David_Cronenberg1420507221As noted in my recent review of Maps to the Stars and in an article “Miami New Times” published a few days ago (read it here), the concept of the flesh is an important element in understanding the films of David Cronenberg. “I’m an atheist,” says the 70-year-old Canadian director speaking via phone from Toronto. “I don’t believe in an afterlife and so on, so for me that is what we are.”

Some film critics have deemed him redundant, even antiquated in his thematic interests. When, in fact, his focus on the flesh exists as a foundation that makes his films more than schlocky shock cinema. Since the early ’70s he has brought an eerie humanism to horror, perfecting it in the later part of the decade from Rabid (1977) to the Brood (1979). He reached a pinnacle in the ’80s from Scanners (1981) to Dead Ringers (1988). In more recent years, he has extended his interests in the body to more grounded, psychological, if not still visceral, disturbing fare. A History of Violence (2005) stands as one of the greatest examples.

Cronenberg arrived on the independent film scene during an era of filmmaking known for challenging the boundaries of taste. The word “exploitation” and “gore” were often bandied about. But Cronenberg had a deeper connection to the post-60s era of disillusionment. There was something sad and foreboding in his horror. It’s even empathetic. The reason the exploding head of Scanners disturbs so fundamentally is how Cronenberg sets up the character with humanity, despite his possession of an otherworldly talent to enter the minds of other people.

There have been supernatural elements in many of his movies, most recently including several appearances by phantasmal apparitions that come to haunt a couple of his characters in his latest film. Still, the director confesses he does not believe in anything mystical, supernatural or even spiritual. To a man who describes himself as an atheist, the flesh is sacrosanct. “I mean the more we accept that and recognize it, I think the better off we’d be,” says Cronenberg about his concept of the flesh, “but in any case, the body is what you go to. It’s the primal fact of our existence, so it’s always been a significant thing for me whether metaphorically or literally. When you think of it, what does a director direct? What do we photograph most in movies? Well, it’s the human body. We’re photographing flesh.”

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Despite the harsh dissection of Hollywood and those who work in the industry/city in Maps to the Stars, he admits to a great empathy for those who enter the gauntlet of Hollywood, noting there is no one in that machine who gives more to it than the actor, for, he says, “Flesh is their instrument.” His new film features some incredible performances by Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska, who respectively play an aging actress and her assistant. Havana Segrand hires Agatha Weiss, who bears scars of a childhood fire, upon the recommendation of Carrie Fisher (who plays herself in the film). Fisher tells Havana she became friends with Agatha via Twitter. But Agatha’s priority goes beyond penetrating the inner circles of Hollywood. She is on a quest to reunite with the Hollywood family that disowned her. She has a younger brother Benjie (Evan Bird), an actor who, at 13, has just been released from rehab. Their mother Christina (Olivia Williams) is eager to get the kid back to work. Meanwhile, their father Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a new age guru who hosts an “hour of power” on TV and makes house calls to celebrities like Havana, who is struggling for work and being haunted by visions of her legendary mother actress Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who perished in a fire at a young age.

Agatha had been “put away” to the far away reaches of Jupiter … Florida … in a mental institution to receive treatment for her pyromania. But now that she is 18, she is free, released on her own recognizance. She is also a person transformed by fire both inside and out. Though her family has achieved a level of success, no matter their dysfunction, it is Agatha who has transcended her experiences, and her ultimate confrontation with her family, so absorbed by the superficial world of Hollywood, will indeed make for fireworks. “She’s experienced things that they had been kind of denying and covering up,” says Cronenberg, “and she’s experienced all those things and has the marks on the body to prove it.”

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Asked why he made the film, Cronenberg says he was more interested in the family drama instead of making a critique of Hollywood. “Well, it was primarily Bruce Wagner’s script, the characters, the dialogue. It wasn’t as though I’d been obsessed for years about Hollywood … In fact, I have great affection for Hollywood, the way most people do, and I would have never thought that I would make a movie about Hollywood. It wasn’t really in my portfolio until I read Bruce’s script.”

Cronenberg notes Wagner brings a lot of experience to the screenplay, having written it while he was a limo driver in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, similar to Robert Pattinson’s character in the film, who is somehow dragged into Agatha’s web. But the director has also had experience with Hollywood, though he prefers to work as an independent filmmaker. He notes there were projects that fell though for him in the big studio business and recalls varied successes in the industry, which he admits a sort of ambivalence toward. “I live in Toronto and most of my movies have been co-productions between Canada and Europe, so there’s not been much of Hollywood involved, but on the other hand, there have been many projects that had almost happened and also movies like M. Butterfly and The Fly. There were Hollywood studios that were distributing the films, like Warner Brothers or FOX and so on, so I’d had meetings with studio executives about casting, about distribution, about script, about all kinds of things, and I can certify that what Bruce portrays in the movie is accurate.”

He says what he knows of the surreal and absurd reality of the Hollywood industry was something he could channel in Maps. “Although it isn’t the totality of my life, it is certainly something that I had dipped my toe into and can confirm from my own experience, and I’m sure that it helped me make the movie resonate, to feel real because I knew the reality.”

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But it all comes back to the people and characters in the film, which Cronenberg agrees stands as a protest against a system that dehumanizes people for the entertainment of others. “There is that element,” he admits. “It’s kind of a bubble city—Hollywood. It’s not a city, technically, but the concerns are so incestuous, which is another theme of the movie, but everybody thinks the same way; everybody wants the same thing. Everybody wants to be an actor or writer or director. It would be a difficult town to live in if you weren’t obsessed with the business, you know? And though I am a filmmaker, I’m not obsessed with the business, and that’s why I still live in Toronto, my hometown. I could never live in Hollywood as a result.” He then offers a warning to those who aspire to enter the Hollywood business: “I think that obsessiveness can deform people. As I’ve often said, Hollywood’s like this incredibly dense planet with a huge gravitational pull. It pulls in people from all over the world, but then it’s very hard to break away from that, and the force of that pull can deform you and your relationships and the course of your life of which you aspire to. It’s all very insular.”

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Finally, the director does not want anyone to read too much into the delay of his film to reach the home country of Hollywood. Maps to the Stars premiered at the Cannes Film Festival early last year. Cronenberg says it was only logistics that delayed the film’s release in the U.S. “Focus World took on the distribution in the U.S.,” he notes, “and they felt, given the time we made the deal with them, and what was happening at the end of the year when so many movies get released because everybody’s thinking about Golden Globes and Oscars and stuff, they thought it would be a very crowded marketplace. I think that’s correct, and I think they thought they would have a much clearer road to potent distribution if they waited until this year.”

He does admit that the fact the film is already available on home video in other parts of the world besides the U.S. is a bit odd for one of his movies. “It’s very unusual because it’s been released in Canada,” he admits. “It’s been released everywhere in Europe already, very unusual for the U.S. to be so late, but it’s just the way it happened. It’s really Focus’ call, and I’m assuming they know what they’re doing.”

You can read much more about my conversation with Cronenberg in “Cultist,” the art and culture blog of the “Miami New Times” where he shares what he likes about Wasikowska’s acting and more on why the flesh is the pinnacle of our beings:

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Then there is also this small piece I wrote in the Miami Herald where he discusses Hollywood some more and Wagner’s script. He also talks about how Moore was one of the earlier actresses to commit to the role despite some financial hardships in getting the production off the ground. Jump through the logo below to read that:

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Hans Morgenstern

Here’s the trailer:

Maps to the Stars opens Friday, Feb. 27 in our South Florida area at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami and Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. On opening night at O Cinema’s 9:15 screening, I will introduce the film and probably stick around for a second viewing and chat for a bit afterward. The film opened in the U.S. a few days ago and will continue to open across the country. For other screening dates in other parts of the States, visit this link. Focus World provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this interview. All images in this article are courtesy of Focus World.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


According to “Variety,” the other day, Colin Farrell and Marion Cotillard are now officially attached to headline the cast in David Cronenberg‘s version of Cosmopolis, a novel by Don DeLillo.

There isn’t much information on the film on the Internet right now (and I have noticed many stalwart Cronenberg fan pages seem kind of stalled with information). The film is most definitely in its early development stages (“Variety” says shooting will not commence until March of 2011). From what I read about the book, it takes place a decade ago. If the story is up-dated for the current times, it could prove a timely subject.

Farrell will play the role of a young billionaire who watches his fortune slip away from the back of his limousine over the course of a day in NYC. Cotillard will play his young bride. The film sounds like it could be quite a claustrophobic experience, as it most takes place inside the vehicle. It also sounds demanding on Farrell’s capable acting skills. If it works out, it could be a fine Cronenberg experience.

The Canadian director is one of those rare filmmakers still working in the major studio system that offers a very distinct and incomparable vision through cinema. His work is well-known for its harsh explicit violence, paired with a taste for surreal horror manifested from psychological disturbances within the unconscious. Cronenberg has played with monsters, technology and many an inhuman mind to explore the power of the mind over the flesh. His early films were mostly regarded as B-movie, 70s and 80s horror fare, but grew more sophisticated with Dead Ringers (1988) at the end of the 80s, exploring the mind as the monster.

Since eXistenZ (1999), his films have become even more grounded in the real world. I think his amazing skill at handling horror and reality has only grown stronger since. He stages things in his movies with such power and looks so deep into the effects of things like murder and violence that he truly highlights the power of the cinema screen as mirror.

His last film, Eastern Promises (2007), offered a harrowing trip into the underground world of Russian gangsters in America. Before that Cronenberg received wide praise for his adaptation of the graphic novel A History of Violence (2005). Viggo Mortensen played both lead roles with award-worthy aplomb. As a matter of fact, Mortensen is currently readying to begin shooting A Dangerous Method with Cronenberg at the helm. According to the IMDB, that begins shooting this month and will precede Cosmopolis.  It is in pre-pro and will not see release until 2011. As fitting to the director of some of the most psychologically rooted movies in film history, it is based on the novel A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. Kiera Knightly us to play Spielrein and Michael Fassbender is to play Carl Jung, while Mortensen will be Sigmund Freud.

So, just wanted to share the news the Cronenberg is hard at work on new films, and next year should provide a fruitful one for fans of his original cinema.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

MTSVOD_401420754923Considering the story of Maps to the Stars, you may be forgiven for questioning David Cronenberg’s feelings toward Tinsel Town. It follows a family of recognizable modern-day Hollywood archetypes. Benjie (Evan Bird) is a bratty 13-year-old child actor fresh out of rehab. His “momager” (Olivia Williams) cares less about the boy’s mental state than his next big paycheck reprising the title role in Bad Babysitter 2. His father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a new age guru less involved with his family than his persona as a host of a self-help TV show, “The Hour of Power,” and making house calls to celebrities like Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) where he practices a form of Reiki mixed with platitudes from the school of Carl Jung.

Then there’s the ostracized Weiss daughter, 18-year-old Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). Fresh off a bus from Jupiter (Florida), the abandoned older sister has a face deformed by burns from a childhood case of pyromania. She wishes to “make amends” after her release from a mental institution on the other side of the States. She rekindles old trauma by slinking back into the family after taking a job as a “chore whore” for Havana and warming up to a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) who has aspirations to write, direct or act, whatever he can do to get into the biz.

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Then you have Carrie Fisher playing herself. Her appearance is more than a bit of stunt casting. In real life, Fisher has had no shame in talking about being a young actress born of Hollywood royalty (singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds) and its effects on her persona. She’s explained it with a similar tone of dark humor that Maps toys with. She achieved pop culture fame in Star Wars at only 19 years of age. Then, as an adult, she wrote about the dark side of Hollywood success in Postcards From the Edge and Wishful Drinking. There’s something meta-poetic about her being the one who recommends Agatha to Havana as an assistant, after “friending” the young women via Twitter, of all places.

Agatha enters the story as an interloper on fire, playing the acting game to an almost spiritual height that is as disturbing as it is riveting. While everyone struggles to maintain a front in order to find a way to matter, she slithers among the Hollywood inhabitants to get what she wants. And this is how Maps become something so much more than Hollywood satire. Agatha is viscerally in touch with herself. She becomes — if you can forgive the Jungian reference — a disturbing kind of anti-hero enlightened by fire and her scarred flesh. As in so many other films by Cronenberg, the flesh is essential to the drama. Agatha recites “Liberty” by the great French surrealist poet Paul Éluard a number of times in the film.

On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name

Benjie also recites the poem, revealing a link between brother and sister that could very well threaten the frayed link between their parents. Indeed, it all builds to a disturbing climax that’s one for the Cronenbergian canon. You only wished he had more money for the special effects, but those are the sacrifices of an indie filmmaker. Cronenberg still delivers a distinctive flair with his cold framing and the otherworldly delivery of some of screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s dialogue that hums with a “dead inside” malaise from the Weiss family. Except for Agatha, who strides in with bold, creepy purpose that everyone else, so lost in themselves and aspirations, can hardly notice.

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Special note should also be given to the always game Moore, who could have very well been nominated for best actress for this role had the film been released earlier, and — more importantly — if Hollywood could dare show as bold a sense of humor as Moore herself. Her character features echoes of Lindsey Lohan. She plays with a bubbly voice and offers a broad range of personal suffering, from passive-aggressiveness to a deep sadness that also makes Havana sympathetic, even when she’s sitting on a toilet struggling from a backup by Vicodin, reciting a list of chores to Agatha while trying to worm into her mysterious assistant’s personal life.

Though it’s easy to consider the film from Cronenberg’s perspective, it is Maps to the Stars screenwriter Wagner who brings a broad range of experience from Hollywood to his writing (he’s the man behind Dead Stars and Wild Palms). This was one of the first scripts he wrote as a limo driver in Hollywood on the early ’90s, not unlike the role Pattinson plays in the film. The scenes are loaded with an undercurrent of disdain for the city. Again, the characters are archetypes of the business; charm stands as superficial but underneath there’s almost a psychotic desire for success and recognition that has rotted their souls. It’s blackly funny at times but mostly cringingly disturbing.

It could have easily become a tiresome movie, but Cronenberg has such a light yet effective quality as a director, another layer, hidden beneath the superficial struggle of conflict rustles below, like the flesh gun trying to puncture through the TV screen of Videodrome. That tension arises from Agatha’s unwanted reappearance. It speaks volumes not only about celebrity-obsessed culture but the weight of maintaining false fronts for ulterior gains. Hollywood is the milieu, but greed and the sacrifice of identity and humanity for profit and popularity is the theme. Agatha is the flesh scorned by family and scarred by flames, and she’s here to bring a warped sense of balance to a warped world.

Hans Morgenstern

Maps to the Stars runs 111 minutes and is rated R (cursing, violence to the flesh and sexual situations). It opens Friday, Feb. 27, in our South Florida area at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami (where I will introduce the film at 9:15 p.m.) and Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. The film opened in the U.S. a few days ago and will continue to open across the country. For other screening dates in other parts of the States, visit this link. Focus World provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this article courtesy of Focus World.

Also, read my interview with with Cronenberg in “Cultist,” the art and culture blog of the “Miami New Times” where he shares what he likes about Wasikowska’s acting and more on why “the flesh” is the pinnacle of our beings:

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You can read even more of my interview in this blog post:

Legendary director David Cronenberg on “the flesh” and the “deforming” properties of Hollywood in Maps to the Stars

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

It-Follows-Movie-PosterSometimes you have to strip back the horror to make a horror movie work. It Follows does that to thrilling effect, keep gore to a minimum and the threat of it at a maximum. It plays on the fear of an unknown presence following its victims. There’s no dwelling on rationalizing beyond the idea that the presence is deadly, it takes on the form of a lumbering, catatonic person and it begins haunting victims after intercourse with anyone who already has it following them.

This marks the second feature film by writer/director David Robert Mitchell, who made an impression in the world of indie teen drama with The Myth of the American Sleepover in 2010. Now taking on the genre of teen horror, Mitchell understands how to write likable young characters and balance confrontational scares with the terror of a presence always on the move. It’s the latter notion that works so well and keeps the suspense buoyed throughout the film. Even when the entity is off-screen, it has a presence. As amiable as his characters are, the background has as much payoff as any action or banter in the foreground.

Mitchell establishes the mystery in a twisted, tense opening sequence featuring a young woman frantically running for her life in short silk pajamas and high heels in a suburban neighborhood, with no pursuer in sight, and a pounding, screeching industrial score enhancing the unease. Whatever is chasing her must be near but remains unseen. Her neighbors outside, doing banal things like washing a car, give her puzzled looks before she gets into a vintage sedan and peels off. Sitting on the shore of a beach, she phones her parents for a final, desperate goodbye and a plea for forgiveness of all her trivial, dumb actions. Her car’s tail lights illuminate the brush and trees behind it in a bright, blood-red glow. Its headlamps shine on her in harsh light, falling far short of lighting the void of the ocean behind her. Darkness and what lies beyond is the film’s star, after all. A smash cut, and we are hit with daylight and the victim’s lifeless wide-eyed face, a cut to a more distant picture, and we see her lifeless body has been unnaturally bent, a heel pointing at her face.

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It’s a great moment of establishing the danger that lies for the film’s protagonist, doe-eyed Jay (Maika Monroe, who looks like a younger version of Greta Gerwig). As with all horror films, the rules that the entity lives and stalks by eventually come to light, but no rationalizing of its presence undoes the terror of its almost random appearances. That it materializes with Jay’s sexual blossoming reeks of all sorts of implications of end of innocence. However, Mitchell never veers into the realm of exploitation, showing respect and genuine endearment for his characters, who all come across as sympathetic.

Mitchell also shows respect to a purist notion of horror that the film mines for its scares. It Follows is ultimately about the dread of the unseen. It’s in the nameless pronoun of the title, after all. And there are no safe places from the unknowable threat, as it remains unrelenting in its task to grab Jay and do who knows what to make her into a human pretzel. It’s the unease of that looming fate and the lack of security anywhere from anyone that feels consistent in the film and taps into our primordial concern about the unknown. It’s a smart play on elements that made the 1980s versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing so good.

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Speaking of older horror films, the production design of It Follows has a strange, vaguely familiar quality of era for those familiar with its predecessors. Though a few characters have cell phones and one of them has an e-reader in a compact, Jay and her friends watch campy black and white horror movies on old tube TVs and almost everybody drives sedans from the 1980s or 1990s. This gives the film a surreal quality out of the films of David Cronenberg. The dreamlike atmosphere of this incongruously dated era also recalls Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mitchell plays with viewer’s associations with these greats to infuse the film with a subconscious yet familiar sense of fear.

Its roots in 1970s and 1980s horror cinema is further enhanced by its synth-based soundtrack by Disasterpeace (Berkeley-educated video game music composer Rich Vreeland working on his first film score), which owes a lot to Goblin and John Carpenter. Its hybrid industrial/new age melodies are cheeseball chic. But, like the film’s narrative premise, it works best when it’s stripped to screeching or rumbling drones instead of overdosing on the schlock, which, the music sometimes does.

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Even stronger than the film’s score is its cinematography, both in what the camera shows and what it doesn’t. Beautifully shot by Mike Gioulakis, who did stellar work last year on creating atmosphere with light in a film few have seen but should called Lake Los Angeles (it made my top 20 of last year), the look recalls the films of Dario Argento. Light and shadow vary constantly, complimenting each other throughout the film. The actors all seem lit from the center and shadows often loom in the distance. Even better is the frequent use of a slow, drifting zoom in many of the movie’s shots that adds a sense of an omniscient gaze between the moviegoers and the characters on-screen. The sense of its presence is always there.

It Follows is one of those conspicuously directed films that never looses momentum and will be hard to forget. But the best thing to note about the film is that it harnesses the potency of mystery to grand effect. There are no subversive twists that upend the film’s logic. The entire concept is a well-maintained variation of the genre that finally will not insult the viewer’s intelligence but tap into their primal sense of fear.

Hans Morgenstern

It Follows runs 100 minutes and is Rated R (for horror with sexuality that all works for the film and veers from exploitation). It opens everywhere today, Friday March 26. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review, which is the only indie cinema in our area showing it. For other locations across the U.S. go here and put in your zip code.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Faust_posterMore than two years, since it took the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust finally arrives in Miami theaters. The film lost steam soon after its somewhat controversial win, beating such hyped films that as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the George Clooney-directed The Ides of March and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Thankfully, the obscure film distributor Leisure Time Films has stepped in to present the film in U.S. art houses. As the years passed, while Faust remained in limbo, Sokurov’s film remains one of the most unusual cinematic experiences adventurous film lovers can expect from 2013’s crop of movies.

The latest and supposedly final film in his tetralogy exploring the corrupting effect of power, Sokurov’s take on Goethe’s classic version of the German legend is a visually stunning work. The story has never been depicted with as surreal a touch as this film, yet it never forsakes the morality of the classic tale, making the struggle between good and evil feel visceral and innate to a disturbing degree. Despite the dark theme, Sokurov, best known for his one-take epic at the Hermitage, Russian Ark, does not forget the beauty of life, for this film offers rich instances of beguiling imagery in juxtaposition to the horror Dr. Faust must face in his quest for evidence that the soul exists.

Despite its rapid-fire dialogue, Sokurov knows better than to use words as substitute for the literature. There is no rhyme scheme in the chatter as with Goethe’s source material. Though Sokurov still places the film in the time and place of Goethe (Early 19th Century Germany), there are dramatic compromises in the story that emphasize the director’s interest in looking at the duality of man. As with any film adaptation based on literature, changes are inevitable, but what matters is how true to the theme the director maintains his film version. In Sokurov’s Faust, evil does not come from the outside in the form of the devil but from within. In the place of Mephistopheles, Sokurov introduces a scraggly old man called Moneylender (Anton Adasinsky) to seduce Faust in his quest for knowledge of the ultimate understanding.

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Heinrich Faust is played with an edge-of-madness desperation by Johannes Zeiler, a man on a zealous quest for a sense of transcendence beyond the physical world. We meet him after a close up of a rotten penis, as he disassembles a corpse. He is not as interested in rotting guts as much as the place in the body that might harbor a man’s soul. He loses sleep over this obsession. His father, who is also a doctor and is treating a patient for back pain by strapping him to a rack, shrugs off his son’s concerns, saying, “It’s all matter.” Then the Moneylender wanders into his life, showing invincibility to hemlock. Intrigued, Faust tags along with him, and a great dialogue unfolds across bizarre adventure of murder, lust and greed.

Sokurov is interested in creating a cinematographic compliment to the literature of Goethe. The art of cinema meanwhile lies in the visuals, and what a lush, florid film Sokurov has created. The tight, 4:3 aspect ratio, with rounded corners enhance the film’s claustrophobic quality.

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The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel proves essential to the film’s mesmerizing quality. This is a talent who brought a certain flavor to films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie and A Very Long Engagement) and Tim Burton (Dark Shadows). Most recently he worked with the Coen Brothers on what’s sure to be one of the great films of 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis (my review is coming next week). The lighting is sometimes so expressive, some frames look like a Brueghel painting. Beautiful newcomer Isolda Dychauk plays Faust’s love interest Margarete. She is so ideally shot, she sometimes looks like a wax figure.

The camera work feels as important to the film as the dialogue. It enhances the film’s surreal atmosphere with a soft, shallow focus and a seemingly random use of shifting aspect ratios within scenes. There are moments when the characters are warped diagonally, pulled from one corner to another, as they are squeezed into the academy aspect ratio of the frame. It’s a hyper-realized version of the Dutch angle that not only shows something wicked may be afoot, but also spiritually wrong from within these people.

The film may challenge some. The subtitles slip by sometimes as fast as the banter. The stunning imagery, including costumes and set pieces, are so luscious they may pull your attention from the dialogue. In the end, as Faust travels down a spiral toward a discomforting realization of evil that may be in contrast to what you think you see on-screen, you may feel as if you stepped out of a two-hour version of Mad Hatter’s Tea Cup ride at Disney World. But it’s so worth it.

Hans Morgenstern

Faust runs 134 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is unrated (note: it’s gory, sensual and dark). It opens in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood and Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale this Friday, Dec. 13. The following Friday, Dec. 17, it opens at the MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater in Miami. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. Faust only recently began its U.S. run and will continue to open in other theaters into 2014, for screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

poster artLet’s face it, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone inhabiting the world of the one-percenter. It’s no surprise then that legendary filmmaker Costa-Gavras gleefully jumps in and paints a rather cartoonish portrait of high-level managers jockeying for position at a fictitious bank called Phenix. Blending both a morbid sense of humor with a rather bleak outlook, Costa-Gavras has adapted Stéphane Osmont’s Le Capital to plumb the icy depths of greed and how it corrupts all levels of humanity.

Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh tearing into the role with steely restraint) is an ambitious cad who, from the start, is ready to sink his teeth into his impending role as interim CEO at Phenix after the current CEO keels over on a golf course, grabbing his crotch. Marc dives into his new position with reptilian cool as if he has played out this role a million times over in his head. But all the preparation in the world cannot seem to ready him for the degree personal compromise ahead, as infinite temptations seem to arise before him. Meanwhile, there are always predators from inside and out who want to take what he has.

It’s hard to feel anything for these people. They battle to double their million-dollar-plus salaries while looking at numbers that foretell lay-offs (their preferred term is “staff adjustments”) in the thousands. The mostly male characters float about various metaphors for money molded to fit their place in life. IMG_1528-kebede-elmaleh-1024x682Ultimately, a phrase like “money is a dog” becomes “money is the master.” There’s drama with a supermodel (real-life model Liya Kebede) who Marc treats as a high-priced call girl. That relationship ends with a sickening, brutal scene that does little to redeem Marc.

Not that Costa-Gavras has any agenda to humanize these people. The film is tautly-paced and painted with a shimmering, almost surreal color-palette. Though it relies on a lot of talking action, the film feels action-packed, nevertheless. It’s not so much about character, as it is about their actions. These are less people than money-hungry vessels. Even Marc, the film’s main protagonist, feels less than human despite a few fantasy sequences that expose his vulnerable side. But these are brief, internal moments that have little influence on the plot. In “reality” he’s a calculating creature that ultimately feels hard to relate with. This gives the film a satirical sensibility that may let down those looking for something more profound.

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Last year, David Cronenberg unleashed Cosmopolis, also adapted from a book, a film that examined the corrupting power of seeming limitless wealth with even cooler iciness as it teetered toward the edge of humanity (Read my review: ‘Cosmopolis’ offers indictment of capitalism through an accomplice’s eyes – a film review). Cronenberg’s take on Don Delillo’s 2003 book stands as the stronger movie examination of such characters. The oft-unfairly maligned Robert Pattinson did a stirring job as a similarly cold and distant character accumulating wealth via algorithms who looks back toward a more innocent self to find his humanity and then engage in a brilliant tête-à-tête with one of those he stepped upon on his rise to power (a marvelous Paul Giamatti).

It’s not easy to make these kinds of characters compelling. Costa-Gavras does not pretend to try to humanize them. This is about the corporation as man-eating entity. The management are its tools. The problem is, as one hedge fund manager (Gabriel Byrne) notes, they think money is a tool, but it is actually the master. It’s all about maneuvering for capital, which equals power and then watching the company cope and settle to enjoy its greediness. Humanity is only collateral, and Costa-Gavras knows how to show that.

Hans Morgenstern

Capital is Rated R (for language, sex, violence … and greed), is in English and French with English Subtitles and runs 119 minutes. It is distributed by Cohen Media who provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens Friday, Nov. 1 in my area of South Florida at the following theaters:

Koubek — Miami, FL
Bill Cosford Cinema — Coral Gables, FL
Frank Sunrise — Fort Lauderdale, FL
Living Room Theaters – Boca Raton, FL
Regal Delray Beach 18 — Delray Beach, FL
Regal Shadowood 16 — Boca Raton, FL

It opened in New York City on Oct. 25 and may also be playing at a theater near you, if you live outside of South Florida.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

After Lucia poster EnglishA bold and important film debuted in Miami during the Miami International Film Festival in March that only recently found a distributor. The Miami Beach Cinematheque will host an encore, one-night only screening of the Mexican film After Lucia as the film continues to build word-of-mouth buzz ahead of what will hopefully be a wider release in art houses across the U.S. It’s a timely film, as After Lucia, a raw story about bullying gone awry, dwells on the self-perpetuation of violence within a prescient social landscape involving high-tech gadgets.

Every once in a while, as the news cycle turns, the media jumps on what feels like the same story of pretty young teenage girls crucified in social media for simply being victims:  Audrie Pott, Phoebe Prince, the recent Steubenville High School gang rape of a classmate that put some young, hopeful football players in jail. In the case of Pott and Prince it ended in suicide. And these are the stories that make it into the national media on slow news days. It’s become the sort of selective case of coverage for an epidemic. Like cases of missing children, it always seems to be happening but rarely becomes the focused, general interest of national news coverage.

In the Pott and Steubenville cases, the girls were raped and photos of their naked, incapacitated bodies were shared by other students on social media who judged with cold, primal distance, which only seems to enforce the Hobbesian view that man is inherently evil. cake045178What better stage of human growth to reinforce that theory but during that almost lycanthropic transformation from childhood innocence to jaded adulthood we call the teen years. Enhancing the matter further is the filter of cyber-space that encourages disconnection further with a sense of disembodiment that denies true, human, empathetic relations.

Those real-life cases mentioned earlier happen to be the ones the media had been obsessing over when After Lucia premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival to a pair of sell-out screenings. What’s amazing is how unsensational After Lucia handles the topic but also goes beyond by looking at the filter of real life via technology like cell phones and social media, though they only appear as tiny props in the distance, focusing instead on human behavior as a result of interaction with these tools.

The film takes off cryptically, with a man picking up a car from a repair shop and then abandoning it in the middle of the street, the keys still inside. Director Michel Franco takes his time to reveal that this is the mournful Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) who lost his wife in a car accident, leaving him and his daughter Alejandra (Tessa Ia) to pick up their roots from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City. p_271415The title calls attention to the fact that the father and daughter at the center of the film are a family missing an important component: a mother. Already the odds seem stacked against them, as the despondent father can hardly keep it together while his daughter chooses to hold her school troubles to herself and not burden the father further.

Franco composes the film with small vignettes. It gives the movie a day-in-the-life quality more real than reality TV shows. And all these scenes demand attention for an insightful pay-off that comes toward the end, referencing the loss of Lucia that also ties in with the “share” culture of the Internet. Franco does not employ any extra-diegetic music, hardly cuts between characters in a scene (if at all) and most everything takes place in distant, medium shots.  Franco saves devices like close-ups for choice moments of emphasis like the instance Alejandra receives her first text message after she is emailed a video clip of her having sex with one of the boys at school that reads, “Hola, puta.” And it’s downhill from there in a drama that will test the limits of unflinching cruelty beset on Ale by the relentless young mob, filled with human, intriguingly complex characters.

Franco, who also wrote the screenplay, presents a stark perspective by allowing the story to unfold across brief, efficient scenes with a static camera often set in a corner watching. After-Lucia-3-e1365862455169The voyeuristic quality of these scenes implicates the audience, as the bullying and harassment only grows crueller and crueller. This is your world. Furthering that, what are you going to do about it? It’s about passivity that is reflected in various characters in the film. The despondent Roberto remains ignorant to the bullying of his daughter for much of the film. Ale hardly seems to stand up for herself. To a more unnerving degree, neither does anyone else. Others often join in with the remorseless gang of kids that closes in on this helpless young woman, following a sort of cold, reptilian call to eat the weakened. The cold, distant cinematic aesthetic only serves to enhance the horrific scenes that build toward a finale that may seem cathartic to some and hopeless to others.

Franco’s efficient filmmaking style forces the audience to use its own subjective judgments as to what exactly is wrong or right about what these characters are doing. As Shakespeare once wrote, “After-Lucia-Tessa-IaThere is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” A violent society is a violent society, whether it’s Mexico or the U.S. The lack of value for life stands out in After Lucia, especially in a shocking ending most will find difficult to fathom while still receiving a visceral thrill. That a film can play with such mixed emotions is testament to the director’s patient craftsmanship.

Franco plays with cinema in a deliberate fashion that recalls David Cronenberg’s work with A History of Violence and many of the films of Michael Haneke. He knows how to let a scene linger in order to allow the aftermath to settle under the skin of the audience. It ends on a stark, drawn out, minimalist note that places the responsibility on the audience to wake up and notice that violence begets violence. It’s a brilliant movie by a director who understands how to harness cinema’s subjective power to a level that invites self-reflection. The stark motionless, observational camera sitting in the corner of many scenes is meant to be us. How we react to the scenes is up to us.

Hans Morgenstern

After Lucia runs 103 min., is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (mature teens would do well to attend, though). It plays in South Florida for one night only: Thursday, Oct. 10, at 9:30 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, as part of the theater’s “Cinephile’s Choice” series. It premiered in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which I was invited to a preview screening by the film’s French distributor, BAC Films. For updates on the film’s appearance in the U.S., follow its distributor, Pantelion Films, here.

Update: The movie went direct-to-video in the U.S. It’s streaming on Netflix now.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)