June 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
I concur with Quentin Tarantino’s impression of Brillante Mendoza’s eighth feature film and second Cannes entry, Kinatay, as expressed by the American filmmaker in this bit of collegial correspondence scribbled in red ink on hotel stationery during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino applauds Mendoza’s dedication to the experiential perspective of the film’s lead character, Peping; praises the under-exposed, grainy depiction of horror that characterises the latter two-thirds of the film, and the relative anti-drama of the whole affair. That Tarantino, king of immaculately aestheticised violence, would praise a peer for practically being his antithesis is indeed of interest, but his appreciation of Mendoza’s approach was nonetheless shared by that year’s Cannes Jury, who awarded the Filipino filmmaker the Prix de la mise-en-scene for Best Director. At the risk of defending a picture that I don’t particularly care for, I must say that I do not necessarily contest their decision. Kinatay displays a certain clarity of purpose, a quality which few similarly grim and confronting pictures can consistently claim to have achieved with any degree of success. Whether Mendoza’s artistic purpose in turn serves a broader cultural or political purpose is where the debate might rapidly become a losing battle for those in the ‘pro’ camp. Inspired by the actual experiences of a young police academy recruit, Kinatay follows a newly-wed trainee whose part-time dealings with a crew of dirty cops ostensibly turns into a full-time contract when he is made a witness and peripheral accomplice to the belly-turning murder of a prostitute called Madonna. Beginning with Peping’s very low-key, good-natured daytime wedding, the first ‘act’ of the film ends with a fade-out of the setting sun after which his nightmare commences. It’s an obvious visual pun, as if to imply that the sun is also setting on Peping’s moral and spiritual freedom. Roger Ebert famously declared Kinatay to be the worst film ever selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, a claim which smacks of hyperbole despite my reservations about the movie. The late (and largely great) critic accused Mendoza of ideological bludgeoning, but could not quite articulate – in this piece – what this ‘Idea’ was and is. Frankly, neither can I. As a cautionary tale warning of the immense gravitational pull of crime on those in its orbit, Kinatay had me quietly promising myself that I would never associate with any individuals who exude even one percent of the malice and soul-blunted disregard for life exhibited by the on-screen killers. Without a doubt, such individuals live and breathe in their unfortunate communities, and similar crimes have in fact plagued Mendoza’s turf, let alone the wider world. But is a film like Kinatay what it takes to galvanise public awareness of and outrage at law enforcers who not only fail to uphold safety but who in fact actively propagate social degeneration? Who amongst us is not all too aware that violence and barbarism exists, and that death can arrive with shocking suddenness, even for those who dance with it on a daily basis to the point of feeling somewhat immune? Perhaps Kinatay is simply the result of a filmmaker translating a captivating story to screen in a manner which seemed – to him – most appropriate. If anything, Mendoza’s picture is at least an unapologetic alternative to the glut of cinema that seeks to extract entertainment from the gutters of human behaviour; a cinema at the centre of which sits the likes of…my beloved Basic Instinct?
July 26, 2015 § 1 Comment
Looking somehow – vaguely – like a less cartoonish, more handsome version of Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld, divorced Manhattan film projectionist Lenny Sokol is an overgrown older brother to his two young sons Sage and Frey of whom he has custody for a feverish fortnight. Lenny, as embodied by writer-director and here actor Ronald Bronstein, doesn’t simply recall Kramer in the looks department; his heart and mind are as tightly sewn to his sleeve as is the case with television’s crown weirdo, and they are both – the two of them – mascots of irresponsibility, to an extent. In fact, Lenny could very well be an alternate-reality projection of Kramer had he (Kramer, that is) impregnated someone and landed the role of having to partially raise two children. So there is the unabashed expressiveness, which always makes for a sympathetic character however one feels about the expressive acts themselves, and there is the careless charm and general carelessness. But what really makes Lenny a protagonist for the ages is that he must walk a mean tightrope, if only for the span of the film’s two week duration, with adolescent abandon on one side of the fall and the rock-hard sidewalks of stodgy adulthood looming on the other. Perhaps walking is too generous a descriptor even; more like hanging from the rope one-handed, being blown by the pressures of life from one side to the next. This probably makes Daddy Longlegs sound a little melodramatic and it very well is: a melodrama of Lenny’s own concocting, and a great one at that.
Interestingly, in reviewing Bronstein’s directorial debut Frownland for Ozu’s World Movie Review, critic Dennis Schwartz claims that the 2007 no-budget feature trumps David Lynch’s Eraserhead in sheer “weirdness.” Whether or not this is a fair or even accurate assessment, there’s a curious semi-connection in there. Apart from the fact that Jack Nance’s character in Eraserhead, Henry Spencer, is an even earlier precursor of Kramer’s spastic, electrocuted look, Bronstein’s Lenny is – like Henry – a noticeably naked depiction of fatherhood not often seen in the cinema. Sure, Lenny loves being a dad to his boys and sure, there are [many] fathers in [many] movies, but few of them seem to grapple with their parental duties in a manner that has potent dramatic edge and hints of torture/disabling self-doubt. Either they drag their feet, coast along, lash out…or they have it down to an art with their compassionate newspaper-reading paternalism. Yes, in Daddy Longlegs, Lenny is the typical irresponsible, fun foil to his stauncher more ‘adult’ ex-wife Paige (played by gonzo artist Leah Singer, the two young boys’ actual mother), but he is not above yelling Sage and Frey back into bed or benignly drugging them in their sleep, for their own protection. His natural penchant for frivolity is offset by these pressured attempts at discipline and responsibility and, as the film reaches its uneasy conclusion, the fact that Lenny can’t quite find a pleasant middle ground between friend and father becomes clear even to his pre-adolescent boys. Of course, one could argue that the film is a gentle paean to single parenthood and its struggles; to those whose late-night shifts are tainted by the guilt and worry from having left young lieges alone at home. Or it could be a sobering reminder that children of divorce often walk their own tightrope not just between two modes of parenting but two vastly different – perhaps harmfully contradictory – approaches to existence. When Sage and Frey return to their mother’s home the overall image is one of well-mannered domesticity, plus they have a more gentrified father figure to boot in the form of their mother’s new husband. It’s difficult to predict whether they would benefit from their father’s chaos on a more regular basis. It’s probably less difficult to postulate that the presence of both in a more complimentary dynamic would be ideal.
For those out there – probably most, one would imagine – whose impression of the current standoff between digital video and film is that it is nothing more than an esoteric scuffle between tunnel-visioned obsessives, viewing a dirt cheap picture that was shot with 16mm stock should prove enlightening, even if only a pinch. Whereas it may be close to impossible for a casual non-geek to identify whether or not a decently budgeted film like Fincher’s Zodiac was shot on film or digitally, let alone outline the key differences in image quality between the two formats, the textural and tonal disparity between Daddy Longlegs and something shot on DSLR – or even a film like Once – is staggering and easy to notice. Apart from the buoyant colour palette and the smoothness of the transitions between light and shadow (dynamic range), there is a grainy, bleary-eyed nostalgia that 16mm lends this picture. From frame one, writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie make no secret of this movie’s roots in their own memories of and experiences with their father (and mother), but theirs nonetheless remains a film set in the now, in contemporary (as of 2008-9) New York City as opposed to a more obviously longing restaging of their childhood in the 1980s. But there is an unmistakable, unwashed timelessness to the parts of NYC in which the movie was shot, as though the very air let alone the buildings and sidewalks have barely aged over the decades. Without trying, Daddy Longlegs manages to evoke the kind of old-school off-the-cuff cinema to which it will undoubtedly be (and is currently being) compared. One can imagine that recreating a distinct period would be costly at any scale but, luckily, the Safdies seem to have been aiming for something more than mere throwback grassroots realism in the vein of Cassavettes (whose namesake prize the brothers happened to win at the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards). For all its physical intimacy, its long-lens aesthetic with a generous supply of fearless close-ups, fumbling focus and overt naturalism, Daddy Longlegs separates itself from its indie contemporaries in its willingness to dance with the surreal and morbidly expressionistic, namely the mystifying but somehow right sitcom-like applause and battlefield noises that bookend the film’s soundtrack, and of course the giant mosquito that sucks the peace of mind right out of Lenny’s neck as he sleeps and presumably dreams. Whatever the more literal meaning of these may be, they make emotional sense in addition to ever-so-slightly distancing the film from the current fetishisation of “documentary” realism. But they also suggest that these filmmaking brothers are intent on doing more than just depicting their past and materialising their memories. Theirs is an act of interpretation and reckoning, and it is this which allows their picture to sway precariously above its peers, reaching for a little more than 16mm verisimilitude.
July 16, 2015 § Leave a comment
The Ealing Studios film Dead of Night is no more a horror movie than is an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is not at all meant as a slight against either but more as an expression of the fact that the general aim of both the television series and this 1945 portmanteau picture seems to be to evoke that viscerally ticklish, goosefleshy sensation one gets when pleasantly terrified in bite-sized doses, like sitting around a campfire and being told a ghost story which would not be particularly terrifying if not for the fact that it is cold, dark, you guys are in the woods and that failing to be scared or at least to appear scared would be kind of a spoil-sport thing to do, or not do. It would be surprising if a viewer departs this film significantly more conscious of the possibility of malevolent forces being present all around them. For those who seek out horror cinema for jump scares and screams, there are few if any to be found here; but for those who prefer to be mildly unsettled but constantly so, then Dead of Night may very well hit the spot, at times.
Architect Walter Craig (played by Toby Jones lookalike Mervyn Johns) is summoned by acquaintance/client Eliot Foley to a house in the country where a small group of guests is already casually gathered, talking and sharing a drink. Within the first few minutes it is established that Walter is plagued by what seems to be a particularly nagging spell of déjà vu and is convinced that not only has he been in this exact location with this exact set of characters (or at the very least dreamt it), but that the night does not end well, least of all for the individual he believes he will end up murdering. Of course, his assertions are subjected to a range of responses from teasing curiosity by most, to overly huffy skepticism by the resident rationalist Dr Van Straaten whose explanation for everything seems to be that ‘it is not uncommon.’ In support of Walter, four of the characters take turns narrating their own experiences – firsthand and otherwise – with the vaguely paranormal. The doctor eventually succumbs to the mood and narrates his own experience of being boggled. What follows are five Twilight Zone-y episodes (culminating in a somewhat bravura freak-out climax), the most famous of which features Sir Michael Redgrave from The Lady Vanishes as a ventriloquist who finds himself caught between a fellow voice-thrower and the man’s puppet, Hugo, which may or may not have a consciousness of its own, and a malicious one at that. This particular episode’s renown is probably justified, but more so for what it promises to be, whether or not you feel that it delivers on this. There is a tantalising quality to these tales. They dare the viewer to wonder whether or not these ‘paranormal’ experiences will eventually prove to be some silly dream, an illusion of sorts or perhaps the result of a moment of madness. You could commend the filmmakers for their restraint and their investment in the viewers’ sense of imagination, or you could accuse them of falling shot, copping out, or displaying a poverty of creativity if you dare go that far.
Dead of Night, enjoyable as it is, raises the question of how effective horror and comedy can be in partnership. This is not to say that the film is a capital ‘C’ comedy, but that there is a distinctly light touch to it, as though the creators are making a conscious effort to acknowledge that these are nothing more than interesting sketches, pieces of whimsy that really have no bearing on reality, which can’t always be the case, at least with regards to some of the strange experiences the movie dramatises. Horror-comedy combinations have always seemed like a somewhat parasitic relationship in that laughter can result from broken tension, or perhaps in response to morbidly unbroken tension. But does the converse occur? Maybe so. Perhaps comedy stretched to certain extremes can end up exposing the horrors inherent in whatever subject is being made light of, but in the case of Dead of Night, neither is the case. The elements of dread and humour seem to exist despite each other and sometimes the result is that what is on screen is neither funny nor frightening, for example the golfing episode which is quite possibly the weakest, a title it shares with the second tale, that of the boy ghost. In all honesty, are anthology films ever intended to be particularly hearty single courses as opposed to tasting menus designed to entertain the tastebuds fleetingly?
If there is one terrifying aspect of the human experience that is repeatedly touched upon by all of the episodes in Dead of Night it would have to be isolation. Whether it is the newly married man tortured by the possibility that he is being driven mad by the mirror his wife purchased for him as an engagement gift, or the ventriloquist who can’t seem to convince anyone that his puppet is alive and kind of an ass, the fear of being completely alone in experiencing something is a constant theme throughout the film. We all know, on some level, that the commonalities all humans apparently share may actually be subject to more variation than expected. What hunger is to one may not be what hunger is to another, but at least both can agree than hunger isn’t exactly pleasant and that it tends to be eradicated by food. But the idea of seeing something that no one else can clearly see…or hear or feel or touch or taste or know, this can be truly unsettling, and Dead of Night captures this well. If only directors Cavalcanti, Hamer, Crichton and Dearden didn’t choose to erase the aftertaste of this by ultimately highlighting how much of a constructed, matinee romp the film actually is. On this note, it would be appropriate to mention this film’s status as a classic not only of the horror genre but of British cinema overall. Cited as something of a landmark and highly regarded by everyone from Time Out London to Martin Scorsese, Dead of Night is the kind of film one would hope to find exciting and instructive yet which, for reasons not exactly easy to articulate, feels a touch wanting and somewhat undeserving of its high praise. It seems that being alone in one’s indifference towards Dead of Night may be even more unsettling than the picture itself.
July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
The Iranian ‘bad boy’ concludes his latest attempt at fuck-you guerrilla cinema with a final shot that is heart-warming, unassuming, alarming, somewhat embarrassing and ultimately sobering, in that order. Having spent seventy-something minutes ‘playing’ himself – that is, world renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi – ‘playing’ a taxi driver, cruising around Tehran in what is presumably an actual cab (or at least a vehicle dressed up as one) and engaging in a headlong series of entertaining, often humorous and conveniently dramatic interactions that collectively snap a shot of contemporary urban Iran (or maybe just Tehran), Panahi decides to end proceedings by delivering a gentle smack to not just his face but the face of an adoring international film community that may be taking his beleaguered output for granted somewhat. It’s as if Panahi recognises that the oftentimes purposefully short human memory has come into play with regards to his movies, which technically should not exist but which nonetheless keep coming, every two years at this rate, breaching the Iranian border in cake-encased USBs (and who knows what else) and screening at international film festivals where they are heralded as great art and sometimes go on to win awards such as the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale. In truth, it’s a touch mysterious and a little bit eerie, the fact that three works conceived and executed by this puckishly civic-minded artist have managed to reach the global consciousness despite the Iranian government’s clear opposition, and it’s a touch embarrassing to think that these works are no less commodified than those of filmmakers whose prodigiousness is relatively unencumbered; that their presence on the cinematic landscape doesn’t appear to garner quite as much shocked surprise as might be deserved given the circumstances surrounding their creation. Perhaps Panahi is subtly chiding himself for being so gung-ho in his rebelliousness, reminding himself that the powers that be may not be as blind and/or ineffectual as their relative inaction might suggest and that danger and violence may very well strike when the enemy’s apparent impotence couldn’t be more certain. Panahi even seems intent on emphasising the fact that matters have not necessarily progressed since his first act of cinematic dissent, This is Not a Film, seeing as he casts as a one of his passengers a lady who may very well be the lawyer with whom he spoke on his mobile phone in that very film, now disbarred/delicensed, presumably as a consequence of her involvement with him. Learning of her career trajectory over the last half-decade is indeed sobering.
So…roughly 5 years after scoring himself a 20-year filmmaking ban courtesy of the Iranian government, one-man-studio Panahi has released his third (yes, three!) provocation, Taxi, clumsily retitled Tehran Taxi in some global territories (including Australia) presumably to distinguish it from the Queen Latifah/Jimmy Fallon romp. Not unlike his previous two films, This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, this logistically barebones picture may appear to be a continuation of Panahi’s ostensible investigation of the role that intellectual censorship and social oppression can/may play in breeding great art (or just art), which in fact extends farther back than the aforementioned pair to – say – his feminist soccer drama Offside (2006), a film whose actual production toed the very line of illegality that his last three blatantly cross. But rather than adopting Hayes Code-era innuendo and conceding (superficially) to the confines set out by the State, Panahi – being Panahi, and being an Iranian filmmaker in the era of Kiarostami – opts for a more reflexive and knowing approach. In fact, one of Taxi’s most politically poignant sequences features Panahi and his somewhat prodigious preteen niece discussing and eviscerating the scarily absurd film decency code that the Iranian government works hard to impose, a code which dares to dictate what kind of movie character (hero versus villain) can wear a tie and one which forbids the inclusion of any manner of ‘morbid realism’, presumably for fear that it may incite or further galvanise the civic dissatisfaction of the film-going masses. Either way, Taxi – notwithstanding the simple fact that it even exists – wryly drifts in and out of subversion and political antagonism as it moves from scene to scene, exposing the ‘morbid realities’ of being a (soon-to-be) widowed woman in Iran and the curious ethical quagmires that are borne of class injustice, as well as tackling (and quite amorally so) issues of intellectual theft, almost suggesting that pirating movies is not an unmitigated evil if it is a means by which cultural quarantine can be circumvented. In short, by highlighting and utilising the absence of that which is not permitted as much as he does that which is, Panahi manages to transform restriction into some weird breed of backhanded freedom; an almost ascetic, martyred iteration of it. Or perhaps he doesn’t quite create bounty out of scarcity, though he does capitalise on the fact that raw passion and the ideas that stir them can in themselves be as exhilarating to behold and as culturally constructive as that which eventually, tangibly results from these very ideas.
After Park Chan-wook seduced audiences (and the Berlinale Short Film jury) with his shaggily dreamy iPhone-shot Nightfishing a couple of years ago, and in the wake of rising indie star Sean Baker’s transgender LA odyssey Tangerine generating a great deal of chinwag for its being photographed entirely on two rigged-up iPhone 5s, Jafar Panahi’s recent inventive (however-much by necessity) use of mobile phones, dashboard cams and point-and-shoot digital cameras contributes greatly to the legitimisation of all manner of photographic apparatus as pertains to the creation of world-class cinema. As young filmmakers bleed their pockets dry so as to acquire actual cine-lenses with which they may be able to compensate for their mid-level DSLR imagery, here is a filmmaker as established as any of his contemporaries levelling the technological hierarchy, demonstrating that capturing beauty is as dependent on boundless receptivity and crystal-eyed honesty as it is on technical mastery of the medium and its mechanics. Of course, knowing the political situation in which Panahi currently finds himself most definitely influences expectations and fosters a degree of critical generosity however scrappy his films might look, as does his already robust reputation as a powerful filmmaker at the best of times (relatively speaking). Even so, it would be perfectly legitimate to take aim at Panahi’s very knowing and somewhat impish insistence on utilising as many video-capable instruments as possible to weave his narrative, an approach which almost seems to suggest a democratisation or even sharing of the role of director, in a way shedding Panahi of the full weight of artistic responsibility. Taxi is not and should not be beyond reproach due to its sociopolitical importance and its status as a statement against censorship and in favour of expression, but the plain and simple truth is that the verve and incisive brevity with which Panahi and his players sketch their city and their nation (at least from their point of view) feels sufficient enough to justify whatever means they choose to present the finished picture, photo-realistic or not.
* SFF – Sydney Film Festival
June 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
One can only imagine how Bamako plays to viewers who have never lived anywhere in Africa, or rather, those who do not feel that it is their place to level candid criticisms at the continent and its people for fear of being accused of western paternalism or much worse. But for someone born and raised in the ‘Motherland’ – generally speaking, of course – Mauritanian-born filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s breakthrough 2006 picture, which is to say the one which positioned him squarely on the world (festival) stage and in the sights of discerning cinephiles hungry for new voices, is one whose greatness almost trips over itself before becoming evident. Weirdly reminiscent of a Robert Altman picture with its wandering approach to largish ensembles in which subsets of characters don’t necessarily interact while being nonetheless engaged in a kind of meta-textual conversation with one another by virtue of their being in the same narrative universe, Bamako takes place in the titular Malian town which also happens to be Sissako’s home turf and is basically centred around an imaginary court case: plaintiff, debt-ridden Africa; defendant, The World Bank, the IMF, ‘The West’ and all other purported contributors to Africa’s fiscal woes. Staged in – of all places – the actual courtyard of Sissako’s father’s house, the proceedings establish an interesting, Kiorastami-like interface between fiction and non-fiction as characters wax and spar polemically about the political and economic state of the African continent at the time of filming, which is no less relevant now than it was nine odd years ago. As these impassioned – sometimes detrimentally so – rants fly out from the screen, life goes on both within the courtyard (yes, there’s a bit of a pun here that needs to be acknowledged) and within the homes that form its walls, though always in the shadow of something greater and elusively oppressive. It must be said that the form that this film adopts is a most uncanny distillatory representation of Africa’s contradictory nature, which is to say that it is a scatterplot mix of pre and post-colonial, western and non-western, impassioned and apathetic, hopeful and demoralised, humorous and not at all amusing, sexy and just plain daggy, all swirled into one heady, dysfunctional yet lively soup. But the compositional richness of Bamako is not simply a visual pleasure. It registers – in these eyes – as a subliminal explanation of why it is that Africa may find it so hard to hold its own in a global society which may admittedly not be quite as charitable as it makes out to be. The image of women and men of the law in full robed garb, seated in a dusty outdoor makeshift court through which people blithely waltz without much thought for the possible disrespectfulness of their actions is one such example of Sissako’s concurrent skewering and celebration of the absurdity that can be and often is startlingly true of modern African society. But despite the very obvious playfulness of the movie – playful to the point of featuring a seemingly pointless film-within-a-film called Death in Timbuktu, a “Sahara Western” so to speak (as opposed to Spaghetti Western) featuring Danny Glover of all people – and the bubbling undertones of intellectual indignation and rage, Bamako is at heart a gently sombre work. However peripheral they may appear in the face of the rhetorical bluster of the court/deposition scenes, the quiet moments of ordinary townsfolk mourning lost love, lost lives and an unknown/unknowable tomorrow, and the fantastic musical sequences featuring emotionally hypnotic local songstress Melé (Aïssa Maïga) as she takes to the stage of a Bamako bar…it is these which seem to speak with more clarity, elegance and fire than the many oratories designed to equally heat up the soul. It’s as if Sissako, in attempting to fashion an erudite exploration of post-millennial (West) Africa and its myriad economic issues, settles on the milder, more humanist (though no less radical) notion that the viability of the African continent depends less on its dealings with a potentially dishonest wider world and more on a commitment to dealing honestly with itself.