Movies – Force Majeure

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Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli and the kids in “Force Majeure.”

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

Ruben Östlund’s “The Square” won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year, opens in Chicago at the Chicago Int’l Film Festival Oct. 13th and 14th, and starts regular theatrical showings on Nov. 10th.

There’s an agreeably structured feel to Ruben Östlund’s dark comedy, Force Majeure (Turist) (Sweden, 2014), a nice command of compelling, ordered visuals in his direction, and a nicely overlapping sense of incident and emotion in his screenplay. But that which simmers below Östlund’s technical and structural accomplishments is a formulaic and mean-spirited parade of awkward encounters and embarrassments that don’t really add up to the stinging ironic commentary to which he obviously aspired.

Östlund’s film follows Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), a seemingly content married couple on vacation, skiing in the Alps with their two young children, Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren). There’s the usual wrangling of moody kids, and the usual acclimatization to the unfamiliar but welcoming hotel and resort, but the family settles in nicely on the first day. The second day, however, is the lurch down the domestic rabbit-hole, as an inadvertent, but profoundly revealing, betrayal occurs, and its repercussions color the tenor of the rest of the film. One spouse has their faith in the family unit irrevocably shaken, the other just wants to move past an awkward event and pick up where things left off. Ultimately the film is an examination of each spouse’s own particular methods of denial, and how they’ve cultivated and refined those methods throughout their marriage. Early on we understand that the children have been on to this for a while – there’s a superb scene where the kids sternly throw the adults out of their own bedroom, brooking no nonsense. The couple thinks this crisis is an outlier in an otherwise well-tended relationship, but the kids always know better.

One of the unfair things that critics may tend to do is compare generally dissimilar films that contain a specific similarity, and extrapolate on the one at the expense of the other. I’m going to commit that sin here in comparing Östlund’s Force Majeure with last year’s The Loneliest Planet by Julia Loktev. Loktev’s film is a serious-minded love story, also under ‘vacationing’ similar circumstances, hinging on a very similar betrayal that reverberates through the subsequent behavior of the two protagonists (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) over the rest of their week.

Loktev’s film tends to concentrate on personal identity – the couple never brings the event up afterwards in any conversation whatsoever, but it has not only redefined the relationship, but how each of them feels about themselves. Loktev’s approach is put to far more dramatic, and more profoundly thoughtful, uses than Ruben Östlund has in mind, and that’s OK for Östlund, but, even as a comedy, I missed that element. Tomas and Ebba talk on and on to each other about the event, to little actual effect – the more Östlund ‘s characters talk, the less we like them. Many have seen Force Majeure as a wicked dissection of male pride, as Tomas’ self-righteous resolve slowly disintegrates under Ebba’s insistent frankness. But Ebba’s passive/aggressive strategies seemed outrightly malicious to me, and not in any Carole Lombard / Miriam Hopkins I’ll-show-you-for-your-own-good-because-I-love-you way; Ebba’s showing up Tomas in public is her own defense mechanism, is how she feeds her own insecurities. Tomas isn’t like someone like Larry David; we take no glee in Tomas’ comeuppance because he isn’t as richly deserving of it. When Tomas finally acknowledges the gravity of his ‘sin,’ and has his own emotional purge, Ebba is unsympathetic, and embarrassed for him.  (But the kids always know better.)

If Östlund wanted to create a truly black comedy, he had plenty of openings – his supporting characters are very well-written, and incorporated nicely. But his leads are written too timidly; they’re too reasonable to be funny or subversive. Tomas is too nice of a guy, or, at least, too typical of a guy, to be the asshole that Östlund wants us to gleefully judge, and Ebba is too self-serving to deliver Tomas’ tragicomic doom in any enlightening or entertaining way. The film, measured scene-by-scene, is impressive, and Östlund’s protagonists deliver rock-solid performances. The interaction of the four family members is quite credible: Kuhnke obviously knows who this guy is, and has his own kind of fun with the character. Loven Kongsli is a little more immersed in Ebba’s neuroses, and game to see where they lead her.  They’re never unlikable characters, even as the script’s contrivances start to overplay themselves in the last 1/2-hour.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Force Majeure – the good parts are excellent, and there are spots where you can see, feel, and laugh at Östlund’s higher aspirations. But the film just feels overthought, and the overthinking undermines some very good performances, some very nice visual ideas, and the  broader and wilder brush that should have been brought to the overall narrative.

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Movies – Band Of Outsiders

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Band Of Outsiders (Bande À Part) (France, 1964) is a tough film to write about; so much has been written already about this wildly original and eccentric caper film that it’s a challenge to bring anything new to the table. Based on a now-obscure paperback thriller called ‘Fool’s Gold’ by Dolores Hitchens, the film relates the meeting of Odile (Anna Karina) with two bored, media-obsessed wannabe hipsters, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), and how they conspire to rip off one of the tenants with whom she lives in the house of her Aunt Victoria (Louisa Colpeyn). There’s a pretty big pile of 10,000-franc notes in Mr. Stolz’s bureau, and Odile has no idea where he might have gotten it, but Franz and Arthur take it for granted that, like the laconic and remorseless outlaws that they’ve been admiring and emulating from countless American movies, it’s too good an opportunity for two resourceful mugs to pass up.

When the film starts, Franz has already become acquainted with Odile through their English class, and Odile has already told Franz about the money. Now Franz is anxious for his buddy Arthur to get in on the action; Franz shows Arthur the house where she lives, and brings him along to the class to meet her. Odile seems to be a normal young French girl; attractive, engaging and friendly, but coy and cautious. But she’s also furtively anxious to make new friends and step out a little past her Aunt’s practical influence. Most of the things the two men suggest – skip out on class, go with them to a café, don’t go home to your Aunt right away – seem like a bad idea to her, but she acquiesces nonetheless; she could use a little insubordinate adventure. (Anna Karina was 24 at this time, married to Godard, and had already suffered a miscarriage, a nervous breakdown, and a few suicide attempts, but her depiction of Odile as a game, wide-eyed, impressionable naïf who gets in over her head is astonishingly good). Arthur lays the pretense on thick, yanking out every dour gangster mannerism he can summon; they bond by sharing cigarettes, and he defuses her forthright practicality by answering her questions with more questions. ‘Is something wrong?’ she inquires. “Something unusual, Arthur?” “Why unusual?” he responds, “aren’t ordinary troubles enough?” “You have troubles?” “Don’t you?”

The café scene is one of the film landmarks of the sixties French new-wave – unapologetically manipulated by Godard, having some fun at his characters’, and his story’s, expense, Godard expands his earlier presence (simply providing narration over the action) to use the technical aspects of filmed storytelling to actively subvert our fourth-wall suspension of disbelief. When Franz glibly asks for a minute of silence, Godard cuts the sound entirely, background noises and all. When the three are line-dancing to, one assumes, the juke-box, Godard stops the music off-and-on to explain the thoughts of the three dancers, even as we still hear their rhythmic footfalls, snaps and claps. The ‘Madison’ sequence is surprisingly charming, and our identification with the three carefree dancers is oddly enhanced by Godard’s ‘taking us aside’. Godard loves to remind his audience that This Isn’t Real, It’s A Movie, by hilariously shocking us out of our acquiescence to the make-believe and pointing out the artificiality of everything we’re seeing.

The movie continues in this playfully subversive vein, in more subtle fashion – Godard’s placement of Michel Legrand’s music is disconcertingly un-synced to the action or transitions between scenes, and Arthur’s courtship of Odile is awkward and distanced, even as Odile admits to Arthur that she loves him. (After she initially tells him, as a direct action, Godard resorts to his narration for anything else concerning it; “Arthur said such love talk was crap. Odile said she’d blurted it out but meant it.”). The three playfully race each other through the Louvre as frantic museum guards try to wave them away (“In 9 min. 43secs, Arthur, Odile and Franz broke the record set by Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco,” Godard informs us). They have to attempt the actual robbery twice, due to goofily unforeseen circumstances and their own hesitant ineptitude. Throughout the film, we’re in a constant state of flux – we identify with Franz’s culture-driven dreams of striking it rich, racing a Ferrari in the Indy 500, and retiring to ‘Jack London country’; the romantic notions that Odile pursues in the face of the other two’s tawdry opportunism; and Arthur’s clumsy but earnest attempts to woo Odile while trying to impress his family as an underworld big-shot. It’s easy to identify with their headlong youthful exuberance, even as we understand that each, in their way, is a total screw-up, more like semi-delusional victims of their own inner cultures than any kind of genuine vanguard who draw from them to artfully deal with harsh reality.

On my list of overused words I make a point not to use is ‘bittersweet,’ but it truly fits here. Even Michel Legrand’s low-brass, jazz-inflected melody that pervades the proceedings (and, I suspect, your own brain for a few days afterwards) can be described that way. Godard amusingly overwhelms his three protagonists with the very culture they can’t help but model themselves after – the English class teacher asks her obviously-beginning students to translate Shakespeare from French-to-English. Odile sings a song based on a Louis Aragon poem on the Metro, competing with the thuds and squeals of the moving train (Aragon was a famous surrealist, and Communist, poet and novelist). ‘Arthur’ and ‘Franz’ are named after Rimbaud and Kafka, and Godard slyly peppers his narration with further references to them. Franz and Arthur pretend to shoot each other in mock-good-guy-bad-guy ambush throughout the film, but when one of them is really shot, it looks brazenly fake compared to the other, truly fake, instances. Godard, though, somehow blends these elements – the dark slapstick, the lofty aspirations, the B-movie surliness, his own exo-cinematic intrusions – into a uniquely intriguing, amiable shaggy-dog whole that still finds a way, ‘Graduate’-like, to leave us hanging with a real sense of serious-minded loss.  Or, as the great Pauline Kael explains:

“The sadness that pervades the work is romantic regret that you can no longer believe in the kind of movie you once wanted to be enfolded in, becoming part of that marvelous world of beauty and danger with its gangsters who trusted their friends and its whores who never really sold themselves. It’s the sadness in frivolity—in the abandonment of efforts to make sense out of life in art. Godard in his films seems to say; only this kind of impossible romance is possible. You play at cops and robbers but the bullets can kill you. His movies themselves become playful gestures, games in which you succeed or fail with a shrug, a smile.”

Movies – Andrei Rublev

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

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Like a number of his most intriguing films, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (Andrey Rublyov) (U.S.S.R, 1966) may be pretty rough going for the average moviegoer. It’s a slow, deliberate but ravishing 3-1/2-hour* film about Russia’s most famous 15th-century religious icon painter, and explores some pretty heady territory concerning religious devotion, the making of art and the spiritual and/or secular motivations artists have for creating it in the first place.

In a brief prologue, we observe a group of villagers who have managed to rig up a rudimentary hot-air balloon atop a church (the tallest building they could find). As the helpers on the ground are brutally set upon by the local authorities, the delighted passenger howls in delight as he floats above his village, his onlooking neighbors, the river and nearby fields. The flight doesn’t last long, but we learn some quick lessons about creative aspiration and man’s innate longing to transcend his earthbound existence.

In the next scene, we meet three travelers – monk- painters who are making their way to Moscow to research the prospects of plying their trade there: Danil (Nikolay Grinko), Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) and Andrei Rublev (Anatoliy Solonitsyn). They stop at a small farmhouse to get out of the rain, where a jester is entertaining other locals with ribald songs and poems about the clerics and boyars who keep them poor and miserable.  Sure enough, it’s not too long until the critics in the local constabulary swing by to shut him up.

The secular social and political hierarchies of the outside world and the harsh realities thereof for the poor and unconnected everyman are aspects of medieval Russian life from which the monastery has shielded these three. Part of Kirill’s enquiries bring him to the home of Theophanes the Greek, a renowned Muscovite religious painter who engages Kirill in a deep discussion about  how, and even if, painting should reflect various degrees of devotion and/or commerce. Kirill is invited to become Theophanes’ new assistant, but Kirill makes a prideful blunder that results in Andrei getting the invitation for the Prince’s commission (for the Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow), not Kirill. Andrei accepts, but Kirill is infuriated and leaves the monastery, and Danil remains behind as well, choosing not to accompany Andrei to Moscow.

As Andrei’s reputation grows, he accepts other commissions, and he battles with himself about what his true role is as a humble devotional artist, and what his subject matter should reflect. But one particular commission, in the town of Vladimir, leads to a tragic set of circumstances that shake both his spiritual core and his artistic future.

Everything Andrei does, everything he aspires to, runs up against elements of the world that force him to question the purposes of what he does and who he is. Is he making art to selflessly express God’s grandeur, for the betterment of his fellow man, or for himself, to feed his own pride, his own sense of purpose? When entire cities can be erased by marauding hordes – men slaughtered, women raped and killed, children traumatized or thrown aside – what’s the point of trying to create anything that will ‘last’? There’s an instructive flashback of himself as a very young assistant to a crew of artists (plaster carvers, painters, etc.) working on a Grand Prince’s estate – when the work is done, the Prince has his men accost them on the road and blind them all to prevent them from ever doing better work for anyone else.

Everything in the film culminates in an extended episode that concludes the film; a marauder prince wishes to have a bell cast, but all of the local metalworkers have fallen victim to the hordes, the plague or starvation. But the young peasant son of a metalworking founder (Nikolay ‘Kolya’ Burlyaev of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’) volunteers to cast their bell, and persuades the skeptical prince’s men to give him the commission. We (and Andrei, who is now an ascetic who has taken an oath of silence) watch him scour the countryside for the right kind of clay for the mold, form crews to dig it out, form larger crews to build the mold, employ even larger crews to work the furnaces to alloy the bronze, and, finally, like the balloon-maker at the start of the film, succeed in creating something he had no business even trying. He’s the perfect extrovert joy-in-the-thing-itself antithesis of everything that Andrei has represented throughout the film, and this profound dichotomy is most certainly not lost on Andrei.

The film, which has been shot in glorious black-and-white by the great Vadim Yusov, now concludes with an in-color survey of Andrei Rublev’s paintings, many of which were presumably created after this revelatory chapter. But that’s the other impressive aspect of Tarkovsky’s film – very little is actually known of Andrei Rublev’s true history outside of his work. Tarkovsky (and Andrei Konchalovsky) have primarily fictionalized this epic-scale survey of Rublev’s life, and his place in the convulsive history of Russia during the 15th century. Taken as a whole, Tarkovsky’s film is a movingly profound investigation of, in many ways, any artist, any spiritually-driven creative person, in any time period. It regularly appears on all-time-best lists (if you’re a ‘list’ kinda person, as I tend to be), quite frequently as number one. If you’ve got the curiosity, and the attention span, to lose yourself in this film, you will be movingly rewarded. This is a film that anyone who loves great movies, who’s unafraid to put in a little work, should slide up near the top of their own list.

Movies – A Tale Of Two Sisters

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

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Kim Ji-Woon’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon) (South Korea, 2003) is such an agile blending of existing psychological horror ingredients that I couldn’t imagine that the whole thing would hold together as its own film. But Kim pulled it off, admirably, even if it takes a great deal of post-viewing afterthought, or even a second viewing, to piece it together. There are echoes of David Lynch, Val Lewton, Dario Argento, Robert Wise’s ‘The Haunting,’ M. Night Shamalyan, Alfred Hitchcock, Japanese ‘J-horror’– and you’ll spot a few of your own pet references as well, no doubt, all employed with seamless technical mastery and an unlikely but effective combination of irreproachable narrative structure and stylistic reckless abandon.

As the film starts, a father (Kim Kap-Su) is bringing his two daughters home after a long absence, and while the girls seem content to be back in their home, they’re less than enthusiastic about meeting their new stepmother, Eun-Joo (Yum Jung-Ah). The elder sister, Soo-mi (Lim Su-Jeong) is openly derisive of Eun-Joo, and is convinced that she bears a cruel and illogical grudge against her gentle younger sister, Su-yeon (Moon Geun-Young). A battle of wills ensues between the somewhat eccentric stepmother, who is doing her diligent best to take the reins of this wounded family, and the girls, who are still processing the death of their mother. Things get uncomfortable, then testier, then outrightly physically aggressive before we learn a very valuable piece of information from the father, who has been suspiciously calm up until this point. It’s noteworthy that this revelation comes so early (a little over halfway) in the film; it explains a great deal about the dynamics we’ve been witness to thus far, but it also opens up a whole new world of psychological, and possibly supernatural, weirdness. But Kim is scrupulous about keeping us with his characters – keeping the film grounded in their behavior –  and not letting what might be going on around them distract us.

Whatever film schools these Korean guys have been going to are very good at what they’re doing. All of these ‘Korean New Wave’ films are brilliantly shot (the cinematographer here is Lee Mo-Gae) and edited (Lee Hyeon-Mi), but Kim Ji-Woon’s strong hand and conceptual smarts are equally evident. Lee Byung-Woo composed the minimal but remarkable music score. Kim wrote the screenplay as well – the basic story is a Korean folktale (‘Janghwa, Hongryeon’ means ‘Rose Flower and Red Lotus’) – but Kim’s modern-day embellishments are a very nice twist on the original story.

It’s a fearless but well-orchestrated horror film, and, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, it’s pretty damn scary as well. Gore-phobes, fear not; Kim is far more concerned here with suspense and surprises than just jumping out at you out of the dark, or grossing you out. (He got to do that later, with his grueling but excellent ‘I Saw The Devil’). This was a terrific discovery for me, and I suspect most of you will agree. I heartily recommend it.

Movies – A Mix

As I am, frustratingly, only a part-time critic, there are a lot of movies I’m forced to miss due to other practical work and real-life obstacles. Every once in a while I make a point to catch up with some of them. They’re probably not actually showing anywhere, but these are certainly worth tracking down on DVD or on other streaming venues.

 

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Sheila Vand in “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.” credit: modernhorrors.com

A dark, moody and stylish confection, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (USA, 2014) is a surprisingly effective pastiche/plundering of dozens of other peoples’ ideas. Promoted as “the first Iranian vampire spaghetti western,” we careen through artfully arranged snippet-homages to Jim Jarmusch, Sergio Leone, Tony Scott, George Romero, Michael Almereyda, film noir, and 50s and 60s pulp filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, Seijun Suzuki and Russ Meyer. The cultural curveball here is placing the narrative in an Iranian Muslim context – the film is Persian language, and there are a number of references to proper Muslim behavior as well. The Girl (i.e., The Vampire) (Sheila Vand) assumes, in context, the mantle of silent-but-deadly avenger against weak-willed westernized alpha-males, skateboarding through the suburban wasteland in a horizontal-striped t-shirt and chador like a Persian Irma Vep. Our male protagonist, Arash (Arash Marandi) is the sensitive right-minded guy who may, or may not, save her from her haunted homicidal seclusion. Snubbed by the cute rich girl from work, and burdened with his widowed junkie father, Arash runs afoul of Dad’s dealer, a reptilian aggro- pimp named Saeed (Dominic Rains), who then steals Arash’s vintage Ford Thunderbird as garnishment for medicinal-services-rendered. Arash’s befriending of The Girl changes much of that in predictable but satisfying ways.

This is more a movie about other movies than its own creative stand-alone work, and many will rightfully dismiss it for that. But director Ana Lili Amirpour has a very good sense of narrative structure and real visual chops – there’s a lot less dialogue and exposition than you might think, and the sex-and-violence factor is effectively present without being explicit. We learn practically everything visually. The striking black & white cinematography is by Lyle Vincent, who clearly knows what he’s doing. Amirpour’s next film was reportedly out in August (but distribution is checqered, a bad sign) – a dystopian cannibal love story called The Bad Batch, with a big Annapurna Pictures budget and some acting talent from higher places in the industry foodchain. An adventurous and capable new filmmaker, or another Robert Rodriguez wannabe? Time will tell, but A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is an auspicious first feature that I recommend.

 

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Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in “Love & Friendship.” credit: Amazon Studios

Book editor, writer and filmmaker Whit Stillman took a sizeable break from filmmaking from 1998 to 2011 – he’d enjoyed some indie success with his 90s trio of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days Of Disco, then didn’t re-emerge until 2011’s Damsels In Distress. They’re all glibly amusing washes of twenty-something white east-coast privilege, but the early films, at least, were still well-performed and admirably self-effacing.

Last year’s Love & Friendship (USA, 2016) is Stillman’s much-lauded adaptation of the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan; adapting Austen rather than emulating her style within his own narrative is certainly a cagey and constructive tactic, and most of the elements associated with that succeed nicely. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is recently widowed. A prodigious flirt and social force-to-be-reckoned-with, she works the moral ambiguities under the straight-laced manners of wealthy provincialism with self-serving Machiavellian glee. Visiting the stately homes of England, and the families thereof, though, has a short shelf-life – having spent everything the late Mr. Vernon might have left them, she needs to find the next nobleman who will put her and her daughter Fredericka (Morfydd Clark) back into the secure manner to which they’ve become accustomed before she incorrigibly commits another scandal. While staying at the home of the Manwaring family, she’s forced to abandon one rich suitor, the foppish and silly Sir James Martin (a hilariously earnest Tom Bennett) when she’s discovered seducing the very-spoken-for Mr. Manwaring. She then moves to her next eligible candidate, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), a charming young man staying with her in-laws Charles (Justin Edwards) and Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell). The plot thickens when Fredericka, tossed out of her exclusive school, must move in as well, to be followed by the besotted Sir James, arriving in ardent pursuit of whichever Vernon woman will have him. Chloë Sevigny’s role is especially crucial – as Alicia Johnson, she’s Lady Susan’s intelligence agent within the social circles of rural England, and a valuable adviser and consigliore.

Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes are stunning, if a little period-sprawling, and cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout’s photography is sometimes Barry Lyndon– beautiful. One big problem I had was Stillman’s squandering of Van Oosterhout’s efforts – Whit’s a better writer of plot than director of visual narrative. His imagery is very staid, safe and TV-like. You’ll be seeing the backs of lots of people’s heads, and the wonderful locations are far more pretty background than consequential environment. Stillman needs to be put in a room with a notepad for multiple screenings of Raoul Ruiz’ Mysteries Of Lisbon. My other big problem, God bless ‘er, was Kate Beckinsale, who is given a lot to do and gamely delivers about half of it successfully.  Beckinsale’s Lady Susan can be fearsomely charming here and there – it’s a technical job well-done, and her hard work is apparent. But she’s just not actor enough to give her character the power and scale Lady Susan requires, and Stillman does little to help her. There are a lot of parts to like here, even admire, but the film aspires to a league it just can’t quite reach.

 

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Amy Adams in “Nocturnal Animals.” credit: Focus Features

Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (USA, 2016) has some seemingly interesting things to say about transgression – transgression observed safely from the distance of artistic contrivance, transgression that rears up in real life and does horrific damage to unsuspecting, perhaps undeserving, people, and subtle but quietly insistent transgressions that we only become aware of well after the fact, well after a passage of time.

Based on the late Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, Ford’s three- layer narrative combines Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) present existence as an unhappily married Manhattan art gallery owner with the act of her reading the dark, noir-bleak Jim Thompson-style novel written by her estranged first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The novel (which doubles author Edward with protagonist ‘Tony’) tells of a small family terrorized on a west Texas highway by three willfully malevolent young men, and the father’s efforts to extract justice, revenge, or whatever blend of each he can stumble into after the fact with the help of Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, impressive again), a jaded police investigator who is weighing just how much of ‘the book’ to go by here.

Modern art dominates Susan’s work life and home environment (Aaron Curry and Damien Hirst sculptures, John Currin paintings, and some provocative Ford-created video at the start of the film), and Ford wants us to speculate on how much of Susan’s interpretation of Edward’s story is affected, or distorted, by her own art-addled sensibilities, as well as her second-thought misgivings on their failed marriage. Women don’t fare particularly well here – they’re helpless victims in the novel, intrusively-observed subjects in the artwork, and non-supportive disappointments in Edward’s own past. Filtering the story-in-a-story through Susan probably worked much better in Wright’s novel, on the page; Ford’s not director (or adapting writer) enough – yet– to sort through this many irons in the fire. The idea that the novel is some kind of allegorical revenge on Susan just doesn’t play; perhaps it’s not meant to, but then Ford’s other art-world embellishments seem weirdly irrelevant. The random savagery that Tony’s family suffers is the stuff of good pulp fiction, and it’s convincingly presented, but it all feels like its own stand-alone story rather than part of the fabric. What Is Your Movie About, Tom?! I think he read a good book, had this other stuff percolating in his mind, and he banged them together to see what would happen. It all looks great (thanks to Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography), and feels non-specifically profound, but, ultimately, there just isn’t much here.

 

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Keanu Reeves in “John Wick.” credit: cinemanerdz.com

Another movie-about-other-movies (with another stolen vintage car figuring prominently), John Wick (USA, 2014) had a pretty successful run, pleasing critics and audiences and subsequently carrying a sequel earlier this year. Directed by martial arts performer, instructor and stuntman Chad Stahelski, it’s a pretty convincing and compelling underworld thriller about a retired assassin (Keanu Reeves) trying to make a normal life for himself, the tragedies that befall him nonetheless, and the murderous trail he must follow again to set things right. It draws enormous influence from Asian action films from the eighties through present day from directors like John Woo, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To, similar South Korean fare from Chan-wook Park and Kim Jee-woon, the equally-skillful-equally-derivative Jason Bourne films, and films shot with the visual digital crispness and finesse of Ridley Scott, Michael Mann and Park’s cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung.

Having very recently lost his loving wife Helen to a debilitating illness, John Wick has no sooner returned home from the funeral before he receives an unexpected package – Helen has left him a beagle puppy to love and care for, ostensibly to keep love and comfort in John’s now-peaceful life. From then on John and ‘Daisy’ are inseparable – until some young Russian mob types decide to steal John’s sweet 1969 Mustang, bust him up in his own home, and kill the dog. Clearly they haven’t just stolen a car and killed a dog – they’ve violated everything dear to John’s life, and awoken Wrath itself. One of the young mobsters is the son (Alfie Allen) of Viggo Tarasov (the late great Michael Nyqvist), the head of New York’s Russian Mob, and John Wick’s most prominent former employer. The rest is gangster-noir boilerplate – Viggo protects the son, then gives up the son, then takes revenge for the son, while John Wick moves through Viggo’s side of the world like a Smith and Wesson threshing machine. There’s a nice mythology developed here by writer Derek Kolstad – fellow assassins, and even the New York and New Jersey police departments, pay absolute deference to John Wick out of loyalty and professionalism. And there’s a stylish, elegant Assassins’ Downtown Resort of sorts, The Continental, run by Winston (Ian McShane), who forbids the “business” of his clientele to be exercised on the premises. Stahelski’s film is compelling, clichés notwithstanding, because he always finds a way to connect genuine personal emotion to the carnage. It’s not just fireworks and body counts (though there’s plenty) – what’s at stake for each character is up front, and smartly reiterated throughout.

Stahelski is the credited director, but a few references also credit David Leitch as a co-director; Leitch staged a number of the handfighting martial arts sequences, and gets that credit in the end titles. Leitch then moved on to 2017’s Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron. His fights here are impressive, and Reeves is skilled, but Stahelski himself prefers the guns-and-firepower approach of John Woo and the Wachowskis, so Leitch’s more intimate sequences within all of that are welcome. Visually arresting, compellingly structured and executed, John Wick is a sleek and muscular testosterone-driven thriller. There’s not much originality here, but you’ll love watching these pros work.

Movies – Abuse Of Weakness

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Isabelle Huppert in “Abuse Of Weakness.”

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

The title of French director Catherine Breillat’s excellent film, Abuse Of Weakness (Abus De Faiblesse) (France, 2013), is taken from legal terminology; it’s a designation of law designed to protect people of diminished capacity from being manipulated, misrepresented or swindled by opportunists. (It’s a fascinating law that is intermingling, for better or worse, with parallel prosecutions against brainwashing scams and religious cults.) Nicolas Sarkozy, and the de Védrines family, have both had experience in the application of this law, and so, incidentally, has Catherine Breillat. Breillat, like her character here, suffered a debilitating brain hemorrhage, and went through grueling physical therapy (and a fair amount of personal isolation) in order to fight her way back to something like her previous creative prowess. Her swindler’s name was Christophe Rocancourt, who, like his filmed counterpart, was already well-known as a scoundrel, and yet continued his conning exploits well after his initial scandals over a long course of years.

How much of the film portrays the real story, and how much of it is fictionalized-to-her-purposes, of course, is the variable here. We witness the traumatic onset of film director Maud Shainberg’s (Isabelle Huppert) debilitating hemorrhagic stroke before we really know anything else about her – she’s obviously fairly successful, living in a spacious loft-like home, with a number of filmmaking administrative assistants and co-producers available to her. But contact with her direct family – brother, sister, her own child – had been erratic even before her attack, and seems no less tenable after. Resuming work on an ongoing project soon after her rehab, Maud sees the semi-legendary swindler Vilko Piram (French rapper Kool Shen) on a TV talk show, and is taken by his confident air of self-possession and his stern refusal to show remorse for his crimes. He has just emerged from a lengthy jail sentence – that’s done, it’s behind him, and he’s moving forward now. Maud resolves that this is the guy she needs for her film, and shortly afterwards meets up with him at her loft. He agrees to perform in the film (a dark portrayal of a sexual relationship laced with cruelty and violence – in other words, a Catherine Breillat film…), and declares that he’ll be a frequent visitor day-to-day while the project is coming together.

Maud is no pushover, though – she constantly works the line between desperately depending on the help of others and taking manipulative advantage of that same help. Her physical difficulties are profound, and yet she charges forth from place-to-place undaunted. Stairs and chairs are fraught with danger – standing and sitting are stable, but any unbalanced stage in between could result in a nasty fall. Yet, once standing, she hobbles along precariously quickly, at times practically skipping on one leg. When Vilko helps her down stairs, or lifts her into a chair, she’s practically panic-stricken with fear; afterwards, she taunts him about all of the things she talks him into doing for her.

Vilko, on the other hand, doesn’t work nearly as hard, or in such gamesmanlike fashion, as Maud. He knows how to present an identity, a presence, that’s rock-solid, almost irreproachable. He creates a world around himself (mostly fictional) where he’s always in the middle of four or five big projects – big money and big personal stakes. Dealing with Maud is just another ball he keeps in the air. For example, he suggests taking co-author credit for Maud’s next book – his notoriety will increase sales for her, and associating with her work will enhance his socio-cultural credibility. Everything he suggests is always targeted at the Bigger Context, the Bigger Mutual Benefit, even though, unbeknownst to the mark, it doesn’t exist. Two other ‘projects’ have left him illiquid – cut me a check and I’ll repay you next week when the other deal cashes in. If you come with me for a day-trip to Switzerland, I can land a million euros for both of us. You had a relapse and couldn’t go? You cost us money. Cut me a check for my trouble. I’ve got a wife and kid to support. Maud thinks she’s constructing mutual interests between them to suit her purposes. But Vilko knows ‘mutual interest’ is already there, from the start, and he plays her like a violin – cutting him checks almost becomes reflexive to her.  But she’s also renovating her home, and cutting check after check to her contractors as well. Vilko, ironically, asks her if she can really afford this – “I wanted a garden,” she shrugs.

Are these decisions and activities that Maud would normally be inclined to commit to, or is there a lot of unconscious overcompensation happening here due to her diminished circumstances? Many of us have had elderly family members, or severely disadvantaged friends and acquaintances, whom have fallen prey to bad investments, performed ill-conceived financial favors, fabricated untenable ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes, or spent money they didn’t have on TV or radio deals that just seemed too ‘good’ to pass up. We’re stunned, and a little embarrassed, that their judgment has gone so seemingly astray. But Breillat also takes great pains to analyze the foundations of Maud’s behavior outside of her present trauma – the insistent indulgence of her creative prerogatives, and the counter-cultural frisson of meeting the lower-class Arabic Bad Boy striver, putting herself at his mercy while presuming to mold him to what she needs. I don’t think it was an arbitrary decision to give her protagonist a Jewish last name – it’s just another of the tiny socio-psychological land mines that Breillat loves to scatter her narrative landscape with.

Isabelle Huppert is superb here, both in the thoroughness of her character’s conception and the actual physical rigor she commits to the role – she’s never a victim, never an outright sucker, and her Maud Shainberg is a fascinating and energetic woman with real gravity, intelligence and a sense of humor. And Kool Shen, while exhibiting little if any actorly flexibility, is nonetheless well-cast here – he fills his function in the narrative credibly and seamlessly. Eventually, of course, Maud finds herself at the end of any financial resources of any kind. Surrounded by her astonished family at the film’s conclusion, she can only say “It was me, but it wasn’t me. No one else spent that money, so it was me. It was me, but it wasn’t me.” Breillat, who has made a fascinating and provocative film here, won a pretty sizable judgment from Christophe Rocancourt in the real world, and he’s in jail now. The fictionalized Vilko is the obvious villain here, but we can’t help imagining what his response might be: “It was her, it was always her.” And I can’t help but think that, in an odd way, Breillat might not disagree with him.

 

Movies – A Touch Of Sin

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

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Tao Zhao in “A Touch Of Sin.” credit: KinoLorber

Even the sunniest cockeyed optimists among us are going to be able to relate to Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s jaundiced survey of ascendant capitalist absolutism and the globally waning sense of commonwealth in his film, A Touch Of Sin (天注定, Tian Zhu Ding) (China, 2013). The four stories Jia relates here are, in fact, based on true stories that occurred in four distinct corners of continental China, and each story carries with it implicit questions – When does civility give way to survival? What is each person’s breaking point? When must we lash out at personal injustice, despite knowing that our own self-preserving counterattack will do little, if anything, to change the things that gave rise to it in the first place?

Jia’s films tend to focus on individual people as cogs in a much larger gear-driven machine: the displaced workers and associated adjacent businesspeople of a factory that’s being torn down to make way for a giant residential complex, amusement park employees who emulate the landmark entertainments and environments of the rest of the non-Chinese world, the inhabitants of a town who are dismantling it prior to it being buried underwater by the Three Gorges Dam. The films, up until now, have always blended individual people-portraits with documentary-style overview, scrupulously observed but undeniably humanist. But here, Jia is taking the predominantly fictional style of wuxia stories – heroic tales of lone warriors fighting against historical injustice – and applying those genre tropes to very modern purposes in uncharacteristically bloody fashion.

One of the four stories concerns Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), who is almost entirely defined by his relationship with the handgun he carries at all times. Early in the film it helps him repel an attempted robbery. Later, at a New Year’s celebration with his young nephew, he fires it in complement to a barrage of celebratory fireworks. Finally, it assists him in commiting his own seemingly cold-blooded robbery of a conspicuously rich couple. As the sword, the bow-and-arrow and the martial arts defined the usefulness of the historical warrior, so too here Jia seems to proffer the quiet and sullen San as an identical figure of comparably fearsome resource in the modern age. But what in the modern world is shaping his moral philosophies? What is the noble ideal he can refer to that enlarges, or transcends, his own sense of self? What is he preserving? That larger view is disturbingly conspicuous in its absence.

A pair of avengers comprise two of the other stories. Xiao Yu (Jia regular Tao Zhao) is yet another good-hearted woman having a love affair with a man who will never leave his wife, and she carries the ongoing anxiety and resentment of that situation with her to her thankless job as a receptionist at a retail-franchise sauna-spa in Hubei. Dahai (Jiang Wu) lives in a small, remote mining town, Shanxi, and insistently engages his long-suffering neighbors and fellow workers in hot-blooded diatribes against their greedy bosses, their corrupt local officials, and the arrogant corporate-types whom, Dahai preaches, are pulling all of the others’ strings. Jiang Wu (like his equally talented actor-director brother, Jiang Wen) does great work here, always keeping us guessing whether he’s right about it all, or just a malcontent crank. But when his proselytizing turns from verbal outrage to violence (in response to violence he may, or may not, have brought on himself), we must make up our own minds whether he’s abhorrently gone off his nut or acting as a truly justified equalizer for his less courageous comrades. Xiao Yu, as well, endures an escalating cascade of small humiliations, in the affair and at work, which results in a similarly grisly episode. Here our sympathies are far more deliberately directed towards Xiao, but do those sympathies still warrant what happened? With both Dahai and Xiao, Jia elicits an undeniable satisfaction with each of their acts, even as we lament that things had to come to that.

The fourth story, on its face, seems to be the mildest, but eventually traffics in such conflicting moral ambiguities that it’ll no doubt be the one I think of the most days after viewing the film. Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) is an amiable, easygoing young man who floats from job to job, pursuing his own self-interested path to steady work and security in a manner that Ayn Rand herself might reluctantly applaud. When he causes a problem at the factory job that starts the story, he simply relocates to another part of Dongguang province, and takes another. Eventually he ends up on the waitstaff at a very high-end businessmen’s hotel, which is discreetly but clearly also a very high-end businessmen’s brothel. He meets one of the hostesses, Lianrong (Zhang Jia-yi), and cultivates a friendship with her that he hopes will escalate. But, ultimately, relentlessly, business is business, and job-to-job, place-to-place, paycheck-to-paycheck, Xiao is tragically undone by that simple, relentless fact.

Generally, Jia’s film is seen as the story of how encroaching capitalism is eroding centuries of humanistic common cause and the general welfare of the citizenry of one of the largest and most populated countries on Earth. And there are many parallels to our own situation here in the United States. But Jia is doing far more than just presenting a they-did-it critique of capitalism; he’s indicting those on the receiving end of its ill effects as well. “People get depressed when they’re confronted by examples of enduring privilege and social injustice… our society lacks channels of communication; when people don’t have the habit of communicating with each other, violence becomes the fastest and most efficient way for the weak to protect their dignity.” Jia Zhang-ke is no great fan of corporate capitalism, but he’s even less enamored with the idea that violence is the only thing that will counteract its effects; that’s on us as much as it’s on them. He’s not indicating the line where those responsibilities transfer, but he wants us to feel thrilled and vindicated when, at last, the knives and shotguns come out, but then wonder to ourselves later why we think that’s really going to change anything.