Jul 1, 2015

Screening Log: June

Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks in Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain)

Guide to Numerical Grades

The Hit (Frears, 1984, 6.0)
Frears's conception of each scene is immaculate; The Hit makes the best of the smallest changes in framing or otherwise unimportant sound cues to create tension and affect mood. Yet, the overall arc of the film is rather unexciting and the progression of the plot is so deliberately slow, it's impossible to check the watch every now and then.

Paternal House (Ayari, 2015, 7.5)
One of the most compelling films to come out of mainstream Iranian cinema in recent years. I felt more mixed after the second viewing but later discussing the film for the Hello Cinema podcast, I felt I liked it more. This is problematic film, both structurally   the repetitions in storytelling pattern can be felt, though it's never boring   and tonally   the eccentric humor, a trademark of Ayari's cinema, isn't for everyone, and it certainly isn't for every minute in this otherwise brutal, crushing film. Nevertheless, this is essential stuff.

Inside Out (Docter, 2015, 7.5)
Certainly Pixar's best film since Brave, an entertaining, thoughtful experience that continues Pete Docter's fascination with children's mental development. Deceptively simplistic in presentation and scope, but more though-provoking the more I live with the film.

The Algerian (Zelko, 2015, 0.5) (review)
"The Algerian is not offensive because it doesn’t abide by rules of political correctness, but because of its sheer incompetence on every level. This is a film in which story and plot are both mistaken for relentless exposition; political nuance is forgone in favour of the simple rule of thumb that America is superior to the rest of the world; the ambiguity of race and gender relations convey the filmmaker’s misunderstanding of both; and performances are delivered with all the grace and poise of a corporate sexual harassment video. It is hard to encounter a film that lacks even a single redeeming quality; that The Algerian achieves that is probably its biggest accomplishment."

Paternal House (Ayari, 2015, 7.9)
The film's episodic structure suffers from the sheer force of the opening chapter; it is virtually impossible to keep the tension and power of this violently brilliant start. One of the most compelling and strident films about women's rights in Iran in recent years   hence the lengthy ban on the film's public release in its home country; the film was produced in 2010 and only released for two days this year   and a film that, despite its several limitations, is essential and merits discussion (and repeat viewings).

To Be or Not to Be (Ayari, 1998, 8.3)
Not a particularly adventurous film on a formal level   though particular scenes in the film would beg to differ   but an emotional tour de force. One of those films that pull moments of magic out of seemingly nothing, in small conversations, in a single glance, or in the way a character utters a specific line, or in tender moments of normal, genuine human interaction. To Be or Not to Be's story of two young women looking for a heart transplant from a brain-dead man studies small tensions between people of different ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds and the human spirit that rises above it all.

Wet Hot American Summer (Wain, 2001, 8.4)
Although the film has mostly achieved cult status because of the future careers of its stars, and remains somewhat inconsistent on repeat visits, its highs are so far above the clouds that the lows can be forgiven. Paul Rudd's performance   brimming with Falconetti-level iconic facial expressions   is the highlight of a film which also includes one of the best comic line readings of all time: "Can you get me some lube? For my pussy."

Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015, 3.6)
The lowest common denominator of Hollywood blockbusters. For a film based on a narrative about nostalgia, about people's interest in mechanical and old-school charms, it's frustrating how completely the computer generated animation sucks the soul out of the spectacle. This is a film of incomprehensible storytelling and stylistic choices, with no emotional justification for its chaotic, noisy narrative propulsion.

The Face of an Angel (Winterbottom, 2015, 3.9) (review)
"A fictionalized account of Amanda Knox’s story, the film is contrived, confusing, and, despite dense plotting, severely lacking in emotional or thematic depth."

The Bull's Horn (Ayari, 1995, 5.9)
Adapted from Erich Kastner's "Emil and the Detectives," Ayari's children's film is indicative of the range of his thematic interests and his capabilities as a director. Yet, given the topic   children banding together to retrieve money a thief stole from one of them   The Bull's Horn is neither entertaining nor exciting enough for the first two thirds of the film. The finale, however, is both touching and engaging. 

Abadani-ha (Ayari, 1994, 6.7)
Ayari's faithful remake of The Bicycle Thieves, relocated to war-time Tehran, is a competently made, keenly studied and emotionally powerful experience, but falls short at every turn in comparison to its predecessor. Still, De Sica's film is one of the greatest films ever made, so the comparison isn't exactly a fair one.

Two Halves of an Apple (Ayari, 1992, 4.2)
Two Halves of an Apple tells the story of twin sisters, long lost, who find each other and decide to swap places for a few days at a critical juncture in both their lives. Ayari's execution of this intriguing   though somewhat cliched   story is rather heavy-handed, with socio-political allegories confusingly forced in. Although there are individual moments of excellence in the film   such as the wordless flashback sequence in which the two sisters' family history is told   the film as a whole is undermined by the shrill acting of the two actresses who did not go on to have careers beyond this film. It's all the more disheartening for the fact that my mother and aunt were approached on the street by Kianoush Ayari to play the lead roles. No, really!

Beyond the Fire (Ayari, 1990, 8.5)
The absurd and raucous finale of this film, set to Johann Strauss' The Blue Danube, is its most memorably enduring moment, but it shouldn't overshadow everything that comes before it. The barren deserts of the Iranian southwest, and the architecture of fiery oil rigs have provided visual spectacles for several Iranian directors across the decades, from Ebrahim Golestan to Amir Naderi; Ayari's film is one of the most astonishing inclusions in that company. Making the best of the region's minimalist architecture, and the juxtaposition between the rapidly developing oil industry and the wretched infrastructure of poverty and destitution, Ayari's visual language highlights social and personal tensions more than any words could. This is a film for the ages, and one that I only wish I had the opportunity to see on the big screen at some point.

Spy (Feig, 2015, 7.0)
Restlessly hilarious, and that seems to be about the film's only aim, which it achieves quite comfortably. Feig and McCarthy have a perfect understanding of each other's gifts and expectations, creating a chemistry that has so far resulted in a three slam dunk successes. The real star of this all-star show, though, is Rose Byrne. Her comic gifts, subtler than her co-stars here, are paralleled by no one in Hollywood today.

The Grand Day (Ayari, 1989, 5.9)
Ayari's spoof of the Shah's incompetence in dealing with rural problems isn't the brave proposition it would have been had it been made before the Iranian Revolution. It isn't consistently funny, either. The visual language is interesting, however, both because of comic coding   the costumes and signifiers that mark government agents   and political coding   the first and last scenes of the film are poignant mirror images that concisely captures the reasons for the monarchy's fall. Alireza Khamseh's physical attributes, as is often the case with him, give the film a lot of comic mileage.   

Spectre of Scorpion (Ayari, 1986, 4.4)
Ayari has made one of the more innovative entries in the vast collection of films about the difficulties of working in Iranian cinema. Ironically, for a film about a director whose main preoccupation is with producing "naturalistic" atmospheres, Spectre of Scorpion is contrived and over the top. The heist around which the film pivots beggars belief and the intensity of the film-making    evident both in the highly angular cinematography and the heightened energy of the performances    leave much to be desired. The finale is incongruously superb. 

Dust Devil (Ayari, 1985, 5.8)
Produced during the years of war between Iran and Iraq, following the Iranian Revolution, Dust Devil is a product of the highly politicized cultural environment of the time. Paradoxically, the film is both naturalistic in its depiction of rough and dry terrain of Iranian deserts and symbolic in conveying the ideological warfare of the era. It is telling that the resource over which the character fight is not oil, artillery or money, but water, symbolizing the very livelihood that was at stake in the tumultuous atmosphere of war time Iran. The metaphors eventually become overbearing, but as a debut film, this is very promising.

Jun 27, 2015

The Algerian

*This review was originally written for Movie Mezzanine.

“Why would a man like you help a woman like me?” says Lana (Candice Coke) to Ali (Ben Youcef) when he comes to her rescue after Lana’s abusive date punches her in public. It’s a baffling question, and not just because it is despairingly clichéd. The situation doesn’t merit this question at all. A man like what? A woman like whom? What does Lana know about Ali that we don’t? As it turns out, none of this information matters to Giovanni Zelko, the debut filmmaker behind the asinine The Algerian, and, even though the exchange only happens a quarter of an hour into the film, it doesn’t matter to the viewer either. Even by that early point, it’d have to be a miracle to find a viewer who hasn’t checked out of the film yet.

The Algerian tells the story of Ali, an immigrant to the United States who, as a child, witnessed the death of his mother in a bomb explosion—or what the film assumes we will perceive as an explosion despite the risibly poor visual effects. He arrives in America with an un-American dream: to carry out a vague mission against The Great Satan. He’s a member of a terrorist cell disguised a student. Within the first few minutes, it’s clear that Zelko is going to waste a rare golden opportunity to carve a three-dimensional character from a Middle Eastern lead, but if you stick with the film, characterizations only get more disappointing. Ali meets only a handful of people in America, each a poorly sketched archetype to convey one of Zelko’s shallow ideas. Writing about these characters grants them much more legitimacy than they deserve, but two of them stick out like particularly sore thumbs.

Aside from Lana, who reveals herself to be the Hooker with a Heart of Gold, there’s Suleyman (Harry Lennix), an American Muslim inelegantly worked into the film to offset any accusation of Islamophobia—did you know there are Muslims who smile and will not give you unsolicited lectures on Middle Eastern history? There’s also Sara (Tara Holt), an attractive Jewish classmate. Ali briefly has a fling with her, only to violently push her back when he learns of her religion. This relationship provides the film’s most consistent source of unintentional laughs, what with Holt’s horrid performance—her flirting would be more subtle if she walked into every scene stark naked—and the film’s careless (and somewhat anti-Semitic) resolution to their break-up. It’s hard to imagine who is offended more at the implications of this relationship: Muslims, Jews, men, women, or blondes (who, in the opinion of the film, are definitely dumb).

The Algerian is not offensive because it doesn’t abide by rules of political correctness, but because of its sheer incompetence on every level. This is a film in which story and plot are both mistaken for relentless exposition; political nuance is forgone in favour of the simple rule of thumb that America is superior to the rest of the world; the ambiguity of race and gender relations convey the filmmaker’s misunderstanding of both; and performances are delivered with all the grace and poise of a corporate sexual harassment video. It is hard to encounter a film that lacks even a single redeeming quality; that The Algerian achieves that is probably its biggest accomplishment.

Jun 24, 2015

The Face of an Angel

*This review was originally written for Movie Mezzanine.

Humdrum thrillers are hardly in short supply in Hollywood. But when this kind of formulaic and intellectually vapid genre piece is directed by one of the most irreverent directors of the past two decades, the result is particularly disheartening—as is the case with Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Face of An Angel. A fictionalized account of Amanda Knox’s story, the film is contrived, confusing, and, despite dense plotting, severely lacking in emotional or thematic depth.

Thomas (Daniel Brühl) is a filmmaker whose life is on a personal and professional downward spiral. Having traveled to Italy in the midst of the trial of an American girl—Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt) is accused of murdering a fellow exchange student, Elizabeth (Sai Bennett), with whom she shared an apartment—Thomas finds the story he craves for his next project. His first contact in the city of Siena is British freelance journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale) who is one of several English-language journalists covering the mayhem. Thomas’ interest is further piqued when international attention on the story has turned the gruesome murder into a sensationalized endless feeder for the tabloids. Disappointed with the lack of reality and integrity in the coverage of the story, the director decides that fiction might be the way to reach the truth. The film-to-be within the film thus becomes a meta-textual commentary on Winterbottom’s own misgivings about the media.

Winterbottom, whose career has been a roller-coaster ride of excellent highs such as The Trip and dreadful lows like 9 Songs, tries to cram as much as possible into the film, thematically and stylistically. The plotting is so long-winded that the story is virtually forgotten; the sole purpose of every scene is to advance the plot one step further instead of actually serving insights into media manipulation. There is more than one romantic subplot in a film that barely register yet each is worked in so forcefully, like some Hollywood gesture that merely needed to be checked off Winterbottom’s list of cinematic obligations. It is never clear, for example, why the audience is shown Simone’s failing marriage in the background when it is immediately rendered irrelevant within the first half.

Jun 1, 2015

Screening Log: May

Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Gibney, 2015, B)
Far less interesting as a cinematic accomplishment than it is as an exposé. Going Clear is an unsettling look into the vicious, destructive and financially dubious inner workings of the Church of Scientology and the fraudsters who run it. It is as harrowing as it is confounding.

La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995, B)
Kassovitz's film is over-determined and over-zealous, and has since been largely ignored due to his subsequently underwhelming directorial career, but this coked-out, high-octane story of fragile masculinity, volatile friendships and the vulnerabilities of life in the Parisian banlieue is undeniably effective, with an ending that never fails to shock even on repeat screenings. 

Dead Man (Jarmusch, 1995, B+)
The type of curious, revisionist and progressive film that the Western genre, on its last long breaths for several decades now, needs in order to be revitalized and re-popularized. Jarmusch's uncompromising vision is stark, humorous and wickedly entertaining, and gets the best of Johnny Depp's eccentricities. It's not a film for everyone -- or, indeed, for every mood -- but it's magic if you can on the wavelength.

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.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015, B/B+)
The sensitivity to light, to colour, to textures, to every aural and visual element of film-making, is remarkable. It's a near miracle that a film this strange, progressive and weird received the budget that it did and didn't veer off the rails during its troubled production. Miller's is a singular vision and this is a unique film, putting to shame modern Hollywood blockbusters for their repetitive structures, banal stories and archaic gender politics. Bonus points: the film never forgets that action in cinema need not be mutually exclusive to character development and "real" world building. We really care for these characters and their destinies.

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, C+)
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.

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.

The Madness of King George (Hytner, 1994, B+)
This is unquestionably the most entertaining film of the competition lineup of the 1995 Cannes 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 tender portrait of mental illness.

Land and Freedom (Loach, 1995, C+)
Individual moments of brilliance -- such as the execution of the priest in the first half of the film, the 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?

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.

Parviz (Barzegar, 2012, B+)
Majid Barzegar's psycho-thriller would be a perfect fit for the New Greek Extremity movement. Perhaps too violent and detached to connect with a wider arthouse audience, but effective for anyone willing to subject themselves to this anatomy of vengeance and solitude in the modern man.

Fish and Cat (Mokri, 2014, A-)
One of the most important Iranian films of the recent years. Mokri's voice is a much needed one for the dormant national film industry and his vision is unique and courageous. That the film manages to pull off two formal tricks that are completely at odds with each other -- filming the entire film in one, and creating a warped temporal/spatial perspective where characters move forward in space but in various directions, including repeated encounters, in time -- is almost a miracle.

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.

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

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.

Ex Machina (Garland, 2015, A-)
One of the best science fiction films of recent years.

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 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 for anticipation.

Gayby Baby (Newell, 2015, C-)
Gayby Baby is emotionally affecting and incisive about the relationship between the parents and their kids, and the difficulties that both face. Yet, the film is considerably undermined by long, intermittent passages which are designed to convey that gay parents are just like any other parents. The message is rather obvious for people who care enough to see this film, rendering significant sections of the film in which kids quarrel about getting to watch wrestling or getting off studying incredibly dull.

A Sinner in Mecca (Sharma, 2015, D+)
Unaided by Parvez’s lackadaisical narration, the film often feels like a didactic lecture on the localized rituals of Islam and never cuts deep enough into the religion beyond its external customs. The filmmaker’s interpretations of Islam are nebulous and generous, hence reducing the film to an emotional catharsis, rather than a more universal experience.

May 17, 2015

Cannes 1995

Update: The complete series, including our roundtable discussion and jury awards can be found here. Do check them out please and chime in with your comments on Nick's website. Below you will my ranked list of personal favourites from the festival's competition lineup. My short reviews for each film can be found after the jump.

Emir Kusturica's Underground, the deserving winner of the 1995 Palme d'Or.

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.

1995 Cannes Film Festival's Competition Lineup, Ranked:
1. Underground (Kusturica)
2. Good Men, Good Women (Hou)
3. Ed Wood (Burton)
4. Nasty Love (Martone)
5. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)
6. Shanghai Triad (Yimou)
7. The Madness of King George (Hytner)
8. Neon Bible (Davies)
9. La Haine (Kassovitz)
10. Sharaku (Shinoda)
11. Don't Forget You're Going to Die (Beauvois)
12. Ulysses' Gaze (Angelopoulos)
13. Land and Freedom (Loach)
14. Angels and Insects (Haas)
15. The Convent (de Oliveira)
16. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Hansel)
17. City of Lost Children (Jeunet/Caro)
18. Jefferson in Paris (Ivory)
19. Beyond Rangoon (Boorman)
20. Carrington (Hampton)
21. Kids (Clark)

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.