Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (2000) de Park Chan-wook

May 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Like Andrea Arnold’s short film Milk, J.S.A: Joint Security Area is a curious glimpse at a ‘pre-branded’ Park Chan-wook, by which I mean the Park Chan-wook whose name has come to evoke a particular style, be it his archly fastidious compositions or his operatic approach to violence. Strangely enough, as much as J.S.A. may appear to be a gestational work by an auteur whose balls have long dropped, it is perhaps more reminiscent of Park’s later work than Milk is of Arnold’s most recent output. While it may lug around a colour palette that is positively monochrome compared to something like Stoker, or even Oldboy, the sheer gusto with which Park moves his camera and strings his images in order to unravel the central mystery is as bold as blood on snow. Sourced from a novel titled DMZ, authored by Park Sang-yeon, J.S.A. follows Major Sophie Jean (a shaky Lee Young-ae) as she investigates a regrettable international incident: the killing of two North Korean soldiers at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. With it’s time-hopping narrative structure and it’s endearing scenes in which a beautifully acted quartet of unlikely chums goof around and ‘hang out,’ it’s no mystery why Quentin Tarantino, in 2009, cited J.S.A. as one of twenty films released from 1992 onwards that he cherishes above all others. And, like another South Korean Tarantino favourite, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), J.S.A. intentionally swings between dead earnestness and ironic humour; dark humour which would only blacken with Park’s subsequent features. Interestingly, of all the differences and similarities that exist between this his first major work and his later efforts, humour, however mordant and strangled, seems to be the unwavering constant.

 

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Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Basic Instinct (1992) de Paul Verhoeven

April 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

For Halloween 2015, I produced a short video tribute to giallo cinema for online film publication 4:3. Had I seen this Verhoeven picture beforehand, I would almost certainly have included any one of several moments that seem lifted from if not merely inspired by that Italian horror/thriller sub genre. Even the pulpy plot, which finds San Francisco detective Nick “Nicky” Curran (Michael Douglas) becoming increasingly entangled with a sexily icy/icily sexy novelist who may or may not be translating her fictional homicides into actual homicides, is somewhat reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Tenebre. But ultimately, more than it is a not-so-sly tribute to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (that alabaster outfit!) or giallo or what have you, Basic Instinct is a Paul Verhoeven film through and through, unabashedly unshy and impeccably crafted. Perhaps it has to do with his pre-cinema background in the world of mathematics and physics, but there is something thrillingly calculated about Verhoeven’s ability to construct what are – in my opinion – first-rate mainstream entertainments that end up becoming cult classics due to misappreciation. Then again, perhaps it’s this very calculatedness that leads to accusations of ‘superficiality’ and ‘hollowness,’ rendering his films contentious, utterly working for some while utterly not working for others. Well, I guess this cannot be helped. As for Sharon Stone in her role as paperback-writing titillator Catherine Tramell, it’s a travesty that her vagina’s infamous split-second cameo has upstaged what is a perfectly calibrated performance, in the context of the film and its tonal fabric, that is. Which is how every performance should be judged: In context.

 

Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Kes (1969) de Ken Loach

April 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Maybe the reason for Ken Loach’s countless appearances at Cannes lies somewhere in his outstanding 1969 debut feature, Kes, in between the groggy naturalism of the performances and the wintry lyricism of the images Loach and cinematographer Chris Menges captured in South Yorkshire, a marriage of pastoral and industrial: “Make a film like this and you’re always welcome at Cannes,” where Kes premiered in the Critics Week sidebar.  Named for the gorgeous falcon stolen from its nest as a chick, trained and utterly adored by scrawny adolescent protagonist Billy Casper (David Bradley in a one-hit-wonder role, it seems), Kes looks, feels and moves like 60s British kitchen-sink realism seduced somewhat by the jazzy swagger of the French New Wave. Without a doubt, when people speak of Kes, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows must be dancing around within the same breath, and for good reason. Both films feature young working class lads (or garçons) whose hearts are good and decent but whose minds are not easily corralled and appeased by the confines of home and school. But where rascally Antoine Doinel enacts his rebellion is his own small prison-landing ways, the sweeter Billy retreats to nature somewhat, finding a kind of feral kinship with a bird he sees more as a peer than as a pet and, by way of this, finding an impressive sense of purpose too. An arguable if not undisputable granddaddy to the types of rough, humane films made by the last two competition entrants (Arnold and the Dardennes), Kes is rightfully heralded as a pinnacle of  social realist cinema, one which Loach has barely strayed from if at all. With vernacular so thick and specific that I shamefully conceded to using subtitles, Billy and his fellow characters conjure a hardscrabble world in which hope sits like a gem within a vast ore, glinting every once in a while to distract from despair. Kes is landmark stuff.

 

 

Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Milk (1998) de Andrea Arnold

April 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

Eight years before her Cannes Jury Prize-winning feature debut Red Road (2006) and a mere five before her Oscar-winning short film Wasp (2003), Andrea Arnold transitioned from actor to director with this ten minute tale of Hetty, a woman trying – and perhaps failing – to handle the blood-stained tragedy of a stillborn child. It’s always fascinating to explore the work of a filmmaker who would eventually develop a more unique signature style, and Milk is one such work, replete with fixed cameras shots!, dollies! And dreamy focus-pulls! It feels like an early work, yet the most fascinating aspect of this short is – hindsight granted – the way in which it prefigures a future auteur in its tonal and formal shifts. What begins with respectfully composed images of comfortable domesticity ends with a moment of raw, feral honesty, contained within tight and intimate framing. Milk almost preempts Arnold’s adoption of handheld naturalism, an approach very similar to the Dardennes’ in fact. Perhaps the one thing which clearly declares itself from the get-go is Arnold’s deft hand with her performers (having been a performer herself, one could assume), able to nudge them into a place of utter vulnerability and, in doing so, to tease out moments of unadorned humanity, always slightly askew. On this front, Arnold has only gotten better with time.

 

MILK (1998) from Tope Ogundare on Vimeo.

Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Le Fils (2002) de Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

April 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

I knew there was a good reason for my being quietly unconvinced when praise was being heaped upon Laszlo Nemes for his ‘groundbreaking’ visual approach to Son of Saul with it’s heavy reliance on tight close-up shots hovering within mere feet of the protagonist’s head and shoulders. Having finally seen that film and having now seen Le Fils, I realise that the reason for my skepticism was ‘the Dardennes,’ granted – of course – that Nemes’ use of focus and depth-of-field remains unique and laudable. Either way, watching the Belgian brothers’ 2002 slice of unembellished realism and thinking back to their sophomore effort Rosetta (their first Palme d’Or clincher), I am struck by the commitment and intensity with which – in these two pictures, in particular – they consolidate this mode of extreme spatial intimacy, their camera breaching their characters’ ‘safe spaces’ and maintaining this intrusion for extended periods in a way that seems initially claustrophobic and coarse, but which somehow leads to unprecedented emotional combustion and a strange kind of narrative purity. And while I may ultimately  prefer the slightly more refined fairy-tale austerity of the Dardennes’ more recent work, Le Fils is perhaps the best example of their ability to strip a somewhat dubious premise of all sensationalism, only to gradually infuse the spare remnants with dramatic doses of humanity. In their hands, this unassuming story of a woodwork instructor (Olivier Gourmet) whose new apprentice happens to be his son’s killer is a gently unsettling tug of war between forgiveness and vengeance; between moving on and hanging on.

 

Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Zelig (1983) de Woody Allen

April 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

This unofficial festival’s official opener is a shocking reminder of the artistic powerhouse that Woody Allen once was. Even his more acclaimed contemporary output (Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine etc.) registers as downright comatose in comparison with this mockumentary that practically bursts at the seams with borderline offensive irreverence and giddy wit.

A picture that I, due to either misunderstanding on my part or misinformation on the part of another, believed to be a mockumentary about a time traveller of sorts, Zelig boasts a central conceit that is equally as fantastical as time travel but far more original and pregnant with comic potential. Seemingly driven by an intense need to ‘fit in’, Depression Era schmuck Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) has developed the chameleonic ability to blend into his social surroundings so much so that he morphs without cue, racially, anthropometrically, intellectually, what have you; though it is interesting that his gift/curse lacks a transgendering function.

What follows is a fleet-footed account of how psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Fletcher (a characteristically willowy Mia Farrow) pin-points the psychic nature of Leonard Zelig’s shape-shifting malady and thus proceeds to cure him by way of psychoanalysis and – eventually – unwitting romance, two slam-dunk Allen hallmarks.

After over a decade of mild-mannered ensemble comedies, one is in danger of forgetting that Allen, at his peak, was not simply the high priest of neurotic, East Coast intellectual humour, but a relentless formal innovator. From the use of double exposure and subtitles in Annie Hall to the mind-boggling blend of staged and archival footage on show in Zelig (achieved via blue screen), Allen’s brand of dramatic comedy has had a surprising impact on cinematic form over the decades, in addition to its fearless marrying of the highbrow and the low.

Of course, one cannot or should not expect that the creative restlessness of a middle-aged comic will necessarily continue into his old age. Surely enough, Allen, now 80, sports a face which was once compellingly sardonic in its stoniness but which now reeks of boredom and complacency; or perhaps just plain-old burnout. In many ways he is entitled to this, what with his filmographic output. But I also reserve the right to mourn the loss of the Woody Allen that cinema once had, not that his films will be lost in a hurry.

For the moment, the twenty upcoming films In Competition should count themselves lucky that Zelig is Out of Competition. I certainly count myself lucky for having finally seen it.

Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’

April 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

My maiden post on this very blog was a simultaneous defence of the sovereignty of the Cannes Film Festival programmers (headed by director Thierry Fremaux)  and an attack on their predictability when it comes to selecting films to screen in Competition.

Well, the Official Selection for the 69th Cannes Film Festival has finally been announced. And, once again, Fremaux finds himself defending not only the festival’s apparent unwillingness to champion female directors (whether emerging or established ), but refuting suggestions that there is a certain curatorial inertia plaguing this bastion of international ‘auteur’ cinema; one which will see Ken Loach (an admittedly fine film-maker) returning to the Riviera with his 17th feature film, and his 13th in Main Competition. Whatever one’s stance on this snowballing gripe, being a Cannes regular is one thing, enjoying tenure is another; and enjoy it Loach certainly does.

In response to accusations that this year’s competition features nothing more than the ‘usual suspects,’ Fremaux reminds us that directors Maren Ade and Kleber Filho Mendonca are both newcomers to Cannes, or at the very least, to the Main Competition slate. Yet, both film-makers are well known and well respected quantities on the backs of their last films (Alle Anderen and Neighbouring Sounds, respectively), and could in some ways represent the new guard of Cannes stalwarts, joined by Alain Guiraudie who will make his Competition début after his successful stint in Un Certain Regard several years ago. But so as not be be overly presumptuous and cynical, the presence of these three directors and their new work is relatively refreshing in the face of the other 17 entrants, all of whom have previously competed for the Palme d’Or.

But once the sickly feeling that Cannes is deeply conservative wears off, I am reminded, with a thud, that these so-called ‘usual suspects’ represent a sizeable chunk of cinema that I have not yet seen. Bar Andrea Arnold, whose feature filmography I am very much acquainted with, I cannot claim any degree of familiarity with the directorial efforts of Nicole Garcia, Brillante Mendoza, Sean Penn and Xavier Dolan, and this has resulted in my decision to undertake a personal marathon of sorts which I have considered for several years.

Prior to the the opening of the Festival du Cannes on May 11th, I will set out to view one film from each of the 20 directors in Main Competition this year, one film that I have not yet seen. In keeping with the Cannes festival website, I may or may not produce ‘Dailies,’ which will most likely take the form of a capsule review. At the end of it all, I the jury will confer my own awards, from the Palme d’Or to the Technical Grand Prize (should I be so inclined).

Of course, I will commence my marathon by viewing Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983).

What follows is my own Competition line-up which has been revised (as of May 9th) to reflect the inclusion of Asghar Farhadi’s new film Forushande (The Salesman) in this year’s Cannes Competition. The announcement was made on April 22nd.

UNOFFICIALCANNES (revised)

(click to enlarge)
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