F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 1, 2017)

1 06 2017

There’s nothing like the NBA Finals to make you appreciate the incredible talent in takes to make it to the top of your game. LeBron James is back in the championship, as he seemingly always is. Back in 2009, King James’ high school years got the documentary treatment in “More Than a Game,” which is little more than hero worship that treats his pre-NBA time as mere prologue to a Hall of Fame career. (Before there was ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, we had to settle for highlight reels disguised as art like that.)

But James is the exception, not the rule. Many great basketball players thrive in high school and display tremendous potential for advancement with their talent. They don’t all make it. Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Lenny Cooke” tells such a story, the darker underbelly of basketball superstardom. For every LeBron James, there are ten Lenny Cookes he must step over on his way to the top.

The Safdie brothers inherit a good deal of footage from producer Adam Shopkorn, whose camera followed Cooke in his high school years in the early 2000s. This was the boom of high school imports into the NBA thanks to players like Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. In 2001, Kwame Brown was the first player to go #1 in the NBA Draft without having played a minute of college basketball. It seemed like the beginning of a new era, but little did Lenny Cooke know it was the apex of a trend that was about to come crashing down.

The Safdies find the tragedy inherent in the old footage, which is what elevates their documentary to “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. With scarcely any talking heads, they locate the intersection of hubristic decisions made presuming a straight shot to stardom and the unfortunate coincidence of timing. Were Cooke but a year older, he could likely have ridden Kwame Brown’s to a draft selection in 2001. Yet he came after Brown struggled for playing time, and high school phenomenons no longer received the same benefit of the doubt they once did. There’s no way Cooke could have known this, though footage shows countless instances of coaches and other authority figures exercise caution in presuming that millions of dollars inevitably await every upstart player.

What really pushes the film over the top is the final act, an abrupt cut into Cooke’s life in the 2010s after a short montage of his unspectacular career in B-leagues across the world. He’s gotten large in his post-basketball years (some of which is due to his new profession as a cook) and carries around the bitterness and regret of someone twice his age. The camera tracks him to an NBA game where he sees former competitors like Joachim Noah and Carmelo Anthony, and his jealousy only gets amplified by the lack of attention they pay him. Especially when Cooke goes on a profanity-laced tirade, it’s hard not to think of “Raging Bull.”

Advertisements




F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 25, 2017)

25 05 2017

No book I’ve read in the past few years has changed the way I think (and thus, the way I write) quite like Chuck Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong?” The text is worth reading for a number of reasons, but what’s really stuck with me are his notes on canonical thinking. This weekly column is, by definition, an attempt to set aside movies and put them on some kind of elevated pedestal above the riff-raff of the multiplex. And in time, very few of these will be remembered.

The Kafka of our time, Klosterman argues, “will need to be a person so profoundly marginalized that almost no one currently views his or her marginalization as a viable talking point.” His chief example? Native Americans. They are out of sight and out of mind for most of the country. Their vantage point on so many issues is so underrepresented that we scarcely even notice it missing. Rhetorically, he asks, “When the Academy Awards committee next announces the nominations for Best Picture, how many complaints will focus on the lack of films reflecting the Native American experience?” To answer, odds are very few.

And yet … this is their country. Americans like myself, descended from Europeans, are mere immigrants.

To be fair, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is not written or directed by a Native American. The creative force behind the project is Chloé Zhao, who made her feature film debut delving deeply into reservation life and culture. There’s not a moment that feels inauthentic, though. In a remarkably assured first film, Zhao illuminates a portion of the country that many people forget exists. And, ironically, that very fact makes her film far more likely to stand the test of time than many others I have heaped praise upon in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column.

In her lyrical interpretation of a South Dakota Native American reservation, Zhao adopts the roving, windswept look we come to associate with Malick. But that’s where the conversation should start, not where it should end. “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is incredibly grounded and less ethereal. Zhao’s interests are noticeably more tactile. In a sex scene, for example, she hones in on tangible elements in the frame: the hymen blood, the friction of the sheets, the shimmering surfaces of two teenagers discovering the possibilities of their bodies.

The film is far from plotless, though it’s definitely not plot-driven or thematically motivated. Zhao simply gets us into the state of mind of two teenagers, free-wheeling John and his green younger sister Jashuan, as they watch the dust settle following the death of their largely absent father. Most events chronicled in “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” are actions taken by John, which are then observed or secondarily experienced by Jashuan. But the perspective of the film belongs to her.

Technically, this narrative could fall under the “coming of age” category. Zhao, however, seems less concerned with charting progress and more interested in extracting one vivid cross-section. In “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” we come to understand her naïveté and curiosity inside and out. Through it, we also receive a filtered look at the poverty and neglect that run rampant through Native American reservations. It’s a glance that could replicate Zhao’s own in studying this community – but very likely resembles far too many in the country.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 18, 2017)

18 05 2017

Recently, I waxed existential on Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal” in regards to what the monster represented thematically. To avoid reruns, I’ll spare the long introduction to symbolic genre interpretation and simply say my take on Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host” utilizes a similar analytical framework – but from a different angle. Sometimes it’s not just the monster we should be looking at. The victims are also worth further inspection.

When the strange Korean river monster emerges from under the bridge in “The Host,” the creature snarls a certain type of person. The girl distracted on her phone. The family too busy watching TV to notice something out of the ordinary. If you choose to interpret obesity as a product of personal laziness rather than genetic predisposition, maybe you could lump the guy in a jersey two sizes too small for him in with this group. The monster is pretty clearly targeting people who are impeding contemporary society with their habits.

That’s far from the extent of Bong’s commentary on the time, part of the reason “The Host” is my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (as a reminder, that’s a contrived acronym for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie). He crafts a great action movie that’s thrilling to watch from an entertainment perspective. As a rip-roaring adventure for Gang-du to recover his daughter Hyun-seo from the sewer prison of the monster, it’s a blast.

But if you come for the genre fare, stick around for the ribbing political satire. At every step of the way on their rescue of Hyun-seo, some arcane bureaucratic procedure or cruel governmental intervention holds them up. (From a current perspective, it looks like a sharpening of the knives for “Snowpiercer” just a few years later.) There’s comedy, malevolence, malfeasance and terror lurking in just about every scene – often times all at once, a pretty remarkable feat for any director to execute.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 11, 2017)

11 05 2017

I watched Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” on the day far-right wing Marine Le Pen was on the final ballot for the French presidency. Yes, I’m fully aware that’s a weird way to phrase it since she lost resoundingly to her more progressive rival. But Le Pen’s ability to make it as far as she did on a nationalist platform that demonized immigrants feels like the fulfillment of Haneke’s bleak conclusion in this film. It’s as if the tectonic plates he discovered ruptured with her candidacy.

Haneke’s film debuted at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, making it technically a product of the 1990s mentality. But darned if it doesn’t feel like an emblematic film of the 9/11 era – or, at the very least, Haneke senses that the fragile post-Cold War peace is about to come crashing down. Watching “Code Unknown” in 2017 feels akin to viewing cinematic prophecy, a “F.I.L.M. of the Week” if ever there were one.

The general flow of the film feels familiar to anyone who saw ~serious dramas~ in the early 2000s. It’s “hyperlink cinema,” the mystical plot device that finds ways to connect disparate storylines. Most academics trace its origin to the rise of the Internet, the electronic tool that held the promise of bringing the world closer together. Haneke’s “Code Unknown” shows a Paris teeming with immigration following the break-up of the Soviet bloc, which only adds further complications to an already tense and festering race problem. Most of the characters avoid direct conflict. After all, it was the ’90s. There was still reason to be optimistic!

But Haneke sees through the papered-over peace. This new world order might look like the natural resting place of a post-Soviet planet, but the evaporation of national boundaries and radical coexistence will not come without its consequences. The very format of “Code Unknown” bears out this truth. Rather than showing how the many characters who cross paths are connected, Haneke depicts their lives in jagged, dissonant fragments.

He hops from a Parisian actress ironing clothes alone in her apartment to migrants from Mali struggling to gain acceptance in their new country and then to a Romanian beggar on the street. Nothing connects them except for geography. They lead lives of pain in isolation, unknowing of the plight of the people they cross and uncaring of their struggle. As we’ve now seen, this myopia can be powerfully weaponized as a force to divide ethnic groups against each other.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 4, 2017)

4 05 2017

It’s gonna be May, which means one thing for this cinephile: the Cannes Film Festival! Unfortunately, I’m not going, but the official selection titles give me plenty to watch from the comfort of my own home. Cannes confers international auteur status on plenty of up-and-coming directors who were previously flying well off my radar.

Such is the case for French director Robin Campillo, whose third film “120 Beats Per Minute” marks his competition debut. (He did have a connection to the festival through 2008’s Palme d’Or winner “The Class” – another film featured in this column – which he co-wrote with director Laurent Cantet.) “Eastern Boys” marks his most recent film, and it too earns its stripes as a “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Campillo’s departure point is a familiar place, or so it appears to me from my somewhat limited knowledge of global LGBT cinema. (The plot bears many similarities to Lorenzo Vigas’ 2016 feature “From Afar.”) A lonely older man, sexually repressed, seeks erotic fulfillment from a scruffy, edgy youngster furtively dabbling in the world’s oldest profession. From there, these two unlikely lovers begin a tender relationship that exposes generational differences in sexual freedom and shame.

But Campillo takes his time to arrive there in “Eastern Boys.” The relationship is teased in a masterful opening sequence where Rouslan (Kirill Emelyanov), a Ukranian immigrant living in the shadows of Paris, lurks around a metropolitan train station with a band of fellow hoodlums. The camera yo-yos between extreme wide shots painting him as just another body moving in a space and tighter angles where we get a sense of how he’s scouting his next mark. Eventually, the soft-spoken businessman Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) tracks him down and requests his services.

Only it’s not just Rouslan who shows up – it’s his entire gang there to strip the apartment down for parts. The holdup isn’t the end of their story, though. Rouslan returns to consummate his original offer and winds up becoming a regular guest. As their bond deepens, Rouslan feels compelled to tell his host more details of his former life in eastern Europe – stories which Daniel dismisses and downplays. This information threatens to usurp his own sexual angst and reminds of him of the privilege he carries.

From there, it’s fascinating to watch how the provider-client relationship morphs into a more paternal-filial one. “Eastern Boys” loses some steam in its final act when some of Rouslan’s companions grow suspicious of some conspicuous symbols of wealth he mysteriously comes to possess, though it’s hardly enough to derail the film. The fascinating ever-shifting connection between Rouslan and Daniel, expertly conveyed by Emelyanov and Rabourdin, more than redeems any missteps.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 27, 2017)

27 04 2017

For whatever reason, I found James Gray’s “Two Lovers” cold, remote and distant on first watch. Perhaps it was just too close to the release of the director’s film “The Immigrant,” my favorite film of 2014 (and potentially the decade). I knew to expect classical-style melodrama yet still found myself desperately searching for an access point that I couldn’t locate.

I don’t know what changed between then and now – more familiarity with Gray’s reference points, better understanding of melodrama, knowing the plot, general life experience – but I’d now easily put “Two Lovers” in “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. The passion, disappointment and affection lurk beneath the surface of the film, not always palpable but constantly dictating the limited choices of the characters. Watching the film a second time opened my eyes to the straightjackets of expectation they all inhabit – and how difficult embracing another person must be with arms tied.

Joaquin Phoenix’s quiet, subdued Leonard Kraditor is not the lightning rod of easy sympathy in the way Marion Cotillard’s Ewa was in “The Immigrant.” For heaven’s sake, the beginning of the movie shows him moving back in with his parents after encountering a setback in his mental health. This gives them the excuse to propose the closest 21st century equivalent of an arranged marriage with the daughter of a business partner, shy but stable Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Of course, this comes at the same time Leonard meets fellow building tenant Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a shaky yet spunky woman who draws a more carnal reaction from him. She’s a bit of a mess between a drug habit and an ongoing affair with her philandering coworker; Leonard pursues her all the same.

“Two Lovers” centers around the push and pull between the two competing impulses in Leonard’s life, most notably personified in the two women. Though desire and feeling are so often kept repressed in the film, I found myself inexorably drawn into the dramatized reality. Gray locates the tragedy in the common man’s story, a daunting feat that would ring as pretentious if it failed. It doesn’t, and “Two Lovers” emanates with Gray’s wisdom of the complexities of human behaviors and relationships.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 20, 2017)

20 04 2017

We’ve all seen our fair share of time travel movies ranging from the fantastic (“X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the “Terminator” series) to the comedic (“Hot Tub Time Machine“) and even the romantic (“About Time“). But there’s a special class of scrappier films, like Shane Carruth’s “Primer” and Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” who rely less on stars and visual effects for this particular blend of sci-fi. Instead, they involve us in story by putting a creative spin on the mechanics of their time manipulation.

Nacho Vigalondo’s 2008 debut feature, “Timecrimes,” is another welcome entry into this esteemed group. Admittedly, I avoided the film for quite some time because I judged the book by its cover. (The gauze-wrapped head on the poster made me feel some kind of way.) But after the rapturous acclaim Vigalondo’s latest film, “Colossal,” received, I thought it only right to go back to the beginning with the director. What I found was a sharp, succinct time travel tale that is deeply concerned with human agency and free will in a world where delineations between past, present and future cease to exist. It’s an obvious choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” and it’s certainly one I’ll be mulling over for weeks to come.

Going too deep into plot details would only inhibit full intellectual access to “Timecrimes,” so I’ll describe the experience as something close to “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” or “Edge of Tomorrow.” The outcome is certain in all these films, despite the ability to make directional shifts along a chronological timeline. For the characters making these journeys to the past, they slowly come to realize that their actions are not their own. Instead, they must play a predetermined role in maintaining reality.

For Héctor in “Timecrimes,” this involves piecing together the seemingly non-sensical relationship between a naked girl in the woods, a gauze-wrapped man wielding scissors and an invasion of his home. In order to make sense of it all, he must make several trips back to the past with the aid of a mysterious neighbor’s contraption. Though we might lose our footing in time, we never unlock ourselves from Héctor’s desire to return to normalcy and restore some order in life. It’s this connection that makes the film so memorable and distinctive among its peers.