Risk-taking was the name of the game at the 32nd annual Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. Festival goers had to take many risks in choosing their tickets, as the programming staff took many risks on young, little known filmmakers. As with any such risk-taking, the results were mixed, and that made for surprise standouts but also some disappointments.
This writer saw 22 feature films and three shorts in all at the festival (not counting the four excellent Orson Welles films I am familiar with that screened as part of a retrospective that remains ongoing; details here). That I only liked nine out of all those films at the festival (and this number includes two shorts) made this one of the less impressive festivals I’ve attended in a long time. It was a shame considering last year I mostly had to decide what film I liked less than others to find any weaknesses.
Almost half of the films I saw at the fest were as a juror for the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award category, which bestows a first-time feature screenwriter with a $5,000 grant. My fellow jurors included Gary Ressler, whose brother the award pays tribute to. Ressler brought his experience with story development at Disney Studios, working on films from Mulan (1998) to The Incredibles (2004). Mitchell Kaplan, knows what makes a good story, as he is the founder of the Miami chain of the independent book stores, Books & Books, also joined us at screenings and in the deliberation room. It was a pleasure judging with them and an honor to have been included on the jury.
Before a few remarks on some of the contenders, which does not reflect the opinions of my fellow jurors, I might as well note the winner of our award, which also stands as a highlight of the film festival: Theeb. Writer/director Naji Abu Nowar and co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour took the prize, which was accepted that night by a very gracious Laith Majali, a producer on the film. The director was unable to attend the award ceremony because he was attending a screening of the film at a village called Shakryieh in the Jordanian protected area of Wadi Rum for some of the Bedouin actors who participated in the filmmaking. For some it would be a first-time film-viewing experience.
As for the quality of the film, it resonated on many levels. The script stood out because it not only told a sensitively intimate story from the perspective of a 10-year-old Bedouin boy, but it insightfully spoke to the tapestry of tribal life and brotherhood in 1916 Arabia as World War I loomed. Beyond that, the film has a timely quality due to the chaos that seems to constantly brew in the post-colonial world of the Middle East, which has caused generations of suffering and injustice. All of this comes across with a patient, delicate hand. Though the film was slowly paced, even drawn out sequences build toward some pay-off, be it an insight on the setting or the character or a shocking twist in the action. As my fellow juror Gary Ressler said, it says so much in so few words. Majali says he hopes the film gets U.S. distribution and sounds positive that a deal is in the works with a notable indie that specializes in world cinema. When the deal is secure, you can expect a more in-depth review for a film that is sure to continue to make waves in the world cinema stage this year.
There were several awards given that night including two major ones for a film I didn’t like. Here is the full list of winners:
Knight Competition Grand Jury Prize: The Obscure Spring (Mexico)
Knight Competition Grand Jury Award Best Performance: Cecilia Suarez, Jose Maria Yazpik and the entire cast of The Obscure Spring
Knight Competition Grand Jury Award Best Director: Abner Benaim – Invasion (Panama/Argentina)
Knight Documentary Achievement Award: Tea Time (Chile/USA), directed by
Lexus Audience Award for Favorite Feature Film: Kamikazee (Spain)
Lexus Audience Favorite Short Film: Young Lions of Gypsy (Italy/France)
Lexus Ibero-American Opera Prima Competition: In The Grayscale (Chile)
Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award: Theeb (Jordan/Qatar/UAE/UK)
Park Grove Shorts Competition: Young Lions of Gypsy (Italy/France)
Honorable Mentions: A Tree in the Sea (United Arab Emirates) & Alba Baptista for her performance in Miami (Portugal).
Miami Encuentros: The Apostate (Spain/France/Uruguay)
Grand Prize winner: The First Day
Audience Award winner: The First Day
Best Documentary: Romana
Best Drama: The First Day
Best Actor: Juan Jimenez – The First Day
Best Actress: Valentina Jimenez – The First Day
Best Director: Rita Pereyra – The First Day
Best Technical Achievement: Timothy Wilcox – Top Shelf
Reflecting on the films in the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award, there were a few strong contenders in the group, including A Girl at My Door, a film from Korea by first-time feature director July Jung. The film stands as a smart, progressive example of story-telling in dealing with sexual orientation while both offering social commentary while staying true to strong storytelling. Almost as strong was Tour de Force (Hin und weg), a film from Germany by Christian Zübert. The film pulled more tears from an audience than I ever heard. It dealt with a group of friends taking a cross-country bike trip to Belgium. It all seems like a fun time until the organizer of the trip reveals the reason for the trip: he was recently diagnosed with ALS … and assisted suicide is legal in Belgium. In the end, there’s a big reckoning for all involved, as the specter of death invites everyone to reevaluate their lives. It was just too bad that the delivery of this message arrived in a self-conscious sort of classical storytelling tinged with sentimentality.
Another decent film in the mix was Love at First Fight (Les combattants). A quirky humor dominated most of this French movie, as Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) gradually fell for tough-girl survivalist Madeleine (Adèle Haenel). When he follows her to basic training, and she caves under pressure, she starts to fall for him. The two characters then tumble into predictable roles, deflating the original dynamic flirtation between these characters that made the film engaging at the start. This sudden shift in Madeleine’s personality also felt disingenuous to her once interesting character.
Many of the other films in this category suffered by unfortunate turns in plotting that unbelievably betrayed characterization, sacrificing any honesty to the story and disrupting the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. That was the problem with Cut Snake, which could not get character dynamics to click with plot. There’s a twist in the drama toward the end of the film that betrays what could have been an interesting love triangle. Meanwhile, the weirdly disjointed horror/family drama Shrew’s Nest was inconsistent about character development throughout. It reached for mystery but stumbled into incredible convoluted revelations. Then there was 3 Beauties. What should have been an insightful satire into the obsession of beauty pageants in Venezuela, tumbled into poorly managed black comedy that grew tiresome fast, as the filmmakers hammered on the same joke over and over again.
Even outside of required viewing, feature film highlights were few in comparison to the disappoints. We also saw Ben’s At Home, a comedy about a young guy who decides to become a shut-in after his girlfriend breaks up with him … until a beautiful delivery girl shows up. It was cute but grew tiresome fast. Everybody Leaves (Todos se van), based on the popular autobiographical book by Cuban writer Wendy Guerra, had some promise. The film’s narrator was a little girl who looked like Mafalda and is at the center of a custody battle in pre-Mariel era Cuba. Colombian director Sergio Cabrera did a great job capturing the atmosphere of the beach life and the complicated dynamics of a family unraveling in communist Cuba. However, the performances were sometimes uneven, and there was something a little too disturbing about the abuse the little girl suffered at the hands of her alcoholic father.
My partner on this blog, Ana Morgenstern, was on her own for Sunstrokes (Las Insoladas), the second film by Argentinian director Gustavo Taretto, which proved to be another disappointment. Here’s what she had to say about it:
“Sunstrokes offers a funny look a 1990s Buenos Aires via six girlfriends who sunbathe on the roof of a building. Each of the characters has a quirk, a personality so distinct it almost errs on the side of stereotypical. Flor (Carla Peterson) is the leading lady of the pack. She instigates some of the action and is the stronger character of the group. Kari is a psychology student, she is interested in esoteric themes, like psychoanalysis through colors. Sol (Maricel Álvarez) is relaxed, and early on reveals that she likes to make copies of other people’s photos when they are good. Vicky (Violeta Urtizberea) is a hairdresser whose portrayal almost verges on offensive. As the “naive” one of the bunch, she’s the butt of every joke. At one point in the film, she realizes that Ernesto “Che” Guevara is often referred to as “Che” because of his use of Buenos Aires’ slang. Then there’s Vale (Marina Bellati). Afraid of being alone, she goes everywhere with her dog and does not let the other girls speak ill around him. Finally, the newest of the group, Lala (Luisana Lopilato) is the youngest and is also very gullible. She believes in UFOs and does a great manicure.
Throughout the film the sextet of gal-pals talk about life and decide to work together towards a common goal: to travel to Cuba next summer — all while being featured in tiny bikinis. Each of the side conversations is mundane and motivated to expose the world of women as a vacuous and idle world, void of depth and pathos but filled with easy laughs and lots of skin. The film also draws inspiration from its era, so cassette tapes and tape recorders along with giant cellphones are featured prominently, also for superficial comic effect. In all, the film is a one-dimensional cartoon that almost verges in the misogynistic.”
Ana did like Wild Tales, though, another film from Argentina. It opened the festival to uproarious laughter that filled the Olympia theater for much of the night. That film will be opening at several theaters in Miami this Friday, including the art houses O Cinema and the Coral Gables Art Cinema. A review is coming soon. Another film that premiered at the festival and coming to local screens very soon is Felix and Meira. It impressed the both of us and tells the story of the emotional wandering of a Hasidic Jewish wife for a secular man who can’t help but flirt with her. Canadian directors François Delisle and Maxime Giroux keep their approach low-key to the benefit of what could have been an overly quirky situation comedy. With the help of strong actors including a former Hasidic Jew who left that life to become an actor (Luzer Twersky) who plays the cuckold husband, the film stood as a highlight of MIFF 32.
The most consistent category for exciting, entertaining and thoughtful work came out the documentary portion of the festival. There were some big hype titles like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Wim Wenders’ return to the MIFF with Salt of the Earth, a film he co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado on the photography of his father, Sebastião Salgado. But the most thrilling documentary I saw was The Record Man, a film that looked at the life of Henry K. Stone, founder of Hialeah’s TK Records, which is best known for having produced some of the most popular Disco hits of the ’70s. Now, I never liked disco that much. However, the film swept me off my feet, and I was absolutely delighted by the storytelling behind songs like “Ring My Bell,” “Rock Me Baby” and “Get Down Tonight.” That Stone saw past race and color to support songs he felt had quality spoke to his purist approach to his business, and the film paints an affectionate portrait of the so-called “record man” that will win anyone over to the genre because it so genuinely celebrates music and the passion of those behind it.
Another smaller documentary that celebrated a different kind of artist was Architecture of Color, which focused on Rio de Janeiro artist Beatriz Milhazes. Like Record Man, it featured talking heads and a straight-forward approach. However, like Record Man, the film never loses its focus on emphasizing the art. As Record Man is at its best when it highlights the songs, Architecture of Color is at its most interesting when we are watching Milhazes create. Architecture of Color screened with another notable documentary, the 11-minute short “Papa Machete,” which was made by local filmmakers director Jonathan David Kane and producer/writer Jason Fitzroy Jeffers. It’s a film I have happily covered extensively for “Miami New Times” only because it is so good (read the articles here).
I saw only one other locally-made documentary of note, The Holders. It certainly highlighted an important issue: the throw-away treatment of many pets in the Miami-Dade County area. Director Carla Forte provides an array of voices, from those working in public animal shelters to veterinarians to passionate, sometimes zealous animal rights activists. Most interesting, however, are the titular “holders,” who are ambivalent pet-owners prepared to give up their pets to certain euthanasia at animal shelters because the pet has become an inconvenience. The camera almost never identifies them but shoots them vérité style, from the shoulders down, at the shelter, as they nonchalantly give excuses as to why they can no longer “hold” them (too sick, the family’s moving, the dog pisses the carpet, etc.). It’s compelling stuff, which is unfortunately what made the film’s righteous tone, including an overly-sentimental voice-over featuring poetry that spoke of the intelligence and soul of animals, feel so heavy-handed. Still, those who think owning a pet might be “fun” should watch this documentary because, indeed, they are taking in another family member and all the responsibility that comes with such a decision.
There were other films we covered already on Independent Ethos. Check those out, including interviews and reviews, by following the Miami International Film Festival tag. It was a memorable festival, and I really feel humbled by executive director Jaie Laplante’s faith in my opinion to be granted an influence on blessing one of this year’s films with an award. Meeting fellow film lovers, filmmakers and film critics from out-of-town was also a great highlight. Tis an important part of the festival experience, and that stands as a great highlight of this year’s festival too. We attended several parties and had many intelligent conversations and some fun times. I only hope for more movies to love next year.
Miami Film Festival Day 2: Voice Over reveals gargantuan obstacles of familial communication with humor and subtlety
March 10, 2015
It’s not easy to communicate when you’re family, and Chilean director Cristián Jiménez finds a compelling way to illustrate that in Voice Over (La Voz en Off). Though only his second feature, the director reveals a more natural, earthy style compared to his still quite marvelous feature debut Bonsái. With his 2011 film, adapted from the novel by Alejandro Zambra, the narrative jumped back and forth through time in a sometimes disorienting manner that paid off by film’s end. Though a bit of a departure for the filmmaker, he has produced no less compelling a film with Voice Over, which follows various narrative streams as it examines the dynamics of an extended family.
Anchoring the story are two adult sisters, Sofia (Ingrid Isensee) and Ana (María José Siebald), deeply entrenched in a passive-aggressive rivalry. Ana is married with an infant child, Sofia divorced with two children, Roman and Alicia, ages approximately 8 and 10. Sofia works from home as a voice over actress and needs her kids to not only turn on her equipment but also read text messages from their father because she has taken a “disconnection vow.” Ana has moved back home from France, as her new French husband needs financial assistance while he works on translating a book. Meanwhile, the sisters’ mother (Paulina García) and father (Cristián Campos) have entered a tumultuous period in their 35-year-old relationship. He wants to take a break from the marriage and uses the same explanation Sofia used to explain the dissolution of her marriage: “It’s like food that has been left out of the refrigerator to rot.” Sofia takes umbrage, ordering him not to tell that to anyone because they will all think she gave him the idea to separate.
Voice Over is filled with humor that feeds off that special emotional baggage that only comes with years of family life. It never feels like these relatives are at the others’ throats. A profound — though often turbulent — love still permeates their behavior. The film walks a nice tightrope of affection and rivalry among these loved ones. Appropriately, it’s more primal between Sophia’s children. The two play “teacher,” which the mother encourages. In this game, Alicia helps her little brother learn to read. However, when the adults are not looking, she relishes the opportunity to “punish” her little brother when he mispronounces words with smack to the head that smashes his face into the book. This dichotomy manifests itself in more subtle ways between family members in often hilarious, familiar ways.
The performances have a warm, natural quality, reflected by the film’s distant, omniscient handheld camera work by Inti Briones. Jiménez, who co-wrote the scrip with Daniel Castro, is more interested in the family unit and its dynamics rather than focusing on personal, emotional issues. It’s the chemistry of the players that keep the film funny and interesting from start to finish. The movie’s title also works better in its native language, as the film shows great interest in how the family communicates through behavior, from the physicality of the children to the passive aggressive rivalry between the sisters. Sofia and Ana also gossip about rumors of what their father may have done to upset the status of the family, reflecting on what appears to be incriminating early retirement and rumors of sexual harassment or that he might be gay. The drama is all about ghosts and baggage, and as we learn by the film’s end, nothing is ever as complex and banal as the truth.
* * *
Though I have seen four films since my previous post (Day 1 of film going at Miami International Film Fest: a test of the preposterous), Voice Over is the only film I can write about, for now. It was a lovely movie and should see a return to theaters in the States some time later this year, as it will be distributed by Outsider Pictures. In the past two days, I have attended three screenings as a juror for the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriter Award. I cannot comment on those films. However, it’s interesting to note that Voice Over‘s director won the prize at the 2012 Miami International Film Festival for Bonsái. So far, the films the jury has seen includes Cut Snake, from Australia; Love at First Fight (Les combattants), a Florida premiere from France; and 3 Beauties, a North American premiere from Venezuela. Monday afternoon, I also sat down with the director of Posthumous, Lulu Wang, a graduate of Miami’s New World School of the Arts, for an article that will appear shortly in the Miami New Times. That film is having its North American premiere at the festival on March 13. I’ll leave you with the trailer:
The Miami International Film Festival provided a preview screener for Voice Over for the purpose of this review.
Among our favorite film genres is the mockumentary, and one of the best is This is Spinal Tap. There is something so pure and funny about an actor earnestly adopting a seemingly real character to deconstruct their persona and re-imagine its possibilities. In What We Do in the Shadows, a camera crew presenting themselves as objective observers follow four vampires ranging in age from 183 to 8,000 years old in a style very similar to the portrayal of a rock band in This is Spinal Tap (Not long into the film we learn the crew is safe from vampiric impulses because they are wearing crucifixes). The foursome share a house in suburban New Zealand and have to cope with all the mundane problems of flatting together, such as sharing chores and dealing with different personalities. The squabbles between the vampires are reminiscent of the early days of “the Real World,” with humor drawn from vampire movie classics, from Nosferatu to Twilight. For instance, when a house meeting is called by one of the roommates, the topic of conversation is dish washing. “You have not done the dishes in five years,” complains one about the other. This acute awareness of the minutiae in daily life juxtaposed with the idea of eternal existence is one of the brilliant recurring themes of the film.
The script comes from two of the lead actors in the film, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, of “Flight of the Conchords” fame, who also co-directed. With What We Do in the Shadows, they take on a familiar narrative and question its assumptions to make a smartly winking film to hilarious effect. The camera introduces us first to Viago (Waititi). His character is 379 years old and dresses in frilly shirts and waistcoats like Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview with a Vampire. The 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement) derisively refers to him as a 17th century dandy. Viago is a neat freak and a romantic. His heartbreaking story-line involves following a love interest to New Zealand by cargo, many decades ago, but getting lost during shipment.
Vladislav, also known as “Vlad the Poker,” is labeled the “pervert” of the group. His characterization channels an oversexualized vampire that will remind many of Gary Oldman’s version of Dracula from the Vlad the Impaler myth in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon is the youngest of the group. At 183, he is the cool kid or “the bad boy,” as the others refer to him. Then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), aged 8,000. Petyr is the “classic” vampire with a look and feel that stems from that first vampire movie: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. He sleeps in a stone crypt in the basement riddled with human remains. He is exempt from household chores and meetings. You’ll also meet a newbie to the group, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who, while trying to pick up women at a bar, can’t keep from boasting, “You know the guy from Twilight? That’s me.”
The mash-up of vampire influences in each character is not only a tribute to the vampire movies across the decades but also allows for each personality to standout. It’s similar to recognizing a favorite member of a boy band, wherein the characters fulfill their stereotypes and play with familiar tropes that we have become accustomed to from popular movies and reality shows.
Though What We Do in the Shadows sometimes takes a turn into black humor (there is going to be death in a vampire movie), much of the gags deliver great laughs, like the ongoing rivalry between the group of vampires and a pack of werewolves. For those vampire genre connoisseurs that may not easily be amused, the film also includes montages of storytelling that use vintage images of the character’s story lines. Since there were no video cameras when these characters were turned into the undead, besides old photos, we also get paintings and archaic woodcarvings to illustrate their early years, which achieve a different level of humor. There’s one great running gag of Vlad’s arch nemesis “The Beast,” seen in a primitive woodcut as a rotund creature with the head of a bird, small arms and possibly a penis protruding from its chest. When Vlad finally has an opportunity to confront “the beast,” the reveal of the monster will surely get hearty laughter in a most unexpected way.
The characters take on modern life, with all the vicissitudes it poses to the undead. Another of the great jokes among the roommates is posing for each other before they go out at night. As one of the symptoms of being a vampire means they are prevented from using mirrors, the vampires look to each other for fashion advice. There is also a couple of humans in the mix, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) plays a subservient role to Deacon, a modern type of Renfield who craves the promise of eternal life. Jackie helps lure other humans for the gang to feast on, and that’s how they meet Stu (Stuart Rutherford). In another running gag, the vampires are so taken by Stu, a computer analyst who teaches them about Googling and Facebook, they make a pact to spare his life.
What We Do in the Shadows was awarded the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, and the Audience Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival; an indication of the crowd-pleasing qualities of this film. This is one of those movies that can easily become a repeater, as soon as we finished watching it we were ready for an encore. What We Do in the Shadows is one of those independent films that will have crossover appeal from art-house theater-goers to avid TV watchers. For us, this was a gem, and we were happy to have been invited to preview it.
What We Do in the shadows runs 86 minutes and is not rated (expect violence, language, sexuality, gore and some scares but most of it for humor’s sake). It opens in many U.S. theaters on March 6. In South Florida, it’s playing at the Regal South Beach in Miami Beach and the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale. For listings around the world click here. The film’s PR company provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. Clement, by the way, self-funded the movie’s U.S. distribution via Kickstarter.
Update: O Cinema Wynwood in Miami will now host the film. Sreening details here.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem shows how to make a powerful, resonant drama using one setting — a film review
February 26, 2015
In their new film, the Israeli sibling writer/directors Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, pull a sort of magic trick in cinema. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem closes out a trilogy of films following the same characters over a period of 10 years. But this film stands on its own for all the drama and tension created in one room. Earning a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, the sibling team of directors from Israel also wrote the script together and Ronit, a notable actress from Israel, plays the lead, as she did in the previous two films of this trilogy, To Take a Wife (2004) and 7 Days (2008). In Gett, she once again plays the role of Viviane Amsalem, who in the previous films endured the tension of a loveless marriage, and now finally takes concrete steps toward divorce. However, in the religious state of Israel, a divorce — or a “gett” in Hebrew — must be agreed upon by the husband, as tradition holds that a wife is the property of the husband, and her devout husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) has refused to grant her the divorce. With this imbalance of power, a gett stands more as a ceremonial affair rather than a real trial. It is even adjudicated by a court of three rabbis. The directors focus on this imbalance of power and make it the crux of the film’s drama to powerful effect.
The movie runs 115 minutes and the drama unfolds almost exclusively in the rabbinical courtroom. The only other setting is the anteroom where some small but important exchanges also happen between characters. But the directors do not waste a second in this movie. There is all kinds of tension between all of the movie’s characters, be it the husband and wife, Viviane and her lawyer (Menashe Noy) — who is implied early on to have an affectionate relationship with his client — and everyone between the varied trio of rabbis who try to sit in judgment but come to empathize with Viviane as the trial drags on (I won’t spoil its length).
Viviane has no complaint about her husband except that she does not love him. This is not a woman complaining that her husband beats her or cheats on her, which heightens the stakes in an interesting way, making Elisha’s denial for divorce all the more disturbing. This becomes a battle of wills for something bigger than personal differences, which is hard to deny between these two who yell at one other almost every time they have an exchange in the film. You get a picture of a marriage long frayed, although Elisha is not presented as a mere plot device; he is a man with a conflicting and powerful array of feelings. There’s anger, but there’s a devoted sense to tradition favoring patriarchy. In that sense, the film calls attention to the problem of tradition as adapted for civil matters, especially the absence of a woman’s voice in tradition, making the film a powerful feminist commentary on a patriarchal system.
On another level, Gett presents a tightly knotted drama where the viewer is also forced to consider perceptions and the impossibility of presenting a person to another person that is fair to that person being held up for scrutiny. This is much more than he-said/she-said argument that drives the film’s tension. The writing by the two directors shows a brilliant capacity to create drama by withholding information. Too often, Hollywood screenwriters concern themselves with characters explaining how they feel, what they will do, that it saps the drama of mystery, but Gett shows how valuable mystery is to drama, as the directors never bog down the pace of their movie to explain the differences among the characters. Instead, they allow them to gradually reveal their issues through action.
There are also a great, varied array of witnesses who offer their own perspectives, some of whom gradually reveal flaws about themselves as they try to judge the couple. All of them, down to the court aide (Gabi Amrani) are efficiently drawn characters, carrying heavy burdens of perspective. It also comes across in the creative framing and the varied angles the directors find when presenting these various characters, reflective of new points of view. Gett is a very deliberately crafted film that never feels overcooked. By turns hilarious and disturbing, Gett stands as one of the most remarkable films I saw last year. To create suspense in such a simple, enthralling way while making such a strong statement for women’s rights will surely blow many viewers’ minds.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem runs 115 minutes, is in Hebrew and French with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing really offensive in its material, except some raised voices, maybe). It opens Friday, Feb. 27 in the South Florida area at O Cinema Miami Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which has also invited noted film scholar and author Annette Insdorf to introduce the film during its 6:30 p.m. screening, on Saturday, Feb. 28. It opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13 and is scheduled to open in many more through April. To find theater listings, click “theaters” after jumping through this link. Music Box films provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review, and I introduced this film at one of its screenings during the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
You can also read an interview I conducted with Shlomi Elkabetz, which was just posted by the Miami New Times art and culture blog Cultist by jumping through the blog’s logo below. He talks about pulling back the curtain of these secret ceremonial divorce trials and the surprising response the film has received in his country and around the world:
February 25, 2015
Considering 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. Slithering 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 she also rekindles old traumas.
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 affects on her persona. She’s done it with a similar tone of dark humor that Maps after 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 at 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. She’s 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 with his cold framing and the otherworldly delivery of some of 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.
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 deep sadness that also make 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 Bruce 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. 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 rotten 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.
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:
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
Duke of Burgundy plunges deep into the frailty of love and S&M as lush, evocative, retro Euro-sexploitation film — a film review
February 13, 2015
It’s funny that the 50 Shades of Grey movie will hit the multiplex on the same day as The Duke of Burgundy enters select art house theaters. I haven’t seen 50 Shades, but there’s no way it can present as complex a picture of a relationship between a sadist and a masochist than The Duke of Burgundy. Director Peter Strickland, who also wrote the script, presents a bold vision of S&M that not only tests the limits of its value in a relationship between an amorous couple, but he makes the couple women. He heightens the relationship further by placing them in a world only populated by women (the title actually refers to a variation of a genus of butterfly, but there is no “Duke” in the film, per se). Furthermore, Strickland also adopts a cinematic style that recalls early 1970s Euro sexploitation films like those by Jesús “Jess” Franco and Jean Rollin.
The atmosphere of the film is so on point and other-worldly, the viewer will forgive any superficial judgment of the two women at the center of the film, as the director explores the dynamic break-down of the relationship that gradually frays feelings and questions the roles between these two women, the lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her younger lover and servant Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who reveals an amateurish interest in the moths and butterflies Cynthia studies. The film’s opening scene immediately seems to fetishize atmosphere. We meet Evelyn in a velvet cape sitting by a babbling brook, her back to the camera. Smash cuts to close-ups on some green moss that coats the bottom a tree trunk and protruding, brown mushrooms emphasize a fantasy world. Then there’s a cut to the brook and its sparkling surface reflecting the sunlight that dapples through the leaves overhead.
Next, there’s a wide shot of the mountain forest, what appears to be a Bavarian wilderness. Evelyn rides out of the trees on her bicycle, as the opening titles begin with the film’s theme song by the film’s composers, Cat’s Eyes, a duo from London, who have a sound comparable to the ‘60s-influenced Broadcast, the composers of the music in Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio (2012). At a time when many Hollywood films are eschewing the opening title sequence in favor of cutting to the action, this moment in The Duke of Burgundy stands as a terrific musical testament to the importance of setting a mood for a film. First, the music sounds like a slight chamber pop song from the late ‘60s. Over the bright, pastoral rambling of an acoustic guitar, Cat’s Eyes vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira punctuates the soft tap of a beat with staccato sighs. After a flute plays a circular, cheerful melody, shimmering, languid strings join the track, and Zeffira hushedly (maybe) sings, “One day you’ll be back … when you’re done dreaming … about lust.” Her breathy voice sounds as though it is coming out of the ether of a dream. Her partner in the duo, Faris Badwan, who also sang on the band’s previous self-titled record, has no vocal duties in the score, once again, keeping the film strictly female-centric.
As the credits appear, the pictures freeze, like what Ti West did with the opening of The House of the Devil (2009), another contemporary indie film interested in recalling a film style of the past. Strickland takes it further, washing them out to monochromatic images of various colors using flickering filters of various primary colors. Another funny detail in the credits: lingerie and perfumes are given credit. Early in this sequence, when Evelyn pedals her bike out of the forest, the music is interrupted as a distant voice calls out her name and a young woman on another bike travelling the opposite direction waves at her. Her echoing voice has a surreal, archaic quality that speaks to Strickland’s detailed tribute to the past style he is emulating.
Sound is incredibly important in this movie. When the title song ends in a flourish of flutes, twinkling harpsichord, swooning strings and that sighing voice, the chirp of birds and the mundane rattle of Evelyn parking her bike and grabbing her hard leather bag sounds jarringly pronounced. After buzzing the doorbell, Cynthia opens the front door with a creak and greets her with, “You’re late.” Evelyn does not reply but follows. The sound of their footsteps even vary, speaking to Evelyn’s smaller size to the older and taller Cynthia. When they speak, there’s an almost disembodied character to their voices, as if the dialogue has been dubbed into English. One could go on and on about the sound in this movie, which gradually grows from scandalously suggestive (behind a closed bathroom door it won’t take much imagination to figure out what one of Evelyn’s punishments entails) to surrealistically evocative (in several montage sequences the dissonant sound of insects, from chirps to fluttering wings evoke the internal state of things).
One could also go on at length about the rich use of lighting and shadow or the dynamic camera work, which often highlights reflections and double images, not to mention the atmospheric set design and the loaded mise-en-scène within those refracted images, as duality and role-reversal abounds. It’s also important to note that none of this could be pulled off without the sincere, heartfelt chemistry between the two leads. The Duke of Burgundy is such a rich film that upon returning to the opening scene after the first watch, I could not help but notice the witty foreshadowing of the babbling brook and all the water Cynthia gulps down as the movie unfolds.
Though it all might sound a bit salacious or gratuitous, the film never goes there. Strickland keeps much of it suggestive, and that’s where the sex appeal lies. I think there was only one nipple shot in the entirety of the film, and when Cynthia sits on a chair with her legs open, all you can see is darkness. It’s not about keeping it classy, though. Strickland seems more interested in evoking mystery. Who knows? Maybe the women in this world do not even have genitalia. There’s always a sense that something is missing. During a languid pan of the audience at one of Cynthia’s lectures, the camera reveals not only are there no men in the audience, but there are also some mannequins of women sitting in the audience. It’s a stylistic flourish that calls attention to something being amiss in a world of only women.
The film soon reveals that S&M seems to be the de rigueur choice for intimacy between women who have paired off in the world of this movie. At least in the case of Evelyn and Cynthia, it is also revealed that their relationship is so mannered that it is the master Cynthia who is actually obliging herself to the commands of her servant Evelyn, who leaves notecards with instructions of what Cynthia should tell her as her punishment looms. Evelyn’s desperation to be punished also makes it feel as though the passion between this couple might falter at any moment despite such declarations as Evelyn whispering to herself, “Cynthia, as long as I am yours I remain alive.”
As the film lumbers along to even more twists, scenarios are repeated between the couple that reveal the terrible thread they have hung their relationship on. The idea that the spice of sadomasochistic sex might heighten romance is profoundly questioned in this film lush with atmosphere and a disturbingly probing insight into relationships. I highly doubt 50 Shades of Grey will dare to go as far as The Duke of Burgundy.
The Duke of Burgundy runs 105 minutes and is not rated (this film features all sorts of advanced sexuality between women except for the kind you might expect). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at Miami’s O Cinema Wynwood on Friday, Feb. 13. It will later expand to the Miami Beach Cinematheque on March 12. It could be playing in your area if it isn’t already on its way. It’s also available on VOD, but we always encourage the viewer to give in to the controlling mercy of the dark theater. IFC Films sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.
February 12, 2015
Throughout his oeuvre, writer/director Xavier Dolan has presented viewers with the great range of loving relationships. Love cannot be contained in neat categories constrained by normalcy or appropriateness. In his films, love spills over, revealed in raw emotion both beautiful and ugly. In Mommy, Dolan has developed characters filled with contradictions, shortcomings and limitations, brought to life through powerful performances by Anne Dorval as Diane, mother to teenage Steve played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon. These raw performances coupled with Dolan’s stylistic narrative make Mommy one of the most immersive, adventurous and – dare I say – masterful films of this year. It rightfully won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 tying with another master, Jean-Luc Godard (Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D affirms a master filmmaker’s place in history of cinema). Mommy also won the Best North American Film Award at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
The film opens to a stark announcement about a law that allows parents to commit their children to a state-run facility if they are beyond control. The harsh law is also a warning for the audience to brace themselves, as the world we are about to enter is not an easy one. Mommy is the story of a dysfunctional family, a recently widowed woman and her teenage son, who has just been released from an institution, struggle to make a life for themselves. Circumstances constrain both mother and son. They live in economic distress and have difficulty managing their emotions in socially acceptable ways. The emotionally fractured characters are all strong and vulnerable, needing a family while rejecting structures — a modern tale of family.
The film kicks off with the encounter between mother and son, which is both a violent clash between two opposing worlds and a beautiful encounter between two family members who love each other so deeply it hurts. Diane “Die” Després (Dorval) is a recently widowed single mother living pay check to pay check. Die flaunts an over-sexualized image complete with youthful, scantily clad outfits that make for a garish exterior. Her maternal instincts kick in when Steve comes to live with her. Steve is loud and rude, but his is also screaming for attention and starving for familial connection. Going through adolescence, Steve’s sexuality is also very much present. Both Die and Steve are deeply affected by the loss of Steve’s father a few years earlier, and although they love each other deeply, their dynamic is fraught with confrontations that escalate to conflict easily. Dolan does not hold back, constraining much of the action in a suffocating 1:1 aspect ratio, and inviting the actors to express their characters to grating, bombastic heights that those familiar with his work should be prepared for.
Early in the movie, Steve comes home with bags filled with groceries and a gift for Die: a gold necklace that spells “Mommy.” He clearly has no way to pay for any of these things, and his worried mother scornfully implies thieving, shutting down his at first triumphant and exuberant entrance. Feeding off her negativity, Steve’s joy quickly turns to a violent outburst, one of the constants in the character dynamic throughout the film, which also seems on the edge of exploding in unpredictable ways.
Pilon’s performance captures that teenage angst and volatility brilliantly, and Dolan understands how to ratchet them with his shooting style. Some of the shots of Steve by himself running around and playing with a shopping cart in a parking lot showcase that combination of boredom and excess of energy all captured in the narrow confines of a life that seems overbearing, as demonstrated with a tighter aspect ratio than the sometimes familiar and more comfortable 4:3. Dolan’s stylistic choice therefore pushes the film medium to new heights, which is what makes him an exciting director. His defiance to the establishment can be likened to Steve’s own frustration with rules and order.
The complex relationship between mother and son is somewhat alleviated by the presence of neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who becomes a friend to Die and a caretaker to Steve. Unable to connect with her own family because of a mysterious trauma early in her life, Kyla suffers from a speech impediment that becomes less pronounced as she settles in with Steve and Die. Her ability to find her voice comes as the three characters discover an unconventional family structure. The trio go from feeling trapped in their own circumstances to a freeing state that feels easy and open. As the entire mood of the film changes, “Wonderwall” by Oasis takes over the soundtrack, and beyond Steve’s smile, we can hear Noel Gallagher’s bratty cool voice intone, “Back beat, the word is on the street/That the fire in your heart is out.” The relief is so enjoyable it’s easy to forget the looming warning foreshadowed at the top of the film: the possibility of having Steve committed.
Dolan’s fifth film is as much an exploration on familial relationships and friendships, as it is a transformation in his filmmaking to another level. The exuberance and emotion that jump out of the screen are as much a product of strong performances as they are a result of Dolan’s directorial vision to take light, music and even the screen in a different direction. The stylistic choices in Mommy are not gratuitous but serve the overall arc of the story, doing what cinema does best, telling a story with imagery that captures all your senses. Dolan’s Mommy grabs on to your psyche and does not let go, and it will stay with you.
Mommy runs 139 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is rated R (for cussing and sexual referencing). It opens this Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami Beach and The Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale. To find screenings elsewhere in the US click here. The Coral Gables Art Cinema hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.