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.

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REVIEW: Summer Hours

15 05 2016

Summer HoursFrom the opening series of scenes in Olivier Assayas’ film “Summer Hours,” the direction of events appears quite clear. An ailing matriarch (Edith Scob) invites her three children – COUGH, heirs to the estate – to get her affairs in order. Her eldest son (Charles Berling’s Frédéric) stayed in France, while one daughter (Juliette Binoche’s Adrienne) went west to the U.S. and her younger son (Jérémie Renier’s Jérémie) headed eastward to China.

When it comes down to the inevitable decisions about what to do with her formidable collections of art and decor, guess who pulls rank and opts to donate/sell rather than keep everything in the family heritage? If you guessed the siblings living abroad, well … slightly obvious spoiler alert, if you catch my drift. “Summer Hours” is a simple yet effective rehashing of the dialectic between continuing a legacy and punting on one’s heritage.

It may seem familiar, in part because these questions are important. Every communal unit, from the family to the nation, must continue to ask itself what debt it owes to past ancestors and what paths it must boldly blaze for itself. In films as wide-ranging as Derek Jarman’s “The Last of England” and Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” (two extremely random examples but they were the first to pop into my head), we see such issues debated.

Assayas is a worthy artist to work through these conundrums, and he sets up the tensions quite deftly in “Summer Hours.” Problem is, by about halfway through the film, he seems to run out of new things to say. None of this discredits the fine work to begin with; it just softens the impact by the close. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Clouds of Sils Maria

2 05 2015

Clouds of Sils MariaBackstage-style dramas about actresses are common enough nowadays that an elided shorthand could almost certainly be employed to convey background information about the character in the spotlight.  In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” however, writer/director feels the need to relish the viewer with a whopping 36 minutes of exposition before getting to some real forward motion.

This gesture ushers in not only an aura of tedium but also an attitude of hubris.  Juliette Binoche’s Maria Enders, a star of stage and screen resisting a natural aging into a new generation of roles, is hardly a novel creation for cinema lovers.  Heck, just four days before the premiere of “Clouds of Sils Maria” in Cannes, David Cronenberg unveiled his “Maps to the Stars” with Julianne Moore playing an actress in an almost identical career conundrum!

Assayas’ film, on the whole, most closely resembles a Cannes competition entry from the year prior, though.  Like Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur,” much of the action (and inaction) consists of running through lines for an upcoming production and shifting imperceptibly in and out of character.  Maria, banishing herself to a Swiss mountain home with personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), must now get inside the headspace of the mother character in the play that made her famous for her interpretation of the daughter part.

The concept is certainly intriguing but is executed rather marginally.  Had the play “Maloja Snake” been real and not a fictional invention of Assayas, watching Maria struggle with the text might have been riveting.  Without a point of reference to the play, her verbal exercises benefit the character far more than the audience attempting to understand her.

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REVIEW: Certified Copy

12 01 2015

Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” feels like a 2-for-1 movie deal, which is not necessarily a good thing.  The film makes you think it’s one thing, then turns on a dime to transform into something else entirely.  Such an abrupt, jarring transition makes for an inconsistent, disjointed watch.

“Certified Copy” begins intriguingly, almost resembling the “Before” trilogy by Richard Linklater.  Kiarostami captures personal conversations between writer James Miller (William Shimell) and a mysterious French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) that quickly expand into the realm of the philosophical.  They cover such topics as the nature of fun and the dialectic of art and reality.  Not much pushes the film forward in this section, and it’s unclear what exactly brings the two characters together in the first place.

But out of nowhere, the plot moves in a direction where a case of mistaken identity turns into an unusual game of assuming and playing roles.  I really don’t know how to describe these almost non-sensical scenes where the dialogue feels like a series of non sequiturs.  If anything, the back half of “Certified Copy” resembles the surreality of “Mulholland Drive” or the absurdity of an Edward Albee drama.

Binoche gives it her all, and for that, she certainly deserves commendation.  But not even a committed performance can save “Certified Copy” from swamping itself and its audience confusion.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Godzilla

8 06 2014

GodzillaIn 2010, Gareth Edwards unleashed the ultra-low budget flick “Monsters” on the world.  It was a striking debut, and it also wound up serving as an audition tape for the job of reenergizing the “Godzilla” franchise.  Indeed, if there was anyone to scoop up from the world of independent cinema for large-scale filmmaking, Edwards seemed like a natural due to the way he emphasized human relationships over flashy computer graphics.

Sadly, what ultimately hits the screen in “Godzilla” is something far more in the mold of Marvel than Edwards’ own “Monsters.”  The plot structure resembles the paradigm perpetuated by films like “The Avengers;” I’d like to call this formula “30-40-50.”  The first 30 minutes of the film introduce us briefly to the characters and cap off with an inciting event that sets up a climactic clash with an opposing villainous force.  The next 40 minutes vamp up to this giant conclusion, showing the various heroes and their preparations.  And it all caps off with 50 minutes of destructions, explosions, collapsing buildings … you know the drill.

The scariest part of “Godzilla” is not the monster; it’s realizing how quickly the art of screenwriting has transmuted into an engineered science.  It favors empty computer graphics over real suspense and rewarding characterization.  Edwards’ penchant for thrilling action goes woefully underutilized as he settles to provide a standard entry in the genre “Monsters” so ably defies.  He gets to be somewhat ironic on occasion but never subtle.

Actors can often rescue movies that sag under the weight of a bloated effects budget, but no such salvation is available for “Godzilla.”  Here, Bryan Cranston is forced to play a Walter White-lite variety and acclaimed actresses such as Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche are relegated to serve perfunctory roles on the sidelines.  But don’t worry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson fruitlessly channels Mark Wahlberg trying to save the day, an archetype he’s ill-equipped to play.

But hey, who needs actors when you can watch a giant lizard destroy the Golden Gate Bridge and the rest of San Francisco?  Not like we got to see it terrorized in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  Or the “Star Trek” movies.  (Heck, even the animated “Monsters vs. Aliens” got in on the action.)  Sure, it’s probably more extensive here in “Godzilla,” but it all just feels so familiar and generic.  No better way to sit through the threat of near-apocalyptic extinction than comfortably numb, right?  C+2stars





REVIEW: Cosmopolis

16 08 2012

Woah, woah, woah, slow down, there! What on earth did you just say? What could that possibly mean? Why should I care at all?

Such are the questions that will inevitably be invoked by anyone watching David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis.”  While a billionaire driving around the streets of New York in a limousine amidst massive social upheaval certainly packs a timely, relevant thematic punch, you can’t puzzle over the film’s deeper meaning because it’s so difficult to get past the first layer: the dialogue!  I’ve even read another book by Don DeLillo, author of the novel “Cosmopolis” from which the film was adapted, and I found the way the characters talked to be absolutely infuriating.

Everyone speaks in non-sequiturs, and no one ever seems to say exactly what they mean or have any sense of urgency.  At times, the dialogue even seems to delve into absurdism – where nothing relates to anything.  The film’s structure, in addition, jumps from conversation to conversation with very little explanation.  One second, Robert Pattinson’s Eric Packer is discussing the intricacies of global currency with Shiner (Jay Baruchel) … and then a quick cut to the next scene where he’s having sex with his art dealer (Juliette Binoche) – all in the limousine!

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