September 23, 2016
Memory is a funny thing, it ebbs and flows with one’s mood and circumstances and so does perspective. In Max Rose, we meet a recent widower (played by Jerry Lewis), who finds reason to believe that his wife of 65 years, Eva (Claire Bloom) was in love with another man. He declares at her funeral that the marriage “was a lie.” Max, who is already a cantankerous old man, becomes even more recalcitrant after his loss and engaging in a revisionist journey wherein he lets his own demons pollute his mind. Lewis, in his first feature role in more than 20 years, does well in presenting the depression and anger that Max suffers, and it is perhaps the most redeeming quality of the film because something else is still missing.
February 12, 2015
Throughout his oeuvre, writer/director Xavier Dolan has presented viewers with the great range of loving relationships. Love cannot be contained in neat categories constrained by normalcy or appropriateness. In his films, love spills over, revealed in raw emotion both beautiful and ugly. In Mommy, Dolan has developed characters filled with contradictions, shortcomings and limitations, brought to life through powerful performances by Anne Dorval as Diane, mother to teenage Steve played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon. These raw performances coupled with Dolan’s stylistic narrative make Mommy one of the most immersive, adventurous and – dare I say – masterful films of this year. It rightfully won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 tying with another master, Jean-Luc Godard (Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D affirms a master filmmaker’s place in history of cinema). Mommy also won the Best North American Film Award at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
The film opens to a stark announcement about a law that allows parents to commit their children to a state-run facility if they are beyond control. The harsh law is also a warning for the audience to brace themselves, as the world we are about to enter is not an easy one. Mommy is the story of a dysfunctional family, a recently widowed woman and her teenage son, who has just been released from an institution, struggle to make a life for themselves. Circumstances constrain both mother and son. They live in economic distress and have difficulty managing their emotions in socially acceptable ways. The emotionally fractured characters are all strong and vulnerable, needing a family while rejecting structures — a modern tale of family.
The film kicks off with the encounter between mother and son, which is both a violent clash between two opposing worlds and a beautiful encounter between two family members who love each other so deeply it hurts. Diane “Die” Després (Dorval) is a recently widowed single mother living pay check to pay check. Die flaunts an over-sexualized image complete with youthful, scantily clad outfits that make for a garish exterior. Her maternal instincts kick in when Steve comes to live with her. Steve is loud and rude, but his is also screaming for attention and starving for familial connection. Going through adolescence, Steve’s sexuality is also very much present. Both Die and Steve are deeply affected by the loss of Steve’s father a few years earlier, and although they love each other deeply, their dynamic is fraught with confrontations that escalate to conflict easily. Dolan does not hold back, constraining much of the action in a suffocating 1:1 aspect ratio, and inviting the actors to express their characters to grating, bombastic heights that those familiar with his work should be prepared for.
Early in the movie, Steve comes home with bags filled with groceries and a gift for Die: a gold necklace that spells “Mommy.” He clearly has no way to pay for any of these things, and his worried mother scornfully implies thieving, shutting down his at first triumphant and exuberant entrance. Feeding off her negativity, Steve’s joy quickly turns to a violent outburst, one of the constants in the character dynamic throughout the film, which also seems on the edge of exploding in unpredictable ways.
Pilon’s performance captures that teenage angst and volatility brilliantly, and Dolan understands how to ratchet them with his shooting style. Some of the shots of Steve by himself running around and playing with a shopping cart in a parking lot showcase that combination of boredom and excess of energy all captured in the narrow confines of a life that seems overbearing, as demonstrated with a tighter aspect ratio than the sometimes familiar and more comfortable 4:3. Dolan’s stylistic choice therefore pushes the film medium to new heights, which is what makes him an exciting director. His defiance to the establishment can be likened to Steve’s own frustration with rules and order.
The complex relationship between mother and son is somewhat alleviated by the presence of neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who becomes a friend to Die and a caretaker to Steve. Unable to connect with her own family because of a mysterious trauma early in her life, Kyla suffers from a speech impediment that becomes less pronounced as she settles in with Steve and Die. Her ability to find her voice comes as the three characters discover an unconventional family structure. The trio go from feeling trapped in their own circumstances to a freeing state that feels easy and open. As the entire mood of the film changes, “Wonderwall” by Oasis takes over the soundtrack, and beyond Steve’s smile, we can hear Noel Gallagher’s bratty cool voice intone, “Back beat, the word is on the street/That the fire in your heart is out.” The relief is so enjoyable it’s easy to forget the looming warning foreshadowed at the top of the film: the possibility of having Steve committed.
Dolan’s fifth film is as much an exploration on familial relationships and friendships, as it is a transformation in his filmmaking to another level. The exuberance and emotion that jump out of the screen are as much a product of strong performances as they are a result of Dolan’s directorial vision to take light, music and even the screen in a different direction. The stylistic choices in Mommy are not gratuitous but serve the overall arc of the story, doing what cinema does best, telling a story with imagery that captures all your senses. Dolan’s Mommy grabs on to your psyche and does not let go, and it will stay with you.
Mommy runs 139 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is rated R (for cussing and sexual referencing). It opens this Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami Beach and The Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale. To find screenings elsewhere in the US click here. The Coral Gables Art Cinema hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
It is not easy to film a historic moment that some viewers will remember, such as a critical juncture wherein the Civil Rights Movement focused on a single issue: electoral rights. Nonetheless, director Ava DuVernay delivers with Selma, an extraordinary film filled with solid performances and an intense atmosphere that is truly a cinematic experience.
The story of Selma is layered in history, politics, social awareness and a humanized biography. DuVernay tracks several people from different walks of life with real high stakes. As much as the film focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, his leadership style and his family, the genius of DuVernay is that she humanizes the film by focusing also on everyday people in the south. The film goes beyond a biopic work and becomes an engrossing and relatable story about what it was like to live in Selma, Alabama in the early 1960s. It should be noted that DuVernay made history herself, by being the first African-American female director to earn a Golden Globe nomination — a well-earned nod.
Selma starts quietly with what seems to be a very positive moment for Dr. King, played marvelously by David Oyelowo. He is in Norway to accept a Nobel Peace Prize. He is charismatic, charming and even a bit hesitant about the life he has chosen. He jokes with his wife, Coretta Scott King (an equally amazing Carmen Ejogo), about being a preacher in a small college town. Through this and other even more intimate moments, DuVernay humanizes Dr. King. He is a leader with doubts, concerns, fear and in constant search of how to do what is both right for the struggle and right for the people he has mobilized.
That the film did not have access to the original speeches because of budget constraints does not in any way hinder the film’s outcome. Oyelowo plays King with a strength that shines through the screen guaranteed to stir an emotional response from the audience. The sequences with King delivering speeches show a passionate leader, who is speaking as much to himself as he is directing his words to a crowd. Oyelowo makes it obvious that there is self-doubt in this great leader. The fact that we are hearing these words for the first time actually helps the film, engaging the audience in the film itself instead of standing out as a reenactment of a moment in time that might be very familiar to some.
Among a remarkable ensemble cast, one of the highlights of this film is a standout performance by Ejoga as Coretta Scott King. As a supporting actress, Ejoga made the most of this film, and her representation of Coretta feels both authentic and fresh. I would not be surprised if she is recognized later on with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress from the Academy. Another solid performance came from none other than Oprah Winfrey, who plays Annie Lee Cooper, a woman willing the courage it would take for an African-American citizen to register to vote in Selma prior to the Civil Rights Act. Her tone and gestures are filled with an apprehensive strength, and in the quiet sighs and defiant gazes, she shows that the Civil Rights Movement went well beyond the marches, sit-ins and brilliant speeches. The everyday struggle was part of the mounting anger that later won the hearts and minds of supporters from across the country. Terms like second-rate citizen are often bandied about when talking about racial disparities in America, but in the performances of Winfrey, not to mention Henry J. Sanders as Cager Lee, the audience gets to witness what the term second-class citizenship actually means.
The film comes at an incredibly timely year, as 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The big issues of racial disparity, abuse of authority and the struggle of racial minorities to exercise the right to govern their own lives are still very much top of mind with the unresolved issues of Ferguson and the series of protests still being held under the umbrella hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, Selma is a well-timed film and a must-watch, even for the apolitical public, as the drama is compellingly constructed by DuVernay.
Selma is rated PG-13 (expect violence and some cursing), runs 127 minutes. It opens wide in the United States on Friday, Jan. 9. Get showtimes and tickets here. Paramount invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
Update: Selma is returning to theaters for an encore round of screenings on March 20 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of this important moment in history. For local showtimes, visit this link.
August 1, 2014
I’ve been a fan of Vincent Moon since 2010, however, I had never heard about him until last week. Before then, I had spent countless hours watching La Blogothèque videos and other films directed by Moon but never paid attention to his name. I became aware of this videos by just searching for music that I like, which I often play it in the background, but there was something so unique about the videos from La Blogothèque. They are filled with a humanity that is usually absent from music videos, the type of incredible connection you can have to a musician during a live concert. These videos were also adventurous, often featuring some kind of action in the streets that just seemed very exciting and spontaneous. It was only until I listened to Moon talk about his artistic philosophy and filming style at an event hosted by the Indie Film Club last week that I understood how someone can encapsulate so much humanity into a very small video.
Last Thursday, July 24, I attended a retrospective on Moon’s work (read our preview interviews here). It sounded half bombastic to me: attending a retrospective for a guy who’s not 35 yet and has not released commercial work under the auspices of a big production house. Nonetheless, I was intrigued because of my own personal connection to the music that is in most of his work. The setting was The Screening Room, a small gallery in Wynwood, an unassuming room filled with fold out chairs and dozens of aspiring filmmakers.
The talk started as a friendly Q&A led by Diliana Alexander, Indie Film Club’s executive director, who admitted to the audience, “I’ve been trying to bring Vincent to Miami for years.” And there he was in front of an eager, capacity audience. He described his philosophy of making films as an artist would. He creates content that is free of charge and uploads it to Vimeo, YouTube or his own website for everyone to enjoy. His budgets are non-existent. “I believe it keeps things pure,” he said in a heavy French accent (he grew up in Paris, but has no specific home since about 2008). Indeed, the artist approaches each project from a human perspective, his goal, he described, is to make people look beautiful and showcase beauty through what they do: music. But much to my surprise he sees music as an expression of community and culture. He looks at musicians as generators of culture or providers of meaning as a cultural expression.
Moon quickly took over the conversation and often interrupted the discussion to share some of his favorite videos. In all of the highlights he shared, he described them as an experience that could not be replicated. Someone in the audience asked him about preparation ahead of each shoot. He said he travels around the world and meets with different musicians and people whom he records, but there’s no direction. When asked about research, he scoffed, paused and said that he traveled to each location without preconceived ideas. That’s when I understood the marvel behind the videos because you are experiencing with him something unique through his camera lens. One of my favorite videos he shared that night is the following. It took place in Argentina and you can see how it captures a moment in time that is quite special. The background sounds add an atmospheric layer that cannot be replicated– Moon mentioned it was firecrackers among other sounds that you can hear in the background adding an almost surreal percussive accompaniment.
As the night went on, a lot of the filmmakers wanted to know how he survives financially or how the artists themselves benefit, as his work is freely available to anyone for download. He was a little puzzled by the questions, just as puzzled as the audience about his disregard for “making it big.” He picks places based on a feeling and admits that his worry is the opposite. His concern is how big budgets actually take away something from his work. He relishes the freedom and challenge of working with minimal resources because limitations spark his own creativity.
I am only thankful to Indie Film Club for creating a space where directors like him can be featured at Miami venues. I leave you with my favorite videos (part I and II) from the Take Away shows. Shot in Colombia, featuring Bomba Estereo. I love how the music blends with the landscape…
May 14, 2014
Cinema is one of those art mediums that can succinctly introduce us to the zeitgeist of a particular country. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Romania has experienced a filmmaking revival that captures a culture in transition with deep attachments to the past and mixed emotions about capitalism. Young Romanian filmmakers are not subtle about their statements. This new crop of films tend to be raw, shot in a naturalistic style and seldom adorned with fancy soundtracks or special effects. In fact, recent films have a hyper-realistic or cinéma vérité character. Some might argue it could be the transparency of the films’ low budgets. However, the minimalist aesthetic is a choice that is part of the narrative, portraying a lived-in austerity that also heightens human drama.
The shift from the USSR to a type of capitalist system has in fact created a state of confusion where embedded practices such as favors, clientelism and nepotism meet the rules and regulations of the free market, where previously banned themes such as religion and traditional costumes harken back to the days of monarchy are now revived along with the contrasting influences from Western culture. For instance, in Beyond the Hills (read our review here), the contrast between these two parallel streams of influences are portrayed on film with a powerful physical performance by the amazing actress Christina Flutur, who shared the Actress prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival with her co-star Cosmina Stratan (it was also our favorite film of last year). The tension between different influences from traditional religious thought, to Western life views, capitalism and the remnant Soviet bureaucratic structures are some of the recurring themes of these films.
A wealth of studies have described and analyzed post-Soviet politics and economics. However, the extent to which culture and the daily reality of how people live remains an open subject. Film rather effectively captures the daily aspect of life in the confusing post-Soviet context, at times with shocking imagery, such as in Beyond the Hills, and at times with rather dark humor, as in Police Adjective. With these films we learn that transition is a complex and painful process where a country rediscovers its ancient past through religious beliefs and looks to the future by embracing foreign influences from the West, still a new territory for this developing democracy. These films tend to be sarcastic and embrace a sort of black humor that understands the irony of change tinged with a lack of expectations on a bright future.
The film revival in Romania has not only brought us insight into the country, however. It has also given us some all-around terrific films. The list below is a short taste of some of the more salient and powerful of these films.
One of the most famous exports of the Romanian New Wave, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days takes place in the late 1980s, during Ceausescu’s communist regime. It explores the relationship between two girlfriends, one of whom is pregnant and in search of an abortion, which was illegal under Ceausescu. The film offers a focused analysis of interpersonal relationships during Soviet rule and a peeping hole through which we can learn a few facts about how life was like behind the iron curtain. For instance, the prevalence of a black market in many facets of daily life, not just back alley abortions. Director Cristian Mungiu became the first director of the Romanian New Wave to earn a Palme D’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. His minimalist style and realist treatment of unresolved or problematic issues in Romania are now a signature of the movement, but his deft cinematic pacing remains unmatched.
Police, Adjective is a black comedy that wittily exposes the fissures of modern life in Romania. The existence of draconian laws alongside a reality that cannot fit with those laws results in many dark comedic moments. Officer Cristi is tasked with arresting a young marijuana dealer but cannot bring himself to do it. He finds that the definitions of procedural justice lack an inherent morality. Police, Adjective has some great moments straddling the creaky line between the factual to the absurd aspects of the judicial system. As opposed to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the film’s pacing will feel languorous to some, but it’s all the better to highlight the film’s deadpan observations.
Another triumph by Mungui, Beyond the Hills showcases the relationship between two women who grew up together as orphans and re-encounter each other after years of separation. Alina emigrated to Germany to work, and she believes her dear friend Voichita will join her there. Instead, Voichita decided to join a convent in the small town where the friends grew up in together. A dearth of opportunities for young people in their home country makes it so the choice of migrating or joining a convent appear as archetypal of a lack of social mobility and opportunity since the fall of Soviet rule. When these two women meet again, there is an immediate tension. Alina is ready to pick up where they left off, as there is a suggestion of deep intimacy between these women. However, Voichita cannot see past her religious garb and the strict patriarchal environment she has been part of since leaving the orphanage. Orthodox Christianity (pre-dating the Enlightenment) and Western influences collide through Alina and Voichita. Alina is no match, as Voichita’s character is embedded in the Orthodox Christian convent, with its hierarchical arrangement and a priest at the helm leading the charge against female disobedience. This is a must-see from the movement and a personal favorite.
Bureaucracy, corruption, status and plain greed come together to paint a stark reality of what it’s like to live in contemporary Romania. It is not only a difficult proposition for those who are born out of privilege. For those who occupy the seat of privilege, life does not seem that much better. This intelligent and challenging drama presents the life of well-to-do, overbearing Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu) who would do anything for her child. When her son finds himself in serious trouble she jumps at the opportunity to save him and take charge of his life. What happens next is surprising, as despite the existent system of corruption, what prevails is a redemption of those who seek forgiveness.
One of the earlier films of the wave, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is Director Cristi Piui’s version of Dante’s Inferno (he followed it up with another strong entry, Aurora; read our review here). It all begins when Mr. Lazarescu calls an ambulance after he falls terribly ill. Paramedics respond, and the EMT, at first rude and cold, takes him to the hospital. And so begins his slow, gradual process of deterioration. The critique on the healthcare system is impressive. Hospitals move at a glacial pace and with the heaviness of Soviet bureaucracy. This is no surprise; it was in 2012 when the international media took notice that Romania’s healthcare system works through bribes and some of the most in-need are left without care if there are no bribes to give. The film was ahead of the international media coverage, released in 2005. While Lazarescu waits to be treated, even though he is clearly dying, life carries on around him in the most trivial of ways as when a doctor complains that there is nobody around to lend him a Nokia charger. The stark reality is also met with humanity as the EMT grows invested in helping Mr. Lazarescu. However, his death is still imminent. The cruelty of reality without embellishment, one of the main features of this film movement, is aptly captured by this film.
*The Bill Cosford Cinema in Miami will host a special one-day-only 35mm screening of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on Sunday, May 18, at 11:30 a.m.
January 4, 2014
As film genres go, mumblecore is as independent and obscure a label as it gets. Consider this post a guide to that film movement, which sometimes gets thrown about by the would-be hipster/film connoisseur.
Former SXSW producer Matt Dentler championed many of these films, which all characteristically had conversation-driven plots that often meandered and were not necessarily enunciated as best they could by the mostly amateur actors involved (Hollywood Reporter: How To Speak Mumblecore). It loosely describes some independent films that came about in the mid-2000s. The label, though, is not an accepted genre; filmmakers do not acknowledge it and some film critics hate it. In 2007, Amy Taubin, a member of the New York Critics film circle, famously once stated mumblecore “has had its fifteen minutes.” However, in order to appreciate many of indie cinema’s current working filmmakers, one should not disregard their roots in this oft-maligned but key and even sometimes entertaining moment in independent American cinema.
All these films are dominated by talking. The plots are somewhat simple and acting is natural. Often, actors improvise dialogue. The term “actors” roughly describes the people in the films, as they are not necessarily actors by trade but mutual friends. The cast is then an amalgam of lesser-known people that have some sort of quick shorthand among each other. The films, shot with very small budgets, made the rounds at film festivals. Some were better than others.
It is safe to say that the wave of mumblecore films has ended, leaving a few good films behind and creating a crop of directors that have since created some great films with larger budgets. If anything, one can celebrate the movement as a training ground for the likes of Andrew Bujalski, who, last year, gave us the amazing Computer Chess (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber), and the very talented Greta Gerwig who co-wrote and starred in one of the best movies last year, Frances Ha.
The characters in mumblecore films all seem stuck in a state of arrested development, partly imposed by a lack of economic opportunities but also self-imposed, as these twenty-somethings are marred by self-doubt, fear of commitment and what seems to be a prolonged adolescence. The films in this genre certainly capture the zeitgeist of being young and middle class in early 2000s America, and therefore, the self-conscious, distant, hesitant young characters in mumblecore ring true to life.
This attitude has recently been criticized by people like clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who called for twenty-somethings to reclaim their coming of age rather than continue to postpone it during a recent TED Talk. While Jay is right in stating that the decisions we make early on determine much of our lives, this very idea may be one of the contributing factors to indecisiveness, which is so aptly depicted in many mumblecore movies. Young people bombarded with competing messages on success, relationships and an obsession with being happy all the time boil under these pressures to the point that some may wish to avoid moving forward altogether. To me, it also portrays characters ill-equipped with disappointment-coping mechanisms and faced with too many choices, all of which are loaded with meaning and fate. Mumblecore should therefore be celebrated for its honest depiction of neo-slacker generational malaise that’s all too real in current American society.
Although this post does not exhaustively cover all the many movies attributed to this scene, I do wish to offer some highlights. Outlined above are several of the most salient players in the scene. The information in the infographic is not meant to be all-encompassing, rather the works listed pertain to the mumblecore movement. Some of the names and faces will look familiar, as these directors have recently been making great films with bigger budgets and trade actors. The Duplass brothers most notably have broken into mainstream TV with the likes of “The League” and “The Mindy Kaling Project.” Rather than outliving its “15 minutes,” mumblecore was a short-lived movement that— as does adolescence— must come to an end. Below is a list of my favorite films in the genre. All titles titles link to the home video releases on Amazon. If you follow that link and purchase them, a percentage of the sale goes back to support this blog.
Short list: Some mumblecore films to watch
Mutual Appreciation (2005)
At the core of this film is a relationship between Lawrence and Ellie. They profess their love to each other, but the camera reveals uneasiness with settling into the relationship. Every awkward pause is long and full of meaning. The writing is smart and witty. Not a date movie but one to watch if you’re interested in the quintessential mumblecore film.
Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)
A Joe Swanberg film, Hannah Takes the Stairs follows Hannah and her relationship with men. Hannah falls for her office mates one after another while in a relationship that quickly goes sour. Greta Gerwig’s performance here is a revelation, a sweet characterization of trying to find love while finding yourself.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012)
One of the best movies I’ve seen on sibling rivalry, ever. Aptly directed by the Duplass brothers, the “Do-Deca-Pentathlon” is a sort-of “Olympics” developed by two brothers when they were young. Alas, as it happens with epic childhood battles, the score was never settled, fanning the flames of an already heavy competitiveness into adulthood. The brothers meet again in all their middle-aged glory to try and settle that unresolved score.
Funny Ha Ha (2002)
It is the first film attributed to this genre. Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha is a story about Marnie, a recent college grad who is not quite sure what comes next in her life. She is shy, smart and unsure. There’s a lot of comedy involved, as the film depicts passive-aggressive behavior combined with the unaffected sweetness portrayed by Marnie. If you haven’t seen it, and you’re a recent college grad, I highly recommend it.