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Jun 1, 2015

Screening Log: May

Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)


Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Gibney, 2015, B)
Far less interesting as a cinematic accomplishment than it is as an exposé. Going Clear is an unsettling look into the vicious, destructive and financially dubious inner workings of the Church of Scientology and the fraudsters who run it. It is as harrowing as it is confounding.

La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995, B)
Kassovitz's film is over-determined and over-zealous, and has since been largely ignored due to his subsequently underwhelming directorial career, but this coked-out, high-octane story of fragile masculinity, volatile friendships and the vulnerabilities of life in the Parisian banlieue is undeniably effective, with an ending that never fails to shock even on repeat screenings. 

Dead Man (Jarmusch, 1995, B+)
The type of curious, revisionist and progressive film that the Western genre, on its last long breaths for several decades now, needs in order to be revitalized and re-popularized. Jarmusch's uncompromising vision is stark, humorous and wickedly entertaining, and gets the best of Johnny Depp's eccentricities. It's not a film for everyone -- or, indeed, for every mood -- but it's magic if you can on the wavelength.

Underground (Kusturica, 1995, A)
Kusturica's film is essentially comprised of a series of allegories -- for more than half of the film's running time, these are placed within an overarching allegory -- and yet, unlike most films that try to construct their narrative entirely based around a single trick, it manages never to lose its surprise factor. The symbolism, the allusions and the jokes are increasingly clever. With biting humour and at a relentlessly energetic pace, Underground draws a historical map of Yugoslavia through the 20th century that is at once accessible and precise, heartfelt and bitter, and prescient and timeless. A masterpiece.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015, B/B+)
The sensitivity to light, to colour, to textures, to every aural and visual element of film-making, is remarkable. It's a near miracle that a film this strange, progressive and weird received the budget that it did and didn't veer off the rails during its troubled production. Miller's is a singular vision and this is a unique film, putting to shame modern Hollywood blockbusters for their repetitive structures, banal stories and archaic gender politics. Bonus points: the film never forgets that action in cinema need not be mutually exclusive to character development and "real" world building. We really care for these characters and their destinies.

Don't Forget You're Going to Die (Beauvois, 1995, B-)
The rare experience of a film that is exactly my neutral: innocuous enough not to actively dislike -- though innocuous might not be the best word to use about a film about sex, drugs and military violence -- but so unexciting that it's difficult to find the positives. Beauvois promises a strong directorial career ahead of him, exhibiting a powerful grasp of mood and colour palettes, but his film fails to register the emotional responses it aims for. We know a scene is meant to shock but it doesn't; we know the character wants sympathy but he gets none. It would be more than a decade before Beauvois would direct another film that also concerned itself with "the morality of man" and knock it out of the park.

Ulysses' Gaze (Angelopoulos, 1995, C+)
The experience is akin to reading a novel, written in an old historical iteration of a language we speak, but find rather outdated. The dialogue doesn't feel as though it's comprised of normal conversations, but prose taken from archetypal texts. There is a theatrical quality to the film's look, a stiffness to the movements of the camera that, combined with the literary nature of the script and the indulgent running time, certainly test the patience. The film is deeply and intimately rooted in its milieu, but maybe three-hour lectures on Balkan history are not everyone's idea of a rewarding university course film experience. The sequences wherein A (Harvey Keitel) seamlessly interacts with the past are the best passages in the film.

Good Men, Good Women (Hou, 1995, B+/A-)
This critic's notebook tends to be left blank at two types of screenings: when the film is not worth the effort of scribbling in the dark, or when it is so transfixing, it simply breezes by without allowing a moment to be spent looking away from the screen. Hou's film is of the latter variety. Composed of three(?) different stories on various time and mind frames -- film within in a film, past reminiscences, figments of imagination -- Good Men, Good Women is not consistent, or even coherent, and makes one wish each thread had received its own separate treatment. Yet, each section is almost hypnotic in effect, and intensely powerful as an individual experience. Hou's precise, atmospheric direction -- he really doesn't let a single frame go to waste -- means that any moment resonates in isolation, even if the entire picture requires repeat visits to fully reveal its thematic facets. This is a work of formal and emotional grandeur.

The Madness of King George (Hytner, 1994, B+)
This is unquestionably the most entertaining film of the competition lineup of the 1995 Cannes Festival. Hytner's film packs all the punch and pizzazz missing from the other English-language period dramas of the festival. It conveys a sweet love story beneath the opulence of regal clothes and wigs, and offers a comic glimpse into the rituals and relationships of the court and the archaic medical system. Hawthorne is remarkable in this film, impossibly balancing farce with a tender portrait of mental illness.

Land and Freedom (Loach, 1995, C+)
Individual moments of brilliance -- such as the execution of the priest in the first half of the film, the strategizing amongst the activists -- are highlights in the film, but the whole is much less than the some of its parts. Land and Freedom has a clear political agenda, but Loach's lethargic tone fails to bring the audience to the side of the protagonists. If your audience doesn't want to win the war with you, what is the point?

Sharaku (Shinoda, 1995, B-)
Immaculately designed like the tender portraits of Sharaku himself, and curiously funny like the grandiose Kabuki performances, Shinoda's film has the ideal execution, but at the service of a story that is limited in appeal and too restrained, culturally and historically, to connect with today's modern audience.

Parviz (Barzegar, 2012, B+)
Majid Barzegar's psycho-thriller would be a perfect fit for the New Greek Extremity movement. Perhaps too violent and detached to connect with a wider arthouse audience, but effective for anyone willing to subject themselves to this anatomy of vengeance and solitude in the modern man.

Fish and Cat (Mokri, 2014, A-)
One of the most important Iranian films of the recent years. Mokri's voice is a much needed one for the dormant national film industry and his vision is unique and courageous. That the film manages to pull off two formal tricks that are completely at odds with each other -- filming the entire film in one, and creating a warped temporal/spatial perspective where characters move forward in space but in various directions, including repeated encounters, in time -- is almost a miracle.

Jefferson in Paris (Ivory, 1995, D+)
One expects no less of a Merchant/Ivory production in the visual department, and the design of this film is reliably elaborate and ostentatious, but the less spoken of the film itself, the better. The intricacies of the French revolution are understandably the background, but the fact that the complicated story of Jefferson's relationship with his slaves is treated as a sideshow is inexcusable. Nolte's performance falls flat, too; he's unconvincing as a conflicted lover and implausibly meek as a future president.

Angels & Insects (Haas, 1995, C+)
Nasty Love would have been a more appropriate title for this film. The opening passages of the film are rather tedious, and what begins as a touchingly melancholic performance by Rylance teeters dangerously on the edge of repetitiousness, but Angels & Insects bursts into life with the revelation of that relationship. Kristin Scott Thomas's work is exemplary, though we have seen various reincarnations of this very performance since.

Nasty Love (Martone, 1995, B-)
There are surely aspects of Italian culture at play here to which I'm not privy. I recognize that is my shortcoming, not the film's; and Martone's film is visually captivating, with several individual shots that linger on far longer than the film. Yet, the sense of mystery in Nasty Love doesn't fully translate to suspense before the loose knots are tied in the end, and the film never successfully sells the history of the characters' troubled relationships.

Ex Machina (Garland, 2015, A-)
One of the best science fiction films of recent years.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Hansel, 1995, C-)
Mind-numbingly monotonous and despairing; any moment with the potential to make an emotional impact comes across as amateurishly forced -- yes, as the wife of the sea-sailing protagonist tells us in a voice over that she's cold and needs an embrace, we are shown the protagonist embracing a lonely cat. Worse yet, the arc of the film's narrative -- a budding friendship between a Belgian sailor and a young girl on the ship -- can be predicted within seconds of their first encounter, leaving little to the imagination or for anticipation.

Gayby Baby (Newell, 2015, C-)
Gayby Baby is emotionally affecting and incisive about the relationship between the parents and their kids, and the difficulties that both face. Yet, the film is considerably undermined by long, intermittent passages which are designed to convey that gay parents are just like any other parents. The message is rather obvious for people who care enough to see this film, rendering significant sections of the film in which kids quarrel about getting to watch wrestling or getting off studying incredibly dull.

A Sinner in Mecca (Sharma, 2015, D+)
Unaided by Parvez’s lackadaisical narration, the film often feels like a didactic lecture on the localized rituals of Islam and never cuts deep enough into the religion beyond its external customs. The filmmaker’s interpretations of Islam are nebulous and generous, hence reducing the film to an emotional catharsis, rather than a more universal experience.

Total: 20 films

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