Monday, September 1, 2014

Murder! (1930)

Hitchcock’s cameo


MURDER!           B-               
Great Britain  (104 mi)  1930  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Opening with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Toscanini - YouTube (6:07), often thought of as the sound of death knocking on the door, simultaneous to a flurry of frantic knocks at the door by the police as a murder has been committed, this is one of the more provocative of Hitchcock’s early 30’s works, only his third sound film, playing out more like a radio play, using the sound of voices to greater effect than any visualization, where often the dialogue turns into a chorus of collective voices, expressing a kind of groupthink where the power of the collective is greater than any individual voice.  While the film attempts to get into racy themes, it’s all disguised, hidden behind theatrical flourishes of silent era film to avoid having to actually deal with issues of sex and race, which simply weren’t talked about in these times.  Nonetheless, this adds to the intrigue of the film, which is essentially a story about hidden homosexuality, using multiple layers to achieve the overall effect, which isn’t particularly a success in terms of building suspense, as the elements don’t exactly come together, but it works better as an experimental film that takes plenty of risks.  Oddly enough, the movie was filmed in two languages, English and German, using a different lead actor (Alfred Abel) for the German version, with an almost completely different cast, released as MARY in 1931, which failed miserably, as none of the English language jokes were understood within German culture.  Hitchcock developed a special fondness for those European directors who were able to successfully make the transition to another language, like Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder, while René Clair, Julien Duvivier, and Jean Renoir all experienced difficulties in the United States.  Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the story of a falsely accused woman, joining the falsely accused man theme of The Lodger (1927), this plays out as a comical farce, with more than the usual number of secondary characters, each exaggerating their roles with a certain theatrical relish, as the actors are given greater freedom than typical Hitchcock films to expand their limited roles with comic flair, where there may be more extended talking throughout this film than any other in the Hitchcock repertoire.     

The film is essentially a whodunit, adapted from a novel about the theater called Enter Sir John written by Clemence Dane and Australian actress-turned-playwright Helen de Guerry Simpson, who would later contribute dialogue for SABOTAGE (1936) and write the 1937 historical novel that Hitchcock adapted for Under Capricorn (1949).  According to Hitchcock, “It was one of the rare whodunits I made.  I generally avoid this genre because as a rule all of the interest is concentrated in the ending.  They’re rather like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle.  No emotion.  You simply wait to find out who committed the murder.”  Because of the stagy effect, this is often thought of as an adapted play, especially the way Hitchcock keeps intermingling themes of illusion and reality, as so many of the characters work in the theater.  The accused is a young actress Diana Baring (Norah Baring), discovered with blood on her dress sitting next to the dead body of another rival actress, a fire poker laying next to the body, and no recollection of what happened, as she’s found in a daze when the police arrive.  There’s immediate confusion as members of the same theater company begin offering rumors and behind-the-scenes details that only enlarge the mystery, while the accused herself seems to be deliberately holding back pertinent information, even while incarcerated, apparently protecting the identity of a man she refuses to name.  The beauty of the film is often merging their stage characters with real life, blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not, especially the hilarious police investigation sequence that takes place on the side wings of a stage, with Hitchcock returning to the theatrical setting of his first feature The Pleasure Garden (1925), as the two detectives only grow more confused by the myriad of cast members who offer a few seconds of information before returning to character as performers on the stage.  Hitchcock himself was an avid devotee of the theater, but he seems to take particular delight in transferring the farce taking place onstage, that the viewer observes only through an entrance door leading to the stage and the sound of a howling audience, to another one taking place on the wings with a stream of heavily costumed characters quickly coming and going.  It’s only here that the speed of the film is most effective, as otherwise there is little camera movement, often standing fixed for prolonged periods of time, moving in and out of conversations, going from character to character, where the relentless pace of the speech is what dictates the action, while there continue to be oddly out of place sequences still shot in the silent era style that slow the pace of the film enormously.    

It’s only during Diana’s murder trial that we meet the lead character, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), a renowned stage actor and manager, who is also a juror on the case, where all the evidence seems to point to an open and shut guilty verdict, but Sir John is one of the holdouts who is not convinced.  Hitchcock uses an artificial wall of voices that resemble a lynch mob mentality all shouting “Murder!” in the face of Sir John, who unlike Henry Fonda in TWELVE ANGRY MEN (1957), quickly acquiesces to the swelling group pressure and changes his vote.  Plagued by a guilty conscience afterwards, he rounds up the stage manager Markham (Edward Chapman) and recreates the scene of the crime, including the actions of each member of the cast that night, literally restaging the crime as a play within a play, making note of clues not obtained by the police, who were convinced this was an open and shut case.  In one of the more inventive shots, we hear Sir John narrate his inner thoughts as he looks in the mirror, while a live orchestra behind the set (as sound could not be separated from the live performance) plays Wagner’s “Liebestod” Wagner - Tristano e Isotta - YouTube (conducted here by Arturo Toscanini, 5:58) heard on the radio in the background.  Sir John is convinced there was someone else in the room that night, certain Diana would acknowledge as much during a prison interview, where she’s watched over by the female guards who never leave her side.  The scene is brilliantly set up where each is on one side of a long table in between that barely leaves any room at each end, exaggerating the distance between them, shot with such an austere style, reminiscent of Carl Theodore Dreyer.  Despite being charged with murder, surrounded round the clock by grim looking guards, she still refuses to acknowledge his name, though she inadvertently blurts out that the man she’s trying to protect is a Half-caste, a racially derogatory term in little use today, where the shame isn’t so much the racial aspect, but the fact he comes from a lower caste, so would never be accepted in her social circles. 

The half-caste is none other than the defendant’s fiancé, Handel Fane (Esme Percy), seen earlier during the police interviews playing the role of a cross dresser onstage, where “she” could easily have fled the scene of the crime undetected.  Using the same trick as Hamlet in his play within the play, The Mousetrap, hoping to prey upon the guilty conscience of the actual murderer, Sir John restages the scene of the crime with Fane, asking him to fill in the missing details, which he’s able to do quite easily.  With the theater shut down, Fane has resumed work as a transvestite trapeze artist at the circus, based on a real-life transvestite trapeze artist from Texas in the 20’s and 30’s named Vander Clyde Broadway, stage name Barbette (performer), where his deviance from sexual norms was the only way gays could be presented onscreen during this era.  Fane’s dubious character begins a long line of sexually ambiguous Hitchcock villains (often inaccurately described as Hitchcock’s “murderous gays”) that includes Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) from NOTORIOUS (1946), Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) from ROPE (1948), Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) in FRENZY (1972).  In this case, it’s Britain’s suffocating class system and its implied homophobia that actually leads to the murder and a suicide.  While the trapeze act itself is a thrilling climactic moment, cast under a looming shadow of death, the finale is a bit of a disappointment, as the murder mystery is resolved through the contents of a suicide letter read aloud afterwards that explains everything.  The final shot once more reveals the theatricality of the film, as Sir John greets the freed prisoner Diana with what appears to be romantic inclinations, as the camera pulls back to reveal they are mere performers onstage as the curtain falls.                         

Note – Hitchcock’s cameo comes just prior to the one hour mark walking past the house where the murder was committed with a female companion (Hitchcock closest to the camera), which comes just after the end of Sir John's visit to the scene with Markham, who are both seen standing outside the front door. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The One I Love

THE ONE I LOVE          B+    
USA  (91 mi)  2014  d:  Charlie McDowell 

Mark Duplass and mumblecore have come a long way since THE PUFFY CHAIR (2005), made for a meager $15,000 at the time, and while a decade later he’s still making low-budget indie movies shot on a miniscule budget, but having commercial and critical success with Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and now another Sundance audience favorite, what’s evident is they are expanding the kind of material they can explore, moving on from the el cheapo relationship movies, pointing a camera at two people talking endlessly, adding a touch of sci-fi into the mix simply because they have the technology now to shoot it on the fly without increasing the costs.  The most important thing to say about this film is to see it before word gets out, before you learn anything about it, as one’s appreciation for the film is likely increased the less you know going into the theater.  Reviews have been intentionally vague, as they don’t want to spoil any of the secrets laying in wait for prospective viewers, where one suspects there are more than a few surprises.  Actually there are plenty, as this film delivers what it sets out to do, which is make something of a mind-fuck of a movie that leaves the audience in a state of bewilderment, which is the thrill and enjoyment of watching this movie.  There are several keys to the success, where like Polanski’s Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure) (2014), this is for the most part another two-person play, written by Justin Lader in his first feature, where the performances by Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are simply superb, and therein lies the real charm and appeal of the film, as the characters couldn’t be more beautifully developed.  Mumblecore followers tend to have short memories and don’t really have an appreciation for films of yore, where living in the present is their mantra, so this film will feel all the more inventive to them, where the movie intentionally references The Twilight Zone (1959 – 64), likely something few of them have ever actually seen, but only heard about.  The audiences for these films (like the characters onscreen) are notably young, upwardly mobile and slightly wealthy, where poverty is something “other people” have to deal with, as their narcissistic concerns are exclusively about themselves, an extension of the Me Generation, where so many of the mumblecore movies feature inert characters seemingly paralyzed by their inability to make decisions, completely incapable of articulating their thoughts, featuring a heavy use of improvisation, where the naturalistic flair for ambiguity-laden dialogue becomes the artistic centerpiece and takes the place of the movie actually having to be about something meaningful.  Over time, mumblecore scripts have branched out into something more than the inevitable dialogue-heavy Woody Allen style relationship movie, but this remains the inherent focus.  To see what is normally such a flippant attitude from the overly casual mumblecore style take on such deeply complex issues in this film with such stark originality is not only stunning, but revelatory.  It should be stated here and now that this small, low budget American indie film made by a first time director is more enjoyable and possibly even better than most all of the more heavily acclaimed features playing in Competition at Cannes every year. 

The premise of the film is a disintegrating marriage between Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie, Elisabeth Moss, who rose to fame as the President’s daughter Zoey Bartlet in The West Wing (1999-2006) before starring as a thoroughly modern woman in Mad Men (2007 – present), who are initially seen in therapy recalling the night they first met, where there was a rush of excitement when they made a spontaneous decision to jump into a stranger’s pool when they thought nobody was at home, only to receive a tongue-lashing from the incensed owner who angrily kicked them out.  When they sneak into the pool and try to relive that same moment years later, hoping to revive some of that lost magic, this time there really is nobody at home, so while they’re floating in the water waiting for the inevitable to come, it never does, as instead nothing happens.  Realizing they only made fools of themselves, as time has altered the nature of their relationship, they are now seeking help to rebuild shattered trust issues by working with a non-traditional therapist (Ted Danson) who suggests they spend a secluded weekend together in a remote Northern California location where they can get a fresh start on their relationship.  The estate couldn’t be more luxurious, an immense manor, giant swimming pool, and fully equipped guest house set against the elaborate inner gardens with expansive views of the rolling hills of the area.  Immediately they sense a renewed vibe in the air, free from all distractions, where here they can concentrate just on each other, which has an alluring appeal to it, as if under the potent spell of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As they explore the grounds, their curiosity gets the better of them, where as they visit the guest cottage, there is a sudden surge of romantic energy that feels almost too good to be true.  Even more surprising, Ethan claims none of this ever happened, that he was asleep in the main house the whole time.  After a bit of finger pointing, suggesting bad jokes are in poor taste, they soon realize that each one encounters an “other” version of their partner when visiting the guest house alone, a more idealized version of what they wished their partner would be like.  While this freaks out Ethan, particularly the idea that this “other” Ethan is sleeping with his wife and doing a better job of it, while Sophie is more open to the idea and embraces this “other” version of Ethan, as he’s able to verbally communicate all the things that have been missing in their relationship, becoming fascinated with this new development.  But the more Sophie accepts the idea, the more Ethan feels like the odd man out, developing a claustrophobic rush of low self-esteem and paranoia.

While we have seen this sort of thing before, most recently in François Ozon’s In the House (Dans La Maison) (2012), where a student’s writing exercise conjures up sparks in the imagination of a bored professor reading the composition, where the fiction of the written page suddenly takes on a life of its own, coming alive to the reader, exploring the obsessive nature of the reader himself, literally taking him inside the home of a family he never knew, where suddenly he becomes a passive viewer watching their lives unfold through the meticulous detail of the writer.  This seamless blend of fiction and fantasy has been an Ozon attribute throughout his career.  Perhaps more exactly, it resembles a similar game being played in Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau) (1974), one of the foundations of modern experimental cinema, playfully altering the narrative scope of films where real life intersects with theater, rehearsal, memory, dreams, imagination, time, and even hallucination, each one altering the audience’s perception of what they see onscreen.  While this wonderment in Céline and Julie is expressed through a kind of Alice in Wonderland down the rabbit hole dream fantasia, never knowing what to expect, we follow each character as they enter an old Parisian mansion, finding themselves trapped in one of the roles in a play within a play, an old costume drama that exists in its own continuously repeating sense of time, where each entry into the house produces slightly altered clues and changing events.  In each of these films, this phantasmagoric universe existing side by side with their own lives is a puzzle play that explores a world of liberating possibilities, breaking free of conventionality and often suffocating restrictions from a completely ordered society.  This use of doubles and triples has a way of scrutinizing the existing reality, commenting upon its obvious limitations while playing into fantasies of wish fulfillment, as how much significance should this play in our lives, where we can dream the lives we wish we were living, but how disappointed is it to then discover we’re trapped in another world that fails to live up to that degree of intensity and idealized happiness?  This is a clever means of exploring an existing relationship, where the fantasy world interacts with the real, becoming tainted with the same fears and paranoia, poisoning the waters, so to speak, while also clarifying the extreme degrees of separation.  Like Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), it often takes a meandering journey into the unknown to offer insight into the world we do live in, where we routinely lose sight of the important values in relationships that end up meaning the most.  People thoughtlessly throw these core principles away all the time in pursuit of quick fixes and false notions of happiness, but holding onto them is the key, not being fooled by the illusion of “fool’s gold,” that there’s always some better world out there just waiting for you, as the curtain closes to the sounds of the Mamas & Papas - Dedicated To The One I Love - YouTube (2:07).

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure)

Roman Polanski on the set with actor Mathieu Amalric

Playwright David Ives (L-R), Emmanuelle Seigner, and Roman Polanski

VENUS IN FUR (La Vénus à la fourrure)           B           
France  Poland  (96 mi)  2013  ‘Scope d:  Roman Polanski      Mars Distribution [France]

No man is worthy of dominating a goddess.  He’s only worthy of being subjugated by her.

Consider this part of Polanski’s current fascination with the modern stage, initially seen in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994), but more recently coming on the heels of the claustrophobic, single-room setting of Carnage (2011), which began when the director himself was confined to four walls while under house arrest in Switzerland after his 2009 arrest and subsequent release several months later, as Switzerland would not extradite him to the United States for decades-old sexual assault charges stemming from March 1977 (Roman Polanski sexual abuse case).  This film is more of a gift to his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, 33-years younger, perhaps a continuation of the sexual power dynamics they explored in the film BITTER MOON (1992), where their last work together was THE NINTH GATE (1999), where Seigner played a demented satanic seductress with the supernatural ability to float through the air.  Here she plays a more mundane role of a Parisian actress with a few surprising tricks up her sleeve, bringing with her a bottomless bag of costumes and props, as well as unique insights into the female mystique, where rarely has she been utilized to better effect.  The film is an adaptation of the 2010 David Ives Broadway play, which itself was adapted from the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom the term masochism originated, where he describes his own experiences as the submissive servant Severin being aroused sexually by dominant women wearing furs, willingly becoming their obedient slave following a childhood incident of being scolded and beaten on a bed of furs by his aunt while ogling servants watched approvingly.  Sacher-Masoch, a great-great uncle of Marianne Faithfull, took his pathology with him to the grave and died insane.  The two-person play about sexual domination has been transported from New York City to Paris, Polanski's first non-English language feature film in forty years, with Seigner playing the role of Vanda, an actress auditioning before the writer/director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric).  Both previously worked together in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007), while coincidentally, Amalric’s mother was born in Poland to Jewish parents, raised in the same Polish village as Polanski’s family, making him the perfect stand-in for the director.  Both, by the way, share a certain mousy quality, where the idea of being sexually dominated makes perfect sense, where Polanski has been quoted as saying, “Normal love isn’t interesting.  I assure you that it’s incredibly boring.” 

While Polanski has insisted that Venus is a comedy about the vanity of directors doing auditions and the Sado-Masochistic dynamic of the director hiring and controlling actors, he also likes to arrange shots from the protagonist’s perspective and slowly pan around the room to points of interest as the character notices them, where the fun of the film is to imagine that every single word of the film is seen as a reflection of the director himself.  Polanski is a director that makes exquisite use of limited space, restricted here to the stage of an empty theater, where the cinematography by Pawel Edelman in the dark theater is elegant throughout, the first Polanski feature shot in digital, where it interestingly mixes in close-up glimpses of Renaissance paintings, specifically Titian’s Venus with a Mirror (854 × 1,024 pixels), as the painting was the inspiration for the protagonist Severin’s imagination in the 1870 novel.  It is this artistic interplay, a painting commenting upon literature, which impacts a modern era play while delving into the imaginations of the actress and the director as they read aloud passages from the play, easily losing themselves in the original source material where the line between fiction and reality is continually blurred.  The film wraps itself around the genteel nature of European civilization, which relies upon centuries of cultural tradition, where a work like this is considered scandalous, flying in the face of the highest artistic standards, while continually looking down upon these two lowly subjects as the goddess Venus would from her heavenly perch, offering her own commentary on all that is considered beautiful as the mythological embodiment of sex, love, beauty, enticement, seduction, and persuasive female charm.  Opening on the director Thomas pacing the floor in an agitated state of disbelief, as he is the last person left in an empty theater after a day of auditions went badly, where he’s angry that no one seems to understand the lofty ambitions of his steamy, sex-charged period piece, which is obviously a highly personal labor of love, though filtered through the prism of his own arrogance.  Just as he is complaining on his cell phone that he can’t find a woman with both the intellect and sex appeal for the role, Vanda enters the theater like a gust of wind pushed her in, where she is drenched from head to toe, wearing a dog collar around her neck and chewing gum, throwing in the occasional slang, sounding more like someone who was accidentally pushed off the public transit system for being an annoyance.  Unable to take no for an answer, she finagles her way into an audition even though her name is not on the director’s list, reading the lines of the sultry dominatrix Vanda (coincidentally sharing the same name) while Thomas assumes the part of Severin. 

Though visibly annoyed that she is clearly wasting his time, his scorn turns to shock the instant she starts reading her lines, literally transforming herself before his befuddled eyes into this mystifying, larger-than-life creature of feminine guile and beauty.  In utter amazement, he asks her to read on, where she continually entices her way into his fertile imagination before abruptly breaking character, offering her own modern contextualization to the part, where the two argue and jostle for position, each attempting to gain the upper hand as they negotiate their own power dynamic between them.  Vanda is a master of surprise, pulling a 19th century smoking jacket out of her bag for him to wear along with several of her own vintage costumes, where her familiarity not only with the script but the intimacies of the director’s personal life simply catches him off guard, where she seems to have an intuitive knowledge of all his carefully guarded secrets, many of which are expressed in the play they are rehearsing.  When Vanda suggests the play is about child abuse, as it all springs from the imagination of that whipped child wrapped in furs, one can’t help but think of Polanski’s own criminal past, where Thomas leaps to his own defense, “What the fuck does the maltreatment of children have to do with this story?”  One does have to wonder why Polanski chose to adapt this particular story, resurrecting long ago thought insignificant notions of sexual correctness into the political realm, where Thomas continues to vent his anger, “Stereotypes!  What are you going to throw at me next?  Racism, sexism, class struggle?”  Vanda tactically responds with a line from the play, “Well you’re certainly unique, Herr Kushemski,” flattering his ego and bringing them both back into character.  This use of sexual innuendo and sly manipulation of character is at the heart of the film, where never far from the back of your mind is the fact that Polanski *is* a convicted sex offender, also known for his egotistical and tyrannical behavior, as well as his personal magnetism and charm, yet he’s the one pulling the strings here, where the probing conversations between Thomas and Vanda are indistinguishable from the characters they are playing onstage.  Vanda intriguingly points out that in this 19th century era, people didn’t so easily engage in sex, all they had was conversation, where the act of seduction was expressed through words.  This becomes the raison d’etre for the film, where the characters continually mask their real intention, which is sexual dominance or submission, expressed through a continuously interweaving thread of conversational fantasy and reality, beautifully captured in the sublime eloquence of the musical score by Alexandre Desplat.  In the end, the film can’t escape its campy feel, despite the vigilance of the extraordinary performances, where its modern social relevance may be lost on the viewer.  While the 19th century setting bears some resemblance to the sense of lavish refinement and gorgeous interior decors of Bertrand Bonello’s equally artistic yet more insightful film, House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide – souvenirs de la maison close) (2011), Polanski’s fantasy-tinged music box miniature, like dancing porcelain dolls, barely skims the surface of the sexual humiliation and degradation that women were actually forced to endure in that era, much of which still lingers into the present.   

Monday, August 25, 2014


COLDWATER            D                    
USA  (104 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Vincent Grashaw     Official site

Another film that attempts to raise the level of social awareness, highlighting the level of abuse taking place from the privatization of juvenile detention centers that seemingly answer to no one, as they are not regulated by the state, where parents often send their kids away to these remote wilderness camps under near military rule because they can’t deal with their out-of-control behavior, thinking a little discipline will do them good.  Little do they know that the operators running the facilities are more out of control than anyone could imagine, literally placing these kid’s lives at risk.  Perhaps hoping to cash in on the festival circuit success of Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 (2013), a film of near documentary social realism that explored the volatile nature of abused teenage patients in a residential treatment facility, crafted by someone who had first-hand experience working in similar facilities, while here the story developed from a friend of the directors who was sent to a reform facility and is supposedly inspired by real events.  Grashaw was the producer and co-editor of BELLFLOWER (2011), a low budget Sundance film with extremely violent overtones, while directing, co-writing (with Mark Penney), and co-producing this film.  While the subject here is intriguing, as is the lead performance by first time actor P.J. Boudousqué (whose resemblance to Ryan Gosling likely got him the job), the heavy handed approach used by the director emphasizes and exaggerates a level of sadism by the sergeants in control that becomes sickening, bordering on torture porn when they intentionally target infected wounds, refusing to treat a major injury properly, cruelly inflicting methods of torture as part of their routine brand of punishment.  One questions the fascination with the gruesome aspects of the details, prolonging the uncomfortable factor in many of these scenes, emphasizing the unendurable pain along with the helplessness of these individuals, like the intentional shock effects in exploitation prison B-movies.  “We are in the business of transformation,” they are told once they arrive to the facility, but instead they are brutally bullied and tortured into blind obedience, using military style techniques to break down any lingering effects of individuality, where the counselors on the grounds are former inmates themselves.

Because of the film’s insistence upon continually emphasizing the cruelty of those men in charge, the film takes on a one-dimensional tone of evil, never developing any levels of characterization or complexity, but leaving those men as little more than cardboard cut outs, spewing the same venom throughout the entire film.  They are not shown as being human, but individuals that thrive on inflicting misery onto others, as if this is the only fact that matters to them or offers meaning to their otherwise empty lives.  More than likely these are ex-military men who were never able to make the transition to peacetime, who continue fighting their own embattled inner demons, but the director refuses to explore any hint of humanity in men who are only shown to be monsters.  Instead the film is shown through a stream-of-conscious style through the eyes of a lone individual, Brad Lunders (Boudousqué), who’s seen initially as a brash young kid with a cute girlfriend (Stephanie Simbari), but he’s a lowlife that deals in drugs and gets involved with the wrong people, which eventually leads to disastrous consequences.  Kidnapped in the middle of the night by those that run this boot camp, where his clueless mother yells “I love you” as they haul him away in the back of a van to a remote juvenile prison facility that is 25-miles from the nearest town.  After hearing the gung-ho speech from Colonel Frank Reichert (James C. Burns), a former marine, it’s clear that whatever deluded mission these men aspire to, they are really sadistic control freaks that enjoy the unfettered power they have over what amounts to kidnapped kids, where they see their jobs as making them miserable on a daily basis, rousting them out of bed at the crack of dawn, forcing them to run long runs in the desert heat without water, and then punishing those who can’t keep up, from taking away privileges to locking them up for days on end in a detention center where they are brutally tortured.  While the graphic reality sinks in, a backstory is filled in via flashbacks, where we see scenes of Brad’s earlier life spiraling out of control, illustrating a deteriorating sequence of events that led him to this godforsaken place.  What’s perhaps most incomprehensible is that these kids were not sent by some court-appointed agreement resulting from a criminal case, but by their parents who are paying for this abominable treatment. 

Midway through the film, we discover a year has passed, where Brad’s noticeable anger and temper have disappeared, as now he behaves like the docile and obedient “slave” they have turned him into, where he’s been given special privileges and told he has what it takes to make that next step out of there.  Initially, Brad despised the trustees, inmates who cooperate with the counselors by being their eyes and ears in the barracks, literally spying on the other kids and reporting information back to the Colonel, but now he’s become one of them.  While it appears he finally has a path out, he’s thrown a curveball when one of his former drug running buddies Gabriel (Chris Petrovski) arrives at the facility with that same badass attitude, where he’s torn between trying to help his old friend and not doing anything that would jeopardize his chances of getting out of there.  The director supposedly spent ten years researching the type of camps depicted here, but it remains disconnected to any existing reality or outside world, where he lacks maturity or any cinematic understanding of how to find or express anything unique about the subject, never really getting under the surface, visually or otherwise, lacking observational skills, where he simply skims over the lives of almost everyone involved.  This is simply bad filmmaking, with no directorial imprint, as this film could have been made by anybody, where the focus is less on providing a realistic exposé of the detestable conditions of the camp than the overcontrolling and disturbing expression of sadistic behavior, which receives all the exaggerated emphasis in this film, becoming so extreme and distorted that it loses any connection to reality.  An equally brutal and sadistic film on the exact same theme is Marius Holst’s 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #9 King of Devil's Island (Kongen av Bastøy) (2010), a Norwegian film about a real life juvenile detention center on an Alcatraz like island of Bastøy in the North Sea, which was historically the site of monstrous acts of inhumanity to children, showing the same horrors, but getting much deeper into the mindset of both the prison administrator and these angry and vulnerable kids who are constantly being abused and taken advantage of, where the administration’s intent is to make use of child inmates for cheap, exploited labor.  This film lacks the subtlety and poetry of the Norwegian film, a much darker psychological horror story that with little dialogue allows the boy’s point of view to develop into a sense of community, as they are all victims of the same inhumane living conditions.  In COLDWATER, there’s no sense of camaraderie, as outside of Brad’s flashbacks, we never get to know any of the other characters.  Accordingly, there’s little sympathy generated onscreen to the highlighted acts of abuse, or the kids rebellious response to it, where the film never builds that sense of moral outrage that it’s looking for and instead exists in a vacuum where nobody gives a damn.    

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Summer of Flying Fish (El verano de los peces voladores)

THE SUMMER OF FLYING FISH (El verano de los peces voladores)   B+                       
Chile  France  (88 mi)  2013  d:  Marcela Said 

A film set within the non-narrative, impressionistic style of South American cinema where establishing mood is paramount, creating a recognizable visual landscape that the viewer frequently returns to, but what happens within this elusive realm may be subject to one’s own imagination, where the director creates an artistic canvas, but refuses to reveal significant details, moving seamlessly within an atmospheric dream state where it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s real and imaginary, leaving the viewer to sort out the details.  Similar to neighboring New Argentine Cinema directors Lucrecia Martel or Lisandro Alonso, or even Mexican director Carlos Reygadas in 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #2 Post Tenebras Lux , this is a visually sublime style of cinema that tends to thrive in the subconscious realms, where it literally refuses to provide clarity or rational thought, instead only offering clues, existing along the periphery where each viewer is likely to have a different reaction.  In this manner, fifty different viewers are likely to get fifty different reactions, all of which contribute to the experimental nature of this style of filmmaking.  One recalls the hypnotic somnambulistic quality of Lisandro Alonso’s LOS MUERTOS (2004), a mesmerizing slow burn through a dense jungle, where the camera acts as the eyes of the audience exploring the vicinity, where alienation is revealed through fragmentary images that barely piece together a whole.  LIVERPOOL (2008) is another intense, trance-inducing study in solitude, a near wordless movie that takes place almost entirely in the viewer’s head, as there are no connecting threads to a story, only a wandering, ghost-like journey that expresses how easily one can each lose their place in life.  Lucrecia Martel’s first feature LA CIÉNAGA (2001) is a masterwork of claustrophobic cinema, providing an atmosphere of idle affluence, featuring a multitude of oddly populated Buñuel-like people lounging around an overgrown resort pool doing nothing, seemingly without purpose, becoming a dissection of class indifference.  Even more compelling may be the art films of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, where image is knowledge, where you can count on extreme visualization and an austerity of form.  In his most recent film, 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #2 Post Tenebras Lux , he nearly disregards narrative altogether, becoming a profoundly influential modernist work that simply operates in a different cinematic vernacular, existing in a dreamlike plateau where humans often play a secondary role.  While South American literature is known for magical realism, there is a cutting edge group of experimental South American film directors known for abstract often incomprehensible narratives, but extremely poetic, stream-of-conscious visual schemes, to which we must add Marcela Said, a Chilean filmmaker with a documentary background, having studied film and media at the Paris-Sorbonne University while also working as a photography assistant to Sara Matthews in New York. 

First and foremost there is the morning mist creeping along the shadows of a lake surrounded by the abnormally pristine natural beauty in areas of Curarrehue, Coñaripe, and Liquiñe in southern Chile, where wealthy landowner Don Francisco, also known as Pancho (Gregory Cohen), has built a magnificent modern hacienda in the middle of a dense forest.  This idyllic location is mesmerizing to the eyes, as impressive a place to live as one could possibly imagine, but it belies a growing undercurrent of unseen danger, underscored by a sinister threat lurking out in the forest, giving a slight feel of horror, which seems to be the source of the dark, unfolding mystery.  Cinematographer Inti Briones, who also captured the wild natural beauty of the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia in Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2011), as well as the completely artificial, literary world of Raúl Ruiz’s Night Across the Street (La noche de enfrente) (2012), uses the camera to probe the surroundings as we observe Pancho’s daughter Manena (Francisca Walker) in an opening walk through the forest, quickly getting under the surface when the pet dog disappears and gets lost in the lush foliage.  Her father is an orderly patriarch used to having things done his way, where one of his obsessions is getting rid of the carp inhabiting the lake by using dynamite.  Such an intentional violation of nature is not without consequences.  The root of this conflict goes back to the era of the Conquistadors when the white Europeans colonized the South American indigenous populations, where there remains a difference of opinion on who owns the land that for generations was used by native people.  Wealthy descendants of those original Europeans are landowners who build vacation homes on what has traditionally been the hunting and fishing grounds of the local Mapuche people, who comprise 85% of the Indigenous peoples in Chile.  Plunging her camera into these primeval forests, Said brings to the foreground some of these grievances that are largely ignored by the larger population.  Pancho’s hired help are all Mapuche natives, likely the lowest paid on the economic scale (nannies, maids, security guards, and servants) and also the most mistreated.  When one of the young hired hands, Pedro (Carlos Cayuqueo), is injured from a dynamite blast, Pancho couldn’t be less concerned, as all he’s worried about is getting rid of the fish, in contrast to Manena who is outraged at the way her father treats his workers. We sense the frustrations brewing from the natives who are forced to see good fish go to waste, uncovering piles of dead fish buried indiscriminately throughout the forest.  Don Francisco is also intent on placing fences along his land, making it difficult for natives to hunt in their natural habitat, causing friction when his unleashed dogs attack their livestock.  His manner in addressing their concerns is expressed through a haughty superiority, crassly paying them off simply to make them go away, and then cursing them under his breath. 

While we hear the offscreen sound of dogs barking endlessly, especially noticeable in the still of the night, it’s a sign of continuing instability, yet part of the overall mindset.  While Manena smokes pot and jumps between two young guys, Lorca (Guillermo Lorca), a cute young painter, and Pedro, the indigenous hired hand, where she is eventually cheated on, leaving her angered, betrayed, and her dreams for a better world deflated.  A drunk and completely wasted Pedro is found passed out in the pitch black of the night, lying in the middle of the road, unable to stand up, where he refuses aid, but the scene is shot from the back seat of Pancho’s SUV, where Manena is unable to decipher what she’s seeing, adding more than a touch of horror and suspense, amplifying a sense of the unease, compounded by an eerie score from Alexander Zekke.  The details of the story became less and less relevant, where much more important are the "attitudes" being conveyed, where Don Francisco doesn't have to listen to anyone, not his daughter, his wife, his hired help, his neighbors, the townspeople, and ultimately not even the police, especially after he hides a known fugitive from justice, completely disregarding the laws of man, all of which contributes to an escalation of violence.  By placing himself above the law, he is a representative of man’s folly, the delusion that money can somehow make things right and lead to happiness.  In this case, it does the opposite, where the largely unseen presence of the Mapuche natives grow more irritable with his racist acts of indifference, where Pancho can be seen drunkenly joking and complaining about having to recognize indigenous “land rights.”  While the colonialist people in the film are largely contemptible, they are secondary to the overall notion of cinematic art, which instead creates abstract impressionistic images that tend to stick in the viewer’s subconscious afterwards, where over time we'll remember much of the mixed messages and the jumbled mosaic.  But the key to the film is the impressive camerawork, where the one constant throughout is the pristine beauty of the region, continually shot under a shroud of lingering fog or rain, where it's Said's use of location shooting that impresses the most, where the director uses “exterior” geographical landscapes to heighten the “interior” examination of the characters.  It’s a film of astonishing subtlety and social conscience, where colonial man is not only out of balance from the natural world around them, which feels overwhelming and all-consuming, but also themselves, where the rich, who have everything, are in a perpetual state of delusion, completely indifferent to the world that they casually ignore.  This is non-commercial arthouse cinema usually only screened at festivals, where the director’s first fictional feature premiered at Director's Fortnight at Cannes.