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Most of us are frightened of dying because we don’t know what it means to live. We don’t know how to live, therefore we don’t know how to die. As long as we are frightened of life we shall be frightened of death.  

– J. Krishnamurti, from Freedom from the Known

The entanglement of life and death would be so much easier to understand if life were only ever bliss and death was only tragedy. In Hide Your Smiling Faces, two teenage brothers hint at a semblance of shamelessness in the face of death. They share a giggle behind the backs of their parents who are lamenting the untimely death of a playmate of the younger brother. With this slight moment, director Daniel Patrick Carbone exposes something quite profound about the relationship between life and death. Throughout his debut feature, he uses moments that subvert dialogue and narrative in order to speak to the sublime and varied might of the great inevitable.

It’s not like death is not funny (look at the work of Woody Allen, which respects its power while finding humor in its dread). Why the death of a boy appears funny to these kids, at that moment, is never revealed by this film, nor does it need to be. With his impressive debut feature film, Carbone is able to do something with visuals that only few do with words, such as philosophers Krishnamurti and the more accessible Alan Watts (read more about him in my profile on the band STRFKR). Carbone has been compared to Terrence Malick, but I would add the more minimalist and sometimes humorous film, Le Quattro Volte (read my review).

With a run time of only 80 minutes, Hide Your Smiling Faces is a brief but dazzling little movie full of mystery and atmosphere that subtly seduces the viewer to relate with aimless youth by not dwelling on narrative. It follows the two brothers, Eric (Ryan Jones) and Tommy (Nathan Varnson), whose names you do not learn until much later in the film. Though their ages are never disclosed and neither is shown in school, Tommy could be in middle school and Eric in high school. They often speak in questions. They seem to wile away time outside of their rustic home in the nature of rural New Jersey (we only know the location thanks to the film’s end credits). Technology is hidden from the picture, beyond a portable CD player, which could place these kids in an alternate era, probably the early 1990s. Even their plain clothing and crew cuts set them in a place out of the current era. These are all visual clues to keep the viewer focused on the film’s theme, which is established early on with an extended opening shot of a snake gradually consuming a lifeless salamander between some undulating breaths.

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Death and decay appear over and over in scenes that show the boys vibrantly living it up, but it’s not excess so much as visceral urgency. They break into an abandoned home to punch through decaying walls. The brothers discover a mysterious pile of dead pets in the woods, including dogs and a cat. The threat of violence emerges during play wrestling and when one the youngest boys gets ahold of his father’s gun.

There’s a reckless, immature yet sincere quality to these boys’ relationships. There are no young girls brought into the narrative, but there are still expressions of love and tenderness. In back-to-back scenes, Eric and Tommy have intimate moments with friends. In the first scene, it’s night, and Tristan (Thomas Cruz), the only friend Eric sometimes has alone time with, cryptically confesses to him over the phone, “I just don’t want to be here anymore … no one likes me here.” Eric responds with hesitation: “I do.” It’s only after Tristan coaxes him with some terse questions that Eric somewhat painfully admits, “I like you. You’re my friend.” In the following scene, during the day, Tommy proposes to one of his friends they practice kissing with a piece of transparent acetate between their faces. “So you don’t wonder what it feels like?” Tommy tells his friend, before they do it and laugh it off agreeing, “This is pretty weird.” Throughout the film, Carbone’s script captures the complexity of repressed expression between these young people. He reveals a deep yearning to connect below superficial actions.

Carbone seems more interested in presenting these profound moments of imperfect human connections as vignettes rather than deeply explored storylines. They therefore take on an impressionistic air that many in the audience might relate with. He leaves it up to the audience to fill in the gaps with feeling and thought. trailer-hide-your-smiling-faces-16648That’s not to say the film is not expressive and warm. Carbone has more experience in his filmography as a cinematographer than directing (he directed one short in 2008, besides this film, according to his IMDB page, but has six cinematography credits), and it shows in the best way. From one scene to another he presents arresting, intimate images through the lensing of Nick Bentgen. They position the camera at the younger boys’ eye level, so you are there, on the floor in the bedroom with them, light shining into the room from a window above.

Despite the rather extended opening sequence, the film never feels as though it drags. Bentgen’s camera finds plenty of dynamic images to appreciate. Sometimes they are distant and obscure, rich with wonder. There are no pans or zooms, only an opening to a lush landscape that hints at layers of imagery and sometimes mystery. He does not shoot dreamily like Malick’s current cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. He shoots more intimately, drawing you in close to the characters without indulgent close-ups. If there is a dreamlike quality to the film, it comes out in the editing, which is more associative than straight up narrative. Like the directing and the script, Carbone is also the sole editor of this film, which shows how much control he had over the final product.

There’s hardly ever any music to take away from the film’s naturalistic sensibility. Something that sounds like death metal rumbles out of a pair of headsets Tommy borrows from Eric. HYSFBeyond that muffled diegetic din, the only time Carbone consciously uses extradiegetic music comes when the brothers ride a bicycle they share. The score is a spare atmospheric, droning soundscape by Robert Donne, who is probably best known as a founding member of Labradford, a post-rock/drone-rock band from Virginia that emerged in the early ‘90s. The melodic hum ebbs and flows, as the boys cover a seemingly expansive landscape both full of lush forests and also— one never is allowed to forgets— the threat of death.

Carbone has chosen to work with rather inexperienced actors. It keeps the interaction between the boys genuine and casual. It harnesses that special power within boyhood that still seethes with potential and a desire for expression in an unencumbered manner. HYSF-Rain-Tongue-1920x1080That said, the movie has three or four instances where the acting becomes visible due to a sense of self-consciousness by these actors. But then the camera offers another impressive, quiet visual moment that cancels out this glance behind the curtain, as when the deceased boy and Tommy share a disconnected moment in time with the carapace of the same dead bug. Both have turns delicately holding the translucent exoskeleton of the beetle against the light. Through association they are connected as death is infused with light. It’s a beautiful moment layered with the complexity of life and death.

Light and darkness is a huge part of this film. Carbone proves a daring young voice in the independent cinema world who understands how to allow visuals to not only tell the tale but express something beyond language. A film like this is far beyond notions of coming-of-age, as it ends with these kids having a lot left to learn. It’s refreshing to experience a movie that can settle into expression of the feeling of growing up while offering the taste of potential, instead of some neat, distancing complete package. Hide Your Smiling Faces is one of those thrilling moments in cinema that confirms pictures can indeed be bigger than words.

Hans Morgenstern

Note: I will host the director and legendary film critic Amy Taubin (Film Comment, Village Voice, Sight and Sound) in a discussion of this film and other cinematic releases of the year in the first installment of the Knight Foundation-sponsored series, Speaking In Cinema on Tuesday, April 29, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For information and tickets visit here (that’s a hotlink).

Hide Your Smiling Faces begins this Friday, April 18, exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, in South Florida. It runs 80 minutes and is unrated (there’s cussing and vivid scenes of rigor mortis). Tribeca Film provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s website.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

LeWeekEnd-posterThe depiction of love in movies often feels unfulfilling to the older movie-goer or anyone, for that matter, with true experiences in long-term relationships. Hollywood has a knack for making weddings part of the climax in films about relationships. Anyone who has had a wedding knows they are but a momentary blip in life. The real tricky part is capturing a semblance of the ever-complicating life shared between those who have been married.

Le Week-End director Roger Michell (the man behind both Notting Hill and The Mother) has many years exploring love in the movies. Armed with a screenplay by novelist Hanif Kureishi, he probably has not handled the subject more delicately or subtly until now. British couple Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent) are looking to rekindle romance in Paris by returning for a weekend to stay at the hotel where they first spent their honeymoon, 30 years ago. She bounces between raging frustration with him and flighty spontaneity. He can hardly keep up and has his own quiet, sheepish frustration that he tends to keep bottled up. In one meek attempt to seduce her, Nick reaches out and she flinches. “Why won’t you ever let me touch you?” he says.

She responds, “It’s not love. It’s like being arrested.”

They fight and argue a lot from one scene to another. During many transitional edits, the film and, by association, the couple seem to reboot. Romantic jazz music, featuring stride piano and plucky acoustic guitar accompanies the fade-in to these new scenes. The two distinct instruments call and respond. It almost mirrors the to and fro of the couple’s often opposing perspectives. It’s not discordant, however. There’s harmony but also conflict with in these distinct characters (I’m referring to both the instruments and the couple). It’s a witty musical representation of the couple. It’s hard to note this jazzy score by Jeremy Sams and not allude to a comparison to Woody Allen’s work as a director, who also has long presented a fine-tuned concern of romantic relationships on the rocks.

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Another, more grim comparison could be to Before Midnight (Film review: ‘Before Midnight’ offers original glimpse of love evolved). With its extended scenes of sometimes passive-aggressive tension between its characters (when anger and resentments are not directly being flung at the other), Before Midnight can feel difficult to endure, as conversations spiral into full-blown operatic emotional battles. Le Week-End, on the other hand, knows how to keep the conflict in check with tidy scenes that build toward the fateful appearance of a third wheel played by an exuberant Jeff Goldblum. His character brings some refreshing perspective for not only Meg and Nick but also the viewer.

It could have been tiresome to just follow this antagonistic husband and wife for the entire film. Thankfully, Morgan appears to not only infuse some life into the film but also a deeper tragedy. Goldblum brings vibrant energy to Morgan, a former student of Nick’s who has had more success with his writing than his teacher. ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????He also happens to live in Paris with a younger, pregnant wife. Though he seems to be doing well, he credits the dreary, serious Nick as an inspiration. “Over the years that I’ve sat at desks like this,” he says after inviting Nick into his fancy study overlooking the Eiffel Tower, “and in the times when I’ve tried to convince myself that I’ve had some kind of brain or just a little bit of rigor or integrity … I would think what would Nick Burroughs do now?” This weighs heavy on Nick, who happens to be a philosophy professor, not just as a compliment but a terrible burden of possibility.

Morgan has invited the couple to his spacious apartment for a dinner party with artists, writers, scholars— a veritable cornucopia of intelligentsia. But just when you think the director has inserted Morgan as some mirror character of possibilities, the film gifts us a confessional moment by Morgan to Nick. He says of his young wife, “She can’t see through me yet. I mean, she will,” Morgan says as he nervously chomps on an hors d’oeuvre, his eyes flitting about in a perfect Goldblumism.

Meanwhile, a younger Frenchman chats up Meg. With little to gain from this flirt, she quickly reveals her morose character, talking about her “fury, dissatisfaction and the clock ticking by.” But, oh, these French people. He’s still taken by her. “What a great thing,” he tells her with a pensive smile, “to be so attuned to your unhappiness.”

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Still, thirty years of marriage matters for something, and the film, for all its bitterness and conflict, also subtly reveals slight but precious moments shared by Meg and Nick. Though they never seem to notice it themselves, the partners reveal similar habits, like when they wipe their eyeglasses at the same time at the table with their dinner napkins. Thankfully, the director does not try to highlight these moments heavy-handedly.

Underneath the explosive bitterness, the big value of the smaller things shines through and ultimately bonds Meg and Nick, and it makes the film a much nicer pill to swallow than most such movies. For all its seeming indulgence in the misery of this couple, Le Week-End turns out to be a delightful film. Communication opens up, and as much as this couple pushes so hard to move forward during a time when they should be just settling in, it is indulging in a bit of nostalgia that always seems the best cure for them. That the film ends with an even grander and more resonant reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part than the delightful, though comparatively naïve Frances Ha, gives the film’s finale an extra punch. Fine, it’s work to make a long-lasting marriage work, but a bit of honesty to oneself and some confidence can go a long way to submit to the humbling power of a bond for a life shared together.

Hans Morgenstern

Le Week-End runs 93 minutes and is Rated R (mature language and sexual problems). Music Box Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens in South Florida on April 4, in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area at the Regal South Beach 18, AMC Sunset Place and The Classic Gateway Theatre. On April 18 it expands northward to West Palm Beach, at the Regal Shadowood, Living Room Theaters, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth and Downtown Gardens/West Palm Beach. It already began playing in other parts of the U.S. and has more dates scheduled through May; visit the film’s official webpage and click on “theaters” for more screening dates.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

fly_poster_UK_WebIt was Carl Jung who theorized all genders have an opposite within. Men have a female side and women have a male side. He said part of what drives the unconscious mind was the anima and animus. If ever there was a male director who desperately wanted to bring life to his anima, it may be Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. And if there was ever proof at how futile his efforts are in tapping into the female side of his unconscious it lies there in his filmography. But dammit if he does not strive for it with a brutal honesty.

Though many have written him off as a misogynist, von Trier clearly has sympathy for women. Breaking the Waves (1996), still (maybe sentimentally for this writer) his strongest film, made a star of Emily Watson. She played a virginal bride whose husband (Stellan Skarsgård) grows distant. She turns to whoring and then implicitly rises to the status of saint. In Dancer In the Dark (2000), our heroine (Björk) escapes into musical sequences to come to terms with an unavailable father to her son as she gradually goes blind and meets the cruelest sort of end one could imagine. Most recently, Kirsten Dunst became his anima surrogate in the over-indulgent Melancholia (‘Melancholia’ offers intimate, if flawed, look at the end of the world), which explored the depths of a depressed woman (Dunst) but short-changed her grounded sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a giant planet grew ever closer to earth to swallow it whole.

In even more sexually explicit films, there is Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and Antichrist (2009). Either victimized or self-destructive, women are quite doomed in von Trier’s universe, burdened by their anatomy instead of empowered by it. But he’s far from finished exploring female sexuality. It’s fitting that his most primal and focused of his women-centric movies is the epic-length, four-and-a-half-hour long Nymph()maniac (parentheses for extra evocative effect).

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As one can expect from title and that () in place of the o, von Trier’s unapologetic heavy hand is once again all over this film, which, in the U.S. has been divided into two films: Nymph()maniac Volume I and Nymph()maniac Volume II. It has also been more than cut in half for stateside consumption, it has also been shortened by a half-hour. One might assume it is a move by von Trier to protect the more puritanical American audience from explicit sex overload because there is a lot of it in this movie. To his detriment, he is a condescending director, who would consider such a notion, as  his coerciveness once again mutes the impact of his theme. However, the film does have its strengths, albeit within a mixed bag of genuine effort.

The film is not rated, as it would have never earned anything less than an NC-17 rating. Sexuality is ever-present in the film. Even the U.S. version has a few scenes of penetration (body doubles were reportedly used). No anecdote is absent of sex or the implication of it (even references to fly fishing). This uncompromising effort by von Trier is by design. He does not only stay true to the title but creates an implicit effect that will indeed place the audience in the title character’s body. Before the end of the film, the viewer will become numb to the sex on-screen. This is actually one of the film’s strengths, as it draws the audience into the titular protagonist’s world.

Gainsbourg, in her third major role in a row for von Trier plays Joe. After a slithering camera silently turns a few brick walls and gutters dripping melting snow, we find her bruised and unconscious in an alleyway. We are then sonically assaulted with the film’s black metal theme song (there’s that heavy hand). Nymphomaniac 14 photo by Christian GeisnaesAn older man (Skarsgård) helps her up and insists he call an ambulance. She threatens to run away if he calls any authority, so he offers her tea at his place. He then tucks her in his bed where she proceeds to tell him a bedtime story all about her self-described nymphomania (a long out-dated psychological disorder on par with hysteria) and what “a bad human being” she has been.

The man, who later reveals his name as Seligman, for the most part seems rather unstartled by accounts of her sexuality, which begins with her first memory, when, as a 2-year-old, “I first discovered my cunt.” He can’t help but divert her narrative to his experiences as a fly fisherman and goes on about the “nymph” fly. She pauses silently, as if to say, “I don’t know what to say to that” and carries on with her story. This disconnect between the characters could be relevant or not. Maybe von Trier is subverting his own ham-fistedness, as Joe’s pregnant pauses easily invite laughter from the audience.

She later shares an anecdote where she took a challenge from a friend to try and have with sex with as many men as possible during one train ride. The film flashes back to a teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) and her childhood friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) as they plot and seduce for a prize bag of “chocolate sweeties.” Sex does not make the reward but candy. It’s significant to the gradual desensitization of intercourse for Joe. The two childhood friends soon form a club where the pair and other school girls chant “mea maxima vulva” while masturbating in a group. They swear to have sex with many different partners and never fall in love with them. It’s an act of rebellion against what they consider the oppressive notion of love.

Nymphomaniac 17 photo by Christian Geisnaes

There’s meaning in everything in von Trier’s world. Forgiving the teenage notion of “mea maxima vulva,” the idea that Seligman must connect her stories to fly fishing and his obsession with Fibonacci numbers are a bit harder to forgive. But, we can hope it’s by design. Joe hardly entertains his theories (and maybe von Trier would probably not forgive my anima allusions). She just carries on with her stories, each one divided by title cards, including “The Compleat Angler” and “Delirium.”

The transference between Joe and Seligman becomes quite apparent. Von Trier, as ever, gives us scenes that are choppily cut and highlight silences between characters more than dialogue. The internal world is always more interesting to von Trier, and this is his way to emphasize reflection and thought. This is a contemplative film. It mirrors what may be happening between screen and viewer. It’s as amazingly candid as some might think it lurid.

One of the easier chapters to swallow is simply titled “Mrs. H” also features some rather cruel humor. A rampaging wife (Uma Thurman in spectacular high gear) enters Joe’s apartment right after her cheating husband (Hugo Speer) has appeared with his suitcases, ready to move in with Joe. Nymphomaniac 06 photo by ZentropaThe missus has brought their three young sons to introduce them to the woman who has destroyed their family and takes them on a tour of Joe’s apartment, all the way to “Daddy’s whoring bed.” Joe just stands there, silent and unapologetic. It’s one of the film’s more honestly hilarious moments because it’s like one of those revenge letters by a woman scorned, which often go viral on the Internet.

But it’s a rather cheap joke that more importantly culminates in the usual coldness from Joe, who once seems to care less about emotional involvement over the physical act of sex. Men are replaceable to Joe. Well… except for one. Shia LaBeouf plays Jerôme, the man who once happened to take her virginity in three thrusts (plus five more in the behind, spelled out in numbers that are burned on the image, hence the  Fibonacci number). He comes to matter to her because she denies him sex for much of their second life together, when he rather surreptitiously reappears in her life as her boss.

The most sincerely accomplished and, finally insightful, of the chapters must be “The Little Organ School,” which comes toward the end of Volume I. Once again, Seligman illuminates Joe’s account with a theoretical notion, this time the musical one of polyphony. And again, Joe turns the story back to herself, noting three particularly distinct love affairs during a time at the height of her sexual escapades, where she was bedding an average of 10 men a day. Our director, in turn, works in montages within a triple split-screen, featuring Jerôme at the center. It’s another rather overt move by von Trier, but it also reveals a complexity in this woman’s sexuality rarely represented so vividly and powerfully in the film. It also allows for a rare moment of emotional illumination of this woman, who may indeed have a human, beating heart and a desire to be understood.

Nymphomaniac 08 photo by Zentropa

Returning to the notion of anima and animus, it’s not incidental that Joe has a name more often associated with men. It hints at one of the more interesting premises in the film that offers up many ideas surrounding sex to varying effect. There’s one rather witty scene where Joe flawlessly parallel parks for a frazzled Jerôme who insists the gap between two cars is too small for his vehicle. So much for this idea, Germany.

Yet, as this film is but a “Volume I,” it feels incomplete when we get a sort of cliffhanger of an ending that would have actually worked quite ingeniously as a finale to the film had it been a movie focused on Joe’s trouble with feelings and sex. Still lingering of course is the mystery that put Joe in the street, not to mention what role Seligman has to play beyond fun house mirror to her tales of perverse sexual behavior.

It becomes difficult to make up one’s mind about this film without the completed vision. Maybe it will let down because, so far— barring some hopeful moments toward the end— it mostly feels like the usual forceful von Trier. Joe still has to finish that long story she began, so we can find out the why and the what in “Volume II.” Also, could von Trier be pandering to U.S. audiences too much? Has he compromised not only by dropping almost a half-hour of (what some reports have said) of more sexual images and some extended dialogue? Has he also gone too far in following the annoying trend of several recent Hollywood movies of allowing his film to be chopped in half for easier consumption at the cost of complete story flow? Beneath these kinks and complaints, is a rather intelligent and bold concept few filmmakers dare to unabashedly explore: a rather taboo subject, not just for mainstream cinema, but a male director: a woman and the power of her sex. Nymph()maniac Volume I stands as an interesting though mostly imperfect film that teases there may be some hope for the follow up, out next month.

Hans Morgenstern

Nymphomaniac Volume I runs 118 minutes and is not rated (it would have been an easy NC-17 had it been presented to the MPAA for a rating). It opened this past weekend in South Florida in Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema, O Cinema and the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand, but it’s a beautiful big screen film. Note: Nymph()maniac Volume II will see release in April. Here’s that trailer, which bodes some hope for the questions brought up by this review:

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

GRAND-BUDAPEST-HOTEL-POSTER-570Featuring an undercurrent of death, the looming menace of fascism and wrapped in a century’s worth of nostalgia, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel stands as yet another brilliant masterstroke of colorful cinema hiding a profound affection for humanity by the American director. Despite what you might think, Anderson has not forgotten his sense of humor. Although, at some points in the film, you may feel confused about whether to laugh or cringe at the events that befall these poor characters at a break-neck, deadpan pace.

The key to the film lies in memory. It plays a central role in how the action unfolds. The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in the modern world with a young, “edgy” girl paying tribute to a monument devoted to an unnamed “author.” Then the film travels to the memory of that author alive in 1985 and his reflecting on his younger years in 1968 and a story he was once told about a 1933-era concierge. Anderson wryly uses various aspect ratios to denote the different times, or better put: layers of memory. The music of Alexandre Desplat has an appropriately ghostly quality throughout the film. On many occasions bells and chimes echo, drums hiss with brushes and vibrant zithers tremolo. And, no, there are no catchy ’60s Brit-pop songs thrown into the mix. Once again, Anderson has created a different kind of film, albeit one from his very particular world (See also: ‘Moonrise Kingdom’: a different kind of Wes Anderson film).

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Then, of course, there is the mise-en-scène‎ and colors, a sort of hyper-reality featuring pinks, purples and reds. The titular hotel, situated in the made-up country of Zubrowka, during the key era of the 4:3 aspect ratio (the 1930s), gleams with opulence. Anderson’s restlessly panning camera lens has never felt more alive than in this beautifully designed environment that looks like a life-size doll house, and Robert D. Yeoman’s cinematography slurps it all to luscious effect.

Finally, the characters:  Our hero, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes acting as if he were a born Anderson player), displays an amazing, if sometimes questionable, work ethic at the distinguished hotel. Though war is looming, his main concern is to serve— and service— the many elderly women who seem to vacation at the hotel. Fiennes’ dry delivery of Anderson’s quippy dialogue both reflects Gustave’s incredible seriousness while concealing a singular sort of solitude. His gregariousness directed toward older women and his passion for his job is complimented with an effeteness that is never wholly confirmed, left unfulfilled. It highlights his lonely existence. On his own, he practically lives and sleeps in nothing but a broom closet.

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF File

All around Gustave is a rich cast of characters who never take away too much presence from this wonderfully rich yet solitary character. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe play sinister fellows dressed in black. Meanwhile, Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori play young innocents in puppy love. In between all manner of people appear and sometimes die off, Jeff Goldblum’s attorney Kovacs is met one particularly gruesome end, preceded by a minor bit of dismemberment dealt by the often sneering and silent Jopling (Dafoe).

The film’s plot is loose but has a caper-like quality involving an inheritance, a priceless painting and murder. There are jail breaks and chases. Anderson’s new-found affection for action sequences played out by animation and puppets fits the times where much of the action unfolds. The archaic special effects, just like the square aspect ratio, speak to the era. That these thrilling sequences still feel compelling, though almost laughably phony, proves the realism of digital effects overrated. The Grand Budapest Hotel is so richly staged and its characters feel so compelling, you will become rapt in the suspense regardless, just as you would watching a classic film from that time.

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Ultimately, though, it’s the character of Gustave who embodies the hotel in its heyday and seems to resonate with a vividness that gives the film an immutable luster. He holds the movie together in all its topsy-turvy madness to ultimately celebrate true, honest, steadfast character. Because he stands as a man alone, he builds respectful relationships and allegiances. It’s a romantic notion to think anyone, though, goes off into the sunset with anybody else, but there’s always the heart and memory. Like all good things, we know the Grand Budapest will fall into languor once his presence disappears, but those stories will forever live on and matter to these characters in this oddly sincere world where malice can never have the last say.

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Note: I interviewed actor Ralph Fiennes ahead of the film’s release. You can read my full interview with him on the art and culture blog “Cultist” from the “Miami New Times.” Jump through the image below:

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Hans Morgenstern

The Grand Budapest hotel runs 100 minutes and is rated R (there are a few shocks in sex and violence and some intense language). Fox Searchlight Pictures invited me to a preview screening last month for the purpose of the interview and this review. The film opens in wide release today.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

31 PlainThe Miami International Film Festival has just wrapped up another year of quality film premieres. Film for film, it may have featured the highest-quality programming I have seen at the festival ever. Unlike last year (Final weekend at MIFF: Trueba tribute, awards and aquatic-themed films), I hardly found a film to complain about at the 31st MIFF, but also I did not find the time to blog a daily diary of film-going experiences. Most of my time this year was spent providing content for the “Miami New Times” and its art and culture blog “Cultist.”

It began with a few preview pieces (Miami International Film Festival Announces Full 2014 Lineup). MIFF Executive Director Jaie Laplante has always made himself easily accessible, so it wasn’t hard to get him to admit to some favorites ahead of ticket sales (Catch MIFF Director Jaie Laplante’s Favorite Picks). We also talked about this year’s Florida Focus element, which featured more local filmmakers at MIFF than I can recall. I provided an exclusive report on that to “Pure Honey” (read it here).

Ectotherms - Still

One local filmmaker I was particularly impressed by was Monica Peña, whose short feature Ectotherms had its world premiere at MIFF. She was the only filmmaker I had a chance to interview at the festival besides actor/director John Turturro (more on his film, Fading Gigolo, which stars Woody Allen, in May). I was struck by the film’s patient, languorous quality, the warm, improvised performances of the actors and the associative narrative that turned death and arson into an incidental subplot. It’s a strange, compelling film that offers an appropriately surreal glimpse of a Miami few outside of the city know (read the interview here).

I had a chance to preview a handful of films before the festival began, which resulted in several reviews. None of these films were weak, but if there was one that was the weakest, it was Web. It’s strength lay in its subject: the One Laptop Per Child Program that began a few years ago. The program was designed to provide laptop computers to children in developing countries. Director Michael Kleiman went to two villages in Peru without running water and negligible electricity, much less Internet connectivity, to see how this program affected these small communities. He came away with an interesting picture about the ongoing effect of globalization. The question was not whether these tools could provide opportunities for people to advance with technology, but whether it would speed them along to irrelevance and ultimately a loss of culture. There were times when the director inserted himself too much into the piece, but when one villager begs Kleiman to not forget his family when he returns to life in the big city, it feels like a moving plea to conserve their culture.

Another startling documentary involving the web featured a more distant perspective, if a bit affected by a morose soundtrack: Web Junkie. Filmmakers Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam were somehow able to get a camera crew into a rehab camp in China for teenage Internet addicts. Web_JunkieCut off from the only thing that provided these male youths pleasure, the kids come across as pathetically desperate. When an off-camera voice asks one child why he is in the camp, he breaks down crying and replies, “because I used the Internet.” What may seem humorous at first gradually reveals a rather sad picture of a country that has taken it upon itself to raise children for families who have grown frustrated with their only kids.

From the extreme of these serious documentaries, there were a couple of truly humorous films from Latin America that added some delight to the mix. Club Sandwich by Fernando Eimbcke, the director of Duck Season, offered a rather shameless look at a young teenager’s sexual awakening while on summer vacation with his mother. What at first felt like an awkward film exploring a Oedipal complex takes a refreshing turn when the boy meets a girl at the resort he and his mom have escaped to. It’s still very awkward, as hormones remain the main motivator and not romance.

Another oddly humorous film in this mix was a U.S. Premiere: All About the Feathers. It came from Costa Rica and stood out as a quality work from a country you might have never thought of as having a film industry. It indulged in a deadpan sense of humor and focused on people often relegated to the periphery of life. All_About_the_FeathersThe film followed Chalo (Allan Cascante) a security guard and his quest to become a cock fighter. Rounding out this vibrant cast that miraculously never went over-the-top and silly, is a house maid who pushes Chalo to try selling Avon products, a young fruit vendor with a talent for the trumpet and a reformed delinquent who now works with Chalo. Featuring brilliantly composed, patient and distant shots, the film reveals just how important sincerity is to humor.

The most impressive film of this group of reviews had to be The Summer of Flying Fish, from Chilean director Marcela Said. A beautifully made, exquisitely patient film. Said, who has only directed documentaries until this film, shows an impressive eye and ear for building atmosphere. The land is often shrouded in fog, and a surreal ambient music permeates the many quiet interludes between the verbose fights between a privileged daughter and her wealthy land owner father, as the indigenous Mapuche people grow more and more restless. It all builds toward a potent finale that reveals a rather dreadful perspective on class divisions.

To read longer reviews in “Cultist” of these interesting films, jump through the titles below:

Web

Club Sandwich

All About the Feathers

Web Junkie

The Summer of Flying Fish

Summer_of_Flying_Fish

Then it was on to the festival itself. I skipped the opulent opening night party and film, Elsa & Fred, on Friday night, and made The Immigrant the first film I saw, on Saturday. The James Gray film, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard, was one of five films I dared to suggest as must-sees for “Cultist” (read that article here). For me, it did not live up to such hype. Though the film was beautifully staged, the characters felt a bit inconsistent. While Cotilliard’s Polish immigrant character at first felt rather heart-breaking (maybe it was little voice she used pleading for her sister?), she later turned a tad too feisty to feel believable. Phoenix has returned to acting in fine form, a renaissance which began with the last Gray film he did: Two Lovers. However, whatever dynamism he was granted here did not suit him as well. Sometimes it all just boiled over into too much melodrama.

Another film I also recommended in the article but felt a bit disappointed by was The Sacrament, the latest film by Ti West. I was expecting him to give us something more than a simple take on the Jonestown massacre, but he did not. West was present at the screening and took questions from film critic David Edelstein and some of the audience members. The SacramentI also spoke with him for a bit afterward. He really seemed genuine about his attempt to come to terms with the horror of Jonestown. There were some seeming plot gaps, which he even admitted to leaving open due to budget and time constraints. Who’s to say if it would have ultimately mattered? It’s not like this story needs a gimmick to make it more terrible than it was. As West said, the true horror is what men are capable of doing with followers who have given up everything else.

In between those two films, I squeezed in a documentary: The Notorious Mr. Bout. It was a somewhat humorous film about a rather infamous figure involved with the black market gun trade. He happened to be the man who inspired the Nicholas Cage character in The Lord of War. The film successfully establishes Bout as a resourceful man from post-communist Russia starting an import-export company. He happened to ship guns on the side, but he became a typical easy target when the media began to be intrigued by his persona. Though his morals were loose, there is nothing incriminating Bout as wanting to support terrorists who wanted to kill Americans, but that’s still why he was jailed. By focusing on a person, the film actually presents what’s wrong with a justice system that wants to find blame in a persona when what really maybe wrong is a system that thrives on war.

The following day, a Sunday, began early with an afternoon master class by Chilean filmmaker/critic/author Alberto Fuguet. He’s the director behind one of my favorite movies at MIFF 31: Locations: Looking For Rusty James. Held at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, the hour-plus talk and slide show was entitled “A Very Bright Future: The End of Movies as We Know Them.” Alberto_FuguetIt was an enthusiastic talk by Fuguet that embraced the continuing digital revolution of cinema. It’s something I have been coming to terms with for a while now (To accept the death of celluloid), and Fuguet’s talk just provided another positive argument of not just coming to terms with digital as the replacement to 35mm but celebrating it for its possibilities of making more personal cinema and allowing for a larger range of voices beyond those with a lot of money who are more concerned with profit over art. You can read my full report here.

After his talk, I caught up with Fuguet to let him know how much I appreciated his documentary/film essay dedicated to Rumble Fish, as it too stands as my all-time favorite film (My personal favorite film: ‘Rumble Fish;’ read my ode to Coppola’s underrated masterpiece in AFI). He was thrilled to meet another devotee and shared that he was next headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Francis Ford Coppola shot Rumble Fish, and he, in turn, shot Locations. He was going to receive the key to the city on March 19, a day when his film will screen alongside Rumble Fish during a double feature at Circle Cinema in Tulsa. That day will then be officially declared Rumble Fish Day in that city (read more).

The class and conversation proved an invigorating day to begin day two of MIFF. I would only catch two other films that day, La La Jaula de Oro by Mexican director Diego Quemada-Díez and Fading Gigolo. La Jaula de Oro, which translates to “The Golden Cage,” but is ironically titled “The Golden Dream” for U.S. release, seemed similar to 2009′s Sin Nombre, but felt a tad more harrowing with younger protagonists who seemed to have even less of a fighting chance to make it. Indeed,  La Jaula de Oro was quite merciless in its take on their situation. The film follows four young teens leaving Guatemala in hopes of a better life in the United States. The trip is filled with peril, and only one of them makes it to the U.S. in the end. The way the children dropped out of the action, as if they were metaphorically ground up the inevitable dangers of crossing borders illegally, made for a powerful film.

The director was present for questions and answers after the film. He said the events in the film were inspired by true stories, as he worked closely with many immigrants during his research. la_jaula_de_oroMost of the extras were actual immigrants, and he said he hardly had to direct them. He even hired non-actors for the main parts. His approach is clearly neo-realism, as he worked under Ken Loach before directing this film. It was also beautifully shot and less earthy than you might expect for such a film.

Making it to the next screening proved to be an example of just how difficult it is to attend MIFF screenings at different venues. Miami is a sprawling city and with screenings in Miami Beach, Downtown Miami, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove and Wynwood, it can feel even more difficult to make it on time to screenings in different locations. I dared to have a sit-down dinner in between these two screenings, but ended up rushing to Downtown Miami for the Turturro film and career tribute, which was screened at a sold out Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center. I found a seat during the middle of Laplante’s opening speech, high up near the rafters,  as the lights dimmed for a montage of his film career. My full report on the rest of the evening can be read here.

I enjoyed the film. It maintained its tone throughout as laughs came consistently from the audience. Woody Allen co-starred with Turturro, who played the titular character. It’s a rich film that embraces the complexities of romance for more experienced individuals (read: older) while still maintaining a sense of humor:  Allen, after all, plays pimp to Turturro’s florist-turned-gigolo.

John Turturro at MIFF career tribute. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

The next day, I had a one-on-one chat with Turturro outdoors in Miami Beach that went twice as long as it should have, as it would turn out we would have a great rapport. Details of that interview will have to wait until May, when the film sees release in the Miami area and the “Miami New Times” will publish the resulting story.

The rest of that Monday was spent writing, so I could not attend any screenings. The following Tuesday, however, would turn out to be my closing night for this year’s festival, as a previously scheduled vacation loomed for the following day. It would turn out to be a dynamic day, even though it would only include two films, a documentary and a feature.

Supermensch – The Legend of Shep Gordon may stand as the most delightful film I caught at the festival. It was a surreal viewing experience, as I sat right behind the film’s subject at the screening. Gordon, a manager to such celebrities as Alice Cooper and Michael Douglas, seemed genuinely modest about being the subject of a film by actor/comedian-turned-director Mike Myers. The admiration so many celebrities have for Gordon stands as testament as how down-to-earth this man is. It seems to be how he has maintained such trusting relationships with clients over the years. His accessibility seems quite inspirational to Myers who kept the appreciation light and brisk, even with moments of serious exploration that showed that even a lovable character like Gordon can be lonely, too. The editing, also by Myers, featured masterfully interwoven vintage footage synched to voice overs of so many great stories, it never felt as though the film lagged. Gordon received a rousing round of applause ahead of a Q&A with more compelling stories from his past that kept much of the audience in their seats.

The second film of that night was Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive. It made for a great closer for this mini-MIFF. Stunningly stylish from beginning to end, Jarmusch treats the idea of long-surviving vampires with brilliant respect. Beyond the cute jokes like the names Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) for the leads, "only lovers left alive"Jarmusch profoundly considers the effects of immortality on the minds of these creatures who still have a touch of soulful humanity in them. It’s fitting that the youngest of them, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who must have turned undead before her frontal lobe had fully developed, is the most troublesome. By the same token, it’s also apt that Adam would tend to agree with Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics, “spooky action at a distance.” The sumptuously absorbing score by Jozef van Wissem is an inspired choice for a composer. I was glad I recommended it in my last must-see listicle for “Cultist.”

I was also able to catch Heli in that last list of must-see MIFF films. It may have been the most powerful of all the MIFF films encountered at the festival. Ana Morgenstern will provide a review ahead of its theatrical release in South Florida in the next few months.

Awards for the closing night of the festival were handed out on Saturday night. The winners included many films I did not get around to seeing (I did only attend about half the festival, after all). Some of these will probably appear at other festivals while others will actually see theatrical release. I’ll leave you with the full list of winners, beginning with the audience award winners:

 # # #

Lexus Audience Award:

Best Feature: Fading Gigolo directed by John Turturro (USA).

Best Documentary: The Mountain (La montaña) directed by Tabaré Blanchard (Dominican Republic).

The other awards were announced Sunday:

Knight Competition:

Knight Grand Jury Prize: A Wolf at the Door (O lobo atrás da porta) (Brazil, directed by Fernando Coimbra).

Grand Jury Best Performance: Nora Navas of We All Want What’s Best For Her (Tots volem el millor per a ella) directed by Mar Coll (Spain).

Grand Jury Best Director: Fernando Coimbra of A Wolf at the Door (O lobo atrás da porta) (Brazil).

Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award:

Winner: Mateo written by Maria Gamboa (Colombia/France).

Knight Documentary Competition:

The jury selected two films to tie as winners in this category for the Knight Grand Jury Prize:

Finding Vivian Maier, directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof (USA).

The Overnighters, directed by Jesse Moss (USA).

Lexus Ibero-American Opera Prima Competition:

The jury selected a winner and an honorable mention in this category:

Mateo directed by Maria Gamboa (Colombia/France)

Honorable Mention: The jury would also like to give special recognition to We are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa) directed by Samuel Kishi Leopo (Mexico).

Papi Shorts Competition Presnted By Macy’s:

Papi Shorts Grand Jury Award for Best Short Film: A Big Deal (特殊交易) directed by Yoyo Yao China of China will receive $1,000. The film made it’s US premiere at the festival this year.

Honorable Mention: The jury would also like to give special recognition to Skin directed by Cédric Prévost (France). The film made its North American premiere at the festival this year.

The above award winning films joined completion winners in other categories, announced earlier in the week at the Festival including:

Miami Encuentros presented by Moviecity

WINNER: Aurora (Chile, produced by Florencia Larrea, directed by Rodrigo Sepulveda) will receive a pre-sale contract offer worth $35,000.

Miami Future Cinema Critics Award

Winner: To Kill A Man (Matar un hombre) (Chile / France, directed by Alejandro Fernández Almendras).

Reel Music Video Art Competition Presented By MTV Latin America and TR3s

Winner: “Around the Lake” (“Autour Du Lac”) directed by Noémie Marsily & Carl Roosens of Belgium. The music video was performed by Carl et les hommes-boîtes. The winner will receive an opportunity to be placed on MTV Latin America and Tr3s websites.

SIGNIS Award

The International Jury of SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication, formed by: Gustavo Andújar, president, and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki and Juan José Rodríguez, members, give their SIGNIS Award to Belle directed by Amma Asante for its multi-layered depiction of the challenges to the value of human life and dignity wherever a profit-driven system makes commodification of persons acceptable. Masterly crafted, the film lifts up a variety of issues of conscience which still confront us today.

 # # #

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

More music on the Independent Ethos, you say? Well, every month, “Purehoney Magazine,” which I also contribute to, puts together a compilation of alternative indie rock that includes free downloads and steamable tracks from artists around the world. They’ve granted us permission to share the latest comp here. This month’s compilation features The Casket Girls, Painted Palms, Nightmare Boyzzz, and The Sh-Booms, among others. Stream it below:

This month’s issue, which also has a print counterpart available and many indie stores across the Tri-County South Florida area, also features two articles by this writer. One is on the Miami International Film Festival (click here), which kicks off tonight, and musician/author Jon Glassman (read that here). More on him coming soon, as his band, Luna Rex, scheduled not one, but two CD release shows. For now, enjoy some free music!

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

2-19-14-Omar posterToday, the Palestinian/Israeli actors Adam Bakri and Leem Lubany will make a big public appearance in Miami. They are being hosted by the Coral Gables Art Cinema for the local premier of Omar, the second foreign-language film nominated for an Oscar by Hany Abu-Assad. It’s a powerful film that paints a human picture of the struggles of young Palestinians fighting occupation in the West Bank but also dealing with youthful emotions and love.

There are some intense chase scenes in the film that feature Bakri climbing walls and cutting through an array of obstacles. But also an impressive set-piece in the wall that divides Omar, the character he plays, and his love interest Nadia, played by Lubany. We spoke via phone yesterday. “I did the majority of my stunts,” Bakri said. “The only thing I didn’t do was scaling the wall. We had a circus guy for that. But then there’s another crazy jump that Omar does in the movie that the producers didn’t let me do because if I hurt myself that would have stopped the shooting, so that jump was done by another stunt double.”

You’ll know what he’s talking about when you see the  movie. Though he may look like a Parkour expert in some of the scenes, he downplays his talents. “I had a very intense working out schedule before, for like a month and a half, running, working out,” he explained. “I had a very good personal trainer, but as far as Parkour, I didn’t do that. We left that for the circus guy, to climb the wall. It’s really a huge wall. It’s almost impossible for anyone not involved in the circus or the stunt life to do it.”

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Lubany said she comes from a long line of Palestinians. “I’m Palestinian-Israeli,” she said. “I was born in Israel but my great, great, great grandfather he was there much longer, and then the Israelis came. I mean, I am Palestinian, but I was born in Israel.”

She said she will be ready for a lively discussion after the screening of Omar and hopes viewers arrive with an open mind to the Palestinian perspective. She recalls a screening in Tel Aviv where she dealt with both open-minded viewers and some who were … not so much. “When the movie was over, they asked some questions,” she said, “and I saw that some people really were open-minded and really tried to see the movie in other perspective than themselves, and others didn’t like it at all because they didn’t want to see the ugly truth, so I think that we really want them to come in, sit down and be objective and just look at some people’s life in [the city of] Nablus without even thinking whether they’re Palestinian, whatever their religion or where they live in, just look at them what they’re going through, so yeah.”

To read more of my interview with these two actors, including their reaction to the Oscar nomination, jump through the logo of the art and culture blog “Cultist” from the “Miami New Times”:

cultist banner

Hans Morgenstern

Omar premieres Friday, Feb. 21, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. A Q&A with the actors will follow the film at 7 p.m., and there will be an open bar and Middle Eastern food served at a reception after the screening.(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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