photo_05As one can expect from the director who made a name for himself with the Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg’s the Hunt (Jagten) feels like a brutal roller coaster of victimization with the audience’s sympathy clearly placed on the protagonist’s shoulders. It’s a brilliant piece of emotional manipulation that will hopefully enhance one’s own awareness to rash judgments of those accused and persecuted solely based around the horror of the crime they are alleged to have committed.

With his new film, Vinterberg, who co-wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm, proves himself a director comfortably in tune with his craft. The film stars Mads Mikkelsen, who won best actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his performance as Lucas. In a rather cruel play on dramatic irony, Lucas becomes the target of a witch hunt after a child fibs that he had molested her. News spreads like a virus among the inhabitants of the Danish small town. Lucas and the girl’s relationship is clearly set up so as to be apparent that Lucas is innocent, and the reason behind the child’s thoughtless lie comes from a childish sense of retribution. But only the audience is allowed to see this. The results of the lie then have a downward-spiral effect on Lucas’ job, friendships, family and social standing in the town where everyone knows everybody.

One circumstance after another piles up, leaving the audience feeling as helpless as the film’s protagonist considering the amount of information shared only between the persecuted Lucas and the viewer. Horrors are committed that feel especially cruel considering the dramatic irony that fuels the Hunt. Normally I would not forgive a film that plays with dramatic irony to such a cruel, manipulative hilt,THE HUNT_Photo by Per Arnesen 3 but because the Hunt offers such a harsh indictment to the quick judgments that are practically the bread-and-butter of so many news shows (think Nancy Grace in the U.S.), I feel it’s worth forgiving. It’s a situation that fuels biases on either side of the recent George Zimmerman verdict that sparked rallies across the U.S. over the weekend. Previously, it happened following the trial of another Florida character, Casey Anthony, who was accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter but acquitted. As much as the theme of the Hunt is timeless it also stands timely, and many could use a wake-up call like the Hunt.

Heightening the film’s drama is precision pacing and clean shooting by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. In fact, the idyllic village with its surrounding forests is beautifully shot, as the Dogme style of home video/natural light featured in the Celebration— as interesting as it was— has long outlived its relevance. Instead, in the Hunt cinematic techniques are used traditionally to seduce the viewer into the film so one might sympathize with the protagonist.

Everyone seems a threat to poor Lucas. Christensen shoots the children at their own eye-level, framing them in positions that speak to their power in affecting the story. photo_04A sense of dread permeates the interactions by the suspicious adults not long after the accusations become fodder for whispers behind Lucas’ back. It all culminates with a scene that offers an ambiguous note that should encourage discussion.

Mikkelsen, who has been gaining more and more recognition in his slowly building career, currently highlighted by his performance as Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s new television series “Hannibal,” gives a strong performance. He plays fragile and desperate with shaky ease. But the real highlight is the story and how Vinterberg squeezes out all he can from frustrating dramatic irony that will aggravate some and enthrall others.

Hans Morgenstern

The Hunt runs 115 minutes, is in Danish, Polish and English with English subtitles and is rated R (it’s violent and disturbing, but young people of a certain age could have something to learn from this). It premiered in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. The Hunt opens this week in South Florida at most indie film houses. It premieres July 25 at O Cinema in Miami. Then, it appears at the following theaters on July 26 (click names for ticket info):

Miami Beach Cinematheque
Tower Theater
Cosford Cinema
Cinema Paradiso

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

cartaz-tabu-lightPortuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes heralds the new year of cinema with a bold film approaching masterpiece greatness. Shot entirely in black and white and featuring mostly silent action dominated by voice-over narration, Tabu also features an unclassifiable narrative structure. Though romance is at heart of this film, Tabu vibrates with life beyond a love story. Gomes is interested in working beyond cinema’s narrative techniques by calling attention to them and then pushing story beyond straight beginning-middle-and-end narrative to offer something grander and more self-reflexive. The director’s work recalls other cinema pioneers interested in exploring the edges of the art form, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Guy Maddin and his fellow countryman, the late, great maestro Raoul Ruiz.

As Ruiz did with his final masterpiece, Mysteries of Lisbon (read my review: ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ peels away layers of story to reveal infinity), Gomes is interested in capturing the other lives many people have a chance to experience in their mortal moment on this planet. He does so by presenting the viewer with distinct episodes of the life of Aurora. Laura Soveral plays old Aurora as she approaches her twilight in Lisbon. These are the days in her 80s, as she approaches hospitalization. They are filled with a perceptive range of naïve wishful hope but mostly paranoia and bitterness seething with an unshakable awarenessTabu The End approaches. Then there are the days she lived in Africa. The younger Aurora (Ana Moreira) is a sensual being full of life, freshly married, hunting (she never misses) and making a cuckold out of her nameless husband (Ivo Müller) all while she carries his child.

But dividing Tabu into two sections is not enough for Gomes. He sets Aurora’s story up by offering a brief but colorful introductory tale, and then later, another character, Aurora’s pious, patient and solitary friend Pilar (Teresa Madruga). The first story unfolds in that place seething with so much life: the jungle. The film opens with an explorer decked out in cliché pith helmet and khakis following African men taking machetes to the thick brush. The explorer takes careful, methodical steps as the men of that land tangle with the brush for him. A voice-over (Gomes) explains the explorer’s mental state. The voice uses ornate language indulging in melodrama to  explain this explorer’s misery and melancholy. A piano plays a shifting, dramatic score, as in a silent film, as his guides confront the savage land while he follows behind. All the while, the narrator emphasizes this explorer’s despondency while explaining the loss of this character’s wife. In the end, the adventurer takes dramatic action to join his wife and chooses suicide by crocodile. The savages break out into a song and dance. Then, an apparition of his wife appears sitting next to the crocodile. The melding of life and memory becomes part of the land that carries on. The surreal notion of a ghost haunting a crocodile that has eaten your lover captures the utter romance of these mortals while also showing how insignificant they are to the (comparatively) immortal land. It offers a twisted joke that sets up a film, which will end in nothing short of idealistic romance.


This first narrative is then revealed as a movie. Gomes makes a wild, dramatic shift reminding the audience they are in the theater by introducing Pilar gazing right into the camera in an empty movie theater in present-day Lisbon. After she has experienced her dream within dreams on the screen, this is now to be our waking dream, and the layers of dreams, fantasy and memory all play key roles in this film. Often movies are made as distraction from our lives. However, Tabu spends much of its time telling stories within stories within stories that enforces the artificiality of life on the big screen. Despite that, Tabu still manages to magnify the verve of our own knotty existence on this planet, which, the film often reminds us, has its own power to create and extinguish life.

A title card introduces this section with Pilar as “Part I: Paradise Lost.” It follows her, as she heads to the airport to pick up a young pilgrim who was to stay with her. Instead, a friend of this young woman in short shorts and a backpack meets Pilar to tell her that she will not be coming. tabu_04The dialogue has a dry quality, enhanced by the stilted use of English, as the young woman is Polish and her common, shared language with Pilar is English. This manner of speaking, the notion of a mystery lodger who never arrives and the way this messenger from another country turns and walks away once again feels surreal. With its black and white cinematography and this jarring behavior of the actors, Gomes recalls Maddin or even David Lynch. In fact, Gomes loves to reveal what lies in the dark in a gradual way that will seem very familiar to those who have seen Eraserhead. This visual referencing to the unconscious is unmistakable.

However, Gomes is not interested in using dreams as narrative. He actually seems to subvert the notion. When he introduces old Aurora she is telling Pilar about a dream. Reel1_2Casino_Aurora_old_reducedAs they sit and talk, what appears to be a treadmill with baggage, heavily blurred out in a short depth of field focus, trudges along in the background, giving the illusion that these sedentary older women are always moving. Aurora describes a dream of seeming nonsense where she battles monkeys who have invaded her house. During the fight, one of them morphs into the form of the deceased husband of a friend of hers and begins to talk to her. She notes that even though he talks, she is always haunted by the idea he was a monkey, and he sometimes behaves like one even in human form.

This glimpse into Aurora’s unconscious could illuminate how she regards her African maid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), who she says is trying to poison her with voodoo. tabu-stills-010It also may reference her alleged experiences living in Mozambique as a young woman, which will not be revealed until the second part of the film by a man who may be an unreliable narrator. But before this recalled life appears, Aurora is revealed to have a bad gambling habit. Though Aurora tells Pilar that a dream showed her how to bet and beat the house, she admits, “People’s dreams are not like their lives.”

Aurora does indeed seem a character uncomfortable in her dying skin. Her daughter never returns her calls, and she doesn’t trust her only caretaker. “They want me dead,” Aurora says with a loaded sense bitter acceptance. When Pilar finds Aurora’s phone in her refrigerator, it is indeed a sign of not only her approaching senility but her giving up on the rules of this mortal world.

Gomes toys with perceptions constantly. Though Aurora seems to only treat Santa with paranoia, both Santa and Pilar are up to seeking out and bringing back a man Aurora mentions on her death bed: Gian Luca Ventura. It would seem this was Aurora’s true love. Though he too seems to have lost his mind, this is the man who will so vividly tell the second half of Tabu, taking place sometime 50 years earlier, when a younger version of he (Carloto Cotta) and Aurora shared an intense affair in the heat of the jungle. Reel3_3GpAurora_19001713When old Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) speaks, he again enhances what Aurora said about dreams not being like life. However, Gomes indulges in this fantastical second part of Tabu with poetic whimsy. The lush black and white cinematography and intimate academy aspect ratio constantly enhance the filmmaker’s utter delight in the medium, beyond the relevance of whether this story may be true or not. Through the staging of the action, costumes and period music that includes a Portuguese version of “Be My Baby,” the viewer cannot help but feel swept away.

Gomes is still not above showing a sensitive awareness to the limits of both cinema and memory when it comes to dialogue in this last hour of the film, however. There is none. This story of Young Aurora and Young Ventura is all told in a voice-over narration by the elder Ventura, who makes no effort to reproduce the exact words between the characters, even though we still hear sound effects and music. Instead, though the actors’ mouths move in many scenes, no one ever utters a word. Tabu_Gomes_04It’s as if the actual words exchanged were lost in time, and all Ventura can muster are the ideas of what was said, adding to the haze of this “memory.” It’s probably truer to memory than most other alleged memories, however, because of this vagueness. But this is also a defiant statement against the cynicism of today’s idea of film trying to make everything seem so “realistic” with digital effects and 3-D, inviting the suspension of disbelief so characteristic of cinema and its classical techniques found in editing and image alone.

Throughout Tabu Gomes reveals a keen awareness of the limits of cinema and how embedded the memories of dreams are in the structure of the art form.  From his choice to omit dialogue in the film’s last hour to the manner he frames the opening and closing of a door in an early scene, as if the door’s action is a wipe cut, do not call anything Gomes does in this film shallow or superfluous. tabu31Ultimately, Gomes makes no more a poetic choice than to feature much of the action in Tabu in the wild of the jungle (albeit through the eyes of invaders trying to tame the land by bringing their comforts of home there, from music to swimming pools). However, there exists nothing more primal and awesome and humbling a thing than the living landscape of the jungle, a grand symbolic stand-in for the unconscious. With Tabu, one should prepare for an intense journey into the primal as Gomes masterfully exploits the narrative elements of cinema to transcend the limits of story-telling. With Tabu, Gomes raises film to the art form it deserves to be.

Hans Morgenstern

Tabu is in Portuguese with English subtitles, runs 118 minutes and is not rated (though this is a film for adults). It premieres in South Florida on Friday, Jan. 18, at 9 p.m. and plays through Jan. 23, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The theater hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

Up-date: Tabu also premieres in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso, in Fort Lauderdale, Friday, Jan. 18, at 8 p.m. and plays there through Jan. 24.

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

How appropriate that I had dreamt of seeing Holy Motors before I even saw it. I rarely ever dream of movies. Movies are dreams made manifest, and as Holy Motors proves, filmmaker Leos Carax knows this, so why bother? In my dream, I had arrived late to a preview screening for the film. I tried to sneak in behind the columns laid out throughout the dark theater, after the film had begun. However, Carax knew of my sacrilege, as he was in the theater. After the film had ended he confronted me and said I had not seen his movie at all as I showed up late, and how could I pose as a film critic when I dare think missing the beginning of a film was an acceptable practice. He was pissed, and I was devastated that he did not know the pains I go through to make sure I always see films from beginning to end, especially if I plan to write about them.

Of course this is my subconscious telling me something, not the real Carax, who has not made a feature film in 13 years. As some of my former students of a Hollywood Film and US Culture class I once taught at Barry University can attest (if you showed up late to screening day, you would find the class door locked), I am the true film fascist in this scenario. Just as dreams are loaded with one’s own experiences, Holy Motors will bring more pleasure to those who want something more from a movie-going experience than the usual Hollywood fare. If Holy Motors is not made for deep— dare I say— masochistic lovers of pure cinema, I do not know what movie would be. The film’s references to cinema are both pure and obscure. Carax celebrates the medium by emphasizing what is missing as much as what is present. Yes, the film has a surreal quality, but that is only because cinema by its nature has a surreal quality.

We do not live life jumping from one scenario to another in reality. Jumping through time and space is impossible. Yet, how often do film viewers forget about true realism when they comment “that wasn’t realistic enough” or “that defied logic”? Film can never be logical. Blame that on the film splice, the one single, distinctive characteristic of the cinematic art form, as Stanley Kubrick once noted. Within film splices, as far as storytelling, anything is possible. That is why it becomes a losing battle to try to watch Inception with undivided attention thinking one will find where the dream in the film begins and ends. Spoiler alert: It’s all a dream.

From the very beginning, Holy Motors embraces a self-awareness that it is a film and that the medium shares characteristics of a dream. Indeed, as prophesied by my dream, missing the opening credits will take away from the experience of this movie. As plain, Ariel block letters present the opening credits, interspersed among them are images that pre-date cinema. Silent images of a naked athlete by the French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey pass by in an almost subliminal flash. Then the cinema screen declares its mirror-like quality by presenting a full, darkened theater. All the faces in the packed house are darkened and still as dramatic sound effects and a scream blast out of the soundtrack from some unseen film.

Holy Motors follows a man (Denis Lavant) who we appropriately first meet lying in bed alone (dreaming?). An aura of darkness surrounds the bed. There are doors and hallways until M. Oscar heads off from his home, seemingly situated in a clearing with a forest. Reality enters the dream-like state as a child tells him to work hard and bring home money. Over the course of the film, we will learn this man is an actor working in a world where the camera has disappeared, and he has nine assignments lined up for the day. The actress of Eyes Without a Face, Edith Scob plays Céline who drives M. Oscar to these jobs in a stretch limo, inside which he applies his own makeup between scenarios.

An early job has him working in motion capture. It’s a scene that references an early serial in France’s film infancy, Les Vampires, often celebrated and referenced in French cinema, while tying it to the future of cinema. Wearing a black cat suit with strategically placed dots, M. Oscar must perform ninja-like moves to an invisible adversary. Then, a cold, disembodied voice orders him to pick up a sub-machine gun and get on a treadmill in the massive, black-walled room. With a dizzying array of geometric shapes scrolling past in the background, Carax references his own 1986 film Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), and the miraculously choreographed sequence to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” performed by Lavant, which you can watch here. Though possibly more dynamic in Holy Motors, the new version of this scene is cheapened as a digital effect and M. Oscar’s seemingly random firing of the sub-machine gun. By the end of this scenario, Carax seems to subvert the digital FX world of today’s cinema, as it leaves M. Oscar worn out, despite his giving it his acrobatic all, including a love scene with a contortionist (Zlata). Yet, in the end, the man is only donating motion for an end product, which proves to be (literally) a gruesome, monstrous affair.

Movie Monsters are a big part of Holy Motors. “Shit” M. Oscar declares after he has returned to the back of the limo and opens a metal box labeled “wild” for his next assignment. Inside: the mask of M. Merde who Lavant played in Carax’ short film in the Tokyo! omnibus from 2008. A spectacular creature, M. Merde is a barefooted beast of a being with crazed red hair, a dead eye and claws for nails. He lives in the sewers to rampage around the city streets in broad daylight eating flowers, chain-smoking and pushing or walking over anyone who might stand in his way. The tune used to score this assault on society is taken from the first Godzilla movie. M. Merde even captures a damsel (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot to later share a cuddle with, back in his subterranean hovel.

Though there are several, often-cinematic referencing, vignettes throughout the film, they all keep the viewer guessing whether something is going wrong by the rules of this unreal world (one catches on via the action and rarely exposition). Holy Motors is all about breaking down the fourth wall of cinema but then making you question it. It heightens mystery to another level of the viewer’s own perception. It recalls David Lynch in its indulgence of the unknown and an intention to never provide concrete answers. It also recalls Federico Fellini. Beyond the reference to “9,” from his film about filmmaking, 8 ½, Holy Motors is a celebration of the art of film with a wry sense of humor but also with an eye to transcendence and the sublime encounter with the unknown.

The acting jobs M. Oscar takes vary from such bombastic affairs as those described above, to tender moments like a scene from a death bed or a cruel chat with an insecure teenage daughter. Through the talented Lavant, Holy Motors reveals M. Oscar is a master actor tiring of what has come of his craft. During an encounter with a fellow actress, Jean (Kylie Minogue), the two steal away together to reminisce. They walk off into the ruins of the Samaritaine, a once celebrated French department store near Notre Dame left to decay. Jean breaks into a song of how “who were we when we were/back then?” The lyrics of the song seem to mourn a time when the suspension of disbelief in movies was more real or moving than today’s visual arts. Sometimes I wonder if it’s my age and my lack of naiveté and if knowing so much about cinema spoils movie-going. But maybe it is the plague of this effort of things like “found footage” genre films, the unspoken falseness of reality TV and digital characters designed to blend in with human actors in blockbuster movies that have all become too tough to swallow in an over-reach for “reality.” For all its seeming craziness, Holy Motors actually asks a very down-to-earth question: Can’t a movie just be a movie?

Hans Morgenstern

Watch the trailer:

Holy Motors is not rated (but those 17 and under will need some life and cinema experience to appreciate it), has a runtime of 115 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. Nationwide screenings dates can be found hereIt December, it continues to expand in South Florida, making its premiere on Miami Beach on Dec. 7 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

It opened Nov. 16, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema for its South Florida premiere run (the theater provided a preview screener DVD for the purpose of this review). Holy Motors then appeared in Broward County on Fri. Nov. 23, at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale.

Update: Miami will have another chance to see this film on the big screen at O-Cinema beginning Thursday, Jan. 17 (more dates available here). The news arrives just as Holy Motors was recently announced as the number 1 movie of the year via an exhaustive survey by “Film Comment.” It was close to reaching number 1 on my personal best-of in 2012… very close.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Not many documentaries earn the one-word description of “gripping” as deservedly as the Imposter. The film grabs the viewer’s attention from the start by juxtaposing two stories told via that typical documentary tool: the talking head. After the members of a Texas family express their grief over the loss of a teenage boy, the film presents us with the Algerian man living in Spain who seemingly convinced everyone he was that child. The situation is intriguing and powerful in and of itself, but the journey to the film’s unfathomable conclusion has so many left turns some might find an urge to put these people into new context with a second viewing.

The Imposter begins by introducing three members of the Gibson family who share their heartache over the disappearance of 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay in 1994. Home video and still pictures of the blonde, blue-eyed boy appear throughout, as the boy’s sister, bother-in-law and mother reveal their despair over the missing child. Sister Carey Gibson, speaks the most eloquently, as she tears up: “It came to the point where you know you’re not going to find him alive. But you just want to know what happened to him.”

Three years and four months later, the teen is allegedly discovered in Spain, after an emergency call to the police. “From as long as I remember I wanted to be someone else,” is the first line uttered in a French accent by a man with olive skin and dark hair. Despite his appearance and actual, if hidden, 23 years of age, the family will wind up embracing him as Nick without question. If you think, director Bart Layton, has revealed too much too soon to maintain any sense of suspense, expect to be surprised. The Imposter feels like a mind-bender of a documentary that Christopher Nolan never made.

The documentary has a feature film quality, as it melds staged establishing shots of Spain and rural Texas and plenty of quick scenes of dramatizations by actors to illustrate the narratives of the talking heads. These scenes never last too long and are always beautifully stylized and atmospheric with expressionistic lighting and shadows, heightening the suspense of the stories. The moments feel dream-like. Layton often employs slow motion or fast, time-lapsed images. There are many tracking shots that help establish the surreal quality of these re-created memories. The film even has a dramatic score with strings that chug along, perfect for a suspense film. Layton also uses pop music to add a flair of character to these stagey moments, including tracks by Donovan and David Bowie.

These dramatized moments never overtake the narrative, however. The director uses them in a way that never betrays the fundamental mystery at the heart of the movie. Despite the moody quality of the staged parts of the Imposter, the film’s strongest moments remain in what Layton does with actual footage of events. He presents the recording of the emergency call to police about the frightened boy found huddled in a telephone booth one rainy night in Spain not once but three times during the course of the documentary. Each moment adds a different, more astounding resonant quality to the film’s complex narrative. For the pure sake of heightening drama, Layton also does a fascinating trick with video footage shot by the family when the alleged Nicholas arrives at the airport in Texas. He adds a layer of anticipation to this “reunion” with pauses that freeze frames on distorted static, as the film score chugs and wavers below the imagery.

The dramatization in the Imposter adds nicely to the film’s atmosphere, but it is the director’s patient reveal of actual events that will keep viewers entranced. The filmmaker makes a wise choice to skip any voice-over commentary save for a few captions added for clarity’s sake and context. Only the voices of those directly involved in the events depicted in the film offer narration. The director does not even include an inquisitive voice asking questions of the talking heads off-screen. With all the dramatizations sandwiched between the statements by those involved, the film skips along rivetingly. Layton also never uses actors’ voices during the dramatizations. Only on a few occasions does the imposter’s voice appear within the actions depicted, as the actor playing him (Adam O’Brian) mouths the real-life character’s words.

When the titular character explains how he did what he did members of the audience will find themselves hanging on to almost every sentence in suspense. The film does not seem to hold its cards too close to its vest from the get go, as the story already seems too weird to be true. This man talks of his efforts to change his identity like a magician revealing his tricks. He speaks so nonchalant but also as if he can read the minds of those he is playing this supposed trick on. “I washed her brain.” He says plainly of Carey Gibson, the family member who would pick him up in Spain.

Throughout the Imposter, the images and narratives keep the viewer wondering how this could happen. The director does seem to lay it out all out there with no missing pieces, as he recounts how the narratives of this family and this man merged. Even the mundane moments in the film feel unbelievable, as when the family refers to this foreigner they have taken in their arms by the name of Nicholas. Not even the FBI seems to question whether this man is anyone besides Nicholas, rationalizing his appearance and mannerisms to trauma.

Yet, there is never enough information to add to the twists and turns of the Imposter, and the film never relents, maintaining its entrancing quality until its final frame. Even with 10 minutes left to go there are amazing revelations that feel so intense, they might as well be 180-degree turns that will inspire a re-evaluation of anything that came before. It gives this documentary a rare quality worthy of repeat viewing.

Hans Morgenstern

The Imposter is Rated R (only for language) and runs 95 minutes. It premiered in Miami during the Miami International Film Festival earlier this year and won the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary competition. It opens in the South Florida area theatrically this Friday, Sept. 14, at many indie theaters. Here they are:

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
O Cinema – Miami, FL
Tower Theater – Miami, FL (one night only!)
Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned nationally throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here. The film’s distributor provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

“We’re all bad seeds,” says a character in Elena, a Russian film so focused on moral corruption it feels like a perfectly symmetrical sculpture of drama. The film by Andrei Zvyagintsev unfolds with a graceful efficiency that I have not experienced since the Dardenne Brothers’ Kid With a Bike (‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). But where that film ended on a poetic, if ambiguous note, Elena hums along on a stark, chilling drone that never lets the viewer go.

The film’s tone steers far from the high-pitched. Zvyagintsev guides the drama with a firm, steady hand. It opens slow, as dawn arrives outside an upscale apartment. The shrieks of crows on the bare branches outside the ultra-modern apartment turn to the twitter of little birds. Inside, a couple wakes in separate beds. Middle-aged Elena (Nadezhda Markina) gets up just ahead of her alarm, and she wanders to another room to tap her slightly older-looking husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). Their relationship seems ambiguous at first, even after discussion of family and money. Instead,little details of it (they have been married two years, he met her when she worked as a nurse almost 10 years earlier) come out in well-placed tidbits here and there, cropping up to do the best service to the drama, calling for an attentive but not over-alert audience.

The film seems to just wash over the viewer with simple but illustrative situations. The viewer will soon meet Elena’s son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) and his family, after Elena takes a lengthy trek via streetcar then train followed by a long walk. All the while Philip Glass’ broody  “Symphony No. 3, Movement III” drones along. It is the only extra-diegetic music Zvyagintsev uses, and it will only appear three times in the film. Like the best of efficient filmmakers, Zvyagintsev knows how to use mood music for maximal effect, cuing audience awareness.

He also knows how to use action, dialogue and set pieces to their fullest narrative potential, including subtext. The extreme difference between Sergey’s rundown, tiny apartment, located near a nuclear power plant, which also houses his wife, teenage son and baby boy feels cramped. It seems to ooze cheap possessions from its cracking façade. The graffiti covered hallways on the ground floor, along with the teenage punk loiterers stooped outside the building sharing a bottle of drink bring to mind A Clockwork Orange.

Elena is a stark experience to watch unfold, and it is so well made, it almost feels like a spoiler to explain the plot beyond the director’s expert handling of all the devices he can employee of cinema. He earns every scene while avoiding quick, flashy cuts, hysterical acting and over-stylized camera use. The film only has one jarring scene of shaky handheld camera, and when it appears it carries with it an ominous sense of dread.

Zvyagintsev employs steady-handed direction that even makes the banal dreck of game shows and lifestyle reports coming out of the TV in some scene feel relevant to his statement. Do not expect much of a cathartic release come the film’s end. In fact, the path the director takes to arrive there feels like a sickening downward spiral that offers a harsh critique of society and only continues to propagate the scary image of post-Soviet Russia. Despite its bleakness, watching the masterful work of Zvyagintsev offers its own reward. This film did not win the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes 2011 for nothing.

Hans Morgenstern

Elena is not rated, runs 109 min. and is in Russian with English subtitles. Zeitgeist Films provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens in South Florida on Friday, June 8, at many independent cinemas Miami Beach Cinematheque, the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso, Living Room Theaters, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth and the Lake Worth Playhouse. For screenings across the nation, visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

In the 15 or so years since Whit Stillman wrote and directed a movie I have either A) grown too old and cynical B) he has lost his knack for writing smart, ironic dialogue or C) he thinks  Millennials are too dumb to speak as smart as Gen Xers. His return to the big screen, Damsels in Distress, has its moments but does not feel as sure-footed as his earlier films, like Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994).

The film opens with Violet, Heather and Rose (Greta GerwigCarrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) picking out new friend Lily (Analeigh Tipton) from a batch of transfer students to their college, Seven Oaks. Though one might assume this is Stillman’s take on Mean Girls or Heathers, it soon becomes apparent these women only act out of an honest sincerity. The preppy East Coast college where most of the action unfolds seems to exist in some alternate universe where the average IQ of humanity lands a few notches lower than that of the movie’s audience. There is simply no room in these kids’ brains for hidden agendas. Seven Oaks is a privileged school where most students look like something out of a J. Crew or Ralph Lauren ad, yet some are too ignorant to know the colors of the rainbow.

The film has a sense of unfolding in today’s age of Internet social networking and text messages. Early in Damsels in Distress, when the girls take Lily to her first frat party, Violent hears the nineties-era dance song “Another Night” and exclaims, “Ooo, an oldie but a goodie.” She also cherishes a hand-written note from an ex in which he scrawled: “Out for brewskies back in a gif,” misspelling “jiff.” She says no one takes the time to write hand-written notes anymore.*

Still, there is a dark side to Seven Oaks. The school seems to have a high suicide rate among its students. The education department in particular seems notorious for suicide attempts. Thankfully, those majoring in education seem too dumb to realize a leap from the top of a two-story building only leaves them maimed. Enter Violet and her friends who run the Suicide Prevention Center. Their therapy? Tap dancing. The three girls only want to help their peers. They attend frat parties to intervene and keep frat boys happy by talking and dancing with them.

Violet in particular has a passion for dancing, and Gerwig embraces her character with particular delight. Her goal in life is to start a dance craze called the Sambola. After her premiere Sambola event fails for lack of attendance, Violet stays cheery and shrugs it off, saying it’s like the Myth of Sisyphus. Heather notes, “The important thing to remember is that he was mythical.” There are some hilarious moments of this naïveté run amok. Heather’s boyfriend Thor (Billy Magnussen) is in college to finally learn the colors. It turns out he is the product of parents seeking to create an overachiever. Heather explains that his parents had him skip preschool, which means he missed learning the colors. “You think knowing the colors is so important!” he yells in frustration to a fellow brother. It’s truly an over-the-top, hyper dumbing down that seems unreal but skewers the new generation of the so-called entitled because the parents of these kids told them “you can be anything you want to be.”

This is a world far removed from Stillman’s earlier films of privileged, naïve people who at least offered eloquent thoughts on the difficulty of maneuvering through social constructs. Some either rebelled against them or tried to squeeze into them. In Damsels we have only one questioning soul in the form of Lily, who seems to just go with the flow. Early in the film, Lily seems to short-circuit Heather’s brain after Lily explains to her new friends that her ex-boyfriend Xavier (Hugo Becker) spells his name with an X and not a Z. “That’s impossible,” huffs Heather, arguing that the only way it could be spelled is with a Z because of the mark Zorro left in the movies. Lily tries to argue her side, but Violet steps in and humors Heather’s argument by making up the existence of a rival, less popularly known Xorro who left his mark with an X. When that seems to calm Heather, Lily accepts it.

Throughout the film, Lily asks the questions but just floats along with it, accepting Violet’s convoluted misinformation for the sake of the mental stability of those surrounding them. It sets Lily up to make a mistake that later proves degrading to herself after Xavier takes advantage of Lily’s own dumbing-down in the bedroom. This is no way for anyone to find education and grow up, and in the end no one does. There lies the inherent problem of the movie: If conflicts are so easily resolved by humoring ignorance, why should we care about these people? It’s funny for a bit, but becomes grating, tiresome and plain pathetic fast.

Stillman maintains his skills for the witty dialogue that made him an exciting voice in the nineties era of American indie film, but it lacks the robust meatiness of those earlier films. If this is social commentary, the degree to which the friends accommodate ignorance is frightening and superficial. This condescending perspective feels a bit of a cop-out for Stillman. There is no real resolution in the end or lesson learned, much less transcendence (unless you consider a dance number that explains the Sambola transcendental). In fact, Stillman ends the film with a few footnotes refuting some of the falsehoods these characters take to heart. In the world of Damsels, ignorance is bliss and bliss can only be found through the false safety of ignorance.

Hans Morgenstern

*Underneath that, the notion that jiff is short for jiffy may just be lost among these characters. Ironically, the word’s origin is listed as unknown, according to Miriam Webster’s dictionary. Maybe Stillman is skewering the ignorance of society in general?


Damsels In Distress is rated PG-13 and runs 99 minutes. Though it has already opened in select theaters in the US, the film now finally opens in select South Florida theaters on April 27, including the Regal South Beach in Miami Beach, the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale, the Regal Delray 18 in Delray Beach, the Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton and the Sunrise 11 in Sunrise. Update: Damsels will also play at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale on June 27 (tickets).

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne work in a world of efficient drama. Their cinema is stripped of sentimentality yet still captures intimate moments with powerful focus that stays with a viewer long after leaving the cinema. Their spare films are experiences that stick like solid memories. You know when you have seen a Dardenne film. Characters suffer ordeals or undergo life changes that feel visceral and personal. Sometimes they are subtle (the titular character of Rosetta [1999] undergoes a glimmer of change that may or may not help her rise out of a downtrodden life in a trailer park). Other times they are more dramatic (the main character of Lorna’s Silence [2008] finds the strength and cunning to free herself from a world that could be considered modern slavery).

The Dardennes have a consistent style. Simple, sudden splices separate the scenes. There are no fades, overlaps or dissolves. Everything is shot on handheld high-definition digital cameras. There are no dramatic singular shots like swoops, zooms or close-ups. The soundtrack generally avoids non-diegetic music. When such music does appear, it stands out with potent purpose. Lighting seems natural and unfiltered. The actors have a natural style, and the Dardennes have been known to work with non-stars or non-actors. The brothers have never strayed from this style over the years. In fact, they have only perfected and fine-tuned it. The mix of these techniques effectively capture a austerity where only the drama of the situations influence the audience in an authentic and honest manner.

All the action that unfolds in a film by the Dardennes never feels superfluous. They build up the scenes with such efficiency that when the last few scenes arrive toward the end of the film, the balance of suspense fills you with anticipation. You begin to trust the Dardennes on an almost subconscious level. If a character goes off to do something seemingly banal, you know it will have to serve the story in some way. No moment is wasted in a film by this duo.

None of the Dardenne films I have seen have felt more tight and focused than the Kid With a Bike, which only now finally finds a distributor in IFC Films after sharing the 2011 Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The film follows 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) on his quest for a father figure after his biological father (Jérémie Renier) leaves him at a boarding school. The insistent quality of this little boy is smartly established at the start of the film when he refuses to give up listening to an out-of-service message on the phone, as a school counselor pleads him to hang up the receiver.

Cyril feels kinetic, even while laying in bed. He always seems breathless. He’s a steadfast creature. When the neighborhood drug dealer Wesker (Egon Di Mateo) names him “pitbull” the name seems apt. The kid fights for his bike, his final connection to his AWOL father, with unrelenting zeal. Wesker preys on this fatherless child, inviting him to video games and soda at his apartment and soon devises a scheme that will harness this child’s peculiar energy. It’s an energy and drive familiar to many who are preyed on to enter gangs at young ages. The purpose in Cyril to impress a male figure in his life is so strong, it transcends criminal activity. He does not even care for a cut of the take from Wesker, telling him he’s only doing it for him because he told him to do it.

The boy is in deep pain, which comes out in equal parts aggression and aloofness, when it’s not focused on impressing Wesker or during the quiet bliss in the all too brief company of his actual father. On the receiving end of most of this misguided aggression is the boy’s foster mother, the hairdresser Samantha (Cécile De France). She hesitantly agrees to take Cyril in after helping the boy find his missing bike at the start of the film. He imposes himself on her, asking if she might see him on weekends. She cannot seem to help herself from saying “no.” She even helps Cyril track down his father, who only sees the boy as a burden he does not want. The film is as much about this woman’s courage to step in when the boy’s father decides to take the easy way out to “start over.”

Though the Kid With a Bike is the Dardennes’ tightest film, I have not seen them ever compromise their style for a pat ending. Though the boy seems to find some kind of peace at the film’s end, the Dardennes do not hold back throwing a monkey wrench into the story with a powerful finale that leaves the viewer wondering. The open-endedness of their films is also key to their style defined by their lo-fi cinematic style. The rawness of their movies seek to capture the sensation of true-life experience. Just as life goes on after one completes a phase in growth (however big or small that experience might feel), thus it goes on after the final fade to black in a Dardenne film. Just as you never know what might happen next with every moment in life, you never get luxuriated with the promise of a tidy ending in a Dardenne film. Life goes on and who knows what is next? Bring on another Dardenne film.

Hans Morgenstern

The Kid With a Bike is not rated, runs 87 min. and is in French with English subtitles. It opens in Miami Beach Friday, Apr. 6, at 6:45 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It will play a series of dates as part of the theater’s on-going series “Les Freres Dardennes.” The series also includes one-night-only screenings of the above mentioned Rosetta (Thursday, March 29, at 8 p.m.) and L’Enfant, which also stars Jérémie Renier (Thursday, April 5, at 8 p.m.). The Kid With a Bike also opens in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Friday, Apr. 6, at 7 p.m. and to the north, in Broward County, at the Cinema Paradiso, also on Apr. 6, but at 6 p.m.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)