The 2019 Academy Awards

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By Zeke Trautenberg

The highlight of the 2019 Academy Awards was Spike Lee’s rousing acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay. Lee acknowledged the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of slavery at Jamestown during Black History Month: “1619, 2019, 400 years. 400 years our ancestors were stolen from mother Africa and brought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night.” He also he gave thanks to his grandmother, the daughter of a slave, for sending him to college and film school. He ended his speech by exhorting the audience, in the face of the 2020 presidential election, to be on “the right side of history, make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing!”

The shocking low point and out-of-touch-Oscars moment came at the very end of the ceremony when Green Book won Best Picture. Director Peter Farrelly, speaking in a dull monotone, declared that his film is “about loving each other despite our differences.” His remarks only underscored the notion that the film is a racial reconciliation fantasy, and contrasted sharply with Spike Lee’s vigorous condemnation of racism and bigotry.

Although Lee’s speech and joyful reaction to his win made the ceremony, the buildup to the 2019 Academy Awards portended disaster. A proposed popular film category shelved soon after it was announced, a ceremony without a hostan uproar over the proposed elimination of categories from the live telecast, and years of declining ratings. An adrift, out of touch, and tarnished leadership at the Academy parallels an industry undergoing rapid and difficult change, marked by Disney’s pending merger with Fox, the growing power of Netflix, and the halting progress of the #MeToo movement.

Notwithstanding the lack of a host, the show kept up a relatively brisk pace compared to the slog of past years. The prototypical musical opening featuring Queen + Adam Lanza did not bode well for the ceremony. “We Will Rock You” left this reviewer with a cold heart and an icky feeling of fremdschämen for Javier Bardem’s vigorous head bobbing. However, the short opening monologue by Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, and Maya Rudolph was a more favorable omen (last year, Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue lasted eighteen minutes).

Some presenters made a more favorable impression, including Melissa McCarthy’s The Favourite-inspired gown replete with puppet bunnies, Trevor Noah’s riff on the “Wakanda Forever” catchphrase from Black Panther, and Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson’s flirtatious takedown of racism. The same could not be said of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s intense eyes-locked-in-forever-passion rendition of the chintzy ballad “Shallow,” which threatened to bury the first row under a treacly tsunami of Diva tears.

Several themes stood out at this year’s Oscars. First, the border wall. A number of presenters singled out the wall for scorn. On this point, Javier Bardem declared in Spanish: “There are no borders or walls that can restrain ingenuity or talent.” Of course, borders and wall do all of these things, but preaching movies as a profitable panacea to borders is a perennial Oscar truism. 

Second, despite the #MeToo movement and the Academy’s recent moves towards creating a more diverse membership, the top awards and nominees did not reflect this rhetoric of inclusion. No women-directed films were nominated for Best Picture, nor were any women nominated for Best Director. Moreover, Brian Singer, the director Bohemian Rhapsody, who stands accused of serious sexual assault offenses, loomed like a phantom over the ceremony. The return of the stars of Wayne’s World served as a shallow effort to draw attention away from Singer’s absence.

Third, Roma’s wins for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film encapsulates the Netflix’s powerful place within the industry. Although it has 139 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix lacked this crucial marker of Hollywood acceptance. Although it fell short of winning Best Picture, the streaming giant’s concerted and profligate publicity campaign made it seem like a preordained winner.

The Oscar awards were the usual grab bag of the well-deserved (Olivia Colman’s win for Best Actress) and painfully off the mark (Green Book). Despite nominating many worthy films, the Academy—as always—overlooked many of the year’s best and most exciting films, including Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and Lucrecia Martel’s Zama. The Oscars are over. These great movies are waiting.

Photo: Getty Images

The 2018 Academy Awards

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Me Too and Hollywood’s Big Night

By Zeke Trautenberg

The Academy Awards are Hollywood’s Swarovski crystal-bedazzled barometer of the film industry and the culture at large. This year, the Me Too movement and revelations of abuse by the producer Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men in Hollywood served as the backdrop for the awards. Even before the ceremony began, Me Too was front and center in the form of Ryan Seacrest, the host of E’s red-carpet show. Seacrest is facing allegations of sexual harassment by his former stylist. In a move that reassured no one, E aired the coverage on a thirty-second tape delay, allowing the network to cut away from any uncomfortable moments.

Whereas Seacrest’s presence reflected the entrenched power of alleged harassers and abusers in Hollywood, the onstage appearance of the actress Annabella Sciorra, a survivor of Weinstein’s abuse, represented a symbolic recognition of the damage done by sexual harassers and abusers in Hollywood. In the most moving and symbolically powerful moment of the evening Sciorra, standing next to her fellow actresses Time’s Up declared: “This year many spoke their truth.”

Jimmy Kimmel reprised his role as a genial and self-aware host. He poked fun at the stars and acknowledged the Me Too movement, joking: “If you are a nominee who isn’t making history, shame on you!”. Among the history-making nominees was Rachel Morrison, the first woman nominated for Cinematography in the ninety-year history of the Oscars. The Chilean film Una mujer fantástica, which tells the story of a transgender woman (played by Daniela Vega) dealing with the loss of her partner, also broke ground with its Best Foreign Film win.

Reprising a joyful moment from last year, Kimmel brought Gal Godot, Armie Hammer, Emma Stone, Guillermo del Toro, and other Hollywood stars to a movie theater across the street from the Dolby Theater where they surprised an audience mid-movie. However, the visit to the theater carried a deeper significance, reflecting anxiety about the disjuncture between films recognized by the Academy and those favored by the movie-going public.

The only surprise at this year’s show was Jordan Peele’s win for Best Original Screenplay for the social satire-cum-horror film Get Out. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, with its broad allegory of outsiders in an unforgiving world, was a fitting winner of the Best Picture award. However, Coco, which won the award for Best Animated Feature, a transnational production with stars from across the Americas that represents a profitable and inclusive future for Hollywood.

Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

The Best Films of 2017

By Zeke Trautenberg

During this tumultuous year, the movie theater was a site of refuge, introspection, and conflict. The year began with Donald Trump’s travel ban, an executive order which represented a challenge to openness and freedom of exchange. In response, the filmmakers nominated for the Best Foreign-language Film at the Academy Awards released a defiant statement, in which they extolled film as a cosmopolitan remedy to the politics of nativism: “So we’ve asked ourselves: What can cinema do? Although we don’t want to overestimate the power of movies, we do believe that no other medium can offer such deep insight into other people’s circumstances and transform feelings of unfamiliarity into curiosity, empathy and compassion – even for those we have been told are our enemies.”

The second half of 2017 was no less tumultuous. The revelations of dozens of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, first revealed in The New York Times and The New Yorker, ushered in the most significant reshaping of the power dynamics of Hollywood in the industry’s history. Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, Salma Hayek, and the hundreds of other brave women and men who have come forward with their stories of abuse at the hands of Weinstein and other men in Hollywood have brought about a sea change in the culture at large. Ultimately, reforming the film industry’s toxic workplace cultures and practices, will require fixing the longstanding discrimination against and lack of opportunities for women and minorities in Hollywood.

Amid the charged partisan atmosphere of the country and the fallout from the Weinstein scandal, the film industry continues to adapt to an increasingly digital world. The proposed merger of Disney and Fox is a response to the growing clout, budget, and subscriber base of Netflix. This mega merger may well as a sign of things to come as studios consolidate to stave off competition from Amazon, Apple, and Netflix.

The list that follows is the product of my year at the cinema (and in front of my TV). I did not have the chance to see every one of the acclaimed or terrible films (here’s looking at you Geostorm) released in American cinemas this year, but all the movies listed here are worthy of your time.

10. Endless Poetry

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

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Throughout his peripatetic career, Jodorowsky has returned time and again to his favorite subject: himself. Endless Poetry is a filmic memoir, which unfolds in nineteen-fifties Santiago, as a young Jodorowsky (played by the filmmaker’s son, Adán) comes of age as a poet. As occurs in The Dance of Reality (2013)—which is based on Jodorowsky’s youth in a small town in northern Chile—, Endless Poetry features repeat, direct interventions by Jodorowsky himself. In Endless Poetry Jodorowsky conjures imaginative sequences, production design, and characters amid his oppressive home life. One memorable sequence depicts the bedroom walls of fellow poet Enrique Lihn’s bedroom covered from floor to ceiling in scribbling. This three-dimensional page serves as a mirror to the film itself, in which present, past, and future intersect.

9. Ladybird

Director: Greta Gerwig

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Greta Gerwig’s first film is a coming-of-age story about a young woman in Sacramento in the early 2000s. The film follows Lady Bird (Saroise Ronan) during her senior year at Catholic school as she takes up theater, loses her virginity, and goes to prom. The film is laugh-out-loud funny and features a stellar cast, which includes Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, and Tracy Letts. In addition to portraying the pratfalls of young adulthood, the film depicts the frustrated pursuit of respectability and economic insecurity among middle-class Americans in the years leading up to the Great Recession.

8. I Am Not Your Negro

Director: Raoul Peck

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Raoul Peck’s documentary is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House about the civil rights leaders Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Now (1965), another film about race in America by a director from the Caribbean, Peck’s film is a confrontational call to action. Peck juxtaposes the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence against African Americans with Baldwin’s searing analysis of race in twentieth-century America. The film underscores the connections these two periods by bookending the film with images of recent protests against police brutality, but leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions about where the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter intersect. In his voice-over narration, Samuel L. Jackson channels the author’s stoicism and resolve and delivers one of the most potent performances of his career.

7. Icarus

Director: Bryan Fogel

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There is always a certain lack of control in documentary filmmaking. The limited control filmmakers have over the ways their narrative unfolds is part of what distinguishes documentaries from fiction films. Bryan Fogel’s Icarus is a wonderful example of the ways in which documentary filmmaking is an adaptive art form. What begins as a story about an amateur cyclist who subjects himself to a rigorous doping regimen, transforms mid-way into a geopolitical thriller about a Russian sports scientist at the heart of one of the biggest scandal of modern sports: the systematic, state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes across decades. The scientist in question, Grigory Rodchenkov, is the kind of colorful character— his wardrobe includes bright orange shorts—that documentary filmmakers dream of. As the danger for Rodchenkov increases, Fogel grapples with how to intervene and tell a story that is no longer his own.

6. After the Storm

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

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After the Storm tells the story of Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a divorced father and novelist as he grapples with how to be a father after his recent divorce. Ryota works as a private detective, while struggling to write a second novel. However, instead of paying his alimony, the gumshoe spends his salary on his gambling habit. Abe communicates the protagonist’s sense of perpetual exhaustion and weariness with his slouched shoulders and hangdog expression. Ryota loves his son, but struggles to be a good father. The distance between father and son is exemplified by a memorable scene in which the author and detective watches his child play baseball with binoculars while sitting in his car. The film climaxes during a nocturnal summer storm which traps Ryota, his ex-wife, and son in the same apartment. As the rain falls, the fractured family renews the terms of their relationship and Ryota forges a closer bond with his son by sharing memories of his own childhood.

5. Call Me By Your Name

Director: Luca Guadagnino

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Luca Gaudagnino is a master of the contemporary melodrama. His previous films I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015) unfold in settings heavy with symbolism—an old house, an island in the Mediterranean—and Call Me By Your Name is no exception. Guadagnino transforms a villa in Northern Italy into the site of first romance for Elio (Timothée Chalamet). The arrival of the handsome Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is there to assist Elio’s father with archaeological research, elicits a potent mixture of self-doubt, shame, and desire from the cosmopolitan teenager. Although the film depicts Elio’s emotional turmoil with an earnestness that may grate on some, its emphasis on naked feeling and passion is all part of its bittersweet fun. And if you need one reason to see Call Me By Your Name, stay for Michael Stuhlbarg’s monologue on life, love, and the loss, which is the single most memorable scene of the year.

4. Frantz

Director: François Ozon

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François Ozon’s Frantz follows Adrien (Pierre Niney) and Anna (Paula Beer), two characters who are bound together by the same man, the recently deceased Frantz. Set in the aftermath of World War I, the film is an allegory of Franco-German relations, but also an exploration of guilt and the horrors of war. Shoot in gorgeous black and white, the film’s visuals are a departure for Ozon, who uses color to great effect in Potiche (2010) and The New Girlfriend (2014). Like these earlier films, Frantz features magnificent costumes (designed by Pascaline Chavanne), and a healthy dose of melodrama. And, as in In the House (2012), Frantz revels in the slippery nature of fiction. Ozon challenges viewers to discern the reason for Frantz’s visit to Germany and the meaning of the sentimental stories the interloper tells Anna’s grieving family.

3. The Shape of Water

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

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The Shape of Water had been swimming around in Guillermo Del Toro’s head for years, before he got the idea that made it all click: the story had to pass “through the service entrance.” Set in the 1960s, the film follows the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor at a top-secret research facility—a recurring setting in Del Toro’s films—where scientists study a creature they captured from a river in the Amazon. Elisa falls in love with the creature, who like her cannot speak. Together with her gay artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and black co-worker (Octavia Spencer), Elisa sets out to free the creature from the lab and its vicious director of security (Michael Shannon). The film is an allegory of being different in a world built on the principles of order and knowing your place. Working with a budget of under twenty million dollars, Del Toro makes a film that looks many times more expensive. The production design incorporates art deco and modernism, with acute attention to detail. The special effects are also remarkable. For the underwater scenes, Del Toro used the dry-for-wet method, which involves suspending the actors and props on wires, pumping in smoke, using fans to create the illusion of movement, utilizing light caustics (projecting images of light in water), and shooting it all in slow motion.

2. Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele

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A horror film and social satire, Get Out is an incisive depiction of race and racism in early-twenty-first century America. The film follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) as they embark on a weekend visit to Rose’s parents. As Chris and viewers see more of this WASPy household, which is seemingly haunted by a silent black maid and gardener, the manicured lawn and colonial style house transform into a nightmarish prison. The hypnosis sessions with Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener), in which Chris travels to the “sunken place,” is a frightening and vivid metaphor for black experience in America. The allegorical qualities of the film are enhanced by its pitch-perfect incorporation of the horror genre, from the eerie drive through the woods to the hidden laboratory in the basement.

1. Wormwood

Director: Errol Morris

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The genre and medium-bending Wormwood is a film of the streaming age. This documentary-cum-series with a running-time of four hours was produced and released by Netflix in six parts and released in a limited run as a stand-alone film. Wormwood centers on the death of Frank Olson (played by Peter Sarsgaard in the fictional scenes), an Army doctor who died after falling to his death from his New York City hotel room in 1953. Errol Morris interviews Olson’s son, Eric who has dedicated much of his life to finding out what happened to his father. The Cold War, biological weapons, Hamlet, the Book of Revelation, and the misdeeds of the CIA intersect in this Russian Doll of a film. Morris offers a masterclass in the juxtaposition of sound and images, the use of split screen (the scenes with Eric Olson were shot with ten cameras), and, as A.O. Scott puts it, dogged cinematic sleuthing. The film’s use of fictional sequences alongside the talking head interviews and archival footage that are standards of the documentary genre, add depth to a film about the nature of truth and the pain of the search for truth. Towards the end of Wormwood, the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh tells Morris: “But don’t you know how wonderful it is not to have an ending?” In lieu of offering closure to the story of Frank Olson, Wormwood douses the viewer in a bitterness for which there is no salve.

Honorable Mentions

Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan

Graduation – Cristian Mungiu

It Comes at Night – Trey Edward Shults

Loveless – Andrey Zvyagintsev

Marjorie Prime – Michael Almereyda

Quest – Jonathan Olshefski

The Florida Project – Sean Baker

The Lost City of Z – James Gray

The Other Side of Hope – Aki Kaurismäki

The Unknown Girl - Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

Photos: Warner Bros./ABCKO/A24/Magnolia/Netflix/Gaga/Sony Pictures Classics/Fox Searchlight/Universal/Netflix

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: The Disaster Artist (2017)

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Friendship and the movies

By Zeke Trautenberg

Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) is one of contemporary cinema’s most notorious cult films. Fans of The Room celebrate its extraneous subplots, continuity errors, and histrionic dialogue. Wiseau's exemplar of paracinema was released in one theater and grossed less than two-thousand dollars. Yet despite its inauspicious beginnings, the film has since become a midnight movie sensation.

The Disaster Artist, directed by the hyperactive writer, director, and actor James Franco, tells the improbable story behind the making of The Room. Franco’s film is based on the memoir by Wiseau’s co-star and best friend, Greg Sestero (played in the film by Franco’s brother Dave). Franco plays the mysterious Wiseau  with the intensity of Daniel Day Lewis and the measured crazy of Wild at Heart-era Nicholas Cage. Franco brings technical skill and a real admiration for Wiseau to his performance. The filmmaker and actor replicates his subject's vaguely Eastern European accent, permanent slouch, and tendency to omit definite articles from his speech with uncanny precision.

The Disaster Artist opens in San Francisco in 1998. Greg and Tommy are enrolled in the same acting class. After Greg botches a scene from Waiting for Godot, Tommy volunteers to take the stage. The camera tracks him from behind as he shuffles onstage. His menacing silhouette, crowned with shoulder-length black hair, gives way to a tragicomic vision as the camera cuts to reveal Tommy from head-on. Dressed like a swashbuckling glam rocker by way of Nosferatu, Tommy proceeds to wail and trample across the stage, a mortally wounded creature set loose from the shadow world.

After the acting class, Greg approaches Tommy in the parking lot and asks if they can do a scene together. Tommy agrees and they plan to meet up to rehearse. Tommy picks Greg up at his parents’ house, and proceeds to pursue the handsome Greg in an absurd day-long courtship in which the duo rehearse a scene at full volume in a restaurant, toss a football, and sip Redbull. 

Later, the pair make a late-night pilgrimage to the site of James Dean’s death, the aspiring actors seal their friendship with a pinky-swear. While returning from Dean’s memorial, Tommy suggests that they move together to his “pied-a-terre” in Los Angeles to pursue their dreams of stardom together. After relocating to Los Angeles, the two struggle to break into show business. Greg gets an agent (Sharon Stone, in one of the film’s many celebrity cameos), while Tommy, ever oblivious as to the limits of his talent and how others perceive him, pursues auditions for “All-American” roles.

After a disastrous encounter-cum-audition with a producer (Judd Apatow) at dinner time in busy restaurant, Tommy despairs for his future. Greg offhandedly suggests that his friend takes matters into his own hands and make his own movie. Tommy, a master of doing things his own way, embraces the idea wholeheartedly. After completing a script and casting himself and Greg in the lead roles, Tommy assembles the rest of his cast and crew.

In addition to faithfully recreating scenes from the original film, Franco depicts Tommy’s transformation from an earnest first-time filmmaker into a megalomaniacal director. By the end of the much-delayed shoot, Tommy turns abusive. The director berates his on-screen love interest, refuses to furnish water to the crew, and alienates Greg by insisting that his co-star and best friend owes him a debt of gratitude.

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The film's final act takes place during the night of the premiere of The Room and depicts the reconciliation of these two unlikely friends. Retaking their courtship, Tommy picks Greg up in a white stretch limo to take him to the theater. As Tommy's film plays for an audience for the first time, the camera alternates between the screen and the audience. As the film progresses, the audience reaction changes from uncomfortable silence to howling laughter. We are witness to the the construction and reception of the film as a so-bad-it's-good cult comedy.  Wiseau, who conceives of his film to be a heartfelt portrait of human emotion, is driven to tears by the audience's laughter and abandons the theater. Greg follows him to the lobby and coaxes him back inside, telling him that Hitchcock never made an audience laugh with such force. Tommy, embracing the audience’s reaction, accepts a triumphant curtain call.

The friendship between the voluble director and his good-natured co-star lies at the core of The Disaster Artist. Although the film repeatedly alludes to the homoerotic nature of Tommy and Greg's relationship—exemplified by pinky swears and Tommy's "Babyface" nickname for Greg—it primarily plays this suggestion of romantic love between the two men for comedic effect. The film is more interested in the power dynamics between the two men. Tommy is both Greg’s friend and his benefactor. Tommy knows that Greg’s friendship is not unconditional: his apartment and money undergird their friendship. Ultimately, Tommy’s poorly executed melodrama, which centers on two friends, mirrors his own convoluted relationship with Greg. In Franco’s film, friendship, a phenomenon rooted in sympathy and reciprocity, becomes a metaphor for filmmaking.

These same tenets of friendship inform the relationship between The Disaster Artist and The Room. Franco treats Wiseau’s film as a source of pleasure (and laughter) and depicts the process of making the film as an earnest, though misguided and poorly executed endeavor. Even as Franco depicts the muddled script and slipshod creation of The Room, he treats it as a production worth dialoguing with and recreating. Like a good friend, The Disaster Artist sets out to make light of its cinematic inspiration, and in the process, cannot help but burnish the myth of the man who made a virtue of indulging his instincts and realizing his dream, not with talent or skill, but with cash. The Disaster Artist depicts Wiseau as a later-day Norma Desmond, determined to bring himself and “Planet Tommy” to the screen for all to see.

Director: James Franco

Running Time: 103 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: New Line Cinema

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Endless Poetry (2016)

A poet comes of age

By Zeke Trautenberg

Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic voices. Throughout his filmmaking career, the Chilean-born director has had a playful relationship to the medium, inserting himself directly into his films and drawing attention to the porous divide between reality and fiction.  

After a two-decade hiatus from filmmaking, Jodorowsky returned to the screen with The Dance of Reality (2013), a fictionalized account of Jodorowsky childhood in the northern Chilean town of Tocopilla during the dictatorship of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo in the late 1920s. Endless Poetry,  continues the story of Jodorowosky and his family in early 1950s Santiago.

Endless Poetry begins with young Alejandrito (Jermias Herskovits), his father Jaime (Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky), and his opera-singing mother Sara (Pamela Flores) departing Tocopilla for the Chilean capital. In Santiago, Jaime opens a small shop called “El Combate” where the motto is “at war with high prices.” During the day Alejandrito works at the store with his violent and demanding father. In the evening the young Jodorowsky reads Federico García Lorca and dreams of becoming a poet. His father wants his son to become a doctor and decries his obsession with "faggot" poetry. The strained relationship between father and son reaches a breaking point  when Alejandrito, in a fit of rage, takes an axe to the veritable family tree while visiting his relatives’ house.

After the tree incident, Alejandrito declares himself a poet and moves into a bohemian artists' collective. Signaling his transformation into adulthood and a poet, the character Alejandrito becomes Alejandro (played by another Jodorowsky son, Adan). The aspiring poet finds a muse in the form of the real-life red-haired and bombastic poet Stella Díaz Varín—played, in a subversive and ingenious bit of casting by Pamela Flores, the same actress who plays Alejandro’s mother. The intimidating Stella, who insists on holding onto Alejandro's genitals when they go out together, is the author of explosive poetry-in-action (“you are nobody!” she screams at the sleeping patrons of a bar) that contrasts with the protagonist's meditative verses about illuminated virgins and burning butterflies.

The scenes depicting Alejandro’s friendship with Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), another real-life poet and denizen of Santiago, are the most compelling parts of the film. In one memorable scene, the two poets’ decide to traverse the city in a straight line, which entails passing through a disconcerted woman’s home and then over her bed. In another act of mischief, the poets paint a statue of Pablo Neruda black and rechristen it the statue of the invisible man. The character of Lihn is also responsible for the funniest moment in the film, when he delivers a searing, hilarious insult poem in a drunken stupor. From Enrique and Stella, Alejandro learns that poetry and the act of living are one and the same.

Endless Poetry was shot by the renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who uses a muted color palette and lighting throughout much of the film. This restrained visual palette reflects the protagonist’s struggles to realize his artistic ambitions. In the few occasions when Doyle floods the screen with color and natural light, like in a street carnival scene, the result is fleeting visual ecstasy. Complementing Doyle's work is Jodorowsky's production design. The director revels in surreal and vulgar flourishes like urinals in plain sight in a bar, giant black and white photos of old storefronts covering their modern day counterparts, and a giant water buffalo head. However, the most compelling piece of set design in the film is Enrique’s bedroom, where verses scribbled in black letters across the walls and floor. Elsewhere in the film, Jodorowsky employs figures dressed head to toe in black as stage hands. This visible manipulation of the mise-en-scène underscores the artifice of a film that melds memory and fantasy.

As in The Dance of Reality and The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky appears as himself several times in the film. In each of these occasions he speaks directly to the camera, reflecting on his younger self from the vantage point of old age. In the film’s final scene, the director offers words of compassion and reconciliation for his unforgiving father—who, in true Jodorowsky narrative-shape-shifting fashion, is also his child. “Giving me nothing, you gave me everything” the filmmaker tells his fictional father. In Endless Poetry, Jodorowsky shows that poetry takes root even in the darkest and most obdurate corners of the heart.

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Running Time: 128 minutes

Country: Chile/France

Photos: Le Pacte/Le Soleil

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Green for Danger (1946)

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Murder and sleuthing in war time

By Zeke Trautenberg

Just before it begins its descent, the roaring motor of the V-1 or “Vengeance Weapon 1” rocket shuts off. It falls silently for a few seconds before exploding upon impact. This monstrous weapon heralded the advent of new and frightening technologies of death. Nazi Germany fired thousands of V-1 and the even more fearsome V-2 rockets against targets in the United Kingdom and Western Europe in the final two years of World War II.  In his 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon captures the abject terror and hopelessness of those at the mercy of these flying missiles: “There is no way out. Lie and wait, lie still and be quiet. Screaming holds across the sky. When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light? Will the light come before or after?”.

The imminent threat of the V-1 hangs over Heron’s Park Hospital, a requisitioned Elizabethan manor that is the setting of Sidney Gilliat’s 1946 mystery thriller Green for Danger. The doctors and nurses of the makeshift hospital treat a steady stream of victims of the “buzz bombs." Life in the hospital maintains a semblance of normal life, with office romances and parties, but it is also a closed-off and stressful place where casualties might arrive at any time, day or night.

The film opens with a shot of an Underwood typewriter and the voice-over-narration of Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) who begins to dictate a report on his investigation of a series of mysterious deaths at the hospital. The inspector’s investigation is set in motion by the death of the post office worker Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott), who is interned at the hospital after suffering injuries from a V-1 rocket. The unfortunate postal worker meets his demise in the operating room while undergoing anesthesia. His death prompts an inquest and the investigation of the sharp-tongued inspector from Scotland Yard.

At the time he made Green for Danger, Sidney Gilliat was already an established screenwriter, director, and producer. Together with Green for Danger’s co-producer, Frank Launder, Gilliat wrote the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery film A Lady Vanishes (1938) and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), a prescient thriller set in Nazi-occupied Prague. These three films all feature byzantine plots and use psychological tension of their characters and confined settings to generate suspense. Among these films, Green for Danger stands out for the deft camera work by Director of Photography Wilkie Cooper. One notable scene is a point of view shot from the injured post officer as he is wheeled prostrate into the operating room. The camera, slightly out of focus like the disoriented patient, points upwards to the ceiling where the bright lights and air ducts deprived of their functional capacities, become strange and disturbing sources of piercing light and disembodied conversation, respectively. 

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The disorientation and confusion experienced by the mumbling patient Higgins permeates the film. From the very beginning, Gilliat keeps the viewer off balance. The main characters (and suspects) in the film are introduced in a long take in the operating room. As the inspector recites their names, the camera pans counter-clockwise, presenting a close-up of each suspect wearing a surgical gowns and face mask. In the context of the film, their uniforms are not just markers of their profession, but also cloaks of anonymity to hide behind.

The identities and personalities of the men and women first seen in the operating room are revealed as the body count piles up. They are the playboy surgeon Doctor Eden (Leo Genn), the brooding Doctor Barnes (Trevor Howard), the traumatized Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John), the distraught Nurse Bates (Judy Campbell), the gregarious Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins), and the charming Nurse Linley (Sally Gray). Like Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (1939), the film derives suspense from the mutual suspicions and conflict among this coterie of colorful characters in close quarters. They are bedfellows and neighbors living together under the stress of war and the deadly parabola of German rockets.

Although he does not appear until the film's second act, the supremely self-aware Inspector Cockrill is the film's most captivating character. In his voice-over narration, he delights in his powerful and disruptive role: “Voices were hushed and all eyes turned upon me. Who was the guilty one? When will he be arrested? Who will be next? That is what they were thinking. I found it all tremendously enjoyable.” Like a cross between Inspectors Dupin and Maigret, Cockrill mixes enlightened reasoning with a keen social awareness. However, it is his passion for detective fiction that enables him to solve the murders. Fashioning himself into an author of the mystery novels he so enjoys, Cockrill restages the initial crime. Although he solves the crime, the results are tragic. The inspector's intervention precipitates a final spasm of violence that demolishes the characters' façades of stoic endurance and calm. Beneath the V-1, there is only naked fear.

Director: Sidney Gilliat

Running Time: 91 minutes

Country: UK

Photos: Individual Pictures

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

* Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Viking Press, 1973.

Review: Frantz (2016)

Mercy and empathy in the aftermath of war

By Zeke Trautenberg

François Ozon’s Frantz is an allegory of Europe and Franco-German relations over the past century, told through the story of two young people and their families. The film is set during the first year of peacetime after the First World War. The first two acts unfold in the small German town of Quedlinburg, where Anna (Paula Beer) lives with Mr. and Mrs. Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber). The three are mourning the death of Frantz, Anna’s fiancé and the Hoffmeisters' son, who was killed in the war.

A mystery set the plots in motion. Arriving at the cemetery to lay flowers on her fiancé's grave, Anna discovers that someone has copied her loving gesture. On a second visit, she spies Adrien (Pierre Niney) weeping next to Frantz’s resting place—which we later learn holds no bones, only dirt. The visitor is a violinist and former French soldier who has come to the town to meet Frantz’s family. When he finally work up the courage to visit the Hoffmeisters, he cautiously introduces himself as Frantz’s friend. He tells the Hoffmeisters and Anna about meeting Frantz in Paris before the war. He tells of their visits to the Louvre and the hours they spent playing violin together. 

We immediately suspect that Adrien is not telling the truth.  His recollections are blurry at the edges and his pain is incongruous with the loss of a friend he knew only briefly. As Anna and the Frenchman strike up a romance, Adrien changes story. When he finally confesses the truth to Anna, she finds it too painful to share with Frantz's parents. Even the town's priest urges her to keep it to herself: “What would the truth bring? Only more pain. Only more tears.”

Frantz is loose adaptation of Ernst Lubtisch’s 1932 film Broken Lullaby. Frantz’s closest cinematic cousin, however, is another allegory of Franco-German relations, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer (1949). Set during the Second World War, Melville’s film depicts a German officer who forcibly moves in with a French family amid the Nazi occupation. In the evening, the officer launches into long soliloquies before his silent audience, in which he struggles to reconcile his love of French culture and his unyielding sense of obligation to the fatherland. Nationalism also looms ominously in Frantz. Among the elders in town, Doctor Hoffmeister, Frantz’s father, is the only one pushes back against this sentiment. He reminds the men in town, many of whom also lost sons, that the French and German fathers are united in complicity for urging their sons to fight and die in the war. “We are fathers who drink to the death of our children,” he says.

Two parallel scenes underscore the insidiousness of nationalism across Europe. In the first, Adrien enters the town’s inn where the few elders of the Quildeberg are singing the unofficial anthem “The Watch on the Rhine” (“Die Wacht am Rhein”). As the voices sing of the sanctity of the fatherland, Adrien’s face blanches with fear and he quickly leaves the room. A similar scene unfolds in the final act of the film in Paris. Anna is in the French capital looking for Adrien, who shortly after returning home stopped responding to her letters. When three French officers enter the café where Anna is writing a letter to the Hoffmeisters, the patrons break out into an impromptu rendition of “La Marseillais.” Anna remains seated and avoids eye contact as the chorus of voices call for the defense of France against the impure blood of foreigners. These two scenes reflect the enduring appeal of nationalism, which is again resurgent in Europe.

As in other Ozon films, the editing, composition, camerawork, costumes, and hair are meticulously designed and choreographed. However, the most striking feature of Frantz is its black and white cinematography (the film was shot by frequent Ozon collaborator Pascal Marti). Like Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), which is set in Germany just before the First World War, Frantz’s monochrome cinematography echoes period photographs and films and underscores the film’s thematic focus on memory. However, the use of black and white as a tonal device is made more effective by the inclusion of a handful of scenes and parts of scenes shot in color. These interludes of color are fleeting jolts of life in a world consumed with grief.

The most memorable of these polychrome scenes occurs when Frantz and Anna visit a small mountain overlooking the town. As they hike uphill, the black and white fades into color, and the scene climaxes with a shot of the two overlooking the green landscape below—a composition that echoes Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (1818). When Anna revisits the same place later in the film by herself, the color and joy are gone, replaced by anxiety and unease.

Although she is haunted by the numbing loss of Frantz, Anna manages to find life, or at least its shadow, in art. When Anna recites Paul Verlaine’s poem “Chanson d’automne,” she gives voice to the silent burden of loss:

   "When a sighing begins
   In the violins
   Of the autumn-song,
   My heart is drowned
   In the slow sound
   Languorous and long."*

Likewise, Anna finds pleasure and a empathy in Edouard Manet’s morbid painting Le Suicidé (ca. 1877). Sitting before this depiction of a man after his solitary death, she sees and feels anew.

Director: François Ozon

Running Time: 113 minutes

Country: France/Germany

Photos: Mandarin/X-Filme /Mars Films/ France 2 Cinema/Foz/Jean-Claude Moireau

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

*Paul Verlaine, “Chanson d’automne” (1866). The Modern Book of French Verse. Ed. Albert Boni. Trans. Arthur Symons. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920. 210-11.

Review: Personal Shopper (2016)

They shop among us

By Zeke Trautenberg

“Avoid intense physical efforts and extreme emotions.” That is the advice a doctor offers his patient, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) in Personal Shopper. This appeal for moderation and detachment is an ironic plea for sanity in a film populated with shimmering ghosts and Cartier diamonds.

Rather than avoid excess, Maureen dutifully embraces it, immersing herself in the boundary between the living and the dead. A self-described medium, Maureen aims to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother. The film opens with Maureen’s visit to the gloomy house outside Paris, which her brother was restoring before he died. A solitary gothic heroine, Maureen wanders through the moonlit halls calling out her brother’s name. When he appears to respond to her, leaving an etching of a cross on a wall, Maureen comprehends that her brother continues to haunt the world of the living.

Back in Paris, Maureen resumes her work as personal shopper for Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten), a celebrity of indeterminate pedigree travels the European dilettante circuit. Under leaden-European skies, Maureen crisscrosses Paris on her scooter acquiring clothes and jewelry for her boss. While stopping by Kyra’s apartment, Maureen meets Kyra’s boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger), who tells her he is certain he will soon be dumped by his famous girlfriend.

Shortly her encounter with Ingo, Maureen begins receiving ominous messages on her phone. The unknown sender probes her conscious and her inner fears. “Tell me something you find unsettling?,” the person asks. “Horror movies,” Maureen responds, because “a woman runs from a killer and hides.” These messages, which Assayas films through close-ups of Maureen’s phone, stoke Maureen’s fear of loss and stimulate her illicit fantasies. In the film’s most memorable sequence, she  acts out a fantasy she describes to the nameless interlocutor. Alone in her bosses apartment, she dons Kyra’s clothing. Maureen sheds her skin and, for a single night, inhabits someone else’s.

Maureen finds a kindred spirit in Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), a spiritualist abstract painter whose images captivate the protagonist. Like Klint, who did not show any of her works while alive, Maureen's search for her brother is a private endeavor. Assayas extends this connection to Klint by translating Maureen’s encounters with grief and loss into abstract, ethereal images.

In Irma Vep (1996) and Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) Assayas explores the messy process of artistic creation through similarly determined female protagonists. Personal Shopper presents an allegory of art and creation through Maureen’s work as a medium and personal shopper. However, the central theme of the film is seeing. For Maureen seeing is an act of imagination that entails anticipating, projecting, and interpreting. Whether she is interacting with the supernatural or buying a dress for her boss, Maureen is always imagining, or at least seeing through the hollow core of things.

Director: Olivier Assayas

Running Time: 105 minutes

Country: France

Photos: IFC/CG Cinema

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

The 2017 Academy Awards

Mark Rolston/Getty

Mark Rolston/Getty

Hollywood’s big, crazy night

By Zeke Trautenberg

For the minute it lasted, it was the coronation of a film tailor-made for Hollywood’s insatiable desire for self-affirmation. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, the original outlaws of New Hollywood, announced that  La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s twenty-first century musical, with its gauzy story of jazz, Hollywood, and the unwavering ambition of beautiful people, was the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.

It soon became apparent that something was awry. Another envelope was brought on stage and smiles turned to disbelief. A dazed La La Land producer informed the audience that Moonlight was the real winner. It was, as the critic Calum Marsh observed on Twitter, a moment straight out of the maudlin dreams of Chazelle’s film: “In true form, La La Land only won Best Picture in a fantasy moment shared between former lovers imagining wistfully what might have been.”

The stark differences between the empathetic and ambiguous Moonlight and the effervescent and tidy La La Land added to the shock. After the #OscarsSoWhite controversies of the past two years, the image of the largely white producers and cast of La La Land quickly exiting the stage, and making way for the largely black cast of Jenkin’s film resonated with cultural symbolism.

Still disconcerted, Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, hoisted the golden statuette. “Very clearly, even in my dreams, this could not be true. But to hell with dreams — I’m done with it, because this is true. Oh, my goodness,” he remarked before a stunned audience. Despite Jenkins’ celebratory words, the circumstances of the victory were unfair to the cast and crew of Moonlight. They were deprived, through carelessness, of the chance to make the case for their film and fully exalt in the limelight.

I now hope that this challenging film about a gay black man coming of age in America, with its value affirmed by the Academy, will find an audience among the millions who see-sawed between delight and horror at this brief episode of Oscars madness.

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Paterson (2016)

 Poetry is a bus driver in Paterson

By Zeke Trautenberg

                     Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months’ wonder, the city
the man, an identity—it can’t be
otherwise—an
interpenetration, both ways. Rolling
up! Obverse, reverse;
the drunk the sober; the illustrious
the gross; one. In ignorance
a certain knowledge and knowledge,
undispersed, its own undoing.
— William Carlos Williams, Patterson

William Carlos Williams, one of America’s greatest poets, was an acute observer of the quotidian. The doctor-poet wrote about his neighbors and patients, and, in his most ambitious work, the epic poem Paterson (1946-1958), he chronicled the story of his hometown in New Jersey in verse. America’s first planned industrial city, Paterson was a symbol of the country’s economic power and its motley makeup, where African Americans, Irish, Italian, Polish, and later Latino and Muslim immigrants lay down roots on the banks of the Passaic River. For Williams, this diverse city of factories and humdrum working class life was a quintessentially American place.

Like Williams’ poems, Jim Jarmusch film is a perceptive and sensitive portrait of the inhabitants of this northern New Jersey city. The film’s protagonist is the symbolically-named Paterson (Adam Driver). He is a bus driver and ex-Marine who lives a quiet existence in a small house on a hill with his bulldog Marvin and his artist girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). His life is a series of workaday rituals: he wakes up at 6 am, drives the number twenty-three bus route, and takes nightly walks with his dog to the neighborhood bar. This fixed routine is mirrored in the structure of the film, which unfolds over the course of a week.

Paterson’s exterior discipline and quiet demeanor mask an interior creative wellspring. His poetry, which he scribbles in his secret notebook, affords him the possibility to see the world from distinct points of view (the poems in the film were written by Ron Padgett). Among other things, he draws inspiration from the passengers on his bus route, which takes him zigzagging through the city streets. Seated in front of the lumbering machine, Paterson eavesdrops intently. He overhears a young woman recount the life story of local anarchist and two men fib about their pickup skills.

These conversations form part of the fabric of the city, as do the poems the Paterson writes and rewrites in his notebook and in his head. Underscoring their connection to the city, these verses are transcribed on the screen. In several instances, we witness the transformation of these poems from raw ideas (one is inspired by a pack of Ohio Blue Tip Matches) to evocative and pointed verse. This process of revision is both a metacinematic device—the film itself is the result of editing and multiple takes—and a window into the nonlinear process of artistic creation.

Jarmusch’s portrait of a working class poet and city echoes his earlier films Stranger Than Paradise (1984), a tale of the rust-belt and the elusive American dream, and Mystery Train (1989), a story of the South of Elvis and Stax Records. All three of these films explore the myths of America, whether it be the road, African American culture, or, in the case of Paterson, the legacy of verse in a country founded, or so it would believe, on the bedrock of prose.

The film’s coda subverts this misconception of America’s relationship of poetry. Next to his favorite bench overlooking the Paterson Great Falls, the lanky Paterson encounters a Japanese poet (Masatoshi Nagase) visiting the city. When Paterson declares himself to be “just a bus driver in Paterson,” Nagase observes: This could be a poem by William Carlos Williams.”

Jarmusch’s Paterson is a fitting tribute to the doctor-poet, who wrote about “pieces of a green / bottle” and plums in the icebox with the same intensity and affection as the bus driver-poet writes of the “half inch soft pine stem” of his beloved Ohio Blue Tip Matches.

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Running Time: 118 min

Country: USA

Photo: Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

The Best Films of 2016

By Zeke Trautenberg

Like every year, 2016 was chock full of movies, some good, some bad, some starring Steven Seagal. My list of the ten best films of the year is an imperfect, unabashedly subjective look back at the year in film. It reflects my preference for art and genre cinema, as well the mundane need to balance my movie-going with work and life. Go watch these movies, and then see them again before the films of 2017 take over the marquee.

10. Hell or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie

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Like his previous film, the prison drama Starred Up (2013), Hell or High Water depicts masculinity at its most toxic and self-destructive. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play a pair of bank robbers in dusty West Texas amid the Great Recession of 2008. The film is a portrait of a depressed economic landscape: the robbers pass houses in foreclosure, vacant store fronts, and deserted main streets. The film plays its genre trope straights, while the film’s Janic point of view—following both the cops and the robbers—foments a slow-burning tension that erupts in violence. Mackenzie’s decision to withhold the outlaws’ motives until the second half of the film and instead let viewers unravel the pattern underlying their robberies makes for a smart and exhilarating ride.

9. The Treasure

Director: Corneliu Poromboiu

Economic precariousness is the impetus for the characters of Corneliu Poromboiu’s The Treasure, a black satire of bureaucracy, inequality, and austerity politics in contemporary Romania. The film is a tale of two neighbors, both members of the country’s vulnerable middle class, who search for treasure that is supposedly buried at an old house in the countryside. With the help of a hapless metal detector operator and armed with patient resignation, the neighbors dig up red earth deep into the night. The film’s sardonic epilogue culminates in a playground, where the banal pursuit of riches collides with children at play.

8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Director: Taika Waititi

Like Taika Waititi’s previous films Eagle vs Shark (2007) and Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a coming-of-age film that trades in the earnest humor and self-awareness, and centers on the theme of family. The film follows Ricky Baker (the magnetic and charming Julian Dennison), an incorrigible orphan sent to live with foster parents in the New Zealand countryside. After tragedy befalls the household, Ricky flees to the woods and his foster father chases after him. The adolescent’s disappearance sets off a national manhunt led by an overzealous social worker, who fashions himself a kiwi Sarah Connor. The film plays with the action film genre, but keeps the action proportional to peaceful New Zealand—where Ricky quickly becomes a legend. The funniest film of 2016, it will leave you smiling for the lonely boy, who was “once rejected, now accepted.”

7. Demon

Director: Marcin Wrona

Demon is the final film of Polish director Marcin Wrona, who committed suicide shortly after the film’s premiere at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival (the film was released theatrically in the U.S. in 2016). This posthumous work depicts twentieth and twenty-first century Poland through the genre of the horror film. Demon is set in an isolated farmhouse where the film’s expatriate protagonist celebrates his marriage. The festivities go awry before the wedding even begins, with fleeting apparitions and the unearthing of bones next to the long-abandoned house. As the wedding night unfolds, the ghosts of the past join the party. The drunken revelers struggle to take stock of the recent history that rolls in like a heavy fog. Memory, national identity, and family are unearthed in this muddy and gorgeous nightmare of a film.

6. The Lobster

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Quite a few patrons walked out of the screening of The Lobster I attended in May. What were they expecting? Anyone who has had the queasy pleasure of seeing or maybe just hearing about Lanthimos’s debut film Dogtooth (2009), should have been primed for weirdness. The Lobster continues Lanthimos’s exploration of people in enclosed environments subject to laws and pressures outside of their control. The premise of the film is that men and women have forty-five days to find a romantic partner. Should they fail to do so, they are turned into an animal of their choice. An esoteric exploration of marriage and friendship, with a talent show thrown in for good measure, The Lobster is the best date movie of 2016.

5. Neruda

Director: Pablo Larraín

Like Jackie, Larraín’s other 2016 biopic and an honorable mention, Neruda eschews the traditional tropes of the biopic. The film is a metacinematic portrayal of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) through the eyes of a fanatical detective (Gabriel García Bernal) tasked with hunting down the poet. The film is a playful fiction that weaves together detective novels, Cold War paranoia, and Neruda’s mythic stature in Chilean politics and culture. The film’s climactic final sequence unfolds amid the snow-capped Andes, where the hapless inspector calls out in vain for his poet. This snowy landscape, like the film itself, embodies the pensive lines from Neruda’s Canto General, in which myth and history intertwined: “Puede ser solo el viento/ Sobre la nieve/ Sobre la nieve, sí [. . .]”.

4. Elle

Director: Paul Verhoeven

The actress Isabelle Huppert has few peers. In 2016, she had memorable roles in both Elle and the honorable mention Things to Come. In Elle, Huppert plays a woman who is raped in her apartment by a masked assailant. In Huppert’s skilled hands and under Verhoeven’s campy sensibility (this is a Christmas movie after all), this original trauma set off a chain reaction of vengeance. The film is a sharp satire of Paris’s pleasure-seeking upper-middle class, video games, and melodrama. Verhoeven’s subversive humanism invites viewers to turn away, or better yet indulge in the madness.

3. The Handmaiden

Director: Chan-wook Park

In Chan-wook Park’s film, things are not as they appear. Like Elle and the next film on this list, The Handmaiden playfully subverts the conventions of cinematic narrative and genre. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea at the beginning of the twentieth century, the film is a madcap chamber piece featuring a small-time thief disguised as a chamber maid, a hysterical noblewoman haunted by ghosts, and a lecherous uncle who makes his living fabricating pornographic novels. The film’s screwball qualities are complemented by the ingenious use of multiple points of view. Things here are not what they seem.

2. The Love Witch

Director: Anna Biller

The Love Witch is the most fun film of 2016. Anna Biller’s film is the apotheosis of campy cinema. The saga of the love witch unfolds in forested cabins, a renaissance fair, and an all-women Victorian tearoom. Biller’s film is a subversive and sexy work of feminist cinema. Like its chameleonic protagonist, the film is a polyamorous cinematic experience, part late night movie, part cerebral art film, part technicolor explosion. The film’s extravagantly kinky costumes merit special mention and are far and away the best of 2016.

(As a side note, this critic kindly requests a midnight double feature of The Love Witch and Elle. Few films would make for a more twisted evening at the cinema).

1. Moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is a coming-of-age story of limited choices and difficult circumstances. Barry Jenkins’ film is divided into three acts, each of which focuses on a different period in the life of Chiron, the film’s black and gay protagonist. The film depicts race, poverty, and sexuality with unflinching candor, and its humanist portrayal of its enigmatic protagonist erases cinematic clichés. Chiron’s on-screen transformation from a truculent child learning to swim to a hardened man sheathed in gold jewelry is a vital portrait of American life in the early-twenty-first century.

Honorable Mentions

Certain Women – Kelly Reichardt

Hail, Caesar! – Ethan and Joel Cohen

Jackie – Pablo Larraín

Manchester by the Sea –Kenneth Lonergan

The Measure of a Man – Stéphane Brizé

Morris From America – Chad Hartigan

Things to Come – Mia Hansen-Løve

Weiner – Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg


Photos: Film 44/OddLot Entertainment/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment; 42 Km Film/Les Films du Worso/Rouge International; Piki Films/Defender Films/Curious Film; Telewizja Polska; Film 4/Irish Film Board/Eurimages/Netherlands Film Fund/Greek Film Center/British Film Institute; AZ Films/Fábula/Funny Balloons/Participant Media/Reborn Production/Setembro Cine; SBS Productions/Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion/France 2 Cinéma/Entre Chien et Loup; Moho Film and Yong Film; Oscilloscope/Anna Biller Productions; A24/Plan B Entertainment.

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

The Love Witch (2016)

Anna Biller’s film is a heady trip through camp and cinema

By Zeke Trautenberg

“I just use sex magic to create love magic.” This deadly serious affirmation by Elaine (Samantha Robinson) encapsulates the campy charm and potent social critiques of Anna Biller’s second feature film. Witches like Elaine embody American’s concern with femininity and female sexuality. From the Salem witch trials to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) to Robert Egger’s recent film The Witch (2015), witches are transgressive symbols of nonconformity, resistance, and the assertion of female power.  

The Love Witch begins with Elaine fleeing the Bay Area, where she murdered her ex-husband. She moves into an apartment in a Victorian mansion in the small Northern California town of Eureka. Unhappy being alone, Elaine soon begins to lure local men into loving her, relying on her potent glare, tarot cards, psychedelics, and potions. As she pursues affection, she reconnects with her occult group and becomes entangled in a criminal investigation led by a daft, Rock Hudson-esque policeman.

The most striking element of The Love Witch is its use of color. Shot in 35mm, the film is a technicolor kaleidoscope of red, yellow, and white. Each sequence of the film is painstakingly designed, from the all-women pastel pink and white Victorian tea room to the blood-red bedroom of the witch protagonist Elaine. The costumes are similarly bold, and include miniskirts, bell-bottoms, mouthfuls of garters and stockings, and an off-white kinky white lace tea-time dress (Biller’s mother Sumiko was a noted fashion designer in Los Angeles).  

The film’s production design echoes the technicolor Euro-gothic of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and François Ozon’s pattern-filled fable of the turbulent 1970s France in Potiche (2010). Argento’s story of a ballet dancer trapped in a haunted mansion and Ozon’s fable of female empowerment vis-à-vis benevolent capitalist management, upend narratives of the damsel in distress.  In this same spirit, Elaine does not wait patiently for her true love to appear. She uses witchcraft to exert control over men and endeavors to fulfill their sexual fantasies. Yet despite her stated desire to please men, the way Elaine says "baby” belies feelings of derision towards the needy men who cling to her.

Jessica Harper in Dario Argento's  Suspiria  (1977) . Photo: Seda Spettacoli.

Jessica Harper in Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977). Photo: Seda Spettacoli.

Catherine Deneuve in François Ozon's  Potiche  (2010).  Photo: Mandarin Films.

Catherine Deneuve in François Ozon's Potiche (2010). Photo: Mandarin Films.

In addition to their emphasis on style and color, these three films embody what Susan Sontag called “the sensibility” of camp. Like Suspiria and Potiche, The Love Witch depicts a queer, self-reflexive sense of sexuality that is embodied by a powerful and transgressive protagonist. Like the gothic mansion in Suspiria and the factory in Potiche, The Love Witch features a wealth of campy settings, including an occult prayer temple, a burlesque theater, a Renaissance fair, and the aforementioned Victorian tea room. These campy locales are augmented by film’s allusions to popular icons of camp like Charles Manson and Aleister Crowley. And in full observance of this sensibility, The Love Witch concludes with a wedding; however, in true campy style, Biller subverts the blissful moment with a close-up of our forever-unsatisfied witch perched atop a horse-cum-unicorn named Patchouli.

Elaine enjoys a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

Elaine enjoys a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

The cinephilic themes and the metacinematic qualities of Biller’s second feature film are an inextricable part of its campiness. The film opens with a shot of Elaine driving her red mustang on a sea-side highway, glaring like a femme fatale Steve McQueen while she chants "I am starting a new life" (ironically, one of Elaine’s victims describes McQueen as the personification of freedom and masculinity). And when Elaine arrives at her destination, Eureka, the camera lingers on the town’s local movie theater, drawing the viewer's attention to the celluloid nature of the film’s fictional universe. One of the most direct cinematic allusions in the film is to Marlene Dietrich’s character in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). Like Dietrich’s gender-bending burlesque dancer, Elaine is a campy icon, who embodies traditional feminine ideals (“I always lines my clothing” she tells one love interest) and the subversive qualities of an uncompromising and powerful woman.

Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's  The Blue Angel  (1930).  Photo: UFA.

Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930). Photo: UFA.

The cinephilic and metacinematic elements of The Love Witch are also reflected in the range of filmmaking techniques employed by Biller and director of photography M. David Mullen. The film features extreme close-ups, intricate mise-en-scène compositions, and at least one memorable zoom shot. These techniques are an homage to horror films and New Hollywood cinema, and underscore the film’s knowing embrace of film history. In addition to the clever use of camera and staging, the voice-overs play a key role in the film’s critical stance towards gender, femininity, masculinity, and social relationships. In one notable sequence, viewers hear the dueling, contradictory thoughts of Elaine and her Rock Hudson-like love interest. Both are outwardly smiling, but Elaine’s thoughts of a love-filled future are brilliantly juxtaposed with the dismissive and hostile interior monologue of her strong-jawed partner who describes how he will soon be “drowning in estrogen.” These voice-in-off monologues highlight the entrenched and ugly social mores underlying these traditional male and female cinematic archetypes, as well as the tragic and ill-fated nature of Elaine's search for her prince charming.

Love is the ambiguous longing that drives Elaine throughout the film. Yet the obstacles she faces in her quest are intractable. Men, she notes, are like precious china must be handled accordingly: “According to the experts men are very fragile,” she says. “They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way. You have to be tricky.” Despite her best and most devious efforts, the love witch cannot find anyone who would give themselves to her with all their heart and soul.

Director: Anna Biller

Running Time: 120 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: Oscilloscope/Anna Biller

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Reflections on an American Election

Photo : Harris & Ewing (1915-1923)

Photo: Harris & Ewing (1915-1923)

By Zeke Trautenberg

Early this morning Donald Trump swept to victory in the 2016 Presidential election on a tide of white working class voters from the South, Midwest, and New England. His campaign, a toxic and—for many voters—addictive elixir of xenophobia, racism, naked nationalism, braggadocio, and old-school paternalism upended the American political system.

In choosing Trump, voters rejected of the post-war liberal order of globalism, open markets, the free movement of people, and the dominant political ideologies of the past half-century. The traditional political divides of small government conservatism and socially-liberal active government were eclipsed by an amorphous and fickle populism. This election was less an outpouring of Howard Beale’s righteous anger (“I’m as mad as hell and I’m just not going to take this anymore!”) in Network (1976), than a level-headed rejection of the status quo by millions of voters facing the slow motion unraveling of the social and economic fabric of their communities. In the midst of entrenched economic inequality, anger at the political establishment and the Clintons, the inexorable shift towards a service economy, and the dearth of meaningful work millions of voters embraced Trump’s hallucinatory visions of American exceptionalism, the prophetic self-made man, and a closed-off America protected morally and physically by “the wall.”

Although most Americans saw through Trump’s gold-sheened charlatanism, his message of a different future resonated with voters. He invoked the power of coarse nostalgia to fashion a mythic past of greatness, and he promised a future of “unlike anything you’ve ever seen.” Reason, the great tool of the educated elites since the Enlightenment, was of no use. Not even Trump’s moral failings, ranging from claims of sexual harassment and assault, allegations that he preyed on vulnerable students, phony charities, inflated wealth, antisemitism, islamophobia, and racism, could dissuade voters, many of whom had little to lose.

The results of what Mark Leibovich described as “a fever dream of an election” will profoundly reshape America and the world. Free trade, despite Trump’s anti-NAFTA pantomime, will continue. But the fate of other facets of domestic life and the global order will change. Our financial markets will operate with less oversight, a rebuke to millions who lost their homes and accumulated debt in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Millions will live under the threat of deportation. Immigrants and asylum seekers will find an even more unwelcoming country. The planet will continue to warm, unimpeded by sensible and necessary regulations. Health care will be restructured once more, likely with detrimental effects to the poor, the unemployed, and the vulnerable.

The America of the 2016 election sits atop the two bogeymen of our history: race and class. In The Fire Next Time (1963), James Baldwin writes of the reticence of Americans to examine their hopes and aspirations. At the end of President Obama’s presidency and the beginning of Trump’s, Baldwin’s words sear the intellect and heart in this new and uncertain age:

The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.

This has everything to do, of course, with the nature of that dream and with the fact that we Americans, of whatever color, do not dare examine it and are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves. People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here, where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status.

Voters have chosen to rest their feet on Trump’s populism, nativism, nostalgia, and walls for the next four years. Quicksand, however, will offer little respite to a frayed and divided nation.

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Photo: Harris & Ewing, photographer. [American Flag]. [Between 1915 and 1923] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/hec2013000385/>.

(Posted simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Mountains May Depart (2015)

The twenty-first century’s new dawn

By Zeke Trautenberg

L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, begins with Leo, the disillusioned sexagenarian narrator recounting his discovery of a diary from his childhood. Reading through this diary from 1900 brings the narrator’s “buried memories” of childhood to the surface. He recalls how his adolescent-self fantasized about the unfolding century as “the dawn of a Golden Age.” In his narration, Leo tells how his young and impressionable self loses his innocence and his hope for a bright new century.

Jia Zhangke’s film Mountains May Depart is a fitting companion to Hartley’s seminal coming-of-age novel. Zhangke’s film is both an allegorical representation of China during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and the story of disillusion and rupture of an upwardly mobile middle-class family caught up in this turbulent epoch.

In The Go-Between the elder Leo describes the first five decades of the twentieth century as “the most changeful half a century in history.” While this may well be true in the West, in China the economic, social, and political changes of the final three decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first fundamentally altered the lives of its billion-plus citizens. The economy of the country experienced a gradual, if fundamental transformation under in the late 1970s, which rapidly accelerated in the 1990s. The country’s shift towards a state-capitalist model resulted in vertiginous economic expansion, with annual GDP growth measured over seven percent every year from 1991 to 2014. In 2010 the country replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The social and demographic changes during this period occur on an enormous scale, with millions of Chinese moving out of poverty and the population shifting towards a majority-urban nation. The social contract between citizens and the state underwent a fundamental revision as well: the one-party state’s political legitimacy—including its right to repress its citizens— became tied to consistently high levels of economic growth.

The first scene of the film captures this transformative and heady epoch of economic liberalization and social change. It is new year’s eve 1999, the bookend of young Leo’s Golden Age. The camera pushes towards a group of revelers moving slightly out of sync to the Pet Shop Boy’s 1993 song “Go West.” The upbeat disco-inflected song promises a hopeful future of mutual uplift and optimism: “We will go our way / We will leave someday / Your hand in my hand.” Behind the dancers hangs a giant crystal chandelier, a fitting symbol of their outsized expectations of the new millennium. Front and center is Tao (Zhangke’s wife and frequent collaborator Tao Zhao), who moves joyfully across the stage, ushering in this new era.

The film’s plot is set in motion by a love triangle. Two men at the new year celebration are courting Tao: the aspiring small businessman Zhang (Yi Zhang) and the working class Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang). All three live in Fenyang (Zhangke’s birthplace), in the northern province of Shanxi. The class divide between the three is apparent: Tao is the daughter of a small merchant, Zhang owns a gas station, and the working-class Liangzi operates a helmet store at a local coal mine. As the two men compete for Tao’s affection, they become increasingly confrontational. When he cannot get his hands on a gun Zhang purchases dynamite to blow up his rival. Meanwhile, Liangzi refers derisively to Zhang as “elite” and ignores the gas station owner’s demand to stay away from Tao.

In a fateful choice, the jovial and sensitive Tao decides to marry the short-tempered and impulsive Zhang. Although she never explains her choice, he is the fitting man for the moment— Zhang is China’s aspirational capitalism personified. The remainder of the film depicts the consequences of Tao’s choice and the dissolution of her family. This emphasis on loss is underscored Tao’s admonition to her estranged son: “Nobody can be with you all through life. We’re fated to be apart.”

Zhangke’s film spans three years: 1999, 2014, and 2025. The tripartite temporal division exemplifies the film’s wide allegorical scope. The film depicts an entire epoch of contemporary China, which extends into the near future. Like Zhangke’s similarly ambitious, four-part A Touch of Sin (2013), Mountains May Depart incorporates a range of themes in its representation of contemporary China, including internal and external migration, the heavy cost of pollution and environmental degradation, changing gender roles, and class divisions.

The formal elements of Mountains May Depart mirror its structure. Zhangke and director of photography Nelson Lik-Wai Yu employ three different aspect ratios in the film, one for each act. The first act (1999) is shot in a 1:37 aspect ratio, while the second (2014) and third (2025) acts are shot in 1:85 and 2:35 widescreen aspect ratios, respectively. The widening of the screen reflects both the expansion of the narrative’s geographic scope—the first and second acts take place almost entirely in Fenyang and the third act is set in Australia—, and changes in technology. For example, 1:37 Academy aspect ratio used in the first third of the film approximates that of traditional television (1:33), and Zhangke plays off this similarity in his use of abstract and documentary-like interludes in the first act. Among the most notable of these sequences is infrared images of dancing red-hot bodies intercut with shots of sweaty revelers at a club. Sequences like this one blur the division between fiction and documentary filmmaking, and inject human-like asymmetry into the film’s otherwise rigorously symmetrical plot and structure.

In Mountains May Depart Zhangke employs complex formal and structural elements to tell the story of a family and society come undone by sweeping social and economic change. The film depicts a nation at the start of the new millennium brimming with promise— a “new dawn” as one character puts it. However, this optimism is soon eclipsed by the consequences of unhinged economic development and the ensuing social displacement. As in Zhangke’s 2006 film Still Life, which depicts the fallout of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, Mountains May Depart depicts the tragic consequences of China’s far-reaching economic and social structural shifts. The human cost of these development is underscored by the recurrence of the Pet Shop Boy’s song in the final scene of the film. As snow falls silently, blanketing the fallow landscape, the song reverberates, not as an anthem of hope and fraternity, but as the ironic soundtrack to Tao’s quarter-century of solitude.

Director: Jia Zhangke

Running Time: 131 minutes

Country: China/France/Japan

Photos: Shanghai Film Group Corp./Xstream Pictures/MK Prods./Beijing Runjin Investment/Office Kitano

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

 

Review: Moonlight (2016)

Out of many, one

By Zeke Trautenberg

“Who is you Chiron?”. That is the question Chiron’s friend—and by extension viewers—ask at the end of Moonlight. Despite the camera’s tight focus on Chiron, he remains inscrutable. The protagonist of Barry Jenkin’s film is, like the Christian God, both one and three. Viewers see three Chirons: the small, defiant young boy (Alex Hibbert); a wiry, shy teenager (Ashton Sanders); and a man (Trevante Rhodes) who masks his inner scars with an outer shell of hardened masculinity. This chameleonic character, who shares a name with a centaur of Greek mythology, is the film’s central mystery.

Jenkins’ film is an adaptation of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who shares a screenplay credit with Jenkins. Like Boyhood (2014), Richard Linklater’s coming of age story of a white boy in Texas, Moonlight depicts its protagonist’s development over a period of years. Set largely in Miami, film features the traditional three act structure of the theater and the modern coming-of-age story: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In the first act, we see the young boy grow attached to Juan (Mashershala Ali), a local drug dealer, who offers the boy shelter and companionship, but who also supplies his mother with crack. This moral morass, like the humidity that envelops the film’s Florida setting, is a recurring leitmotiv. In the second act, Chiron faces alienation in high school, experiences his first sexual encounter, and, after an act of violence, is inducted into the criminal justice system. In the third act, a muscular Chiron, virtually unrecognizable from his teenage self, spends his days “trapping” near Atlanta, Georgia. After receiving a call from his childhood friend Kevin (André Holland), Chiron drives back to Miami to visit him and by extension his past.

The common thread of these portraits of boyhood, adolescence, and manhood is Chiron’s reticence to talk about himself. As his friend Kevin observes, Chiron rarely says more than three words at time. Chiron’s silence, however, is not a sign of inner tranquility or indifference. Rather, the taciturn character at the core of Moonlight is a churning tide of insecurity and alienation. He alternatively runs from and seeks solace in his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), struggles with his own sexuality, refashions himself in the image of his surrogate father, and seeks human connection while resisting emotional attachment.

Jenkins’ inspired and assured direction, the dexterity of James Laxton the Director of Photography, and the subtle editing work of Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders are vital to the telling of Chiron’s story. Two of the key formal choices Jenkin’s makes are eschewing voice-in-off narration and to embracing an elliptical narrative structure. Deprived of access to Chiron’s internal thoughts, viewers must engage the film actively and unearth the protagonist’s many layers. In a similar vein, the film’s elliptical narrative structure reflects Chiron’s reactions to his circumstances, as he variously flees from and run towards the people who inconstantly populate his life. A close, but imperfect parallel is Michelangelo Antonioni’s representation of Monica Vitti’s characters in his films from the early 1960s.

The film’s camera work and editing are evident from the opening scene of the film. In this initial scene, a sustained tracking shot, the camera twirls around Juan, a figure who serves as Chiron’s surrogate father, and who later becomes an iconthe adult Chiron aims to emulate and embody. Another memorable sequence, which appears twice in the film, is a shot of Chiron’s mother, backlit in pink neon lights, screaming at her son and calling him a faggot. The first time we see this pivotal scene, his mother’s screams are muted, reflecting the young Chiron’s incomprehension of his mother’s hurtful words. The second time we see the scene it is in the adult Chiron’s dream, yet in this oneiric version his mother’s visceral hatred and outrage rings out in full force.

Black filmmakers have engaged with black masculinity in a variety of ways since the Civil Rights Movement. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) explores the masculinity of a working class African American man in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as he struggles to make ends meet at his brutal job at the slaughterhouse, while he simultaneously strives to provide for his family. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) depicts the evolution of the charismatic leader, whose masculinity, like Chiron’s, malleable. Ava DuVernay’s more recent Selma (2015), portrays the figure of Martin Luther King through an elegiac and humanist lens. He is both a hero and a man with failings like any other human being. Jenkins’ gut-wrenching film about an enigmatic, poor, southern, and gay black man is a significant contribution to this filmic legacy of black masculinity on screen and is sure to be a cornerstone of America’s cinematic cannon.

Director: Barry Jenkins

Running Time: 110 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: A24/Plan B Entertainment

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)