REVIEW: Daddy Longlegs

21 05 2017

Josh and Benny Safdie were not the first people to assume verité-style camerawork guaranteed emotional authenticity, nor will they be the last. But their Cassavetes clone “Daddy Longlegs” might just be the film that made me far too aware of how low-budget filmmakers can hollow out techniques just as easily as their studio counterparts.

The Safdie brothers obtain a remarkable quality of naturalism that pervades their shaky camera and grainy look … but in service of what? The filmmakers are so focused on the how that they lose sight of the what. “Daddy Longlegs” tells the story of a deadbeat dad that essentially amounts to little more than a cross between the first act of “Kramer vs. Kramer” (pre-Dustin Hoffman’s redemption) and “Blue Valentine.” He’s a mess to the point of being a danger for his two young children, but he does love them! That’s true in both the first frame and the last.

The film feels less like a character study and more of a chain of cringe-worthy events that further convince us of his complete lack of qualifications to be a parent. Narrative journeys are not a mandatory feature of cinema, and the stasis of a character often speaks just as loudly as a drastic evolution. But given the self-conscious naturalism the Safdies work so hard to obtain, it’s a shame that “Daddy Longlegs” amounts to little more than the latest variation on a familiar stock character. B-

REVIEW: Prince of Broadway

20 05 2017

The working class appear a decent amount in contemporary cinema, but few directors take the time to understand their world like Sean Baker. His technique is more than just an aesthetic superiority of neorealism or “poverty porn” meant to coddle the bleeding hearts of the audience. Baker gets down into the weeds and grapples with poverty on its own terms, examining how getting dealt a single bad hand can trigger a cascade of negative outcomes.

At the beginning of “Prince of Broadway,” the Queens street vendor Lucky (Prince Adu) sees his life take such a turn when an old girlfriend shoves a baby into his arms. She needs childcare for two weeks for some unexplained reason while she jumps town, and we get the sense that Lucky is her last resort. Not only does he have no parenting skills under his boat, but he lives by the seat of his pants hocking off-brand designer bags and, as an undocumented immigrant from Ghana, Lucky can scarcely fall back on a network of extended family to shoulder the burden of watching the baby.

Leaving an ill-equipped individual in possession of a baby has classically entailed the trappings of comedy (“Three Men and a Baby”) or poignant drama (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) … so long as the protagonist comes from means. In “Prince of Broadway,” the same inciting incident triggers the basic mechanisms of economic survival as Lucky wonders how to feed, house and monitor his son. The sacrifices and trade-offs he must make in order to fulfill the most basic human compassion to the young life in his care involve his very livelihood.

Baker understands that a story as seemingly commonplace as this one in Lucky’s world cannot involve mere transposition from an upper-middle-class milieu. Every decision carries enormous weight. Every event comes with massive aftershocks, many of which cannot be met with adequate preparation. He’s taken the time to understand the mechanics of Lucky’s situation, and while “Prince of Broadway” might not necessitate its full 100 minute runtime (subplots involving his boss could easily have been streamlined), there’s not a moment that does not demonstrate his empathetic eye for detail. B

REVIEW: Mediterranea

19 05 2017

As the refugee crisis in Europe continues to persist, we’re starting to see its effects in the continent’s cinema. Documentaries like “Fire at Sea” and numerous Oscar-nominated shorts are paying attention to the harrowing voyage to shelter in Europe, while narrative filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers and Michael Haneke are crafting narratives around the influx of migrants.

Jonas Carpignano’s “Mediterranea” offers a perspective that, as of yet, seldom receives treatment on screen. It looks at refugees fleeing their homelands as more than just the physical incarnation of their tragedy. Carpignano surveys the whole of their existence, from low-wage labor to forming impromptu communities of support among fellow migrants. (As it turns out, one force that transcends national borders is an infectious pop ditty by Rihanna.) The characters complete the boat ride across the titular sea by the 30-minute mark of the film.

“Mediterranea” is far from revelatory in its narrative, but its simplicity and quiet dignity are worth the watch. When the fearful Italian villagers grow suspicious and disrupt the refugees’ shaky equilibrium, the effect is startling. More experienced, perceptive filmmakers will likely tackle similar stories to greater effect. But for now, Carpignano’s treatment provides a satisfactory window into a humanitarian emergency. B-

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.


17 05 2017

Perhaps the worst claim that can be leveled against Fatih Akin’s “The Cut” is that it fails to elicit a reaction proportional to the scope of its production. This story of a father, Tahar Rahim’s Nazaret, rendered mute during the Armenian genocide of World War I trying to reunite with his long-lost daughters has an epic scope. Take a look during the end credits, which run well over 10 minutes, at just how many crew members in how many countries came together to bring this story to life. This is a journey spanning decades, and Akin gives his film the sprawling canvas it needs.

And yet, while watching the film, I never really felt overwhelmed and enveloped by the sheer magnitude of “The Cut.” The film never flags in the forward motion of its storytelling or the firm humanist rooting of Rahim’s performance. I was compelled by every minute. Still … I wanted a little something more from it.

Akin’s direction is missing a sense of urgency. (It’s still leagues better than most filmic depictions of genocide – heck, many big-budget tentpoles downplay or flippantly dismiss it!) I’ll note that “The Cut” is not a film about the Armenian genocide so much as it’s a story of a father’s love diverted by the atrocity. But when you brooch such a weighty subject, you can’t just respond in the size of the production. It must also resonate in the gravity of individual decisions. B

REVIEW: My Golden Days

16 05 2017

Maybe I’m missing something by not watching Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Sex Life … How I Got Into an Argument” before heading into “My Golden Days,” since both films revolve around Mathieu Amalric’s Paul Daedalus. (I blame the film’s lack of streaming availability in the U.S.) With no prior attachment to a character who spends the entire movie reflecting back on how three childhood and adolescent memories shaped him, the film felt self-indulgent and even a little self-serving.

And of course, the thread that I found the most fascinating – where a teenaged Daedalus sneaks into the USSR to give a forged passport to a Jewish dissident – lasts about just 20 minutes. Desplechin doles out a disproportionate amount of time to Daedalus’ first bombshell romantic experience with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). From my perspective, this seemed like the kind of coming-of-age story we’ve all seen a hundred times.

The distinguishing feature of “My Golden Days” is that Desplechin frames these experiences through the lens of memory, in all the ways it softens the edges of and selectively omits from the historical record. It’s present both in the hazy narration of Daedalus and the techniques he uses, such as the early-cinema iris effect. But these memories were just that – memories – for me. If they were hinting at some kind of larger truth or grander developments in the Daedalus character, they were lost on this viewer. C+

REVIEW: Graduation

15 05 2017

It’s only natural for parents to wish that their children fare better than they do, but I would be genuinely curious to see how many would act with the vigor of Adrian Titieni’s Romeo in “Graduation” to ensure such a thing. Locked in a loveless marriage, trapped in a dead-end romantic affair and bored professionally, Romeo is Romania’s equivalent of a tiger father to his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus). She has the opportunity to spend her collegiate years on scholarship in the “more civilized” United Kingdom pending a passing grade on her final exams, and he will do everything in his power to ensure she escapes the mire of their native country.

Except, on the day before the test, a stranger batters Eliza on the way to school and wounds her as he attempts rape. For whatever arcane reason, the authorities simply cannot accommodate her at a later date, so Eliza must take the multi-part exam with her writing hand severely injured. Faced with the threat of his daughter’s escape route vanishing, Romeo decides to take independent measures to ensure she passes.

Romeo and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) are no stranger to rigged systems that present themselves as fair. After all, they fled the Communist regime in Romania and returned to raise a child in a post-Soviet Bloc nation. But Eliza comes from a generation that only knows democracy, and she does not take kindly to knowing fingers are on the scale for her benefit. This divide over who sets the rules and when those rules are enforced proves a fascinating fissure to observe throughout “Graduation” as it increasingly isolates Romeo from his family and community.

Mungiu, in classic Romanian New Wave fashion, takes his time delivering the audience to such realizations. Two hours of wading through such intense moral morass is a bit much, especially given the time spent on a subplot of broken glass on Romeo’s belongings. These incidents amount to little more than a red herring, a projection of Romeo’s fretting over the precariousness of his situation. They’re a bit at odds with the studied naturalism of the film – which, for the record, feels a bit de rigeur for Mungiu by now. B /