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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There is a Frank Caapra populism about One Wonderful Sunday's
occasional moments of corny sentimental hopefulness. But above all this
is Japan just after the war, shabby, despairing, scrambling to get back
on its feet. This couple is bipolar: the girl is cheery -- but she also
has a long crying jag. The guy is angry and humiliated at he loss of
manhood in his not being able to afford minimal entertainments on the
couple's one day off together out of the week; but he also has his
energetic surges of courage and hope. One doesn't quite believe in it.
But it holds us prisoner for the run of the film. He's already that
good, even despite the wrong notes and the corniness.
This is such a deeply sad, depressing film: I immediately thought of Dodes'ka-den , the powerful multi-thread tale about depression and poverty Kurosawa made in the early Seventies, when he was himself going through a period of despair. And of course there is the premature reference to a masterpiece to come, Ikiru, in the swing-in-the- park scene. The style is strange, sometimes compelling, sometimes agonizing. We're dragged along helplessly on a sine curve of momentary happiness and longer periods of gloom. What makes it almost unbearable to watch is the way each shot or scene is held too long, none more than the final one where Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) goes up on the stage of the empty ampitheatre and mock-conducts almost a whole movement of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. It's agonizing. It's terrible.
But there's something also so humanistic (to an absurd extreme, as in Italian neorealism, which may have been an influence, as well as silent film, Chaplin) that you balk at it and at the same time can't resist it. The appeal of the girl, Masako (Chieko Nakakita) to the audience, said to have fallen on deaf ears in Japan but been loudly responded to in France, to us now just seems anachronism, a violation of the illusion. I am personally disturbed by the casting, because Masako looks a little homely, her face slightly bloated (was that considered pretty in 1947 Japan?) while Yuzo, with his handsome head of hair, is more presentable. At the same time this makes it easy to see them as married, twenty years or more later on, and what is so touching is the faith that in fact they will somehow stay together, and will somehow make a family, and survive, thrive even. But the whole thing shows us how Kurosawa's belief in the human spirit was very close to pessimism and despair. Mr. Watanabe in Ikiru almost gives up, and in Dodes-ka-den the little boy and his father die. There's a moment when it looks like Yuzo may slit his writs. Does playing orchestra conductor really mean he's going to make it? There's a convention here that's too antiquated to buy into. It makes them seem simply deranged -- or more desperate than we'll ever know.
Ticket scalpers are evil! Dante must have a bolgia in Hell for them.
Anyone with a more than passing interest in Japanese movies ought to
watch Kobayashi's 1962 version of Takaiguchi's novel that this also is
based on, and watch the intro by the Japanese film authority Donald
Ritchie on the Criterion edition. Ritchie makes fully clear how
Kobayashi here, as in other films, is talking through the historical
tale about current issues he was passionate about, in this case
lingering post-WWII authoritarianism in Japan and hollow bureaucracies,
in his day as in the time of the early Tokugawa government; Miike
doesn't seem to have anything particularly urgent to say. Look at what
Ritchie points out that Kobayashi's version offers: the script by ace
screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto who wrote Akira Kurosawa's Seven
Samurai; the score by bold, influential experimentalist Toru Takemitsu;
the strong and unifying symbolic use of empty samurai armor throughout;
the career-defining lead performance by Tatsuya Nakadai; and the
elegantly austere use of black and white cinematography.
Ironically Miike's film also carries over Kobayashi's one serious flaw - - an overindulgence in sentimentality and pathos in the flashback love story.
Miike, apparently seeking 'respectability' after all his entertaining ultra-violence with this staid remake/adaptation, also overdoes everything. He makes every scene too drawn-out and talky. He further overdoes the sentimentality, to the point that in his version becomes unbearably cloying, virtually unwatchable. Once again, 3D adds nothing; black and white was just what was needed. Less was and is more.
Whenever a filmmaker goes over familiar ground, adapting a book that has been adapted (and very well) before, he exposes himself to comparisons to the book and to the previous adaptation. Don't get me wrong. Miike has plenty of skill. It is not that his 'Hara- Kiri' is a washout. It's just that Kobayashi's version is a true work of art, a film classic, in fact; and in comparison Miike's is merely a competent effort and a pointless bid for respectability that was not needed. He is a master in his own realm. Surprisingly his last film before this, the juicy, action-historical blockbuster 13 Assassins, which I thoroughly enjoyed, also was an adaptation -- of Eiichi Kudo's little known samurai film of the same name. Thanks to 'Wildgrounds' (who compare the two Hara- Kiri films) for this info. Thanks also to Ben Parker on 'CapitalNewYork' for his detailed comparison of the two films; and to the Criterion Collection, for its print of Kobayashi's 'Hara-Kiri' and Donald Ritchie's informed introduction to it.
I just watched Lopes-Curval's new 2014 film High Society/Le beau monde
as part of Film Comment Selects at Lincoln Center and this led me to go
back and re-watch her 12-years-earlier Seaside/Bord de mer (2002),
twice; it is available streaming on Netflix. The two films have this
common interest in class, a provincial place someone chooses to leave,
and couples splitting up, but they are completely different. I think I
like this one, her first feature, winner of the Caméra d'Or at Cannes,
better than the new one; it seems more original and shows a keener eye.
As viewers have noted this film seems to be about nothing, but in fact is finely observed, with many subtle little moments in the life of this minor resort town with its pebble factory. As Lopes-Curval's new film, High Society/Le beau monde (2014) also shows, she's interested in class, and how a woman may move up and couples may split up along the way. At the outset Paul (Jonathan Zaccaï) and the pretty Marie (Hélène Fillières) are together but Marie is bored with sorting pebbles and with Paul. Rose (Bulle Ogier), Marie's mother, retired from the factory, is a compulsive gambler at the local casino pouring all she has into slot machines. Rose avoids Odette (Liliane Rovère), whom she resents for marrying into the factory owner family (but the factory was failing and Odette's husband sold it). Odette's ineffectual son Albert (Patrick Lizana) works in management at the factory but without motivation or ability. He is married but is attracted to Marie. In the course of the year (the film divided up into seasons from "Été" to Été") these relationships between Marie and Paul, Albert and Marie, Rose and Odette, will shift. We also follow people who come only in the summer; one is a fashion photographer who grew up here but has never thought of using the pebble beach as a background for a shoot till now: people are expected to go far to achieve in his field. Lopes- Curval flats around the little seaside town like Jacques Tati in Jour de Fête, but focusing on feelings and lives not physical comedy. This is the portrait of a place and a little society. It doesn't seek to go into depths about any individuals. But there are crises -- Rose's gambling; Marie's desperation. The film ends comically with a unifying event: a shark alert, like in Jaws, Lopes-Curvas thus wryly pointing to how completely her film eschews overt drama in favor of delicate portraiture that is too low-keyed even for many French tastes. Yet perhaps just for that reason this is a film that continues to yield up its charms on repeated viewings, its lack of any big events making all the little moments of heightened value.
There is a warm an detailed appreciation by Michael Atkinson from the Village Voice when the film, following a Rendez-Vous with French Cinema showing, had a New York theatrical release in 2003. He concludes:
"Scores of other characters come and goincluding a fashion photographer, his blissfully dim girlfriend, and his lovely, increasingly anxious mother (Ludmila Mikaël) but we see them only in random cross sections. The changing of the seasons leaves some of the town's inhabitants gone, some pregnant, some resolved to shoulder their burdens; we are not necessarily privy to the changes or how they came about. We do get subtle gestures and evaporating moments: a mother looking with fondness and worry after her son, a tug on an uncomfortable dress, a cocktail drained too quickly, a decision to hold one's tongue visualized as an eyebrow flex.
"It's a gently sensible strategy that dares to suggest, as Renoir, Ozu, Rohmer, and Kiarostami films do, that you can only know so much about other people by watching them, and that our small 'knowing' says as much about us as it does about the subjects of our attention. Certainly, Hollywood films encourage us to enjoy an absurd God-like omniscience; all relevant thoughts, incidents, and connections are made plain as day. In her first feature, Lopes-Curval lets the human mysteries play out invisibly, and even the actors are forced to economize in short scenes of little dramatic import. A stare held a split second too long or an evaded gaze can mean the world."
To call a post-Nineties Jean-Luc Godard's film "accessible" would be a
stretch. But his new one, Goodbye to Language, is discernibly more
appealing and less of a slog (70 minuets instead of 104) than his Film
Socialisme (NYFF 2010). The latter occasioned Todd McCarthy's
angry-sounding assertion that Godard is mean-spirited and exhibits "the
most spurious sort of anti-Americanism or genuinely profound
anti-humanism, something that puts Godard in the same misguided camp as
those errant geniuses of an earlier era, Pound and Céline." This is
less visible in Goodbye to Language, which spends a lot of time with a
naked middle-class white couple in an apartment, and with Godard's own
dog, Roxy, and is playful enough to be shot in 3D, of which it makes
some good use. I do not see that use as "revolutionary," as Mike
D'Angelo did in a Cannes bulletin for The Dissolve. I think in the face
of a rote-acknowledged "master" (and Godard really did seem exciting
and revolutionary back in the days of Breathless and La Chinoise) whom
one can't make head nor tail of, it's natural to pick out elements one
enjoys and blow them up into something important. Thus one notes that
the distorted color in Goodbye to Language is sometimes gorgeous. And
one wishes that more mainstream films dared to do such things more
often, with one excuse or another.
Goodbye to Language, like Film Socialisme, is divided up into parts with portentous titles, which one would remember if they seemed to illustrate their titles in any relatable way. The NYFF festival blurb calls this "a work of the greatest freedom and joy," but it's not. It's didactic, full of general nouns (like "freedom" and "joy") thrown out with the verve of a French university student. It cites fifteen or twenty famous authors whose names were dropped or lines quoted; and ten or twelve classical composers, snippets of whose compositions are folded in to add flavor and importance. But when Mike D'Angelo says "it doesn't constantly seem as if he's primarily interested in demonstrating his own erudition," he's saying this because other Godard films have constantly seemed to be primarily interested in that, and this one just barely avoids it.
Here's what D'Angelo observes in the film's 3D that he thinks revolutionary (and this one moment is indeed remarkable): "Turns out he'd had the camera pan to follow an actor walking away from another actor, then superimposed the pan onto the stationary shot, creating (via 3-D) a surreal loop that, when completed, inspired the audience to burst into spontaneous applause. " It's hard to describe, and strange, and indeed original. I'd very much like to have watched this sequence -- which you do have to take off your 3D glasses to appreciate the transformative nature of -- with an audience keen enough to have noted its cleverness and applauded it. The audience I was with applauded at the end, but that just felt like an obligatory gesture, not the "olé" of connoisseurs noting a visual coup.
As D'Angelo says, since the Nineties Godard has been "a full-bore avant-garde filmmaker." This means his films are the kind of thing you might see showing in a loop in a darkened room of a museum. When any film makes no rational sense I remember my museum experiences of that kind of art film and am calmed. Such films have their place. They are like complex decorative objects. Yes, and Godard's references to Nietzsche (pronounced "NEETCH" by French- speakers) or Solzenitzen are like gilding on a frame. And offhand gibes like the man in the hat who says Solzenitzen didn't need Google (which also sounds funny in French) to make up the subtitle for a book, as D'Angelo puts it, "ranks high among the dumbest things a smart person has ever said." Godard is a smart person who in a long career has said plenty of dumb things. He would have been a lot better as a filmmaker if he'd done more showing and less telling, from a long way back.
But parts of Farewell to Language are bold and visually stimulating, and ought to be studied by conventional filmmakers, editors, or cinematographers to get some more original visual ideas. I also like another D'Angelo's Dissolve note (and he himself says this is his favorite Godard film since Weekend): "According to my Twitter feed, Goodbye To Language has reinvented cinema againone dude went full Pauline Kael and compared it to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." Unfortunately, some after the screening I saw, with bunch of ostensible film writers, out in the lobby some were pronouncing that this was "the future of cinema." Not Marvel Comics?
Watched at NYFF 2014.
Writer-producer Dan Gilroy's directorial debut Nightcrawler is a
smooth, brightly colored, compulsively watchable movie that plays with
journalism, employment desperation, and the motivational
online-educated loner world of a marginal news bottom-feeder in the
mean streets and freeways of Los Angeles. He's Lou Bloom, a lonely
Angeleno who's hungry, driven, and amoral. Jake Gyllenhaal becomes an
intense character actor here, moving way beyond the obsessive crime
investigator he played in Fincher's Zodiac. Taking the coyote as his
metaphor, the actor dropped 25 pounds for the role and played his
scenes grinning, bug-eyed, and always literally hungry. Though with
need and ambition instead of poetry in his heart Lou might fit into the
fringes of the Hollywood outcasts of Nathaniel West's Day of the
Locust. Now, Gilroy hasn't penned a high literary work. This is a kind
of sleazy thriller, but with a witty satirical edge and an implied
strident message. It knows not the network of corruption we find in
James Elroy, only carjackings, baby killings, and home invasions. At
its center is a creep we love to watch, and in spite of ourselves
almost sympathize with.
As we meet Lou, he's a scavenger (like a coyote), selling found or stolen copper wire and manhole covers to a wholesaler and delivering a comically detached, motor-mouthed job application that's instantly rejected: "I won't hire a f-ing thief!" But Lou happens on a bad car accident with a bloody victim and encounters the nocturnal world of free lance videographers who feed off accidents, selling lurid footage to the TV stations for the best price they can get. It looks perfect to him. He steals a fancy mountain bike and sells it to buy the tools of this game, police radio, camera, and starts chasing cop cars and ambulances He hires a desperate "intern" called Rick (Riz Ahmed) he hilariously "interviews" in a luncheonette using business-model lingo and agrees to pay a retainer of $30 a night to be his navigator and assistant, decoding police case designations, picking best routes. Suddenly, Lou is in his element. TV news at its most lurid "viewer discretion advised" level feeds off human misery just the way Lou does.
Importantly, Lou develops a purchase source, the aging woman director of the region's lowest-rated TV station, called Nina (Gilroy's actress wife Rene Russo), a kind of desperate poor relation of Faye Dunnaway in Network. She buys and sells fear to suburban white people. "The perfect story is a screaming woman with her throat cut running down a street in a good neighborhood," she says. Lou bargains intensely to raise his prices and status with Nina, and he clearly wants her as well as her patronage. Lou isn't clueless about people. He just doesn't like them. In fact he knows very well how to manipulate them. To speak of "chemistry" between Gyllenhaal, Russo, Ahmed, or Bill Paxton, who plays Joe Loder, a more experienced photo "nightcrawler" he follows, then climbs over, would be absurd. Lou exudes a kind of sweet, misleadingly innocuous-seeming poison, which doubles as creepy charm.
Lou has gotten into all this by breaking the law, and it's not long before he starts overstepping bounds even more dangerously. His eagerness to get to news sites before his competitors, like Joe Loder, who humiliate him for his clumsiness and poor equipment at first, soon leads to his getting himself and Rick to crime or accident scenes before the police do. And soon enough he winds up essentially involved in and covering up a crime in order to get a scoop. But skimming the margins of the permissible and the legal is all in the cause of local TV and the business model works, even though some of the workers don't survive.
Now there are several weaknesses in this movie. But they are not Lou's hilariously glib and clueless patter and the disarming manner in which Jake Gyllenhaal delivers it, nor the stunningly filmed speed chases in Lou's newly acquired red Mustang and the other dangers and excitements, nor the glowing day 35mm. film and night digital cinematography of multiple-award-winner and Paul Thomas Anderson regular Robert Elswit (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood). But the screenplay might have spread wider its picture of corruption beyond merely the camera hacks and the ratings-mad TV hacks who exploit them; the police are knights in shining armor here, so a whole dimension is missing. The movie further should not have been quite so continually caught up in Lou Bloom's own obsessions. It needed to step back and look at him from some cooler angles. Despite the more strident than necessary editorializing, and too intensely cynical, this isn't exactly fresh new ground that's being broken here. But it's still a creepily engaging, wonderful-to-look-at movie. If it's astonishingly polished and mature for a directorial debut, that's partly because of experienced family help. Dan has a twin brother, John, who's an editor, and another brother, Tony, who's a writer and director, and they were both on hand to help. Gyllenhaal, who co-produced, evidently contributed substantially to the spirit of the enterprise. And he delivers an amazing performance, as do Rene Russo and the rising British star Riz Ahmed.
Nightcrawler, 117 mins., debuted at Toronto. Watched for this review at The Academy Theater at Lighthouse International, NYC at the courtesy of Academy member Marilyn Stewart, 29 October 2014. US theatrical release date is 31 October 2014
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