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 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 (November 24, 2016)

24 11 2016

meeks-cutoffWith “Certain Women,” Kelly Reichardt took a move back toward the kind of stories that made her career – the quiet routines that define and confine the lives of Pacific Northwesterners. But earlier this decade, Reichardt made some notable forays into the world of genre filmmaking with 2014’s “Night Moves,” an eco-thriller, and 2011’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” a revisionist and feminist take on the Western.

I caught the former at the 2013 London Film Festival, which forced me to abandon all ties to the outside world and dive headfirst into her carefully constructed universe. I was not so lucky to see “Meek’s Cutoff” in a theater, however, which meant years of putting off watching the film since I knew it would command so much of my attention. I stopped and started the film several times, knowing that anything that took my brain out of the experience would make the viewing a wash. When I had the chance to interview Reichardt earlier this year, I knew I could wait no longer.

Once I finally plunged myself into “Meek’s Cutoff,” my latest selection for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I was rewarded handsomely for my patience and attentiveness. Reichardt does not subvert genre tropes, as many revisionist filmmakers do in a self-congratulatory exhibition of their own cinematic knowledge. Rather, she inverts them, ascribing the same respect and earnestness normally accorded to heroic white men to their muted female companions and Native American guides.

Reichardt tells “Meek’s Cutoff” from a woman’s point of view, which includes making certain information obscured or downright off-limits. When the men in charge are talking, she makes things intentionally hard to hear or keeps the camera at such a distance that we cannot help but feel entirely removed from the decision making process. When Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow is privy to some information from her husband, Will Patton’s Solomon, she receives it in a whisper during the utter blackness of the prairie nights.

Tensions of all kinds flare on this 1840s journey along the Oregon Trail as the wagon caravan’s guide, Bruce Greenwood’s Meek, inspires doubts among the group. Amongst themselves, the settlers begin to wonder if he has intentionally led them astray to their demise. Supply begins to run as low as spirit, leading to rash decisions and some surprising assertions of authority. As survival instincts kick in, the clamor of wisdom from the women grows louder and harder to ignore. While an adjective like “thrilling” or “exciting” may not apply given the pace of Reichardt’s film, “compelling” sure does. Anyone willing to stop everything and simply live in the frame will find a textured, intelligent and unique take on the Old West.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 3, 2016)

3 11 2016

street-fightThe 2016 presidential election has often felt like a daily race to the bottom with each day seemingly fighting to make the claim, “No, THIS is the worst it’s ever been.” And we still have days left to go – there haven’t even been the definitive post-mortem books where the really juicy stuff comes out! We’ve always known politics were grimy and nasty, though perhaps we underestimated the extent to which they reveled in the dirt.

Though perhaps if more people (myself included) had seen Marshall Curry’s documentary “Street Fight,” my pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” the surprise might not have been so pronounced. This chronicle of the bitter campaign for Newark’s mayor in 2002 is a stunning display of politics at its worst. Like in this year’s “Weiner,” a present-day viewer can watch this nasty race and pick out undertones that eventually become overtones in the Trump-Clinton feud.

Less than 15 years ago, ascendant Democratic politician Cory Booker set out to make a big splash in Newark by challenging the town’s 16-year incumbent mayor, Sharpe James. While cities such as Chicago and New York conjure images of political corruption at the mere mention of their name, Newark does not lag too far behind. James somehow managed to ride out a major corruption scandal in the ’90s while many of his associates took the fall. He uses questionable means to hold onto his power, including intimidation of opponents and co-opting of the police for his own benefit.

But Booker, ever the inspiring figure, poses a serious threat to James by taking the high road. His optimistic message lobbying for change rather than accepting stagnation has appeal to Newark residents who feel their current mayor takes their support for granted. While James might lead a more lively rally, Booker can connect with voters and sell his story convincingly. His parents fought for equality in the Civil Rights era and were on the painful front lines of integration so Cory could get the education he deserved.

But what luck does a straight-laced candidate have when he goes up against a street fighter like James? His opponents pulls out all the stops, going full anti-Semitic to (falsely) smear his association with “the Jews” and accusing him of (gasp!) working as a covert Republican. Everyone seems to recognize these as blatant falsehoods, yet Booker is powerless to keep them from gaining media attention and reaching voters’ ears. Sound familiar? Curry’s camera, recording in spite of attempts by James’ political machine to stifle it, is there for the dispiriting longhaul. If Booker wants to make a run at the White House in 2024, we know from “Street Fight” that he’s battle-tested in the grimy game of political campaigns.