A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Post Tenebras Lux” (“Light After Darkness”) (2012) 5.17.15

I noticed that this film was playing at a theater in town of which I think I talked about in a couple of other reviews. It’s Oregon’s “only student-run cinema” that shows films that are a bit different, avant-garde, art house, whatever you want to “label” them as. I personally always get excited when they announce their upcoming lineup each term of the school season, and I even mark a calendar for what films I plan to see. They’ve opened me up to a lot of new experiences with movies I would have never heard of if it hadn’t have been for them in the 8+ years I’ve been living in Portland. I was particularly interested in this one. As after having seen the trailer before another film I saw their recently, Harmony Korine’s brilliant and misunderstood “Spring Breakers” (2013), they showed a trailer for it where I learned a couple of things. For one, it won the “Best Director Award” at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas 4th trip to Cannes. It’s an award of the utmost highest prestige for any filmmaker, and one that certainly has some clout (just the year prior, Nicolas Winding Refn won for “Drive”). I’ve always felt like Cannes is especially good at choosing projects in certain categories, and knowing my love for directors and the “auteur theory”, this caught my attention. As it looked to be one of those sprawling films takes place all over the world and didn’t really have any kind of narrative thread that I could tell of, at least by the film’s trailer. It also stated that it evoked the works both the great American director Terrence Malick as well as Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Anybody that knows me knows that my affinity for both of these directors runs deep, particularly that of the former, so at the very least, I knew I was in for something that at the very least would be worthwhile from a challenge the moviegoer point of view.

The film starts off with a little girl (the real life daughter of Reygadas) playing on a farm on the verge of a thunderstorm with cows, horses, and dogs circling around her. She’s shown looking around in a state of marvel or wonder at the “life” she sees going on all around her. It’s the first in a sequence of loosely edited together “fragments” or sequences within the film. From here things go from strange to stranger, as we are introduced to several vignettes of different segments in which the viewer kind of has to connect the dots in order to make any kind of sense of what they’re watching (and just as a disclaimer – I don’t mean this as a bad thing). An AA meeting of some sort takes place, which quickly soon after jumps out of Mexico to England, where the camera brings us into a boy’s locker room as they prepare for a rugby game, to a Lucifer-like, red animated Devil figure with a toolbox who seems to be making house calls of some sort (the film is rich with ambiguous symbolism), to a bathhouse, where the little girl mentioned above’s mother and father, the two central characters of the film – Juan and Natalia partake in some rather deviant sexual activity. From there the film mostly carries on in this fashion. With Mexican villagers climbing the film’s gorgeously shot countryside (it quickly becomes apparent why Reygadas won the coveted Best Director prize) to scenes involving Juan and his nuclear family, and both back to the Lucifer-like hellish character, and finally back to the English boys playing rugby to act as the film’s rather loose and open-ended climax (if you even want to call it that) of the film.

This was somewhat of an endurance test even for someone like myself who (without sounding boastful) is a bit more versed in what people consider art house cinema than most. The film comes across as a sort of “expressionist” painting, which leaves us as a viewer, the audience, to try to make sense of what it’s trying to say. The first thing that was striking, at least to me, was the way in which the aspect ratio of the film was shot. Imagine those old “home movies” from the sixties that you see in films or on TV that show just a small square in the middle of the screen. Well, the entire film is shown in this ratio, apparently known as 4:3. Apparently done to achieve a look with a clearly framed center. But (and this is a tab bit hard to for me to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it) with the outside of the square box shown in distortion like you’re looking at something through a foggy glass window. This gives it the expressionist feel in which I spoke of above.

Now here’s my major critique of the film and my critique of film’s that are simply art for art’s sake in general. Without any sort of narrative arch or development of any of the characters within the story, I found it almost “too” abstract and too challenging to make any sort of sense of what was going on. Sure the cinematography was rather impressive, and I genuinely did enjoy what I made out to be the film’s rich symbolism when taken its fragmented scenes and tried to put them together. What did each character represent though, and what was the film trying to say? Even for a hardcore art house film enthusiast such as myself, I found that I was constantly questioning why the director consistently transported us from one location to the next, without any outward meaning or semi explanation at least on a surface level. I’ll end by saying that I’m a big fan of the Swedish art house director of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who may be the greatest filmmaker within the art house genre of all time. But even despite his loose interpretations and symbolic leanings, there was always, even with Bergman’s more artistic endeavors, I always felt like there was some semblance of understanding on my part. Which, despite of the undeniably impressive cinematography on display here, the interpretation seemed like that of a Rorschach Test, and admittedly, there has to be a point somewhere in where I draw the line, which wound up being the case with this film.

[C+]

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ 10.10.14

Anyone that knows the film lover side of me knows how much I absolutely adore Woody Allen. My first introduction to him was in a film class in my late teens when one of my teachers showed the class “Annie Hall” (1977). A film that struck such a chord with me and left such a mark that even 15 years later I still consider it to be one of my 5 favorite films of all time. In the several years following I’ve immersed myself in almost every Allen film. At one point a couple of years back, if my mind serves me correctly, I think I remember counting that I had seen 37 of his 44 films. His films have become something much deeper than just movies. In fact, they’ve gotten me through some really difficult times in my life. I almost use them as a therapeutic tool. They’re my version of what I consider to be “feel good movies”. Even though underlying them there’s a sense of cynicism and sadness about his views on life. In my eyes, I look at life very much through what I now consider to be almost an “Allen-like lens”. Given the fact that at this point I feel like I practically know the guy being well aware and knowing that I only know him as a writer, actor, director, comedian, and musician. The best thing for me is that I know each and every single year I will be given a new Woody Allen film. His creative output is only matched by the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, who used to release a film a year. And, who non coincidentally, also happens to the director who Allen cites as his biggest influence. Now I can’t really say I had the highest hopes going into his new film, as the trailer just screamed out “minor Allen”. But being in that he’s one of my top fave favorite film makers, I just knew that I had to see it.

The film starts off in Berlin circa 1928 where we first meet a seemingly famous magician named Stanley (played by the great British actor Colin Firth). Our initial impression of him is that he’s quite full of himself. He’s pompous, self absorbed, and a total narcissist. A longtime friend and admirer of his work employs him to travel to the southern coast of France to expose a clairvoyant named Sophie (played magnificently here by Emma Stone, in what might be her finest work to date), who specializes in being able to raise the dead through the ritual of seances. Since he himself is considered to be one of the finest magicians of his time, his employer hopes that he can debunk her and show that’s she’s really just a fake. Stanley arrives to France under the guise of a businessman, but after some time of him and Sophie getting to know one another, she recognizes who he really is and through intuition correctly guesses what his motivations are. But it also seems as if she is smitten by him and doesn’t really seem to care or not that he’s there to expose her. That, and he is fascinated by her too. So while they both know that he’s there for reasons to ruin her they grow a deep affinity and admiration for each other and one another’s work. As their relationship grows so do their affection for one another, but because of their age difference (Stanley’s much older) and the fact that both of them are already in committed relationships, it doesn’t seem like this is a possibility. Except by maybe an act of fate. At the core it may sound like a simple love story but in typical Allen fashion, there winds up being much more involved than what meets the eye.

This wound up being an enjoyable film that I had a fair amount of fun with. Even if it does fall into the more “lighter fare” category. But it is “late Woody Allen”. Who in much of his recent efforts, with the exception maybe last year’s splendid “Blue Jasmine”, more or less reflects the tone of a lot of his latest work. Emma Watson is enigmatic here and a true delight to watch. Colin Firth also seems fitting for the role, and while although I wouldn’t put it up there with his best work (see 2009’s “A Single Man”), he certainly does a decent enough job where I thought he was a good casting choice. The two lead actors obviously seem to have a lot of fun with another one of Allen’s consistently good scripts and provide some great on screen chemistry. Also, as is with a lot of Allen’s more recent work, which acts as an almost travelogue since he films all over the world, he shoots the coast of southern France beautifully with some absolutely gorgeous and stunning photography. The music is also a highlight, as is with most of Allen’s films, he has a great ear for old school big band jazz sounds of the early 1920’s and thirties. My only criticism of the film is that it almost felt a bit “too” light. Like it was trying to pander a bit to the audiences heartstrings. Which is not something I’m used to with Allen. If anything I’ve often felt like his work is the exact opposite in that it tries not to even remotely pander to what he thinks the audience might like. It’s also cute and charming but not very funny. Which I was fine with as I don’t think its intention really was to be funny. At least not laugh out loud funny. However, I look at both of these things as minor critiques and that for the most part, I was able to overlook because of the other elements that I liked. This is slightly above average “late Woody Allen” and is more aligned with his post-aught films like “Match Point” (2005) or “Midnight in Paris” (2011) than it is with his stronger films like “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (2008) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013). It’s a film that even an Allen admirer such as myself can certainly recommend to others who are just looking for an enjoyable evening out with a delightful and charming film which even despite it’s more lighter leanings, succeeds on a lot of levels.

Grade: B

Review: ‘Faust’ 9.21.14

I guess I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting going into a film like this one. I knew very little about it other than the fact that it had won the Golden Lion prize at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. A very prestigious award that’s not quite on par with the Best Picture of the festival, but one that is usually reserved more for films that won over the majority of audience crowd members. Films presented with this award are films that the festival hopes will gain exposure by it just merely having been given it. Why it wasn’t released in the US until 3 years after its initial release date internationally is something I don’t have an answer to. Other than that with most foreign films it’s difficult for them to find a US distributor, so some movies take upwards to 2-3 years after their domestic release date to hit international markets. So with all of that in mind I figured it was at least something worth looking into. I also knew little to next to nothing about Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov other than he has had quite a long career having released almost a film a year since the mid 1970’s. Admittedly having never seen any of his prior work I went into this one with almost a blank slate.

The story focuses on Faust, a German doctor, who at the very beginning of the film we see conducting some kind of experimental surgical procedure on a cadaver. We then get a glimpse into his turmultous relationship with his father, also a doctor, but who has more or less given up on his son because of his disobedience and determination to do things his own way. Faust is a nobleman but lives the life of a street person – malnourished, no money for ink to write, sleep deprived, and beaten down. He is a man who as quoted in the film – “has lost the meaning of life”. Then one day, he meets an unsuspecting guest who’s traveling through, and the two of them come across some sort of “slave market”, where said traveler dons his clothes and we see that he is anatomically unlike anyone else (a strange, bizarre scene indeed). Faust seems to be unphased by this while others uunderstandably seem petrified. Fausts’ suspicions that this man is some sort of an otherworldy figure becomes true when through as if with a stroke of magic, he makes wine pour freely out of the walls of caves. This new supreme being gives Faust a sense of newfound hope, and the two of them begin to focus on what Faust has always wanted to attain but has been too unconfident and down on his luck to do so, which is to find the love of a woman. Faust does find a young girl that puts the twinkle in his eye, and both he and said unsuspecting traveler make it a mission to get her to fall in love with him.

“Faust” has some very interesting things going for it. As with many period pieces (it takes place during the early to mid 19th century) it has some beautiful costume design, art direction, and set pieces. From a film making stand point it shot in a unique kind of camera filter, with oversaturated lighting, which distorts the image and makes things almost look dream-like. Which, as it comes to a close, you will understand why the decision was made to film it like such. Some of the scenes, especially towards the film’s end are exquisitely and elegantly shot. Yet all of that aside, the story is meandering, and at a lengthy 2 hours and 20 minutes, it almost becomes a tedious effort for that on behalf of the viewer. It’s also disjointed, muddled, and utterly confusing throughout much of the film. Trying to explore existensial themes like God vs. the Devil and the meaning of life and death, with an underlying metaphor about Adam and Eve but with a twisted spin on it. None of which I found to be effective in the slightest. To top things off, when we do get to the climax, after a laborious 140 minutes, it feels like just another knock off of Ingmar Bergman’s masterful 1957 film – “The Seventh Seal”. So much so that I found myself rolling my eyes at it because it clearly wore its influences on its sleeve. Despite some interesting ideas from a cinematic stand point, this wound up being a rather shallow affair with too few redeeming qualities.

Grade: C