Coco Chanel, Red Riding, and Fantomas
Talking Out of Frame:
Wow. Another summer come and gone. It seems like it's been just a blip on the radar for the blockbuster season. Hopefully there weren't too many good films lost in all the hustle and bustle and noise. The fall tends to be a particularly fertile time for cinema, as studios start to release their awards bait. Also, colder weather means more of us staying inside to watch more DVDs.
This is where a surprise of the summer can become the new discovery of autumn. Times and seasons change, and so do people, and some of the best films use change as a theme. For instance, Casey Burchby leads the month by reviewing L'Enfance Nue: "Made in 1968, Maurice Pialat's debut feature L'Enfance Nue (Naked Childhood) remains an affecting portrait of an under-discussed social issue that has never been amenable to easy answers or even comfortable dialogue. Processing certain aspects of the French New Wave through his own rather spartan cinematic prism, Pialat, who began his filmmaking career as a documentarian, portrays the turbulent youth of a foster child in a sequence of contrasting events that highlight both the promise of a human life and its fragile need for unconditional love. Pialat's film retains its painful immediacy both because it was crafted with such careful, touching restraint, and because the topic of 'unwanted' children remains a near-taboo in the public sphere.
"A simple plotline conveyed in an economical 83 minutes, L'Enfance Nue tracks François Fournier (an appropriately enigmatic Michel Terrazon) from one foster family - the Joignys, who fear him - to another - the Thierrys, a pair of grandparents who provide closer, more caring attention. Despite a criminal streak that he can't quite fully shake, we witness François develop the ability to (mostly) distinguish right from wrong and identify who has his best interests at heart. Helping him along this path is the ardent bond he forms with Mrs. Thierry's ancient mother, Nana (Marie Marc), a spirited old woman who sees François for who he is - an intelligent young boy, not just a problem to be 'solved.'
"Terrazon was perfectly cast. His cute, ferret-like face has an elasticity that can simultaneously harbor charm, love, and the desire to commit potentially dangerous mischief. His François is as unpredictable as the film's adults believe him to be, but when he is in the presence of that all-important unconditional affection - as with Nana - we see the unmitigated goodness beneath a troubled surface. Despite Pialat's belief in a basic goodness at Francois's core, this does not emerge in an easy-to-swallow way. The film concludes on a note of skeptical hope. Although François shows signs of a growing maturity, he remains erratically misbehaved, and the Thierrys come close to giving up on him. Still, his native intelligence and regard for the Thierrys give him something to build on - we only hope that the faceless institutions he must rely upon will not let him down once again"
L'Enfance Nue is an older film that not a lot of people may have heard of, but sometimes a new discovery can simply be seeing an old favorite shown in a new light, such as the Steamboat Bill, Jr.: 2-Disc Ultimate Edition. Randy Miller III writes, "Bursting at the seams with slapstick, stunts and star power, Buster Keaton's beloved Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) is about as entertaining as films get, silent or otherwise. This story of a young man, his reluctant father and a creaky old steamboat starts small and finishes huge, culminating in a high-powered hurricane that literally wipes out an entire town. The steamboat in question is the Stonewall Jackson, and stiff competition arrives when a new luxury steamboat is unveiled by rival entrepreneur J.J. King. But the tough-as-nails William 'Steamboat Bill' Canfield, Sr. (Ernest Torrence) won't give up easily: he's been running the Stonewall Jackson through Mississippi waters for most of his life. The same day, Canfield's son is due for a visit; they haven't seen each other in years, and the sea captain can't wait to see how his son has grown. Imagine his disappointment when William, Jr. (Keaton) turns out to be a scrawny, bookish young college boy with little interest in his father's trade. Nevertheless, it's up to both Bills to ensure that the Stonewall Jackson isn't run out of the water by King's powerful paddleboat.
"Inevitably tied to Keaton's most enduring film, The General (due to their larger scales, similar subject matter and close release dates), Steamboat Bill, Jr. is anything but a rehash of old material in a new setting. Sure, there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome---inanimate and otherwise---and Keaton's character is still pining for the love of a young woman---in this case, J.J. King's daughter (Marion Byron)---but Steamboat Bill, Jr. uses a more close-knit atmosphere to get the job done. The relationship between William Canfield, Jr. and his lumbering father creates a great character dynamic: there's an initial sense of disappointment on both sides, but it's easy to see how father and son finally learn to accept one another. Though Bill Jr.'s love interest is given little to do, her initial reunion with the young man feels both natural and believable. Our stage is set quite nicely before the 20-minute mark, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. continues to crackle with entertainment for the remainder of the picture.
"Originally released on DVD back in 1999 by Kino International, Steamboat Bill, Jr. returns with a 2-Disc Ultimate Edition that offers slight improvements across the board. Aside from a new audio track (available in 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo mixes) and what appears to be a new transfer, we're also treated to a handful of appropriate bonus features, including an alternate 'Killian Shows Archive Version' pieced together from variant takes and camera angles [NOTE: the original version on Disc 1 is referred to as 'The Keaton Estate Version']. While the creation of an alternate edition may have been a fairly common practice during the silent film era, it's especially nice to have both versions available in the same package. "
Chris Neilson tackles a new subject in reviewing the documentary Sweetgrass: "The final sheep drive into Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth mountains is the subject of Lucien Taylor and Llisa Barbash's 2009 documentary Sweetgrass. Competition from cheap imports and increased operating costs have compelled the Allesteds, a Norwegian-American ranching family that has had a permit to graze their sheep on federal land since 1900, to go out of business, but these worldly matters which would be the focus of a documentary like The Farmer's Wife or Food, Inc, are alluded to only indirectly here. Sweetgrass isn't that kind of documentary, but neither is it an overly-sentimental, cuddly animal documentary like March of the Penguins. Instead, Sweetgrass blends the ethnographic filmmaking pioneered by Robert Flaherty with the observational vérité filmmaking of Frederick Wiseman.
"Sweetgrass opens during early spring on the Allested Ranch. Sheep are sheared and lambs birthed. The hard-earned experience of the hired hands is conveyed through their economy of motion and taciturnity. More than a quarter hour passes before any conversation occurs, this being a shopworn joke about dumb cowboys that earns a perfunctory laugh from the circle of cowboys who've probably all had their turn telling a variation of the same joke over the years. When the air warms and the pastures green, the Allesteds and their cowboys saddle up horses, pack mules, prepare their dogs, and begin the 75-mile push of 3,000 sheep to the high pastures of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The success of the sheep drive depends as much on the memory of the older sheep to recall the way to the verdant Alpine meadows as the efforts of the drovers and dogs to get them there.
"The way of life carefully recorded in Sweetgrass of cowboys sleeping under old canvass tarps thrown over felled Aspen poles, living on coffee and meat roasted on a fire, while shepherding stock in a remote Alpine pasture seems unchanged from that of a bygone day, until the jarring appearance of a modern technology such as a two-way radio or cell phone puts the lie to the reverie. The most affecting scene in Sweetgrass is also the most surprising for its incongruity: Pat, after a particularly bad day, calls his mother on a cell phone and breaks down recounting his unhappy circumstances.
"As green fields wither to brown in the late summer sun, the Allesteds and their cowboys begin the 75-mile return drive. Again, thanks as much to the sheep eager to get home as to the efforts of the drovers, the annual return drive is completed, but now for the final time."
Change, a sense of place, driving, these are also themes of the French film Home. A tiny house sits on a grassy field next to a deserted stretch of unfinished French highway. As we will learn, the family that lives there moved to this remote location because their mother (venerable French actress Isabelle Huppert) has some kind of nervous condition and this is the only place where she feels safe. They've been there for some time, at one count possibly ten years. That's how long the unused pavement has been cutting through their front lawn. The movie Home is what happens when the builders finally come to finish the road and open it up to commuters.
Ursula Meier's movie is a strange piece of work. Though she and her legion of screenwriters--there are five writing credits in addition to her own--take this solid foundation and erect a bizarre scenario on top, we are watching a parable without context. Home exists somewhere out of time, vaguely modern, but also vaguely apocalyptic. We never leave the confines of the house by the freeway, and dispatches from beyond sound almost alien. In a way, this could be a divergent off-ramp from Godard's Weekend. Reality is not as important as the message.
So, what is the message? I'm not sure there actually is one. As the cars begin to speed by their house, the family slowly loses its grip on its environment. They become more isolated, there is no exit onto their property. Dad parks the car across the four lanes, and they either have to dodge traffic to cross or crawl under through a sewer tunnel. Mother's illness begins to surface again as the noise and the movement get to her, Marion becomes obsessed with the effects of automobile exhaust, and Julien starts to go a little stir crazy. (In this, the movie is like Todd Haynes' Safe, only abstracted and with no cures offered.) Judith doesn't change her routine, her affectation of being unaffected remains intact, though she will eventually get in a passing car and go. Michel stays strong for everyone, but when he fails to get the family out, he becomes absorbed in his wife's psychosis and starts to go overboard in protecting her. Gourmet has the stand-out performance in Home, maybe because he gets the most to express.
The story's isolation ends up being its Achilles heel, and its weirdness becomes something the viewer grows complacent with rather than continually intrigued by. Yes, we watch this family go through the things they go through, deteriorating under the strain of an environmental madness they can't control, ultimately to come out the other side in a rather obvious way--the predictability of the final shots is proportional to the creativity of the central concept--but to what end? Home builds and builds to a harrowing climax, only to flinch from it. Apparently, all that came before is easily solved. Marthe just needed a good nap.
Back in the real world, an often unexplored side of World War II gets the spotlight in the film John Rabe. Writer/director Florian Gallenberger's historical epic tells the story of relief efforts during the Nanking Massacre in 1937. The event, alternately known as "The Rape of Nanking," is one of the most contentious tragedies of the second World War. The Japanese government to this day refuses to acknowledge that the massacre happened, but evidence shows that following the destruction of Shanghai, Japanese troops moved into Nanking and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens and raped untold numbers of the women. It's a brutality that has never fully been answered for.
At the time, many foreign countries had embassies and other concerns in Nanking. German national John Rabe (played by Ulrich Tukur from The White Ribbon) had been in China for 27 years running the Nanking bureau for Siemens manufacturing, and under his supervision, a power plant had been built that powered much of the city. December 1937 was to be the end of his tenure in the region, he was being promoted to a position back in Berlin and, as it turns out, the Siemens operations were to be dismantled. Rabe was a Nazi, though largely in name only. At least as portrayed here, he was too far away to really be invested in the movement, and he quickly butts heads with his party-assigned replacement (Mathias Herrmann). Just before Rabe is about to leave, the Japanese begin their siege. Fighter planes strafe the city and drop bombs, and only a Nazi flag keeps Rabe's factory workers from being killed. Despite his better judgment--it would be much easier to go as scheduled--Rabe joins a coalition to build a safe zone within the city where Chinese civilians can take sanctuary from the fighting.
John Rabe is a well-told story. Sections of modern Shanghai stand in for the ruins of Nanking, and Gallenberger creates an excellent period atmosphere. She stages a few large sequences, directing an army of extras to show the Japanese army mobilizing and also gatherings of the Chinese citizenry. She doesn't shy away from the atrocities, but she doesn't engage in unnecessary gore, either. She creates just the right balance so that the audience is as horrified as her characters.
Most of the movie works, even though it sometimes strays into cliché. Buscemi's character is like a caricature of the righteous American seen in many a wartime Hollywood film, and the actor overplays it, as well. Daniel Brühl, who was so charming as the German action hero in Inglourious Basterds, is less convincing here, his clean good looks and even-toned delivery often making it seem like he is playing dress-up rather than fully committed to the role. The standout performance, thankfully, comes from Tukur, who has to go from cocksure industrialist to being a weakened, broken man. He starts by having faith in the fundamental rightness of things, but ultimately ends up caring about saving more lives than he does about his reputation or his bank account. Yes, it's very reminiscent of Schindler's List and John Rabe suffers in comparison to that film. (I know it's an outré opinion, but I still think Spielberg made an exceptional piece of cinema there.) Gallenberger doesn't really find a way not to make Rabe's last stand against the Japanese come off as hokum, especially with the convenient arrival of the diplomatic cavalry. The final ten minutes of the film seem exaggerated. It may be true, Rabe may have been that celebrated at the time, but as the finale of a movie, it feels contrived.
Ambitious in scope, the Red Riding Trilogy takes a troubling time in England's recent history and expands it into a lengthy crime procedural. The Red Riding Trilogy is a series of films produced for British television and based on a series of novels by David Peace (The Damned United). The novels chronicle crimes spanning a decade in the Yorkshire suburbs in Northern England. An ambitious film project, it ropes in three different directors to tackle three of Peace's four books (1977 was dropped), creating a stylistically similar yet distinctive cinematic trio. Each film stands alone, but they also inform each other. Characters come and go, and events are shared between them. An incident in one movie may not have repercussions until another movie, illustrating the long-term effects of crime and the way corruption roots itself into a community and how long it takes to pull it out.
The first film in the series is Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974, and it focuses on an idealistic young reporter assigned to the case of a missing little girl. She was last seen wearing a red hoodie, which kicks off the thematic connection to the Red Riding Hood fairy tale and the innocence lost it represents. The reporter, Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and the next Spider-Man), is a hometown boy who left Yorkshire to work for a paper in the South. He has returned under whispers of disgrace and is trying to muscle his way onto the crime desk despite the firmly planted feet of the eternally besotted veteran journalist Jack Whitehead (Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky). He thinks he has his big break when he realizes that this little girl is not the first to go missing.
In the second film, Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980, the narrative jumps ahead six years and seemingly takes a total detour. The second movie isn't as much about missing girls--even though the real-life Yorkshire Ripper provides the backdrop for the tale--it's more about scandal and corruption inside the police force. It's a shift comparable to the surprise move away from the drug-slinging tales of the first season of The Wire to cover the waterfront and the unions in the second season. What at first appears to be a left turn is instead a deepening of the narrative. It reaches into the muck to show us how far down the bad stuff goes, how rotten deeds are systemic and any attempt to alter how things are done will be an effort at once herculean and heroic. Foolhardy, as well.
The trilogy concludes with Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983, and this one more directly relates back to events from 1974. There is a man (Daniel Mays, The Bank Job) who was accused of the kidnappings in the first film who has yet to get his day, and we also have the lingering questions about the roles played in all this by B.J. and the priest Martin Laws (Peter Mullan, Boy A), both of whom are on the streets and see things and both of whom distrust the police force. B.J. actually takes a very active role this time around, as does David Morrissey's conflicted detective, Maurice Jobson. They are joined by a third man, a new character by the name of John Piggott (Mark Addy, Robin Hood). He is a two-bit lawyer, and also the son of a policeman.
Anand Tucker (Shopgirl) takes over for the finale, and he lights up this film so it's bright and sparkling. This is fitting, as in terms of story, this installment is all about illumination. It starts by exposing the actual backroom deal that gave Yorkshire over to the forces of the criminal underworld, and then it sheds the spotlight on all the dirty secrets that have been buried until now. Sometimes literally. Light is Tucker's toy. Beams of light slice through scenes like lines connecting plot points. More scenes take place in the daytime, and the climax literally shows characters emerging into the sun. It's a finale that some feel is maybe too dramatic, but personally, after five hours of darkness and evil, I think it's one that is wholly earned.
The Red Riding Trilogy is the kind of rich serialized storytelling that only TV can really afford us right now. American movie studios would never invest in something like this, something that requires a commitment and that is unrelenting in its grim outlook. It's akin to watching three compact seasons of a good cable television series.
Another tense crime thriller with literary origins is the Oscar-winner The Secret in Their Eyes. In the movie, the character Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is a recently retired public prosecutor in Argentina. Now living alone and with a lot of time on his hands, he begins to write a novel, one that studies the two passions of his life: his romantic love for his former boss, Irene (Soledad Villamil), and a 20-year-old murder case that still eats at him. "Passion" is a word that comes up a lot, as it is the driving force for everything the characters do in The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), the Oscar-winning thriller from writer/editor/director Juan José Campanella. Passion is why one character drinks himself into a stupor every night, and why another rapes and kills a woman. It's the central element that defines each of us, the thing we can't change about ourselves, good or bad.
Based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes is a police procedural refracted through hindsight. Most of the movie is told via flashbacks, and thus subject to the tricks of memory and, possibly, the narrative alterations of a man trying to faction a fiction out of his own life story. There are times where we see what he imagines to have happened, and even once where his version of events is challenged by the reader he hopes to impress the most. Esposito can't let go of Irene, he loved her too much. Was there an opportunity missed here? Or are the moments where it looks like maybe she loved him, too, just a product of his imagination?
The homicide investigation is the most compelling part of The Secret in Their Eyes. The romance doesn't so much take a backseat to the detective work as it is folded into the situation. The woman who was killed has left behind a devoted husband (Pablo Rago), and the loss of his love has caused him to be stuck in time. At least, that's how Esposito describes it, and he hopes to catch the killer in order to help the man move on. Yet, he's also hoping to impress Irene, and thus move on himself, taking her with him. There is another parallel here, too. Esposito settles on the prime suspect for the murder based on the man's longing stares that were captured in several photographs of the dead woman, and we see a similar look in a photo of Esposito and Irene. Which is his love? The true kind or the obsessive kind?
Campanella and Sacheri have a story that works on a variety of levels, both in terms of narrative and of the world it portrays. Esposito and Irene are from two different social classes, and thus their relationship is defined by these. There are also many different levels of government and law enforcement, and the suspected killer (a chilling Javier Godino) hides between the rungs in that ladder. Irene's office actually runs in reverse. Esposito is older and more experienced, yet he is under her; likewise, the man under him, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), is older than them both. Francella steals a good portion of the movie. He may be the office drunk, but he is also the sharpest detective. The actor reminds me of a young Eli Wallach, whereas bad-guy Javier Godino is like a South American cousin to Gary Oldman's portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's JFK.
Life and death have a different kind of consequence in Welcome. Casey Burchby reviews the recent Film Movement release: "In the tradition of filmmakers like Ken Loach and Gillo Pontecorvo, Philippe Lioret has crafted a diligently-researched and heartfelt portrait of an ongoing contemporary social issue that is too often abstracted by political interests, paranoia, media hyperbole, and a fearful public. Illegal immigration continues to plague the western world because our way of life is often attractive to others, but reactions to this issue are usually ass-backwards in both short-term efficacy and long-term diplomatic viability. France has a reputation for being highly reactionary regarding immigration, a reputation that may allow some Americans watching Welcome to wishfully suppose that the fictional events depicted therein couldn't happen here. But there will be just as many stateside viewers who see only parallels and portents in Welcome, with our own wholly unproductive immigration debate having created such a divisive and surreal atmosphere of content-less acrimony.
" Lioret's film begins with Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a teenager from Kurdistan, arriving in Calais via various illegal modes of transport. On his way to cross into England, where he hopes to join his girlfriend Mina, Bilal is stopped by police. Trapped in Calais, he takes up learning to swim at a public pool with the intention of crossing the channel himself. His teacher is former Olympic gold medalist Simon (Vincent Lindon), who takes Bilal under his wing despite pressure from local police, who energetically prosecute illegal immigrants and those who aide them, including Vincent's estranged wife (Marion), who operates a soup kitchen near the harbor. As Bilal's determination to swim the English Channel grows, and as the authorities start to close in, Vincent becomes more committed to helping Bilal.
"Lioret and his creative team have clearly conducted a lot of research into how illegal immigrants survive in a country where they are unwanted and pursued. Merely stepping into the daylight is dangerous, let alone trying to make contact with people in a position to assist them...The characters of Welcome elevate the film well above its social and political subject matter. The story is not provocative for the sake of it; Lioret carefully crafts the film around its characters and their particular motivations. This is not Oliver Stone territory; Bilal and Vincent are not just cinematic marionettes whose sole purpose is delivering a message. Lioret cares about his characters because he knows that they - not he - will make his point stronger than any polemic ever could. Welcome resists easy answers for complicated problems, and its conclusion only suggests that we rely on our own best impulses rather than reactive, fear-based 'solutions.'"
A life in flux is also the subject of the quietly moving The Exploding Girl. Ivy (Zoe Kazan) is coming home from college on spring break. Though returning to visit her mother (Maryann Urbano) is a positive, having to part with her newish boyfriend Greg is a negative. Ivy's high school friend Al (Mark Rendall) gets a ride back in the same car as Ivy, and then he ends up crashing on her couch when it turns out his parents have rented out his old room. The pair spend their break going to some of the same parties, though Al is far more active than Ivy. She has epilepsy and so has to play it a little more safe. Also, she's worried about Greg, who seems to be growing distant with every phone call. He got in a car accident with his high school girlfriend, which in itself is a bit distressing. Ivy begins to wonder if there are other options available to her.
This is essentially the entire plot of The Exploding Girl, the new feature by Bradley Rust Gray, co-writer of the excellent In Between Days. That film, directed by Gray's wife So Yong Kim, is part of a style of independent films often referred to, in both affectionate and derisive tones, as "mumblecore." It's a dumb term that has been applied to a selection of indie cinema that takes a quiet approach to storytelling. In a film like In Between Days or The Exploding Girl, the premise begins with the idea that every small moment in a life matters. The above synopsis may sound like nothing is really happening, but that is merely an outsider's perspective. If it was happening to you, all that nothing would add up to a very big something, and by putting that something on the screen, the outsider's perspective is dismantled and the audience is invited inside.
In truth, a movie like The Exploding Girl is entirely down to its lead actress, and Zoe Kazan is marvelous in the movie. She's got the type of face that you can't help but want to watch, her soulful eyes suggesting an inner life and imbuing even the silent scenes with palpable human emotion. If there is one flaw in The Exploding Girl, actually, it's that the quality of Kazan's performance towers over everyone else.
All in all, The Exploding Girl is a voyeuristic experience. Many will dismiss it as an empty one, but those who want to go along with Ivy and see how she deals, will find it an emotionally rewarding journey. When so many films are bogged down with exposition and everywhere we turn, someone is trying to explain everything , I find it refreshing to sit down with something that just is and asks me to intuit the truth behind what I am seeing. The Exploding Girl isn't an aimless movie, either. Bradley Rust Gray, who edited the film in addition to writing and directing it, chooses his moments carefully, always keeping his eyes on where he wants his story to go. The final shot of The Exploding Girl, an extended, wordless scene in the back of the car on the way back to school, is beautiful for all it manages to convey. The fact that it seems to do so effortlessly is a testament to the hard work that went into getting all the chaff out of the way so we could end up there.
Small life can be the source of so many rich stories, and so it is again in Mid-August Lunch. Brian Orndorf writes: "Most features opt for grand statements of suspense to get by, positioning villains, weapons, and natural disasters to keep audiences glued to their seats. The Italian comedy Mid-August Lunch favors a more relatable route, communicating the intensity of time alone with four elderly women. A modest slice of life comedy, Mid-August Lunch is loaded with charm, embracing the observational opportunities that arrive with a mature cast wedged inside a restrictive condo setting.
"Having trouble making ends meet while taking care of his elderly mother, Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio) seeks to soothe his mounting medical and legal troubles with a routine of wine and conversation. When an important Italian summer holiday draws near, Gianni is faced with an offer from an influential friend who wants to drop off his own mother and aunt for the extended weekend stay. Reluctantly taking in the new roommates, Gianni's misfortunes multiply when his doctor needs the same favor, dropping off his mother with a long list of her medical needs. Stuck inside with four needful women and limited square footage, Gianni sweats to keep them all in check, watching as the ladies form something of a bond while the rest of the community is away.
"Mid-August Lunch is a low-key comedy that values the fine art of conversation, sitting with Gianni and the ladies as they slowly reveal themselves to anyone who will take the time to listen. It starts with Gianni and his mother, who enjoy a routine of bedtime stories and anxiety; they share a loving domestic intimacy that's put to the test as other guests crash into the tiny space, brandishing various concerns and quirks. Taking acting duties along with directing the picture, Gianni Di Gregorio doesn't play Mid-August Lunch broadly in the least, settling into the back row to allow the cast an opportunity to work out their own tempos and methods of interaction. The observational approach fits the golden summery Italian mood splendidly, leisurely keeping tabs on all the participants, with battles waged over T.V. time, dietary requirements, and social fatigue. The picture is humorous with a few laugh-out-loud moments of reveal, but Mid-August Lunch is best watching matters unfold naturally, capturing the reactions and flurry of five people trying to survive the weekend, only to find something resembling the development of friendship as the wine flows, succulent Italian meals are served up, and time around the kitchen table allows for friendly confession."
Europe is also the setting for a very different movie, the concert documentary Leonard Cohen - Bird on a Wire. In 1972, dour folk philosopher Leonard Cohen went out on a European tour that began in Dublin and ended in Jerusalem. He had a band that included Jennifer Warnes, Ron Cornelius, and Bob Johnston, and Tony Palmer and his film crew followed them from one venue to the next. The footage was compiled into the 1972 film Bird on the Wire. Reminiscent of D.A. Pennebaker's similar portrait of Bob Dylan, Don't Look Back, the movie showed the ups and downs of touring, giving as much room to the backstage as it did the concert hall. A weary Cohen fends off pretty women, needy journalists, and angry Germans upset by technical difficulties, all while searching for a transcendent experience at the microphone. Bird on the Wire is a peek at an artist stretched at his most thin, the bird barely able to stay atop his precarious perch.
Bird on a Wire captured Cohen when he was arguably at his musical peak, as well as at the end of his tether. Many of the big songs are represented in the film--"Suzanne," "Who By Fire," "Chelsea Hotel," "Sisters of Mercy," "Famous Blue Raincoat," the title track, and many more. There are also the rare and intriguing improvisations, Cohen unleashing on stage to fill in gaps or follow an unstoppable impulse. His is a strange stage presence. He is at once solitary and isolated, and yet also alert to his audience and constantly trying to draw them closer into a shared intimacy. Palmer gives us multiple examples of the troubadour stopping songs to try to hear what an audience member is shouting at him, dangerous moments of genuine interest but also anger that they would dare interrupt what for him is a holy moment. He's funny and seductive, but also brittle and caustic. After the disaster of the German show, when a blown amp shut everything down, Cohen argues with his manager and claims that that he's easy to deal with. Immediately after, we see him in a verbal scuffle with unreasonable concertgoers and refunding their money out of his own pocket. Palmer then shows how Cohen gets less easy to deal with day by day. His cool demeanor disintegrates further with each stop on the road, fatigue and incompetence making each night harder, and leading to an emotional, bittersweet conclusion.
There are many moments in Bird on a Wire when I wanted to reach into the screen and shake Cohen and tell him that he's being crazy, the music sounds great. His manager tries as much, but the guy is a suit and you can tell he's just worried about the box office. The band is incredible. There are songs where Jennifer Warnes and Donna Washburn stand behind Cohen and sing their back-up over his shoulder, sharing his microphone. It's a powerful effect, these voices in unison. Palmer, though, is maybe right to film most of the performances by holding tight on the singer, since Cohen is the center of his own universe. And though, much like the Big Bang, we will never be able to peer all the way back to see how the whole shebang got started, Bird on a Wire is a striking document of one of the more impressive steps in that universe's evolution. A must for any fan of Cohen, music, or documentaries!
Werner Herzog takes us back to America and the California suburbs for his new film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? Preston Jones tackles this oddball: "Alone, the names David Lynch and Werner Herzog are enough to get cinephiles' tongues wagging. Together? It portends epic oddities, a fantastical collaboration promising to bend the very boundaries of filmmaking -- right? Sadly, not exactly. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is, it should be noted right up front, an appropriately off-kilter project for the pair to have joined forces on, but nowhere near the blast of peculiarity most would expect from either director on his own. Herzog does most of the heavy lifting -- he's credited as co-writer and director -- while Lynch is one of the executive producers (perhaps he's responsible for the left-field inclusion of a little person about halfway through?).
"My Son, My Son has its roots in reality. The screenplay, authored by Herzog and Herbert Golder, is based upon a true crime tale, in which a young thespian became a little too Method while rehearsing a Greek tragedy and murdered his mother with a sword. It's a bizarre blend of psychological thriller and erstwhile police procedural that drifts along, content to punctuate a stand-off with detours into the theater world and, this being Herzog, Peru.
"Michael Shannon gives what is, by now, fast becoming his stock-in-trade performance, that of a deeply troubled individual whose grip on reality is, at best, tenuous. He's played the part in countless films (Revolutionary Road and Bug, to name just a couple) and lesser actors would've been knocked for the repetition by now. But Shannon is so damned good at making viewers feel the barely contained angst that it's hard to argue his choices. Here, he plays Brad McCullum, a talented actor who becomes a bit too immersed in the role he's playing in a Greek tragedy with his fiancée Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny). One morning, with no warning, Brad slays his mother with a sword borrowed from his eccentric Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif), which instigates a stand-off with police (Willem Dafoe, Michael Pena), who're desperately trying to understand exactly why Brad committed matricide. Herzog isn't terribly interested in the mechanics of the police investigation, only in that he uses it to thread together his narrative, which concerns itself with Brad's mental state and his creepy relationship with his mother (Grace Zabriskie).
"...The film tends to meander along, in no real hurry to reach its resolution, which undermines Shannon's explosive performance. His outbursts electrify the frame, but all that energy dissipates as Herzog (as he did in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) becomes fixated on minutiae that doesn't have much of anything to do with what's taking place on screen. What could have been harrowing is merely interesting, and while Shannon's turn here is easily worth a rental, the overall experience may frustrate fans of both Herzog and Lynch. Given the men's track record, one would certainly expect more than what's provided here."
A focus on minutiae is not always bad, as demonstrated in Abbas Kiarostami's fascinating Shirin. The Iranian auteur's 2008 motion picture takes his experiments with the illusion of cinema further than ever before by removing traditional presentation methods and showing the audience a version of themselves. This is a movie where you, as a filmgoer, watch other filmgoers watch a movie.
Kiarostami has gathered 115 actresses and shot 90 minutes of them watching a non-existent movie. As the invented film's narrative plays out for them, the director moves from face to face, recording their reactions, silently observing their private interaction with cinema. And that's it. The movie these women are watching is based on a 12th-century Persian poem. We never see a frame of it, but we hear the whole thing though dialogue, sound effects, music, and even a couple of songs. It's the tale of a prince and a princess, Khosrow and Shirin, who are fated to be together. A stonemaker named Farhad has carved portraits of both of them, and wherever they go, the images follow, until they finally meet. This star-crossed pair has too many stars crossed, however, and Khosrow's eye strays and he marries another for political reasons. Shirin is also repulsed by his warmongering, and is instead drawn to Farhad. It's a story with romance, violence, philosophy, history, and betrayal. It's also a tale about men and women, and how different they can be.
The unseen film isn't so much a backdrop for the film Kiarostami did make as it is the river that funnels into his larger cinematic ocean. His camera moves methodically through the audience, lingering on the many faces, taking its time with each one. Repeats of the same actress do occur, but there are long separations between them. The woman chosen is always center of the frame and by herself, though we do see people sitting behind her. There are men in the audience, but they are never front and center, and they mostly seem bored by the movie. As Kiarostami asks us to interpret the reactions of the women, we can also interpret that the effect the story has on them is decidedly feminine. The story of Shirin is their story, and they share the same desires, passions, and pain as this woman who lived nine centuries prior. In much the same way that the men in Shirin's life were blind to the harsh consequences of the violence they waged, so too are the men in this movie theatre cold to the soul of Shirin's story. p>In addition to the complicated fabric of what the movie is about, it seems to me that Kiarostami is portraying an inherent irony of the moviegoing experience. For as much as we can all sit in the same place and watch a movie together and react to it in the same ways, the act of watching is solitary. He is showing us something very private. These women are letting their emotions show without any expectation that they are being watched. Sure, it's a staged reaction, but as with all fiction, we are asked to forget that--and for all we know, maybe they are reacting to the tale of Shirin, Kiarostami could have been showing them a version of the story when he was directing them on set. As the final component of this experiment, we end up reacting to how their version of Shirin moves them, and if we respond with the same emotion, are we not then also moved by this non-existent motion picture? We are all united across time and fictional boundaries.
John Sinnott takes us back across space and time to early cinema--the silent era, in fact--in his review of Fantomas: Five Film Collection. "Though most people reading this have never heard of the master criminal Fantômas, there was a time when the character was internationally known. The star of a series of pulp novels, the character was created in 1911 by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. The villain captured the imagination of the public and soon the pair had penned dozens of Fantômas novels. Eventually there were Fantômas comic books, TV shows, and, of course, movies.
"In 1913, soon after the novels started, the French studio Gaumont bought the rights and pioneering director Louis Feuillade created a series of five feature films starring the dastardly villain. Restored in 1998, these silent movies have just made it to region one thanks to Kino. The entire serial of five movies has been released in a wonderful looking three DVD set that is a must-buy for fans of early cinema...This is a serial, with one movie leading into the next, sometimes with cliffhanger endings...These films are very entertaining and have a strange surrealistic touch to them that is just wonderful. I have to admit that if it had been a straight cop and robber series I would probably have grown bored, especially with the way the movies were filmed. As it is, the weird movie logic that permeate these films adds a lot by both recalling back to a simpler time and by resulting in some wonderfully unusual scenes.
"These are old pre-WWI movies that were created when the art of movie making was still in its infancy. The grammar for telling a story on film was still evolving and seen today these movies seem static and stodgy. In these films, the story is told with an unmoving camera set for a medium shot which are intercut occasionally with close ups (of objects...rarely faces or reactions.) It's as if the viewers are watching the story unfold by peering through a key hole. It's very similar to watching a play, and it's easy to see how that style became the norm for a short while. The scenes tend to go on for a long time too. It's as if Feuillade wasn't sure how much he had to show to let viewers figure out what was going on. In one scene, a man is being fingerprinted by the police, and they show all ten fingers being inked and printed.
"While these might put off some people who haven't seen a lot of silent movies, you quickly get used to the style, and that's part of the charm of these movies. It's also interesting to see how much Feuillade does with this simple and basic formula. There is one excellent scene where Fandor is trapped in a whicker basket. He cuts his way out with a pocket knife, the whole act being shown on film (though the film was sped up a bit). When he gets out, he wipes his brow and sits on the basket, relived to be free, only to find that he's in a room with a dead body. It's quite a surprising sequence that works well even within the confines of this early style. Having said that, I can't help wonder as what Feuillade would have done with these scripts if he had filmed them a decade later."
Crooks come in many forms, and Jason Bailey looks at the story of a more modern robber in the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money: "There's plenty to be said, mostly by people smarter than me, about the corrupting influence of lobbying and campaign fundraising on the legislative process. Everyone, no matter what their political stripe, will complain that 'nothing gets done in Washington, D.C.'--that no meaningful legislation that's good for Americans can get to a vote because of the wealthy business interests who money up against it, that politicians can't get any work done because of the amount of their time they have to spend hosting fundraisers and calling people to beg for money. And thanks to the Supreme Court's 'Citizens United' ruling, now corporations can spend freely to buy even more influence. But start talking about fixing the system, about comprehensive campaign finance reform, and everybody loses their minds. You can't dictate that, genie's out of the bottle, socialism, whatever.
"'Has it always been like this?' asks Alex Gibney, early on in his terrific documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, 'Or has something changed?' Who knows? What is safe to say is that there's no going back--not if a story like that of Jack Abramoff didn't change things. The press focused on his villainy, his courtroom attire, whether he had met Bush this time or that, how deep in it Tom DeLay was. There was more to it than that. There was much more to it than that.
"Casino Jack is a wide-ranging tale, broad in its scope, going from the Reagan years to the second Bush administration, from the U.S. to the Marianas Islands to Malaysia, from college Republican clubs to the corridors of Washington's most powerful people. Using archival footage, new interviews, wiretap recordings, and occasional reenactments, Gibney tracks Abramoff's rise to D.C. supremacy, starting with a fascinating look at the young Republicans who ended up shaping modern conservatism--Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and a ridiculously young-looking Karl Rove. From there, we see how Abramoff and his ilk ascended following the Republican Revolution of 1994, and made a fortune defending reprehensible corporate interests and flim-flamming Indian casinos well into the Bush administration.
"Gibney is a documentarian of tremendous skill (his previous films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side), and Casino Jack is strikingly well-made--cleverly edited, fast-paced, clear but smart. The only real flaw is in the music choices, which frequently skew too cutesy. The most fascinating element of the picture is the exposition, the nuts and bolts, how all this worked, how he moved the money, how he bought influence with it, how he chopped it up with his accomplices, how he (for all intents and purposes) laundered it for allies like Reed and DeLay. 'Lobbying is a system of legalized bribery,' contends Representative Peter Fitzgerald. There's not much reason to dispute that claim. Gibney skews more critical of Republicans than Democrats, but then again, Republicans were more complicit here (and the Democrats involved certainly get their due)."
Closing out this month's entry, we look to Brian Orndorf one last time, and the Blu-Ray of the fantastic biography picture Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. "In 1913, Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) developed 'The Rite of Spring,' an ornately designed piece of music commissioned for the ballet. Facing a riotous initial response that sent him into a creative tailspin, Igor found reassurance in the form of clothing empress Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis), who offered the composer and his family a place inside her estate so that work to bring back 'The Rite of Spring' could commence. Taking the offer, much to the concern of his ailing wife (Yelena Morozova), Igor begins to feel out his music once again. However, matters quickly dissolve into lust when the icy Coco offers herself to Igor, engaging in a torrid affair that reawakens his passion, but could destroy his marriage.
"Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is a tale told with frosted stares and fearsome posture, a hushed body language that makes the pull of lust shared between the title characters all the more secretive and destructive. Director Jan Kounen creates a hostility that's difficult to isolate, existing in the brief flashes of what passes for emotion with these iconic artists, gradually erecting what should be recognized as an extended act of unforgivable betrayal, seizing the persuasive carnality of the pairing. It's an unsettling feeling, but a dynamic directorial achievement, which asks viewers to remain invested in two individuals who are essentially charmless and free of standard morality. It's their genius and confidence that keeps us glued to the screen, that indescribable tractor beam of artistic toil that often doubles as an aphrodisiac.
"Kounen isn't shy depicting Coco and Igor's dance of the pants, viewed through graphic sex scenes that underline the more animalistic urge of the paring over traditional romantic needs. These are brave performances from the two leads, who express a universe of thought with very little movement. It's a complex psychological map of submission and colliding cultures, but Mikkelsen and Morozova are up for the challenge, finding shades to these famous faces that are off-putting (Chanel is depicted as a women left for dead by her wartime past, stripped of humanity long ago) and achingly human in equal measure. It's a film of flamboyant cinematography and slow burn ambiance, but these actors fire discreetly and directly, creating a disturbing stillness to their interaction"
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His most recent work is the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, drawn by the incomparable Joelle Jones. This follows his first original graphic novel with Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, all published by Oni Press. His most recent release is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
Special thanks to Jason Bailey, Casey Burchby, Preston Jones, Randy Miller III, Chris Neilson, Brian Orndorf, and John Sinnott for their contributions.
Fantasia, America Lost and Found, and Guy Maddin
Chaplin, John Cazale, and Metropolis
Alain Resnais, David Bowie, and Ingmar Bergman
Coco Chanel, Red Riding, and Fantomas