Wars are shocking and impactful phenomena that have devastating consequences for the human experience. As Betrand Russel once said, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” It is in this vein that French filmmaker Christian Carion has directed his latest film, Come What May, a suspense-filled drama he co-wrote with Andrew Bampfield and Laure Irrmann that depicts Nazi atrocities in such a vivid way it will get the audience furious all over again about that terrible regime. Despite a formulaic feeling that will be familiar to those who have seen many World War II films, the violence is quite vivid and inescapable, set in contrast to the bucolic European landscape, which is heightened by strong camera work and a score from a well-known composer.
Embrace of the Serpent director talks about casting Amazonian non-actors, cinematic mysticism and the unconscious influence of 2001
March 16, 2016
Last week, Embrace of the Serpent, a movie that will certainly go down as one of the best films that saw release in the United States in 2016, started playing in area art houses in South Florida. This writer caught it last year as part of “Gems,” an annual mini film festival hosted by Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. For the most part, during the weekend-long event, I could tell when I saw excellent work (The Assassin, My Golden Days) and rather problematic work (Youth, The Club). But Embrace fell into another kind of category as far as cinematic experiences go. It confounded me. I knew I saw a brilliant film, though I did not understand how it worked as well as it did. It reminded me of the first time, back in 1999, when I saw Eyes Wide Shut in theaters. I knew I saw another masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, though I could not express exactly why it was so great. Several viewings later, having read the source material and written about it during my master’s degree, I came to understand it better and admire it deeper (I promise to publish the Lacanian analysis I wrote of the film by the end of the year).
It was a similar experience with Embrace of the Serpent. It took a second and even a third viewing before I could confidently understand what a masterpiece this film was. In speaking with at least four other film critics, over the months since I first saw the movie, I learned I was not the only with that same experience.
With it’s commercial release in 2016 last month by the marvelous indie studio Oscilloscope, it came time to reckon with this movie. I was honored that Michael Koresky of Film Comment, Criterion Collection and now Metrograph fame, allowed me to tangle with a close reading of it on Reverse Shot, the website he co-edits with Jeff Reichert. You can read my in-depth and somewhat spoilery review (but I think it will enhance a first time viewing, if you don’t want to invest in seeing it more than once) by jumping through the site’s logo below:
As the film headed to Miami, earlier this month, I also could not pass on an opportunity to speak to the film’s director Ciro Guerra, who helped clarify some questions I had about it. Guerra explained that he wanted to respect the culture he represents on the big screen. His research was extensive, including spending months in parts of the Amazon. After reading two books written by two early 20th century European explorers of the region, the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, he came up with the film’s dual narrative with co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal.
The film’s stories unfold by alternating between the narratives, one at the start of the 20th century and the other 40 years into the future. The film’s lead character is Karamakate, played by two native, non-actors, Nilbio Torres and the elder Antonio Bolivar, as he guides two different explorers based on the authors of the books Guerra used for research (Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis) on similar journeys in search of a near extinct plant with hallucinogenic properties called the yakruna. And don’t bother looking up yakruna. Its name was made up for the movie. “The Shaman asked to keep it fictional because those names are sacred,” said the director, speaking via phone from his home country of Colombia. “You shouldn’t learn them from a movie,” he added.
It’s a mystical film both thematically and cinematically. The connection between landscape and setting and the similarities among the different people Karamakate encounters speaks to the ineffable tangents of time and place (he thinks of the two explorers as the same man, as the later one uses the older one’s book in furthering his knowledge). This begs for something other than a straight narrative, which Guerra fulfills throughout the movie. He harnesses this anti-linear approach to storytelling to make insightful connections between scenes that share locations at different times as well as connecting the two explorers Karamakate guides through the Amazon basin via their essential selves and not their physical bodies. There’s even a duality in the shaman’s two selves that transcends age.
Below are some highlights of our conversation that should not spoil the film but allow for some insight into it. There’s simply nothing like this movie, and the more prepared you are for it, the more thrilling it will feel. Below our abridged Q&A you will find a link to a story I wrote in the Miami New Times, last week, which goes further into the concepts that inform the film.
Independent Ethos: What did the non-actors who played Karamakate surprise you with in their performances?
Ciro Guerra: I was very concerned about that at the beginning of the process because these are real people who haven’t been acting, and they have no relationship to theater or to cinema, so I thought it was going to be difficult to ask them to act. But they may not have this contact, but they have this oral tradition that they have kept alive for centuries really. So they know how to tell a story and they really, really know how to listen, and it’s not that easy to find an actor who can listen. They were especially happy about making the film and being able to perform in their own language.
What did either one of them bring to their roles that was special?
Nilbio, He’s more playful. He has a broader range. He could play very well if he’s angry. He could play very well if he’s sad. He could play with this very complex range of emotions because he’s really open to emotional experience. He’s a really dynamic actor. Antonio has the more serene approach. He just stands there and just with his existence, his gaze, looks at you. They were two completely different actors in a way, but what we did was we built on that. We constructed the two faces of a character, but they also trust their gut. They also helped us re-write part of the script to make them more accurate and true in many ways. It was a very creative process, a very collaborative process.
Where did you learn so much about pre-Colombian mysticism in the Amazon?
It was a long process of research. I didn’t know anything about it, but basically it was the writings of the explorers. They were my guides, at first, and then, when I arrived in the Amazon, I stayed about two and a half years, going back and forth and spending a lot of time with shamans, elders and different communities in the Amazon, learning about what makes the community different and special. It was very difficult at the beginning because in the Amazon you are constantly confronted. It’s just a different way of thinking from our own that it makes you wonder a lot of different things about who you are.
The sequence at the end of the film is amazing. How did you create those special effects?
It’s iconography of the Barasana people. That’s the way they represent the spiritual world. When we made the film, we didn’t want to do a special effects show. It was something more primitive. It was something a child could draw.
For me, the final scenes recall 2001‘s stargate sequence. Was that an influence?
Some people have said that, and it’s surprising to me, but it also makes perfect sense because these guys, these explorers, were the ones that opened up these ideas of the spirituality to the people, and that was something that was very big in the ’60s. So it sort of comes full circle in a way.
But it wasn’t a direct influence?
No, no, no. Maybe not on a conscious level because 2001 is one of my favorite movies of all time, so maybe on an unconscious level it was.
The musical score is incredible as well. It mixes electronics and native chanting. Can you tell me how this idea to mix the two came about?
It wasn’t just about using indigenous music, and that’s it. The film is about dialogue between two cultures, a dialogue that can be very violent at times, but it’s a story of cultures coming together, so the score is basically indigenous music in dialogue and the work of Western composers.
Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?
I couldn’t see the film in any other way. If I had to do it in color, I would prefer not to do it. It would be a completely different film.
This is the third time Colombia submitted one of your films to the Oscars. Now you are nominated. How does that make you feel?
It’s surprising. This year there were so many films by masters, and it was a surprise when we made the short list, but to be nominated is not something that you can see coming.
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You can read more of our conversation, including more on why Guerra shot in black and white, the quantum level of time and existence he learned from the Amazon tribes he encountered during the filmmaking process and how it influences his storytelling, in the Miami New Times by jumping through the link below:
Embrace of the Serpent runs 125 minutes, is in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin, Tikuna, Cubeo, Huitoto and maybe some other Amazonian dialects with English subtitles and is not rated (expect violent images and transcendence via natural hallucinogens). It is now playing in our South Florida area at the Tower Theater, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood. To the north, in Broward it is playing at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., where it is scheduled to continue to roll out through April, visit this link and scroll down to “screenings.” We first saw this movie as a guest of Miami International Film Festival’s Gems event, in October. All images in this post were provided by Oscilloscope, except for that of the director, which is from IMDB.com. Oscilloscope also provided a screener link for repeat viewings.
September 3, 2015
Before we get to the titles, let’s get some confusion out of the way: Last year, Miami-Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, gave South Florida a weekend-long taste of what the festival does half-way to its full-blown festival. They called it “MIFFecito,” a play on the festival’s acronym and the Cuban word for its native version of Espresso, cafecito. The festival unfolded exclusively in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood at the area’s MDC-operated Tower Theater. It was supposed to be a one-off affair, but earlier this year, the fest decided to bring it back, this time calling it “Gems,” for the quality of world cinema it sought to premiere in the area but couldn’t bring to its regular festival, mostly due to scheduling. (The MIFFecito brand has since been re-purposed by fest organizers for the name of an animated short film festival for children coming very soon to the Freedom Tower, check out the line-up here: MIFFecito at DWNTWN Art Days).
Last year saw some fine, little known movies as well as some not so impressive entries premiere in our area of Miami. I covered it for the Miami New Times with a colleague of the paper and the Florida Film Critics Circle, Juan Barquin. It was a mixed affair (MIFFECITO: SOME FILMS GRAB, OTHERS STUMBLE). One of the films I saw there, Lake Los Angeles, however, made into my top 20 of 2014 (The best movies of 2014, according to Hans Morgenstern — Part 1). So, indeed, there were gems in the rough.
This year’s edition, however, includes some highly anticipated movies that created big buzz at C the annes, Berlin and Sundance film festivals. The stand-outs include Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. Over the years Hou has grown into the darling Chinese filmmaker of film critics. Wong-Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou, former critics darlings, have also had their chances at the Wuxia genre to various levels of success. Like Wai’s Ashes of Time, word around The Assassin, is that Hou’s film hews incredibly close to his contemplative, rich, mise-en-scène-driven cinema.
Then there is Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (Film Review: ‘The Great Beauty’ earns it’s title by looking beyond the superficial). Sorrentino has had a hit and miss career, so it will be interesting to see how he has followed up his first real masterpiece. It could be dreadful or amazing. Here’s the recently released U.S. trailer:
It looks to deal with big existentialist questions in the grand style of The Great Beauty, so it could be totally up this writer’s alley. I just hope the star-power does not detract from its ideas.
Speaking of films that exude doubt, I have some reservations about the Hollywood version of the mining tragedy that trapped 33 Chilean miners for 69 days before a days-long rescue operation. Simply titled The 33, it stars a mixed cast of actors that include Rodrigo Santoro, Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Gabriel Byrne and Lou Diamond Phillips. It’s very Hollywood-centric for a movie about a moment where Chile made national headlines. Directed by Patricia Riggen, whose previous Hollywood movie was this, I reserve most of my suspicion for this one, a production from Warner Bros. that closes out the festival. Riggen does have a history with MIFF, however. She was the only woman director to ever open the fest with Under the Same Moon in 2008.
But there are more films to look forward to than to cock a doubtful eye at, including John Crowley’s Brooklyn, with a script written by Nick Hornby and Trash, a film co-directed by Stephen Daldry and Christian Duurvoort. Though some would say their best films are now behind them, their talents are worth interest.
UPDATE: It was announced that another film was added to the line-up on Sept. 22. The line-up now also includes the Argentine film The Clan, which happens to be Argentina’s entry to the Oscar competition. It recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to sold out audiences, according to MIFF’s executive director Jaie Laplante. Here’s the trailer:
There’s still more to look forward to, as a total of 14 films (correction: 15 now) will premiere of the course of three days, Oct. 22 – 25, featuring more big names from the world cinema stage. Below you will find the press release that came out today with a complete listing of the program, events and guests:
For Immediate Release
Thursday, September 3, 2015
Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival Announces GEMS 2015 Film Lineup
GEMS, Miami International Film Festival’s fall event returns October 22 – 25, 2015
Film slate includes Berlin and Cannes Festival Award Winners, Oscar Hopefuls, and International Box Office Hits
Held exclusively at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater Miami
Special GEMS Preview Night to be held on October 5, 2015 featuring Stephen Daldry’s first foreign-language film, Trash
Miami, FL — Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, the only major film festival worldwide produced by a college or university, today unveiled the lineup for GEMS 2015, its permanent fall event created to whet Festivalgoers’ appetites for next year’s 33rd edition running March 4-13, 2016. Taking place over four days (October 22 – 25, 2015), GEMS will premiere highly-touted films from Cannes, Berlin & Sundance Film Festivals; Oscar hopefuls; and international box office sensations from the US, Spain, Chile, Italy, France, Colombia, and many others. MDC’s Tower Theater Miami will serve as the exclusive venue for all screenings and seminars.
GEMS will open with director John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a film adapted by Nick Hornby (An Education) from the Colm Toibin bestselling novel starring Oscar nominee for Atonement, Saoirse Ronan. The festival will close with Warner Bros’ highly-anticipated The 33 starring Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, Rodrigo Santoro, Mario Casas and Lou Diamond Phillips.
The Festival’s Executive Director & Director of Programming Jaie Laplante states, “Film festivals are dazzling times, when the shiniest lights of the current cinema are collected in one place for a concentrated moment. So it is with this year’s GEMS selection, and I invite film lovers of all types to experience las joyas de la corona of the season.”
The GEMS film slate includes:
Brooklyn (USA / Ireland), directed by John Crowley *OPENING NIGHT FILM – FOLLOWED BY OPENING NIGHT PARTY.
Adapted by Nick Hornby (An Education) from the Colm Toibin bestselling novel, this 1950s story follows the life of a young Irish woman caught between tradition and passion, between two countries and two futures. Starring Oscar nominee for Atonement, Saoirse Ronan, the cast also includes Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Emory Cohen, and Domhnall Gleason.
The 33 (USA / Chile), directed by Patricia Riggen *CLOSING NIGHT FILM – FOLLOWED BY CLOSING NIGHT PARTY.
An international rescue effort to save 33 Chilean miners trapped 2,300 foot underground for 69 days in the Copiapó mine riveted over a billion people in 2010, and now a superb international film adaptation recreates the details of that unprecedented event. The epic list of cast names includes Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche and Rodrigo Santoro.
The Assassin (Taiwan), directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien *WINNER OF BEST DIRECTOR AT CANNES 2015
In 9th century China, 10-year-old Nie Yinniang is abducted by a nun who transforms her into an impressive warrior. One day, she is sent back to the land of her birth, with orders to kill the man whom she was promised, and Nie Yinniang must choose: assassinate the man she loves or break forever from the sacred honor of her training.
The Club (El club) (Chile), directed by Pablo Larraín
Director Pablo Larraín’s follow-up to his global success and Oscar-nominated No, (starring Gael García Bernal), is a tough, scathing and psychologically sobering indictment on the Catholic Church’s handling of moral failings within the institution.
Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) (Colombia), directed by Ciro Guerra *WINNER OF TOP DIRECTORS’ FORTNIGHT AWARD AT CANNES 2015
Guerra’s previous film, The Wind Journeys (2009), was an international hit and one of the 2010 Festival’s most popular films in Miami. For his new film, Guerra travels deep into the wilds of the Amazon jungle, and into the dangerous territory of the historical past. This is an epic and thrilling journey, capped with velvety, rich black & white cinematography, confirming Guerra’s status as one of Latin America’s most confident talents.
Havana Motor Club (USA / Cuba), directed by Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt
One of the most fascinating events of Miami International Film Festival in 2014 was filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s special presentation on his creative process in constructing his portrait of Cuba’s top underground drag racers of classic American cars. A year later, the film is now complete, and GEMS is delighted to bring Perlmutt back to Miami to share the finished work.
It’s Now or Never (Ahora o nunca) (Spain), directed by Maria Ripoll
This summer’s biggest homegrown box office hit in Spain, It’s Now or Never pairs Spain’s newest film star, Dani Rovira, whose charms help propel Spanish Affair (Ocho apellidos vascos) to become Spain’s all-time box office champion, with the luminous Goya winner María Valverde, who gets a rare opportunity to demonstrate her comedic gifts. The result is a frothy, frisky comedy of first-class creative power, expertly timed and filled with joyous performances, from the leads to the delightful character actors found in even the smallest roles. Clara Lago and Alicia Rubio co-star in this comedy that once again proves no one does inspired silliness quite like the Spanish.
Krisha (USA), directed by Trey Edward Shults
Winner of both the Grand Jury Price and the Audience Award at SXSW earlier this year, Trey Edward Shults’ highly personal and compelling hypnotic drama was also selected at this year’s Critics Week in Cannes. Shults has already drawn comparisons to the work of legendary American independent director John Cassavetes for their use of family members in the cast and also their maverick avant-garde style of shooting favoring characters and scenes that envelop the viewer in both observation and emotion.
Mia Madre (Italy), directed by Nanni Moretti
Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre is possibly his most personal film, and a master class on autobiographical cinema. It displays without question why Moretti is considered one of the most skilled living filmmakers to create powerful universal drama out of our smallest little big tragedies. John Turturro co-stars.
My Golden Days (France), directed by Arnaud Desplechin *WINNER OF DIRECTORS’ FORTNIGHT AWARD AT CANNES 2015
After years working abroad, anthropologist Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric) returns to France to find an explosive emotional time bomb awaits him. This epic coming of age tale portrays first love as a candid, sensual and unique experience that his alter-ego discovers could leave a mark that will last as long as life itself.
A Perfect Day (Spain), directed by Fernando León de Aranoa.
Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa makes his first English language film with this Cannes-debuting tale of 24 hours in the lives of two veteran humanitarian aid workers in the waning days of the 1995 Balkan War. Veteran Hollywood stars Benicio del Toro and Tim Robbins are in fine form as the leads, who hold on to their boyish charms even as they age with graceful wisdom.
Trash (U.K. / Brazil), directed by Stephen Daldry. *SPECIAL GEMS PREVIEW NIGHT ON OCTOBER 5, 2015.
Three-time Best Director Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader) delivers the soaring triumphs of his earlier successes, while shining a spotlight on the sobering challenges facing one of the world’s most closely-watched cities, Rio de Janeiro. The high-powered cast includes Brazilian superstars Wagner Moura (Elite Squad) and Selton Mello (Jean Charles, The Clown), as well as Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara.
Yona (Israel), directed by Nir Bergman
Like a “living thunderbolt”, the bold and nonconformist Yona Wallach stormed through Tel-Aviv’s male-dominated political and poetry circles in the 1960s. Yona’s work eventually became recognized in the most prominent literary books and magazines of her time, and she was honored with the Israeli Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 1978. Director Nir Bergman’s biopic vividly captures Yona’s highs, lows and her brave rebellion against a chauvinistic society with her unique voice.
Youth (Italy), directed by Paolo Sorrentino
The space (and communion) between the generations is the subject of Paolo Sorrentino’s newest Fellini-tinged masterpiece. Coming off his 2014 Oscar win for Best Foreign-Language Film for The Great Beauty, the Italian auteur is on a roll, orchestrating grand themes around life’s wisdom with a phenomenal cast of actors including Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Jane Fonda.
In addition to GEMS slate of premieres, the festival will be hosting a heartfelt special Master Class Tribute to the late James Horner. Known as Hollywood’s ultimate movie composer, he passed away in an aircraft accident this past June, not long after completing what would turn out to be one of his final great scores – the music for Patricia Riggen’s The 33, our GEMS closing night film this year. Horner’s work in The 33 is a large part of the movie’s incredible accomplishments. His music is never obtrusive, yet works expertly to stir emotions and grip the audience deeper into the characters’ drama. Hearing it is a reminder of what a great loss the world has suffered when the double-Oscar winner for Titanic passed away at the age of 61.
On the eve of the premiere of The 33, Miami-based feature film composer Carlos Rafael Rivera (A Walk Among The Tombstones, 2014) takes an in-depth look at Horner’s work and career, using cues to demonstrate the powerful, yet often subtle, creative influence Horner brought to specific scenes and entire films. Beginning with one of Horner’s breakthrough accomplishments, on the widely revered Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and continuing on through multiple films (including the acclaimed 1989 Glory) and Oscar nominations, Rivera provides a compelling insight into the creative contributions of the film composer, and the special connection between composer and director.
Tickets will go on sale to Miami Film Society members exclusively on Friday, September 25, 2015 and to the general public on Thursday, October 1, 2015. Tickets: 1-844-565-6433(MIFF) or http://www.miamifilmfestival.com/GEMS. Opening Night Film + Cocktail Reception $50 for general // $40 for Miami Film Society members. Closing Night Film + Gala Party $85 for general // $50 for Miami Film Society members. All other screenings $13 adults, $12 seniors, $10 members, $10 students, Masterclass Seminars $9 (MDC students FREE with student ID). Group rates are available. For membership opportunities or more information, please visit www.miamifilmfestival.com or call 305-237-FILM(3456). Miami International Film Festival is the only major film festival event housed within a college or university.
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You don’t need this movie to show you Amy Winehouse was an independent spirit at heart, but feature filmmaker turned documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia hits the respectable notes in his mostly chronological documentary, Amy. As she came to fame, Winehouse spoke frankly with the BBC’s Russell Harty about her refusal to be packaged as a commodity by the management company that gave us The Spice Girls. She also says she hates pop music and admires jazz above all, a music scene she made no apologies for as elitist and unfit for the massive open air shows she would ultimately headline. She did her best to be relatable, calling her breakout second album, Back to Black, an accessible record because it was not as jazzy as her first album, Frank.
Kapadia worked with a team of editors with access to home video footage provided by family members as well as footage from every source imaginable — from paparazzi shots to YouTube fan footage to broadcast TV appearances — to splice together an intimate story about Winehouse’s all-too-speedy rise to fame and acclaim, then into a period of brutal rejection by the pop culture media machine and her untimely death. It’s remarkable how grounded Amy feels from moment to moment. Early on, Winehouse comes across as a mischievous child, as we meet her singing “Happy Birthday” with a voice that spontaneously takes over the room and draws in the camera. What’s so painful to watch is how her personality gradually loses its luster over the course of the film. The more attention she received, the more she disappeared. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch, until she pulls that ultimate disappearing act. It was a tragic loss for the music world because that Back to Black album was too good and too human for the popular music scene she got trapped in, the chorus of the hit single “Rehab” co-opted into an ironic, frivolous joke when referencing her hard times.
That song came from a sincere place, and there’s little room for its complexity and humanity in the often flippantly referential pop music world. While her public downfall was transmitted in 15 second updates on entertainment news shows, this documentary grips you with its near two-and-half-hour run time, inviting the viewer to contemplate the person behind the tunes. I would never posit any documentary transmits a true portrait of anyone. The story it wants to tell are in the choices the director makes when he cuts together his footage. With one splice in an image, a filmmaker will exert editorial vision.
From the start, Amy seeks to make the audience aware of Winehouse’s penchant for drinking and partying as well her attraction to drugs and toxic relationships. Her father, Mitch Winehouse, is vilified as an absent parent who jumped back into her life with her success. He has famously protested the director’s alleged decision to cut short a certain statement in the film where he declares his daughter didn’t need rehab. He told “The Guardian” his soundbite was edited to remove context: “What I said was: ‘She didn’t need to go to rehab at that time.’ … They’ve edited me out saying ‘at that time’.”
Let that serve to prove that there is no such thing as a genuinely objective documentary, and let’s be honest, this film was built in the editing room. However, the big picture of Winehouse’s stratospheric rise to fame where she flamed out is sharply presented. There’s no denying the cruelty of ill-informed soundbites on late night TV and gossip shows would hurt a person such as Winehouse, who never made fame the priority over her craft. She prided herself in writing her own lyrics, based on her own experiences (she titled her first album Frank for a reason). During her rise as a pop culture icon, she appeared on “The Tonight Show” to sing “Rehab.” Jay Leno is seen complimenting her at the end of her performance. Later in the film, during her downfall, Kapadia edits in footage of another episode of “The Tonight Show,” months later. During his opening monologue, Leno cracks a joke about her drug abuse and the camera sweeps over the massive audience breaking out in laughter.
The movie is long, and if there was one section that felt like it dragged it was during the presentation of the entire footage –with the camera focused on Winehouse — as all the Grammy nominees for Record of the Year are read. It’s interesting to watch Winehouse’s blasé attitude to the nominees, which included Carrie Underwood and Rihanna. Then, when her name is announced, we get to see her surprise, a moment captured in all the trailers for this movie. At this point in the movie, one should feel a keen ambivalence to the pop music machine, as well, so it becomes a bitter-sweet moment.
Amy is a craftily constructed experience, but it never reduces Winehouse to a victim of her circumstance or her addictions. As much as I like to single out the terrors of the mass media machine, Winehouse’s story is a complicated one. An array of characters in her life, some poisonous some supportive, provide voice-over narration over all the archival footage (there are no talking heads, beyond Kapadia’s found footage). She came from a home that was both broken but also tolerant. There are moments in the studio or her composing in her notebooks that reveal Winehouse in zones that show an artist focused but relaxed in her craft. She seems incredibly distinct in how she approached the guitar and her voice. It’s also nice to know a lot of that happened in Miami, away from the tensions of London.
With Amy, Kapadia has assembled an utterly tragic story about a truly talented young woman who went down the wrong slide of the music industrial complex. A sense of tragedy looms over the entire thing. Success is many things, but beware popularity. There hasn’t been a film that depicts the idea of “the build you up to tear you down” as vividly as Amy, which is an ultimately heartbreaking film.
One more screening update: Amy continues to be a hit in South Florida. It makes another visit to another O Cinema theater, now coming to Miami Shores: details here.
Amy runs 128 minutes and is rated R (lots of “common” talk and drug use). The film has been playing in our Miami area for awhile, and is scheduled to continue its run through Aug. 6 (Update: Amy‘s run has been extended again at our local theaters, until Aug. 13 at O Cinema Wynwood and Aug. 14 at Tower Theater). Tower Theater invited me to a screening for the purpose of this review. It’s playing in many locations and is already a bonafide indie hit (check out its box office) for A24 Films. If you live in other parts of the U.S., follow this link for other screening locations. All images courtesy A24.
May 29, 2015
Most everyone knows the true story about Helen Keller: In late 19h century Alabama, a near feral girl, who is deaf, mute and blind, grows up to become a published author after being educated by a teacher named Anne Sullivan who came to be known as “the Miracle Worker.” The Miracle Worker was also the name of the 1962 movie starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke directed by Arthur Penn, based on William Gibson’s play. After the director and the actresses all won Oscars, The Miracle Worker became a classic.
Now comes Marie’s Story, which is based on a similar true story from around the same era. Just as the story of Helen Keller was making waves, there was “A French Helen Keller” (read an original news report by the Sacred Heart Review in 1909). The impoverished parents of 10-year-old Marie Heurtin didn’t know what to do with their daughter who was born blind and deaf and could only grunt and scream. They loved her and didn’t want to see her institutionalized, so they brought her to the sisters of La Sagesse at Larnay, who specialized in boarding and educating deaf girls. Sister Marguerite was credited for taking on the challenge of this girl with more handicaps than the convent was used to. Eventually, Marie became a teacher for other girls with her condition.
So is it worth anyone’s while to see the story of Helen Keller again in French and with nuns? The answer is simple: it sure is when you have such a fine example of astute, powerfully moving filmmaking. Even if you know what happens, Marie’s Story is guaranteed to move you to tears, and you won’t feel manipulated by it. Director Jean-Pierre Améris, who also co-wrote the script with Philippe Blasband, tells the story in three distinct acts that are tightly woven together and never wastes a single detail.
We first meet Sister Marguerite (a charming Isabelle Carré), who we are immediately showed suffers from a terminal illness. She can barely contain her excitement about the impending challenge of Marie (Ariana Rivoire, who is deaf in real life). The mother superior (Brigitte Catillon playing stern with low-key curiosity and patience) expresses her doubts and concerns for Marguerite, wiping blood off the sister’s nose, as she smiles about the upcoming challenge of Marie, who is 14 in this story. There’s a sense that the nun needs this to fulfill a purpose in her shortened life.
The film spends much time showing us the frustration of Marguerite but also a stubborn patience full of grace. Rivoire throws her body into her role in impressive tantrums that sometimes end in her escaping up a tree. The beautiful period setting of the countryside enhances the earthy battle between these two women. Sometimes the music by Sonia Wieder-Atherton even turns light and bouncy, cutting the tension with a sense of humor.
Eventually, the breakthrough scene will arrive, but it doesn’t come without Améris showing us great effort by teacher and student. There are times when both seem to exhaust one another into giving in. But ultimately, the teacher wins not by forcing Marie to learn but showing her how she might be able to help herself. The breakthrough comes by empowering Marie, and its refreshingly convened with action, and does something wonderful in its message and storytelling: It speaks not to Marie’s handicap but her autonomy.
Améris doesn’t beat you over the head with this, as he mostly keeps his camera at a distance. The power of the film never needs heightened scenes with music (as charming as it may be at times) to make you feel for these women. What happens between them is intimate and handled low-key. Similarly, we are not constantly reminded of Sister Marguerite’s illness, but we know it’s there after that initial scene when we meet her, and her mission on earth becomes something more than a quest to do good before she shucks off her mortal coil.
When her illness forces her into bed rest, Marguerite must teach Marie one last important lesson: the permanence of death. It’s a mind-blowing concept in the Christian world of this film. Even the Mother Superior comes out to share that death is a painful thing and no amount of faith can make it any less painlful. Yet, still Marie can come to grasp it, mourn it and celebrate the time she had with her teacher. It’s a beautifully shown revelation that never feels cloying. So many Hollywood films wring the hell out of these moments, but here is a film that can show you how to do it right, so even if you think you are familiar with this story, it’s worth watching again to see how filmmakers, including actors, tell it in the most surprisingly delicate manner that never betrays or affronts its potency.
Marie’s Story runs 94 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (it doesn’t feature any offensive material). It opens this Friday, May 29 in our South Florida area at the MDC Tower Theater. It maybe playing in other areas of the U.S. or coming soon. For a list of theaters showing it, visit this link. Film Movement provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.
May 18, 2015
A subtle film about brotherhood and tearing down the idea of “the enemy,” Tangerines (Mandariinid) is a beautifully shot meditation on what war means to soldiers on opposite sides when they are forced to take shelter together after being injured in battle. Even though it arrives in theaters rather late after its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign film, the cooled buzz about this film from Estonia should not deter those looking for quality cinema. As the hype wanes, what you are left with is a fantastic movie that should stand on its own as a quality work of deft storytelling resonant with humanistic concerns.
The film opens with a title card providing context to this war that one character calls “The Citrus War.” Events in the film take place in Georgia in 1992, not long after the fall of Soviet Russia. Many newly freed states saw conflict during this time. In this case, Estonian immigrants were forced out of Georgia during the ensuing conflicts between Georgians and Abkhazian separatists. Lembit Ulfsak plays Ivo, a carpenter from Estonia who has refused to leave his property in the lush Georgian countryside. He builds crates for his neighbor, tangerine farmer and fellow Estonian Margus (Elmo Nüganen). They are caught up in the timely harvest of the fruit with no one to help, as most Estonians have fled at this point in the conflict.
When a skirmish suddenly breaks out on their front yards, Ivo takes in two wounded soldiers from opposite sides. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a mercenary for the separatists, vows to kill the Georgian soldier Niko (Misha Meskhi), as soon as both are well enough to step outside Ivo’s house — Ahmed does not want to dishonor their host by killing his enemy under Ivo’s roof. This allows the men to get to know one another, and despite conversations often turning to the rhetorical righteousness for either side, a humanizing effect occurs. Though Niko and Ahmed seem at odds over everything, they are also like two brothers that have gotten on one another’s nerves.
Writer/director Zaza Urushadze takes his time to allow the tension to turn while the men are inhibited from fighting, patiently deflating their tiresome conversation to levels of absurd, ill-informed rhetoric. Early on, we know the primary concern of the plot lies with the harvest of the crop and not the war. In a sly redefinition of military, Ivo and Margus have been promised help by other soldiers to pick the crop. This speaks to the importance of the land as more than territory but a space for life-sustaining nourishment. There are also many affectionate wide shots of the country’s lush landscape beautifully lensed by Rein Kotov. Against many of these images is the melancholic instrumental music by Niaz Diasamidze, a Georgian musician who specializes in the panduri and pulls incredibly somber melodies out of the bowed instrument.
Like the land and fruit, music also matters above the fight in Tangerines. After he’s well enough to sit at the table, Niko spends much of his time repairing a cassette tape that was damaged in the skirmish. The mystery of the music on it will not be revealed until the film’s finale. In one scene where Niko is working on the tape, Ivo has tuned his radio in on a station featuring a frantically plucked zither. Niko asks Ivo to change the music because it’s “driving him crazy.” As Ivo gets up, Ahmed says “but I’m listening to it.” And Ivo sits down.
The relevance of music above the war is also wittily manifested by what isn’t translated from the radio. In this “war movie,” news of the war doesn’t matter as much as music. When Ivo and Ahmed turn on the radio, in two separate scenes, and tune it in to a news report, the subtitle only reads “War news on the radio.” Whether it was a creative decision by the director or not, it still serves to diminish the relevance of the war on this story. The specifics of what the radio announcer says about the war doesn’t matter as much as the music, be it the diegetic music that highlights the differences of the enemies or the extra-diegetic score by Diasamidze for setting the film’s somber mood.
But this is a violent setting, and indeed these men will be tested when war inevitably returns to their doorstep for a shocking finale that delivers the film’s message via a visceral confrontation. Urushadze never hints at his capability in staging the violent confrontation that closes this story of temporary peace during wartime. That he can add an impact to it via a humanizing character study speaks to the film’s use of violence in important narrative ways above exploitative entertainment value, but most of all, it offers a heart-breaking portrait of the dehumanizing randomness of war.
Tangerines runs 87 minutes, is in Estonian, Russian and Georgian with English subtitles and is not rated (expect wartime violence and cussing). It opened last Friday in our Miami area at the Tower Theater where it plays through Sunday and in nearby Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood where it plays through Thursday. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. All images are courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films, who also shared an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.