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A hip, talented debut
A hip coming of age road movie is the first feature from gifted Mexican writer- director Alonso Ruizpalacios. Shot in academy ratio and black and white and marked by a fresh use of camera, editing, sound, and humor and a breaking the fourth wall that owes something to the Nouvelle Vague, it focuses on Tomás, a slim, pale teenage bad boy ("güero" is Mexican slang for light-skinned) whose mother can't cope with him, so sends him from Veracruz to live in Mexico City for a while with his older brother "Sombra" ("dark-skinned"). Sombra is a student at the national university, but it's disrupted by a huge strike (loosely based on the 11-month strike of 1999), and he's "on strike from the strike," sitting idly in his trashy concrete apartment, a depressed slacker trying to teach himself card tricks. They get out, with his roommate and best friend Santos and girlfriend Ana (a strike leader), on a mission to find a cult Mexican rock idol of the Sixties called Epigmenio Cruz admired by their late father and both brothers, reportedly dying of cirrhosis of the liver, to pay him homage. It's said that Cruz once "made Bob Dylan cry." Ruizpalacios has acknowledged a debt to Truffaut, Godard, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, and Fellini, but his light touch, wit, and grasp of earthy Spanish vernacular (though he studied in London and speaks perfect English too) also link Güeros with Latin American youth films like Alex dos Santos' 2006 Glue, Che Sandoval's You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiestt (2009), and the work of Fernando Eimbcke and Gerardo Naranjo. This won prizes at Berlin and Tribeca and had a limited US release May 2015 (see A.O. Scott's enthusiastic and detailed description in the NYTimes). Now out on DVD from Kino Larber. Watched on a DVD provided by Rodrigo Brandão (Indie Strategy) 2 Jan. 2015.
Monterey Pop (1968)
Editing as good as the music
Rewatching Monterey Pop.
At the moment (these things don't last) you can watch the Criterion Collection version of this film on YouTube and I just finished watching it. The Woodstock film may be more extensive, and the event more historical, and some of the songs and acts seem dated now. But. . . this is the quintessential Sixties moment, the Summer of Love in pure simple unspoiled form. The Hells Angels sit quiet. The cops smile and welcome. Several of the sequences of music paired with audience are beyond brilliant. Notably Big Brother and the Holding Company and Ravi Shankar, both evoking blissed-out peace and meditativeness.
Whatever he was on, and he was on plenty, Jimi Hendrix's performance of "Wild Thing" seems like mindless exhibitionism and provocation. On the other hand, you can't forget this act. Shankar's music is eternal and timeless, its blend of rhythm, improvisation, sparring and unity reducing music to its universal essence - and its unifying spirit of pleasure and fun.
From a Wikipedia article about the film: "Among Pennebaker's several camera operators were fellow documentarians Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles. The painter Brice Marden has an "assistant camera" credit, and Bob Neuwirth, who figured prominently in Pennebaker's Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back, acted as stage manager. Titles for the film were by the illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Featured performers include Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Hugh Masekela, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Mamas & the Papas, The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, whose namesake set his guitar on fire, broke it on the stage, then threw the neck of his guitar in the crowd at the end of "Wild Thing"."
Watch just the 18-minute Ravi Shankar sequence, also currently available on YouTube by itself. . This is a classic musical performance movie sequence.
London Spy (2015)
A mixed bag but a very unique miniseries
A late comment, but I actually did watch this series when it was new, and obsessively, repeating episodes multiple times - at first. Now I'm coming back to it and rewatching it on Netflix streaming. I thought it was going to have lost its magic but no, for all its flaws it's still compulsively watchable.
Many of the things said here that are contradictory are also true. The writing is pretentious and overwrought, but it's also a haunting and entrancing story. Yes, it's utterly absurd the things that happen, but some of the most basic emotions out of which the story is built - the loneliness and need, the romantic affair - are very real and memorable. Perhaps the relationship between Danny and Scottie is a gay old man-young man cliché, but it's still touching and real. The gay spy theme runs up into dangerous clichés too, but still is highly original. And after all, despite the negative stereotypes some have pointed to, this is a spy story where the gayness is not just a weapon or a liability but simply central, a given, and in that regard, Whishaw as an out gay actor can be proud to have played such a marvelous role in it. Above and beyond any specifics of the story there is simply the fact of Danny as a complex, attractive character, basically a mess, and yet utterly sexy and sweet, the kind of gay young man an old dear like Scottie would be happy to love and protect.
Edward Holcorft I'm uncomfortable about. The actor seems so stiff and affected. But that also fits the character of Alex perfectly well: the flaw is in the conception of Alex by the minds behind the series. Jim Broadbent is a consummate pro. But obviously it's Ben Whishaw who makes it all worthwhile and he's touching, real, and as the boyish gay young man, utterly adorable. My excessive fascination with the character of Danny that Ben plays is what kept me coming back over and over, but it was outmatched by my pleasure in Whishaw's authentic and appealing performance, which is one of the best I've seen him in, and he's always good. He's one of the best actors of his generation, some even think the best. There are more mercurial and astonishing ones like Tom Hardy. None so cuddly as Ben though. Sorry I didn't see him as Hamlet.
Then Charlotte Rampling comes along and though it's one of her "standard" roles there's nothing standard about her, she's terrifyingly off-putting, in top form. The second, post-Alex phase investigating Alex is very good. In it, everything in the first phase is undercut and mystified, and this is good, through it seems more programmatic and more far-fetched than the first. It's the last phase where things go down the rabbit hole into sheer nonsense. And you cease to be invested in the story as you were early on. Perhaps you knew this was going to happen. But you liked the overwrought-ness, the camp, so much you accepted anything, and the acting and settings and cinematography were so classy, it was okay. Then it's just bonkers, and it's all more or less thrown away.
Everything is totally stylized. Some of the editing I find annoying, like the jump cuts and paralleled lines of dialogue in the gay love sequence. It all becomes cloying, too-too. And yet, and yet, guilty pleasure though it may be, it's compulsively watchable. I do not know about the other work of the much talked about Tom Rob Smith. I know director Jakob Verbruggen has done other good things. But in "London Spy," the story eventually deteriorates into the preposterous so you don't care about it. Yet it's made its impression, for the excessive but compelling craftsmanship and the magical acting of Ben Whishaw. For all its flaws this weaves a magic spell and leaves a special memory.
Tatara Samurai (2016)
A brave blacksmith finds his inner samurai in a wedding of craft and virtue
Tatara Samurai is an unusually contemplative martial arts movie, also a beautiful one with exquisite landscapes and satisfyingly clear sword battles in which every stroke is distinctive. It's also another deconstruction of the samurai ideal. The hero Gosuke (Shô Aoyagi) discovers it is better to be a traditional artisan than a samurai, and he returns to practice his ancestral calling of murage, blacksmith, forging superb, stainless steel in Tatara Village after an attempt to go out to fight to defend the town from marauders. "My very existence is being sustained," he declares in a meditative voice-over at the end, "I surrender myself to the flow of nature. Yielding to divine will. Letting be all that is around me." He is becoming one with bushido, the Japanese spirit - the real subject of this film.
It's the Sengoku Period, the late sixteenth century, the brief time when the Japanese were to develop matchlock rifles, which we see people learn how to use. There is a sense that the sword may become obsolete - or it may not; for quite some time it didn't. The film is notable for its physicality, the authenticity of the crafts it shows in action. And it is an advertisement for traditional Japanese village life. It is not ironic, and as it is beautiful, it is, one supposes, a little humorless.
The fine Tatara-buki steel-making technique of the Shimane Prefecture seen in this film is perhaps ideal for these rifles, but more truly has its value for traditional samurai swords also, of course. It is in demand, and that's why the village is threatened. You sense that Gosuke, with his sensitive face and big eyes and his inner calm, is not suited to sword fighting, but when the town's leading swordsman is slain, Gosuke wants to fight, and works out alone enthusiastically with a wooden sword. Through a wily old merchant, Sobei (Takashi Sasano), Gosuke meets Yohei (Masahiko Tsugawa), who sets him up to meet someone from the honored Oda Army. Gosuke makes the journey gladly.
The film's most intense conflict is between Yohei and Shinpei (Naoki Kobayashi), Gosuke's childhood playmate, who comes from a noble martial tradition. While Yohei says rifles are the coming thing and will be the only way to defend the village, Shinpei warns against this idea and suspects it conceals a plan to betray the villagers.
When he arrives at the military camp and presents himself for service Gosuke is judged as having "good bearing" and accepted into the army. Bu he is unable to function in battle, and is plunged into fighting right away. It's a wonder he survives. He soon leaves Senkichi, his new friend, and returns home. There, he feels humiliated. But he is greeted by some thankfully, for many of his friends and family are delighted that he is still alive. It was never thought he would be. (The women in the film are mostly silent, but they are present and caring, wishing there could be an end to war and killing.)
Later Shinpei goes away, seemingly joining the enemy. Actually he is perhaps carrying out a kind of counter intelligence. But when he reappears, Yohei takes advantage of his somewhat mysterious absence to call him a traitor. And then something horrible and rather inexplicable happens. While the villagers are preparing to ward off invaders, building ramparts and lookouts to repel an armed attack, the town is peacefully infiltrated by men who say they are coming to protect them. Thus they are betrayed, and in the midst of this the local leader, Shinnosuki (Akira) is shot in cold blood by Yohei. After these betrayals and confusions Gosuke realizes the essence of the samurai - honor and compassion - dwelled within him all along, and that he can best serve his ancestors and his region by making fine steel.
A fundamental principle of a good action film is that it needs to take a breather from time to time, and Tatara Samurai excels in this. A typical moment shows Gosuke quite still, thinking. He is listening to his inner nature and to the universe. But though there are no grand and super-violent sequences of sword fighting, there are some individual sword fights, particularly one, in which there is a delicious surprise ending where the bad guy turns out to have been run through while just missing the throat of his village opponent. This is one of several fights in which every blow counts - something almost never achieved in American blockbusters today. Nishikôri's film is all about authenticity.
But there is a lot going on, and we don't necessarily grasp all of it the first time. This is a movie about vocation and inner duty that only appears to be a movie about sword fighting and betrayals. How can we understand the standoff between Lord Oda, and his subordinate, Hideyoshi, that deepens - so that Gosuke finds himself in the middle of the conflict? But Gosuke is always there, and when Yohei slaughters Shinnosuke, he has his finest, and most astonishing and symbolic moment, when he steps forward and - both brave and effective for once - attacks Yohei with his own finely bladed sword - and slices Yohei's rifle in half - leaving him astonished and humiliated. He need do little more. It is a triumphant moment for Gosuke, for the sword, and for the art of murage and the village's special superior steel. Knife cuts rifle!
The movie feels unusually authentic because it was all shot - on film , with vintage Panavision lenses- on location at a traditional village constructed for the shoot, including a traditional forge, which we see being built, where Tamahagane/Tatara steel was actually produced, director Nishikôri explained in an interview. The director of photography was always ready to capture striking natural landscapes and skyscapes and there are some spectacular, but never clichéd, ones.
Get Out (2017)
Your worst nightmare
The first-time director is an African American actor, comedian, film director, and screenwriter, formerly of the Comedy Central show Key & Peele. One reviewer says this will be "the boldest - and most important - studio genre release of the year." The horrible rich white family out in the country focuses its malevolent attention exclusively on black men. Their daughter brings her black boyfriend to meet them for the weekend. It's a Brit who plays the boyfriend, Chris Washington, Daniel Kaluuya. You identify with him throughout. As his TSA employee best friend Rod, comic LilRel Howery breaks the tension nicely by providing humor. Some say the play with racial ideas is more a focus than the horror, and it's not horrible enough. It's just a broad and simple horror movie - seeing the poster for Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness on the way out reminded me how much more complex and visually rich that is. Nonetheless I was shattered when it was over. This is a movie that skillfully ramps up feelings and concerns about race we already have or would have. Metacritic rating 83%. Watched at Regal Union Square on its opening day 24 Feb.
The Birth of a Nation (2016)
A somewhat dubious triumph begins a promising career
If I were African American, I would approach Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner's brief but powerful 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, with awe and reverence and with trepidation, willing it to be as important and powerful and richly constructed as Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. But apart from not being African American, I am approaching things backwards. I've already seen both movies, and Birth of a Nation doesn't measure up. It doesn't brutalize the viewer with McQueen's enthusiasm, but it also lacks his panache. (I sort of hate 12 Years a Slave, but that is partly because it is so impressive). And Birth of a Nation also, as stated by David Edelstein in his review for New York Magazine, on which I will rely heavily, is filled with clichés. I'm trusting Edelstein that it's a cliché that when a "house N-word" is turned into a "field N-word," the first thing he'll do is prick his fingers on the cotton. I trust Edelstein that Parker "has taken the outlines of his story from history, his symbolism from Griffith, and his rhetorical strategy from Mel Gibson, who's thanked in the credits and whose Braveheart has been cited by Parker as a favorite movie." The latter fact shocks me. Braveheart doesn't seem to me a prism through which to view even a violent and brief episode of American history.
But Nate Parker, who wrote, directed, and stars in Birth of a Nation (which as Edelstein puts it "takes on" D.W. Griffith's 1915 enormously influential racist propaganda film of the same name, which jump-started and revived the Ku Klux Klan), is very talented, as well as very ambitious. To take on in one's first feature an epic, but potentially dangerous, moment of black history, is ambitious indeed. I believe that McQueen too was out of his depth, partly through being English not American, but McQueen took on 12 Years a Slave only after one great success (Hunger) and one impressive failure (Shame). And instead of taking on the lead in those two, he had a great new star, Michael Fassbender, to play both leads, a lucky collaboration indeed. But Parker is excellent in every scene in the role of Nat Turner, supple, subtle, and appealing. It's true (Edelstein again) that this makes him seem a better actor than director. But there's always the possibility that he might do better as a director with less daunting material from another hand.
The thing that troubles me most in The Birth of a Nation is the stock villains, and it's even a little sad that Jackie Earle Haley is called upon to play Raymond Cobb, the evil runaway slave hunter who pursues Nat and his family for decades. Some cast members seem cheapened by their roles in this film. It still remains true that it's a film of grand ambition, but melodramas have grand ambitions too, which come to noting.
Birth of a Nation is not a miserable failure; it's not that simple. It's a more than middling effort with resonant moments, though some of the raves seem to come from writers dazzled by a first impression and Sundance buzz. However much it may be a grand failure with embarrassing elements, it still continues to pave the way fur a continuing line of ambitious African American films about important moments in America's history of slavery, which needs to be continually in our faces and on our minds. Ava DuVernay's searing Netflix documentary update and synthesis of what we know that opened the New York Film Festival, The 13th, is another valuable chapter in this nation's necessary progression toward self-knowledge and change in the area of race.
Edelstein asserts that Parker's movie is "not a garish vigilante cartoon like Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained" but rather " a religious epic, a battle between the use of Scripture that justifies enslavement for economic ends and Scripture that justifies violence to overcome it. Nat is not just a preacher but also a mystic. As in life, he is possessed by visions, and he launches his rebellion after a solar eclipse, which he perceives as a sign from God." That reads ringingly; it's a nice way of summing up the film. But rather than saying Nat's a mystic as well as a preacher it would be better to say he's not fully a preacher at all. He's called upon to be one supposedly to earn money for his master and former playmate, Samuel Turner (Armand Hammer) by coaching other landowners' slaves to be more obedient using the Bible. And he's a bit of a mystic because he has to improvise with no other knowledge and only limited reading of the Bible. Matybe Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is "a vigilante cartoon" but it starts out openly as one. And in Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie Tarantino delivers a white racist villain far more fascinating and complex, perversely appealing, than anyone Parker conjures up. This of course happens through brilliantly entertaining dialogue, which Birth of a Nation doesn't have and which enables Tarantino to have fun with a supremely depressing subject. But only Tarantino could do this.
It's being said that Parker's movie is losing its credibility because he was involved in a rape case (in which he was acquitted) when he was in college. The young man charged with him was convicted, and the victim later committed suicide. This should be no more relevant than the fact that the movie was the big hit at Sundance this January. Nate Parker still should have a promising future.
Birth of a Nation, 120 mins., debuted Jan. at Sundance; also Toronto, Vancouver, Rome, and London. US theatrical release began 7 Oct. 2016. Screened for this review at Regal Union Square, NYC on opening day.
Death by Design (2016)
The terrible toll that tech takes
This is a film about the dark side of tech and are you surprised that Apple is the biggest villain? A mostly talking heads documentary can still be very valuable, and Sue Williams' film is living proof. So while the film has plenty of atmospheric and revealing film footage of customers, workers, and (damaged or damaging) environments, what counts most in Williams' film are the people who address the camera. Here are some of them.
Ma Jun, Institute of Public Environmental Affairs (China), explains that more than 60% of China's groundwater is not suitable for human use. Ted Smith, a Stanford lawyer and environmental activist who founded Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, reports on the toxic chemicals stored in Silicon Valley that have entered the ground and says the EPA Superfund program requiring environmental cleanup of factory damage is more active in Silicon Valley than anywhere else in the country. All the big tech company Silicon Valley locations are Superfund sites, he says, and cleanup will take not decades but centuries. This will come as news to most of us even who live in or near Silicon Valley.
More about this comes from Amanda Hawes, a lawyer on a team that brought a class action against IBM in the Nineties for workers with health problems from chemicals used in company production. We meet a woman who cares for her son born with severe developmental disability due to her exposure to chemicals 30 years ago. (Mark, the son, is not a "talking head." It's his body and his helplessness that speak.)
Since 1999, the consumer electronic gadgets have snowballed, with severe consequences. Scott Nove, Worker Rights Consortium, explains how outsourcing enables companies like Apple to bypass human safety rules and allow young poor workers from the country to be pushed to the point of suicide in China so 100 million iPods can be sold or a million iPhones can be delivered in a week.
In country, we meet Li Quiang of China Labor Watch: workers' pay is so low it accounts for only 1% of iPhones' cost. The film shows young Chinese assembly line electronics workers, and a few speak to the camera about the pressures to produce and work long hours. Foxconn is the big Chinese Apple supplier, we learn, biggest private employer in the country, over a million workers. Twelve hour days, 30 days without a day off: that's the kind of slave labor that produces the iPhones, iPads, etc., that Americans are so addicted to. Workers died in an explosion from iPad backing in a Foxconn factory.
Garrett Brown, an occupational health and safety expert, comments on this. So does Scott Nove. They both say Apple knows exactly what it is doing and Foxconn's abuses and foul-ups are unconscionable.
Next comes disposability of product. Apple products are designed not to last. New iPhones and laptops have batteries you can't swap out, so you have to replace the entire product in a year or two (if you want it to work on battery charges) and make the company richer. There are opponents, like iFixit - Luke Soules is a young co-founder - which helps people fix the products instead of replacing them. Obviously this is one of the big parts of the problem: too many products, and the number of products could be curtailed. But the tech industry is secretive, exploitative, wants to own the product even after you buy it. Not possible in other industries: a car manufacturer can't prevent car owners from replacing their tires. Luke goes to China and director Williams follows him there. Alex Li is his local translator, who helps him visit multiple circuit board manufacturers in Shenzhen before he finds one with environmentally responsible practices that he can buy from.
It's pleasing after what we've learned by now to see Ma Jun win a Skoll Award for socially responsible entrepreneurship. Back in China, he says it's cheaper for the tech factories to pay fines than to comply with environmental standards in the country because the fines are too light. Apple is the worst offender, arrogantly refusing to reveal its supply chain. Linda Greer, an environmental toxicologist with the National Resources Defense Council, worked with Ma Jun to put the pressure on Apple.
Williams turns away from China in the last quarter of her documentary to tech-caused environmental cancer in the US, and developments elsewhere. In Endicott, New York, near an IBM factory, people are ill from chemicals leaked into the ground all along one street a generation later. We hear from the Sherlings. Their son died. Last year a class action, a decade of lawsuits, led to an IBM payoff of under $20,000 per plaintiff. She finds small European companies like MicroPro and iAMECO in Dublin, Ireland, building fair trade, repairable, updatable computers built without dangerous materials. Anne Galligan is the co-founder; their laptops are in wooden cases. Darrin McGee, and environmental geographer addresses the growing issue of after-sale waste, thrown- away electronic -- Dan Cass is a tech device recycler -- and much of the electronic waste winds up back in China near where the devices were made, Guiyu, where pediatrician Xia Huo found the children have high levels of lead. Kimberly Prather, Atmospheric Chemistry, UCSD, says "a metal's a metal's a metal" whether in soil, water, or air -- "you still have a metal," and China's pollution comes back to us. It travels the globe.
Death by Design is a simple no-nonsense film, but neatly edited with elegant graphics. It's essentially an instructional film about a subject that it's urgent to know about. The message is we must all be more aware and more responsible. And consider looking for green devices next time and not replace them so often.
La fille aux yeux d'or (1961)
Baroque B&W visual beauty, decadent glamor, Paris late Fifties: what's not to like?
Some films are to be seen almost exclusively for their style, which can outlive story as a source to keep drawing on, and this is a most notable example. Its use of gorgeous, heightened B&W chiaroscuro grows out of silent classics and relates to Greg Toland's dramatic lighting with Welles but fits in with "Girl's" baroque, decadent theme drawn from Balzac of a a spoiled men's club with gambling, debauchery & women kept as slaves transposed to the world of late Fifties Paris fashion. I saw this twice when it was new in memorable circumstances, at Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 in 1961 and in a film series in Cairo in 1965. I've seen thousands of films since, and the memory of "Girl" never ceased to haunt me. Those lush shadows! Of course, this epitomizes the potentials of B&W that color loses, the contrast, the exploitation of pure light.
Finally I just ordered a PAL format DVD of the film, it came, and I watched it. Now I just learnt by coincidence it is in a film series, New Queer Cinema at Lincoln Center, showing in two weeks, 28 & 29 April 2016. Their brochure quotes Vogel from 1961: "A mysterious, perverse Gothic tale, derived from Balzac and transposed to a deceptively contemporary Paris, probes the secret of a bizarre love in an atmosphere of sophisticated decadence. . . Opulent in its artificiality, the film is especially noteworthy for its visual pyrotechnics, luxuriant imagination and unexpected continuity."
A re-watch confirms this, especially of the opening scenes (and the classical guitar theme is beautiful too; one can get the sound track on vinyl). I don't think such deliberately over-ripe, decadent, baroque, rococo B&W visual style has ever been so intensely achieved, though Armando Nannuzzi's intense chiaroscuro for Visconti's 1965 "Sandra"/"Vaghe stelle dell'orsa" comes close. Another rarity, never shown in the US; but you can watch it on YouTube entire w/o subtitles.
"Girl" showed at the Paris Theater in NYC in Aug. '62, it seems, and Bosley Crowther of the Times, not for the first time, didn't particularly get it, noting the graphic qualities were "rare and interesting" but damning it as "obscurantism," its characters as merely "weird," its action (despite Vogel) without "continuity."
It would be nice if the Criterion Collection would issue "Girl" with "Albicocco's other big success, his 1967 "Le Grand Meaulnes" (there actually is a French "coffret" of the two). They should issue Visconti's "Sandra" ("Vaghe stelle dell Orsa") too -- another decadent feast of voluptuous shadows (1965), and with Claudia Cardinale and Jean Sorel. There is a place for excessive style, fake glamor, and baroque visuals. Add a touch of humor and an exciting thriller plot and you get Beinix's film version of Delacorta's "Diva.
This time the decadent heir Henri Marsay (Paul Guers) is a fashion photog and (somewhat implausibly ) is a close friend/collaborator of lesbian couturier Léo (Françoise Prévost) who's been hiding the Girl (Marie Laforet) in the nifty secret pad. When I first saw Léo this time, I thought of Coco Chanel (the real Coco, Coco before Tautou). There are also fab sports cars. When you've got cigarettes, alcohol, deep shadows, amour fou, and fab sports cars, you've got classic movie glamour.
Another lost film decadence I want to rediscover: Roger Vadim's 1957 "No Sun in Venice" ("Sait-on jamais"), with its MJQ soundtrack.
Zhi fan ye mao (2016)
A returning soul visits a ravaged land
In the story, which is pursued with quiet obsessiveness, a youth, Leilei (Zhang Li), becomes possessed by his late mother, Xiuying, whose spirit has wandered the Shanxi Province's disintegrating cave homes for years. With the help of Leilei's father Ming Chun (Zhang Mingjun), whose reception of his late wife's return is deadpan (Buster Keaton has nothing on these two guys), they undertake the Sisyphean process, to please Xiuying, of moving a tree from her family's courtyard higher up in the desolate dust-covered mountains that surround them. Panoramic shots show a valley spanned by modern mining apparatus, while up close beyond the man and possessed boy plod around a depressing, desolate village where nobody is friendly, not even their relatives.
The film was reviewed at the Berlinale by Clarence Tsui in Hollywood Reporter. It was produced by Jia Zhang-ke, whose deadpan sarcasm Tsui detects in this film; she also sees links with Kafka, Camus, and the camera style of Pedro Costa. The festival blurb sees a link with "the gentle supernaturalism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul." Actually, this is a very Chinese film, and is suffused with the spirit and style of Jia.
The sad, fatalistic mood of Life After Life made me think of Arthur Waley's translation of the old Chinese poem The Chrysanthemums in the Eastern Garden: "With what thoughts of sadness and loneliness/I walk again in this cold, deserted place!/In the midst of the garden long I stand alone;/The sunshine, faint; the wind and dew chill/The autumn lettuce is tangled and turned to seed;/The fair trees are blighted and withered away." And so on. But in Zhang Hanyi's film, nothing blooms. It is probable that Zhang means the moving of the leafless tree as a gesture toward the destroyed earth of modern China.
There aren't any closeups other than the staring face of Leilei/Xiuying facing backward as they forge ahead on his father's curious vehicle, in which a small pickup truck appears to have mated with a motorcycle. The task of getting the tree into this contraption is truly Sisyphean: following a method they've seen applied to a very large rock, they work the tree onto the truck along a long plank. Leilei pulls a rope lassoed around the bulky bottom of the tree wherein its roots are wrapped, while his dad, holding its thin trunk, rocks it side to side. Up a plank they go, but just before entering the truck, it falls down, do they must work it all the way back to the beginning of the plank, to start anew.
People encountered in the village are sullen and unattractive. Xiuying's family are not welcoming, but don't expel the pair from a grim outdoor meal.
Looking for Xiuying's father's spirit, they believe they've found it in an unruly, highly sexed dog. The New Directors series of which this was a part has included more than its share of animals slaughtered on screen. This one can boast the most morbid and prolonged animal execution, which we're forced to watch all of. It involves strangling a sheep held to the ground. It takes an age for the sheep to die.
When the task is done, as promised Xiuying leaves, and Leili's body goes limp. We see Ming Chun carrying it on his back -- another Sisyphean task? -- and calling to Leilei's spirit to return. But it does not return.
While we are making sophisticated western references, we might mention Beckett. The meaning of the film's title in Chinese is "labyrinthine branches with plentiful of leaves," obviously deeply ironic as applied to the scrawny tree that's moved. It's a tree off the set of Waiting for Godot, and the words recall Clov's when he looks toward the audience and Hamm asks him to report and he says, "I see a multitude in transports of joy."
Life After Life/Zhi fan ye mao, 80 min., debuted at Berlin's Forum section Feb. 2016. It's listed on IMDb as being "in development." Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (FSLC/MoMA), New York, Mar. 2016.
Van Gogh (1991)
A problem film, but a notable one
This long film, with Jacques Dutronc in the main role, is considered by the French to be Pialat's best. It seeks to be counter-intuitive -- and also to base its a-historical version of the artist on the conclusion that nobody who made that many paintings in the last 27 months of his life (which the film focuses on) could have been seriously impaired in function, either mental or physical; and that if he was crazy, he was high-functioning crazy. This Van Gogh has moody moments, but also laughs, drinks, has lots of sex, makes a lot of paintings, and doesn't have a cut ear. (Incidentally he also shows little sign of being Dutch; but neither did Kirk Douglas in Minelli's Lust for Life.) But this Van Gogh is also an enigma.
The best feature of Van Gogh is its eccentric, surprising period film naturalism, analogous to that of Rossellini's 1966 The Rise of Louis XIV/La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIX, or Pasolini's Neorealism- influenced period effects in The Gospel According to Matthew and his Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights films. Probably Pialat couldn't have made this without the Nouvelle Vague and Jules et Jim behind him. Van Gogh's best moments are just throwaways that make scenes seem more "real" because they have little to do with advancing the "plot" or with "character development" -- like the choo-choo train cigarette puffing scene in Jules et Jim. Pialat's biggest influence as a filmmaker is said to be Jean Renoir. But in his Chicago Reader review Jonathan Rosenaum mentions Bresson and notes Bresson called his actors "models." Dutronc is very assured but is a non-actor, a singer primarily. As Theo the film uses the rather wooden Bernard Le Coq. In a sense they both, like the many extras who are or could be non-actors, are "models." And that, like most of the film, can be stimulating, but also frustrating, in a film about a figure people are so interested in.
The film excels at atmosphere, the way people wear their period clothes as if they were today's latest fashions, the everydayness of trains, meals, bars, and all the times Vincent refuses to eat or drink. And its key moments are its ensemble sequences, though one big one succeeds and the other fails. The highlight is a big collective picnic by the river Oise, with dancing, singing, Van Gogh doing an imitation of Lautrec and throwing himself in the river and getting fished out, and all in very long takes, with a wonderful, astonishing sense that we are right there the whole time. But the second long sequence, almost 20 minutes, is another story. It takes place in a Paris brothel with Vincent; Theo, away from Jo, his wife (Corinne Bourdon); Dr. Gachet's daughter Marguerite (a memorably vivacious Alexandra London) who's in love with Vincent and having an affair with him -- an invented plot twist; and a volatile prostitute Vincent has been involved with, Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein). This ambitious sequence meanders so much, is so unconvincing, and goes on so long, it winds up becoming merely boring and dreary and ruining the whole film at the point that should be its climax. In the end it is just confusion and debauchery, a distraction from whatever this is about; but that's where the film is best, otherwise. This is reminiscent of the long dance in Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers/Les amants réguliers: but that becomes a magic moment, and is more germane because it's a film about a lost generation, not the end of a great artist. But if Pialat's Van Gogh is a failure it is a great failure.
Van Gogh's death is disconcertingly real, without poetry or drama, merely flat and grim. And then it's over, with a couple of hints in posthumous scenes of how famous Van Gogh will be. But there have been enough living and thought-provoking moments to make this a distinctive film and maybe one that says something about its ostensible subjects. Such a failure is, though frustrating, better than many people's successes.
Van Gogh (incidentally the French pronounce it "Van Gog," to rhyme with "jog"), 158 mins., opened theatrically in France 30 Oct. 1991, in the USA the same day in 1992. Vincent Canby wrote an understanding and clear review for the NY Times. Watched on a disk from Netflix 6 Dec. 2015, which has the option of no subtitles, English subtitles, or French ones, an unusual feature on US DVD's and a handy one.