voice-over narration of his film. There is no new footage and no interviews shot for this film, only archival material from Brando’s performances, his television interviews and some behind the scenes footage and rare videos of his personal life. The result, a raw and immensely personal look at the actor’s life, is absolutely mesmerizing.

Brando was notorious for being difficult to work with, a fact not lost on a film that never smoothes the rough edges of his personality to offer a hagiographic picture. Rather, like the revolutionary actor himself, Listen to Me Marlon revitalizes the agonizingly tired subgenre of biographical documentaries about artists. Whereas another film might have fallen for the clichés of such films – such as augmenting the existing material with interviews or contextualizing Brando’s significance through external perspectives – Riley gives us Marlon the way he saw himself.

Brando was an outspoken activist, about the entertainment industry and about his political beliefs. He was at the forefront of different social movements, lending his voice and charisma to causes that were personally important to him, but this film offers a much more intimate image of the man. Given the privacy of the tapes, Marlon is unusually candid and open, with a unique perspective and a sense of emotional warmth that is truly remarkable.

Brando’s observations on his own acting, his frustration with the repetitions and predictability of acting styles in cinema at the time and his insecurities about the directions in which his career took him over the years are fascinating to watch. He is refreshingly self-aware and honest about his own artistry and the politics of selecting roles, expressing disappointment and even embarrassment about certain film choices. Equally absorbing are Brando’s poetic ruminations on his troubled childhood and his elegiac reminiscences about his parents, with whom he never fully come to terms. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that the man who was known as a method actor who immersed himself completely into his performances, brought so much of himself and his wounds into the characters he portrayed.

The distance between the Brando we’ve seen on screen and the man as he introduces himself here becomes progressively smaller, a process that leads to the audience’s total, heartbreaking identification with the actor in the latter stages of the film. It is virtually impossible to watch Brando endure the troubles of his children – his son Christian’s imprisonment for murder and his daughter Cheyenne’s suicide – and stop the tears from rolling down. Such insight and poignancy have only been made possible because Riley affords Brando complete freedom to tell his own story. That the actor has been deceased for many years further lends the film a sense of novelty; yet, the truly astonishing feat is that the director – who also edited the film– accomplishes the gargantuan task of shaping a coherent narrative from the massive treasure trove of information at his disposal so seamlessly that it appears as though we spend two hours with Brando’s stream of consciousness without the presence of a mediator. Listen to Me Marlon sets a new gold standard for documentary biopics and is a film that we will surely hear about a lot at the year's end.   

Apr 18, 2015

Alex of Venice

Grade: C-

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.  

Alex of Venice, actor-turned-director Chris Messina’s first feature film, begins with something of a tour de force moment when George (Messina) abruptly leaves his wife, the titular Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and their son, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner). The series of events that follow this sudden change lead to increasingly difficult circumstances for Alex in a somewhat predictable narrative arc that is at once populated with underdeveloped characters and overwritten dramatic beats. Messina’s film is an admirable effort, one that feels personal and intimate but bears the mark of its director’s and writers’ inexperience.

Alex is a workaholic attorney whose father Roger (Don Johnson) lives with them in their small house. George is a house husband, an occasional painter and surfer who is frustrated by his restraint to his domestic duties. Roger is an increasingly irritating presence, though his smarminess and the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease foreshadow his redemption by film’s end. Upon George’s departure, Alex is forced to juggle her job–defending a case of environmental damage against a constructor–and home life, which proves increasingly difficult, even with the help of Lily (Katie Nehra), her carefree, sparkling sister.

Apr 1, 2015

Screening Log: March

Mean Girls


Ed Wood (Burton, 1994, B+)
A remnant of a time when Burton was still capable of making films that expressed human emotions, full of nostalgia for the simpler times of the past -- the perennial state of Hollywood in any era -- and, like Wood himself, genuine love for the medium. Depp's performance is all pizzazz but it's Martin Landau's heartbreaking performance that elevates this stylized romp to something sublime. No wonder that the film's final minutes falter so roughly in his absence.

Hamoun (Mehrjui, 1990, A)
What a glorious mess! Mehrjui's divorce drama -- made as he was going through divorce himself -- is incoherent, full of unnecessary subplots and characters, and with a butchered ending that the censors forced on him. Yet, it remains one of the most entertaining, rewatchable films that Mehrjui directed. As a groundbreaking film that became a box office sensation, as a time capsule for the Iranian upper middle of that era, and as the film solidified Khosrow Shakibai's status as Iran's biggest post-revolutionary star, Hamoun is an essential film for any fan of Iranian cinema. The socio-cultural significance of this film cannot be overstated.

Close-up (Kiarostami, 1990, A)
The perfect marriage between Kiarostami's realist storytelling and the roots of his filmmaking in documentary cinema. That such a simple event can be turned into an enduring and complicated tale that challenges ideas of morality, identity, artistry and cinematic creation is a testament to the director's genius.

Where Is the Friend's Home? (Kiarostami, 1989, A)
This is a masterclass is creating the cinematic where seemingly nothing exists. Kiarostami is at his most playful and humorous here, and not in the formal sense: Friend is genuinely funny and, in non-critical lingo, incredibly adorable.

Mad Max (Miller, 1979, B+)
Tonally jagged, but powerful within individual scenes. Mad Max's storyline is tired -- though that might be unfair to the film, given the time of its release and the number of films it has inspired -- but Miller is an expert at staging action sequences.

Hamoun (Mehrjui, 1990, A) (event)
A breath of fresh air in the post-war atmosphere.

About Elly (Farhadi, 2009, A+)
This is Farhadi's best film, and the best Iranian film of this century so far. Riveting and endlessly rewatchable.

Amour Fou (Hausner, 2015, B/B+) (review)
"In Hausner’s deft hands, the comedy makes the existential exercise even more challenging, forcing the audience to ponder awkward truths beneath the chilly humor."

Downpour (Beyzaei, 1971, A-)
Several rounds of censorship have left the film with truncated rhythms and some confusing subplots, but Beyzaei's groundbreaking romance possesses timeless tenderness and superb performances, and remains one of the only pre-revolutionary mainstream films in which the middle class protagonist was a realistic portrayal of his real life counterparts.

A Simple Event (Saless, 1974, A)
Amir Naderi has dubbed Sohrab Shahid Saless the Godfather of Iranian cinema and A Simple Event the most important Iranian film ever made; there's good reason for that. The blueprint for sparse, richly detailed, child-centric, socially critical and formally rigorous storytelling that has now become synonymous with Iranian cinema was drawn by Saless here; and its monumental influence aside, A Simple Event is an incredibly moving experience on its own terms.

Water, Wind, Dust (Naderi, 1989, B+)
Naderi yet again composes a finale of sheer force, but much of what comes before it is an exercise in patience. Water, Wind, Dust was a staggeringly difficult film to make as it takes place entirely in a sandstorm but it's production mirrors the resilience of its character.

The Runner (Naderi, 1985, A)
Although regularly selected among the greatest Iranian films ever made, The Runner's appeal had eluded me upon several visits. Watching the film's 35mm print on the big screen for the first, I have finally given in to its brilliance. It is overwhelmingly powerful and visually stunning, with a central performances that is heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. The visceral force of the film's finale overcomes the stuttering pace of the second act, leaving us with a feeling of utter elation in the end. A truly cinematic experience.

Mean Girls (Waters, 2004, A)
Not a single shred of its wit, sharp humour or shrewd politics has been taken away with the passage of time. Lindsay Lohan's performance is one of the best in American high school films, all young promise but mature control, lending the...um...plasticity of the film a human warmth. This is one of the most rewatchable and quotable films of the century.

Still Life (Shahid Saless, 1974, A+) (podcast)
Saless's film is a delicate, poetic, bitter and powerfully real masterpiece. One can watch and rewatch this film, speak and write about it endlessly and still not fully convey or grasp the sensation of watching its lyrical, absorbing splendor. A truly marvelous experience on the 35mm print, too.

The Night of the Hunchback (Ghaffari, 1965, A-)
What a wild ride! Totally bananas! Ghaffari's screwball inspired comedy about a hunchback actor, whose body after he is accidentally killed by his fellow performers becomes a major dilemma in passing hands, is surprisingly funny and sharp. A classic case of a McGuffin crime mystery, The Night of the Hunchback provides an incredible window into Tehran's upper society. It's a must watch for audiences who are only familiar with arthouse Iranian films.

Haji Agha, The Movie Actor (Ohanians, 1933, B+)
Accompanied by the improvised live music at TIFF Bell Lightbox, this oldest surviving Iranian film was quite an experience. It's a film about cinema and its relationship to Iranian society, which makes this an extremely prescient work both formally and thematically. Ohanians's film suffers from poor production values in certain parts, to which the passage of time has not been kind. Yet, its swift narrative beats and still resonant story make it a film far more accessible and enjoyable than its billing might suggest.

The Cow (Mehrjui, 1969, A+) (thoughts)
Dariush Mehrjui's film, one of the most significant, influential films made before the revolution in Iran, is an experience that only improves over time and with each repeated screening. The National Archive's new restoration of the film is a gorgeous print that brought out previously unnoticed details to the fore.

P Like Pelican (Kimiavi, 1972, A-)
Kimiavi's films are early examples of the brand of fiction/documentary fiction for which Iranian cinema went on to be globally recognized. By tapping into the psyche of an old man who's created an alternative universe in his mind, Kimiavi has made a documentary film -- or has he? -- that is in and of itself a figment of its character's imagination. Harsh, delicate and liberating, often all at once within the same frame.

The Night It Rained (Shirdel, 1967, A+)
What a senstaion it is to see an all time favourite film on the big screen for the first time. Shirdel's energetic, riveting and hilarious look at a sensationalized media frenzy in a small village in northern Iran is one of the best documentary films ever made. It challenges the flexible definitions of truth in journalism and documentary filmmaking, and slyly observes tendencies of self-aggrandisement, deceit and heroism in Iranian culture.

Only Image Remains (Akbari, 2014, N/A)
"Akbari's video essay on the traveling retrospective of Iranian films provides worthy contextualization, not just for this specific series, but also for Iranian cinema as a national and transnational enterprise."

Mar 21, 2015

Amour Fou

Grade: B/B+

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

“He has a rather melancholic disposition,” says one woman about the young 19th-century poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) in the opening minutes of Amour Fou. It’s an observation that can only be described as a gross understatement when considering the poet’s deteriorating mental state, as Kleist is morbidly obsessed with taking his own life. In modern parlance, he is clinically depressed, but as doctors tended to call it in Germany in 1811, he suffered from “ailments of a spiritual nature.” Such is the dry humor, paired with rigorous formality, that shapes the tone of Amour Fou, Jessica Hausner’s latest film—a robust, stylish, and acerbically comic take on Heinrich von Kleist’s final days with his lover Henriette Vogel.

The revisionist historical film begins with Heinrich’s search for a romantic partner, one with whom he can commit suicide, not live. His cousin, Marie (Sandra Huller) is fond of Heinrich, but finds the request outrageous. The poet’s affections for Marie never subside, but he resigns himself to seeking a new partner in death, whom he eventually finds in the already-wed Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoink). Married into the upper echelons of German aristocracy, Henriette spends her bleak days practicing music with her daughter and anticipating the return to home of her husband, who is far more occupied with tax regulations and vicious elitism than his family. 

Heinrich and Henriette’s paths converge among the haughty entourage of German high society members whose casual disregard for the working class is cartoonishly outdated and expertly incorporated into Hausner’s rigid aesthetic. This amusingly evil group occupies pink castles and sports grandiose hairdos that wouldn’t be entirely incongruous if they showed up in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Hausner’s humor is deadpan and vitriolic, vacillating between serious ruminations on depression and farcical casualness about the banality of the world.