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: 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)

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)

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)

Review: Morris from America (2016)

Morris in Germany, surviving any way he can

By Zeke Trautenberg

Hip hop unites the introverted thirteen-year-old Morris (played with subtlety and economy of emotion by Markees Christmas) and his widowed father, Curtis (the ever-funny and vulnerable Craig Robinson). The close and playful relationship between father and son is encapsulated by the first scene of the film, in which they argue over the virtues of Jeru the Damaja’s 1993 hypnotic “Come Clean.” (“Freaky freaky freaky freaky flow / Control the mic like Fidel Castro”). The two live in the decidedly un-gangster city of Heidelberg, Germany. With its red rooftops and idyllic setting along the Rhine, Heidelberg presents a stark juxtaposition to Morris’s Bronx-inflected hip hop fantasies.

Hartigan’s film hews closely to the typical structure of the coming-of-age film, with its interweaving arcs of romance and internal and external conflict, that culminate in the protagonist’s self-realization and growth. However, Morris form America does not replicate the genre so much as use its conventions to explore themes of race, masculinity, and fatherhood during a time when being black and from America is a struggle for the moral right to exist, let alone engage in civic life. Amid these serious themes, Hartigan adds playful visual motifs, like a scene of museum patrons and statues bobbing their heads in tandem to the music from Morris’s headphones. Meanwhile, the film’s superb soundtrack, which features songs by hip hop artist Jay Stone among others, captures Morris’s New York bravado and his struggles to adapt and to fit in.

With his brown skin, doughy features, and Yankees hat, Morris plainly stands out in Heidelberg. His dad, who works as a coach for the local soccer team, is his sole friend and confidant. Morris passes the laconic days of summer walking around the idyllic city on the Rhine listening to hip hop and taking German-language classes with his good-natured teacher Inka (Carla Juri). Aware of her Morris’s loneliness, Inka encourages Morris to visit the local youth center so that he can make friends and practice his German. At the center, Morris sits removed from the other teenagers and ignores insults from a boy who calls him “Kobe Bryant” and asks if he plays basketball. This is the first of a series of racially-tinged insults and jibes that Morris bears with a mix of stoicism and exasperation. It is only when Morris’s disastrous performance during the youth center’s talent show that his frustration turns into rage.

For the German teenagers at the youth center, Morris’s blackness, Americanness, and masculinity are refracted through popular culture and consumption. The young American is labeled a basketball player, a “good dancer,” a rapper, and a drug user, but these superficial stereotypes and discrimination reflect the limits of cosmopolitanism and openness in twenty-first century Germany. In this vein, although Morris from America does not allude to the massive influx of migrants and refugees to the country that coincided with the production of the film in the summer of 2015, the racism—overt or otherwise—directed at Morris reflect broader tensions underlying the country’s social fabric.

Morris’s relationship with Katrin (Lina Keller), a rebellious blonde girl who he meets at the center similarly reflects the intertwined relationship between Morris’s blackness and his Americanness. Katrin alternatively teases and shows affection for the American boy, who seems to represent a rebuke of her beautiful, but monotonous city. After meeting Morris, she invites him to a party and then humiliates him by spraying his pants with a water gun. Although she later tells Morris this was a prank meant to be reciprocated, the young American does not get the joke. This pattern of acceptance and rejection continues throughout the film, but the good-hearted, forbearing Morris recognizes that the impulsive Katrin is not mean-spirited. She too is anxious to escape “German dickheads” of Heidelberg. Although Morris’s infatuation with Katrin is never entirely reciprocated, she takes hold of his adolescent psyche.

Parallel with Morris’s struggles with identity, we see his single father wrestle with how to raise his adolescent son. Having lived in Germany during his career as a player, Curtis is aware of its history and the latent danger of intolerance and violence aimed at men of color. While Curtis’s exhortations to his son to let his dad know when he is staying out late are understandable to any parent, they gain a sense of urgency in Morris’s case, as his adolescent naiveté belies his earnestness and self-composure. Curtis does not aim to stifle his son’s growth into adulthood or his creativity. Rather, he urges his son to engage honestly with his passions, be they rap, German girls, or otherwise.

The complicity between father and son is exemplified by a self-recorded mixtape Curtis gives to his son. When Morris discovers that the cassette contains his father clumsily rapping a Notorious B.I.G. cover, he dismisses his dad’s short-lived music ambitions. Ironically, his father has the similar criticism for his son. After reading a set of conceited and misogynist lyrics in Morris’s notebook, Curtis ironically remarks: “You need to rap about how you don’t know shit.” He encourages his son to wax poetic about his own experiences, a message that the budding young man takes to heart, declaring in rhyme before an audience of ecstatic German techno fans: “Morris in Germany surviving any way I can.” However, his father would not have him survive on his own. Rather, Curtis says, they should stick together, because after all they are “the only brothers in Heidelberg.”

Director: Chad Hartigan

Running Time: 91 minutes

Country: USA/Germany

Photos: Beachside Films/Lichtblick Meida/INDI Film

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

An orphan finds solace in family and film

By Zeke Trautenberg

Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an empathetic portrait of a young man grappling with belonging and loss. The film continues Waititi's exploration of of loneliness, acceptance, and the nature of familythemes which were at the center of the New Zealand filmmaker's previous features Eagle vs. Shark (2007), Boy (2010), and the satirical vampire comedy What We do in the Shadows (2014).

The protagonist of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a pudgy orphan of Maori extraction. Ricky expresses himself in haikus and wears brightly colored clothing that attests to his passion for hip hop, but which masks his sensitive soul. The film begins with Ricky’s transfer from a group home to the New Zealand bush, where he is sent to live with his new foster parents, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). Ricky’s villainous caseworker and the film's antagonist, Paula (Rachel House), has little hope that the new situation will work out. Before handing Ricky over to his new foster parents, Paula urges them to be vigilant of Ricky, whom she calls a “bad egg.” with a history of stealing stuff, burning stuff, spitting, and loitering, among other mildly antisocial activities.

After halfheartedly escaping from his new foster parents during his first night at their remote house, Ricky adjusts to his unfamiliar rural surroundings. He gradually comes out of his shell, coaxed by his foster mother, who dotes on him with food, takes him hunting for wild pigs, and composes a song in celebration of his birthday on her portable Casio synthesizer. After tragedy befalls the household, Ricky stages his own death-by-burning, and escapes into the vast woods that surround the house. Hector follows him, but after he finds Ricky he injures his leg in a spasm of anger. The two remain in the woods while Hector’s leg heals, but their disappearance triggers a national manhunt.

Waititi’s film takes full advantage of New Zealand’s spectacular scenery. The film opens with an aerial shot of the mountainous forest where Ricky and Hector go on the lam. However, the film does not lose itself in the overwhelming green of the landscape. The subtle and not-so-subtle costumes in the film—a cat sweater, oversized hoodies, red and blue plaid shirts—add to the film’s sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of its characters and reflects the film's playful approach to genre. The synthesizer-inflected score by Moniker provides a contrast between between the foreboding wilderness and the characters' intimate relationships.

The structure of Hunt for the Wilderpeople mirrors the tension between the rigid meter and free rhyme scheme of a haiku. The film is divided into ten chapters and an epilogue, with each chapter title reflecting a place ("Broken Foot Camp"), a shift in fortune ("Turn of the Tide"), or a change in Ricky's perception of himself ("Famous" and "A Normal Life"). The film’s clear structure contrasts with the film’s mishmash of genres, ranging from buddy comedies to Hollywood action movies. The self-reflexive qualities the film’s structure and genre elements extend to its characters. Ricky pokes fun at his weight, while his caseworker acts out her unhinged baddie role with self-aware glee. In the end, even the grumpy and reserved Hector embraces his “bushman” persona and embraces the teenager who helps him come to terms with own grief and loss.

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 101 minutes

Country: New Zealand

Photo: Piki Films/Defender Films/Curious Film

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Weiner (2016)

Weiner is a tragicomic portrait of ambition, narcissism, and second chances

By Zeke Trautenberg

Behind the political sheen, who is Anthony Weiner? What makes him tick? Is Weiner, a seven-term former Congressman and failed candidate for mayor of New York City, a flawed hero or an impulsive clown? And why did he let Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg film it all?

These questions are at the center Kriegman and Steinberg’s documentary about the ambitious New York politician whose comeback was derailed mid-campaign by a sexting scandal. Weiner sent dozens of sexually explicit images and messages to numerous women over the course of several years. His personal indiscretions first captured headlines in 2011. The ensuing furor prompted Weiner to resign from Congress. More images resurfaced in 2013 during his campaign for mayor. Weiner, who was leading in the polls, was undone by the hydra-like scandal. He finished his campaign with a whimper, receiving only five percent of the vote.

With his telenovela-ready nom de plume, Carlos Danger, Weiner was a character ready made for a media and political landscape that thrives on the cults of celebrity, scandal, and short attention spans. In their documentary, Kriegaman and Steinberg embrace the complexities of Weiner the political animal during the thirteen-weeks in the lead up to the vote. The documentary depicts a multifaceted character: Weiner is at once a wiry rubber band of narcissitic compulsion, a firebrand populist, a thoughtful father, and one-half of a Democratic-power couple—Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is Hillary Clinton’s long-time aide and confidant.

The film opens with a video clip that establishes Weiner’s political personality. We see Weiner, on floor of the House of Representatives, indignantly calling out Republicans for thwarting passage of a bill providing support for 9/11 emergency responders. The scene ends with a full-throated mic smash; a moment of choreographed defiance and outrage that is the most effective tool in Weiner’s substantial political repertoire. More clips show political pundits celebrating Weiner’s excoriating take down of Republicans. Weiner may not be a folk hero, but he is a compelling political actor and a jolt of energy to a Congress defined by inaction.

In the film, we see Weiner’s campaign unfold, rising and falling like a bulging bell curve. Armed with hand held cameras, the directors doggedly follow Weiner as he basks in media scrums; jumps, shouts, and dances his way through a dizzying variety of parades; recites Rodney Dangerfield jokes in the back seat of his car to his beleaguered communications director; engages in an on-air mud slinging match with host Lawrence O’Donnell (“I think there is something wrong with you,” O’Donnell declares); speaks with a campaign advisor about pulling off a Bulworth in the last weeks of his campaign; and withstands the icy glare of his exasperated spouse. Like The War Room (1993), a landmark political documentary of politics in the late-twentieth-century, Weiner engages with its subject up close; blurry genitalia, pinapples, and all.

What makes Weiner a fascinating character is not his vapid desire for recognition—a tendency he shares with Presidential candidate and one-note hype man Donald Trump—; but rather his determination to question the moral values of those who would judge him, or even worse, write him off as a mere sideshow. Indeed, the question of whether Weiner did anything wrong lingers with the viewer after the film. Weiner argues that his only definitive transgression was to lie his constituents and to have a funny name. He contends that the Greek chorus of the press merely “played their part” in dwelling on his scandals, and were captivated by them because “they don’t do nuance.” However, Weiner’s part in his own undoing is not trivial: he willingly opens up his private life and exposes his family to the scrutiny of Kriegman and Steinberg’s camera and those of the media. Ironically, he aims to shape a self-aggrandizing narrative of his political comeback, without foreseeing how quickly things would mutate out of his control.

In addition to the dramatic story the documentary tells, it is shaped by the self-awareness of its protagonist. At the end of the film, Weiner observes that even though the documentary that bears his name will be swallowed by the “vortex” of his scandals, he hopes that it will provide the opportunity for history to revisit him. “I wanted to be viewed as the full person that I was,” Weiner wistfully reflects. Anchored to this tragicomic figure, the film bobs up and down like a buoy amid a turbulent sea, its uneasy movements telegraphing our troubled times.

Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

Running Time: 96 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: Edgeline Films/IFC

Review: Bulworth (1998)

Bulworth is an incisive satire of American democracy at the doorstep of a new millennium

By Zeke Trautenberg

The opening titles of Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth establish a national political climate of cynicism and lethargy in the midst of the 1996 presidential primary. Superimposed over a black screen, the titles announce that Bill Clinton is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, while Senator Bob Dole has locked up the Republican nomination. Senator Jay Billington Bulworth, an incumbent senator from California, is behind in the polls against an upstart challenger for his Senate seat going into the final weekend of his campaign. The titles declare that amid this uninspiring panorama of politics as normal, “the populace is unaroused.”

The first scene in the film, a wide shot of the Capitol in the rain, underscores this dreary reality. This morose atmosphere is similarly captured in the subsequent shots of an empty moonlit hallway in the Capitol and then of the eponymous Senator alone in his shadowy office. Bulworth is crying himself to sleep as variations of his own television advertisement play on repeat. Each of these ads begin with the photogenic Senator, bathed in sunlight, proclaiming “We stand on the doorstep of a new millennium…” This mise en abyme of asinine political ads overwhelms the flesh and blood Bulworth, who sits crying in a chair. Amid this weepy tableau, the camera pans across the wall of the Senator’s office where images of more inspiring moments hang like specters of an idealized past. There is a photo of a young, long-haired Bulworth in Washington, an image of Jesse Jackson during his 1984 presidential run, and a sketch of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of the California primary in June of 1968.

This last image looms heavily over the film. Although nearly thirty years have passed, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination informs Bulworth’s paranoia and his disillusionment.  Bulworth shares little in common with the idealistic and principled Senator from New York; he is a washed-up and compromised Clintonian Democrat of the 1990s, eager to please corporate interests, cut back the reforms of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s transformative Great Society, and raise as much money as possible. Even worse, Bulworth reveals himself to be corrupt when he takes a large life insurance policy from an insurance businessman, in exchange for squashing a bill that would regulate the industry. The policy is part of Bulworth's scheme to have himself killed. In a move that satirically and explicitly draws connections to the tragic legacies of Robert and John Kennedy, Bulworth takes out a contract on his own life—a scheme he christens the “Weekend Research Project.”  Ironically, his imminent assassination shakes him out of his malaise and goads him into action.

Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, where he is on a last-minute fundraising tour, Bulworth decides to break with all political common sense: he speaks his mind and tells the truth. Tailed by a CSPAN crew, Bulworth, wantonly travels across Los Angeles, at first guided by his campaign schedule, and then by his tempestuous impulses. For much of the film, Bulworth is accompanied by Nina (Halle Berry), a young woman who appears impressed by Bulworth’s truth-telling at his first campaign stop, a black church in South Central. At the church, Bulworth takes the pulpit and begins reading his stump speech, but after a few sentences he tosses it aside. The topsy-turvy camera alerts the viewer that Bulworth is poised to break with the standard operating procedure. Abandoning the script like a rogue Mr. Smith, Bulworth goes on a tirade against corrupt politicians, the insurance industry, and endemic racism. He chides his audience for voting for the Democratic party, observing that the party takes them for granted. Further provoking the crowd, he asks, “What are you gonna do, vote Republican?” Trying to temper his boss’s off the cuff remarks, Bulworth’s campaign manager (Oliver Platt) declares to no one in particular: “Never underestimate the value of a frank exchange.” Platt’s impotent character is one of the funniest parts of the film: unable to maintain control and spin the truth, he descends into a narcissistic, cocaine-fueled mania.

The poster for Bulworth

The poster for Bulworth

In addition to its connection to the genre of political satire, the film is a portrait of a racially segregated and economically stratified city. In addition to the church in South Central, Bulworth traverses a range of distinctive locations in the city, including a mansion in Beverley Hills where he meets with Hollywood power-brokers; a hip hop club; the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, a white Lutheran Church in Pasadena, and a TV studio. The Senator’s displacement is an allegorical device that reflects the racial tensions of Los Angeles in the years after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and in the midst of the O.J. Simpson trial. As he grows closer to Nina, Bulworth meditates on his own past as an idealist politician and revels in memories of the Black Panther leader Huey Newton. In of the most pointed exchanges of the film, Bulworth asks Nina, “why are there are no more black leaders?” Nina responds that the decline of the industrial economy and organized black labor in Los Angeles, which blossomed during World War II, has hollowed out the black middle class and left a dearth of leaders capable of representing the black community.

The film represents Bulworth as an imperfect surrogate for black Angelinos, who ostensibly voices the community’s relevant issues and demands. The Senator is depicted as a well-meaning but clownish character. The Senator raps throughout the film and is fascinated by the term “the nappy dugout,” but these discomfort produced by the character's actions make him more, not less, complex and subversive.  And while the film occasionally detours into caricature, especially in its depiction of African American women, it nevertheless maintains a sympathy for its subjects and its hard edged critique of a Democracy that excludes many. The film’s exquisite 1990s hip hop soundtrack, which features songs by Pras (“Ghetto Supastar”), Cypress Hill (“Insane in the Membrane), and NWA (“100 Miles and Runnin’”), is a testament to the film’s authenticity and its earnest engagement with black culture.  

Beatty outside the McGovern campaign office in Beverley Hills

Beatty outside the McGovern campaign office in Beverley Hills

Beatty himself was and remains an outspoken champion of liberal politics. He campaigned for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and in the late 1990s he briefly flirted with a Presidential run. His long filmography also reveals an obsession with politics. Among the most notable of these films are the conspiracy-thriller The Parallax View (1974); Shampoo (1975), which is set on the eve of Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and which he co-wrote; and the Bolshevik Revolution epic Reds (1981), which he co-wrote and directed. However, Bulworth is Beatty's most personal of these politically-inflected films, especially its finally shot, in which Beatty the director conjures the spirit of Bobby Kennedy.

Bulworth is a potent portrait of America at the end of the twentieth century. Its depiction of economic inequality, universal health care (“Only socialized medicine will save the day”), the legacy of the First Gulf War, racial divisions, and O.J. Simpson—whose life and times have recently been reexamined in film and television—, resonate in the aftermath of the Affordable Care Act, the Black Lives Matter movement, and America's continued military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Likewise, traces of the film’s incisive satire can be seen in the recent television show Veep and the documentary film Weiner (2016), which chronicles the disastrous mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner, a man who like Beatty's fictional Senator, indulged his impulses. In the year 2016, amid a contentious Presidential election rife with demagoguery, xenophobia, and racism, we could use our own Bulworth. Although before you take the stage, whoever you are, remember to mic check one two.

Director: Warren Beatty

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Country: USA

Photos: 20th Century Fox and AP

Review: The Measure of a Man (2015)

Brizé’s film is a humanist portrait of a man struggling to make ends meet

By Zeke Trautenberg

The climax of Stéphane Brizé’s film The Measure of a Man comes in the final third. The film’s protagonist, Thierry (Vincent Lindon), dressed in his security guard black suit and tie, stands uneasily a harshly lit bare room with three of his fellow supermarket employees. Thierry’s creased brow, drooping moustache, soft-spoken baritone voice, and hunched shoulders reveal his own moral distaste for his job. Next to Terry stand the store manager and another security guard. The three are interrogating a cashier from the store, whom the manager accuses of hoarding customers’ discount coupons. As Thierry and the viewer know, this backroom j’acusse is motivated by more banal and far-reaching economic motives than mere theft. The store’s management is looking to cut back on staff and reduce its pension liabilities by finding reasons to fire employees. Thierry and his fellow security guards play a key role in this scheme, spying on their fellow employees with the aim of uncovering fireable offenses.

The camera captures Thierry’s sense of anxiety and moral turpitude as it pans in shallow focus between Thierry, the manager, and the other security guard. The cashier, in the background, is out of focus and disoriented, as the weight of the charges swirl around the room. At first the cashier, a long time employee, denies her guilt, but finally she admits that she did save the coupons. She offers to forgo her bonus in order to keep her job. However, the manager is unforgiving and claims that he has no more trust in her. The camera cuts away before we see her being fired, but the viewer can infer the outcome of this jarring backroom trial.

We arrive at this scene after following Thierry through his struggles to find a job after a long period of unemployment. Thierry worked as machinist, but his skills are outdated in the highly-segmented and unequal economy of early-twenty-first century France. Thierry and his family try to make ends meet in an economic environment where austerity politics and downward mobility are the order of the day. The film is a potent allegory of how the exigencies of a globalized market and economy and government austerity policies have diminished the legacy of the postwar French welfare state. The unemployed Thierry is on the front lines of a difficult economic environment and a changing Europe. He has to grapple with an unresponsive government and rigid labor laws that harm both employers and employees. The trappings of the middle class—a car, a mobile vacation home, and a comfortable apartment— are now luxuries for Thierry and his family.

The Measure of a Man is part of a tradition of humanist filmmaking in France that stretches from Jean Renoir to Claude Sautet to Claire Denis. Like these filmmakers, Brizé shows great compassion for the workers and the struggles of everyday families. And like Renoir in The Rules of the Game, Lindon, who won the award for Best Actor at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for his role in the film, fashions a character of immense moral depth.

Brize’s film is economic in its cinematography and mise en scène. The handheld camera work by cinematographer Eric Dumont captures the complex character of Thierry and underscores the film’s psychological intensity. The staging of the action is claustrophobic and interiors are starkly lit. Structurally, the film has much in common with the irregular pacing and experimental montage in Denis’ Nenette and Boni (1996). As in Denis’ film, we enter sequences in medias res without a clear sense of how much time has passed between one segment and the next. Another work that closely parallels the film’s tone and plot is Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Like Josef K., Thierry undergoes a series of trials in his search for employment. He faces a government official, a banker, a group of his peers tasked with evaluating his interviewing skills, and a Humans Relations expert, who gives one of the least inspiring eulogies in movie history. Notwithstanding these trials, Thierry’s life still holds room for joy. Although his face remains inscrutable, when he dances with his wife and bathes his disabled son, we sense that Thierry, however briefly, is at peace.

Director: Stéphane Brizé

Running Time: 93 minutes

Country: France

Photos: Nord-Ouest Productions/Arte France Cinéma

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Brazil (1985)

Brazil is a dystopian love letter to cinema and a terrifying story of citizenship in the information age

By Zeke Trautenberg

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil depicts a city of grey concrete apartment blocks, groaning air ducts, and mountains of paperwork sorted by a mass of grey-suited bureaucrats. This dystopian world of the information age exists in stark contrast to the sterile, utilitarian, and efficient future promised by companies like Apple and embodied by mid-century utopian urban planning projects like Brasilia. In this fictional city, order coexists with dysfunction. Elevators have minds of their own, heating systems fail, and an intransigent government imprisons and tortures its own citizens with impunity.  

From the beginning, the film plays with the viewer’s expectations and perspective. The film opens with a shot of a cloud-filled blue sky. Titles on the screen announce that it is 8:49 p.m. and “Somewhere in the 20th Century.” These titles set the pattern for the contradictions and ellipsis that characterize the film’s larger narrative and structure. The time (8:49 p.m.) is definite, but the place and year are not specified. Likewise, the phrase of “Somewhere in the 20th Century,” instead of “Sometime in the 20th Century,” emphasizes the connection between time and place. The twentieth century is not just a temporal epoch, but a place to be depicted, explored, and imagined on film. This first scene concludes with the camera moving towards the darkened city below.

The protagonist of the film, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), lives in this forbidding city. Sam holds a prominent position in the document department of the Ministry of Information, where he assists his inept boss with reams of paperwork and daydreams about a mysterious blonde woman—who later materializes as the government suspect Jill Layton (Kim Greist). This Leviathan-like ministry, whose operating budget consumes seven percent of the gross national product, implants itself into every crevice of the city. Its insidious reach is conveyed in Constructivist and social realist style posters pasted across the city, which feature sinister slogans like “Suspicion Breeds Confidence,” “Don’t Suspect a Friend. Report Him,” and “Mind That Parcel. Eagle Eyes Can Save A Life.”

The film’s intricate plot is set in motion by a case of mistaken identity. When Harry Buttle is arrested instead of Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), Sam becomes embroiled in the government’s anti-terrorist campaign. The Deputy Minister of Information blames “Bad sportsmanship” for the rise of terrorist bombings and declares: “A ruthless minority of people seem to have forgotten good old-fashioned virtues. They just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win.” The class divisions and resentments alluded to by the Deputy Minister, are reflected in the spatially and economically segregated city. However, Tuttle and Jill Layton, the government suspects, never articulate a set of demands or specify their opposition to the government. The closest thing we hear to a manifesto is Tuttle’s declaration to Sam: “We’re all in it together, kid.” Ironically, this statement also appears on a billboard showing a smiling nuclear family and their dog in a sleek blue car below the word “Happiness.” The duality of this phrase—on the one hand its a statement of solidarity and on the other a marketing slogan—underscores the larger narrative and structural ambiguities of the film, which in turn demand an active viewer.  

In addition to the exploration of marketing, Gilliam’s film explores cinephilia, what Susan Sontag calls “the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired,” and draws on a number of cinematic intertexts. Like the other men at the Ministry, Sam is drawn to the screens throughout the office that broadcast movies and television. The wall in his room covered with posters of glamour style photographs of early twentieth-century film stars. And when it is mentioned that Casablanca (1942) will be shown on television, Sam expresses his enthusiasm for the film by uttering Humphrey Bogart’s famous line: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” The similarities between Bogart’s line and Tuttle’s parting phrase are unequivocal and reflect the centrality of cinephilia in the film.

Beyond these direct references to cinema, Gilliam’s film engages with the medium itself and draws connections with silent film-era characters. The oneiric sequences of the film—which feature Sam as a flying glam-rock warrior doing battle with a giant armored samurai—serve as allegories of cinema and its capacity to create. In the same vein, Sam’s dream of a city rising out of the earth serves a metonym of the film’s representation of a fictional metropolis. On a related note, the ingenuous disposition and elastic movements of Jonathan Pryce’s character recall Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in Modern Times (1936) and Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). Tati’s film in particular offers a unique lens through which to consider Gilliam’s film. Both works depict worlds that are inundated with technology, but also profoundly alienating. Whereas Monsieur Hulot is a fish out of water, adrift in a rapidly urbanizing and modernizing post-war France, the protagonist of Brazil is an insider, albeit a naïve one, who seeks to uncover the invisible layers of an all-consuming bureaucracy.

Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s  Playtime

Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Brazil is part of a sub-genre of twentieth-century science fiction films that center of the dystopian city. Other films that form part of this lineage are Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The production design of these four films emphasizes monumental scale of the city and the diminutive size and power of its citizens. However, in terms of its narrative and production design, Metropolis is Brazil’s closest cousin. Both depict vertical cities and link power to monumental and self-contained structures. The New Tower of Babel in Metropolis and the headquarters of the Ministry of Information in Brazil are imposing buildings that embody the power of capitalism and the state, respectively. And while there is no physical equivalent to Metropolis’s utopian Eternal Gardens in Brazil, both films portray a hero who becomes disenchanted with the urban elite and in his efforts to help the oppressed, unearths the dreadful human cost of sustaining the city.

The vertical city of  Metropolis

The vertical city of Metropolis

The key difference between Metropolis and Brazil is the kind of economies they depict. Whereas the Metropolis centers on an industrial economy managed and owned by a wealthy capitalist class, Brazil portrays an information economy controlled by a state bureaucracy that operates with impunity. If the voracious mouth of Moloch in Lang’s film exemplifies the exploitation of the producer-based economy, then the short-circuited gizmos in Sam’s apartment reflect a consumer-centric economy, in which technology pervades domestic life. Gilliam’s film satirizes the fetishization of the citizen as a consumer: even terrorist suspects are referred to as “customers” by the security services. In this dystopian society, citizens’ contract with the government is not social (in the Rousseauian sense), but transactional. The values of liberalism—belief in the dignity of all, equality before the law, freedom of speech—are incompatible with a totalitarian state that is only accountable unto itself.

The information-based, consumer-centered economy depicted in Brazil is not benign. It is monitored and controlled by bureaucrats who follow an endless number of regulations and adhere to an opaque set parameters. However, the purview of state power extends beyond the collection of information—torture is also part of the government’s repertoire. In our era of mass government spying in which information is consumed and exploited with impunity, the film’s story of naked and unchecked power resonates. However, what makes Brazil so vital and prescient is Sam’s final, terrifying revelation: masked or unmasked, injustice endures.

Director: Terry Gilliam

Running Time: 132 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: Embassy International Pictures/UFA/Criterion Collection

(First published in Párrafo 451)

Review: Capone Cries A Lot (1985)

Seijun Suzuki’s tale of a singing immigrant is a poignant love letter to cinema

By Zeke Trautenberg

Seijun Suzuki is best known for the dozens of films he made while employed at Japan’s Nikkatsu studios in the 1950s and 1960s. Noir thrillers like Youth of the Beast (1963), Tokyo Drifter (1966), and Branded to Kill (1967) depict a violent and rapidly changing post-war Japan. Many of Suzuki’s Nikkatsu films feature Joe Shishido, an actor whose plastic surgery-enhanced chipmunk cheeks and gangster cool complemented Suzuki’s anarchic plots, eccentric production design, and frenetic cinematography. Suzuki’s satirical 1985 film, Capone Cries A Lot stars Kenichi Hagiwara, a former boy band idol, who matches Shishido’s intensity and complements it with a knack for screwball physical comedy. Hagiwara plays Umiemon, a naniwa-bushi (rōkyoku) singer, who immigrates to 1920s San Francisco with Kozome (Yūko Tanaka), the young wife of another naniwa-bushi master. The film portrays their trials and travails as they adjust to the unfamiliar and frequently unwelcoming society across the Pacific.

The film opens in a traditional Japanese home, where Umiemon has traveled to study under the direction of Kozome’s husband. The master singer, however is not present, and the upstart singer is seduced by the mischievous Kozome, who bears an ominous tattoo of a green octopus on her back as punishment for a past infidelity. These initial sequences are replete with Suzuki’s perennial jump cuts and masterly choreographed slapstick set pieces that culminate in the severing of a finger by the desperate Umiemon. The baritone-voiced protagonist is finally taken under the wing of another naniwa-bushi master, who initially passes himself off as Kozome’s husband. In one memorable scene, the two sing insults at one other as they stand on a cliff perched over the blue-gray ocean, their fists gripping the others’ balls.  

Umiemon’s decision to take leave of his master and immigrate to Prohibition-era America is not entirely accounted for—plot holes are another endearing element of Suzuki’s films—, but his move was a common one for tens of thousands of Japanese men and women following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Many Issei settled in the West Coast and Mountain West of the United States, where they labored in mines and on railroads. This migration, which continued largely unabated until a series of restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s, reshaped the social and cultural dynamics of towns and cities across the American West.

In the film, early-twentieth-century San Francisco is depicted as a diverse city of black, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese-Americans. Umiemon settles in the Yokohama House, a hotel that doubles as a saloon and brothel. The bright interior of the hotel, with its yellow, orange, and turquoise walls, recalls the saloon in Suzuki’s gangster revenge film Tokyo Drifter. And as in Tokyo Drifter, the hotel is the site of an elaborately staged shootout. The production design in the rest Capone Cries A Lot is similarly idiosyncratic. Much of the film was shot an abandoned theme park in San Francisco; a brightly lit merry-go-round is a recurring set piece. The carnival-like setting amplifies the film’s representation of America as a place where modernity (embodied by the garish billboards for Ford Model-B, Dentyne gum, and Hershey’s Choclate), wanton violence, and racism exist side by side.

After Kozome’s gambling debts force her into prostitution, Umiemon moves into an open-air, latticed steel tower with dozens of other Japanese immigrants. He plies his trade in a plaza, but his songs, which one Yakuza member compares to the croak of suffocating frog, do not appeal to an American audience. Umiemon’s dream is to sing before the president—a fantasy unlikely to be realized unless you take into account the President of the Night, Al Capone.

The third act of the film finds the naïve singer joining the local Yakuza. The Japanese gangsters recruit him not because of his voice, but by virtue of his knowledge of Sake brewing. Freed from her indentured servitude at the brothel, Kozome also asserts herself as a dominant force in a place that she ironically calls “the land of gender equality. The lady with the octopus tattoo negotiates with Al Capone, establishes a floating brothel, and endeavors to transform herself into a modern American woman.

A tone of melancholy and sharp sense of injustice lie beneath the film’s slapstick humor and stylistic flourishes. Umiemon captures the pain of racism and discrimination in a song about American Indian resistance in the nineteenth century. Umiemon, his throat muscles tensed and his face vibrating sings: “So much hatred and malice . . . . Sandcreek.” These lyrics refer to the 1864 Sandcreek Massacre, an event in which U.S. Army volunteers murdered hundreds of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians. In linking the histories of American Indians and Japanese-Americans, Suzuki establishes a link of solidarity between ethnic and racial minorities in the United States. This racial animosity and tension are also reflected in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, who hold signs reading “America for Americans,” a minstrel band in blackface, and the internment camps of the 1940s, which appear towards the end of the film. In the era of Black Lives Matter, mass deportations, and entrenched social inequality in the United States, Suzuki’s sharp-edged story of the Japanese immigrant experience in twentieth-century America resonates with poignancy and urgency.

In addition to its incisive portrayal of social and political issues of twentieth-century America, Suzuki’s film is a love letter to cinema. Capone Cries A Lot is a gangster film, a samurai picture, and a western. Umiemon’s naniwa-bushi songs, which range from tales of samurai exploits to songs about Al Capone’s teary disposition, exemplify the manic blend of genres. Likewise, the protagonist’s fervent impersonation of Charlie Chaplin in front of a movie theater underscores the film’s debt to silent era comedies. Notwithstanding the prominence of these cinematographic references, the triumphant moment of the film comes in the form of music. In a hollowed-out concrete building, a group of black jazz and blues musicians jam to the rhythm of a naniwa-bushi tune, injecting Umiemon’s mournful baritone vibrato with a whole lot of soul.

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Running Time: 130 minutes

Country: Japan

Photos: Capone Cries A Lot, K Enterprises/C.C.J.