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Jul 4, 2014

Borgman

Grade: B-


Alex van Warmerdam's Borgman opens with a disorienting, enthralling sequence in which three men, led by a priest, raid on hidden lairs in a forest where three other men, shabby and unkempt, have hoarded a treasure trove of weaponry. The motives of neither group are clear, but the sheer force that propels the scene promises a wild ride. The entirety of the film can't quite match the energy of this scene, but maintains its fresh air of ambiguity.

The titular Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is a bearded, mysterious wanderer who settles on an affluent house in which Marina (Hadewych Minis) and Richard (Jeroen Perceval) live with their three children and their young, Danish maid. When Richard firmly rejects Borgman’s request to take a bath in their house and viciously beats him, Marina takes pity on the vagrant and hides him in a backyard bunkhouse. The audience is alerted both to the underlying sense of unease that begins with this game of hide and seek, and to van Warmerdam’s overarching allegory about a Dutch society scarred by class divisions and racial tension.

Borgman charms Marina and enchants the children with his story, yet remains inexplicably hidden from Richard’s sight. Borgman’s comfort at the residence, where his presence has brought others nothing but discomfort, has a comic absurdity to it. He prances around the house, takes long baths as he watches television and sips red wine, and tells the children horror stories about a sea monster. Marina is increasingly attached to this intruder whose mysterious, naked presence above her as she sleeps at nights induces in her nightmares in which she sees herself in violent conflict with her husband. Borgman succumbs to Marina's request to stay with the family, eventually plotting a plan to replace the estate’s gardener. With the plan in place, Borgman brings his accomplices, four other lair people who assist him in his progressively ruthless takeover of the house.

Jul 1, 2014

Screening Log: June

Monty Python's Life of Brian

(This month's screenings were limited to a measly seven, partly due to a rigorous reading schedule for a research project and partly because of the Football World Cup.)

Johnny Stecchino (Benigni, 1991, B)
Parodying the conventions of film noir, Benigni's tale of mistaken identities is cliched, mildly inappropriate and slightly dated but it nevertheless doesn't fail to make the audience laugh out loud. Nicoletta Braschi is divine as the film's femme fatale.

Me and You (Bertolucci, 2012, B-) (review)
A surprisingly intimate film from one of the most provocative directors of the twentieth century, Me and You is an empathetic, if slight, look at teenage awkwardness. There is delightful chemistry between the film's two young leads.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (DeBlois, 2014, C)
Devoid of the sort of character-driven storytelling that made the film one of Dreamworks's few special outings, this sequel is a relentlessly action-packed riot that offers little beyond the beautiful animation.

A Simple Event (Shahid Saless, 1973, B)
One of the most influential films in Iranian history, a work that directly impacted the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami and Amir Naderi, A Simple Event lives up to its title. There is very little in the way of plot, but the final moments of the film are moving and a testament to its lasting impact. A restoration and quality home video release is way overdue.

Venus in Fur (Polanski, 2014, B-) (review)
An amusing exercise featuring two perfectly calibrated performances, Polanski's gleefully kinky adaptation of the Masoch-inspired play is entertaining but doesn't leave much to think about in its wake.  

The Edge of Tomorrow (Liman, 2014, B)
Certain pitfalls of the modern Hollywood action film persist in Liman's otherwise inventive, pleasingly original take on the alien invasion. The Edge of Tomorrow is a whole lot of fun to watch from start to finish, which is a quality few blockbusters possess.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Jones, 1979, A-)
Thirty five years after its release, Life of Brian remains a refreshingly outrageous and sheepishly funny and insightful romp, excelling at creating a coherent structure from sketch-based comedy and providing sharp commentary on religious and political issues.

Jun 27, 2014

Me and You

Grade: B-

*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience.

There was a time when the release of every new film from Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci would cause some level of controversy. Consider that in a career that spans more than five decades, he has directed films like The Conformist. Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers. His latest film, Me and You, was made almost a decade after The Dreamers. It premiered at Cannes more than two years ago but is being released only now, almost as if the publicity for his films has gotten as quiet as the man himself, now sitting (and directing) permanently in wheel chairs.

The opening of Me and You promises more of the director’s provocative thematic interests. Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) is a troubled looking teenager finishing a conversation with his psychiatrist. He is reclusive and detached, and his misbehaviours are confirmed when we overhear a conversation between his separated parents on the phone. An early scene in which Lorenzo and his mother dine at a restaurant shows the most prominent touch of Bertolucci’s perversions as the young boy incessantly asks his mother what she would do to repopulate the world if they were the only two people left on the planet.

Jun 20, 2014

Venus in Fur

Grade: B-

*This review was originally posted on Movie Mezzanine

The later years of Roman Polanski’s career, after the turn of the century, have taken him to vastly different highs and lows. From his somber, Palme-winning WWII epic to the chilling, seaside world of British politics, the unimaginative adaptation of a beloved classic to the colorful adaptation of a modern theatrical masterpiece, Polanski has challenged himself in different arenas few directors of his age dare to do. Like Carnage, his latest, Venus in Fur, is also inspired by a play and restricted to a single stage but, as we have come to expect of the director, the result is hardly similar to his previous work.

Adapted from a David Ives play that takes its story from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Polanski’s Paris-set film tells the story of Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), a theatre director about to stage his interpretation of Masoch’s novella. In the original text, a man named Severin becomes fascinated with a woman named Vanda to such heights that he begs her to take him on as her slave. She does so, taking him to Florence with her as a servant. The joy with which Severin welcomes her orders has had a hand in coining the term “masochism.”

When the film opens, an audition session has ended and a frustrated Thomas is venting about the actresses who tried for the role of Wanda on his cell phone. The actresses trying to fulfill his fantasy version of Wanda were young and beautiful but not much else, and Thomas wants for the brains of someone who understands the character. Before the call is over, enters a woman called Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner). She is older than Thomas’s expectations and her chatty, disheveled personality isn’t immediately convincing. But she travels the distance between her reality and Thomas’s fantasy with such ferocious energy that the director agrees to let her try for the part.

Jun 2, 2014

Screening Log: May

Where Is the Friend's Home?


Filth (Baird, 2014, C-) (review)
The hodgepodge of genre elements, loose narrative threads and ungainly tonal shifts keep the audience at a distance, a point from which everything appears increasingly bizarre and meaningless.

Homework (Kiarostami, 1989, B)
A crushing experience, made up almost entirely of interview with young school children about their homework routine, that exposes the limitations of the Iranian school system, the violent consequences of illiteracy and the disturbing effects of bullying. Only a filmmaker of Kiarostami's magnitude can make a conversation with a young child about his school work unwatchable because of its sheer forcefulness.

Where Is the Friend's Home? (Kiarostami, 1987, A+)
It isn't merely for thematic resonance that Kiarostami titles his film after Sohrab Sepehri's eponymous poem; the film fills the screen with all the deceptive simplicity and poetic elegance of Sepehri's sparse, modernist ruminations. The story of one boy's journey to take a classmate's notebook home is elevated to a near spiritual experience, soulful and deeply rooted in the fabric of Northern Iran's rural culture.

First Graders (Kiarostami, 1984, C+)
Kiarostami's earlier works for Kanun (Centre for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults) was a fund of graceful, subtle stories about children. First Graders, on the other hand, is delicate but also a moralistic lesson delivered without disguise, in a structurally repetitive work that doesn't fully pay off in the end.

First Case. Second Case. (Kiarostami, 1979, B)
An exceptional time capsule of the nation in flux in the transition years between the Pahlavi era and the Islamic Republic with all its turmoil and identity crises . This is not one of the director's most innovative films but the contrasting presences, ideologies and the film's history with the censor's makes it one of the most vital in his filmography.

A Suit for the Wedding (Kiarostami, 1976, A-)
An incredible achievement in directing, Suit takes an impossibly simple premise to unimaginable heights as a thriller, a treatise on social inequality and an exploration on bullying among young kids. 

The Report (Kiarostami, 1977, A)
Scenes from a (shattering) marriage. Formally and thematically an anomaly in Kiarostami's oeuvre, but one of his richest works; a morally challenging, multi-faceted portrait of the break-up of a family that acts as a microcosm of a society on the brink of crumbling unto itself.

The Traveller (Kiarostami, 1974, B+)
One of Kiarostami's most openly political and critical films, and unusually classicist in construction. An indictment of social inequality and the failed school system in the final years of the Pahlavi era, packed with a stronger emotional punch than most of the auteur's output.

The Chorus (Kiarostami, 1982, N/A)
A simple conceit, told in a humorous and irony-tinged fashion. An instrument of modernity allows man to retreat from the mayhem of modernity to the serenity of the past, only to be thrown back into the reality of today's world. A real gem.

The Experience (Kiarostami, 1973, A-)
The extremely personal original story was written by Amir Naderi, whose fascination with stories of destitute children shapes the bleak atmosphere of the film, but Kiarostami's authorial stamp is on the film's elegant structure and the richness of its wordless empty spaces.

Orderly or Disorderly? (Kiarostami, 1981, N/A)
Perfecting the dual structure of Two Solutions For One Problem, Kiarostami's educational film about the superiority of social order to disorder effectively becomes a meta-textual commentary on the state of Iranian filmmaking at the time.

Colours (Kiarostami, 1976, N/A)
Strictly educational for children – the film basically teaches kids about primary and secondary colours – it is nevertheless a distinctly Iranian work that elicits nostalgia in viewers of a certain age, while exhibiting the directors attention to the specificities that instill meaning in the mundane

Breaktime (Kiarostami, 1972, N/A)
An expansion of the ideas that Kiarostami began to explore in his debut short - a child being thrust into an adult world - Breaktime is a richer film, depicting the complexity of this mismatched interaction in visually subtle ways.

Godzilla (Edwards, 2014, B-)
Staggeringly beautiful and complicated in its atmospheric visual construction but ultimately meaningless and thus unmemorable.

Two Solutions For One Problem (Kiarostami, 1975, N/A)
Almost an antithesis to the director's later storytelling methods, there is nothing elusive about this educational short film but the lesson is delivered with humour and wit.

We're The Millers (Thurber, 2013, D-)
Agonizingly stupid and exhaustingly crude.

Zoolander (Stiller, 2001, A)
Stiller's fashion industry satire somehow manages to get funnier and smarter upon every revisit. One of the most rewatchable films of all time and the jewel in Stiller's acting and directing careers.

The Possibilities Are Endless (Lovelace/Hall, 2014, B/B+) (review)
Formally innovative and absolutely heartbreaking. Possibilities recreates a haunting environment around its subject in stylish fashion and gains our sympathies without relying on cliched documentary tropes.

The Secret Trial 5 (Wala, 2014, B-) (review)
An essential documentary, if formally insignificant, because of the subject matter it tackles and potential political and personal ramifications on the lives of Muslims in North America.

Beyond Clueless (Lyne, 2014, B/B+) (review)
Cleverly constructed to mirror the narrative arc of a high school film, this visual essay on teen characters in Hollywood movies at the turn of the century is equal parts incisive and entertaining, with the added bonus of Fairuza Balk's narration.

The Double (Ayoade, 2013, B/B+) (review)
Ayoade's adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Double, via Kafka, Orwell and Gilliam lacks the psychological depth of character that enriches the original text, but it establishes the directors as one of the most exciting voices of his generation.

Mad As Hell (Napier, 2014, C+) (review)
A true depiction of the American dream in all its infuriating and inspiring glory, slickly shot but formally dull and repetitive.

Living Stars (Cohn/Duprat, 2014, C+) (review)
The premise of the film - a compilation of Argentine men, women and children of all ages and social strata dancing to international hits - is intriguing, but its point about the universality of dance is neither rich nor fresh enough to sustain it.

Bread and Alley (Kiarostami, 1970, N/A)
An inauspicious debut but one that foreshadows many of the director's formal interests and thematic concerns. Simple, cyclical and beautiful in a breezy way.

May 30, 2014

Filth

Grade: C-

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

Telling a story entirely through the perspective of a film’s main character is a tricky proposition if that character is a drug-addled, hallucinating, misogynist wreck of a human being. Such filmmaking is tantamount to daring the audience to endure a high-tempo, stylistically overbearing exercise in full and leave the theatre with their sanity intact. “Enter the mind of this wretched man and exit exactly like him” seems to be what Filth, Jon S. Baird’s take on the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, instructs us to do. This is an adaptation that doubles down on Welsh’s already raucous prose and delivers a film that slowly tightens its noose around the audience’s neck before finally kicking them off the chair.

Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is the center of the film’s universe, the man whose perspective we share. Filth takes two parallel but separate routes in defining this character –both ‘character’ and ‘defining’ used very loosely here: the first through his daily routines in the police force and the second through hallucinatory flashbacks. The former shows him to be a corrupt cop who obliterates anything that blocks his path to self-satisfaction and gaining a promotion. He forces himself on underage women, consumes more drugs than seems humanly possible, sleeps with his colleagues’ wives and plays brutal, life-changing pranks on his coworkers; the latter, the flashbacks, show him to be a guilt-ridden father whose broken marriage has left him without the wife and child he seemingly loves despite himself. It is also implied that a childhood incident which led to the death of his brother has caused irreversible trauma.

Filth begins with Bruce’s assignment to a case involving the murder of a Japanese student by a violent gang of Edinburgh youth, but it is immediately evident that his mission is not solving the mystery, but fulfilling as many self-destructive, hedonistic desires as possible. These digressions from the original case are repeated multiple times, and combined with Bruce’s hallucinations, are designed to emulate his state of mind. Instead, they serve to divest the plot of any coherence. Neither the gradual exposition of Bruce’s past, nor the unyielding persistence with which his misdemeanor is portrayed can make his character believable or relatable.

May 13, 2014

The Possibilities Are Endless

Grade: B/B+

*This review was originally published at The Film Experience

 When Scottish singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 2005, his movement became restricted, his memory was lost and his speech became limited to four phrases that he repeated over and over again: “yes,” “no,” “Grace Maxwell” (the name of his wife) and “the possibilities are endless.” There was little chance of him getting his health back on track, let alone restarting his career, but that last phrase in his small vocabulary proved to be prophetic. With the help of his ever-caring wife and son, Edwyn gradually began to piece his memories back together, took on painting and slowly began to form new sentences again, recalling and even singing his old lyrics.

Edwyn’s story is a tear-jerker and, packaged in a documentary film titled, aptly but unimaginatively, The Possibilities Are Endless, it raises red flags for audiences averse to emotionally charged collections of heartfelt talking head interviews so prevalent in documentary cinema. Fortunately, there is no sign of that in Edward Lovelace and James Hall’s film, an astonishing work that subverts all expectations of formal construction, while painting an empathetic and incisive portrayal of the singer’s life.

In tracing Edwyn’s process of regaining his memories, the film adopts his point of view, manufacturing a sensory experience akin to his perspective of interacting with the Scottish landscapes of his home. Sleekly photographed and expertly cut, Possibilities combines archival footage on grainy film recordings from Edwyn’s life with digitally shot, haunting images of the misty highlands and recreations of his youth starring his son. The framing breaks Edwyn’s current state into fragments, focusing on the empty spaces as he stares off into space and picks up details that others dismiss. Then it reverts to expansive long shots of his hometown and the eerie presence of the calm seaside. The film is strictly defined spatially, but paradoxically, the empty spaces and the frightening sameness of nature embody Edwyn’s struggle to place his past.

It’s a hypnotic experience, and an utterly heartbreaking one. It’s difficult to hold back tears as we watch Edwyn fail to recount simple anecdotes, mistake numbers and memories for one another and remain helplessly passive in a studio he had once built. Possibilities does a brilliant job of immersing the audience in his struggle, making his gradual liberation all the more meaningful, but it does so by avoiding sentimentality. The audience is invited to live Edwyn’s experience and ruminate on his surroundings. The resulting experience is almost spiritual, one that leaves the audience thinking differently about life itself. The struggle we witness is all Edwyn’s, the catharsis is ours.