Saturday, April 15, 2017

YOUR NAME (directed by Makoto Shinkai)

This review may contain spoilers.
Although everything that happens in Your Name is all of a piece, the first and second halves are fairly different in tone, with the first being more light-hearted as it's a story about two teens who seem to meet in the pre-credits (and I think during credits) editing montage and swap bodies - not every day, it would appear, but only a couple or few days in the week - and of course a body-swapping movie (much less one that involves different sexes, which we may have seen somewhere before but not like this), and then the second half reveals to the male lead Taki what has been going on with this strange but totally normal girl Mitsuha from the boondocks: she's been dead for three years, a victim of a cataclysmic event, and it becomes what appears to be a sad - and then urgent as a somewhat-thriller - story of time travel-ish goings on between the present day Taki and the past Mitsuha.

And yet tonally it doesn't feel like it's clashing together, these two sides of lightness and sorta comedy; I found myself laughing quite a bit, mostly through the "HUH!?" reactions from the friends and family of the characters as they wonder what's got into their respective teenagers, and then I found myself caught up in the tragedy of this girl and what happened to her and if she could change what happened.
I don't know if it's possible to talk too much in depth past "I liked it!" or "I didn't" and not spoil something here (aside from speaking in generalities about this as an evolution of the career of the director Shinkai after a number of anime films, this being the one in Japan to usurp Spirited Away at the box office, it's that big a deal). But I think that one of the underlying strengths about a story where it evolves from being a slightly crazy and wacky but also still grounded in some form of reality animated story and then becomes about tragedy on a if not epic than grandiose scale is that it IS about the things it wants to be about.

When Taki finds out the many illustrations he's drawn, in a frenzy like Dreyfuss in Close Encounters as a possessed-by-something-*important* sort of thing, and that he doesn't remember about comets destroying a sea-side town, it devastates him. Did he suppress the memory of it? When did he really meet this girl? Why is he suddenly switching with her now, over the course of three years? The melancholy is underneath, and when it bursts out it's delivered with the kind of emotion I haven't seen in any animated film, Japanese or American or otherwise, in a very long time.

Pfft, that's how Tokyo looks *every* night, c'mon!
And, yeah, it's also a story of teenage love, as one might expect by the (in the dubbed version I saw) pop songs, but there's also a mystical dimension to it, something about it where the filmmaker (adapting his own book) is reaching into the genre of science fiction but digging into a core that is asking us to embrace the unexplainable. What does it mean, for example, that a comet previously a thousand some-odd years before created the crater that makes for the lake of this town? What about that string that somehow connects Mistsuha and Taki in the first place, and yet it creates some disorientating feelings as they do and don't remember their old selves and take on characteristics of the other gender (we don't see as much of Mitsuha being masculine, possibly by design except for a couple of moments, but we do see Taki being more feminine, which is funny but also allows for some space for social commentary - of what I'll leave others to decide). And yet this couple can never really *be* a couple, as they're separated by time and existence itself, and that makes it all the more... romantic.
Along with the romance of the film, and I mean as much as how this director treats the story itself - a key moment late in the film takes place at the "Magic Hour", which, if these two kids had seen Terrence Malick they'd understand a wee bit more initially, but they quickly get the full-blown awe as well as, like life is itself, all too fleeting - as it is with the characters and their unrequited love. And they do love each other, even if they don't fully understand the how or the why of it. There are heady concepts throughout lining the walls of Your Name, but the film is also loaded with good characters who, in the scope of the two places they're at (the city and the small town), bring a realism to what is otherwise a fantastical story. At the same time while I mention the romance here, the tragedy is dealt with enough gravity and sorrow that that his great deal. I didn't expect to become emotional watching Your Name - I wasn't so sure what to expect, only knowing about its box office reputation - but I got swept up with Taki and Mistuha, felt for them deeply, and wanted them, despite all logic, to connect together again, or to simply remember the other's name.
I don't know if the opening and the ending of the film, where Shinkai makes it more montagey than elsewhere (there is another segment, near the closing of the first half, where we also get a montage showing how the boy and girl try to navigate, with difficulty but eventual capability, how to *be* in their flipped selves at school and work and home and so on). It feels like it's out of a different movie, and at the same time I wondered if the movie could have been slightly shorter; at 104 minutes it's not too overlong, but near the end it extends itself to draw out some extra twists and revelations that are like pouring too much whipped cream on the sundae - it's still tasty, but it's overdoing what we should already understand. I won't spoil what eventually comes from how Taki and Mitsuha's efforts to change the course of history as far as the oncoming comet in the past tense.

What I can say is that the ending makes emotional sense if not logically entirely, and I left having felt like I went through a real journey with these characters and the rest of the cast. It's warm and friendly, dark and melancholy, thrilling and strange, though not *too* disturbing as, you know, it's for teenagers after all.
Oh, and it's all so beautifully animated, with many touches once Taki finds the place he's been looking for and goes, on his own, to discover how he can see, at one point, Mitsuha's entire life, and.... wow. Not perfect, but this director is a good new cat to have around in a world where Ghibli seems to be all there is with widely-distrubuted, not ultra-violent anime features.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

R.W. Fassbinder's IN A YEAR WITH 13 MOONS

To begin, I wouldn't say to start with this as your first film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; it's the end of what Richard Linklater calls in the introduction on the Fantomas DVD RW's "middle period" where he crafted some of the most original melodramas and riffs on them that one can ever see (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fox & Friends and Merchant of Four Seasons come to mind), as well as other oddities that are great outside of that (World on a Wire and Satan's Brew as two examples). But it's also a film that was made when Fassbinder was in an extremely dark and tumultuous mood following the suicide of his lover at the time. He almost contemplated leaving filmmaking altogether, however realized the not so much best but only way he could get through it was making a film and leaping off from this experience to explore deeper issues involving loneliness and being a 1000% outsider in this world.

The revelation about the dead lover I didn't know about before watching the film (I waited until after to see the Linklater intro), and now it's something I can't stop thinking about in context of the film. I think in merely the less than an hour it's been since I finished watching '13 Moons' I admire it more than while I was sitting and actively engaged with it. This is because what was going on in Fassbinder's life, for me, elevates it and makes things a little more profound: this was an artist crying out in despair and trying to find some redemption through his art, or whatever that might be, as well as for his lover. I don't know if the relationship was with a transgender or transsexual or what have you, but Fassbinder was at least bi-sexual if not flat gay (I feel like I read he had sex with a *lot* of people, men and women, but I digress, sort of), but that also plays into it as well, as an outsider filmmaker trying to find a voice for his narrative through the character.

Speaking of which, I think something that threw me off some time into this was that Fassbinder didn't make a film that really conforms to how we think of transgendered women. The character of Elvira ("deadname"? Edwin) is someone who seems so lost that it's difficult to tell if this person always was a woman from birth, as is the case with transgendered women and for men it's the opposite way, or if he had a sex change operation in haste due to a comment made by a man who Edwin at the time was in love with, Anton Saitz (don't forget, always with an 'ai').

Clearly at the least Edwin is gay and had a wife and daughter before and was closeted, but I wonder if Fassbinder thought through about the actual definition of trans and terms like "deadname" (which may not have even been a thing like it is now in 1978), but I think that at least a large part of Edwin/Elvira's identity is sexual but it's also just a struggle of self on the whole: did he/she make a mistake in getting genitalia discarded forever in the hope of new love?  At the least, it never feels in the slightest Fassbinder means offense (if some do, I don't know what to tell you), it's all about the confrontation of whoever the audience is and seeing if they'll come along with him on this downward spiral death-trip. In that sense it's a boldly experimental film.

Right at the start Fassbinder sets the tone through two sequences: the opening, which plays out over the opening credits, where Elvira is beat up by some guys when one of them discovers "he" is a she, and then when Elvira crawls back home with her dress down and faced beaten, her current lover Christoph decides to leave her and packs up and leaves as she begs him to stay.

Through this I thought this might be the, or one of the first, looks at a transgender protagonist in a sympathetic, even empathetic, light that likely hadn't been made at such a level as this (perhaps there were more underground films, I'd have to do more research). But this is really a jumping off point for a theme that Fassbinder was often concerned with, but that here is made more explicit and, in how things unfolds, experimental in structure: how to simply LIVE in this world that is needlessly cruel and strange and off-putting and where even the ones who seem like they'll be with you - the girl Zora played by Ingrid Caven, seems to be acting both for and in total disregard for Elvira, sometimes in the same scene - and, ultimately, if the doomed feeling of living a life that is a constant BATTLE is worth it at all.

'13 Moons' was difficult at times to watch for reasons that were intentional and made a disturbing impression - the slaughter-house and seeing all of the cows with slit throats and skinned (the most graphic outside of Franju's Blood of the Beast) and perhaps the closest tie in to this idea of fully *seeing* and get a different take as opposed to simply being told (i.e. recognizing that a trans or gay or 'other' person has rights without meeting them as opposed to really meeting it and not looking away) - and other times for going on too long.

Monologues by characters go on and on and on; some are more compelling than others (the weird guy in the darkened apartment with the screeching music in the background is one, while the nun who knew Edwin as a boy gives one of the most overloaded backstories where it felt almost like a deadpan satire of movies where a character gives an over-loaded backstory), and then there's a scene like when Elvira is going asleep and Zora is watching television and playing music and... what was the point of all that (by the way, Fassbinder makes an uncredited cameo as himself briefly on the TV being interviewed... talk about a truly odd meta moment, and I mean odd even for this director!)

This is a film that may be most daring in juggling tone; this isn't so much in the look of the film, though one has to be prepared for many shots that confront the audience by how long they are and the self-consciousness of some of the acting (not all but some, like the random guy who for what seems like four, five minutes, talks about Anton Saitz in the building before Elvira goes up to see him, and he's in the same pose of looking up, not moving from his spot, the entire time), rather it's how jarring Fassbinder will make things just *happen*. For example, Elvira finally gets to meet this Saitz person we heard about earlier (he's the closest one might think to be some kind of antagonist or a conflict at least outside of the interior kind for Elvira), and what one might think is about to be a dramatic confrontation is... broken up by a quasi-musical number that Saitz makes his lackeys put on (Elvira joins in, of course?) and Saitz is sitting there pouting like a child. Just... huh?

It's this daring though that makes me like the movie all the more in retrospect. I'm not sure if it will make the film more alienating for viewers or not and, again, this is probably the place to come to cinematically once one is comfortable with this director's work, to get an idea of what the years of melodramas and (direct/indirect) Sirk homages lead him to. Not to mention the performance by Volker Spengler, who gives so much pathos to this character that there's always that potential, danger even, of it going into camp like it could be a John Waters turn or something. But it never happens, and while we do get a lot of other characters talking about him/her, by the end, when we hear this audio interview playing over what we know is the only way this story could end, it's a truly heartbreaking piece of acting - just like the film, and hopefully, through seeing it, one sees and feels what it's like (even for a moment) to be in his/her/whoever's shoes.

(PS: Not sure if the fatalism of the 'moons' in the opening entirely works for the benefit of the story - like, would Elvira be any *less* depressed if it was 1979 somehow - but it's a pretty piece of poetry to begin the story, dark, too)

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Once again I try to continue the tradition that comes down from critic Jim Emerson, who used to do this on his blog Scanners (you can also google to find moments out of time in years past).  This is meant to showcase moments in movies that really stuck out as being special, whether it's because of the acting or the directing, the music or the mood, what it does to juxtapose things (that'll be the first one right out of the gate) or to give us all something to remember the movie by.  It doesn't even need to be a GREAT film overall, and indeed not all of these are.  But it's simply films that stood out for one reason or another as the most memorable of this 2016 movie year

(also for this blog, unlike in the past, if I can find the video of the scene, it'll be here):

1) 13TH (dir: Ava Duvernay)

Easily the scene to most make me uncomfortable of the year, but rightfully so since, at the time I watched it, Donald Trump was not the 45th president elect of the country.. but deep down I knew that he could be, possibly, even within a small piece of a percentage of a chance, and that these people at these rallies were not going away.  Now that he is, it carries a greater, heavier, WTF ARE WE DOING IN OUR COUNTRY weight (and especially I keep flashing to those cuts between the black and white footage of the man being pushed with the woman at the rally). 

I won't even try to describe what Ava DuVernay does here except that she presents past and present into such a moment that is tragic because of how it repeats itself.  No one sees the patterns that occur from one time to the next, and that racial hatred is something that is passed down and grows like a fungus when engendered by the wrong people.

2) MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (dir: Kenneth Lonergan) (SPOILERS)

A man flashes back while sitting in a lawyer's office being told that he has been entrusted (unless he fully refuses) to become the guardian to his nephew.  Up until this point in the film we've had some flashbacks already with Affleck's character when he had a home, kids, and a wife played by Michelle Williams.  But we don't see why he's not with them now, that he's living instead in some lowly one-room pad in some outskirt of Boston.  But in a series of flashes leading up to this 'Moment out of Time', he comes home after a late night walk to get some wood and groceries at the store, only to find his... house is burning down, and that his wife is outside but his kids are in it.  Dead. Gone. 

But the real Out of Time Moment for me (which isn't available online - guess it's kind of spoilery) is when his wife, who has inhaled a lot of smoke and has to be taken to the hospital (also in, you know, complete fucking hysterics over losing her children all at once, one of them a baby), is put on a stretcher.  The stretcher can't seem to get on to the ambulance van despite repeated attempts.  Finally it happens, but it feels like it's still a struggle to push her inside and close the doors.  Everything takes longer and is more arduous and is a complete nightmare that seems to never end when endless grief is in front of you (and according to Lonergan at a Q&A this was an actual mistake during filming, not scripted, but he kept it in). 

3) GREEN ROOM (dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

This is a kick-you-in-the-solar-plexus kind of movie, the likes of which I loved to watch with my friends back in high school (and even middle school), and it's rough, raw, fuck-you-in-the-face violent exploitation flicks that don't kid around (I'm talking about, oh, Suburbia and Kids and Romper Stomper to name a few).  Saulnier has a great cast assembled here, and the way we're fully introduced into this world that this rag-tag punk rock band (they don't even have a facebook page!) is when they go on stage at a neo-Nazi/Skin-head/white supremacist bar and perform as their first number a cover of the Dead Kennedy's NAZI PUNKS: FUCK OFF. 

Considering this year as well, this is catharsis and a half, and truly a punk rock moment.

4) KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (dir: Travis Knight)

There's a scene early on in this film where Kubo comes home after a day of performing his magic tricks in the city - he can make little origami Samurai figures come to life and tell quick stories to capture people's imaginations - and has to take care of his mother.  She is staring off into space.  She isn't a total vegetable, but she's been through a LOT in life (the prologue shows her protecting her son from being blinded by her God of a father, no really he's a God, and almost died in the process, breaking off ties with them all).  She has major PTSD still by this moment.  It's a quiet thing to see between son and mother as he takes care of her, gets her ready for bed, and she has the expression of someone in an Ingmar Bergman existential is-God-even-fucking-THERE wintry drama and... I mean that as a compliment.

5) RULES DON'T APPLY (dir: Warren Beatty)

This movie is a mess, but it's the kind of mess that only a director like Warren Beatty gets to make these days, or at least those who get final cut (whether he was told though to keep it under 2 1/2 hours by the studio may be arguable).  It's a choppy thing to watch at times - scenes just END without any explanation - but it's also a highly entertaining experience because Beatty has been wanting to make this for years and it shows: he knows the cadences and weird rhythms of Howard Hughes, but more than that he's a master at the awkward-reaction kind of comedy (you can see this awkwardness in many of his performances, even in dramas like Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and especially in Reds) where, even though he's the lead, he can give a look or a stare and it says so much about this person *thinking* about what another actor is saying or doing. 

The scene from this that sticks out as a 'Moment Out of Time' is when Alden Ehrenreich's character, who has been driving around the girls and women under contract to Howard Hughes but has not actually met the man, gets to meet him very late one night on a pier.  The two men walk slowly together and Hughes asks about this young man, and right back at him the young man asks Hughes about some things - he has some ideas for businesses and an investment in particular - and this is the first time we're getting a good look at Beatty as Hughes (we see him only once before, and this is about 40 minutes into the movie, when he meets Lily Collins' character in a dark room to have a bite to eat and a chat).  But this is all in one long shot, easily the best moment for Caleb Deschanel as a director of photography for the film, and it goes on and on and where is it leading to?

Oh, Hughes has, uh, set up at the end of this walk (wherever this is on this pier) a table where burgers and fries and sodas are waiting for them since, well, Hughes is in the mood for a good burger and damn the time it is he'll get it!    While sadly this video isn't online yet for this moment, there is another that I'll share where Beatty does the repeating-a-statement bit which one might remember as being a big part of THE AVIATOR.

6) DOCTOR STRANGE (d: Scott Derrickson)

Steven Strange wants - needs - help.  He can't get his hands to work like they used to (or how he would *demand* them to get done through his stubborn sense of self), and it leads him to a I-Have-No-Choice moment where he takes the advice of a man who somehow was able to walk again despite being seemingly totally crippled - and it's in the city after that infamous Bob Seger song!

He meets 'The Ancient One' and is told that if he commits to the Mystic Arts, he can not simply cure himself - he can see what is beyond this world, into MANY worlds.  He calls hogwash on it as a devout atheist and then...


Oh, and it's right after this Strange decides he needs to be taught for sure, and is kicked out the door.

But this one look into the 'Multiverse' is so astonishing that it deserves an Oscar on its own.  I mean .... fuuuuuuuck!   And the rest of the movie's very good as well.

7) LOVING (d: Jeff Nichols)

One of the family friends (or it may be a brother or relative, I forget) that Richard Perry Loving has married into - he's white, his wife is black - is having drinks at a bar (Loving's not alone and there's other black guys there), and this comes at a time when there is immense pressure; the Lovings have been put into the spotlight because of their case being of main focus by ACLU lawyers going forward re: being married and an illegal crime in the state of Virginia.  One of these guys is pissed at Richard for getting Mildred into this.

Doesn't he know that he's not really black, he says over drinks (one of the guys tells him to be quiet, but right now he wont, he's got to speak his mind), and asks why he doesn't just divorce her so he can get on with his life and Mildred hers.  He sits there stewing... or is it?  He doesn't look like he's about to lash out, which seems like it would be the apt response.  No, in this moment out of time he... sits there, pondering.

He almost has a curious face.  Would it be easier to do this?  Of course it would be.  But life isn't easy, not for Richard Perry Loving or his wife Mildred who he loves more than anything in the world (well, his kids too, but especially her), so he can't agree with the guy.  But does he dismiss it out of hand, either?  It's a scene that might hint at ambiguity for Richard, and while the immediate next scene - Richard coming home still tipsy and telling his wife with tears in his eyes, "I can protect you... I can protect you!" - squashes what he thinks and feels, I'd want to ask Nichols why he put this scene in the film at the bar, where this black man asks a direct question that, frankly, could make a lot of sense... but, of course, love never makes sense, does it?

8) THE WITCH (d: Robert Eggers)

This is a movie I thought would go for the usual thing in such stories dealing with witchcraft which is at least to some extent ambiguity, like, here is a religious family, they are ostracized, they turn on each other, paranoia and suspicions arise, particularly how women had less than zero rights at the time and were seen as breeders and mothers and that was it and if they weren't in line witches and yet.... Witches in this world are real.  The two notions aren't mutually exclusive either: here is a film where the people are on edge and fearing of Satan and the devil and being absolutely disgusting human beings to each other (especially to the daughter who, by the very end, will turn to Satan), and yet... Witches are very real.

This revelation stuck with me.  While I was in the theater I put a Black Sabbath song to it - it might've not even had to do with witches, just a song with a spooky tone like 'The Writ' - which is sometimes for me a sign of a filmmaker who has really hit it out of the park (another example of this is when we get to the "punch-line" of Godard's WEEK-END and it's the dead body, 'Riders on the Storm' by the Doors popped into my head)

9) O.J. Made in America (d: Ezra Edelstein)

Watched all 7 1/2 hours in one sitting and I'm glad I did.  This packs a wallop as far as putting you into what it means to be part of the National Character of America, which is... frankly, not a nice place to be.  It's tough to actually MAKE IT as someone who is a hero to people, the nation or even the world over, when one is a minority and working as an entertainer (and football is entertainment).  I could pick out a lot of moments here, but one that sticks out to me is in the first episode, or rather it's two moments connected together:

O.J. is sought out by the Hertz rental car company for a commercial in the 1970's - he's known for running like a motherfucker, so he's put in a storyline that he is running across an airport to get to his ride in time - and we see this commercial and it's wildly entertaining in its 70's commercial way (and originally this was meant for a regular businessman, and it was thought, hey, no one will believe that a businessman can do that so fast... but OJ, hmm).  What happens though that's key is that we see what the director of the commercial did to make OJ seem more appealing: everyone around him, the "average Joes and Janes" at the airport who see OJ pass by (one of which a little old white lady who says "Go, OJ, Go!" or something to that effect), is white and respectable.  He's getting the *approval* of white society in a way that is not obvious on a first or even second viewing, it just seems like 'Hey, people like OJ!"

But, like any product put forward to society (not even Hertz, I mean Orenthal James Simpson), image is everything.  It was this commercial in a big way, by the way, that made OJ a much bigger deal than he already was, and he was known for being a Heisman trophy winning minor celebrity football player for the Bills with a 2,000 yard run for the 1973 season.  So.... yeah... And the moral of the story is: what happens when a black man is, as George Carlin might say, not "openly black" but "openly white" and just *happen* to be black(?)  This sequence showing the inner workings of the making of a commercial is astonishing,

10) DEADPOOL (d: Tim Miller)

Just that moment where Wade Wilson's tiny hand makes an appearance next to his friend Bline Al.  It's so charming and creepy at the same time.  I love it.  (It's not quite in this clip but it is made mention)

11) KNIGHT OF CUPS (d: Terrence Malick)

I could pick if I wanted to one of the myriad of poetic-philosophical-spiritual-meditative beats (and myriad is a good work to use for 21st century Malick cinema), but I actually remember the most in Knight of Cups two things: 1) that there is a set piece that actually *shows the character in a moment of drama*, even if it's something as basic as, say, an earthquake.  and 2) there's a bit of... humor to this movie?  The target may be too obvious - Hollywood's self-consciousness, narcissism, and self of 'OMG LIKE WE ARE SO LIKE FAMOUS Y'KNOW!'  But I'd take this over whatever the fuck he was doing with To the Wonder.

Here is a sample of what I mean, featuring Antonio Banderas and Joe Managiello:

12) Moonlight (d: Barry Jenkins)

... when the kid hits the other kid with a chair.  Cinematically, of course, it carries a lot of build up and explosive pay-off, as we're following our protagonist through the hallway in school, into the room, and then as he picks up the chair and hits him like all reason might be off but....... this is a feeling that I know.  Real rage being taken out on a bully in a movie, and it feeling not only earned but tragic in its way, this is something that made me think "yeah, I wasn't gay in middle school, but this was *exactly* what middle school was like, often, at least every other day."  It's a scary thing to think back to them, but Moonlight did that, painfully, exactly, and startlingly.  I hadn't felt so shaken up by seeing such a personal act of violence like that that connected with me since, oh, I don't know, Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (which reflected how I felt at 18 too, full of a lot of bottled up anger). 

13) Captain America: Civil War (d: the Russo brothers)

Uh... how about when Iron Man confronts Cap and Bucky when they first enter that Russian station, and when Tony quips - "hey, Manchurian Candidate!" to Bucky - well.... that's not so funny anymore....

14) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (d: Gareth Edwards)

Peter Cushing returns to the film that one might call Episode 3.5 or 3.75 or 3.6 7/8ths or whatever... Peter. Fucking. Cushing. Dr. Frankenstein-Sherlock-Holmes-motherfucking-Cushing.  In CGI form, like this is that Super Bowl ad from years back where Christopher Reeve could walk again.  Only now, if you're ready for this folks, it's actually *good*, like it's convincing, like you almost, kinda, sort believe that Cushing, a man who has been dead for 22 years, is acting in the same scene with Ben Mendehlson... and doing it WELL... except this is not Cushing.  Not really.  But it is.  This is 'you don't know it, but your BRAIN does' stuff here. 

This is someone standing in and the equivalent of Golem being painted on his face and it's convincing enough to the point where I now dread this becoming a thing with movies to come.  One day we may not have actors with their faces on screen that we can empathize with - that's the thing about actors, it's empathy machine time (which is why Darth Vader, albeit he makes a pun, is still a truly iconic horror-samurai movie presence in his few moments in this movie too, no eyeballs to look at) - so... what then? 

Leaving Rogue One, which I thought was alright, and even feeling that I wondered if I might get flack for not thinking it was OMG amazing or OMG terrible, just alright, this was what was on my mind the most (Leia is also briefly seen, also in full CGI, which was a mistake, but in a way not as mortifying as Cushing as Tarkin... just... my God.  It's a Moment out of time for all time)...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

THE WITNESS (a documentary)


With the exception of the ending (which I'll get to in a moment), this is an excellent film that is really about critical thinking.  There is much that Bill Genovese explores about the circumstances around his sister Kitty's murder by Winston Mosely, but the part that caught my attention the most (looking beyond the lines of the film, so to speak) is to do with the media. 

It's ironic that the very reason that one would be interested in watching a film about this story - about one of those infamous murders that is more about the people who did *not* step in to try and stop it or call the police in faster time - is called into question by the main subject.  The Witness is a wonderful plea for critical thinking in the guise (or not even that, just part of it) of an obsessive detective story.

The film supposes we know already about why this is such a big deal today, but it lets us know anyway; Genovese, 29 years old, was stabbed repeatedly on the street in Kew Gardens, Queens, NY, but that wasn't the big story - it was the "38 eye-witnesses" who saw what happened and did nothing substantive to stop the killer or to get help (supposedly it was half an hour before police arrived, if not longer).  But Bill, her younger brother, has seen over the years details in the case cracking under the weight of scrutiny (there also have been lo lack of books or articles or scholarly writings about it, not to mention the laws passed since then about bystanders doing things to help in response time).  So Bill goes through police documents, interviews authors and media people who reported on the case - all the way up to Mike Wallace (filming for the doc started in 2004) - and, indeed, there were holes in the narrative.

Not always 'eye' witnesses but 'hearing' kind, not necessarily 38 people (where did that number come from exactly is one of the questions posed over and over), and if she died alone, which, we find out, was not the case as a friend went to her when Kitty went inside a building and collapsed on the floor of the hallway.  There are some grisly details, but this is not something that is as salacious in that aspect like, say, The Jinx or something.  The Witness in the title may refer to Bill, who was not there at the time (the family lived elsewhere as he was still a teenager at the time), but he is a witness now, and always will be.  It's closer in a way to something like Jim Garrison (the character, not necessarily real life) in the movie JFK, as one question leads to another and then five more and more from there. 

This isn't to say this is a conspiracy movie, at least not exactly.  What I found so engrossing about the aspect of media scrutiny in this case is that it is still a problem and concern today; we just came off of a year where fake news was rampant, but in actual journalism there's always the danger of falling into embellishing details, of trying to seize on certain details to make much larger headlines (it's questionable even if people would know who Kitty Genovese was, outside of the neighborhood or her family, if it wasn't for such explosive headlines and details that were, arguably, wildly exaggerated), but it's also on the public, I think the movie and Bill could argue, to question critically and think about what is being presented as the facts.

While it's fair to say such a case has made Kitty Genovese into a figure for positive change - to make sure the truth of something is heard (and also, an interesting detail, at least a few if not more of the people in that Kew Gardens apartment complex were victims of the holocaust, who knows if they would want to get into more trouble being involved) - the truth always makes things extremely complicated.

This documentary does such a good job of showing us Kitty's life before the murder through Bill's investigating - an inspiring subject if nothing else because his disability, being a double amputee from a Vietnam injury, and yet it's never made into a big deal, it simply is what it is, a fact that we see before us and it's fine as he never makes light of it aside from the story of how it happened - that it's a shame the movie has to end, or at least come to a climax, that feels much to take in.  After all of the time that Bill's spent looking through all of the details he can get, all of the police documents, calling up people, flying to talk (in audio, no video, and animated, nice touch) with Kitty's lesbian lover, everyone who has something to say here including Mosely's own preacher son (maybe the best scene of the movie), he concludes to bring some small sense of closure he has to... recreate the scene of the crime. 

Not completely as far as blood and murder of course, but hiring an actress and having her recreate the blood-curdling screams on the street and full physical reenactment, for Bill (as he watches on the street with multiple cameras), and then ending with the two hugging it out.  I understand what this is supposed to be for Bill, a moment where he can fully put himself into Kitty's shoes, or at least the full moment of that situation, but how we see it in *this* movie, feels like it goes too far.  It may make more sense to others, but it has an exploitative side to it, especially after, you know, 50 years and part of the idea being, as his own family expresses, that everything Bill is doing is a 'what good will that do?' sort of situation.

Up until that point, I would disagree with the family, and even to a small extent I get the final point, though it veers a little into reality-TV (and more-so than what happens with Mosely's son, which feels just right and what needs to be said, surprisingly so, on both sides).  And all the same I would still recommend this film to people interested in knowing more, and that critical thinking is an aspect of society that needs to not be put by the wayside, even (or particularly when) it comes to a case such as Kitty Genovese.  The smallest details come out as new revelations here, down to that photograph that was used by the media in showing what she looked like - which was, oddly enough, her own *mugshot* from a bookie arrest.  It's certainly one of the essential documentaries of 2016, flawed as it might be.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


(This review was originally meant to be published last June.  As you can see I... didn't get to finish what I'd planned, tin this case a three-part review of three Kiarostami movies.  I only watched Taste of Cherry following the late director's passing.  So... here's the review):

To look at Taste of Cherry properly, in my mind, is to look at precisely the manner that he is going about planning to commit suicide.  The question that has to be asked is: why does he need help?  More than about who he is or why he is doing it - clearly these are questions that Kiarostami isn't interested in (I think that his job in casting Homayoun Ershadi as Mr. Badhii was almost enough, to find someone with intense sadness but also a great intelligence in his eyes, and those who notice it may see at the least that, whether he's rational or not, he's thought this through) - I think the question comes down to human connectivity.  In this story he means to take a lot of sleeping pills and go at night into a hole in the ground he's dug by a tree out in the wastelands near Tehran.  But there's a catch: he has to find someone who, at dawn, will come and say his name.  If Badhii responds, he'll need to pull him out of the hole.  If there's no response, 20 shovels of dirt on his head.

In his way, just by asking for people to help him it's his way of reaching out.  One of the cliches (but a cliche is what it is because it's many times true) with suicidal people is that they will say they will or want to kill themselves because they want attention.  However this isn't some stereotypical teenager or someone with easy to see anxiety issues... but then how many people out there CAN we see having this?  Maybe Mr. Badhii has no other reason except the one that many people who kill themselves get into: severe, crippling depression.  He is told by one of the three passengers he picks up in the film, a Seminarian (aka a priest of a sort) that the Koran forbids suicide since God gives man a body that he must not damage.  But what if the mind is already damaged?

One of the handful of negative reviews on this Golden Palm winner from 1997 was by Roger Ebert.  He was much harsher than I could ever be on the film, since I think it's rather challenging and intelligent in its philosophical aims and its "slowness" works as part of a character unable to really cope with the sense that 'there's no other choice and this HAS to be this way' sense of ending a life (maybe not as strong as Melancholia, but then few films are).  Yet he made a curious point that I agree with, which is that we don't know anything about this man and so there's no port into sympathy for him.  I think I get both sides of how people might approach that argument: too often a movie will overload a movie character with reasons to do this or that or the other.  Kiarostami means to almost make this experimental in approach (about 75% of the film is shot from inside a car - what this means aesthetically in the context of the film I'm still sure I don't know, on a first viewing anyway), but also that maybe too many reasons would make things too easy or too country specific.

In other words, by having it so that Mr. Badhii's conflict is so internalized that it becomes more about his quest to get this ONE thing done that makes his journey interesting - who needs reasons when you simply have a man on screen who can communicate so much through his eyes (I must stress that the performance from Ershadi may be the strongest thing about the film, like I wish he had been recognized at Cannes along with or even instead of Kiarostami)?  What's also impressive about the film, what makes Taste of Cherry impactful, are a) those interactions Badhii has with these three people (the young soldier who is clearly uncomfortable from almost the start of the pick-up and then wants to just get out and have nothing to do with him, the Semanarist, and then the older gentleman who agrees to what Badhii asks but tries to go on and talks the most of anyone about why suicide isn't such a good idea based on, you know, some little thing may make you realize life is worth living).

And B) those little moments where Badhii doesn't have someone in his car, and he stops off at a construction site to just sit there amid all of the "earth" and rubble around him (he almost looks like he's in tears, as this comes after the second passenger rejected his request, though it's almost, cinematically speaking, in a metaphysical sense of visual language, that things are crashing down upon and all around him), or when he simply looks out at people as they go about their day, soldiers marching and chanting along, the children playing, and a young woman who asks him to take a picture of her.  I think a good filmmaker finds those little moments and attempts to build some context around the story, and Kiarostami does that: Badhii may have it set in his mind to do this, but how does one completely disregard... well, LIFE, all around him, the world continuing to live and thrive and people doing things like, at one point, getting his car out from under a ditch that he drives in to by a cliff?

So much of the story is rich - the execution, yes, is a little slow at points, by this I should say shots linger as the characters improvise their lines (it didn't feel that way watching it, but finding out after the fact there was no full script makes it both remarkable and more sense why it sounds the way it all does) - that it's extremely disappointing that the ending putters out.  It may be one of those things I *should* get and just completely flew over my head what meaning it was.  I won't say what happens except to say that it feels like the film is reaching some logical conclusion, or perhaps a revelation, and what we get feels like a non-ending, or, frankly a cop-out.  DID Kiarostami know what ending he wanted and threw it out to do something "fresh", or did he not get what he wanted and decided to just say 'eff it' and forget what was happening in the film?

What's so frustrating is that for 90% of the film Kiarostami tells a story in a specific way, that can't be mistaken for any other style or approach, and then in that last 10% (and also things start to slow down to a crawl, which is fine, but it feels like it's leading up to SOMETHING) it becomes, well, *meta* or taking the experimental to a place that is distancing for the audience.  But more than anything I just didn't get it, and I usually feel I can get most weird and esoteric decisions.  And I'm sure some smarter film goer than I will explain what the end means and make me feel all foolish for not getting it, but that makes me feel WORSE about it, not better.  And at the end of the day so much of Taste of Cherry is a provocative, daring, surprising film that I can't not recommend it to audiences looking for a fiercely intelligent film by someone looking to break out of the box of typical narrative films.

 If only it stuck to its, I don't know, narrative! 


Like the man's life, this doc is too short (I thought for some reason it was going to be a feature).  The material is the basic stuff of a retrospective and tribute with interviews by collaborators and fans (and certainly some names you probably heard of: Pacino, De Niro, Streep, Sam Rockwell, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sidney Lumet, uh, Brett Ratner, sure why not) that go into what this man was like as they knew him from being in person (Streep was married to him for a brief time, she's actually his widow) and from simply watching the Godfather parts 1 and 2 five hundred times. 

But, man, what an actor and what a career!  Sometimes in those luckiest windows of time and in opportunity (don't forget the luck part of it), quality trumps quantity, and in this case Cazale had one of the major careers in 70's American cinema.  It must be akin to one of those early rock and rollers from the 50's (Buddy Holly or the Big Bopper or whoever) who you know when listening to their music it's so pure and raw and emotional and that so many others have borrowed from them, and it's a true tragedy from the abyss of nothingness that they're taken so young. 

Good stuff though, again, I wish it was a little longer, like even a short feature instead of this long-short film stuff. But some wonderful breakdowns of these scenes he had as Fredo and the long-haired WTF in Dog Day Afternoon and even the sadness he brought to his small role in The Conversation.  A lot of time actors try to go big or go home, or take on roles that will show off what they can DO on CAMERA.  Cazale never did that, and one wonders this man in dramas in the 80's and 90's and beyond.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

MOONLIGHT (dir: Barry Jenkins)

Barry Jenkins is a fascinating storyteller, and in large part because of how he goes about being fascinated by his subject, how his camera roams at times, and at others when he knows to cut between his subjects. But most of all, he is a truly magnificent filmmaker because of how he so deftly finds universal themes from a place and people that is somewhat specific. This is a story about a boy who grows into a man - I'm tempted to call it the 'better, bigger, blacker-er Boyhood', though that's not totally the case - but he is also a boy growing up in a largely black, Southern, lower (middle?) class neighborhood, where it seems drugs are everywhere (including his own mother who is an addict) and no one can be "soft". And if you're gay, a "f***ot?" Watch out.

I grew up in a town and in the public school system where it was predominantly black and brown and Hispanic, and it seemed like even having the slightest effeminate tendencies would make that one a subject for immediate ridicule (I was even picked on and I was pretty sure from a young age I wasn't gay, but was picked on so much for a moment almost though I was, it was that persistent). It may not be so different for white small towns or big cities or who knows what, but it's especially difficult for African-American men to come out. And yet if Moonlight was only about the gay issue then it would be interesting but not overly compelling. I think what Jenkins and his actors are communicating so strongly is being *so* isolated and without any options that it's about one's overall identity. Sex and attraction is a large component, but simply knowing who one is is a major struggle.

Jenkins has some very big, emotional scenes in this film, which is told in three parts, in large part coming from the dynamic between the boy, called "Little" but actual named Chiron, and his mother (Naomie Harries, I mean, god damn she is amazing in this). However, the predominant mood here is one of subtlety, of a vision that is fairly ambitious but is more about the interior life of his protagonist, this boy having to navigate how he should be in a society that leaves little options to get out and be something more than a drug dealer or the like (eventually, both he and another friend character, Kevin, wind up in jail in-between parts 2 and 3. This can be a difficult way to make someone interesting, but there's so much truth from these young actors, especially the boy playing Chrion in middle-school age, that your heart pours out even more because of the restraint, because of the shyness that is hiding back an entire interior life that's more than what we can see: one of pain and want.

The way Jenkins shoots everything gives characters and places an extra texture, how he'll show two people by a beach at night becoming closer together naturally over minutes that feel pregnant with meaning. To use the word 'sensitively drawn and performed' may be a cliche, but sensitive is the only way I can think to describe it. This isn't to say it's melodramatic, far from it; when we get the bullies that come at Chiron, it feels raw and immediate, like something could pop and violence could erupt at any moment. Sometimes, it seems, it does. A small piece of advice is given to the boy by the drug dealing father-figure (no one else in his life fills that role, and he doesn't realize at first he is a dealer): no one can tell you who you are, you have to figure that out for yourself.

When I first got out of the theater at the end, I was wondering if the ending was slightly abrupt, that things come to a conclusion somewhat not so much fast but there's something else. I think writing this review now, I was more touched and moved by the thought of 'I now want to see where this story goes, what happens now that Chrion has had this emotional breakthrough.' It's as subtle as many moments in this film, but there's a poetic side to it that is potent and you can almost touch it that it's so powerful. Moonlight is profound because it doesn't force anything, it lets those moments where things aren't said speak out loud, when characters share looks or someone looks away while another looks straight on at another person, or the movement of boys with one another, and you can fill in the gaps for yourself. It's also a look at the black experience that is both specific to that world but goes beyond that: if you've ever not known who you are in your life, if you've felt lost or abused or abandoned, this is a film for you.

I can't wait to see what Jenkins does with his career, it could last a long time.