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.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 13, 2017)

13 04 2017

At some point while working on a profile of Robert Pattinson, I realized I couldn’t write honestly or insightfully about the actor if I only considered his post-“Twilight” work, which I generally considered to. I’m not sure at what point I decided I needed to watch everything in his filmography, but one film I did not particularly anticipate sitting through was “Bel Ami.” Costume dramas, especially ones set in 19th-century Europe, tend to function as something akin to the bane of my existence.

But to my very pleasant surprise, “Bel Ami” stands out as a delicious experience in a primarily dreary and stuffy genre. To be fair, I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed the film had I watched it upon release in 2012. Pattinson was still, reluctantly, in the thrall of “Twilight” mania. The specious read of the film is to see his character, Georges Duroy, as an emotionless man who somehow manages to function as an effortless womanizer. (There is admittedly some jealousy in play, I’ll be up front.)

Indeed, there are some similarities to Edward Cullen at the surface level of “Bel Ami.” Yet with some distance, the film looks more like a reaction against his famous role. Georges makes plenty of sexual conquests in the film, but he achieves them not out of confidence or swagger. He’s deeply insecure about his station in the Parisian social strata, nervously approaching formality. In his first high society appearance, Georges musses with his appearance several times in the mirror before entering the room.

He’s at a distinct advantage in the elite ecosystem since he does not come from money and only gets a seat at the table when a former comrade from war lifts him up. To hold this tenuous position, Georges needs an ace in the hole, and he finds it through gaming undersexed and undervalued wives. Wooing them works to his benefit for a while, but eventually he learns that appealing to them goes only so far in a male-dominated world. This narrative acts as something of a meta commentary on Pattinson’s participation in the “Twilight” franchise, and his desperation and frustration is the secret sauce that raises “Bel Ami” out of standard period piece drudgery and into the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 6, 2017)

6 04 2017

Seduction gets the on-screen treatment quite a bit, though I can say I’ve rarely seen it so expertly dissembled as it was in Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” This twisted tale of adolescent experimentation, which delightedly revels in its own bawdiness, spends a solid 20 minutes of its tight 83 minute runtime devoted to a single scene in which college-aged beach rat Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) attempts to get in the pants of teenaged Elena (Roxane Mesquida). He’s using just about every trick in the book to end up at intercourse, but Elena clutches the prize of her virginity with a firm grip. It’s not something Fernando would need to pry from her cold, dead hands, so, slowly, he chips away at her resistance.

All the while, Elena’s younger sister Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) bears witness to the scene playing out from the vantage point of her bed a few feet away. She’s an odd mixture of appalled and fascinated, repelled and curious. At the time documented in the movie, Anaïs (the titular obese woman) has begun to realize and visualize herself in sexual terms. She betrays little, concealing both her jealousy and vicarious pleasure.

“Fat Girl” provides only a short window into the lives of Elena and Anaïs, denying us the chance to go on any of the traditional “journey” narratives associated with teenage sexuality. Instead, Breillat forces us to stare at sex for what it is. That’s not always pretty. Sometimes, it amounts to little more than the fulfillment of animalistic desires – even over the valid objections of another person.





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*)