Wednesday, October 31, 2012


ARGO             B-                   
USA  (120 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Ben Affleck              Official site

Every one of Affleck’s three directed films have contained a contrived and heavy handed plot twist which dramatically elevate the theatrical material, where the viewer must suspend belief as the direction instead goes for Hollywood melodrama, oversaturating the screen with a kind of hyper-tense reality that exists only in fiction, where he simply takes poetic license to supercharge his movies.  Some may find the amped up suspense entertaining, where he often matches it with excellent musical choices, such as Dire Straits and Led Zeppelin here, but there’s also an underlying deceit going on in the relationship with viewers, where the director is not being straightforward or honest, as instead he’s exaggerating for the Hollywood cinematic effect he’s looking for.  It’s this manipulative dishonesty that some might find suspect, as it taints his prodigal talents as a director.    

Affleck’s exaggerated lie here is the Americanization of history, as told through a Hollywood perspective, using the familiar tagline, based by real events.  Focusing on a story as if it is an American example of heroism and courage, left out in the process is the heroism and courage of the Canadian Embassy who secretly sheltered the Americans for 79 days, at great risk to themselves, and helped them escape, where Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador, received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor, in 1981.  The Hollywood version, of course, credits the CIA, but according to President Ronald Reagan in his medal award speech to Taylor, Remarks on Presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to Kenneth ...  “The Canadian Government in Ottawa and the Embassy began the ingenious preparations for an escape. The Canadian Government agreed to issue fictitious passports to the Americans. The Canadian Embassy staff began making flights in and out of Tehran to establish a travel pattern and to learn airport procedures.”  Canada was praised in the American press at the time, where Canadian flags were flown all over the United States, and songs were even written thanking Canada, but former Ambassador Taylor was incensed when he saw the movie premiere at the Toronto Film festival, where Ben Affleck stars as a heroic CIA agent responsible for facilitating the escape of six Americans from Iran during the same period as the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979 where 52 hostages were held for 444 days, when in reality it was just as much the Canadian Ambassador who enabled the escape, viewing the original movie postscript that suggests the citations he received were unwarranted due to the CIA’s clandestine efforts.  Meeting with Affleck afterwards, the postscript was changed (Ben Affleck Changes 'Argo' to appease ex-diplomat) to note the CIA “complemented efforts by the Canadian Embassy,” but Affleck remains the sole Hollywood American hero.  It is exactly this kind of blur of truth and fiction that passes for the truth nowadays, literally revising history to suit American jingoist purposes.  When viewed in this light, this is little more than the continued shamelessness of using movies to present a mythical view of the American West with the Hollywood cavalry riding to the rescue.  One can imagine Mad magazine having a field day doing a satiric slant on this depiction. 

That said, with Argo: Too Good To Be True, Because It Isn’t, Affleck largely draws from the accounts of Antonio Mendez’s 1999 memoir, The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, events that were kept classified until President Clinton declassified them in 1997, and Joshuah Bearmans 2007 article from Wired magazine (Wired article).  Affleck plays Mendez, who won the CIA's Intelligence Star of Valor for his role in engineering the escape of six Americans from Tehran in 1980, and the film is largely based from his self-serving viewpoint.  The irony, of course, is that it was the CIA’s idea to invent a Hollywood style escape, using a fictitious movie company scouting locations for a sci-fi movie in Tehran, using an actual script and drawing storyboards, where the six Americans were given fake Canadian passports, suggesting they are all part of a Canadian movie production team scouting Iranian locations before all leaving the country shortly afterwards.  The U.S. government was knee deep in a state of demoralization and utter paralysis during the hostage crisis, as there was little they could do to counter the negative publicity of Americans being held hostage and gas prices suddenly skyrocketing, as if the perpetrators were actually being financially rewarded for this outrageous act.  But there is jubilation in the streets of Iran and the seeds of revolution, as they get rid of the Shah, an iron-handed tyrannical despot who was installed by the CIA in 1953 at the American Embassy against a democratically elected, but Soviet backed Prime Minister, so their liberty is gained, at least in their eyes, by standing up to the “Great Satan.”  Traitors and collaborators are strung up on the streets as a message to citizens that the last vestiges of the old ways have been severed and a new day has begun.  The real untold story, which remains secretly classified to this day, is how newly elected President Ronald Reagan orchestrated an Algiers Accords, which many suspect was an arms for hostages deal with the Iranians, where on the day of his inauguration all the hostages were mysteriously released.  But of course, that history hasn’t been written yet.  So instead we get this smaller version of a feel good story, where Hollywood embellishes the daring American initiative, all but leaving the Canadians silent.  In this topsy turvy world of real intelligence and fabricated identities and scenarios, embellishing the storyline *is* what Hollywood does best, even in its real life spy capers, so watching this movie does produce a bit of an unintended smile.    

Perhaps the best part of the movie is the daring escape sequence, which is another example of the great fictionalization of history, turning it into an homage to DIE HARD (1988), but despite the seemingly overwhelming odds, where every possible obstacle must be overcome and everything that can go wrong does go wrong, all ratcheting up the intense pressure of the moment, that tension was generated with more believability and suspense than the fake film crew’s location inspection.  The team is quickly swallowed up by the streets of Tehran which are literally teeming with hostile demonstrators, where the portrayal of blood curdling anger and hatred all seemingly projected at them is a perfect example of Hollywood hysteria, using stereotypes and demonizing images to depict a near surreal world of fanaticized hatred when they are surrounded by an angry mob, a dreamlike nightmare that is in every respect an unmitigating disaster.  The Arab world (including Arab-Americans) has never recovered from this kind of hostile depiction in the movies, remaining fodder for racial profiling, as they will forever be portrayed as the fanatics, even as there are homegrown American fanatics like Timothy McVeigh, John Allen Muhammad, or Charles Whitman.  It would be hard to imagine an Arab-American love story coming out of the current Hollywood culture, which makes no attempt to understand or appreciate Islamic culture either in television or the movies, reflecting the prevailing hostile culture of the times, much like the 50’s never portrayed gays or blacks or married couples sleeping together on television.  Unfortunately it takes generations before these kinds of negative depictions are overcome.  While it should be understood that the initial security breach in 1979 allowed a swarm of Islamic students and militants to overrun the American Embassy, much like recent events where the American Ambassador to Libya was murdered, where in each situation the nation’s long-term tyrannical leader was deposed in disgrace, where pent-up street turbulence fills the void of an absent leadership or authority, where at least in Iran, that legitimate authority was replaced not by a democratically elected leader, but by a Supreme Leader of Iran, a theocratic leader who is the highest ranking political and religious authority in the land.  Despite the passing of more than 30 years, little is known about the nation of Iran in the United States, or their way of life, even after a long-term military occupation of neighboring Iraq, as nothing but a constant stream of stereotypes and negative depictions are ever seen in the movies or in the newspaper reports.  This film, though thoroughly entertaining, will do nothing to alter that depiction in the eyes of Americans. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS                   B-                   
Great Britain  (110 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Martin McDonagh            Official site

Of the three films released by the McDonagh brothers, including Martin’s In Bruges (2008) and John Michael’s The Guard (2011), this is easily the weakest of the three, another black comedy that takes pains with the audience to explain the multiple ideas in conceiving a story, that becomes more about the process of writing, digressing into multiple side stories, always feeling experimental and incomplete, never really feeling much like an actual movie.  Part of the problem is the overly self-conscious nature of the film, a film about the making of a movie, which stops every so often and shares with the audience where it wants to go before it goes there, a device that often does not work.  This may work better in a theater production, where on different nights the actors might actually change the story and use the same clues to different outcomes.  But in a movie, first and foremost there needs to be sustained suspense, dramatic conflict and tension, which is all but absent when the story continually stops as the characters examine the choices to be made, always discussing the possible outcomes before they happen, so when they do, it’s not much of a surprise.  The technique of exposing the writing as the film is progressing is a difficult undertaking, often interfering in the overall interest, where some will find this continually annoying.  Perhaps the best example of this is the highly popular road movie Y TU MAMA TAMBIÉN (2001) by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, an otherwise funny and highly entertaining film that is constantly interrupted by a narrator who literally stops the film in order to add some often cheeky narration, a device the interferes with the rhythm and actually changes the pace of the film.  Similarly, Spike Jonze working on a continually evolving Charlie Kaufman screenplay in ADAPTATION (2002) is another headspinner, literally a screenplay about a screenwriter writing a screenplay adaptation of a book.  Some may find this device clever, while others will find it distracting and overly cute. 

In the two earlier works, the writing of the McDonagh brothers is risqué, marvelously inventive, and among the more hilarious films seen in the past few years, and this is a wacky and thoroughly enjoyable adventure as well, where superb acting is always a key to their work.  But this film continually gets sidetracked and bogged down, where the action literally stops as the characters themselves mull over what happens next.  Colin Farrell as Marty is the boozehound screenwriter living in the gorgeous LA digs with the beautiful dame, Abbie Cornish as a trophy girlfriend, while best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is continually hovering around him conspiring to change Marty’s life, especially the alcoholism, where the first change seems to be getting Marty kicked out of his girlfriend’s house for his outrageous behavior while drunk, which, of course, he can’t remember.  As he reviews what he’s got so far, writing a new movie script, all he has is a title, as he hasn’t figured out who the psychopaths are or what they do yet.  Billy throws ideas at him left and right, telling him stories or offering newspaper clippings, and slowly, the ideas come, which are visualized onscreen as psychopath #1 and #2, etc. expressed in vignette fashion until the list is complete.  Meanwhile Billy has a side con game going with Hans (Christopher Walken), where they steal pet dogs in a busy upscale block where there’s so much activity it’s easy not to notice the pets are even missing, and then return them as Good Samaritans for a cash reward.  This operation produces steady income until they steal the wrong guy’s dog, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a local gangster who goes on a rampage trying to find him.  Meanwhile several other so-called psychopaths are on the loose, all allegedly creating mayhem, but they seem to get mixed up in a constantly evolving world of ideas/fantasy/stories where they continually get lost, only to be pulled out of a hat later.  

Undoubtedly, there is some brilliant dialogue written here, and some hilarious lines that almost get lost in the weirdness of what’s happening, where truth and fiction merge as a writer’s ideas are expressed in fantasy scenes, where underneath it all a script is being developed, and there are flashback sequences of various stories being told, all mixed together in a strange brew that doesn’t really hold together the abundance of ideas being offered.  There is a theatricality to the way ideas continually accumulate, but there is little tension or build up of suspense, so when events eventually happen, they feel more like random and isolated events rather than something connected to a whole.  The strength of the film is in its characters, where Rockwell in particular, along with Walken, are as good as they’ve been in years, where they have a brilliantly developed scene in a bar late in the film where Marty is telling Hans (with Billy trying to stop him) the story of the Buddhist/Amish/Quaker psychopath which resonates deeply with Hans, where Tom Waits has an equally compelling backstory, along with a Viet Cong monk who thinks the war is not really over.  Part of the problem is the director’s curious strategy to open the film a certain way, meeting the audience’s expectations, giving them plenty of action scenes, building up the suspense, but then going into a KILL BILL Pt. 2 (2004) style meditation on everything that’s come before, slowing everything down into an utter calm where each character seems to wander off in their own directions.  Never feeling much like a cohesive whole afterwards, instead it’s an obsessive passion on creating individual vignettes strewn together, like an opening scene, Tom Waits’ flashback, a bravura graveyard sequence, the expendable (mis)treatment of women, a hooker that learns to speak Vietnamese at Yale, a tape recorded monologue, a final shoot out (with a gun that jams) set in the desert of a national park next to a sign reading “no shooting allowed,” where by the end it’s questionable whether the project actually works or not.  Was it hilarious?  Individual moments, Hell yes, but does it make us care or come together and work collectively like some kind of existentialist take on writing or living in the modern world, probably not.

Monday, October 29, 2012

In Bruges

IN BRUGES                B+                  
Great Britain  Belgium  (107 mi)  2008  ‘Scope  d:  Martin McDonagh

An extremely witty, at times outrageously funny crime thriller written by the Irish playwright director McDonagh, featuring Brendon Gleeson and Colin Farrell as the freely cursing Ken and Ray, an unlikely pair of Irish hit men on the run holed up in Bruges, Belgium, which is a tourist delight for Ken and a living Hell for Ray.  The two are stuck together booked in the only room available during the Christmas holiday season where they continually grate on each other’s nerves, stuck there until they hear from their boss.  Meanwhile, Ken is astounded by the history of what turns out to be the oldest medieval city in Belgium, including a church that lays claim to having actual drops of Jesus’s blood, not to mention an old world charm of narrow cobblestone streets with plenty of dark alcoves, ancient church towers, small pubs, restaurants, hotels, and outdoor café’s overlooking the arching bridges spanning over a picturesque canal running through the city, sumptuously filmed by Eigil Bryld, while Ray thinks it’s a hellhole and is itching to get out as soon as the boss arrives.  The incessant harping dialogue between the two is the essence of the film, a stymied, existential Waiting for Godot purgatory through which other characters are introduced, offering brief rays of hope in an otherwise desolate interior landscape, where Ray especially is morbidly miserable after a hit goes wrong, accidentally killing a young boy.  Adding to this disconsolate mood is a visit to an art museum where grotesque Brueghel paintings reveal a kind of apocalyptical human mayhem, as if Hell has broken out on the face of the earth. 

Something of a character driven road movie, this outcast pair can hardly let a day go by without creating some kind of petty disturbance, usually caused by Ray, who is at his wits end pretty much every second of every day.  His mood changes, however, when they run across a film shoot where he sees the best sight Bruges has offered him so far, Chloë, a gorgeous woman on the set played by Clémence Poésy, who he impresses by sneaking past security to introduce himself. When it turns out neither is what they seem, a sudden fascination develops, which of course meets a temporary setback when a brooding boyfriend shows up, but despite the gloomy nature of their professions, all is in good fun in this movie, which for the most part is a light-hearted romp, not the least of which includes the presence of dwarf actor Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), who’s part of the dream sequence of the film shoot, and has a fixation for prostitutes and drugs, in no particular order, or Eric Godon as Yuri, the Russian gun dealer (“You can get guns anywhere.”) who finds himself characterizing his customers by their response to his carefully chosen vocabulary, which borders on the mundane, yet he swears by his methodology, or Thekla Reuten as Marie, the pregnant hotel desk clerk who insists on placing a special line in a written message left by the boss taking exception to being called the clerk, when in fact she is the owner of the establishment.  Lest one think it’s all artifice and surface hilarity, there are also abrupt mood shifts, beautifully complimented by the superb music of Carter Burwell, one of the more sublime is expressed by the musical choice of Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey), also featured in Bergman’s IN THE PRESENCE OF A CLOWN (1997), as Ray wakes up after a boisterous party one morning, where his dour mood is the picture of inconsolable winter melancholy.   

Eventually the boss, Harry, Ralph Fiennes with a hair trigger temper and an even greater affinity for curse words, shows up in an attempt to sort things out, where it turns into an every-man-with-firearms-for-himself movie, expressed through a kinetic kind of RUN LOLA RUN (1998) relish, where Burwell amps up the volume and characters are seen racing through those narrow city streets in a kind of picture postcard tribute to the city itself, reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s exquisite use of Venice in DON’T LOOK NOW (1973).  Somehow, absurdity is the rule of the game, as its chaotic presence reveals itself throughout, beautifully balanced, however, by the superlative performances onscreen, by the more subdued, reigned in emotions of Ken and Ray matching wits with the near hysterical force of Harry, by the actions of the pregnant hotel owner who refuses to budge, standing between two would be killers urging them both to put down their weapons, where Fiennes utters the inevitable line: “Don’t be stupid. This is a shootout.”  Despite repulsive dwarf jokes, ridiculous race humor, and a flurry of ethnic slurs, all representative, however, of Ray’s deteriorating mood in Bruges of a Brueghel Hell on earth, where a literal Pandora’s Box of anything goes is cracked wide open, where an anti-American tourist thread is among the funniest in the film, it’s this kind of cathartic openness of no restrictions whatsoever that makes this dialogue so sharp, so free-wheeling hilarious and scathingly incendiary at the same time.  This first time film director has an extraordinary gift for dialogue, and in this picture he’s got equally gifted actors who can deliver his lines with ease, making it one of the more enjoyable movies of the year.     

Saturday, October 27, 2012

2012 Chicago Film Fest Wrap Up

María Birta 
from Black's Game

Now that the Fest is over, what did we discover?  It was a pretty good year, as the festival programming team has been in place for awhile now, and their stability is starting to show.  This year, there was none of the high priced  "Special" programs that were all the rage last year, over 20 films, most all carry overs from Cannes or other fests, each carrying a price tag of $20.  This year the festival films were integrated into the fest at the same prices as other films, which significantly improved everyone's experiences.

Two theaters had to move patrons in the middle of screenings due to rain leakage from the ceilings, while the 2nd place award winning film, Michel Franco's After Lucia, never showed up until the best of the fest screening.  Instead patrons and the jury were forced to view both screenings on a 3rd rate screener copy, which may have been equivalent to a poor quality VHS tape with the studio name blocked into the print for the entire film, located not far from the center of the screen, which was, to say the least, annoying.  In another instance, there was a full house to see Post Tenebras Lux on the 2nd screening, where they were held in line a full 15 minutes past start time (without explanation) before they were told the projector would not recognize the film, so they could all go home.  It did play in another theater on the 3rd screening nearly a week later. 

There were again lines on the main floor, held back by festival staff, and then more lines in the 2nd floor where the theaters are, so there was a double edged bureaucracy of lines that viewers were forced to navigate, where this caused most of the customer complaints, as people waited downstairs first in line, but then got to the theaters and some 50 people are already in seats.  Staff never heard the end of this particular complaint.  On several occasions, they let the line in from downstairs first, to acquiesce to most boisterous complainers, and then there'd be more complainers from those waiting in line upstairs outside the theater.  So they couldn't win no matter what they did.    

Some of the New Director films were terrific, as were many of the documentaries, and even though the Chicago Fest is not exactly a competition, there were plenty of challenging and high quality main competition films to choose from, where Leos Carax Holy Motors, which won the fest and Carlos Reygadas Post Tenebras Lux were easily the two most challenging films of the fest, where the latter is simply the most challenging film of the year.

Many found it incomprehensible, exactly the rap on Tarkovsky's Mirror when it was released, or David Lynch's Inland Empire.  But I'm of a view that it is much like Malick's autobiographical Tree of Life, where huge segments of the population found it worthless, while others are mesmerized.  I'm in the latter camp.  These are iconic film directors who are turning to experimental film as a way of expressing themselves, which is something Kubrick for instance never did for an entire feature.  So this is embracing new territory, and we're there to see it happen.  We shouldn't misjudge just because it's difficult, as we may be on a precipice of an entirely new cinema developing right before our eyes.   


How about some comparative lists? 
Individual Ratings
Kirk Madsen

It turned out to be a good fest with 20 out of the 35 titles seen graded above average. 15 films rated average or below (not recommended). My grading scale top is an A (masterpiece) A- (outstanding) B+ (excellent) B (very good) B- (good) C+, C, C- (average) D+, D (poor) I personally would not recommend average or below.
SISTER (Switzerland) Dir. Ursula Meier
ROOM 237 (USA) Dir. Rodney Ascher
BLACK'S GAME (Iceland) Dir. Oskar Thor Axelsson

FLOWERBUDS (Czech Republic) Dir. Zdenek Jirasky
KERN (Austria) Dirs. Veronike Franz, Severin Fiala
THE SAPPHIRES (Australia) Dir. Wayne Blair
SLEEP TIGHT (Spain) Dir. Jaume Balaguero
AFTER LUCIA (Mexico/France) Dir. Michel Franco
ANY DAY NOW (USA) Dir. Travis Fine
OUT IN THE DARK (Israel/USA) Dir. Michael Mayer
PARADISE:LOVE (Austria/Germany) Dir. Ulrich Seidl
THE SCAPEGOAT (UK) Dir. Charles Sturridge
SHADOW DANCER (UK/Ireland) Dir. James Marsh
WESTERLAND (Germany) Dir. Tim Staffel

BAD SEEDS (Luxembourg/Belgium) Dir. Safy Nebbou
BEYOND THE HILLS (Romania) Dir. Cristian Mungiu
CLIP (Serbia) Dir. Maja Milos
THE EXAM (Hungary) Dir. Peter Bergendy
THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES (USA) Dir. Chris James Thompson
YUMA (Poland/Czech Republic) Dir. Piotr Mularuk

Not Recommended

HOLY MOTORS                                   France/Germany            115min 
MANIC                                                France/USA                    90min    
KEEP THE LIGHTS ON                        USA                             102min   
THE CLEANER                                     Peru                               95min  
SHAMELESS                                        Poland                            80min           
SOMETHING IN THE AIR                    France                          122min  
IN THEIR SKIN                                    Canada                           96min    
BOYS ARE US                                      Switzerland                     73min   
ABC'S OF DEATH                                 Various                          123min    
BLACK POND                                       UK                                86min  
LEVIATHAN                                          USA                                87min  
ANTIVIRAL                                          Canada/USA                  110min  
AGON                            Albania/France/Greece/Romania             110min  
HEMEL                                                  Netherlands                    80min   
F*CKLOAD OF SCOTCHTAPE                USA                             84min   

Frank Biletz
Loyola History professor

I have ranked the films that I saw roughly in order of preference. 

A+= Masterpiece
A = Outstanding
A- = Excellent.
B+ = Very good.
B  = Good.
B- = Of interest.
C+ = Fair
C  = Worth seeing for some aspects.
C- = Not a complete waste of time.
D/F = Avoid.

A         Shadow Dancer (UK, James Marsh).
A-        Something in the Air (aka Apres Mai) (France, Olivier Assayas).
A-        Like Someone in Love (France/Japan, Abbas Kiarostami).
A-        Beyond the Hills (Romania, Christian Mengiu).
A-        Flowerbuds (Czech Republic, Zdenek Jirasky).
A-        The Scapegoat (UK, Charles Sturridge).
A-        Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (US, Alex Gibney).
A-        Art of Conflict: The Murals of Northern Ireland (US, Valeri Vaughan).
A-        Numbered (Israel, Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai).
B+       Rhino Season (Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey, Bahman Ghobadi).
B+       The World is Funny (Israel, Shemi Zarhin).
B+       Post Tenebras Lux (Mexico, Carlos Reygadas).
B+       The Repentent (Algeria/France, Merzak Allouache).
B+       The Last Sentence (Sweden, Jan Troell).
B+       Benji (US, Coodie and Chike).
B          Paradise: Love (Austria, Ulrich Seidl).
B          Royal Affair (Denmark, Nikolaj Arcel).
B          Caesar Must Die (Italy, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani).
B          Night Across the Street (Chile/France, Raul Ruiz).
B          After Lucia (Mexico, Michel Franco).
B          Yuma (Poland, Piotr Mularuk).
B          Otelo Burning (South Africa, Sara Blecher).
B          Modest Reception (Iran, Mani Haghighi).
B          Reality (Italy, Matteo Garrone).
B          Meeting Leila (Iran, Adel Yaraghi).
B-        The Weekend (Germany, Nina Grosse).
B-        Winter of Discontent (Egypt, Ibrahim El-Batout).
C+       Marie Kroyer (Denmarck, Bille August).
C+       The Drudgery Train (Japan, Nobuhiro Yamashita).
C+       Mekong Hotel (Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul).
C         A Monkey on my Shoulder (France, Marion Laine).
D+       String Caesar (UK, Paul Schoolman).
D         Citadel (Ireland, Ciaran Foy). 



Post Tenebras Lux                                          96
Holy Motors                                                  95

Something in the Air (Après mai)                      94
The Scapegoat                                                93

Flower Buds (Poupata)                                     92
The Repentant (El Taaib)                                  92
A Secret World (Un Mundo Secreto)                 92
Shadow Dancer                                               91
Mr. Sophistication                                            91

Beyond the Hills (După dealuri)                         89
Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe)                        88
The Sapphires                                                 88
Drought (Cuates de Australia)                           88
Black's Game (Svartur á leik)                            87
Caesar Must Die (Cesare devemorire)                87
The World Is Funny (Haolam Mats'hik)              87
Starlet                                                             86
The Last Sentence (Dom över död man)            85
Like Someone in Love                                      84
After Lucia (Después de Lucía)                         83

Yuma                                                               82
The Exam (A vizsga)                                         81
Kuma                                                               81
Mekong Hotel                                                   80

Dragon (Wu Xia)                                             79
Shameless (Bez wstydu)                                   78
The Drudgery Train (Kueki ressha)                    77

Marie Krøyer                                                 75
The Weekend (Das wochenende)                     74


Simon Killer     Unsubtitled version                   Not Graded

Friday, October 26, 2012

Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire)

CAESAR MUST DIE (Cesare deve morire)     B                    
Italy  (76 mi)  2012  d:  Paolo and Vittorio Taviani

We hope that when the film is released to the general public that cinemagoers will say to themselves or even those around them… that even a prisoner with a dreadful sentence, even a life sentence, is and remains a human being.          —Paolo Taviani

It’s great to see the Taviani Brothers are back and still making relevant films, last seen in 1987 with GOOD MORNING, BABYLON a quarter century ago, but they have been working right along, writing and directing a few made-for-TV movies, but nothing on the festival circuit, so after winning the Golden Bear 1st Prize at Berlin, this was a pleasant and most unexpected surprise.  It was the Taviani’s ultra-realistic PADRE PADRONE (1977) that won the Cannes Palme D’Or (1st prize), the almost never seen IL PRATO (1979) launched the career of Isabella Rossellini, while the magical THE NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS (1982), arguably their best work, won the Cannes Jury Prize (3rd place).  Known for their rugged Tuscany landscapes which are incorporated into their films, this film is shot entirely indoors, given a near documentary look as the filmmakers depict the preparations for a staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set inside the grounds of Rome’s Rebibbia maximum security prison, where many of the men who perform the play are imprisoned for drug trafficking charges, mafia related felonies, and murder, so perhaps it’s not surprising many inmates could channel the violence in their own lives to unlock parallels in the play.  Except for the final performance sequences which are in brilliant color, the interior prison scenes are all shot in black and white, where the film has a completely non-traditional and experimental design, mixing final footage of the staged play performed live with rehearsals and earlier audition reels which introduces us to several of the inmates eventually chosen to perform in the play.  The audition process is easily the most entertaining, as many of the inmates are over the top, literally pretending to act, trying to be Brando, while others are playfully themselves horsing around in front of the camera, while some are surprisingly natural, especially when asked to express anger.  Listed alongside their screen photos are the crimes they have been convicted of and the length of their sentences. 

With 6 months preparation time, the process begins in a rehearsal room with the director, with each inmate herded back into their cells afterwards where they often continue practicing while confined, or when gathered in small groups in a recreation area.  Often they would veer off script, adding some choice line from their own personal experience that at least for the moment impacts upon the scene, a kind of jailhouse improvisation used to get into character.  Using Italian dialects instead of Shakespeare’s English, the speech used is what we hear everyday instead of ancient text in Iambic pentameter, where inmates could largely be themselves, some with incredibly expressive faces.  Often using long takes from cinematographer Simone Zampagni, many linger on inmates as they exchange dialogue or are seen rehearsing significant scenes, both in and out of character, where this fuses fictional moments into the play, altering the style and rhythm of a historical drama and turning it into a work breathing with the life of the participants, as if this is the telling of their stories.  This heightens the artificiality of performing a play, where the staging of the work in and around the confined prison space is highly inventive, creating a fascinating tension beneath the surface of the film, where some of the more significant speeches from the play, presumably to a large assembled crowd of friends and Romans, are simply set before a lone window of the prison which offers a view looking out, where the claustrophobic cells and recreation areas, for all practical purposes, become the Roman Forum and the Senate.  The directors take liberties with one character, Salvatore Striano who plays Brutus, as he is a former convict who was pardonned from Rebibbia in 2006 but participates as if he were still an inmate.  Certainly one critique with the final product may be with the lushly romanticized saxophone score from Vittorio’s son GiulianoTaviani which might sound more appropriate in Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972).   

While called Julius Caesar, the play is largely about the insurrectionist actions of Brutus, who conspires to assassinate the Roman leader, eventually tracked down and defeated by the Roman army at the Battle of Philippi.  Brutus is the psychological study of a man who undertakes a shadowy role destiny never intended for him, becoming a man with a dual nature, as part of him will be forever linked to Caesar, certainly bearing the ghost of Caesar after stabbing him to death, which immediately starts taunting him, as if cursed by his own deed.  Many consider him among the greatest figures in Shakespeare, while others cannot conceal their contempt for him, yet Antony (his enemy) had nothing but high praise, “This was the noblest Roman of them all,” a stark contrast to the imperious Caesar, who was reviled for his ruthless ambitions.  It was Caesar’s target of the Roman Senate that forced Brutus’s hand, where morally he feels compelled to act on the corrupting influence of unchecked power.  Giovanni Arcuri is quite convincing as Caesar, a towering figure in physique as well, easily seen as imposing on the battlefield, while Antonio Frasca as Mark Antony gets to deliver the most famous passage from the play, his funeral oratory, while standing next to the corpse of Caesar, but directed towards a starkly bare prison window, which has a positively chilling effect. Cosimo Rega plays the Iago-like Cassius, another conflicted character, as he seems to drive the actions of Brutus and his compatriots from behind the scenes, perceiving “something in the air,” but he convinces Brutus that murder is paramount to patriotism, a view that continues to resonate today when jihadists or other so-called national liberators are also commonly called terrorists.  It is Rega, a 20-year inmate, who is given the last word on this play, returning to his cell afterwards where he utters, “Since I have known art, this cell has become a prison.”  Certainly this eye-opening account by the Taviani’s challenges our view of humanity and history, where we often demonize our enemies, including the prison population, who account for themselves admirably here.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


YUMA                        B-                   
Poland  Czech Republic  (113 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Piotr Mularuk

There’s a back story to this film, well known in Poland and Germany, but not the outside world.  Set in a small Polish border town of what was Soviet occupied East Germany, where the Soviets built a factory on the Polish side filled with Russian workers who purchased Polish goods, which was a welcomed and thriving business arrangement, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet empire, the Russians just up and left, abandoning all businesses and commercial trades, leaving the Polish side destitute, without any money or commerce.  A kind of chaos and Wild West lawlessness intervened, where police presence was all but absent, so gangsters took over, stealing hordes of commercial goods from Germany, which was the only side that had anything of value, and redistributed them across the border in Poland for black market barter, trade, drugs, weapons, or money, a practice known as “Yuma.”  Today, neither country acknowledges this complicit arrangement between the two nations, as it was completely illegal, especially the blind eye shown by the border guards, who often got a hefty portion of the take, a practice that lasted for several years until security measures improved in Germany.  The director spent years attempting to finance his film, but the Germans felt the subject was “anti-Polish,” while the Polish financiers balked at the portrayal of Poles as black market thieves and profiteers, considering it a taboo subject, where the director claimed “Officials in Poland said I’d never make this film.”  In fact, two weeks before the shoot, the Polish Film Institute backed out, so in desperation they called the Polish owner of the Las Vegas Power Energy Drink, today a respectable businessman, but who engaged in yuma during the early 1990s, recalling it as his early “glory years.”  Amusingly the film opens with a blatant product placement ad, again recurring throughout the film, which is how the film was financed.  They were also fortunate to receive money from the Czech Film Fund, where the film premiered at the Czech Karlovy Vary Film Festival. 

When the director first met Jakub Gierszal as his lead, he was too young to play the part.  But after years of searching for money to make the film, he was finally old enough for the role, where today, according to the director, he is the hottest actor in Poland.  The film opens with a brief 1987 preface, where with nothing better to do, best friends Zyga (Gierszal) and Rysio (Kazimierz Mazur) assist an East German (Tomasz Schuchardt) successfully escape over to the Polish side, but in doing so both friends are subject to a horrifically devastating ordeal by the chasing military troops.  The film jumps ahead a few years where Zyga is little more than a layabout, an aimless kid with no job, no prospects, and no future.  With an eye on western symbols, Zyga watches B-movie western 3:10 TO YUMA (1957) playing to a near empty theater that may be forced to close, where the rousing song by Frankie Laine is heard 3.10 TO YUMA. 1957. YouTube (4:52).  Ironically, with the encouragement of his sexually charged aunt Halina (Katarzyna Figura, Polish Playboy calendar girl from May, 1994, nearly two decades ago), who secretly runs a brothel, he amusingly takes the 3:10 train from Yuma to Frankfurt, finding it ridiculously easy to shoplift, starting with small items, like cowboy boots and a Stetson hat, but eventually with two friends, and the cooperation of Polish border guards, he is returning truckloads worth of merchandise, literally delivering the land of plenty to a tiny Polish town that previously had nothing, becoming immensely popular, like a local Robin Hood handing out Adidas to everyone, plundering the shopping malls and jewelry stores of their more affluent neighbor, literally preening in their extravagance to the tunes of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” Vanilla Ice - Ice Ice Baby - YouTube (4:01).

Zyga is initially driven by his attraction to a local red-headed beauty, Majka (Karolina Chapko), who remains unimpressed but shelters the East German in the opening scene, reuniting with him again later in the film, which draws the ire of Zyga and his friends, now little more than thugs themselves, venting their hatred against this otherwise decent man, blaming him and the Germans for actually having the material wealth that they don’t.  Of course this practice escalates until it draws the attention of bona fide gangsters, complete with a small army, first wanting in on the action, but soon wanting to take it all for themselves.  This portrait of greed grows ridiculously excessive, as Zyga makes the obvious mistake of flaunting his wealth and power, literally drawing attention to himself, changing the entire tone of the film from stark realism to exaggerated caricature.  By the end, this has blown up into a B-movie gangster western, where without a sheriff the town isn’t big enough for two criminal enterprises that never learn to share the wealth, eventually fighting between themselves for the town’s profits.  The criminalization of the town is complete, not only including Zyga’s family and friends, but also the church which sanctions this activity, as everyone in town benefits from having access to things otherwise unavailable to them.  This exaggerated excess is reminiscent of the exhilarating anarchy of an Emir Kusterica movie, like Black Cat, White Cat (1998), a rollicking black comedy with outrageous wall-to-wall, gypsy party music from Goran Bregović, where Halina’s brothel becomes the local watering hole of the young punks who like to drink and party themselves, literally basking in the glow of their self-styled heroism until things start spiraling out of control.  The film was shot in Poland, Frankfurt, Germany and the Czech Republic, where the initial allure of capitalism evokes the “glory years,” a consumer bonanza depicted as a momentary reverie when life was a free for all of dreams and opportunities before reality intervenes.