Monday, September 29, 2014

The Drop

THE DROP          B+         
USA  (106 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Michaël R. Roskam       Official site

Everybody has a past…There are some sins that you commit, that you can’t come back from, no matter how hard you try. 
—Bob Saginowski

Listen, listen, just take it easy.  Listen to me.  That is life.  That’s what it is.  People like me, coming along when you’re not looking. 
—Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts)

Only Roskam’s second film, following the international acclaim received with the bleak but riveting Belgian film 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #6 Bullhead (Rundskop) , which immediately caught the attention of Hollywood executives who invited him to make his second film in America, offering him the script of well-known screenwriter, Dennis Lehane, who penned Clint Eastwood’s MYSTIC RIVER (2003), Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007), and Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND (2010), not to mention several episodes of the popular television show The Wire (2004 – 08), so he is a proven commodity.  Working with Lehane’s short story Animal Rescue set in Boston, the filmmaker has assembled an extraordinary international cast and makes the most of it, transporting the film to a non-descript Brooklyn neighborhood where dirty money changes hands on a nightly basis.  The story centers around a neighborhood dive bar known as Cousin Marv’s, the name of the former owner, the late James Gandolfini in his final role, wearing a New York Jets hoodie, hanging Yankees and Giants posters on the walls, who lost his bar nearly a decade ago to Chechen gangsters, but continues to run the place, making regular payments to the mob, who make deals, investments, collect on bets won or lost, and at the end of the night the money has to end up somewhere, where the last stop along the way is a money drop funneling cash to organized crime in an underworld network of Brooklyn bars, where the location changes from day to day to keep the heat off of any one specific bar.  The noirish inner narration is provided by Marv’s street savvy bartender, Bob Saginowski, Tom Hardy from Locke (2013) channeling Brando’s Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), where he’s a local kid from the neighborhood seemingly without much education, who doesn’t talk much but is a straight up guy, honest, hard working, and dependable, where Marv is his actual cousin, and the two have a familiar way of talking to one another as if they’ve known each other for years, which of course they have.  Nothing phases these two guys, as they’ve been through it all, but they’re a bit taken aback when a couple of punks wearing masks rob the place one night, taking $5000 of mob money out of the register.  A visit from Chovka (Michael Aronov) and his heavies wanting their money back doesn’t make them rest any easier, where they’re on the hook for the missing money.    

When an overly curious cop (John Ortiz) shows up sniffing around for clues, he recognizes Bob from seeing him at mass, but also that he hasn’t taken communion in over twenty years, suggesting his watchful eyes and ears are everywhere.  At about the same time, Bob discovers a wounded pit bull puppy abandoned in a trash can, where the home owner, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), invites him in and helps clean up the dog, where they become friends, of a sort, where both seem to be harboring a world of secrets, scarred and wounded souls themselves that are otherwise nearly completely disconnected from the rest of the world with no friends, no social life, no real prospects for the future, but go about their daily business in the light of day seemingly invisible to others.  These are the kinds of characters that inhabit Lehane stories, thieves, thugs, and hard guys, as he specializes in establishing authenticity in working class neighborhoods, where cinematically retaining his attention to detail is essential, filled with characters who are dark and moody, usually still haunted by disturbing incidents or horrible choices from their past, living lives of sin and redemption, where it’s not at all surprising to find some that are nearly doomed, as tragedy awaits their every step.  After Bob takes the dog home and tries to provide a normal and stable environment, he’s visited by an ominously dangerous figure, Eric Deeds, Matthias Schoenaerts from Bullhead (Rundskop) (2011) and Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) (2011), who likely inflicted the damage to both the dog and Nadia, whose brooding presence, and the knowledge that he likely killed one of Marv’s old customers, is a continuous threat.  Both men are lonesome characters defined by keeping things to themselves, hiding some sort of shady past, but have now apparently gone straight.  Bob’s connection to Nadia has been transforming, both for the dog and himself, but Eric wants them both back, threatening to inflict more damage on the dog if there is any trouble.  While Bob is busy dealing with the insane presence of Eric, reminiscent of the demented criminality of Peter Stormare in Fargo (1996), Marv has the mob to answer to, where this mysterious interplay in and out of a shadowy world provides tense and creepy atmosphere throughout.  The film is a pensive, darkly troubling slow burn of unfolding events, where the somber music by Marco Beltrami and Raf Keunen never interferes, remaining quietly atmospheric in the background, where the film accentuates the performances of the characters, trusting the depth and complexity they bring to the screen. 

While the short story was written ten years ago, Lehane expanded the screenplay for the making of the movie, and only afterwards wrote a short novel to support the film.  Opening with a group of men toasting a friend who died (or was murdered) ten years ago, a kid named Richie Whalen, aka Glory Days, where Marv offers free shots on the house, while muttering to Bob that these men “need to move on.”  Marv is a kind of gloomy character who will never be satisfied because life didn’t turn out the way he wanted, so he nitpicks and harps on every last little detail, believing life doesn’t offer anybody a chance.  When the mob money mysteriously arrives all covered in blood in a plastic sack, after a long pause awaiting the verdict, Chovka is satisfied with the results, announcing the biggest drop of the year will take place in the bar on Super Bowl Sunday.  Drenched in brooding atmosphere, the film is a parade of compelling characters that are continually underplayed throughout, where in the criminal world emotions are viewed as a weakness, so instead this is a minimalist film noir that continually explores the dark side of human nature.  Violence in this film is continually alluded to, but comes infrequently, yet the effect can be startling, where lives are spinning in the balance, as Roskam does an excellent job drawing the audience into this bleak yet lurid world, inhabited by such world-weary figures.  As Eric, who is little more than a thug, puts pressure on Bob to return his dog, he decides to take ten grand for the dog as his final offer, due by the next day.  When Bob protests that some stranger can’t just walk into somebody’s life and expect ten grand, Eric has the perfect answer that may as well be the theme of the film, “Listen, listen, just take it easy.  Listen to me.  That is life.  That’s what it is.  People like me, coming along when you’re not looking.”  True enough, this is a film that plays with the audience’s expectations, that dangles possibilities out there like a carrot on a stick and then goes in another direction, as the real beauty of the film is figuring out what lays underneath the surface, where people dwell on the past, but not always on what you think, as often it’s different than what they tell you, offering a smokescreen to hide the real truth.  Roskam has the audience guessing as to the true nature of each of these characters, where the grizzled performances are among the year’s best, especially Tom Hardy, who literally transforms himself into the role, the kind of part Harvey Keitel would play in the Scorsese movies, as despite the seedy world that surrounds him, he never wants to move far from the moral center, even as he deals with such brutally dark extremes, where mob guys are capable of anything.  The story has a savage center, where the beast is in man, yet so is the possibility of redemption. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse)

Isabelle Huppert (left), Kool Shen (center), and director Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat

ABUSE OF WEAKNESS (Abus de faiblesse)             C               
France  Germany  Belgium  (105 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Catherine Breillat 

I am the pariah of French cinema.  That can make things complicated for me:  it is never easy to drum up a budget or to find a distributor for my films in France.  Some people refuse even to read my scripts.  But it also makes me very happy because hatred is invigorating.  All true artists are hated.  Only conformists are ever adored.                        

—Catherine Breillat, "Catherine Breillat: 'All true artists are hated'", Benjamin Secher interview from The Telegraph, April 5, 2008

While in this film Breillat has eliminated the nudity and sex scenes that typify her earlier works, she continues to make exactly the same kind of film, featuring loathsome, nearly unwatchable characters who are masochistic victims of their own narcissistic empty headedness, gluttons for punishment so to speak.  What these films have to say about society at large is a major question, as there’s a decided disconnect between Breillat characters and real life, where the all-consuming, self-centered nature of the people populating her films, ruled as they are by their nagging obsessions, does not say much for the world at large, where they seem to exist in a vacuum.  The exaggerated human tendencies on display aren’t entirely implausible, as some people are capable of just about anything, but it’s entirely possible Breillat has never once created an onscreen character that viewers can actually identify with.  Instead the intent of her films seems to be provocative in nature, where the pervasive themes of sadomasochism, bourgeois emptiness and discontent, and sexual obsession seem to be goading the audience into unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable territory, where it often feels exploitive, as if placed on the screen for shock value.  With only one film in her entire body of work worth recommending, 36 FILLETTE (1988), an intelligent and somewhat autobiographical exposé of budding sexuality seen through the eyes of a young 14-year old female girl, many of the rest are major disappointments.  Breillat began her career as a novelist, published while still a 17-year old teenager, where success came early from writing a “dirty” novel, L 'homme facile (A Man for the Asking), the subject of some controversy in France where the female protagonist prefers rape to consensual sex, so the book was classified only for readership older than age 18.  This scandalous introduction along with the frank nudity and unsimulated sex scenes in her films led to her being labeled a “porno auteriste.”  At age 24 she played a role in Bertolucci’s THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), wrote a few sexploitation films for others, while making her own first film in her late 20’s, A REAL YOUNG GIRL (1976), which was only released 23-years afterwards due to the explicitness of the material, where it’s rare to see sexuality presented in such an unconventional and clinically bleak manner, where her later films continue to express graphic sexual depictions, including the use of a male porn star (Rocco Siffredi) to provide an erection in ROMANCE (1999) and ANATOMY OF HELL (2004).     

In late 2004 at the age of 56, Breillat suffered a stroke and was hospitalized for five months with paralysis on the left side of her body.  After learning to walk again, she completed the pre-production work of UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE (THE LAST MISTRESS, 2007), a controversial 19th century costume drama starring Asia Argento that was the only film made at that point in her career adapted from someone else’s material.  Her next project was to be an adaptation of her own novel, Bad Love, starring Naomi Campbell and Christophe Rocancourt, a notorious criminal who had already served five years in an American prison for defrauding multiple victims out of millions of dollars.  Known for working with non-professionals, Breillat’s initial recollections of Rocancourt, “He is so intelligent, so sincere, so arrogant.  You have to be arrogant to achieve anything in this life.  When I first saw him, I knew he would be perfect for my film.”  Over the course of the next several months, however, Rocancourt initially borrowed small sums of money from Breillat before swindling her out of more than 700,000 euros, for which he was convicted in 2012 and the planned film never made, a harrowing ordeal that she describes in her book, Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse), which was turned into this film, starring Isabelle Huppert as Maud, a stand-in for the filmmaker.  After suffering a stroke, where the director makes an uncredited appearance as an anonymous patient walking in the hospital corridor with a cane, Maud happens to see a television interview with con man Vilko Piran (French rapper Kool Shen), recently released from prison after serving his 12-year sentence for defrauding millions from unsuspecting victims, where she is utterly fascinated by his sexual swagger and total lack of remorse for his crimes, wanting him to star in her next movie.  When they meet, he’s instantly interested, but will only agree if the film shows him in a positive light, appearing to be smarter than he is, creating some mythical aura surrounding his criminal activities.  Due to her medical limitations, Maud needs help with many of her daily activities, where she remains partially paralyzed, yet in typical Breillat fashion, she exaggerates the grotesque through a continuing series of exhaustingly repetitive menial tasks, replicating the difficulties of recovering after a stroke, filled with a heightened state of frustration and personal insecurity.  Maud has a way of teasing Vilko’s masculinity, suggesting he is strong and able bodied, but belittles his poor lower class instincts and lack of education, where he is seemingly a terrible businessman, as he’s constantly owing money to people.  Initially she’s more than happy to help out by writing him a check for a loan, and he’s more than happy to take her money.

Over time, this process of writing checks becomes habit forming, where the amusing joking and teasing that defined their initial relationship becomes more disturbingly depressing, where they are more of a constant and nagging presence in each other’s lives, endlessly complaining about petty concerns, expressed through incessant cellphone calls that she receives from him as she lies in bed, constantly searching through the covers for her phone, where the repeated images of Maud lying asleep in bed begins to resemble that of a human corpse.  Vilko, on the other hand, is more of a thug, where he’s a shady character always looking for a big score, but he’s attracted to the aristocratic way of life that Maud leads, where she protects herself with wealth and status and is indifferent to the lives of others, barely even retaining any connection with her own family, so is it any wonder that he wants a piece of what she’s got?  While she initially has the upper hand, the roles reverse in the second half where the two of them are constantly playing power games, each trying to outdo the other in showing less concern, where writing checks is a way to express that she “doesn’t” care, that she’s not the least bit concerned, not allowing the physical struggles or hardships to phase her one bit.  It’s all an act they play, surrounded by walls of indifference, where there’s no sexual connection, only obligatory behavior, yet there’s an undercurrent of need that grows more desperate over time, where they each seem to thrive on the attention of the other.  Vilko recognizes that Maud treats men like slaves, where she enjoys humiliating her assistant by forcing him to fold her underwear, proudly wearing a veneer of independence, while she obviously enjoys being surrounded by the intoxication of his rugged masculinity, like having a male porn star around the house, recalling Huppert’s performance in Maurice Pialat’s LOULOU (1980), where she similarly abandons her bourgeois friends for the crudeness of an unemployed layabout.  Vilko, however, is able to take advantage of her pride and this false veneer of independence by playing upon her vanity, continually offering the impression that his own life is in shambles, that he’ll be destitute without another check, even as he lives in a five-star hotel that wraps the food service meals neatly in a box while tied in a bow, while also drinking vintage 2003 Chateau Margaux wine that currently retails for an average price of $931 a bottle, obviously charging a huge mark-up price when ordered at a hotel restaurant.  So while these two plead poverty, who are they fooling? — as they both continue to lead lavish lives surrounded by only the best that money can buy.  The absurdity of it all feels exaggerated and distorted to the point of being humorous, though not many would find this a human comedy, where the film plays upon a perceived human weakness, but it’s nothing either one of these characters would admit to, as they both get exactly what they ask for.    

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Gringo Trails

Director Pegi Vail

Director Pegi Vail (center) with her cameraman Melvin Estrella and local guide on the Tuichi River in the Bolivian Amazon

GRINGO TRAILS       B-                   
USA  Bolivia  Thailand  Mali  Bhutan  (79 mi)  2013  d:  Pegi Vail         Gringo Trails Official Site

Take only memories, leave only footprints.                —Chief Seattle

More than ten years in the making, the film explores the effect of institutionalized tourism in remote regions around the globe, where the tourist mindset, especially when they arrive in droves, alters the natural landscape and turns whatever natural beauty the site offers into a money-making theme park, where instant gratification outweighs long term gains or benefits.  While the director is an American anthropologist who is also Associate Director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University and a Fulbright Scholar, the film exposes a kind of hedonistic behavior that is altering the face of the planet.  Whether one travels on the luxurious high end of the economic scale using Fodor’s or Frommer’s Travel Guide or backpacks on the cheap scouring through The Lonely Planet guide of must see places around the world, tourists are continually looking for a bigger bang for their buck, searching to discover new unexplored worlds.  Using an episodic structure, the director takes us into some of the most remote regions of the world, beginning with the harrowing adventure in 1981 of Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg in the Bolivian jungle of Rurrenabaque, where he and some friends set out on an authentic jungle experience hiking into the wilds of the rain forest in Madidi National Park, though they had little knowledge of wilderness survival.  Using maps that were nearly unusable, they were unable to track the overflowing riverbanks of the Tuichi River that cut a path through the Bolivian Amazon, causing him to lose contact with his companions, where Yossi was stranded in the jungle for nearly a month before he was rescued by search teams.  While he was fortunate to have been found, where the boat slowed to turn around at the exact same spot where he happened to be, his emaciated body resembled photos of concentration camp survivors.  Writing a book about his experience, Back from Tuichi in 1993, it attracted the interest of similar wilderness seeking tourists, especially from Israel, where they descended into the remote region by the thousands, all searching for that same authentic jungle experience, where people who had lived quietly and peacefully for generations were suddenly called upon to act as tour guides on hastily put together expeditions, where the myth of Yossi Ghinsberg only grew more exaggerated by the retelling of the tale, turning a poor indigenous community into a tourist trap. 

Another British tourist enthralled by LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and OUT OF AFRICA (1985) was realizing her dream by finally traveling to Timbuktu in Mali, one of the poorest countries on earth, where this once-thriving mythical village on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert exists in a time warp, once one of the thriving cultural centers in Africa, featuring the Sankore Mosque and other scholarly university centers for Islamic study, where literally nothing has changed, as the town is surrounded by sand dunes and the streets covered in sand as well, seemingly preserved for centuries.  While remarking on the beauty of the region, locals had a differing view, claiming nothing could grow in the desert, that life is nearly impossible, making it one of the poorest towns in the world, where the culture has all but disappeared as the population moved elsewhere, so there was nothing beautiful about any of that.  The romantic fantasies suddenly meet the reality, yet the next day they arrange for a camel ride, where each of the tourists is decked out in flowing white robes that resemble Peter O’Toole in the movie, where she’s finally excited by the thrill of adventure, sleeping out under the stars, yet when they return to town the next day it only takes them 5-minutes, as they simply moved them to the other side of an existing sand dune where the town was out of sight.  In another desert on the other side of the world, Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, measuring four thousand square miles, where tourists began gathering in the 1980’s to collect cactus from Incahuasi "island" in the middle of the flats.  Twenty years later, after being listed in various guidebooks, people started arriving in SUV’s to visit Fredo Lazaro Ticoma, the self-professed “first inhabitant,” having built his home on the site which he turned into a tourist museum where he could profit tremendously, creating a spot where crowds of visitors would gather at picnic tables bringing with them large quantities of alcohol, showing little respect for the fragile environment, while leaving behind plenty of garbage for someone else to clean up.  By 2010, tourists had swelled to 300 to 400 per day, where Fredo can be seen serving lunch, as the government now runs the island.  Travel writer Rolf Potts asserts that “since modernity kicked in, displaced middle class people have to look to poor people [for authenticity].”

The most egregious example of beauty turned to ruination started out as an unspoiled paradise, where National Geographic travel editor Costas Christ describes his own unbridled enthusiasm about visiting Ko Pha Ngan Island in Thailand in 1979, taking a ferry down the river in southern Thailand with about a dozen or so other backpackers, and when they disembarked, he was met with a flurry of tourist hawkers, all trying to steer them into their own business, which was exactly the last thing he wanted to experience, so he asked the ferry pilot where he was going?  He was told the next island had no tourists as there was nothing to do there, so he hopped back on and seemingly had the entire island to himself.  After walking a few miles, he came to an overlook of a spectacular beach below known as Haad Rin Beach, where he met another couple living there, so he spent a month with them in what can only be described as idyllic conditions, as this was literally paradise on earth.  Ten years later small bungalows were built along the beach to accommodate the tourist traffic, but by the Millennium New Year’s Eve Full Moon Party in 1999, closer to 15,000 drunken revelers showed up, and by 2010 that number was closer to 50,000, where there were simply no sanitary facilities to accommodate everyone, so human waste and refuse, especially plastic bottles, littered the beach afterwards in what resembled a disaster zone.  In contrast, the breathtaking beauty of Bhutan, nestled at the foot of the Himalayas, opened up to tourists in 1974, adopting a policy of “gross national happiness” rather than gross profit margins, where they charge tourists $250/day, attracting only the most affluent, threatening visitors with expulsion if they don’t comply with their cultural traditions.  This attracts older tourists, retired professors or the economically elite, where a tour group is seen climbing 2500 feet on foot just to get to a desired restaurant.  This two-tiered economic plan, one price for the locals, another for the tourists, brings much needed money into the region in order to properly maintain the natural splendor.  This same policy is implemented at the Chalalan Ecolodge in Bolivia in what’s called eco-tourism, as the tourist money is used to help explain the value of the land and its resources to their indigenous culture while helping to sustain the upkeep and pristine beauty of the region.  Costas Christ observed that while there used to be plenty of empty spaces around the globe that hadn’t been visited, “now it looks like a Jackson Pollard painting.”  While this might be required viewing on all transcontinental flights, reminding prospective tourists that they are “guests” in another country, the film only artificially examines the surface realities, as Vail never digs any deeper to explore the real underlying causes of why tourists tend to be so uniformly disrespectful to the nations that they visit.  Whether it is the economically elite or the more frugal backpacker, both exhibit the same sense of entitlement, where the sole criteria appears to be to have a good time, irrespective of the consequences to others.   

Friday, September 26, 2014

Starred Up

STARRED UP             B-                   
Great Britain  (106 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  David Mackenzie         Official site

A highly acclaimed British prison drama shot by an independent minded Scottish film director, the maker of YOUNG ADAM (2002) and HALLAM FOE (2007), one that uses a grim, ultra realistic style featuring ferocious acting, but at the same time stretches credulity, seemingly in contrast with one another, where many viewers will be scratching their heads wondering why violent criminals are contained in such a seemingly lax prison environment, as so much of the depiction of endless violence inside the prison is simply never contained, where there never seems to be appropriate consequences for obvious violations.  As the film is actually shot in the unused correctional center of HM Prison Maze in Belfast, Northern Ireland, closed since September 29, 2000, the irony is not lost on the viewers, as this was the site of the notorious 1981 Irish hunger strike when ten Irish political prisoners starved themselves to death, including Bobby Sands, who was a Member of Parliament at the time  The reason for his imprisonment was the possession of a handgun, for which he was sentenced to fourteen years in maximum security prison, some of which was spent naked while in solitary confinement, whose life was depicted with stunning clarity by British director Steve McQueen in HUNGER (2008).  This film initially has the feel of authenticity, adapted from a screenplay by Jonathan Asser who worked as a voluntary prison therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth in London, home of some of the country’s most violent criminals.  The title of the film represents the prison terminology used when they transfer a youth offender to an adult prison unit, in this case teenage Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a troubled kid from working class London with a violently abusive past.  However, nothing is known about him in the opening except he is a new prisoner, where the attention to detail is meticulously accurate, where he is forced to strip, his body inspected for contraband, and given a prison uniform to wear.  This begins a long, extended walk in real time that couldn’t be more precisely choreographed, wordlessly unlocking one set of doors while closing and locking the door behind, perhaps asking him to step forward, repeating the process again and again as a guard leads him through an elaborate maze of endless locked doors and empty walkways before finally arriving to his solitary cell.  The degree of locked down order and professionalism maintained in this sequence quickly erodes, where the conditions inside eventually descend into chaos and madness.  While it never reaches the heights of Jacques Audiard’s unflinching, near documentary realism in 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), and is near unintelligible (no subtitles) due to the non-stop use of profanity and heavily accented slang, MacKenzie nonetheless creates a bleak portrait of conflicting prison interests. 

This kid doesn’t waste any time and immediately gets to work melting the handle of his toothbrush where he’s smuggled a razor blade, molding the blade into the handle as a makeshift knife, immediately hiding it in the florescent lighting fixture on the ceiling.  This sequence has a Bressonian feel to it that’s told in a worldless rhythm defined by this particular environmental space, where he calmly measures each move even as internally he is emotionally rocked by this major change in his life.  By morning, he’s already verbally sparring with another large black inmate, where a bit of name calling will likely lead to predictable results, where it appears he intentionally picked this fight, publically, and in front of all the other inmates.  Taking his food to his cell, he lies in wait afterwards, pretending he is sleeping.  When another black prisoner from across the hall walks into his open cell, Eric springs from the bed and viciously attacks him, knocking him out with a single blow, dragging the man to the end of the hallway where the guards can provide medical treatment.  It’s little more than profanity being spewed back and forth between the prisoner and the guards, where no one simply talks, instead they shout and intimidate, where every act is a threat, using unintelligible slang that seems to define an unbalanced prison state of belligerence, where being a little mental can be used to one’s advantage.  By the time the guards enter his cell with riot gear, he fends them off with the broken legs of a wooden desk, using them as clubs, waving them in the air like a maniac.  Even after he’s apparently subdued, he chomps down on a guard’s testicles like a pitbull, eventually leading to a standoff, but only after a prison counselor Oliver (Rupert Friend) insists that he attend group therapy, “I can reach him,” he pleads, seemingly locking heads over the issue with Deputy Warden Hayes (Sam Spruell) who gives his permission.  Unlike Destin Cretton’s equally gut-wrenching Short Term 12 (2013), where there is a clear line between administrators and supervisory staff, not always in agreement but the film adequately explains the differing perspectives, this film makes no attempt whatsoever to provide any rational view of the administrators in charge of the prison, and instead turns them into bigger monsters than the prisoners themselves, modeled apparently after Cruella De Vil, as their criminally heinous acts throughout are nothing less than villainous.  It is surprising, however, to see female guards in an all-male prison facility that is this violent, where the head administrator is a big-bosomed, cruel-intentioned blond woman (Sian Breckin), using Hayes to run interference in the trenches for her. 

It’s a half-hour into the film before we discover a major revelation, curiously revealed by Eric’s improbable exploration into another inmate’s cell on the same wing where he finds a drawing he made as a child crudely showing a young child standing alongside his mother and father, all holding hands, with the inscription, “I Love you daddy.”  Meet Eric’s father, Neville Love, Ben Mendelsohn, an Australian actor from David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), separated from Eric at the age of 5, who adds something of a psychotic presence to an already hysterical prison environment, as his hair-trigger temper and propensity for violence makes him one of the lifers, his sentence extended as he apparently killed another prisoner, where he represents the hardened view of an inmate that will never see the light of day.  Eric, on the other hand, has only five years to serve and he’s free, his Dad reminds him, so he needs to cooperate and keep his hands clean, urging him to listen and follow instructions in therapy, which is little more than anger management sessions, though Eric does eventually acknowledge he was abused by a pedophile at the age of 10, where prisoners may become unhinged and subject to making vicious assaults when verbally provoked, where standing up for yourself isn’t so much a choice but a mandatory prerequisite to staying alive.  Eric, however, has little regard for the rules and remains out of control throughout, trashing his own cell as well as others, assaulting multiple guards, cutting up another inmate’s face, yet has free reign to wander the place at will with little, if any, consequences for his actions.  This defies belief, where the film is not without its flaws and has a clear ideological agenda, pitting the idealistic motives of the “volunteer” unpaid prison therapist, whose unconventional motives suggest his own dark past, against the more corrupt aims of the embattled administration that holds no hope whatsoever in the idea of prisoner rehabilitation, and instead routinely covers up their own treacherous crimes of targeting certain incorrigibles with murder faked to look like suicides.  When Hayes decides to implement such a plan against Eric, his father Neville goes ballistic, forced to fight through a battle royale of prison guards standing in his way to finally get to his son, which despite the authentic tone throughout adamantly strains belief, turning this into a kind of superhero prison drama, where the prisoners continually exert their moral and physical superiority over the continually outmanned and overwhelmed prison system that is crushed by the weight of its own ineptitude.  While the performances throughout are stellar, this grim and tightly edited drama literally makes the audience choke on the suffocating conditions, graphically raw and intense, never allowing the transcendent release of Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), continually tightening the screws, allowing no space to breathe in this taut prison thriller.  

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon)

THE ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON (Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon)     B+               
France  Italy  Spain  (109 mi)  2007  d:  Éric Rohmer

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.  
—Jaques, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, by William Shakespeare, published in 1623

Rohmer often comes across somewhat flat emotionally, over-intellectualizing, planting meanings under subtexts of hidden meanings, much of which is too subtle to even grasp as you’re watching his films.  In other words, lots of talk while not much happens, usually accompanied by an underlying sensuality where sex and love rarely meet while the much discussed subject is approached from a discreet distance.  Rohmer’s films display a detached reserve that some might find slow and languid, as his characters take their time, analyze and over-analyze their actions, as if every look and every gesture had some inner meaning that was apparent to the entire world, but missed, of course, by the one it was intended to arouse.  There’s a dry comic wit on display, but it’s so understated many may not notice it at all.  Certainly all is not what it seems here, as Rohmer has chosen to adapt a 17th century romantic novel by Honoré d'Urfé called L'Astrée, which was set in 5th century Gaul, to be viewed by a 21st century audience with modern sensibilities. 

One should acknowledge flat out that the depiction of a historical costume drama set in a time so long ago with a literary language that feels read, not spoken, will lose more than half the audience who will find it ridiculous.  A theater audience, on the other hand, might be more amenable, but nonetheless, in what is his final film, Rohmer has turned the world at large into a mythical fairy tale, an idyllic paradise where shepherds pass their time playing a flute in the fields while tending to their sheep, while also wooing maidens at every available opportunity.  Dressed in off the shoulder white tunics, the women with long, flowing curly hair, wandering from pasture to wood, this has an Old Testament era feel to it, but the characters here follow the post-Roman, pre-Christian teachings of druids, considered especially learned, and make pilgrimages to visit them from time to time.  Along the way the subject of love is much discussed, and sometimes even sung about.   

It’s hard not to like this film, as it’s so uniquely different from what we’re used to seeing, and there’s literally nothing else out there like it, making it a unique challenge where one develops an affection for the archaic language played so straight.  The film is more about the innocence and purity of love, truth, devotion, fidelity, notions that in the modern world have been altered to such a degree they are nearly unrecognizable.  Rohmer adapts a tale where they still resonated with the characters, where words affected responses, which had immediate impact in their lives.  The Druids also believed in only one God, but the Romans mangled the interpretations to fit their own culture, creating statues for each of their own gods, confusing the populace for generations to come.  There’s a single conversation in the film that clarifies their original intent.  They could just as easily have been talking about how Supreme Court cases have mangled the original intent of the founders of the Constitution, how decades or centuries of misinformation have transformed the views of the public.  The purity of intent becomes the subject of young lovers.   

As Rohmer was 87 at the time of the film’s release, it is interesting to note another film that comes to mind, especially in its languorous pace, Manoel De Olveira’s INQUIETUDE (1998), who was 90 when that film was released, in particular the third section of De Olveira’s triptych, which is a series of three one-act plays combined to form a single narrative, filmed entirely outdoors where Irene Pappas plays an ancient river nymph, which appears set during the times of Greek mythology.  Here similarly Druids and nymphs mix with shepherds and shepherdesses in this bucolic mix of pastoral bliss.  But from the outset, something is not right, as Astréa (Stéphanie Crayencour) catches her guy Céladon (Andy Gillet) kissing another maiden, an act of appeasement meant to please warring families, but causing her to tell him in anger that she never wants to see him again.  Taking her words literally, Céladon believes he has no choice but death, so immediately throws himself into the river and is believed drowned, as there is no sign of him afterwards.  Astréa, of course, has a change of heart, and blames herself mercilessly for losing the love of her life.  But Druid nymphs secretly rescue Céladon and nurse him back to health, where he actually believes he’s died and gone to heaven, as he may as well be in another world, which could just as easily be Valhalla or Tolkien’s Gray Havens.  Uncomfortable with such perfection, Céladon wants to be thrown back into his world where he remains shunned forever from Astréa, believing his devotion to her is abiding by her will when she commanded him to leave her sight.  Despite all rational discourse to the contrary, Céladon lives the life of a hermit hidden deep in the forest away from his true love.  

His reticence is challenged when Astréa joins a pilgrimage to the Druid castle, where Céladon finds Astréa still fast asleep in a state of sensual repose, where Rohmer’s camera lingers over her inert body gazing along with the character who secretly disguises himself as a Druid maiden to remain true to his oath.  This takes on comical dimensions as he continues to stumble all over himself to avoid revealing his true identity, as they immediately become the closest of friends, like The Magic Flute’s Papageno and Papagena, where their flirtatious behavior draws the notice of all except Astréa who is totally smitten by this new Druid maiden.  While remaining chaste and pure may have little relevance in the modern era where sex before marriage is fairly standard, not in the 5th century, where the concept of love retained its original intent, expressed here like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, where Astréa like Venus, the goddess of beauty, retains her immortal aura of innocence and pure love.  Rohmer seems to be implying how far we’ve come in altering (or butchering, much like the Romans) the essence of meaning over time, giving us a before and after snapshot, where the screen reminds us of our Renaissance-like idyllic roots, while our own lives serve as a crass and shallow alteration, reminding us how far we’ve strayed from what was once understood to be the transformative powers of love.