Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CIFF Review: August Winds

Prior to my showing of "August Winds" at the Chicago Film Festival, its lead actress, Dandara de Morais, was introduced and made mention of it being not only her first film but the first non-documentary film of its director, Gabriel Mascaro. Even if she had not offered this informative tidbit, it would have been easy to surmise as the film is clearly less concerned with narrative than National Geographic-ism. Set in the Alagoas of Brazil, Mascaro effortlessly captures the sensation of a specific place on camera, of thunderstorms gathering on the precipice of the Pacific, occasionally allowing for cascades of rain to blot out the camera, as if we're watching in a poncho under a useless awning, and reveling repeatedly in towering palm fronds that its characters sometimes scale.

But then, it's not merely a travel brochure on celluloid. Those palm fronds are routinely the backdrop for hard labor, busting up coconuts and then hauling them on a tractor trailor, and with those rains come the tide and the wind, and with the wind comes a kindly mystery man (Mascaro) recording the wind for reasons that don't much exist beyond "Need More Story Here". He conveniently swoops in simply to wash up onshore not along after, dead. This is where the story, as it were, finds its (miniature trickle of coconut) juice in Jeison (Geova Manoel dos Santos) and Shirley (de Morais) attempting to care for the deceased when no one else appears much interested.

Many of Marasco's compositions evoke the haunting and beatific passages that open another Malick movie, "A Thin Red Line." But whereas that establishing passage documented Jim Caviezel's Pvt. Witt seeming to find a sort of mystical Eden, the prevalent air currents of "August Winds" would seem to find something more foreboding. At one point Jeison talks of how the rocks in the ocean have "lungs", suggesting they are ineffably alive, and which distinctly alludes to the overriding notion of nature reclaiming this rock.

Yet the film, in spite of its many shots showing the tide inching closer and closer, bit by bit, resists this notion. Its repeatedly decadent wide open frames of nature never come across terrifying, even when they are supposed to, only as reminders of its resplendence. And even if the wind recorder's dead body is shown without compromise, it is treated with a noticeable absence of pity, several local kids approaching it with whirling noisemakers as Jeison cleans it, their way of celebrating the life he must have led. We barely know him but we assume he must have gone out like Bodhi, dying doing what he loved, consumed by his meteorological environment.

Monday, October 20, 2014

CIFF Review: The Fool

In the frigid darkness of a Russian Night, Dima (Artem Bystrov), sort of a Eurasian version of Joe the Plumber, strikes out down the sidewalk while a pop anthem on the soundtrack rises, its rhythm matching the urgency of his every stride. He is not a man functioning on account of high-falutin' ideals but from a place of mere human decency, simply wanting to save the 800 souls unwittingly resting inside a decrepit tenement building tottering on the verge of collapse. It is a hero's moment but Dima, the film argues and betrays with its title, is not a hero. As the camera pans alongside him it eventually comes to a standstill with a red traffic light in the foreground of the frame. It's telling Dima to stop, of course. But he doesn't stop. He won't stop. He's a fool.

The chief of a maintenance crew in a bleak, unnamed Russian town, he is called to a housing complex on account of a burst bathroom pipe only to find the entire edifice fissuring from the ground to the top floor. Upon doing some quick calculations he reasons it has roughly 24 hours before it splits apart and crumbles - perhaps a narrative stretch but sometimes fierce allegories require a stretch - and so like the RMS Titanic functioning as a 46,000 ton metaphor for Victorian Society about to crack apart and go under, this building of mis-managed apathy and greed at the center of director Yuri Bykov's "The Fool" comes to resemble and, in turn, repudiate a society seemingly content to let anyone not on the top rung founder.

Dima's wife (Darya Moroz), and his mother and father who live with them, urge him to turn his back on the problem, arguing that to stir up shit will only effect a target on his back. He stirs up shit anyway - literally, in fact, by barging into the birthday celebration of the town's mayor and money-grubbing power-broker, Nina (Nataliya Surkova).

As Nina takes the stage to make a speech, Dima is glimpsed periodically in the background, appearing woefully out of place in his sweater and stocking cap, like he's time-traveling extra at an "Anna Karenina"-esque soiree. The contrast between these pompous, wine-swilling, back-patting chieftains and the poverty-stricken and hardscrabble addicts for whom Dima brazenly goes to bat would be crudely broad if it didn't ring with so much head-shaking truth.

Finally, upon being explained the situation, they adjourn to a conference room and debate what to do, only to realize their rampant mis-direction of funds that could have aided the dwelling's repair has left them with virtually no options. How do they evacuate 800 people when there is no place to put them? What happens when they are forced to explain themselves to higher-ups in the midst of the evacuation? This sequence, and ensuing ones like it, are filled with none-too-subtle, perhaps too much so, explaining and politicking to the point that one characer literally admonishes out loud their "beauracratic" bellyaching. It also betrays how the backstory and motivations of the rich get more face time than the those of the poor, but maybe that's intended. Who in Putin's Russia gets more face time than the rich and powerful? The poor's motivation is meaningless and hardly existent. The old man playing cards actively roots for a collapse.

In this elongated middle act, Dima also appropriately kind of becomes lost amidst the movers and shakers, as his attitude bears no significance to the choices being made by those who really run the show. He is at their mercy, as everyone is, and yet when he makes his inevitable choice in the impassioned conclusion to take a stand, Bykov takes care to illustrate his protagonist's ethics as being both righteous and irresponsible, clinging to humanity even as he surrenders his soul.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Angels in the Outfield (1951)

Oh, I've done it. Sure, I've done it. My beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers are in a crucial spot and I will, often without even realizing it, fold my hands. And even if I'm not technically saying a prayer, well, I'm still praying. Yes, yes, yes. For the love of......obviously. I've heard it before. God, they'll tell you, doesn't have time to care about sports. That painfully played out sentiment, however, seems to miss the idea - that those same people will often spout off to you - of prayer not so much as communication with God (whomever you think God to be) as a means of comfort. I don't expect God to answer in the middle of a Nebraska game when I pray. That's insanity! If He did, Terrence Nunn would have caught that ball. Nebraska games arouse emotional agony within me, and so I pray to assuage that agony, and in that assaugement, God or no God, I find a sense of......faith.

This lengthy wind-up then functions as a way to suggest the inherent danger in the premise of Clarence Brown's 1951's celestially-inclined baseball opus "Angels in the Outfield". Here's a film suggesting that if you do pray to God in regards to your favorite sports team that He might just assign a few angels as athletic emissaries to assist in the cause. Perhaps this is why it was, according to TCM, the favorite film of one President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Perhaps he sat in the Oval Office and conversed with charitable, if busy, attendants of God. Perhaps he imagined invisible angels - like the film - helping to manipulate the goings-on in the Sentate Chamber, helping to push through bills he supported. Do we have an interstate system because of angels?!

If you, like me, came of age in the 90's, chances are you remember the 1994 remake more than the original, even if you haven't seen either one. That "Angels in the Outfield", however, updated the baseball team in question from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the then California Angels (because subtlety) and made it so the audience could actually see the angels (because subtlety) and then turned those angels into comical plot devices. It also chose tell its story primarily from the viewpoint of a young foster child (a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who prays for his favorite father's team to win the pennant because he naively sees it as his one hope to be re-united with his pops.

The original focuses on the viewpoint of Pirates' manager Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas), whose team is almost as bad as it was in the Aughts. This immense awfulness causes him to be a mean old son of a bitch, sort of a Leo Durocher, a man whose own opinion on the Supreme Being boiled down to His watching over drunks and third basemen. Ol' Guffy seems about the same - until, that is, an angel (voiced by James Whitmore) from on high begins speaking to him, explaining that his spectacularly terrible team has been receiving an inordinate number of prayers to get better and now he's been ordered by You-Know-Who to aid the cause.

These prayers, it turns out, are being offered by a precocious orphan, Bridget (Donna Corcoran), who simply feels bad for the Pirates. And as it turns out she can actually see the angels on the field of play, which renders her as one heck of a story for burgeoning sportswriter Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh). That's a nifty little subplot in "Angels in the Outfield", the typically tempestuous relationship between coaches and sportswriters. Yet here the coach and sportswriter eventually becomes allies, and Jennifer helps Guffy to find inner peace as much as the fellas with harps and wings. Together they form the obligatory ersatz family with Bridget as she and Guffy bond over their similarly unbelievable experience.

That experience leads to an improbable if wonderful "Miracle on 34th St."-ish subplot in which Guffy is essentially put on trial before the commissioner of baseball (Lewis Stone) since he might be off his rocker and unfit for duty by claiming to be in contact with celestial beings. (I couldn't stop imagining the extravagant PR travesty that would unfold should Roger Goddell attempt to chair the same inquisition.) In the end, however, "Angels in the Outfield" is not particularly interested in making others believe in God's messengers.

In the climactic winner-takes-the-pennant contest, the angels leave the Pirates and Guffy on their own because Guffy has broken the rules established by his heaven-sent guardians when he momentarily returns to his rubish ways. This puts the onus on the Pirates themselves, and on the washed-up pitcher Saul (Bruce Bennett). Initially, he does well. Then, he struggles. The fans boo, even the assistant coach begs his manager to take him out, but Guffy sticks with him. He's found faith, within himself and in those surrounding him.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Real Slugs of Pulp Fiction

"Pulp Fiction" was released twenty years ago this month. I think this means I'm supposed to post some sort of comprehensive retrospective breaking down, in order, its genesis, its violence, its structure, its influence and its legacy. I think I'm supposed to talk about how its existence as postmodern pastiche correlates directly to its moral emptiness and how that moral emptiness coorelates directly to the 666 briefcase which likely (?) contains Marsellus Wallace's soul and how Marsellus Wallace's soul correlates directly to the film's circular structure which correlates directly to the film's Vanilla Coke™-infused nostalgia trip which, I think, brings me back to it being a postmodern pastiche. But there is something each rehash of the rehash of the rehash of the rehash of the rehash, etc., doesn't mention. I'm talking, of course, about Sammy the Slug.

"The Banana Slug, a bright yellow, slimy, shell-less mollusk commonly found on the redwood forest floor," says the UC Santa Cruz web site, "was the unofficial mascot for UC Santa Cruz coed teams since the university's early years. The students' embrace of such a lowly creature was their response to the fierce athletic competition fostered at most American universities." Why Q.T. chose to give an onscreen shout-out to the Banana Slug seems to boil down to an ex-girlfriend, as Andrea Pyka of City On A Hill Press reported eight years ago. Or maybe Tarantino just likes slugs like he likes Uma Thurman's feet. 

Whatever the case may be, the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs Women's Volleyball team, currently 11-5, takes on Redlands tonight, and we here at Cinema Romantico would like to wish them the best.

(What was this post about?)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Coppola Christmas

One of the more famous moments of Sofia Coppola's stone-cold gem "Lost In Translation" finds our principal duo, Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), with a few friends in a private karaoke room because it's Tokyo and that's what you do. There is sake, of course, and delightfully bad versions of songs, naturally, and then Bob sits down and effects a rendition of "More Than This" by Roxy Music. It's a moment of minor absurdity mixed impeccably with genuine pathos, Nick Winters crossed with Lou Reed.

Anymore the Christmas season elicits that same sort of emotional mixture within me. I've always called it my favorite time of year, and it is, because when I think of Christmas I think of F. Scott Fitzgerald talking (writing) about "the real snow, our snow", the Midwestern snow cuz he's a Midwestern mo-fo like me, and "the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow." Oh Jesus how that end-of-the-book passage warms my winter-adoring soul, insulating it against the crass commercialization, credit card debt, endless airplay of "Do You Hear What I Hear?", and enforced merriment.

But, of course, it also speaks to why the Christmas season makes me so profoundly sad, because that beautiful end-of-the-book passage is all about the most beautiful of all femme fatales - nostalgia. And the Christmas season is soused in nostalgia, conjuring up fond thoughts of holidays gone-by, of innocence, of advent calendars, of watching bowl games with my Grandpa Mercati which immediately - to paraphrase Kathleen Kelly - makes me miss him so much that I almost can't breathe. These thoughts make me sad. These thoughts make me happy.

No holiday special can do this strange melancholic joy that I feel every December justice and is why if you had asked me 72 hours ago what one filmmaker I would most want to see try his/her hand at attempting to right the wrong of so many holiday specials of yore, there is an 87.3% chance I would said, seriously, Sofia Coppola. Who mingles melancholy with joy like her, and where has she ever brought them together better than in "Lost In Translation"?

So imagine my reaction when Ramin Setoodeh of Variety exclusively reported that Sofia would be re-uniting with her once upon a time wistful leading man for a holiday special - it was jaw on floor followed by "Kylie Tickets Just Went On Sale!!!" screams of ecstasy. "We’re going to do it like a little movie," Murray explained to Variety. "It won’t have a format, but it’s going to have music. It will have texture. It will have threads through it that are writing. There will be prose. It will have a patina style and wit to it. It will be nice." Variety then confirmed that Coppola herself confirmed the project, explaining "Not sure when it will air, but my motivation is to hear him singing my song requests." I don't mean to offer suggestions to Ms. Coppola for songs because her taste is fabulous, though I very much look forward to a Bill Murray interpretation of "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella".

"The holly green, the ivy green, the prettiest picture you've ever seen," go the words to one of my mom's favorite christmas carols, "Christmas In Killarney." Holly's nice. Ivy's fine. It does make for a pretty picture. But a Christmas in Coppola-ville......in dulci jubilo.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Go For Sisters

"Go For Sisters" opens with a parole officer, Bernice (Lisa Gay Hamilton), listening to a client tell a sob story with a fair amount of resonance as to why she violated the terms of her prison release. Bernice waits until she's finished and then, even-keeled, gives no quarter, advising her parolee that she did what she did and that it was a breach of the rules, end of story. She tells the trainee listening in how each day is filled with these stories, these desperate attempts to be let off the hook, and how you have to tamp down your emotions and do your job.

Then Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) enters and sits down and tells a sob story with a fair amount of resonance as to why she violated the terms of her prison release. It's a mirror image of the preceding moment aside from one crucial detail: Fontayne was Bernice's best friend in a previous life. They were so close they were essentially sisters. In the years since they have drifted apart, but here they are, all of a sudden, back together. Bernice cuts her a break.

You never take sides against the family as another generally known film once taught us, and "Go For Sisters" is all about the way in which family, blood or by choice, affects the characters' decision-making. When the cops come calling for Bernice's son and he disappears, apparently south of the nearby border where he has possibly become involved in the smuggling of illegal Chinese aliens into the states, she will have to set aside the morally rigorous attitude her job has cultivated to find him. And to find him, she needs the help of her once-lost, now-found faux-sibling, Fontayne, and her criminal contacts.

That's a scenario tinged in contrivance, Bernice's chance reunion with the person who can help her most, yet "Go For Sisters" is much more concentrated on behavior in spite of its substantial plotting. For such an imperative mission the film's pace is noticably non-urgent, John Sayles, who wrote, directed and edited, being far more content to let the relationship between the two women work as the film's true heartbeat. And the gregarious Hamilton and laid-back Ross forge a credible dynamic, one in which their friendship is slowly re-kindled.

There is, however, an eventual (and welcome) interloper in this buddy "cop" dynamic. Needing someone more familiar with the finer points of investigative work, Bernice and Fontayne are directed to a retired cop, Freddy Suarez, played by Edward James Olmos in a superb performance of supreme gravelly authenticity, magnetically low-key. He is a man with a degenerative eye disease and debt brought on not by foolish choices but by the ways of the world. He accepts the work because he needs the cash, and in the film's funniest moment, he rips up the "For Rent" sign on his lawn when he gets paid and casts it aside.

These three form your traditional un-traditional family, and observing them as they press forward makes for an engagingly low-key experience. The driving story point of Bernice's son sort of strangely falls out of focus, even it's wrapped up, and curiously Sayles, often a supremely socially conscious filmmaker, seems less interested here in the socio-politics of the region, and also not quite as invested in milieu. But maybe that's on purpose. "This isn’t Mexico," Suarez says dismissively of Tijuana. "This is like a theme park for bad behavior."

To see the way it all works is to understand why so many might try such foolhardy ventures to flee it. As such, our trio, all fueled by different forms of desperation, come to symbolize all those would-be immigrants trying to make it into America from points south, fueled by desperation of their own.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Gone Girl

“Gone Girl” opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) advising in voiceover how he frequently dreams of taking the head of his lilting wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) and cracking it open in the figurative hope of seeing what psychological remnants come spilling out. This restrained reading of gruesome dialogue helpfully establishes Nick as someone with a possible motive for having murdered his spouse if she were to, say, go missing, which she will. It is also helpful, however, because it puts forth the film’s foremost question – what is going on inside Amy’s head?

The same could be asked of Nick, but Nick is a guy and guys are so simple to read, whereas women, to quote master of observation Jerry Seinfeld, “are working on a whole other level.” Amy’s working on a whole other level, so much so, in fact, that by the time this two-and-a-half hour pulp-plus extravaganza concludes, the philosophical contents of her cerebellum remain inaccessible, possibly because they were non-existent outside the motives of the film's dueling creators.

Point of View is everything in “Gone Girl”. For the first-third of the film, in fact, it’s two separate films running concurrently, one seen through the eyes of Nick and one told explicitly by Amy. In the present, Nick wakes one morning in North Carthage, Missouri, a place fresh off the subdivision cookie cutter, standing by the garbage at the end of his driveway, as if his sense of self-worth has been put out with the trash bags. After an afternoon of beer and board games at the bar he runs with his twin sister (Carrie Coon), he returns home to find the front door ajar, the glass coffee table smashed and his wife missing. He summons the authorities, Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit). They detect something amiss. Nick seems a little too at ease. He emits too chipper an air in public and the media, represented by Missi Pyle doing a barely not-at-all veiled Nancy Grace impression, seize on this liveliness to paint him, in their sensationalist opinion, as a heartless bastard with something to hide.

Meanwhile, the other movie, told in flashbacks building toward the now, something feels even more amiss. Speaking in voiceovers supposedly culled from a journal she authors with a pink fluffy pen, Amy chronicles the romantic rise of her marriage to Nick and its subsequent fallout. As a trust fund baby on account of a bestselling line of kids book – “The Amazing Amy” – written by her parents, she is the bread-winner, until an economic downturn that causes this storybook story to morph into a beautifully shot Lifetime Movie with her as the Battered Spouse and he as the Potentially Violent Husband. But these sequences, perfectly worded, softly lit, and scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross in an awesomely caustic lampoon of a stock Love Theme are purposely too polished to be true.

It is here when the film’s mystery assumes a different shape, and also when it enters that rich, sprawling territory of Spoilervania and so, as your faithful reviewer, I am required by hazily defined critical “law” to refrain from specifics. Thus, I proceed cautiously, if a bit recklessly, and suggest that at this point the two interlocking stories converge with a lion’s roar and a fairly compelling whodunit? emerges momentarily as a transcendent Sleater Kinney cinematic anthem of female empowerment, Amy Dunne metamorphosing into Fay Forrester by way of Ellen Berent. It is also, however, the moment when the story Amy Dunne has been telling is co-opted, a la “The Amazing Amy”, by David Fincher, the director, and Gillian Flynn, the screenwriter, and also the writer of the novel on which the film is based.

The book, which I have not read, has elicited accusations of principally being trash, and while the film is most assuredly full of trashy elements, it also strives for something topical. It's a meme generator in movie form, the film that will (has) launched a thousand op-eds, a morality play as told by sociopaths, outside of the high-priced blood-sucking defense attorney (Tyler Perry) who, in the film's biggest joke, comes across pretty darn decent. It is attempting to re-fashion marriage as a sadistic battle of the sexes by filtering it through the framework of a standard-issue thriller replete with insane twists and re-boots of the playing field. It repeatedly tilts the winds of favor back and forth between Mr. and Mrs., thereby alternating between anti-feminism and feminism, deliberately offering ammunition to each faction.

Tucked within its girth is an intriguing idea of how all humans suffer a sort of break from reality, how a person's point of view is created and distorted by his or her wants and needs, and how every person is an unreliable narrator of his or her life. Amy might be an unreliable narrator, but Fincher and Flynn eventually are proven unreliable too. They make the missing woman of their film's title jump through so many hoops and undergo so many personality shifts that she ceases to be a real person, and the answer of what is knocking around inside her head is never answered.

In this romantic crusade, the film winds up falling, more or less, on the side of Nick, even if it portrays him as inattentive, hot-headed and obtuse, primarily because it transforms his bride into a psychotic android made to do whatever the narrative requires to check another item off the Issue Rolodex. Yet, paradoxically, even if Amy comes across as fictive, she is still the character with the most life, as if she's the automation in “Hugo” in need of her own twisted variation on that heart-shaped key. I yearned for her to find that key. I yearned for a breach of protagonist protocol, for Amy Dunne to throw off the shackles of the Auteur Theory, unlock the restraints of the Schreiber Theory, reclaim the story, open a vein in her forehead, and bleed all over the screen.