Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Fool (Durak)

Director Yuri Bykov 

THE FOOL (Durak)        A-                           
Russia  (116 mi)  2014  d:  Yuri Bykov 

The views that brought Chernyshevsky (Chernyshevsky and the Crystal Palace, Rational egoism: the theory that man will always act according to his best interests) to this vision were close to utilitarianism, meaning that actions should be judged in terms of their expediency.  Naturally, utilitarians assumed that we can know the standard against which expediency can be measured: usually it was economic well-being.  In Chernyshevsky’s rational egotism, utlitarianism as a method coincided with socialism as a goal: in essence, it is in everyones individual self-interest that the whole of society flourish.
Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky,1864, page X introduction by Robert Bird

My film represents most of Russian life.  Not the past, but the models of human relations that have existed for hundreds of years in Russia.
—Yury Bykov

The director reiterates similar themes that he began in The Major (Mayor)  (2013), a film that premiered at Critics Week in the Cannes Festival of 2012, exposing the rampant corruption that plagues Russian society, where remnants of the Stalinist bureaucracy are now seen at every level of government.  This is a searing exposé of Russia as a model of inefficiency that matches much of the indignant anger expressed in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, an ornery, bitter, and rambling piece of wicked satire that excoriates the prevailing philosophical wisdom of the era.  Bykov’s works come across as revolutionary acts, where one is surprised that under Putin he’s not locked up in the Siberian gulags, as after all Putin arrests female rock stars, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Pokazatelnyy protsess: Istoriya Pussy Riot) (2013) with the same relish as oil oligarchs, Vlast (Power) (2010), as Bykov is a lone voice of unfiltered realism set against a backdrop of an ancient tribal system that historically relies upon bribes and favors for services, the mathematical equivalent of no bribes, no services, where you have to pay to play, leaving the poor out of the picture where they are left to fend for themselves.  In this film it pits one honest man against an entire system of on-the-take bureaucrats, where everyone in a position of importance gets a piece of the action, feeling very much like a HIGH NOON (1952) western format, where a lone cowboy, usually with a wife or child to protect, has to take on a gang of outlaws that have been stealing the town blind.  Against all odds, these often feel like suicide missions.  Yet the world needs honest men.  In fact, they depend on them.  While voicing his feverish anxiety from a position he calls “a mousehole,” Dostoyevsky in his introduction explains that both the character and his “notes” are fictional, but that he represents a certain Russian type the public needs to know about.  For all practical purposes, Bykov is that public voice today.  In a devastatingly bleak opening that offers a doomed comment on the plight of the working poor, the film begins with a long choreographed take of an abusive alcoholic’s rage against his wife and daughter that escalates into physical violence, both brutally battered when he realizes they’ve run out of money.  By the time the police arrive, she decides not to press charges because if her husband misses work the next day he won’t receive a monthly bonus. 

While this problem is escalating, other residents in this dilapidated tenement building, a relic of public housing from an earlier era that’s been standing for nearly 40 years, as old as the town itself, complain of bursting water pipes, a commonplace occurrence that happens so frequently that repair units offer only minor fixes that might last a day or two before they’re back on the job again in a neverending cycle of futility.  On this occasion, the municipal repair chief for the neighborhood is unavailable, gone on a three-day drinking binge, so his alternate is called, another plumber, Dima Nikitin (Artyom Bystrov), who is studying to pass an exam that would help put him in a position to replace his boss, Federotov (Boris Nevzorov), the chief housing inspector.  But before he receives the call, a portrait of his family paints another harsh reality, where Dima and his father (Alexander Korshunov) are treated to a blistering tirade from his domineering mother, (Olga Samoshina), calling her husband a fool for not taking what’s offered to him, like everybody else on the take, instead pretending to be all high and mighty while shunned by the rest of the workers, forced to exist on next to nothing, where he continually makes repairs around the building out of his own pocket rather than bilking the city coffers, which seems like the sensible thing to do.  But the coffers have run dry with rumors flying that greedy city officials pocket more than their own personal share, with nothing trickling down to the actual residents in need of repairs.  While the lacerating speech is aimed at the father, it’s the son who emerges as the fool, an honest, would-be working-class hero, a man who dares to try to fight against an entrenched bureaucracy of insatiable self-interests and the hapless communal indifference of the town’s residents.   Not only is that a daunting task, but he actually cares what happens to people in these dilapidated housing projects that others would describe as lost causes, as they don’t give a damn about their own lives.  By the time he has a look at the building, however, a minor repair escalates to a problem of disastrous proportions, as behind the water leaks, the exterior wall of the building has cracked from the foundation all the way up to the 9th floor roof, where he suspects the building may split in half.  Realizing the enormity of the potential problem, he turns off the water in the building and vows to speak to city officials the next day. 

Though the building is not part of his official jurisdiction, Dima’s nagging suspicions get the better of him during the night, calculating that the building has already started to shift and may fall within 24-hours.  With over 800 residents in the building, this is a public disaster he knows he needs to try to prevent.  Bypassing the layers of bureaucracy that contributed to the many years of neglect, he calls the Mayor, Nina Galaganova (Nataliya Surkova), but she’s at a restaurant with all the other city officials celebrating her 50th birthday party.  This sets up the ultimate confrontation of an ordinary average Joe interrupting a drunken extravaganza of a party all honoring “Mama,” including speeches commemorating her bravery in standing up to incompetent officials, building a healthy environment for economic growth, and completely turning the city around during her administration.  In this atmosphere of drunken euphoria, Dima announces the Mayor must act immediately to stave off a human catastrophe.  Like a general ordering her troops into battle formation, all the heads of state gather in an adjoining conference room, hauling in some from their drunken stupors, including an angry Federotov who wants this young plumber’s head for bypassing his authority.  Ordering an immediate inspection to reject or confirm his allegations, Federotov and young Dima head off to the site in question.  What immediately strikes the viewer is the visual disparity between the poor unemployed dregs of society in the tenement building whose drunken belligerence is symptomatic of their fatalistic apathy, along with young kids in the hallway getting high on drugs in plain view of their parents and the city officials, showing absolute disdain for any authority, and the well-dressed officials at the party stumbling on the dance floor, many passed out on the tables, the rank and file bureaucrats drinking the finest liquor and French wine, with Nina wearing a fiery red dress with gaudy jewelry that is meant to impress, a woman who has accumulated riches at the expense of the lower class that she ironically rose out of that she now totally disdains.  What’s perhaps not surprising is the link between this decadent display of wealth and affluence and the Communist-era of doing business, a system entirely based upon monetary favors.  When Federotov returns confirming the kid’s suspicions, all out war develops in the verbal sparring back and forth at the table, each one accusing the other of pocketing money for personal gain, where it’s like sharks in the water during a feeding frenzy, all taking place while the party is in full swing, with the nonstop thumping of the bass heard from the adjacent room serving as a constant reminder of an endless carousal of drunken revelry.  It’s a surreal moment on a devastating magnitude confirming one’s worst suspicions, becoming a refresher course on how to shake down an entire population through unprecedented shortsightedness and greed, where one hears the phrase:  “A fish rots from the head down.”  The resolution is a remarkable piece of political theater, where the Stalinist policies of the past have never really gone away, but are resurrected for moments such as these where people are viewed as replaceable parts in a bigger picture that exists only for a significant few.    

Friday, October 24, 2014

National Gallery

NATIONAL GALLERY           B-                                             
USA  Great Britain  France  (181 mi)  2014  d:  Frederick Wiseman  

Paintings change, and how you look at them changes as well.

For those who would pay to sit through three-hours of what amounts to a series of art history and art restoration lectures from one of the great museums of the world, The National Gallery of London, featuring 2400 paintings from the 13th to the end of the 19th centuries (leaving more contemporary fare to the Tate Gallery, London), then this is the film for you, and must be considered invaluable for scholars, art historians and teachers who would find this of considerable use in the classroom.  But for those lovers of Frederick Wiseman movies, where certainly part of the beauty is the lack of explanation, but total immersion into a field of particular interest, this may come as a bit of a surprise, as there may be more non-stop verbal explanation in this movie than all the other Wiseman films combined, which surprisingly doesn’t allow for moments of introspection due to the continuous stream of verbal explanations.  For some, that will be a good thing, as film critics are near unanimous in offering high praise for this film, as it delves into a specific area of museum expertise, which is what the institutions are renowned for, but it comes up short on the cinema end, as after all the explanation, there is precious little time spent with the actual paintings themselves, literally a few seconds and that’s it—and then they move on, which feels very unlike a Wiseman film that usually allows for a meditative view of art, where it becomes a living and breathing entity.  But here it remains more of a historical concept, where Wiseman appears to be more interested in the ideas behind the paintings than the paintings themselves.  There’s an interesting point made early in the film as a curator discusses with Gallery director Nicholas Penny the need to make art exhibitions more accessible to the general public, as a certain educated segment of society will always visit museums unprompted, while another section of society has no idea what lies inside the hallowed hallways, where she questioned whether the museum was actually focusing on reaching those individuals.  Judging by this film, the answer is no, as this is really a scholarly approach, where the greater the education and familiarity with art in general, the greater one’s appreciation for the film.  But let’s not forget, due to budget restraints, one of the first cuts in the public school systems is eliminating art from the curriculum, where nations as a whole are setting a precedent devaluing art’s significance.  So the language of this film is simply not reaching that segment that remains unfamiliar with the value and appreciation for art. 

Unfortunately, when treated in this way, art only has value to the elite class, represented by the museum’s well-educated all-white staff, which historically was how many of these paintings originated, as only royalty or the church could afford to commission the great artists and buy and/or appreciate art, hanging it on the walls of their vast churches, castles and chateaus, as now it hangs on the walls of museums waiting for the public to find it.  Large exhibitions generate huge advertising dollars notifying the public of gallery openings, where enormous crowds stand in line where they are ushered through crowded exhibitions, often so crowded you can barely see the paintings, while the rest of the art world lies unseen behind obscure corridors in the museum that are never entered or explored.  One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is the revelation explained by a tour guide to a group of racially mixed students that the foundation of the Gallery was funded in part because of the slave trade, where the gallery was built on profits from insuring slaves, where now the museum has its own isolated wing devoted to the “Slavery Collection.”  Nonetheless, few of the paintings discussed are even identified ahead of time, so unless the viewer is already familiar with the painting or the artist discussed, many viewers may not know what they’re talking about and will only get a brief glimpse afterwards.  Unlike other Wiseman films where the camera remains completely unobtrusive, nearly every speaker in the film is very well aware that the camera is pointed at them, where they often seem to be giving performances, shot in brief increments, as there are more and quicker edits in this film, contrary to the usual Wiseman methodology that prevents any practice of staging.  One of the tour guides identifies how a painting is a static moment in time all condensed into a single image, while some novels may take 6 months to read, sticking with the reader for the entire duration, or feature length movies may unwind over several hours.  But when one glances at a painting, sometimes all you get is a quick glimpse, while for others that capture our interest the viewer may sit and meditate over what they are looking at.  Much of what the guide provides is the story behind each painting, placing it in historical context, but also identifying thematic elements within the painting itself.  One of the more scintillating moments was a discussion with a group of legally blind people who were given elevated Braille materials that they could feel and touch to help them understand Camille Pisarro’s only nighttime painting The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897), see Original. 

The National Gallery is not among the largest museums, where Wiseman initially approached The Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the charge to bring a camera into the museum was prohibitive, as Wiseman never pays any fee, so the smaller intimacy is what attracted the director.  While the film doesn’t have the curiosity factor of At Berkeley (2013), which literally takes the viewer inside the classrooms of one of the most prestigious public universities in the world, where students and professors alike are engaged in scintillating discussions, or the contemplative reach of Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (2013) that takes us to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, seen through a developing friendship of a museum guard and a regular visitor, where the museum comes alive for Cohen’s distinctive focus, offering both a meditative glance at many of the paintings, but also a keen appreciation for people that spend time in museums, something altogether missing in Wiseman’s film.  Filmed in 2011-12 during major exhibitions for the 16th century Italian painters Titian and Leonardo da Vinci, and also 19th century British landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, with a major emphasis on the 17th century Dutch Masters Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer, one memorable sequence involves the meticulous cleaning of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, see Original, where an X-ray taken of the painting reveals another painting hidden underneath.  Another involved a discussion of Turner's The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817, see Original, depicting the fall of Carthage, a particularly bloody affair in 146 B.C involving the Battle of Carthage where the Romans set the city ablaze while capturing 50,000 men sold into slavery, where Turner’s emphasis on a blood-red sun looks as if it was painted with dried blood.  A discussion of modern restoration techniques indicates the painstaking, time-consuming work involved to create a protective lacquer coating that is state-of-the-art reversible and future-proof, as it can be eliminated in fifteen minutes should a better system ever be devised.  Along with the paintings, down in a basement work area are craftsmen carving out luxuriously designed frames to be used, including one austere looking older woman whose sole job was to place a golden inlay around the wooden frame, chiseling it directly into the wood.  There is a Greenpeace protest against Shell Oil drilling in the arctic that draws a crowd outside the museum, as they raise a giant banner on the front of the museum structure itself, proclaiming “It’s No Oil Painting,” but mostly Wiseman’s focus is on the inside collection, where spectators are seen huddling around the paintings, squinting at the fine detail, while a few are sitting on the bench asleep, some couples are seen kissing, ending with a modern ballet by two members of The Royal Ballet of London, Leanne Benjamin and Ed Watson, dancing in front of two Titian paintings, Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon, mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translating the visual into yet another language, suggesting art is all about interpretation. 


There is a bit of controversy surrounding the film, which attributes Rubens as the painter of Samson and Delilah, 1610, where doubt was cast when the National Gallery purchased the painting at a 1980 Christie’s art auction for $5 million dollars, a record at the time.  According to independent artist and scholar Euphrosyne Doxiades, she believes it is a fake, that the composition does not match the original copies made during the artist’s lifetime, suggesting it is painted in a more heavy-handed style than the artist’s other work, and does not employ the layering technique of glazing common in oil painting at the time and mastered by Rubens.  She also finds it odd that one of Samson’s feet is not fully depicted within the canvas.  “Rubens is the painter’s painter par excellence; as a colorist and a draftsman, he is unique in the history of art.  When I first saw the National Gallery’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ in 1987, immediately I thought it could not have been painted by Rubens and I supposed that it was a copy — a 20th century copy.” For an institution like the National Gallery to present such a work as genuine, she says, is “offensive.”

She and her son launched a website, to coincide with the National Gallery’s major exhibition of Rubens’ work in 2005, Rubens: A Master in the Making, where more than 100 drawings and paintings were on display.  The case against Rubens can be found on the website here, The Strange Story of the Samson and Delilah: after Rubens, while in December 2005, Edward M. Gomez also summarizes the history of the case at Salon, Is “Samson and Delilah” a fake? -  According to a scientific analysis of the painting’s age, it does date back to the correct period, but it was earlier attributed to Dutch painter Gerard van Honthorst, a painter who, like Rubens, worked in Rome under the shadow of Caravaggio at the start of the 17th century.  Despite the claims, a majority of the art historical scholarly community has accepted Rubens as the painter.   

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Lesson (Izlaiduma gads)

THE LESSON (Izlaiduma gads)        C                                   
Latvia   Russia  (108 mi)  2014  d:  Andris Gauja

Writer, director, producer, and musical composer, Andris Gauja has attempted to do it all in his first feature film, where Latvian films are seen all too rarely at film festivals.  While originally intended as a documentary shooting a group of graduating high school seniors, eventually the schools kicked them out telling them they couldn’t shoot there any more, apparently due to the behavior of the kids, as it was perceived as portraying Latvians in a poor light.  Gauja then broadened his concept into a feature film, becoming a love story on the run.  Much of what is shown onscreen is utterly preposterous, where by all accounts, the initial instincts of the schools do seem well founded, as this does present Latvia in an extremely negative manner, where its jaded citizens are used to living in such a corrupt and deteriorating society that moral laws no longer apply, where there is no longer any recognizable concept of right and wrong.  Latvia was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany during WWII, then after the war re-occupied by the Soviets for the next 50 years until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, where as a consequence, many Russians still live in Latvia along with Estonians, both neighboring nations, each comprising about 25% of the population.  Shot in the Latvian city of Riga, the film opens with an unpleasant break-up, where young and attractive Zane, Inga Alsina-Lasmane, is forced to rebuild her life, but opens the new school year as the Russian instructor, but also the mentor to an unruly group of graduating seniors.  This concept of a mentor is confusing to many, as it’s a position that doesn’t exist elsewhere, but their role is someone nearer the age of the students than other teachers who acts as an intermediary should authority issues or communication conflicts arise.  What’s perhaps most surprising is how mentors act outside the dictates of school guidelines, where they need to be liked and appreciated by the students, so they often invite them into their homes for parties and act as a party planner for their active social lives. 

On her first day, only a handful of kids show up for class, as the rest are loitering around outside smoking and making fun of those who actually attend class.  To combat this indifference, Zane organizes a beach field trip/party that turns into a drunken all-night affair with no adult supervision whatsoever, swimming naked in the sea, smoking and drinking whatever they want, where it obviously spirals out of control.  Despite complaints from other teachers and several parents afterwards, Zane is apparently pleased with herself as she’s drawn the students back into her class.  Probing into the personal life of one of her troubled students, she actually invites one of the girls, Inta (Ieva Apine), to come live with her, while at the same time, after her initial refusal, she begins having an affair with one of the students, Max (Marcis Klatenbergs), a guy who barely even shows up for class, whose father is a Russian gangster affiliated with the mafia.  This is a film where actions seem to have little or no consequences, as Inta’s parents and family never come looking for her, while Max’s parents obviously don’t give a damn either.  Soon, with his father’s money, Max is enticing Zane with a romantic weekend to Paris, dining in fancy restaurants, eventually landing in bed, taking naked pictures of each other, where this may as well be the realization of a male fantasy bearing little to no relation to reality.  One wonders how this young woman could be so blind as to think none of this would matter, or that the photos wouldn’t find their way onto the Internet, where she’s jeopardizing her entire career over a relatively undistinguished son of a gangster, who without his daddy’s money wouldn’t attract anyone’s interest.  Making matters worse, as if it wasn’t bad enough the first time, Zane organizes another drunken party at her own home, again without any adult supervision, and again all hell breaks out as the kids are free to do whatever they want. 

None of the kids are professional actors and it shows, as they play stereotypes of unruly, disaffected kids, often seen smoking and turning their video cameras on in the classroom, sulking much of the time, showing no hope or any prospects for the future, never spending any time doing homework, never taking any tests, where it’s just not like any school anyone ever attended.  Zane is never seen actually teaching the class, but instead makes herself busy as their social planner.  When other teachers get wind of what’s going on, she tells them to mind their own business, as she’s too busy playing the popular girl in school, where she’s completely oblivious that any of her actions will have negative ramifications.  Her deluded state of mind makes for uncomfortable cinema, where the unseen horror is how the film plays into the audience’s expectations, knowing nothing good could come of this, where you wait for the bombs to explode.  It’s all a bit amateurish, where there’s a reason kids aren’t the teachers in classrooms, as Zane simply shows no aptitude for professionalism, where she’s something of a disgrace to the teaching profession, where in many societies she’d be locked up on morals charges.  Making matters worse, there’s little to no chemistry between any of the characters, including the smitten couple, which only makes this more uncomfortable, as it’s an overly contrived picture of a nation, once the Soviets left, with no moral authority.  It’s a strange and unusual portrayal of an empty society, wildly uneven throughout, yet the performance of Inga Alsina-Lasmane is a bit captivating, where the premise is a train wreck waiting to happen with the audience taking on the role of interested onlookers.  The crash is something unexpected, as love on the run never looked more bleak, where Russia turns into an industrial wasteland without a hint of hospitality, as if they entered into a colorless dead zone that only exists in sci-fi movies.  Peppering the film with many pop songs, some written by the director, the film retains a bleak youthful view of crushed hopes and a nonexistent future, supposedly broken before any of these kids arrived, but they are under no illusions about their ability to fix anything.   

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Joy of Man's Desiring (Que ta joie demeure)

Director Denis Côté

JOY OF MAN’S DESIRING (Que ta joie demeure)       B-                
Canada  (70 mi)  2014  d:  Denis Côté       official facebook page

The work place is the place where those arriving cross paths with those who are leaving early.   —Georges Courteline, (June 25, 1858 – June 25, 1929)

Denis Côté remains something of a radical, underground Québécois filmmaker championing the unfamiliar, including small and unconventional films, where his most recent film Vic + Flo Saw a Bear  (2013) is perhaps his most accessible, through it remains provocatively disturbing, while this is closer to his earlier work Bestiaire (2012), a wordless and minimalist film essay shooting animals living in the closed quarters of an amusement park, observing human behavior through the unpretentious eyes of animals, and vice versa, both seemingly on equal footing.  Côté is himself a former film critic from Montreal, and what he brings to his films is a certain objective detachment, where the key is observing without judgment.  While this is a free associative and contemplative work that focuses upon the routine aspects of industrial work, accentuating machine operators in nine small factories in Montreal, he establishes a precise rhythm of noise and machine, where humans are simply intermediaries, but slowly introduces a fictional element that finalizes the film.  While it may be completely unpretentious, it is quite different from the meticulously austere group of Austrian documentarians, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, OUR DAILY BREAD (2005), Michael Glawogger, WORKINGMAN’S DEATH (2005), SLUMMING (2006), and Whore's Glory (2012), Ruth Mader, STRUGGLE (2003), and Hubert Sauper, DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE (2004), which have a near mathematical precision to them.  Instead it remains open ended and ambiguous, where the director intentionally makes no social comment, but simply shows various stages of people at work, including moments of absurdity when a union official, from an apparent approved distance where he is allowed to stand, yells slogans at the workers while they are working. 

Initially viewers are greeted by the pounding rhythm of a machine press, including a montage of machines in close-up, while also subjected to a curious opening monologue asking for support, where the audience never sees who the comments are directed to, another worker or a machine (the director?).  This schism between man and machine has been the subject of much conjecture since the advent of the industrial age, where the interplay has not always been compatible.  As we hear the workers talk to one another, we discover one machine operates at a level of speed that most find dangerous, but that’s what attracts one particular worker to that machine, preferring it to all others, where he is able to utilize his own dexterity to achieve maximum results.  Another grows disillusioned with the job, losing interest altogether, where he’s sitting around in a state of depression when he’s approached by a person that could easily be a ghost of the worker’s past, where another worker claims they’re ready to take his place, asking if he’s ready to relinquish his job.  This visual sequence may simply be a passing thought in the course of the working day.  While workers are routinely seen at their work stations, the presence of the camera in such close proximity would seem to be a distraction and highly intrusive, perhaps dangerously so, due to the precise nature of this kind of skilled work where machines are manipulated into exact positions, where the degree for error is minimal.  Certainly one thought about what we see is that we never see the final result of their labor, but only the one piece of the puzzle that each worker is assigned to perform, creating a feeling of incompleteness, as while they are part of the whole, they never seem to be connected to the finished product. 

For the filmmaker, he entered into this project without any written script, becoming an improvisational journey that reveals itself over time, an experimental alternative where we are taken on an observational tour of various factory settings—metal working, carpentry, industrial laundry, a garment shop, mattress factory, and coffee roasting.  Alternating between people and machines as well as the raw materials that surround them, many toil in a kind of solitary silence, while others remain talkative and gregarious throughout with other staff.  Côté catches many of them during their idle rest periods having a quick smoke, but also having extended conversations about their jobs, providing shop talk, including an amusing parable about a crooked employer, or comments about work fulfillment, where one changed workplaces as she was barely noticed at her previous job and felt invisible, but remains just as invisible here as well, offering views of alienation and a sense of demoralization, as they spend half their lives in this claustrophobic environment, while others find a kind of mystical satisfaction in the constant repetitiveness of their actions, as if it offers the opportunity to cleanse the mind.  This kind of emptyheaded blankness balances with the focused concentration needed for the more intricate nature of some of the work performed, supplemented by an intriguing sound design by Frédéric Cloutier and Clovis Gouaillier.  By introducing fictional characters, some seen offering prayers to their machines, Côté accentuates the kinds of thoughts that might come into play, while also introducing other significant images, where a partially constructed wooden piano is seen at one point, which later introduces the titular Bach chorale Myra Hess plays Bach/Hess "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" YouTube (3:41) heard somewhere off in the distance to the worker’s contemplative thoughts, where this musical reverie is perhaps the idealized sound of their completed work, a kind of sacred musical construction of perfection.  What is perhaps missing is the feeling of any joy in the work, amusingly remedied in the final shot.  Despite the multiple layers in play, the narrow scope never becomes particularly revelatory, where it doesn’t impress as much as some of the other work by this director. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten)

IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (Kraftidioten)     B+           
Norway  Sweden  Denmark  (115 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Hans Petter Moland

I am just a guy who keeps a strip of civilization going through the wilderness.  
—Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård)

In what must be the funniest film of the year, Hans Petter Moland left his mark with A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN (2010), a droll Norwegian comedy starring Stellan Skarsgård as a low key ex-con that comes out of prison after serving a 12-year stint for murdering a man who was having an affair with his wife, where nearly every scene has absurd comic undertones.  Fighting to lead a normal life, which may as well be a Kaurismäki movie, he’s drawn into the role of protector where he discovers old habits are hard to break.  The film was such a success that the two teamed up again (actually their 4th time working together) for another dry Scandinavian comedy where Skarsgård offers another brilliant, off-kilter performance as Nils Dickman.  This time he’s a snowplow driver, a Swedish immigrant who’s the closest thing to being a real Norwegian who was just awarded “Citizen of the Year” for his dedication in clearing the snow off the extremely snowy rural highways in the remote outer reaches of Norway, always seen blasting his way through the lonely mountain roads as the snow goes flying down the steep hills.  His ordinary life takes a sharp turn for the worse when his son turns up dead from an overdose of drugs.  While the police have little incentive to investigate these kinds of cases as so many kids do this to themselves, but Nils is convinced his son wasn’t involved with drugs.  When he accidentally discovers his son’s friend that was involved with drug gangs, he begins his search for the men behind his son’s murder.  With a hilarious script by Danish screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson, who also wrote A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN, this is filmed very much like a Hollywood movie with established stars, only the arctic Scandinavian humor is much funnier, something along the lines of In Bruges (2008) which pokes fun of the morbid mood of professional hit men throughout, while some have hailed this film as “Norway’s response to Fargo (1996),” a bleak comedy the Coen brothers themselves describe as “Siberia with family restaurants.”  Absurdly accentuating an accumulating body count, where after each death their names are printed onscreen next to a cross, as the title suggests, a humorous device that works perfectly from the beginning until a masterful final shot.  Much like the “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sign on the popular David Lynch TV show Twin Peaks (1990 – 91), this sign says “Welcome to Tyos…” and the rest remains covered in snow.    

Dark, provocative, and utterly sublime, this is one of the more deliciously entertaining films of the year, a revenge saga that strikes a balance between an honest portrayal of criminal brutality while evoking a certain type of disturbing laughter in the wickedly absurd manner that so many characters meet their tragic end.  The sarcastic wit displayed throughout is impressive, especially Moland’s treatment of his own native Norwegians, showcasing petty prejudices and cultural presumptions alongside a litany of one-liners, while at the same time, cameraman Philip Øgaard’s outdoor landscape shots of the snowy mountainous peaks couldn’t be more impressive, where the crunch of the snow is a constant that is heard throughout, where snow is actually one of the most spectacular characters in the film, where the overwhelming presence of white is a stark contrast to such dark deeds taking place onscreen.  Actor Skarsgård claims that he hates cold weather, especially when called upon to perform in sub-zero temperatures when his face muscles are literally paralyzed.  However, no one can doubt the expressive quality that he brings to the film, always one of the more understated performers in the business.  When his son Ingvar is a sacrificial pawn to the drug war, Nils goes on the offensive in a killing spree, targeting several of the men working under The Count, Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen from Kon-Tiki (2012), a particularly nasty piece of work living in a completely modernistic home surrounded by his henchmen, where his blatant offensiveness, not to mention pompous arrogance and often utter stupidity (yet always seen with a smile), is often contrasted against the cool and measured manner of his blond and beautiful ice-princess ex-wife Marit, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen from Marie Krøyer (2012), who continually arrives unannounced reporting the latest court maneuver for child custody rights over their son, who’s unfortunately caught in the middle of an ugly marital squabble, each sharing custody  One of their funniest arguments is over her accusation that he’s a poor parent for feeding their son heavily sugared Fruit Loops cereal, which makes The Count go ballistic, claiming he’s a vegan.  However the beauty of the sequence is watching a Norwegian pronunciation dance around the words, “Fruit Loops,” which is musical comedy in itself, followed by the kid secretly being fed the dreaded cereal by one of the bodyguards, who are collectively helping to raise this kid that his father pays no attention to. 

At this point, the film seems to thrive on mistaken identity, as The Count is sure a rival gang is sending him a message, continually calling them “The Albanians,” though they are a rival Serbian gang led by Bruno Ganz (doing an always hoarse Vito Corleone) as their leader, affectionately known as “Papa,” seen bringing in a tray of take-out coffees for his men during a particularly brutal torture session.  Their home office is a warehouse filled with what appears to be stolen merchandise that collectively resembles a big box retail outlet.  Meanwhile, Nils loses his wife, who leaves a perfectly folded blank piece of paper stuffed in an envelope as her goodbye letter, which seems to jump start a new resolve in Nils to track down every man involved in his son’s murder.  As the two rival gangs blame and target each other, the amusing dialogue of the Serb thugs provides a stream of comical atmosphere throughout the film, suggesting there are no decent welfare systems in sunny cultures, that they only exist in cold Scandinavian climates, while also discussing the benevolence of the Norwegian prison system, where they serve warm food, there’s surprisingly no rapes, and the guards and other prisoners are actually friendly, while also commenting on the Norwegian practice of women picking up dog poo in little plastic bags, where one has to ask quizzically, “What does she do with it later?”  Western customs remain alien to these guys, whose counterparts drink freshly squeezed carrot juice when discussing plans to kill people and drive hybrid electric Fisker Karma cars.  The Count sends a message to the Serbs by killing the son of mob boss Papa, a move that backfires when they realize who the real killer is, which is revealed with such utter simplicity, when one of The Count’s gang states the obvious, “If it was Dickman who killed our people, then the Serbs must be pissed off about the guy we hung on the sign.”  Amidst a gang war set amidst ski resorts and hang-gliding, Nils kidnaps The Count’s son, who actually seems to prefer Nils as a father figure, asking him sheepishly, “Have you ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?” before asking for a bedtime story, where Nils reads out of the catalogue for the latest model of snowblowers, holding the kid’s rapt attention throughout, seen later riding in the CHRISTINE (1983)-like cab with Nils during the final showdown, shown in a slow-motion choreography of blood and bullets, and just when we think it’s all over, hold on, as there’s still more.

Monday, October 20, 2014


Director Abderrahmane Sissako

TIMBUKTU        B+                                      
Mauritania  France  (97 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Abderrahmane Sissako

They’re singing praise to the Lord and his prophet; should I arrest them?
—young soldier radioing his superior

This film couldn’t be more timely, as it’s perhaps the only film that predicts the presence of a murderous rogue Islamic militant group like ISIL currently grabbing the headlines with beheadings and unparalleled violence, as it’s based upon real incidents that took place in Northern Mali in 2012 when Ansar Dine Islamic militants occupied Timbuktu, once the center of scholarly Islamic learning in Africa, burning down the only public library, the Ahmed Baba Institute, including 18,000 historical manuscripts in the process.  But in particular what captured the director’s attention was an event depicted in the film, the public stoning of a young unmarried couple in the northern town of Aguelhok, both buried up to their necks and stoned to death in front of hundreds of watchers, a horribly tragic incident precipitated by their view that the couple was committing a crime against divine law.  According to Sissako, “Aguelhok is neither Damascus nor Teheran, and in no way am I looking to over-emotionalize these events for the purposes of a moving film.  What I do want to do is bear witness as a filmmaker.  Because I will never be able to say I didn’t know.  And because of what I know now, I must tell this story — in the hope that no child may ever have to learn this same lesson in the future.  That their parents could die, simply because they love each other.”  Historically, different tribes controlled Timbuktu until the French colonized Mali in 1893, granting their independence in 1960, where it remains one of the poorest regions in the world.  At the request of the government, the French military was eventually called in to run the Tuareg rebels out of the region and re-establish order, where the country recently conducted democratic elections.  While the filmmaker was born in nearby Mauritania, where he was forced to shoot the film due to the actual turmoil taking place in Timbuktu, he completed his early childhood education in Mali before returning home.  He studied cinema in Moscow at the prestigious VGIK (Federal State Film Institute) and now lives in Paris, where he discovered most of the non-professional cast he used, as well as the cinematographer Sofian El Fani, who shot Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2) (2013).  Many of the lead roles are played by professional singers, the most prominent being Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara, seen here Fatoumata Diawara - Bissa (OFFICIAL VIDEO) - YouTube (3:24). 

Initially screened in competition at Cannes, the film reportedly received a 10-minute standing ovation afterwards and won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury honoring works inspired by “the spiritual dimension of our existence,” and also the François Chalais Prize recognizing “the values of journalism.”  What Sissako brings to the subject is pure cinematic poetry, a common thread throughout his films, including WAITING FOR HAPPINESS (2002), winner of the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes, while also awarded the French Culture Award as the Best Foreign Cineaste of the Year, and BAMAKO (2006), a thought provoking film that examines the effects of globalization in Africa, specifically Mali, where the first world G8 nations historically stole what they could from African nations through colonialist exploitation, only to be replaced today by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund financial systems that remain even more deeply entrenched through the huge debts these impoverished nations supposedly owe to these international institutions, ranging from 40 to 60% of the nation’s total income.  Perhaps even more prescient was the director’s humorous insertion of a film within a film, a fictitious, rather cartoonish American film playing in the region called DEATH IN TIMBUKTU starring Danny Glover in a Sergio Leone style Hollywood western depicting a small African village falling under a torrent of bullets to rebel outsiders, watched in a feverish trance by children, a rather unfathomable intersection of fiction and reality.  While most of the news reports focus upon the wanton jihadist destruction of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage sites, outrageous acts that are themselves unconscionable, Sissako instead focuses upon the day to day effects it has on the local population, a tribal culture that has survived centuries in a brutally harsh sub-Sahara desert climate.  Opening in a stunning moment of lyrical beauty juxtaposed against the madness of ongoing violence, we see a truck of jihadists inexplicably firing machine guns at a deer/gazelle streaking through the desert, where the movement is captured as poetry in motion.  In the next shot, tribal carvings are destroyed by machine gun fire, where the centuries-old traditions of the past are wiped away in seconds.  The incomprehensible aspect is our entryway into understanding the presence of this occupied force, which goes against the laws of nature.  When they enter the mosque with their weapons, explaining they are practicing jihad, the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) tells them he is practicing jihad as well, but in Timbuktu they use the mind instead of weapons, where bringing guns into the mosque is a disgrace to the piety of God.    

The film recalls the insidious terror expressed in Raoul Peck’s Haitian film The Man On the Shore (L’Homme sur les quais) (1993), shot during the reign of the Duvalier dictatorship and his armed militia, the Tontons Macoute, who similarly terrorized the population.  The villagers in Timbuktu are comprised of various ethnic groups speaking French, Bambara, Songhay, and Tamasheq living in harmony with the nomadic Tuareg people, while these militants bring with them Arabic and even English speaking jihadists from around the globe, where the irony is they have soldiers drive around the city in trucks with loud speakers warning residents of the new laws, where they are not allowed to sing, play music, or dance, while covered women must wear socks at all times and gloves on their hands, but they require multi-lingual interpreters to get their ultra orthodox message of forbidden activities across.  Easily the most absurd example is banning the game of soccer, with armed men with machine guns taking the ball away, leaving the fully dressed players in uniform to continue playing without the ball in a choreographed, ballet-like pantomime that expresses the joy and beauty of movement, where these guys revere the skill level of Lionel Messi and imitate his post goal scoring celebratory moves on the field.  Mali is also known around the world for their intricate music, where the names of Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangaré spring to mind, where the idea of soldiers silencing these voices is catastrophic, but real, as they go house to house hunting down the origins of musical sounds, arresting those responsible, including Fatoumata Diawara and others who are then given 40 lashes in public, where she breaks out in song midway through her punishment.  Anyone who has seen Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) will appreciate the profound difference in how this is visually expressed, losing the grotesque aspect of mutilated flesh, where the focus is on pain, and instead adds a poetic lyricism that highlights the injustice.  Inflicting punishment, like the public stoning, appears to be the goal of Ansar Dine rebels, where they round up villagers and subject them to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic sharia law, bringing the imam out of the temple to question where does God enter into these ungodly actions?  When a young girl is hauled out of her home and forced into marriage to one of the armed rebels against the protests of her family, the ruling court claims this is perfectly legal, as “We are the guardians of all deeds.”  Against this backdrop, another local family is destroyed, where Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed, aka Pino) is a goat and cattle herder living in the freedom of a tent out in the desert with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), young daughter Toya, while also raising a young orphan Issan, who tends to the cattle every day.  When a local dispute over a dead cow results in an accidental death, Kidane is arrested and immediately sentenced to death, where the harsh and excessive punishment contrasts against the sight of rebels routinely violating their own rules, including one that lusts after Kidane’s wife, where the lingering question raised at the end is who will they be coming after next, as instead of a deer they are chasing down humans.