Sunday, June 30, 2013


AUGUSTINE         B              
France  (101 mi)  2012  d:  Alice Winocour

Another strangely unsettling Victorian era mood piece, recalling Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (Arnold) (2011), where more is reflected in tone, unspoken thoughts, and atmospheric visualization than actually providing details or understandable information, written by the first time feature director, where she pulls a story from real life historical events, what little is known, and then reimagines how it might have all played out, finding feminist sentiments within her fictionalized storyline, while keeping her characters completely within their straightjacketed historical times.  What starts out as an 1890’s dissection of class divisions ends up as a bizarre study of sexual dominance.  The key choice here is the brilliant casting of Soko (singer) (aka Stéphanie Sokolinski), a popular singer in France playing the stricken patient Augustine, an illiterate housemaid serving a wealthy aristocratic family, who suffers an epileptic seizure that causes panic at an evening dinner party, where one of the female hosts rather indelicately throws a pitcher of water in her face.  Partially paralyzed afterwards and something of an embarrassment, she’s immediately shuffled off to Salpêtrière Hospital, a sanitarium where the all-male physician staff treats exclusively female patients, where there were as many as 3000 female patients under the care of the chief resident, Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), where he worked and taught for 33 years, drawing students from all over Europe to learn from him.  His neurological studies predate the field of psychiatry, where the distress suffered by these women was commonly called hysteria, which amounted to seizures and violent sexual fits, both mental and physical disorders that he believed to be an organic condition brought on by trauma, where in the 16th century these women would have been condemned as witches.  To the casual observer, most of the patients were more likely suffering mental disorders, where the hospital was a giant storage grounds housing afflicted women.

When Augustine suffers another seizure on the grounds, she catches the eye of Charcot, not really her medical affliction, but her irrepressible beauty, where in his mind she can become his prized patient arousing interest within the medical profession, as currently the financial operations has a hard time providing enough meat for all the patients.  From the start, an ethically and emotionally complicated relationship develops between doctor and patient, where like a dog and pony show, Charcot shows off Augustine as his cash cow, literally staging her in front of other physicians allowing them to examine her in a state of undress, poking and prodding her like a medical specimen, reminiscent of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus (Vénus noire) (2010), another historical film obsessed with the naked female anatomy, where sex in the scientific community is never spoken or admitted to, but everything is explained and justified in detailed scientific vernacular.  “You use big words to say simple things,” Augustine tells him, responding to the routine of undressing in front of Charcot, an act of debased brutality and horror if he’s not there, taking a certain pleasure in pleasing him when he is.  Everything has a sexual context for her, though it’s all expressed silently in facial expressions and body movements, as she rarely utters a word.  What we don’t realize initially, of course, is the underlying sexual subtext for the treating doctor, who goes about his business in a thoroughly detached examination process where everything is expressed clinically, all an act to cover up his inner sexual tensions, as he’s more than a little obsessed by this remarkable young woman. The film ignores addressing the medical question of male hysteria while allowing it to dominate the physician’s thoughts throughout, becoming a power play of restraint and social manners, where sex is an unseen force overwhelming everyone’s controlled and orderly lives, where in the picture of restraint, Augustine and Charcot take endless walks in a suffocating fog.

Chiara Mastroianni plays Charcot’s independently wealthy wife, a woman of influence, and certainly capable of seeing through him, though she maintains a respectable distance, never interfering in his profession.  It’s her connections initially that lure highly influential physicians to visit Charcot’s medical exhibitions, which play out as pure theater before a leering male audience, inducing Augustine into a submissive state through hypnosis, resembling an exorcism, as she is quickly inhabited by her fit of hysteria, expressing sexual gyrations through fiercely uncontrolled bodily movements, where her physical contortions resemble the paranormal visits to Barbara Hershey in The Entity (1982).  Charcot hopes to release the disease’s hold over the patient’s otherwise unexplained partial paralysis by simulating the condition, hoping she will simply snap out of it.  The presentation is a bit grotesque, a room filled with men holding invincible, seemingly God-like power over this defenseless woman, yet the men burst into sudden applause afterwords, obviously very pleased with themselves and lauding Charcot’s medical advancement, which produces little more than mere hope, as the paralysis remains.  Interestingly, over time, Augustine’s condition improves on its own, each time after a highly traumatic event, actually producing the effect the doctor was hoping for, but without a prestigious audience around to see it.  Charcot’s ethics are compromised when he sees signs of improvement, but chooses to ignore them during the most important event in his life, where he’s gathered the most influential team of academics and physicians in France. His career on the line and the funding of his neurology program at the hospital at stake, personal ambition takes precedence over everything else.  While all eyes are on him as well, the sleight of hand theatrical nature of hypnotically induced sexual hysteria has the power to persuade men’s souls.  Though she’s been an uneducated, culturally repressed, lower class woman, never given the time of day, Augustine is suddenly jettisoned into the spotlight, where these exhibitions have conditioned her to understand the power she holds over men, for the first time taking control over her own sexuality.  While the music is by Jocelyn Pook, who also scored Stanley Kubrick’s final film EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), the extraordinary finale is a building crescendo, set to the extravagantly transcendent music of Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten ARVO PÄRT - Cantus in memory of... (4:59), which in this film is nothing less than a liberating walk to freedom. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Chicago Blackhawk Victory Rally

A few choice moments from the Chicago Blackhawks after winning the Stanley Cup

Andrew Shaw’s uncensored (“Fuckin A”) excitement over winning the Stanley Cup (40 seconds)   

Jonathan Toews doing the moonwalk on the ice an hour or so after the game when there was nobody left in the stands, only the clean up crew and a couple of Chicago sports announcers doing their evening wrap up (38 seconds)  
Patrick Kane on Letterman (7:34)

Patrick Kane and Corey Crawford's memorable speeches at the victory parade in Chicago (1:42)

Blackhawk organization taking out a full page ad thanking Boston in the Boston Globe:

Hawks praise Boston's 'big heart'

The Chicago Blackhawks on Friday took out a full-page ad in the Boston Globe, thanking the Boston Bruins for their hospitality and acknowledging the city's spirit in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in April.

The Blackhawks beat the Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals earlier in the week.

The ad, which was topped with a "THANK YOU" headline, read:

"Hockey is a tough game. As impressed as we were by the strength, talent, and competitive spirit of the Boston Bruins on the ice, we were deeply touched by what happened off the ice. Rarely have we experienced the hospitality you afforded us throughout the playoff series between two incredibly gifted teams.

"On behalf of the Chicago Blackhawks organization and the entire Wirtz Corporation, we want to personally express our heartfelt appreciation to your city, the Bruins organization, and especially, the citizens of Boston for the remarkable welcome you showed our team and the many Chicagoans who visited.

"From Boston's political leadership to every member of the Bruins organization; from the players to the people on the street, you demonstrated respect, good sportsmanship, and a genuine love for the great game of hockey.

"Like the rest of the world, Chicagoans have been reminded in recent days of Boston's strength. Please know we tip our hat to your city's big heart and gracious spirit. You lead by example and have set the bar very high for others to follow."

The ad was signed by Rocky Wirtz, chairman of the Wirtz Corporation, which owns the Blackhawks, and team president John McDonough.

This wasn't the first gesture of good will to come from Chicago in the past couple of months. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the staff of the Chicago Tribune sent pizza to the newsroom staff at the Boston Globe as a tip of the cap for its comprehensive coverage of the tragedy.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Bling Ring

THE BLING RING      C+                  
USA  (90 mi)  2013  d:  Sofia Coppola 

Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends.             
—Frank Ocean, “Super Rich Kids” Frank Ocean - Super Rich Kids on Vimeo YouTube (5:05)

Once again, Sofia Coppola zeroes in on the vacuous and empty-headed lives of spoiled and pampered, overly rich white kids from Hollywood whose parents are nearly absent from their lives, so they are literally consumed by the very public lives of the fabulously wealthy, impressed by their jewelry, fashion taste, magazine spreads, celebrity television and movie appearances, and how they love to party in the upscale club scene, constantly seeing the faces of other young stars in all the tabloids and magazines, continually wondering why it can’t be them?  Adapted by the director from real life occurrences that were reported in an article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,”  by Nancy Jo Sales from Vanity Fair, March 2010 about a group of Hollywood teens who burglarized the homes of their idols, stealing their clothes and jewellery, not to mention large wads of cash, while spending their money at the same clubs where their favorite stars hung out.  Surprised that the homes were so easy to break into, as usually sliding glass doors were left open, or keys left under the doormat, it was easy to Google their addresses and find out what celebrities were out of town for a special event, leaving their homes vacant.  While stealing over $3 million worth of jewelry, high end clothes, Rolex watches, fashionable shoes, perfume, makeup, artworks, and stashes of various social drugs and cash from the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson, and Audrina Patridge, their favorite house turned out to be Paris Hilton, returning repeatedly, stealing $2 million dollars alone from the stuff taken from her home.  Paris Hilton wasn’t even aware anything was missing until months later, as the group’s undoing came by foolishly posting photos of themselves on Facebook wearing these newly acquired items, which served as easy evidence of stolen merchandise for the police once they caught on. 

While Coppola has an appealing experimental style that works best in a non-narrative, stream-of-conscious style, the very lack of definition suits her highly impressionist form, as her use of music to help fill empty spaces is usually nothing less than superb.  Using the talent of ace cinematographer Harris Savides in his final film (dedicated to his memory), they combine to show what architectural beauty can be expressed by shooting a robbery in progress through a glass house, where the perpetrators are seen as little more than a movement of shadows, but visually it’s a captivating moment.  Coppola is hampered here by the repetitive storyline, reflecting the bored lives of the typically screwed up teenagers who continually return to the same activity like a drug, often seen bragging about their exploits afterwards in upscale clubs, obviously trying to impress others, where they are seen as little more than opportunists in waiting.  Inflating one’s view of oneself is a constant in this film, reflecting the adoring approval received by their parents who wouldn’t think of reprimanding them, allowing them to do whatever they want, as these kids are continually taking photos of themselves with their phones and posting them on their Facebook pages.  This dysfunctional group includes Katie Chang as Rebecca, something of the ringleader, and her adoring follower Marc, Israel Broussard, a not so great looking guy that loves fashion design, so fits right into this culture.  Their best friends include sisters Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga with a leopard-skin infatuation), both home-schooled by their clueless mother on how to look their best and think positively, given Adderall every morning for God knows how long, while they’re best friends with the more stoic Chloe (Claire Julien).  All they ever talk about is what people are wearing, as that’s all that seems to matter to them.  This film pales in comparison to Not Fade Away (2012), for instance, a much better written David Chase film featuring teenagers from the 60’s that just knew they would eventually be discovered as rock stars, as they were only waiting for someone to discover them.  Similarly, this group already thinks of themselves as stars simply because they so completely identify with the Hollywood culture of attractiveness and glamour, getting their faces plastered over all the tabloids, and then using that to build a career.  It’s interesting that the choices of who to rob comes from the faces they routinely see in the tabloids and celebrity news TV programs.  

Celebrity worship is nothing new, but this may be the first time kids feel so entitled to be included among the celebrities simply because they can copy their fashion sense and be seen in the same public places.  It’s hard to fathom, but this group has delusions of grandeur, where they feel as if it’s their right to steal clothes from the stars, as emulating their lifestyle is how they’ll be discovered.  What’s missing is any likeable person among the bunch, as all are so hung up on themselves that nobody else matters.  In truth, these are thoroughly detestable people that haven’t a clue what matters in life, as all they’ve learned is to think exclusively about themselves. They have such a high opinion of themselves that their egos take the place of sex, which is also missing in these young kid’s lives.  The idea of communicating with others doesn’t even occur to them, as all they want to do is see themselves in the mirror.  This human contempt grows tiresome after awhile, as there’s little reason why anyone should care about any of the subjects in this film, a similar reaction to Coppola’s earlier candy-colored walk through history with a young empty-headed MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006).  The character of Nicki is actually based upon Alexis Neiers, her younger sister Gabby, and an adopted sister Tess Taylor, all pursuing modeling careers managed by their mother, Andrea Arlington, a former Playboy playmate who claims she modeled lingerie with Cindy Crawford in the 80’s.  They were all subjects of a short-lived Reality TV show Pretty Wild, which aired for two months on the E! Network in the spring of 2010.  Unfortunately, Alexis was arrested by the first episode, becoming a convicted felon, where her melodramatic Diva Queen personality was so overly self-indulgent that its claim to fame may be that it challenges for the worst show to ever air on TV (Pretty Wild Might Be the Worst Television Show Ever Made - Gawker).  Why all of this should appeal to the director, or a viewing audience, is an open question, as whatever satiric slant may have been intended runs thin, where it plays out more as an absurdist caricature of people that just don’t care, where it appears that celebrity culture is already too over-exposed and doesn’t need any more public screen time, as their lives are simply too pathetically empty to be taken seriously.  The question is:  does this film raise a larger issue?  If this is supposed to represent a cultural phenomenon about narcissistic kids growing up today who are simply too infatuated with themselves, showing no interest in the lives of others, there is too much evidence to suggest otherwise, as students and the youth vote played a large part in electing and re-electing the first black President Barack Obama, while children of the elite comprise much of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  Coppola has always sympathized with kids, much like herself, raised in a bubble who are simply too bored to care, emblematic of their celebrity heroes that show the same vacuous superficiality, but this time she’s hit a wall, never unlocking any revelatory secrets or exposing a social critique that actually matters.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Irreversible (Irréversible)

IRREVERSIBLE (Irréversible)    A                             
France  (97 mi)  2002  ‘Scope  d:  Gaspar Noé 

A film whose reputation precedes the first viewing, knowing in advance that something terribly ugly was going to happen right away, one can’t help but be dumfounded at the superb use of sound in the opening sequence.  Mind you, from all the advance hype one is already in a state of heightened alert from the beginning, but far and away, this exceeded any expectations.  Speaking as one who is easily squeamish, who could not watch the delight of the woman in AUDITION (1999), the fucked up, hateful beatings and the profanity-laced misogyny in DOG DAYS (2001), hell, even the last fifteen minutes of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000), all nightmares, nightmares...

 ...but I was transfixed here, as that truly ominous use of sound, those oscillating waves of mental mayhem which “preceded” the entry into the Hell of an underground male leather club called Rectum, adding those dizzying camera movements and a continuous stream of profanity, shouting, and terror as they move through one blurring act of perversity to the next, those waves of sound never stopped until a man was actually beaten to death.  Can't speak for anyone else, but that's as gripping a scene as anything in cinema.  It is that SOUND that sticks in your head, and the unbelievable energy associated with it, where the intensity level created by this scene is simply indescribable.  There’s nothing else out there like it.  It is intoxicating, almost like a film within a film, a scene that could easily stand alone as a work of an avant-garde or experimental film artist.  The unique “thrill” from that opening never goes away, as those sound waves keep pounding in your head and keep driving the energy underneath every subsequent sequence.  That opening sequence is simply unforgettable, where one never forgets that dramatically awesome power, that synergy of visuals and sound.  As writer Jason Shawhan states in The Film Journal The Sense-Deranging Sound + Vision of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible “You find, in the sequence at the Rectum, a soundscape that meshes with the nervous system in a way that hasn't been done since Argento's work with the Goblins in SUSPIRIA.  Sound and vision are so perfectly fused that it becomes impossible to separate is a case of extreme sonic frequencies and visual disorientation as a necessary means to experiencing the film...the kind of experience that changes a viewer forever.”

Mark Harris:

Even a movie's being homophobic need not disqualify it from serious consideration, in my view. Gaspar Noe's Irreversible strikes me as most certainly homophobic, in the exact sense of "phobic" -- afraid of, even horrified of, homosexuality, and also of anality as a distinct phenomenon. (Consider the name of the leather club, The Rectum, and the repeated cry "Where is The Rectum?"; the name of the rapist, The Tapeworm; and that long symbolic tunnel where the rape occurs.) But Irreversible also strikes me as one of the most powerful movies of recent years. I was shaken by the film, but I did not find it hateful.

Well for what it's worth, despite the provocative controversy, this is one of the best films of the year as it combines such a powerful, boldly impactive film style with subject matter.  While bowled over by that unforgettable oscillating sound loop in the opening sequence that just screams out waves of anticipated danger, a device that certainly remains under your skin throughout the film, a non visual device that is infinitely more powerful than witnessing the ensuing brutality, which happens so quickly, engulfed in a murky, barely lit, nightmarish dream world, where the gruesome reality of it, witnessing a man being beaten to death, can barely match the power of the menacing atmosphere that is simply overwhelming.  In this case, the audacity of the artistic creation is indescribably brilliant, while the actions of men are equally gruesome and brutal, so the depiction of otherworldly eeriness is strangely in balance, artistically speaking.  That opening sequence is one of the most powerful and intensely exhilarating sequences ever experienced. 

That said, this sequence is strangely not the controversial, or so-called hateful or misogynistic scene, which comes shortly afterwards, where the lingering aftereffects of its power in some ways overshadows the subsequent shot-in-real-time rape scene, which instead of being engulfed in an extraordinary art design, is shown straight, exactly as is, where the nonchalance of the rapist is contrasted against the horribly agonizing sounds of the female victim, where again, it is the sound that provides the overriding sense of horror and brutality.  The uncomfortable length of this sequence is stunning, as we keep waiting for it to be over, to cut to another scene, but the director stays with it for an interminable length, thoroughly reminding the viewers what an invasive, emotionally draining and physically exhaustive experience this is, as rape is overwhelmingly brutal, a parallel to the devastating opening sequence.  Stylistically, the length of the scene recalls Terence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE (1998), where the audience is subjected to wave after wave of relentless military assaults, where the physically exhaustive accumulation of death and carnage takes its toll over time, as it was intended to do.  

The first sequence is filled with the thrill of anticipation, what are they looking for, what kind of world is this, where the raw physical presence of a strange fascinating underworld guides our interest, culminating in a chilling act of violence which ends in a stunning silence.  The second sequence is surprising by the complete lack of artifice, as all possible outside distraction is stripped away, leaving us helpless, forcing the audience to endure the bestial attacks that women around the world suffer daily, yet male-dominated societies barely lift a finger of outrage or protest.  And if it happens to men in prison, or if they get HIV infected, well who cares?  They shouldn't have allowed themselves to get locked up in the first place, ignoring the societal inequities that place 25% of young black males under 30 in prison.  No, it would be hard to call the *film* hateful, not as hateful as reality is, war, torture, rape, the death penalty, but it's certainly provocative, as it stirs up the feelings of resentment and outrage. 

The fact is, the reverse chronology makes "Irreversible" a film that structurally argues against rape and violence, while ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff. By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noe forces us to think seriously about the sexual violence involved. The movie does not end with rape as its climax and send us out of the theater as if something had been communicated. It starts with it, and asks us to sit there for another hour and process our thoughts. It is therefore moral - at a structural level.

In total agreement here on the backwards chronology, as it does change what would otherwise be a nihilistic, exploitive, and highly pessimistic film into one that at least allows for a differing outcome.  It opens up the world of possibilities for people to eradicate so much of the needless and unnecessary pain that is inflicted upon others and gives us a chance to reevaluate ourselves in this light.  The near Eden ending is really just the beginning, as each new life offers a new beginning, and in that there is an indescribable hope.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Lilya 4-Ever (Lilja 4-ever)

LILYA 4-EVER (Lilja 4-ever)       A      
Sweden  Denmark  (109 mi)  2003  d:  Lukas Moodysson       

Childhood is greatly sacrificed in the world today. Children are very much the weak link of the chain. If you want to study the world you should study the most vulnerable parts of the world.
—Lukas Moodysson

After Together, I wanted to make a completely different film, and I started writing a script which has some similarities with the finished version of Lilya 4-Ever, except that it takes place in a completely different part of the world, with completely different characters, but maybe it asks some of the same questions. Then one day I was standing in my living room and it was like a big rock fell down on my head. The film came to me in a couple of seconds, all the scenes and everything with the exception that it was intended to be a more religious film. It was originally about the way that God takes part or doesn't take part in the world today. It was very literally about Jesus next to this girl Lilya. That part was overtaken by the character of the little boy Volodya. If I was simplifying the process, I was thinking that it was very difficult to write about Jesus. It doesn't mean that I lost the religious thread completely but it had a more substantial place in the film at one time. I think it's interesting to think that Volodya took the place of Jesus. Just like Jesus he comes to this planet as a human-being. This time he comes as an abused child and he walks next to another abused child. That idea interests me.
—Lukas Moodysson

Now, dear children, pay attention:
I am the voice from the pillow.
I have brought you something.
I ripped it from my chest.

They come to you in the night
And steal your small hot tears.
They wait until the moon awakes
And put them in my cold veins.

—Rammstein, “Mein Herz Brennt” Rammstein Mein Herz brennt on Vimeo (5:05)

In a film like this, so intelligent, well-written, well-acted, all points of view are valid, where some may be more intensely personal than others, which is exactly how this film feels—intensely personal, sparing no one, as we are all in this same predicament, together.  Many sing the delightful praises of Together (Tillsammans) (2000), while no less than Ingmar Bergman has called Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) (1998) a masterpiece, but this film may be the director’s best work, where Moodysson's home grown optimism grows darker, largely due to the way he confronts socially relevant issues, creating a crushing portrait of post-Communist disillusionment, where despite the grimness of the subject, the film has a very naturalistic feel, arising out of real life’s most dire circumstances, the growing teenage sex trafficking industry, where current statistics indicate one-third of all prostitutes in Southeast Asia are underage, between the ages of 12 and 17, 40% in Thailand, and a quarter of a million in Brazil.  Given the illegal nature of the operation, much of it run by organized crime, estimates on those children kidnapped and exploited into prostitution or pornography range anywhere from 2 to 5 million, with more than a million new recruits each year.  Despite the prevalence, only in the last decade has this been elevated to a worldwide human rights violation, where child sex tourism has become part of a growing multi-billion dollar industry.  Moodysson’s film is successful in inspiring a personal sense of urgency that contrasts the alleged safety and protection of our relatively smug lives with the largely unseen horrors — the unstoppable, unspeakable acts — that continue to take place *against* children here in this country, or around the world, every second, minute by minute, more horrors, no neighborhood is spared, where one appreciates the immediacy this director brings to a subject that is filled with heartbreak and demoralization when it happens to you. 

This film bears a resemblance with the nearly unwatchable 9-minute rape sequence in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (Irréversible) (2002), but here the child sexual victimization continues for an uncountable number of days, weeks, and months, leading ultimately to the same end.  The violence is portrayed with a punishing montage of assault after assault of male bodies.  In Irreversible (Irréversible), the assault is accompanied by the unforgettable sound of the woman’s anguish, while here the girl is silent, while the sounds and noises of the assembly line of men is a violent, continuous punishment to the senses, one of the most despairing sequences anyone could endure.  Imagine being in her position, the film suggests.  Then multiply that by the thousands or millions of teens around the world in similar situations, and only then does one begin to imagine the magnitude of what's being examined in this film.  Who's even talking about this subject?  It's rarely brought up in politics, public discussions, or utilized as a film subject.  Where else has it been portrayed with the same degree of thoroughness?  What's unbearable here are the consequences where this leads, as there are so many disastrous ramifications, not the least of which is rampant drug addiction or child suicide.  Even in the best middle class neighborhoods, families with suicide victims are ostracized, where children are turned into outcasts, as other kids simply ignore them, even though “they” haven’t done anything.  The incidents themselves are never mentioned and the families are usually too embarrassed to speak of them, where not much has changed in this arena, much as we would love to claim otherwise.  

Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is only 16, and in Moodysson's hands, she is meant to stand for millions of other children who are all but invisible.  Particularly effective is Lilya's act of kindness to Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), a young boy that is her only friend, delivering on her promise to give him a terrific birthday present, feeling heartfelt, with no strings attached, an intentional contrast against the horrid example set by the adults in her life, and a sign of hope.  Actually there were little brief offerings of hope throughout this film.  Once can’t help but love the innocent interplay between the two abandoned children, also the imagery of an equally innocent heaven.  But for a 16 year old, who's not even old enough to be allowed entrance into the theater, she continually has “hopes” of America, of Sweden, of getting out of school, of finding a friend, of getting away, of getting a job, of finding love, of being free. Oksana Akinshina’s performance is simply stunning, even more so because she doesn’t appear selfish or self-centered, like most adolescents, but remains kind, still innocent, all the more significant for the unbelievable sequence of living behind a locked door.  One can barely contain the revulsion, witnessing what no one should ever have to endure, but it’s impossible to turn away from the revolt and disgust happening before our eyes.  In the duty-free shop at the airport, where she was left on her own, and she was thinking of dressing herself up for the trip, one is reminded of the Jews who similarly dressed in their finest, having no idea what was in store for them during their hellish WWII transport to the gas chambers.  The film is an unbearable witness of cruelty to children, shown with astonishing realism, thinking of all the others, unseen, continuously invisible.  Is there anything sadder than a teenager committing suicide? 

One must be impressed with Moodysson’s uncompromising determination to resolutely *refuse* to shy away from this material:  “This film is dedicated to the millions of children around the world exploited by the sex trade.”  Well it's a good deal more than that.  The severity of the subject matter, which includes an extremely naturalistic portrait of two teen suicides, is in fact heartbreakingly relentless, and is justifiably downbeat throughout, one of the better films on teen suicide, actually laying down a legitimate argument in favor of taking one’s life, in contrast to, say the Dardenne’s ROSETTA, (1999).  While never suggesting one should, the film respects the indisputable fact that so many children do decide to take their own lives, asking how can that be, bringing the audience to the brink of life and death, and in that vein, it bears a very strong resemblance, at least in the seriousness of tone and subject matter, with Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) and Fassbinder’s IN A YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS (1978).  In the latter film, which deals with an adult suicide, the story follows the final 5 days in a man’s life, laying a groundwork so that no further days will follow, a decision that is (to quote Fassbinder himself):  "somehow understandable, or perhaps is even acceptable.”
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light...     —Dylan Thomas, 1951, Do not go gentle into that good night- - Poetry, Poems ...

We the living need to carry a good deal of that rage, or is it outrage?
Like the toxic smoke billowing from the rancid smokestacks
at the beginning and end of this film,
supposedly from Moodysson's hometown of Malmo,
the noise of German metal band Rämmstein
rages against an endless and empty sky, 
“My Heart Burns!!!” Rammstein Mein Herz brennt on Vimeo (5:05)… whoever's listening

Monday, June 24, 2013

Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål)

SHOW ME LOVE (Fucking Åmål)         A                 
Sweden  Denmark  (89 mi)  1998  d:  Lukas Moodysson

you are my sun
you shine over me
you warm me
bur I can not touch you
you are so far away
I am a little planet
that turns round you
round round round
one of all the planets
that you never see
—poem seen on the computer of Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg)

Do you know what my nightmare is? That I’ll live here in Fucking Åmål and have a family and children and a car and a house...all those things. And then my husband will leave me for a younger and prettier girl, so I’m just left with screaming children. It’s completely meaningless!
— Elin (Alexandra Dahlström)

Moodysson started his career as a writer, publishing a novel and five poetry collections by the time he was 23 before turning to film, making three shorts prior to his breakthrough feature FUCKING ÅMÅL that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and literally exploded into Swedish theaters, when no less than Ingmar Bergman hailed it as a masterpiece,  Using primarily a non-professional cast, including two girls in the leading roles aged 14 and 17 that had never been given the lead in a feature film before, written and directed by a 29-year old fresh out of film school, and shot on a ridiculously low budget, the film quickly became the biggest Swedish box office hit in history, where one million out of a total population of 9 million in Sweden saw the film, which swept the Guldbagge Swedish National Film Awards, winning Best Film, Best Director, Best Script, with both actresses sharing the Best Actress Award, and it currently ranks in the Top Ten of the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.  Only in America was there an objection to the original title, where the industry magazine Variety refused to run ads with that title, so Moodysson changed it to the name of the song that plays over the end credits.  Using a highly naturalistic, near documentary style, shot on a gritty Super 16 mm blown up to 35 mm, the film examines the dead end lives of self-absorbed teenagers in the small town of Åmål, viewed as the most boring city in all of Sweden, where the title reflects their disgust at having to live there.  The subject is a recurring theme for many teenagers who feel stuck in a backwater town, from the aching loneliness of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) to the warm comedic satire of Norway’s Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen) (2011), where the girls in that town give the village sign the finger every time they pass by on the bus.  Written by the director, featuring the awkwardness of teenagers and plenty of Scandinavian character throughout, the authenticity of the teen dialogue, for instance, is uncannily accurate, which is what gives the film its dramatic weight and power. 

The story parallels the lives of two girls, Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) and Elin (Alexandra Dahlström), where we learn straightaway that Agnes has a secret crush on Elin, as she keeps a computer diary, but Elin is an elusive force of nature, a brazen extrovert, even something of an exhibitionist, and a fearlessly strong-willed girl that aspires to become Miss Sweden, or perhaps an actress while at present she’s currently one of the most popular girls in school.  Agnes, on the other hand, is painfully shy with no friends, likely because she is rumored to be a lesbian and is a quiet introvert with thoughts of becoming a writer, or perhaps a psychiatrist.  Elin commiserates about her boring life with her older sister Jessica (Erica Carlson), thinking they need to go to a rave, but to her dismay, Jessica tells her raves are out, that she saw it listed in the “out” column in a magazine.  Elin literally explodes with horror and disbelief, “Why must we live in fucking motherfuck Åmål?!  When something’s in it takes so long to get here it’s out already because we’re so fucking behind!”  All they have left is underage drinking, their only outlet, the old-fashioned high, as incredibly no one has any drugs.  So on the surface Elin is a self-centered party girl, part of the popular clique that steamrolls over the rest of the population through bullying and bad manners, embarrassing anyone that happens to be different, while Agnes has no outlet for her worries and frustrations, even viciously turning on a wheelchair-bound social outsider, Viktoria (Josefine Nyberg), the only one who shows up for her 16th birthday party (where her mother cooks roast beef even though she’s a vegetarian), telling her the only reason they’re friends is because no one else wants to be their friend, “We are friends only because we feel sorry for each other,” baring a horribly cruel side and exposing an unspoken truth about how relationships are formed.  Afterwards, Agnes is so disappointed with herself that she contemplates suicide—until the doorbell rings.  After getting drunk at another party, Elin and her sister Jessica are curious about this “other” party, but find it so pathetic that Elin is willing to kiss Agnes on a dare for money, though afterwards she regrets humiliating someone she barely knows. 

While her sister returns to the safety of the pack, Elin returns to Agnes, curious if she’s really a lesbian, convincing her to come to the other party, though along the way, Elin reveals how trapped she feels in Åmål, thinking both of their problems could be solved in a bigger city like Stockholm, deciding right then and there to hitchhike to Stockholm.  Giddy at the thought, they hop in the backseat of a stopped car, both exhilarated with a rush of excitement, with Foreigner cranked up on the car radio, I Want to know what love is - Foreigner - YouTube  (4:50), leading to their first real kiss.  But the driver is so shocked he kicks them both out of his car, where afterwards the Åmål reality sets in, as Elin ignores Agnes, who’s forced to endure continual taunts from classmates while Elin remains thoroughly flustered by what she does feel.  She grabs ahold of the first available guy, Johan (Mathias Rust), as this is the only kind of thinking that makes sense to her sister, and even makes love for the first time, but she quickly dumps him afterwards, as the guy is totally useless (but just as much in love with Elin as Agnes is), incapable of forming a thought in his head, where the popular crowd all thinks exactly the same way, where appearances matter more than reality.  While Elin was trying to prove she wasn’t attracted to Agnes, completely ignoring her at school, she still kept thinking about her.  One of the unique aspects of the film is the ease by which it unflinchingly shows the damage of teenage cruelty, which is an inherent aspect of both teenage leads, yet they remain appealing nonetheless because they are struggling to understand themselves, largely triggered by the confusion of puberty.  This anti-Hollywood realism is the key to the film, as the characters are so believable.  Many of the high school characters are completely recognizable basically anywhere in the world, veering towards stereotype, like a rude awakening, but they all bring an identifiable humanity that is uniquely their own, something that allows the audience, along with the two leads, to get past the hideousness of vicious rumors and gossip, and discover something better lies beyond this cruelty and pettiness where the norm attacks anyone who’s different.  Despite Elin’s rebellious nature and her refusal to be like the others, finally not giving a damn what any of the rest of them think, there’s something more here than meets the eyes, a euphoric triumph of the spirit, getting to the heart of love transcending labels of homosexuality or heterosexuality, beautifully scored to the punk anthem Broder Daniel - Underground - YouTube (3:00), where they literally prance upon a new day.  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Together (Tillsammans)

Lukas Moodysson on the set of Together (2000)

TOGETHER (Tillsammans)        C+                
Sweden  Denmark  Italy  (106 mi)  2000  d:  Lukas Moodysson

Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find
I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind
Whatever happened to our love?
I wish I understood
It used to be so nice, it used to be so good.
—Abba, “S.O.S.” (1975) Abba - S.O.S - YouTube  (3:32)

There's strength in being alone, that's just bullshit. Only thing worth anything is being together.  
—Birger (Sten Ljunggren)

Living in a collective doesn’t mean you have to reject everything.  
—Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren)

We draw the line at Coca-Cola. We don't support multinational pigs.         
—Lasse (Ala Rapace)

Not so much a 60’s as a 70’s film, revealing the pathetic unravelings of the revolution, circa Stockholm, 1975, in a small leftist commune where a group of twentysomethings continue to hold onto their political ideals, but for whatever reason, life keeps getting in the way.  While it’s a series of mini-tragedies, Moodysson douses the film with plenty of dark comedy, where his singularly best choice is observing the world through the eyes of the collective’s children.  While the film is stylistically observant, using fades to a blank red screen, it’s overly predictable and never really addresses the social issues, which are only superficially used to tie together a movie about marital discord.  The children’s story is far more interesting, though Moodysson instead satirizes the misguided yearnings and foibles of adults.  The film opens with a marriage on the rocks, where Rolf, a young Michael Nyqvist from THE MILLENNIUM TRILOGY (2009), is a drunken lout of a husband that crosses the line into physical abuse, causing his wife Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren) to gather up her two young children aged 13 and 10, Eva and Stefan (Emma Samuelsson and Sam Kessel), and head for the home of her brother Göran (Gustaf Hammarsten) in an already crowded communal house called Tillsammans (Swedish for “Together”), spied upon by the neighbors next door who can’t believe how many people can fit into one house.  Neither child has any friends at school and are already outcasts, but this only makes their prospects more dismal, especially being driven around in an old, dilapidated, hand-painted VW bus, a relic from a 60’s hippie era that has long since past being cool with young kids, feeling more like an embarrassment.  And therein lies one of the themes of the film, as adults often behave like idiots, where this film written by the director continues to poke fun at the foolishness of middle class youths pretending to be working class heroes by taking a stand against coca cola, becoming vegetarians, abolishing Christmas, refusing to own a TV, having open sexual relationships within the commune, carrying on a Marxist driven dialectic even as they are children of wealth, where the wealthiest one among them is attempting a blue collar job as a welder, and failing miserably.  It’s a bit like Fassbinder’s THE THIRD GENERATION (1979), but less overtly political, not nearly as devastating a critique of the radical left, and more of a series of satirical vignettes showing just how out of touch this group is with their own feelings, their children, and the changing world around them.    

Throughout the film there is incessant squabbling and sarcastic in-fighting between collective members, surrounded by posters of Che, Emma Goldman, the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Mao, arguing whether doing the dishes is bourgeois, each one ridiculing the phony left-leaning sentiment of the other, where Lasse (Ala Rapace) claims his separated wife Anna (Jessica Liedberg) has become a lesbian by choice for political reasons, where her meditation sessions are really rather feeble attempts to hit on other women.  Denouncing men in general, Ana is the likely person to befriend Elisabeth, where the two commiserate over the evils of overcontrolling male dominance while drinking plenty of wine, getting giddy after awhile, playing music and dancing well after the kids have gone to sleep, showing little consideration for anyone else, thinking this is all part of the healing process, recovering from the inherent subjugation of women.  Elisabeth’s brother Göran may be the one most concerned with getting along with everyone, incessantly avoiding conflict, but his girlfriend Lena (Anja Lundqvist) couldn’t be more sexually promiscuous, taking advantage of Göran’s passivity while sexually stalking other members of the male species like the collective’s nymphomaniac, targeting Erik (Olle Sarri), who may be the youngest and in her eyes the cutest member, but also the most radically outspoken, as despite coming from a family of wealth where his father is a banker, Erik is an unashamed, old-school Communist that believes in meetings, strikes, demonstrations, leftist newspapers, and carrying on the Marxist rhetoric whenever and wherever, where his idea of sexual foreplay is having a Marxist discussion analyzing the ill-effects of capitalism, agreeing to have sex with Lena only if they’ll have a conversation on economics afterwards.  When she, of course, has sex but then reneges on the deal, he calls her a lying hypocrite and wants nothing more to do with her.  His leftist zeal is amusing, especially when he attempts to radicalize a lone sentry standing outside some important government building.  But when he eventually moves out, thoroughly disgusted at the collective’s lack of leftist willpower, Lena cries for days afterwards, calling so much attention to herself that even Göran gets fed up.  But when Lasse and Göran bring home a used TV for the kids, one of the other couples moves out as well, claiming that’s a complete sellout. 

Part of the developing story also includes the abandoned and isolated lives of kids, where the adults are so wrapped up in their own problems the kids are largely left to fend for themselves, where Eva ends up sitting in the VW van all hours of the day and night just to get away from the arguing and idiotic behavior of the adults inside whose politics she finds stupid.  It’s here she meets the kid next door, Frederik (Henrik Lundström), equally friendless, from a similarly dysfunctional family, where both are shy introverts that are at least nice to one another.  Stefan, on the other hand, pulls out his legos toys, where Tet, Ana and Lasse’s son, can’t believe they’re the real thing, as his dad promised to make wooden legos but pathetically only finished two pieces.  It’s ironic that a kid named Tet, after the Tet Offensive, is not allowed to play with war toys, but the kids instead play Pinochet electric shock torture games.  Stefan readily misses his Dad, who on the side is attempting to rehabilitate his life, but failing miserably.  In contrast to the turbulent world of the very publicly out front collective, Rolf’s struggle is more internal, where working as a plumber, after finishing a repair, one of his customers offers him a beer, Birger (Sten Ljunggren), that results in an extended drinking session where we learn Birger is now an old man that once drove his wife away and longed for freedom and his own anticipated sense of independence, but discovered that “loneliness is the most horrible thing in the world.”  With Rolf and Birger struggling with their self-inflicted misery, the collective is also disintegrating before our eyes, as personal interests trump the collective spirit, a utopian principle only half-heartedly adhered to anyway, where the ideas fade sort of like LP records giving way to the 8-track, cassettes, CD’s, and now MP3’s.  Nonetheless, it’s the collective’s hold on Elisabeth as a place of refuge that may as well be the Berlin Wall to Rolf, as he can’t get through to the other side.  With the help and encouragement of Birger, who wants to make sure Rolf doesn’t end up like he did, the finale is easily the best part of the film, where Elisabeth’s favorite song comes into play, Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” nazareth love hurts (1976) YouTube (3:32), emblematic of the couple’s own tortuous ordeal, but after a bellyful of unending pessimism, the snowy finale to the upbeat music of Abba, which bookends the film, adds an unforeseen sense of optimism and hope.