Thursday, October 30, 2014

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo)

BLACK COAL, THIN ICE  (Bai ri yan huo)          B-              
China  (106 mi)  2014  d:  Diao Yinan

A serial killer thriller set in modern era China, winner of the Golden Bear 1st prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival along with another award for Best Actor (Fan Liao), the film is part film noir and part social realist portrait of industrial city life in Northern China.  While it has a moody, quietly powerful style, this is another film that lucks subtlety, that goes for exaggerated often grotesque performances, that veers from gruesome violence, comic absurdity, to utter tragedy, where the lead performance is excellent, but the amateurish supporting cast comes across like a group of bumbling fools.  Set in Heilongjiang province, northeast China, 1999, where small-town chief detective Zhang Zili (Fan Liao) discovers detached body parts spread out in unusual places, initially discovered at a coal plant where the human limbs stand out among the dark chunks of coal assembled on an industrial conveyor belt.  More remains of the same body are discovered at other coal plants miles away, suggesting the work of a single killer.  The personal identification on the body turns out to be Liang Zhijun (Wang Xuebing), a worker of the local coal plant whose wife Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-mei) works at a small dry cleaning shop run by an older man, He Mingrong (Wang Jingchun), who seems to watch over her like a hawk.  When Zhang produces two suspects, two brothers that worked with the deceased at the coal plant, one a coal truck driver, all hell breaks loose with a botched arrest when they are apprehended in a hair salon, turning into a bloody, comically absurd shoot-out that is both brutal and chaotic, where both are shot and killed along with two detectives, while Zhang is seriously wounded in the ensuing melee.  Zhang is forced to retire from the force in disgrace, taking a menial job as a security guard for another factory. 

Conveyed in a single shot, five years pass and the murder remains unsolved.  Still traumatized by the incident, a barely recognizable Zhang drinks heavily, drowning his sorrows in guilt and self pity until his former partner Wang (Yu Ailei) provides him with the details of two recent murders that bear a similarity to the original case, their bodies slashed by the blades of ice skates, while both men knew Wu Zhizhen.  On his own, determined to redeem the sins of the past, Zhang decides to privately investigate the widow Zhizhen, initially tailing her on the street in secret, but after awhile he’s beguiled by her beauty and develops feelings for her, absurdly allowing his constant presence to be seen.  Zhizhen couldn’t be more passive and indifferent, never expressing any hint of emotion, playing the part of an ice princess, trying to warn him away, but he persists until eventually she agrees to go ice-skating together.  Wang also warns Zhang of the danger of getting too involved with this woman, as they’ve seen the results of men that come in contact with her, so he follows him to the rink, adding his watchful eyes.  It’s in this dreary wintry setting where the film distinguishes itself, as the scenes between Zhang and Zhizhen literally come alive with tension and conflicting energies, including the mainland director’s strange choice to use actress Gwei Lun-mei, who is actually Taiwanese, as his femme fatale, where her Black Widow persona makes her a prime candidate for the murderer, but Zhang distinguishes himself by somehow figuring out the underlying mystery, where he’s instead able to find Zhijun, who is still very much alive, but he’s unable to apprehend him as he escapes through a vacant lot leading into an industrial corridor, a literal wasteland surrounding a popular ice-rink.  But Zhang doesn’t communicate this discovery to Wang, who doesn’t get the connection of the lone man he apprehends carrying a pair of ice skates, eventually paying for it with his life in perhaps the most startling moment of the film, all captured in a deserted alley in the silence of the white snow. 

While there are tense moments of seemingly choreographed violence, there are also long, contemplative quiet periods that seem to meander into an aimless, inexplicable interior abyss, a kind of psychological void that Zhang has to claw and scratch his way out of, becoming a deeply probing character study, using a 1940’s American film noir style, where the guy constantly has a cigarette in his hand, and he’s seen continually talking to a series of alluring femme fatale women.  He’s a complicated product of a misogynistic culture that early on displays inappropriate sexual harassment and then abuse, yet he remains the only sympathetic figure in the entire film, displaying persistence and a quiet intelligence, where the camera loves this guy, where everything else all around him remains a cesspool of corruption and inefficiency.  Preferring a more naturalistic approach, the film gains strength with this emphasis on character, yet Zhang is surrounded by oddballs and misfits who aren’t remotely close to solving the crime.  As a surreal reflection of just how unbalanced the world around him is, bizarre images appear out of midair, where a horse shows up in an office building, a nightclub owner collapses in mid-sentence during an interview, or fireworks erupt during the daylight hours, while adding the Wong Kar-wai style saturated color of neon lights and red-lit underground sex parlors.  Cinematographer Dong Jinsong’s visual palette moves across vast stretches of urban isolation and unhappiness while also drenching the atmosphere in a bleak, wintry freeze, where the coldness and harshness of an industrial landscape is everpresent.  Certainly one of the problems is the plot borders on the incomprehensible, where characters place their lives on the line at their own risk, willingly entering hazardous zones, yet all the people feel overly cold and foreign to one another.  The film is often erratic, moving in strange directions, where a distraught Zhang follows a mysterious labyrinth of clues, but trusts no one with the information he uncovers, leading him into a dead zone where his dour psychological mindset matches that of the killer, a man completely cut off from the rest of the world.  In this world there is sin, but no redemption.    

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)

Directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT    (Deux jours, une nuit)     B               
Belgium France  Italy  (95 mi)  2014  d:  Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne           

An excoriating critique of capitalism, brilliantly revealing how it isolates and divides workers, pitting one against the other, where over the course of the film the Dardennes turn this into a modern era horror story.  What’s most striking, however, is how it’s framed in such ordinary circumstances, where the fear of losing one’s job is the overriding concern, capable of driving one to do the unthinkable.  While the opportunity to work with an actress of the stature of Marion Cotillard may have proven too alluring to resist, the film would probably have played much better with a lesser known, unknown actress, much like their earlier efforts, especially ROSETTA (1999), where the actress’s daily struggle might mirror the role of the character in the film.  Part of Cotillard’s role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother working at a small solar panel factory, is her invisibility, where she is forced to come out of the anonymity of her character to make herself seen as she confronts each and every one of her fellow workers.  When trying to return from a medical leave, she discovers the company has instead decided to lay her off in order to pay the annual 1000 euro bonus to the rest of the workers.  When cornered in a parking lot, the owner agrees to hold a vote by secret ballot to alleviate allegations of pressure and intimidation by the foreman, and if a majority of workers agree to vote for her return instead of their bonuses, then he will honor their decision.  He is of the opinion, however, based on an initial vote tallied by the foreman, that most everyone prefers the bonus.  This leaves her little time, as indicated by the title, to change people’s minds.  While a worker on leave could be confronted by any number of illnesses, such as losing a child, recovery from an injury or an accident, to having a more serious medical diagnosis such a cancer, but in Sandra’s case she suffers from depression (another invisible disease), seen taking large doses of Xanax, well beyond the recommended limit, in an attempt to maintain her sanity throughout this ordeal.  The idea for the film is based upon real incidents occurring in French factories, but also Belgium, Italy, and the United States, where a worker was laid off so the rest of the workers could get their bonuses, all of which raise questions of solidarity in the workforce.   

Shot in Seraing, an industrial town in Liège, in Wallonia, the French-speaking section of Belgium where the Dardennes were born and raised, and where all their previous films were shot as well, Cotillard had to change her French accent to Belgian for the film—no minor undertaking, as she’s the first non-Belgian actor to ever work with the directors.  By all accounts, many believe she was robbed at Cannes by not winning Best Actress, but this is an understated, minimalist, low-key film without any major dramatic moments.  Experts in social realist films, this is most reminiscent of a Bresson film (Introduction to Bresson), a meticulous film constructionist who downplayed the performances of his actors, where this film is based upon a repeating, cyclical theme where Sandra literally goes door to door tracking down her coworkers, asking them to vote to save her position by sacrificing their bonuses.  While this is incredibly humiliating, to say the least, it leaves her emotionally exhausted and demoralized afterwards when she realizes what an uphill struggle this is turning out to be.  Shot in chronological order, most of the scenes are long takes culminating with stressful discussions at someone’s front door, usually interrupting them from their weekend activities with their children, where the situation couldn’t be more awkward, as in an economic downturn, everyone needs the money, with some in desperate straits.  While it’s hard to believe someone is placed in this position, literally begging for their job back, the Dardennes don’t over-dramatize or turn this into a melodrama, confining their focus to exposing what each of these people must be going through, literally providing a window into their souls, as for each, this is a gut-wrenching decision.  People are surprisingly honest with one another, as is Sandra, who is never pushy or argumentative, but simply presents the reality of the situation, then must gracefully accept the fact that not everyone is going to support her, even some who sympathize with her.  In some cases, the husbands aggressively bark out their opinions while their wives (who work with her) meekly stand in silence, unable to alter the balance of power in their homes.   

Beautifully portraying the accumulative stress and mental anguish, Cotillard anchors the film with her warmth and sense of decency, where the urgency of her situation mirrors how other people live and the pressures they face, where in troubled times it’s extremely hard to support her efforts.  Nonetheless it’s a heroic act to summon the courage to embark on such a personally revealing journey, where you literally strip yourself naked standing completely vulnerable before your coworkers, always struggling to overcome feelings of hopelessness and despair.  Perhaps the weakest character in the film is Sandra’s own husband Manu, Fabrizio Rangione in his fifth film with this directing team, whose pathetic struggle to continually push his wife feels overly abusive, though perhaps necessary when she’s incessantly on the verge of giving up.  We don’t see an emotional connection between the two, or any hint of happiness, but their interaction together represents a tired couple that is used to struggling to get through every day.  Perhaps the most beautiful scenes involve music, including Petula Clark singing the French version of the 1963 Jackie DeShannon song “Needles and Pins” Petula Clark - La Nuit N'en Finit Plus - YouTube, while the scene of the film is the euphoric emotional release expressed to the song of Van Morrison and Them singing a teen anthem from the 60’s, “Gloria” THEM (Featuring VAN MORRISON) - LIVE 1965 - "Gloria" YouTube (2:47).  While Sandra is literally terrified at what will happen behind the knock at each door, it’s a petrifying journey set by her boss against her colleagues, where no one protests against the inherent cruelty of the employer’s actions, instead it’s a barbaric act commonly accepted in the modern workplace.  Sandra has a husband and child, perceived as a woman’s dutiful role in the 50’s, but in today’s world she needs a place in society where she can be of use.  Work has come to represent a sense of purpose in people’s lives, even in the routine work of factory jobs, without which many people feel lost and useless, expressed in the film as confronting one’s worst fear, “living on the dole.”  Despite the anger and outright hostility that arises, where the foreman (Dardennes regular Olivier Gourmet) blames her for “stirring up this shit,” this is an unconventional exposé of the meaning of work in people’s lives, where to some their fellow coworkers are an indispensable part of their lives, like one of the family, where they spend eight to ten hours a day alongside each other, while others routinely ignore the social dimension of working with others for a period of years.  In this film, the Dardennes allow the characters to determine the outcome by challenging their humanity, which has greater significance than some predetermined moral lesson that would quickly be forgotten.     

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cru (2014)

Director Alton Glass

CRU           C                   
USA  (95 mi)  2014  d:  Alton Glass    

Made for an estimated $750,000, this is another low-budget black indie film that, like his earlier films, will likely end up being released on television.  Despite winning five awards at the American Black Film Festival, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Narrative Feature and Actor (Keith Robinson), where the much more inventive Jeffrey C. Wray’s The Evolution of Bert (2014) was not in competition, this speaks more to the lack of a black presence in the film industry, an inherently white owned business where whites end up writing nearly all the black-oriented film projects.  According to Gregory Allen Howard from Portside, July 31, 2014, The Whitewashing of James Brown | Portside:  “There are over fifty black iconic biopics and black-themed movies in development in Hollywood, including multiple Richard Pryor projects, five Martin Luther King projects, multiple Marvin Gaye projects, and civil rights projects, and only one or two have an African American writer.  Our entire history has been given over to white writers.”  In an industry where black talents like Viola Davis and Forest Whitaker have received critical acclaim for playing maids and butlers, is it any wonder that so many black-themed films are laced with generic stereotypical characters where an important consideration is that they be perceived as non-threatening to whites, a continued reflection of how white people view blacks even in contemporary society.  Even in films written by blacks, like this one, where the producer/director owns Glassrock Entertainment in Los Angeles, there remains a perception hovering over Hollywood that in order to be successful they have to be able to sell a product that is acceptable to whites, which accounts for so many of the exact same kinds of generically acceptable characters, such as male figures who are a product of their identification with sports, where even as adults they are defined and/or imprisoned by their youthful masculinity, former athletic heroes on the basketball court during high school in what amounts to their glory years.  Now fifteen years later, each having gone their own separate ways, the film reunites these former state champions who have lost contact with each other through the years.      

Seen through the eyes of Marshall ‘M.O.’ Ogden (Keith Robinson), a rising star in a successful law firm, owner of that million dollar house in Malibu, he is written much like other single dimension characters on TV, like the prototype of the near perfect Blair Underwood part on the television series L.A. Law (1986 – 1994), where he’s perceived as rich, good looking, and a killer of a ladies man, seen early on in the company of several women in his bed, supposedly the ultimate male fantasy.  All of these are signs of male virility and success as seen through the prism of television, which strictly deals in stereotypes when it comes to people of color.  Once he becomes a partner of the firm, gladly welcomed by Harry Lennix, the CEO of the company, the audience quickly realizes something is not right.  While Marshall continues to believe he’s invincible, he’s diagnosed with kidney cancer, which begins a slow deterioration of his health.  His male cockiness is challenged throughout the rest of the film, where his standard comebacks just don’t work anymore.  He becomes a liability to the business, where his health is impeding his work, but until he’s officially instructed to go home and take some time off, he’s in utter denial about his condition.  Cue the sad orchestral music, which is uninspired, standard fare from Kurt Oldman, where the director simply doesn’t trust making more original musical choices, as if that’s a less significant aspect of his filmmaking, or working without music altogether, where the performances of his actors would be forced to carry the entire weight of the film.  Instead the director relies upon a repeated flashback sequence, which we see about a half a dozen times, losing any attempt at subtlety, but it shows the kids driving their own car back home from the state high school basketball championship.  Victorious and in a celebratory mood, there is plenty of drinking going on leading to that inevitable crash, where all survived, but their big man, Richard Hughes (Richard T. Jones), permanently injured his knee and flamed out, never becoming the pro star he was expected to be.  Instead he’s now a middle-aged family man that takes parenting seriously, coaching basketball while living vicariously through his son R.J. (Jermaine Crawford) and his budding athletic prowess, while married to his intelligent and attractive wife Michelle (Melissa De Sousa).  Richard has held a grudge against M.O. since the accident, holding him responsible as the driver, and hasn’t spoken to him in all these years. 

Through the help of perhaps Marshall’s closest friend Alex (Diandra Lyle), a sultry fox who always seems to be there when he needs someone, though she’s rarely seen in close ups like the featured male characters, instead the director always shoots her in a tight, form-fitting dress wearing heels accentuating not only her figure, but her power and stylish individuality, she urges him to reconnect with his teammates, best friends from his past, as they were once a tight-knit group growing up together, knowing each other’s secrets, where they shared the happiest moments of their youth.  Contacting them one by one, including Eric (Antwon Tanner), whose life is amusingly surrounded by child support payments with different women, Adisa (Sammi Rotibi), an Army recruiter targeting young black men, and Richard, who begrudgingly comes along, they are all invited to his palatial Southern California estate for a weekend reunion.  While there’s the usual cliché’s of good times and laughs, where they pay tribute to their seemingly unbreakable friendship, each one goes through their own personal transformation from the past, where they’ve grown yet remain transfixed in time, still reliving that one earth shattering moment that they can’t escape, as the bad blood between M.O. and Richard only resurfaces, where any hopes of healing old wounds are derailed by frayed nerves and a long build-up of mistrust.  There is obviously a special understanding between these guys, but they exist side by side with personal torment and wrenching anger, where many of these hidden emotions rise to the surface, bluntly expressing themselves in inappropriate moments, where whatever hopes Marshall might have had in finding the right time to come clean about his illness evaporates into thin air.  No attempt is really made to flesh out the characters of any of these men, as it’s all placed in a similar context of what we’ve seen before, turning this death and redemption story into a sad tearjerker by the end when the friends learn the ultimate truth.  The entire atmosphere surrounding the film exists in a kind of Southern California fantasy world, where all the money in the world seems to have been dropped at one man’s feet, yet it still can’t buy him happiness.  While Alex gives the film a special edge, where we’d like to see an entire film devoted to her character, this is otherwise trite and overly conventional throughout, yet it’s a feelgood story about boys who aspire to be men, with fair to middling results. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Owners


Director Adilkhan Yerzhanov

THE OWNERS           B-                     
Kazakhstan  (93 mi)  2014  d:  Adilkhan Yerzhanov
A portrait of miserablism, poverty and gloom, as seen through a surrealist lens where tragedy and dark comedy intersect, where it’s worth noting that the remote nation of Kazakhstan, known as one of the least densely populated nations on earth (only Canada and Australia are lower) with less than 15 people per square mile, yet it has produced two of the most weirdly unusual films to hit film festivals in the past two years, with this coming after Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii) (2013), one of the best directed and edited films from last year.  Both are young directors that have graduated from the Kazakh National Academy of Arts, so New Kazakh cinema has become a breeding ground of originality and novelty.  Actually THE OWNERS is a follow-up to his previous film, the 67-minute black and white short film CONSTRUCTORS (2013) Constructors | Stroiteli | FIFF | Fribourg International Film ..., shooting in wildly exaggerated colors, where both are low-key, absurdist treatments of the difficulties encountered by individuals that strive to maintain any sense of dignity when they are swallowed up whole by the apathy and indifference of a Kafkaesque Eastern European bureaucracy that may as well be the remnants of a Stalinist Soviet system left behind, as Kazakhstan was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.  While the overall effect is a bit like Kaurismäki, with similar deadpan acting, but it’s not Kaurismäki, leaving something to be desired, namely the wit and zany characters that inhabit a Kaurismäki film.  It may be closer in tone to the Yorgos Lanthimos film DOGTOOTH (2009), though stylistically quite different, as both are interested in creating a weird and entirely unusual universe that seemingly exists on its own, as if floating on air, where much of it carries a fantasy oriented atmosphere of surrealist caricature.       

Our three orphaned protagonists are introduced by a child’s drawing where we see 25-year old John (Aidyn Sakhaman), the reluctant patriarch, an ex-con who has done time for petty crimes and remains unemployed, his younger teenage brother Yerbol (Yerbolat Yerzhan), a handsome aspiring actor who retains his sense of idealism, and their sickly 12-year old epileptic sister Aliya (Aliya Zainalova) who remains the most innocent of all, where the two younger actors reprise their roles from CONSTRUCTORS.  Aliya continually sees the world through a kind of magical realism where people are always smiling and happy, often seen performing dance routines, where this whimsical element is a stark contrast to the gloom that inhabits the rest of the picture.  Forced to leave the city when they can no longer pay the rent, they move to a remote village where their deceased mother left them a house, carrying the deed to the property with them.  Unfortunately it’s currently inhabited by Zhuba (Bauyrzhan Kaptagai), the alcoholic brute of a brother to the local police chief (Nurbek Mukushev) who has been living there illegally for the past 10 years.  In this lawless frontier, possession takes precedence over any existing laws, as Zhuba wages an intimidation campaign and beats the crap out of John after he files a complaint with the police, while a visit to the housing ministry only results in the futility of trying to do anything about it, reduced to a portrait of comic absurdity, a throwback to a faceless and heartless Kafkaesque world where reason never prevails, where grievances remain in a state of limbo for months and problems are left to be resolved by hand-to-hand human combat, resorting to a survival of the fittest Darwinian universe where the weak are stomped on by more powerful Stalinist forces.  It’s a bleak and hopeless existence where John eventually gets arrested, where despite the dubious nature of the charges, there are signs that he will never be released, and the younger siblings are forced to survive on their own, where all that is saving them at the moment are Aliya’s charmingly innocent visions.

Duped into signing away ownership of the house, lured by the false promise of John’s freedom, the director likes to line up all the interested parties and shoot them in a tableaux shot where once again they are seen as just actors, where this offers a temporary relief from the descent into oblivion facing this family.  Perhaps part of the problem with this film is a similar one depicted in Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), where the collaborators and perpetrators of the heinous acts of genocide are seen as mere caricatures, lending a cartoonish aura of ridiculousness to their nature that not only influences but overshadows whatever horrors they committed.  This exaggerated comical absurdity overwhelms the grotesque nature of their crimes, where the artificiality of style, expressed through extreme violence and Hollywood dreamlike dance sequences with saturated colors, allows them to portray themselves as fools, where they may hide and take cover within the mysterious ambiguities of artistic presentation, where fiction is as distorted as reality.  The heartlessness of a Stalinist regime is prevalent in both Kazakh and Russian films, where the stone cold rigidity of the system remains intact, even under the authority of a different nationality.  Yerzhanov then abandons any concept of realism and prefers to emphasize the darker more satiric elements of a Kafkaesque society, but in doing so the film makes so many tonal shifts that he loses any visionary claim to authenticity and begins referencing the stylizations of others, from early Kaurismäki to Fellini to Tsai Ming-liang to the comic invention of Wes Anderson, where there’s even a tribute to SCARFACE (1983) and Vincent van Gogh.  While the film never seems to work, the fun is watching it stumble all over itself with clever ideas it really doesn’t know what to do with.  Yerzhanov’s picture of an absurdly decaying system of authority is saturated in an unreal universe that becomes almost too magical, where there is no question that it is a compelling style, but it grows much too absurd.  Does the artistic style of the film equate to emotional truths or human drama, or does it provoke ideas or complex thought?  And while it’s visually quite strong and startlingly unique, there’s some question whether it actually offers anything new.    

Sunday, October 26, 2014

August Winds (Ventos de Agosto)

AUGUST WINDS  (Ventos de Agosto)           C+                              
Brazil  (77 mi)  2014  d:  Gabriel Mascaro 

This is a film that seems to exist in a void, in a world filled with unexplored possibilities, where it is nearly narrative free, instead offering brief vignettes that provide only the barest sketches of life in a small seaside village set in the northeastern Alagoas state of Brazil.  Never really finding its rhythm, the region retains a postcolonial vibe where remnants of slavery still thrive throughout the region, especially in the mythological views of the elders, which are only briefly explored, never really delving into the heart of the culture.  Instead this exists on the perimeter, where the modern world intrudes upon the past, seen through the eyes of Shirley, Dandara De Morais, the only professional actress in an otherwise nonprofessional cast having previously worked on a television series, a modern girl from the city who was sent by her family to look after her aging grandmother.  While she drives a tractor for the local coconut plantation, she retains an impassive demeanor, almost as if she is a visitor to the region, exhibiting an occasional rebellious streak, expressed by a scene where she’s alone on a boat pouring a can of Coca Cola on her body for sunscreen protection set to the music of Lewd’s “Kill Yourself” THE LEWD - kill yourself.wmv - YouTube (2:07).  This sets the tone for a culture clash that never really occurs, as instead she feels trapped, having a sexual affair with a local boy Jeison (Geová Manoel Dos Santos) among the coconut trees as much out of boredom as anything else, where the coconut trees are more rooted to the land than she is, where there’s a beautiful image of trees swaying in the breeze, as first one man on the right side climbs a tree with the ease of a fly crawling up a wall, then another on the left side as they whack the coconuts among the branches, seen dropping to the ground, Ventos de Agosto 2014 Brazilian Film Trailer YouTube (3:11).  While Jeison works at the plantation, seen as backbreaking work under the blazing hot sun, he also loves to dive in the ocean, often finding lobster or octopus hiding in the coral reefs below. 

When Jeison discovers a skull at the bottom of the sea, he and Shirley bring it to the village elders to see if they can identify who it was, but what they discover is a deep-seeded belief that death is associated not with God or religion, but with the sea, where for generations life has been associated with the divine providence of the natural world around them, where the sea continually creeps ever closer to the land, often swallowing up nearby houses, becoming a lethal force to contend with.  Tropical storms pound the coastline in August, bringing a meteorologist (played by the director) to record the sounds of the trade winds, another outsider whose peculiar habits the local villagers fail to comprehend, but his curiosity draws him closer and closer to the sea, failing to recognize the danger of the rapidly developing weather patterns, where it appears he gets swept out into the sea, his body later discovered by Jeison tangled in the rocks below the sea, where he brings his bloated corpse to the shore, causing a certain amount of uneasy commotion.  With no refrigeration, the partially decomposed body smells of death, yet is carried around by Jeison wherever he goes, becoming obsessed with its disposal, calling the police to come retrieve it, but they fail to respond when he can’t give them an exact address, as this shoreline village has no streets and no numbers on their homes.  This takes on a comedic aspect of the film, becoming an absurd development, like a looming shadow that follows him around wherever he goes that he just can’t shake, eventually taking matters into his own hands and dropping it off at the police station, which is oddly closed, where the only sound inside the locked building is a prisoner who is locked up inside.  Both Shirley and Jeison’s father recognize a change in Jeison’s behavior, losing that carefree childhood innocence, where all he can think about is this corpse. 

With a background in documentary filmmaking, much of what’s shown onscreen reflects the natural beauty of the region, but the filmmaker shows little interest in the people that inhabit the region, choosing young people for their sensual beauty and elderly people largely for their distinctive faces instead of exploring the nature of what lies within, becoming instead a study of surface realities.  With little or no coherent story, this becomes an impressionistic mosaic that is largely out of synch with its own banality, where the stretches of wordless montage show little connection to developing themes, where the true mysteries of life remain hidden and out of sight, where the people remain overly passive and disconnected from each other.  It may have been intended as an ethnological study, but is more an experimental landscape picture where the peaceful calm of the underwater sequences are a stark contrast with a postcolonial existence on land, where the lush physical sensuality on display hides the historic connection of the region to the harsh and brutal conditions of slavery.  In fact it’s this disconnect that may describe this picture, which feels a bit like a pictographic observational piece as seen by an outsider’s eyes infatuated by the unspoiled wilds of nature, attempting to preserve as much of that as possible while immersing the region in the artificiality of making a feature-length motion picture.  Ultimately the film flounders in its own vague ambiguity, as it’s an odd mix, doesn’t really work, though there are a few scenes of rapturous beauty, but overall it doesn’t really feel like a complete work, where it may actually exploit the authenticity it seeks.  While it may attempt to be a contemplative work, it remains all too vacant and meandering, lacking the poetic intricacy of Lisandro Alonso’s work in LIVERPOOL (2008) and LOS MUERTOS (2004), who remains one of the most uncompromising South American artists who is able to wordlessly capture the immediacy and vibrancy of lost souls adrift in the wilderness.    

Friday, October 24, 2014

National Gallery

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

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

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

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

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


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

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