ex-machina-ExMachina_Payoff_hires2_rgbAs that other sci-fi movie featuring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac looms (ahem, Star Wars VII), there’s a small sci-fi suspense film pitting the two actors together over a robotic femme fatal (Alicia Vikander) coming out in wide release this Friday. Ex Machina, the first film directed by Alex Garland, the writer behind such “re-inventive” sci-fi/suspense films as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is a compellingly entertaining film featuring a handful of characters stuck together inside a big house in the woods. But it’s also a little more than that.

In a wordless prologue, we watch Gleeson’s character, Caleb, from behind a computer screen, celebrating after he wins some major prize via email. There’s sharing via text, social media and almost instantaneous responses of “congratulations!” and “take me!!” Meanwhile, people gather around his cubicle, as the news of his win spreads. The delay of the “real world” over the virtual world makes for a funny dig at the relevance of one above the other. But it is also an important set-up in establishing an encounter with the virtual as substitute for the real thing, for this film is all about a man’s idea of harnessing feminine sexuality in an ideal, constructed surrogate for the real thing … and paying the price for it.

Ex-Machina-Gallery-06

It turns out Caleb has been invited by his boss (Isaac) to his mansion in the woods for a week-long stay where he will meet Nathan’s latest high-tech invention: a sexy-looking robot called Ava. Caleb is a skinny, awkward nebbish, simply geeking over the fact that he gets to meet the reclusive founder/inventor of a computer system called Bluebook for which Caleb works as an office drone. After a two hour-plus helicopter ride over his boss’ property, he is dropped off in a clearing and told to follow a river, which will lead him to the house. It’s a nice surreal and ominous touch with echoes of no escape. After letting himself in with an automatic ID card maker, Caleb finds Nathan hitting a punching bag shirtless. Nathan explains he is detoxing a hangover. Nathan’s all smiles and “bros” over Caleb, trying to bring him down to earth from his celebrity fixation over their meeting. It’s as if an Apple “genius” had a chance to live with Steve Jobs for a week.

Of course, no meeting like this ever leads to anything idyllic. Nathan is soon revealed as a mad scientist frustrated by his work in perfecting the ideal robot who happens to have the body of a young woman. Nathan takes to drink every night and reveals a cynical sense of humor that covers up a misanthropic personality on the verge on giving up on himself. Caleb is almost the opposite. Not only can’t he understand Nathan’s sense of humor, but he’s too excited by the honor of the invitation to notice Nathan’s unstable character. Nathan — and soon even Ava — manipulate this poor milquetoast throughout the movie. Though Caleb thinks he is rather smart about AI, mistakenly believing he’s figured out his role as a collaborator with Nathan to apply the Turing Test to Ava, he’s actually always one step behind. After all, Nathan hand-selected Caleb based on his profile culled from his Internet searches, including his online “porn profile” to interact with Ava — another revelation Caleb comes to a bit too late.

Ex-Machina-Gallery-01

There’s a desperation to both of these men, who are both human and therefore terribly flawed, blinded by an arrogance that never allows them to know just how deep in shit they are getting into. Caleb is a geeky, lonely male who tries to keep his cool by spewing his highfalutin knowledge of theory. At Nathan’s prodding for how he “feels” about Ava, he drops the fancy talk to tell him, “I feel that she’s fucking amazing.”

Nathan is a bit more interesting, corrupted by wealth, his God complex and his libido. Sexually, his creation becomes his downfall, as he mistakenly thinks he has ownership of its being. There’s a terrific reveal that alludes to one of the greatest misogynists in literature: Bluebeard. Yet, Nathan still garners the viewer’s sympathy, which is a feat for a film villain, and Isaac walks that line supremely. Though he has a dryly humorous dance scene with one his robots, there is also pathos in it. He’s a sad drunk who echoes Oppenheimer quoting from the Bhagavad Gita: “The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”

Ex-Machina-Gallery-02

It’s his fate that is the most interesting at the end. Too bad, Garland cannot handle the climactic finale as well as it deserves. Some may confuse it for humor or even justice. Resolution has always been a problem for Garland’s scripts, and Ex Machina does not fix this. But the concept of Ex Machina remains interesting. The notion of AI follows the clichés we know from similar films. Ava does arrive at that existential conundrum of computers that have become self-aware: “Don’t dismantle me!” But that’s not what this film is about (for truly mystical concerns of AI, check out Computer Chess [Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber]). Ex Machina is about man projecting ideals in the worst kind of way. Ava has curves but nothing organic below the surface save for obscure gears and glowing wires. She’s a pretty face with a stilted control of English. There’s an element of clear dehumanization that requires someone like Caleb and Nathan to project an ideal on. When she does act out, as teased in the trailer below, there is no sense of empathy. The notion of sexuality is but a tool for Ava to harness in order to gain an upper-hand over the men. To anthropomorphize this thing would be a mistake. Ex Machina is ultimately the most weirdly feminist film by a man, focusing on the shortcoming of man’s perception of women, and for that, Garland deserves kudos.

Hans Morgenstern

Ex Machina runs 110 minutes and is rated R (Violence, cussing and naked lady parts). It opens this Friday in most every theater in the U.S. A24 hosted a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.

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

Clouds_of_Sils_Maria_posterNot since Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, has a movie unpacked identities in flux as profoundly as Clouds of Sils Maria. Whereas Bergman concerned himself with transference on a psychological level between two women, writer/director Olivier Assayas examines transference on a more labyrinthine level by bringing in the industry of Hollywood, celebrity and the spectrum of roles the people of this milieu play both on-screen and off. At the heart of the movie lies an amazing relationship between a star actress and her assistant, but the film also looks beyond, examining the role of director and actress, generational differences and the perceptions of those on the outside of the industry. It’s a challenging film, but it also could be one of the best movies you will see this year.

An important chunk of the film unfolds at a luxurious home in the village of Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps. French movie star Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) has her younger right-hand Val (Kristen Stewart) read lines with her for a play loaded with the ghosts of Maria’s past. The home belongs to the widow of the director that made Maria a star. The play Maria is preparing for is the theatrical presentation of the film that made her career: Maloja Snake. In the film version, Maria played the 18-year-old Sigrid, an intern who has an affair with her middle-aged boss, Helena, only to dump the older woman, as the business crumbles around her. In the stage play, Maria is now to take the role of Helena.

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-1

Maria needs a bit of convincing to play Helena. A young, but highly respected director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), is determined to have her play the role that was formerly played by an actress who died not long after the film’s release, lending one of several ominous layers to the role. Also, Maria is reluctant to taint that part of her life with what may seem like a trivial gimmick in stunt casting. “I played Sigrid in Maloja Snake when I was 18,” she tells Klaus. “For me it was more than a role, and somewhere I am still Sigrid.” She then adds, “and it has nothing to do with being a lesbian. I’ve always been straight.” Again, identity and the blurring of the role with identity is meant to prepare the audience to consider the difference between what is stated and what is implied. Klaus speaks of the characters as having the same wounds, which also has echoes of the relationship of life and fiction: “Helena and Sigrid are one in the same person.”

The dramatic implications are enhanced by barely-there hints of intimacy between Maria and Val. Key scenes are stitched together with conspicuous fades at select moments in the narrative that are loaded with both the passage of time and moments obscured and unknowable. This is established subtly, when Assayas uses the technique to explain the death of Maloja Snake‘s author, Wilhelm Melchior. After news of his death, the film fades to the snowy Alps, showing rescuers collecting his body at a distance, and then the film fades again. Not long after this scene, his widow, Rosa (Angela Winkler) shares a secret with Maria: Wilhelm never died of a heart attack while on a walk but took his own life after receiving news of a fatal diagnosis. This establishes the fades as a narrative tool that obscures secrets.

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-5

Later in the film, during a hike in their gorgeous backyard of the Alps, Maria and Val jump into a chilly lake. Maria strips naked and Val down to her underwear. They laugh and splash around, as the film slowly fades to black. In another, Val heads out to meet a guy for a date, and Maria runs to a window to watch her drive off, and there is another fade. The following morning, Maria rises to peek into Val sleeping, with her backside to the door. Val’s only wearing a g-string and T-shirt, Assayas cuts to Maria’s gaze before fading to black again. These are hints that imply more than a professional relationship between these two women.

None of this would work without the actresses giving the camera silent performances loaded with unexplained feelings. Binoche plays Maria Enders with a veneer of confidence and experience that barely shrouds a sense of insecurity that comes with aging in her business while constantly being reminded of the youth of her assistant. You can sense Maria’s reluctance to tap into it during her often frustrated line readings with Val, yet it is key to a performance that CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-6unnerves Val toward the end of the movie. Though Binoche is terrific in the film, Stewart will stand out to many as the movie’s strongest element. Recently, Stewart was the first American actress to win the Cesar award for best actress — France’s equivalent to the Oscar, and the proof is in the pudding, as they say. She excels at delivering nervous awkwardness with a disarming hangdog distance behind large-framed glasses. It always feels as though something is brewing below the surface. Her performance harnesses the natural quality of her acting, and it also carries the weight of her own celebrity on a meta-level, as the film also alludes to paparazzi and an interest in an actress’ life outside of her work, something Stewart is all too familiar with.

The surrogate for this side of the celebrity aspect of the actress, is the young ingenue who will play Sigrid in this theatrical staging of Maloja Snake, Jo-Ann Ellis, played brilliantly by Chloë Grace Moretz. Jo-Ann is another shifting character in Clouds of Sils Maria. She is steeped in scandal, caught by paparazzi in compromising acts, including wielding a gun at an ex. Behind closed doors, Maria looks her up on the CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-2Internet and finds a press conference and TV interview where Jo-Ann may be high or drunk. In these on-line video clips, including one with a laugh track inserted, Jo-Ann reveals an ignorance for the material and the play’s director that Maria guffaws about in a sense of schadenfreude that speaks to the morbid interest that draws people to celebrity gossip. Jo-Ann calls the director “Klaus Klaus, the Klaus,” unable to recall his last name. However, when the meeting between the two actresses finally occurs, Jo-Ann is presentable and well-mannered. While Maria orders cognac, Jo-Ann orders chamomile tea. It becomes clear Jo-Ann is playing one role for entertainment news and quite another in “real life.”

But Jo-Ann the actress — who is also well-known as having starred in a sci-fi/action hit — is nothing compared to the intricate relationship between Val and Maria. Their relationship is always fascinating. After watching Jo-Ann as a psychotic, righteous “mutant” in the hit 3D movie, Maria and Val have a great conversation that speaks to their view on what is artistic. Above all, their scenes at the house are an intoxicating blur of the script and their earthy, candid relationship. Often, the director cuts to them in the middle of reading lines that resonate with their private lives, creating a disorienting sense of perspective. In one of the best of these scenes, Maria yells at Val, “I gave you whatever you want, you know that!” Val reads stage directions, “She composes herself,” as if it were some sort of safe word before she reads the Sigrid part: “Like a job at a dead-end company that’s about to go down the drain?” It’s a role, but it also speaks to the fading relevance of her boss in an industry more interested in youth.

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-4

One could go on and on about the performances in Clouds of Sils Maria and the profundity of the characters and their varied personas. None of it would matter were it not in such capable hands, and Assayas is quickly becoming a personal favorite of this critic. There is never a sameness to his films. He is constantly playing with the medium and his manner of telling stories. Be it adventure through music in his last film in capturing an era (Film Review: ‘Something in the Air’ presents vibrant picture of youth in tumult) or the way he played with filmmaking and holding a mirror to the industry much earlier in his career with the witty Irma Vep (1996).

The title of the play around which the film revolves, Maloja Snake, has its own significance. Before she hands over the keys to the house to Maria and after revealing the secret of Wilhelm’s passing, Rosa plays a video for Maria of the 1924 short film “Das Wolkenphänomen in Maloja.” It’s a film by Arnold Fanck, a famous German director who basically invented the German Mountain Film subgenre. The short focuses on a cloud phenomena called the “Maloja Snake” unique to the Alps where clouds snake through the valley and portend dangerous weather conditions. As she shows the film to Maria, Rosa says, “Wilhelm used to say the snake reveals the true nature of the landscape.” The “snake,” a naturally occurring yet mysteriously sublime phenomena, also has resonant effects as a symbol capturing the incongruities of human nature. The film’s title not only references the phenomena but also the nebulous personae of the film’s three women. At film’s end, along with the appearance of the clouds to Maria and Val will come another level of incongruity that will surprise and test the viewer. How the film handles it in a lengthy epilogue reveals yet another glimpse of the complexities of the career of the actress not worth spoiling here, but if you have gone along with it so far, you will find you may just be witnessing one of this year’s greatest films.

Hans Morgenstern

The Clouds of Sils Maria runs 123 minutes, is mostly in English but there are parts in French and German with English subtitles. It’s also rated R (expect some flashes of nudity and coarse language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, April 24, at several indie cinemas including the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater in Miami, O Cinema Miami Beach Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. It comes a little later to South Beach via the Miami Beach Cinematheque on May 29. If you live outside of our area, follow this link for a list of cities showing the film. If it’s not already playing near you, it may show up soon. It continues to roll out through May.

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

the-lesson

“Film Comment” invited me to contribute a movie review not too long ago. They assigned me a small Bulgarian movie called The Lesson, directed by first-time feature filmmakers Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, who both also wrote the script together. I’d like to think I know something about Eastern European film, being a fan of some of it. I’m honored that this publication trusted me to examine this movie.

It’s a raw, low-key picture featuring a tight drama at the center focusing on a school teacher (a nicely focused Margita Gosheva), who thinks she has something to teach her students. Then she learns about the difficulty of circumstances and how it might drive people to desperate measures for herself. I won’t spoil the review here. You can read it after jumping through the “Film Comment” logo below, click though it:

Film Comment logo

I hope to write more for this publication that has taught me so much about film criticism. It’s tough being down at the end of the U.S., in Miami, as far as getting first-dibs on movies, but hopefully there will be other opportunities to explore some small, but interesting films from around the globe for this prestigious publication.

Hans Morgenstern

The Lesson runs 105 minutes, is in Bulgarian with English subtitles and is not rated (don’t expect anything too disturbing beyond questioning morals). It opens in our Miami area exclusively at the Tower Theater this Friday, April 17. Film Comment shared an on-line screener for the purpose of the review.

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

while-were-young-poster-700x1093“The younger generation — it means retribution, you see. It comes, as if under a new banner, heralding the turn of fortune.”
—Henrik Ibsen, The Master Builder

I don’t believe that was one of a series of too many quotes that popped up on a black background in silence at the start of While We’re Young, but it probably best represents the sense of dread the film was trying to capitalize on. In a society that has become so post-cultural and progressive, it gets a little hard to get old, and no one seems more obsessed with transmitting that than writer/director Noah Baumbach (follow my tag for the director on this blog to read reviews for Greenberg and Frances Ha).

For those getting a little tired of Baumbach’s recurring theme of the challenges of growing old and letting go of youth, While We’re Young may disappoint, but it is worth sticking through for a confrontation with reality that is powerful as Greenberg fishing out the unrecognizable dead animal out of a house pool as younger people reveled around him. In While We’re Young, however, the moment feels more grounded, less metaphorical and ultimately, more disturbingly real. Baumbach still has that special touch for capturing moments resonant with revelation without coming across as heavy-handed. It’s a special kind of moment in cinema that few writer/directors can pull off (his hero Eric Rohmer comes to mind).

7G5A2502.CR2

After the lengthy Ibsen passage, we meet middle age Gen Xers Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), as they struggle to tell an infant the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” When both forget how the story goes, they begin to argue about their memory of it. Meanwhile, the baby bursts into tears. The implication is that these two are parents, but the child’s cries rattle them. Soon, their friends, the babe’s actual mother (Maria Dizzia) and father (Adam Horovitz — Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys!), arrive to scoop their child up. It’s a cute play on perception and a quick, efficient device to establish these characters, who still haven’t found a way to come to terms with adulthood.

Though all their friends seem to be having children, it soon becomes apparent that Josh and Cornelia are in a mid-life crisis of arrested development. Josh is a documentary filmmaker with one well-received movie under his belt that’s out of print and so old that you can only find it on the secondhand market on VHS. He’s stuck in a rut with his follow-up, now about 10 years in the making and clocking in with a run-time of 10 hours that he cannot seem to pare down. Then he meets a 20-something fan, Jamie (Adam Driver), who melts Josh’s heart by admitting his fandom and saying he spent some stupid price on eBay to obtain an original VHS copy of the movie. They become fast friends.

Driver Seyfried

Josh finds new vicarious youth in Jamie and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), and easily pulls Cornelia into hanging out with them. After all, Cornelia is stuck in her own rut. She still works for her father Leslie (Charles Grodin, in remarkable deadpan mode), a legend in documentary cinema who is more active than Josh. While Leslie accumulates awards, Josh struggles to find grant money to continue his work.

Stagnation is a big thing for the middle-aged couple, as Watts — stellar at balancing pathos and humor — reveals her character’s embarrassment about being in her 40s and working for her dad with leaden reserve. It’s a heavy regret, but she has found a way to live with it, yet you can sense her feeling that life has passed her by. At another point in the film she says about having a child, “We missed our chance … I’m fine with that.” There’s a sad acceptance to the statement. Thus, Josh and Cornelia embrace the vicarious opportunity that the millennial couple offers them as if they were salvation incarnate. Darby is an entrepreneur, marketing homemade ice cream featuring incongruous Ben & Jerry’s flavors of her own design. Meanwhile, Jamie aspires to make his own documentary films. The 20-somethings offer a new life. Who needs a baby when you have fully grown children to hang out with?

At first, Josh and Cornelia are delighted by this new breed of human they have discovered: young, prototypical Brooklyn hipsters who have re-purposed the detritus of Gen X and curated it in interesting ways. When Josh and Cornelia, stop into the earthy studio apartment of Jamie and Darby, they are confronted with racks of vinyl records, albeit mostly thrift store throw aways from the likes of Phil Collins and Lionel Richie. Cornelia observes, “It’s like their apartment is filled with stuff we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it.” It’s as though the new generation has co-opted their generation’s popular trash whose only merit is that it is “vintage.” Look, there’s a cassette of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell on the dashboard of Jamie’s old sedan. As any grounded member of Gen X should know, that album was never cool. However, Josh is too smitten to notice these clues of phoniness. When Jamie plays “Eye of the Tiger” to get Josh pumped for a meeting with a possible investor in his film, Josh tells Jamie, “I remember when this song was just considered bad.” But he starts bobbing to it, and adds, “but it’s working.”

While-We-re-Young

There’s a witty sort of dramatic irony going on here. The idea of sincerity is different for these two. While Josh says he is struggling to make “a film that’s both materialist and intellectual at the same time,” Jamie says he is looking to present “the truth” with his movie, which, as Josh will come to learn, does not necessarily mean being strictly honest in the literal sense. When Jamie volunteers to help Josh with his documentary, Josh will finally come to understand the gulf between them. Finally, he tells Cornelia about Jamie, “It’s all a pose. It’s like he once saw a sincere person, and he’s imitating him all the time!”

Josh is such a dynamically drawn character and Stiller brings an empathetic sincerity to his struggle via yet another richly written part by Baumbach. It’s a shame you cannot say the same about the women, who have issues and complexities of their own. Watts raises many small moments with Cornelia to impressive height, but the character’s standout moment with her friend/nemesis, Darby, happens during a hip-hop dance class, where she gradually finds her groove to awkward effect, played for cheap laughs. Even less fulfilling of a character is Darby whose character is hardly given a chance to transcend her artisanal ice cream flavors. Like Cornelia, it feels as though she is only along for the ride. That these women feel like supporting players in what should be an ensemble film is such a shame, especially considering how terrific the women characters were drawn in Baumbach’s previous movie, Frances Ha, featuring a screenplay he co-wrote with the film’s star, Greta Gerwig.

while-we-re-young-2014-001-naomi-watts-dance-scene

But maybe this is Josh’s movie for a reason. The fact that our hero is a filmmaker and male and is even more sympathetic than Stiller’s last role in a Baumbach movie (Greenberg), will make some wonder if Josh is a surrogate for Baumbach (the Internet has theorized might Jamie be a stand-in for director Joe Swanberg? In this radio interview, Baumbach denied this). It also takes a certain sense of self-awareness to pull this kind of movie off. One has to be ready to laugh about oneself, and Baumbach has always been fearless about that. That’s why, when the end finally arrives and Josh finally confronts Jamie, the film offers a brilliant play on perspective. As Josh’s father-in-law becomes accepting of Jamie and his vision of “truth,” Jamie warps into a stranger to Josh. In this resonant penultimate scene, Baumbach reveals how both base slapstick and intellectual wit can work together so brilliantly by playing with audience anticipation and textured characters.

Despite a final scene that feels a bit too tidy, While We’re Young examines the complexity of change from one generation to the next as a vicious cycle that never releases its grip unless you learn to make yourself comfortable in it. After all, the next generation is pursing all of us … “under a new banner, heralding the turn of fortune.”

Hans Morgenstern

While We’re Young runs 97 minutes and is Rated R (there’s cussing. Otherwise, teens can go and see what they have to look forward to at 40). It opened in the South Florida area on April 10 in many theaters. The indie cinema to support is O Cinema Miami Beach, which hosts the film until the end of this week. A24 Films hosted a press screening in Miami back in March for the purpose of this review.

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

white-god-posterCoupled with several striking film stills taken from the best moments of the movie (just look at the poster), the concept sounds interesting:  In some alternate dimension of contemporary Hungary, owners of mixed-breed dogs are heavily taxed, making these dogs highly undesirable as pets. The kennels are full and the streets are overrun by these “mutts,” as they are derisively referred to by those who hate them. But what happens when these undesirable animals band together in a revolt against those who have abandoned them? With its atonal script and simplistic rationalization that defies genuine logic, White God devolves into melodrama and schlock, betraying any earnest intention for allegory.

I hate questioning a movie’s logic. I’ve always thought it unfair to judge a film against “real life,” especially a fantasy film like White God. But too often this movie features twists in the plot and tonal inconsistencies that challenge the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, which is so crucial to a viewer’s investment in cinema. In order to specify how this movie stumbles, I might reveal some spoilers, but it’s fair in order to understand why this film fails to deliver and may disappoint some with high expectations.

2

White God‘s problems mostly stem from the clumsily written script by director Kornél Mundruczó and co-writers Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber. There are stretches in metaphors, from the film’s title to an early scene in a meat factory that shows the gruesome disembowelment of a cow’s carcass. There are also glaring plot holes that will lead many viewers to question simple details. The first of which has to be why a divorced mother would leave her daughter and the child’s mixed-breed dog with her ex-husband and fail to pay the dog’s taxes while she takes off on a three-month research trip. It’s conveniently overlooked plot points like this that appear too often throughout the film that will take the critical mind out of what should have been a better written film.

Thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) loves her sweet, big dog Hagen (played by Luke and Bodie), but her father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér) can’t stand him. A neighbor, conveniently standing on the stairs of their apartment building as Dániel brings Lili and the dog home, confronts the father about the dog. After the neighbor makes up a lie that the dog bit her, an inspector pays them a visit. Fed up with the inconvenience of Hagen, Dániel takes Lili and her pet for a drive, leaving Hagen far from their home. Hagen, alone, then becomes the focus of the film, and for a nice while one of the film’s most impressive aspects shines: the animals. Hagen befriends an adorable Jack Russell Terrier 7(Marlene) that takes the lead in protecting Hagen from a large pack of dogs and shows him how to survive on the streets. During a section of the film that relies upon the gestures of the animals and the film’s editing above words, Mundruczó establishes a heart-warming dynamic that’s thrilling to watch unfold. The dogs have wonderful character, and when the cameras roam with them, from either way above, revealing their impressive numbers, or down below in the streets of Budapest, viscerally connecting the viewer with their claws and huffing and puffing, the film stands at its strongest. But these moments are too fleeting and hardly add up to a movie. More often than not, it feels like the director is straining to hold together his concept, putting Hagen through the ringer when encountering cartoonish versions of human beings, even putting the pooch in the clutches of a dog fighter who trains him to kill, a skill that Hagen will inevitably twist against humanity.

5

Even though the film is at its best in wide shots featuring the dogs running in a pack of well over a hundred canines, I could not help getting over the feeling that I have already seen it done more impressively. When White God premiered in Miami last month at the Miami International Film Festival, there was also a Miami-made documentary called The Holders, whose title refers to people who are all too eager to give up their pets to shelters because they have become inconvenient. At the end of the film, we meet animal lovers in Costa Rica who have gathered and healed up hundreds of strays, herding them in the countryside, as if they were sheep. There was something poetic about the extended, unstaged scenes of the massive pack of dogs rushing through streams and winding their way through trees, but it also resonated in ways that White God falls short. It’s something to see if you get a chance. The film has no distributor, but director Carla Forte says she is submitting the movie to festivals now, so if you want to stay posted about upcoming screenings, “like” the film’s Facebook page (Facebook/TheHolders).

Unlike The Holders‘ finale, White God falls most ruinously apart at the end. Any build up toward an allegorical statement is subverted by the film’s third act when the dogs go on the rampage that a flash-forward at the start of the movie has built up to. What should have been the film’s boldest, most evocative moment,4 deteriorates to simple horror movie schlock featuring cheap effects out of a low-budget ’80s horror movie and a very convenient path of revenge by Hagen. It’s hard to sympathize with the killing machine hell-bent on carving such a convenient path to avenge all who have wronged or tried to wrong him.

White God will insult the intelligence of any adult drawn to the film’s allegory. Every peripheral character who deserves their comeuppance gets their due in gory confrontations with the killer dogs, but so what? Since when is simple, gut-pummeling revenge an answer to any problem? Though Lili finds a way to halt the rampage in a manner that will translate to another heavy-handed metaphor, no one is left alive to learn anything. The dogs certainly are not rising above the mastering of the humans by killing them. The film’s logic is fine for children, but too bad it has to be so violent. Moreover, righteous revenge as blunt solution does nothing to solve the supposed problem of the downtrodden. These dogs simply become ISIS on four legs. Any endearment is lost and the heavy-handed finale falls disappointingly flat in its contrivance. Though, again, it ends in a striking image, it takes more than superficial stunts to make White God work.

Hans Morgenstern

White God runs 119 minutes, is in Hungarian with English subtitles and is not rated (there’s some serious violence against and by doggies). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami-Dade County and the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood in Broward County in our South Florida area. If you live elsewhere and are looking for screening details in your town, visit this page. Magnolia Pictures provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It first premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival.

(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.

it-follows-cannes-2014-4

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.

IF_09_v01-600x340

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.

IF_02-600x340

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.)

wild-tales-posterWild Tales, which was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is a series of six stories that explores themes of revenge through dark humor. Director Damián Szifrón takes an unflinching look at the “double moral” that pervades in Argentina — and much of Latin America, for that matter. The dark comedy explores human behavior when pushed to its limit and has a critical take of the current version of social relations in Argentina. The film’s characters all seem plagued by a deep sense of injustice, which pushes them to the edge.

The first story, “Pasternak” focuses on injustice at the individual level. A runway model Isabel (María Marull) checks into a flight and strikes a conversation with music critic Salgado (Dario Grandinetti). The conversation quickly reveals they have a common acquaintance that they both have wronged — she cheated on him and he wrote a life-changing negative review. Soon, more people on the plane find they are part of the coincidence. The shocking opening story is short and to the point, awakening the audience to a different kind of world, one with blurred social boundaries and a rather twisted sense of humor.

3

“The Rats” is the second story, featuring a couple of female leads — proof that outrage and overheated reactions do not depend on testosterone alone. A waitress at a roadside small restaurant, Moza (Julieta Zylberberg), sees a man (Cesar Bordon) from her past walk into the restaurant. His complete disrespect for the server will have you rooting for her and the cook (Rita Cortese), who suggests a macabre plan of action. The next story is a personal favorite, “Road to Hell” where road rage and class disputes merge into an epic battle between the haves and have nots. The lengthier of these stories is “Bombita” where Simón (Ricardo Darín), a civil engineer who demolishes buildings for a living, takes a moral stand against the transit bureaucracy in Buenos Aires. This story will also have you questioning what is just and what is not and how those spheres overlap with what is legal and socially acceptable.

6

The last two stories “The Deal” and “Til Death Do Us Part” present a scathing portrayal of the upper echelon. In both, Szifrón invites the audience to judge the paradoxical circumstances that push characters to the brink and makes them act out in extreme ways. The laughs come from Schadenfreude, but in the despair of these characters you will also find a moment to question whether social inequality serves any social purpose worth preserving — for both ends of the spectrum. For instance, in “The Deal” a rich father (Oscar Martínez) who is willing to do anything to save his son from going to jail, ends up being blackmailed by his lawyer, a long-time employee and even a state prosecutor. The twist in “The Deal” will have you second-guessing who are the winners and losers.

9

In the closing story, “Til Death Do Us Part” well-to-do bride Romina (Érica Rivas) finds out that her newly minted husband Ariel (Diego Gentile) was unfaithful with one of the more attractive wedding guests. The discovery sends her on a rampage that blows up the entire wedding and will have you swept up for the complicated ride of love and jealousy. Szifrón’s storytelling is effective, with each piece cutting to the bone. The stories are short enough to keep even those with short attention spans entertained. Szifrón has a knack for spotting interesting stories to tell that deliver a punch, even if verging on the blunt side.

The score, courtesy of Gustavo Santaolalla, is one that heightens both the tension and humor. Take, for instance, the opening story. When the twist is revealed, a slinky number reminiscent of a western soundtrack will get you excited for what’s to come. The film is a co-production that includes El Deseo Production Company, the outfit headed by Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar, so it should be no surprise these stories are seeming tragedies that could have been plucked from the headlines and imbued with a dark, even playful sense of humor.

18

At its core, Wild Tales deals with the infuriating consequences of lived social inequality at all levels. An uncompromising look at the effects of corruption in government, personal and familial relationships, this movie echoes a disgruntled majority that does not stand for abuse of authority, either state-sanctioned through bureaucratic apparatuses or via economic inequality. It will also echo with international audiences because it presents universal situations that most will find themselves relating with.

Wild Tales runs 122 minutes long, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is rated R (some violent revenge throughout and a bit of sexuality). It opens in South Florida on March 20th at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach, Regal South Beach, and Regal Shadowood. For screenings around the country click here. Wild Tales was the opening night film at Miami Dade College’s 32nd Miami International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener last year for awards consideration.

Screening Update: Wild Tales finally comes to the Broward-based indie art house, Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale on May 1. Here’s ticket information.

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

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,654 other followers