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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.

Total: 30 films

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