For Reel

And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)
October 24, 2015, 4:49 pm
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Director: Steven Soderbergh
4 Stars
And Everything is Going FineThe lack of an oppressive narrative imprint on And Everything Is Going Fine gives it a certain ghostly quality, as if Spalding Gray himself has returned from the grave to curate his own life story. Of course, to say that the film isn’t “guided” by another’s hand is a misjudgment–actually, it is a monumental feat of editing, both creating a cohesive, compelling narrative and arriving at a certain ethereal truth. The film follows a loosely chronological structure, with Gray’s monologues in the early part of the picture involving his childhood and the relationships he had with his family, and later on his dalliances with college, sex, and so on. What is so haunting about this structure is that the actual filmed elements come from such a vast array of sources. Edits close the gap of decades, and there is a beautiful harmony in the way that images from both Gray’s past and the ostensible “present” work together to arrive at a more complete truth. These filmed elements run the gamut from appearances on The Charlie Rose Show to Gray’s on-stage experimentation with Chumbawamba, and each piece coheres together to create a portrait of a great artist. Touchingly, the film also works as a new monologue–could there possibly be a more fitting tribute to an artist than a worthy emulation of his life’s work?

Aita (2010)
March 30, 2012, 4:10 am
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Director: José María de Orbe

The inspiration for Aita, director José María de Orbe’s gorgeous blend of documentary and fiction filmmaking, was a poem by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. It speaks of a house as a witness to life, versing, for instance, “New houses are deader than old ones, for their walls are of stone or steel, but not of men.” A centuries-old Basque home is the centerpiece of Aita, and, indeed, it teems with life, reminiscing of its own history as if sentient. Like a ghost story of sorts, when the lights are out and the elderly caretaker is not present, decomposed nitrate films flicker on the walls of the decaying estate. In these scenes, Orbe presents a memorable interaction between two aged works of art, and in doing so rouses interest in the ways that our own histories are shared and stored. The editing rhythm of the picture reflects such a fascination, as each shot lingers for seconds longer than what is traditionally expected – Orbe is not only fascinated by what the characters do while on screen, but in the emptiness of the environment that they had inhabited moments before. In addition to the nightly hauntings and the rich summation of what the maintenance work entails, the caretaker and a local priest engage in a series of highly metaphysical conversations about life after death. One of them posits, for instance, that hearing is the last sense to go after death, and that, although the brain doesn’t process noises any longer, the act of listening remains when the rest has gone. Modest as it seems, Aita is one of the most beautiful, profoundly meditative viewing experiences of recent years.

The Christening (2010)
March 30, 2012, 3:35 am
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Director: Marcin Wrona

Like Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, The Christening is a brute of a tear-jerker. Early on, the two friends mutually engage in a Haka war dance, a definitive display of their supreme masculinity, as if revving their engines before succumbing to heart-felt conversations about love, family, and friendship. The set-up is recognizable – two friends, who once were employed by a crime lord – are reunited. One, Janek, has just returned from the army, and the other, Michal, has settled down with a family. It is revealed that Michal has a perpetual debt owed to their former boss, and as his resources begin to run out, he fears that his wife will be left a widow. The way that these characters transform – Michal becomes more unpleasant as he suffers under the weight of his anxiety, and Janek begins to show greater emotional complexities after having learned of the severity of the situation – is what makes the picture work, despite its nagging penchant for dwelling in its overblown theatrics. Director Marcin Wrona gets carried away with the sex and violence (frankly, everything involving the mob is overstated to the point of parody), but he knows how to build to a moment and, in the end, its hard to resist The Christening‘s inevitable, but nonetheless affecting conclusion.

Back in Your Arms (2010)
March 28, 2012, 4:26 am
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Director: Kristijonas Vildziunas

Lithuania’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, Back in Your Arms swept the country’s own Silver Cranes, earning the prizes for picture, director, and the four acting categories. Set just before the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War thriller follows a young Lithuanian American woman who comes to West Berlin to study. Her father, long-absent, contacts her from East Berlin and wishes to reunite, however she suspects that he might be in the custody of the KGB. The picture is of interest on occasion – as the daughter, Elžbieta Latėnaitė is magnetic and, though vulnerable, refreshingly intelligent as a woman in a genre that is often male-centric. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the performance of her on-screen father, Andrius Bialobžeskis, who spends the entirety of the picture looking merely despondent. When he is on screen, accompanied by Stasi agents better suited for a Bond movie, the understated mood piece becomes tedious. Nonetheless, the period detail is well accomplished and, if much of the proceedings are utterly forgettable, the climax involves an emotional payoff that almost redeems the mediocrity.

Black Venus (2010)
March 9, 2012, 11:00 pm
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Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Having found international success with The Secret of the Grain – which told the story of a Franco-Arabic family establishing a restaurant in a port town – director Abdellatif Kechiche has embarked on a drastically more radical course in documenting the immigrant experience in Europe. Saartjie Baartman, a slave from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, was brought to London in 1810 by Hendrick Cezar, a master/manager who exhibited her as the “Hottentot Venus” in carnival freak shows. These performances are reproduced in what might be their accurate duration: she growls in a cage as the act begins, and once Cezar bravely releases and tames her, she begins a tribal dance for the paying audience and invites them to touch her enlarged buttocks. Humiliating as it is, things get worse when she’s passed on to an opportunistic bear-tamer, is studied by scientists who are determined to examine her genitalia against her wishes, and later falls into prostitution. New-comer Yahima Torres plays Baartman, in what is nothing if not a physically demanding performance. So much so, in fact, that the picture raises all kinds of questions about exploitation. Kechiche’s condemnation of racism and misogyny is clear enough, however what he is trying to say about the audience is more evasive. In a court trial, Baartman defends her show as performance art, despite a few enraged British humanitarians who cry for her emancipation. Their hypocrisy and condescension is depicted almost grotesquely. Is Kechiche punishing his own audience? It is not clear. Whatever the case, one cannot dismiss the picture’s power, and, despite some critics’ reservations about its length, it is provocative enough to warrant such an expansive telling, as trying as it might be to endure.

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
February 26, 2012, 9:41 pm
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Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

It is startling to watch the latest import from Studio Ghibli in an American multiplex. Prior to the feature, one is bombarded with trailer after trailer of children’s fare, often riddled with the same lame jokes, pop culture references, and a homogenized style of computer animation. Conversely, the calm serenity with which fantasy is treated in Ghibli’s best work – take, for instance, that magical sequence when Totoro appears at the bus station – sets an enchanting pace that caters to the imaginations of the young and the old alike. While The Secret World of Arrietty was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki – the masterful storyteller of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke – veteran animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s first effort is worthy of the studio’s impressive track record. The picture is an adaptation of the 1952 Mary Norton book, The Borrowers, in which a miniature family lives underneath the floorboards of a house and “borrows” items from their human hosts. Early on in the film, Arrietty embarks on a “borrowing” with her father, and the sequence is a masterpiece of sound editing. Noises shift in tone and volume when cutting between the subjective perspective of the borrowers and the objective reality of the room as the audience, full-sized, understands it, and, more refreshingly considering the loud, cynical work of the lesser animation houses, Yonebayashi makes the most out of silence, contributing to the suspense with a nearly-noiseless soundtrack, containing only small footsteps and an ambient hum.

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)
January 15, 2012, 7:41 am
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Director: Raúl Ruiz

Weaving a labyrinthine narrative of tangential flashbacks-within-flashbacks, wherein the secondary characters of what has come before become the key figures of intrigue in their own stories, Mysteries of Lisbon, the last feature Chilean master Raúl Ruiz completed before his death, casts a spell that is easy to become lost in. And what a rapturous place this is to lose your bearings. To explain the intricacies of the plot – which is nothing if not convoluted – would be a challenge I am unworthy of pursuing, but at the center of the proceedings is an orphan boy who early on learns that his mother is a countess. “Center” is the appropriate word, as the boy’s identity is obscured somewhere within all of the love-triangles and jealous rages that are byproducts of his mere existence. With cinematographer André Szankowski, Ruiz achieves an aesthetic that recalls Ophüls, with an ever-moving camera that gracefully shifts from room-to-room, as well as surrealistic touches accomplished with a split-diopter lens and extreme low and high angles. As easy as it is to lose grasp of who is who – these are characters who often assume other identities – one gradually becomes accustomed to waiting for key revelations, which not only reframe the narrative but illuminate the often confounding behavior of the characters. Fittingly, the film concludes with still more, and even bigger questions, once again evoking the transcendent flexibility of purpose that permeates through every frame of the picture.

The Arbor (2010)
January 13, 2012, 8:05 am
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Director: Clio Barnard

Andrea Dunbar, a self-educated playwright brought up in a drunken housing project of Bradford, England, rose to popularity in 1977 with a play entitled “The Arbor”, which she had sketched into a school notebook with green ink at the age of fifteen. Her success carried on to “Rita, Sue and Bob Too”, later adapted into a feature in 1987, before dying of a brain hemorrhage on a barroom floor at the age of twenty-nine. She had three children with three different men out of wedlock and Lorraine, her half-Pakistani first, becomes the center of the The Arbor‘s second half. It is a bleak world, indeed, and as the tragedy unfolds, it becomes clear that each day spent in the environment welds another bar into the prison cell. There is little room for escape from the titular Arbor – even having created a spatial distance, the emotional scars resonate not only throughout a lifetime, but through generations. Director Clio Barnard stages the material by having actors lip-synch to pre-recorded interviews and perform pieces of Dunbar’s plays – a method known as “verbatim theater” – which creates a sense of foggy communal memory, painfully recalling a number of lives that were utterly devastated by circumstance.

Film socialisme (2010)
January 13, 2012, 3:16 am
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Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Scathingly reviewed by mainstream American critics (Roger Ebert, Todd McCarthy, and Christy Lemire spoke as though they had been violently assaulted by the picture), Film Socialisme is Jean-Luc Godard’s evasive new feature which, for English audiences, arrives with “Navajo” subtitles (a noun-heavy, playful vernacular resembling Twitter-speak). After one viewing, I wouldn’t dare attempt to rationalize the bulk of it (the best analysis of the film can be found here), but to be of the disposition that to be opaque is to be trash is disconcerting for the state of criticism. Not a Godard enthusiast myself, I found the film to be significantly more tolerable than a number of his pictures, if only because his penchant for preaching is minimized by the elasticity of meaning that one can mine from the subtitles. His curiosity appears to be that, as a society transitions into the digital age, what does that mean for communication and, more specifically, what is lost to history? Though for great bulks of the picture it is a challenge to decipher this root, other images, such as a woman attempting to mimic the meow of kittens on a YouTube video, carry with them a sublime poetry that couldn’t be any clearer.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010)
January 9, 2012, 11:40 pm
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Director: Craig McCall

In his collaborations with the Archers, Jack Cardiff made his claim as being the best color cameraman who ever lived. When revisiting a work like The Red Shoes, it is evident that the excellence of his craft remains unsurpassed. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff discusses those films and beyond, including Cardiff’s directorial work starting in the 1960s and, most surprisingly, his work on features like Rambo: First Blood Part II. The talking heads include such figures as Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, and, of course, Martin Scorsese, and the enthusiasm with which they speak about his work is intoxicating. Most admirable about the picture is the way in which it specifically acknowledges what he added to the director’s vision and to the glamour of the stars – Kathleen Byron, who is driven insane in Black Narcissus, credits half of the impact of her performance to Cardiff’s lighting of her face. As a tribute to the artist, the film is an admirable feat, however it disappointingly reveals little about Cardiff the man, and the film-set anecdotes, while entertaining, don’t necessarily add anything to the appreciation of his photography. Nonetheless, this is a pleasant diversion for movie lovers.