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: “’71” 3.14.15

Okay I’ll just come flat-out and say it – “Jack O’Connell is the best twenty-something actor, stateside or international, that is currently working in the film industry today”. The last time I felt like I discovered an actor of his caliber was when I was first introduced to Tom Hardy (who coincidentally enough I draw a lot of comparisons between the two) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (2008), who as I predicted, like I do with O’Connell, would be a household name in just a few years from then once American audiences started to take notice of these highly gifted young actors. Also, like Hardy, I first caught wind of O’Connell in 2013’s “Starred Up” (another prison drama like “Bronson” which I considered the best post-2000 film of the genre outside of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009) ). O’Connell puts in a breakthrough performance that rivaled that of his co-star, the immensely talented Ben Mendelsohn (who’s pretty much been the best part of everything I’ve seen him in). O’Connell was so good in that, that I vowed to myself that I would follow this very promising and undeniably gifted young actor in every project he does from this point forward. And at the young age of 24, he shows the potential to be just as good, if not better, than someone like a Tom Hardy or a Matthais Schoenaerts, but should achieve their same level of fame about a decade younger than they did, those actors being well into their thirties. O’Connell is basically still just a kid, which makes the anticipation of what he’s going to next all that more exciting. And so far, in just the past 2 years, he’s played the lead role in the aforementioned “Starred Up” (2013), last year’s Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” (which I still haven’t seen but that has recently moved to the very top of my queue simply because it stars O’Connell), and now this film. Which without giving away what I thought about it too prematurely, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed by it.

‘”71″ is the new feature film by first time director Yann Demange (I could have sworn when I first read that name I thought it was a pseudonym for the “Muscles From Brussels”) starring Jack O’Connell in the lead (and in fact the only lead, as the rest of the roles I would barely even consider “supporting”). The film is set in (you guessed it) 1971 Northern Ireland and jumps right into the story without little to no setup other than that he’s a British solider who happens to be fighting for the Irish Army. After a quick orientation depicting his squad going through some rigorous training, it jumps right into his specific unit being briefed that they’re being deployed to a dangerous area of Belfast, where an ongoing war is taking place between 2 rival religious factions – the Protestants and Catholics. In one of the more well shot and gripping segments of the film, O’Connell’s unit lands in a war-torn area of Catholic territory, and since the Army is more aligned with the Protestants, to say the townspeople don’t take to their presence well would be a grave understatement. In fact, a full on riot ensues, which is expertly shot using a guerilla-style filmmaking style that makes you feel like you’re right there in on the action. O’Connell’s character, amidst the chaos, gets separated from the rest of his unit, and since his squad is being overpowered by the Catholics, they leave in a hurried rush without him with members of the Catholic militia on his trail (and a chase scene as good as anything I can remember on film since the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bank robbery foot chase from “Point Break” (1991) ). The rest of the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse where O’Connell’s character, who starts off as the hunter, now becomes the hunted, as just about every character within the film seems to want him dead. The rest of the film takes several twists and turns, which takes a hold of you in its firm grip and doesn’t let go until the film’s closing shot

This was a mightily impressive debut from director Yann Damange and yet another brilliant performance by O’Connell, who seems to be in just about every frame of the film and who is clearly the meat and bones of the picture. The film itself is gripping, taut, and engaging from start to finish, and has an incredible sense of pacing. One thing that stood out to me was that while I went into it thinking I was going to be watching a War film. It rather deftly combined other elements into it that made it an equal parts thriller, political espionage cat and mouse game evoking the works of writer John le Carre, historical drama (1969’s “Z” and 2005’s “Munich” acting as reference points throughout the film), as well as a crime film (my fellow movie companion said it felt a bit like David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Which I didn’t get at first but when he started to explain the levels of corruption by all members of society, I could see why he drew the comparison and understood how he could tie it in. The camerawork was also stunning, and shot in a style reminiscent of the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) which made it feel authentically real. The only few very minor criticisms I had of the piece was that they didn’t really provide much back story into O’Connell’s character. That and I found many of the interlocking characters from the different facets of society a bit difficult to follow. Kind of how I feel about Asian films depicting the Yakuza – certain characters are difficult to tell apart as many of them appear similarly. Lastly, I think the film could have been expanded on and went further into its story which seemed to go across by quickly at a rather brisk 99 minutes. Those few minor criticisms aside though, this was a well acted, thoroughly engaging, and gripping meta-film about a time and place in history that prior going into the film, I knew little to next to nothing about. And in summation, it was only the second film I’ve seen this year outside of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” that I was so engaged in that I didn’t take a bathroom break because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a second of this well constructed and incredibly tense film. That had me on the edge of my seat from its start to its nicely poetic and emotional finish.

[B+]

Review: “The Drop” 2.15.15

“The Drop” is the first English language film by Belgian director Michael R. Roskam of the Oscar nominated film “Bullhead” (2011) which garnered a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the 2012 Academy Awards. “Bullhead” was a great character study that featured a phenomenal breakthrough performance by Matthias Shoenaerts. The type of actor who after watching that film I just knew it was just going to be a matter of time before the call of Hollywood came coming. Which is interesting because that’s almost the exact same way I felt after I was first introduced to the main actor in this film, Tom Hardy, a relative unknown until he was introduced to the film world in 2009 in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson”. Both are foreign (Hardy’s from the UK, Shoenaerts from Belgium) who have recently started to show up in a lot of American films (though Hardy being introduced to us here stateside much earlier in 2010 in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”). When I first heard of this film I heard while it was in development that it teamed Tom Hardy with another foreign actor who has gained quite a bit of notoriety in the United States this past couple of years and who I happen to like – Swedish born Noomi Rapace (who first played Lizbeth Salander in the Swedish trilogy of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and in other high-profile films like “Prometheus” (2012). Then I found out that it was slated to be directed by none other than Roskam himself, in his English language debut. What sealed the deal for me was that it also reteamed him with “Bullhead” star Shoenaerts, and was based on a screenplay from novelist Dennis Lehane, most notable for his book to screen translations like “Mystic River” (2003), “Gone Baby Gone” (2007), and “Shutter Island” (2010). So with a pedigree of this kind I figured I would be in for something special.

The film introduces us to Bobby (played by Hardy) who in an opening montage explains to us how this “drop” concept works in that basically all of the local bars in Brooklyn are run by the Chechen Mob, who scheduled certain deposits of money at any given bar on any given night. Bobby tends bar at his cousin Marv’s (in the great James Gandolfini’s last performance) who used to own the place until the Mob took over. It becomes clear early on that the Chechen Mob and its messenger, Chovka, pretty much run the entire territory. Especially when on one unsuspecting night 2 men visit the bar in hoods and masks and rob Bobby and Marv of $5,000. Except since the bar really isn’t “owned” by Cousin Marv anymore the money needs to be paid back. It seems like a mere coincidence that Bobby should happen to stumble upon a whimpering puppy in a garbage can shortly after, and is introduced to the woman who owns the home Nadia (played by Rapace), who he forms a sort of bond with after the both discover the pup and both decide to take care of it. That’s until the ex-con, recently released out of prison, mentally ill nutcase Eric comes into the picture (played ruthlessly by Shoenaerts) and claims the dog to be his demanding 10 grand from Bobby or else he will report it being stolen. It is through these many relationships and interpersonal dynamics that as each character is revealed, we are shown a much different side to them as well as their real motivations with one another, than we’re lead to believe up to that point.

While this was another solid entry into the crime-drama genre, it felt a little bit all too familiar to other films of its kind that have come out of the genre (David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” (2007) comes to mind). The story itself is involving enough, as we’re presented with a decent enough story and an above average script. With all the actors involved doing serviceable enough jobs but nobody really sticking out with the exception of maybe Hardy’s character, who’s restrained, solemn, quiet character who we first are led to think might be a little naive, only to change faces about two-thirds of the way into the film in where we’re finally (after much waiting around) able to see his true self. Second to that would be Shoenaerts, who is always a pleasure to see pop up on-screen, and who plays both ruthless and menacing pretty well here. Gandolfini plays well, Gandolfini, who following his work on the hit TV show “The Sopranos” I always felt like it was unfortunate as being typecast into these kinds of roles (similar to how I feel about someone like Ray Liotta post-Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990)). Rapace does a good enough job in the barely fleshed out character she’s written as. As for the story, I felt like it did a fairly decent enough job juggling a number of different characters in the story and for the most part did a clever enough job keeping the audience second guessing, which had my attention until it came to the last half hour or so, at which time I started to get the feeling like it was going to have a predictable outcome to the story. And it did, at least for me anyway. There are character’s involvements into the shady going-ons in the story that are supposed to come as a surprise that really weren’t all that surprising to me. Except for when Hardy’s character Bobby reveals himself to show his true colors. But at that point it all came at just a bit too little too late. This was a fairly good, though as mentioned predictable entry to the genre that I would recommend to fans of it, but I think a lot of other people might be turned off by its familiar storyline and script. Certainly worth a rental but not something that you’re going to want to write home about once its through.

[B-]

Review: ‘A Field in England’ 3.18.14

This was one of my top 10 most anticipated releases of this year. For those of you who don’t know I am a huge Ben Wheatley (‘Down Terrace’, ‘Kill List’, ‘Sightseers’) fan. I would say of all of the international filmmakers whose movies I look forward to most he would be in my top 3 along with Nicolas Winding Refn (The ‘Pusher’ Trilogy, ‘Bronson’, ‘Valhalla Rising’,’Drive’, ‘Only God Forgives’) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (‘Amores Perros’, ’21 Grams’, ‘Babel’, ‘Buitiful’). It had a lot of strong components, particularly the black and white cinematography which I thought lended itself nicely to the story which I believed took place during the Revolutionary War. Cinematically there was some unique camera framing and angles, an interesting use of an almost “strobe light” effect (there’s actually a disclaimer at the beginning that warns you if you have sensitive eyesight), and a solid musical score as it consisted mostly of what sounded like songs taken from that time period (either that or old Irish jigs) mixed in with some of Wheatley’s moody, almost haunting scores that he uses from film to film. As for the story itself, it involves a pack of Brits who basically band together and evade enemy forces in the opening scene. From that point they realize that one of them is actually a scholar who was sent out to find and rescue a nobleman. So that becomes their mission also with the hope that they might reach an alehouse (lots of nice puns surrounding that). Then about halfway in in usual Wheatley fashion it goes into absolute ape shit bonkers territory. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but what I will tell you is this…it involves eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and doing an unbelievable amount of crazy stuff. I had some degree of difficulty following what was going on, hence the lower grade below. So what I did was I began reading into other people’s interpretations of the film, not so much reviews, and correlated those who had the similar explanations or ideas to that of my own. After finishing it and reading those, I realized that maybe it was a brilliant film underlying that maybe I just didn’t look hard enough at. I also found out that Wheatley has said in multiple interviews that he intentionally wanted to make a film that would require repeated viewings on behalf of the viewer. So this film could get considerably better after another viewing or two. Still, worthwhile, especially if you have the slightest interest in one of the more innovative and incredibly unique auteurs on the film making spectrum today.

Grade: B-

Review: ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ 6.5.14

A fascinating documentary of one of the most important art house auteurs, who in the late sixties and seventies put out a string of films (‘El Topo’ and ‘Holy Mountain’ being his most notable) that changed the film making landscape at the time, and who longed to make Frank Hubert’s Science Fiction classic novel ‘Dune’, into a feature length film. This is a reflection and a look back into what “might have been”. Jodorowsky collected some of the world’s best artists of the time – Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles to star (what?!), H.R. Giger in the art/production design department (who went on craft the Alien for their franchise), to tapping Pink Floyd to do the soundtrack, Dan O’Bannon to write (who also later went on to write the screenplay for ‘Alien’), etc. He basically collected the best of the best of the world’s artists, only to wind up getting caught up in “development hell”, having done everything right that one must go through in pre-production, only to have the studios bail on him for being “too original” and “too innovative”. Then have his dream and passion project stripped away and given to David Lynch to direct, who even Jodorowsky will admit is a genius but made one of the most beloved Science Fiction book-to-screen adaptations into one of the biggest box office bombs of the 80’s. Now at 84, he reflects back on the experience and what that whole process was like for him. A true inspiration to an artist and/or anyone in general, he sums it all up to the fact that at least he “tried” to pursue his life long dream, which is the best thing one can aspire to in this lifetime. An incredibly well constructed documentary, one that moves along at a brisk pace, and moreover, taught me a ton of how the studio system favors studio heads and producers over the actual creators, this is already turning out to be one of the best documentaries I’ve seen so far this year. And, one that hopefully picks up a much deserved Oscar nomination for the Academy in that same category come next year.

Grade: A-/A