F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 9, 2017)

9 02 2017

wadjdaAs firm of a believer as I am in the transformative power of cinema, I do not believe any film contains some kind of magical power that can rid the world of hatred and bigotry. What they can do, however, is gently nudge the needle of individual opinion in the way empathy and humanity. The act of experiencing a narrative arc through the perspective of someone different can open new insights into a world different from our own.

I think this is especially important now when the qualities of compassion and cultural awareness feel scarce, if not entirely imperiled. As the United States flirts with cutting off connections to the Muslim world, we should know what that world looks like from something other than the limited imaginations of the mass media gatekeepers. These countries contain people like us, living their lives under entirely different circumstances but grappling with a sense of self and their place within society.

Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” gives us a glance into a space likely encountered by very few American viewers: a young Saudi Arabian girl. If a film’s background can attest to authenticity, then it marks the first time a Saudi female has directed a feature film. (It’s also the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.) Fittingly, Al Mansour uses the opportunity to put a plucky protagonist front and center with her titular character. Wadjda yearns to buy a bicycle but encounters both person financial difficulties and open resistance from community members that frown upon her desire to partake in a traditionally masculine activity.

Saudi Arabia, like most majority Muslim nations, abides by a patriarchal rule of order. Thus, many portrayals of women in narratives surrounding these regions treat them as silent companions or tacit witnesses. If they receive personhood in the narrative, they rarely possess agency. (To be clear, these are generalizations with plenty of exceptions. Asghar Farhadi, for starters.) Very few men populate “Wadjda,” yet their presence never seems far away. Even in spaces carved out for women, anxiety over what males might see or think pervades the atmosphere.

This environment helps explain Wadjda’s rebellious streak. She yearns for more than a private life away from the gaze of men, as her school and home provide. She wants the freedom to follow her heart and the kind impulses that spring from it, social norms and constructed boundaries be damned. We root for her free expression, not against her culture’s values – though Wadjda and Al Mansour have the real task of reconciling the two in their own lives.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 2, 2017)

2 02 2017

impolexAn oft-cited dictum of Karl Marx states, “History repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce.” There’s a pervasive sense that living through our current time is like watching the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s refracted through a funhouse mirror, albeit with the “fun” sorely missing. By accident, Alex Ross Perry’s debut feature “Impolex” seems perfectly positioned to capitalize on the moment.

The film supposedly takes inspiration from Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern classic “Gravity’s Rainbow” (I use qualifiers because I have not read the novel). Its protagonist, American soldier Tyrone (Riley O’Bryan) lugs German rockets around the forest after the end of World War II. He follows seemingly no clear path and shares episodic encounters with everyone from an escaped prisoner to a pirate and even a talking octopus. It’s an ambling journey where each step does not seem to build on or relate to each other, in part because Tyrone is extremely malleable to the message conveyed by the people he meets. He struggles mightily inside to also hold onto some vestige of his own personality amidst these encounters.

None of this makes sense. And yet, not making sense makes perfect sense. This pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week” feels like a sketched line from the post-war existentialist dread to our present post-truth anxiety. Even if certain moments lack some spark or some scenes drag on, this thunderous 73-minute debut from Perry showcases his deep understanding of the psychological underpinnings of the film. “Impolex” marks a scrappy debut from a writer/director whose literary ambitions have informed some of the decade’s more audacious pieces of American independent cinema.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 12, 2017)

12 01 2017

it-felt-like-loveAs anyone who has taken an introductory-level film theory class can tell you, the camera is not just an object. It is an organism (most commonly referred to as the eye) responsive to the impulses and instincts of the person who wields it. The majority of current cinema reflects a male gaze, and the emphasis on diversifying talent sadly does not seem to be taking strides – a new report released this week shows that female filmmakers lost ground in 2016.

But outside the mainstream, there are some voices and visions who need to be amplified. One such talent is writer/director Eliza Hittman, whose feature debut “It Felt Like Love” only recently came to my attention as I did research on filmmakers presenting their newest films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a shame that this film got buried because Hittman’s work, my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is nothing less than transporting. She picks us up from wherever we are and puts us in the perspective of a teenage girl, Gina Piersanti’s Lila, as she tepidly steps into her role as a sexual being.

The roughly 8o minutes of the film are devoted more to Lila’s feelings than they are to any one thing that happens to her. Hittman masters conveying a female gaze, the way girls process the pleasures and pains of looking at an object and feeling rapt with emotion. There’s a special attention to the tactility of puppy love, a need to touch constantly as a display of infatuation. Lila’s tongue lacks the language that bodies trade in so fluently, and she frequently trips trying to express herself. But as she tries to impress her female friends and woo her male peers, we don’t need those words to tell the story of her anguish and confusion. We see the world through her eyes and eventually come to share in the emotions with her.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 5, 2017)

5 01 2017

old-joy“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” was one of the first movies to teach me that it’s entirely possible for characters to go on a journey and end up exactly where they started from, learning nothing. It’s an ending that has really stuck with me over the years, and I always admire filmmakers with the guts to acknowledge a fundamental truth about humans. We don’t always learn, adapt or change. We often times remain stubbornly ourselves.

Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 film “Old Joy” is one such film that offers little in the way of optimism about human relationships. Two friends, careerist Mark (Daniel London) and nomadic Kurt (Will Oldham), head into the mountains to escape their lives and reconnect. They go through the motions in seeming expectation that something they see, do or experience will move them – or, at the very least, jolt them out of numbness. No such luck. Things happen, just as they do in everyday life. They are not transformed.

Meanwhile, on talk radio that’s simmering on car radios, we hear Bush-era talk about liberalism in exile and bemoaning the hopelessness of the moment. The action on screen is, of course, connected to the droning, disembodied voices. Everyone in Reichardt’s universe seems paralyzed by the seeming inability of our actions and desires to noticeably alter the reality we must face. So, in other words, no reason to dust this movie off now. Clearly just a relic of its mid-aughts moment. (*chuckle*)

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 29, 2016)

29 12 2016

night-on-earthMy apologies to whichever friend or professor enlightened me with the following observation; I have to give credit because it is not my own. There’s a reason why so many heated, important conversations take place in cars. The automotive space is an inescapable one for its passengers, but the tableau where all seats face forward also allows confrontations to occur with an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Before HBO’s notorious “Taxicab Confessions” explored the taxi as a conversational space, there was Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.” This astutely observed and wryly humane dark comedy is an international omnibus exploring the unexpected connections that can be made across the divide between passenger and operator. The circumstances and the outcomes change with each successive city and set of characters, but the joy of observation remains unchanged throughout my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The segments of “Night on Earth” could easily have just amounted to a filmed version of a screenwriting challenge. (I recall one film school application I looked at requiring multiple scenes taking place in an elevator.) A shared setting may unite the vignettes, though little else does. Jarmusch begins in Los Angeles where Gena Rowlands’ wealthy passenger Victoria Snelling can never quite understand the aspirations of her driver, Winona Ryder’s Corky, to become a mechanic. He ends in Helsinki, where three ruffians allow themselves to be moved deeply by the plight of their driver. And just before that, a segment in Rome pits Roberto Benigni’s sexually frustrated cabbie against a horrified Catholic priest in a comedy reminiscent of early Woody Allen.

There’s no grand statement or thesis here. If there was, it would certainly be secondary to just taking in “Night on Earth” beat by beat with these characters. Both the journeys and the destinations are fascinating and surprising in equal measure.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 15, 2016)

15 12 2016

Gideon's ArmyAva DuVernay’s superb documentary about America’s failing criminal justice system, “13th,” does an excellent job providing a high-level overview of race relations from Reconstruction to Trump. She masterfully ties together many threads and connects many dots, although DuVernay does admit that a limitation of her perspective is that she cannot do the deep dive that many subjects deserve.

In an interview with Film Comment, DuVernay listed a few documentaries that gave a feature-length treatment to a topic she had to brush over by necessity. One such recommendation was Dawn Porter’s “Gideon’s Army,” which she cited as a detailed look at how the system of plea bargains turns our prison system into a modern-day slavery. The film does shine a harsh light on how predatory penal practices puff up our incarcerated population, but it also does so much more.

“Gideon’s Army” is a testament to the selfless, tireless and often thankless work of America’s public defenders. These underpaid, overworked men and women are foot-soldiers of democracy as they fight on behalf of the accused that the state would rather strong-arm into a guilty plea. The laws make attempts to push back extremely difficult with mandatory minimum sentences that discourage defendants taking charges to trial. But these brave public defenders dare to climb uphill.

Porter might be the first filmmaker who makes an overloaded narrative enhance a film, which makes “Gideon’s Army” an obvious choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” We get to see how many plates the public defenders must keep spinning at a time – often 180 cases at once – in the fractured editing that never lets us spend too much time with a lawyer or client. Their defendants are both black and white, mostly young, and often times unsure of how the system works. The lawyers we observe sometimes have the herculean tasks of rebuilding trust in their office after a bad public defender bungled a case for their defendant.

We see their struggles along with the successes and failures that punctuate their continuous toiling. But after watching “Gideon’s Army,” it’s hard not to be incredibly thankful that there are public defenders who want to serve as more than a rubber stamp on the path from arrest to incarceration. It may come as cold comfort to the defenders themselves, yet this film turns viewers into supporters.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 8, 2016)

8 12 2016

three-timesAfter the head-scratching experience of watch Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin,” which wowed me with resplendent visuals but baffled me with its labyrinthine plot, I wasn’t exactly eager to dig further back in the director’s canon – even in spite of the critical superlatives. It took a pre-show bumper card at this year’s New York Film Festival to convince me otherwise; Barry Jenkins cited Hou’s 2005 film “Three Times” as a major influence on “Moonlight.” So, naturally, I had to see what was up.

Turns out, “Three Times” is much more my style. No arcane knowledge of the Chinese wuxia genre is necessary to appreciate Hou’s craftsmanship. All it takes is some grasp of love and the frequent breakdown of communication when expressing it. This triptych of love stories between Shu Qi and Chang Chen is unique among films of its type – calling the connections between the three panels “thematic” doesn’t quite seem to grasp what Hou does here.

It’s as if the concept of love were a gemstone, and he shines a bright, pointed light at it from three different angles. Hou then delicately films the refractions, observing how this small shared moment between would-be lovers reflects back on the larger idea. The result is a tender but devastating work, one that easily rises to the level of  my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

In all fairness, nothing tops the first segment of the film. In 1966, a Taiwanese soldier falls for a pool-hall attendant in a reserved fashion befitting their time. They express their passion to each other in epistolary fashion, and Hou magnificently films their quiet longing as these separated sweethearts yearn to consummate their connection. When the man undertakes an arduous, patient journey to reunite, it’s nothing short of sublime.

The other two sections have their charms and insights as well, to be sure. The middle portion, a fraught relation between a courtesan and political firebrand set in 1911, is staged in the style of a silent film – title cards and all. It’s a significantly less rosy look at love, one where backgrounds and baggage play a determining factor in limiting the choices available to the lovers. This is most interesting to consider in tandem with the film’s final portion, set in then-modern 2005, where text messages inhibit the expression of desire between a rock singer and her romantic partner, a photographer.

How much or how little one wishes to draw parallels between segments seems mostly left to the viewer’s discretion; for me, “Three Times” is best appreciated as three discrete stories with a loose thread tying each together. Finding that string is important. But tugging on it too much disrupts the delicate juxtaposition.