Tuesday, October 30, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival Report Card

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2011, 90 min.)
"A brain-twisting and ultimately profound meditation on performance and the nature of intimacy from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek filmmaker behind 2009’s Dogtooth."
Lisa's Grade: A-
Michael's Grade: A-

Argentinian Lesson (Wojciech Staroń, Poland, 2011, 61 min.)
"This poingnant and exquisitely filmed documentary follows the Polish filmmaker’s son who befriends a remarkable young neighbor-girl."
Lisa's Grade: A
Michael's Grade: A-

Barbara (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2012, 2012, 105 min.)
"A new peak in Stasi-themed cinema, Petzold's political thriller-cum-medical melodrama may also represent a career best for Germany's new master of suspense."
Lisa's Grade: A
Michael's Grade: A

Caesar Must Die (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy, 2012, 76 min.)
"This engaging Italian docu-drama from the Taviani Brothers details the preparations for a prison-set performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar."
Lisa's Grade: B+
Michael's Grade: B

Clandestine Childhood (Benjamin Ávila, Argentina, 2011, 112 min.)
"Argentina's Oscar nominee, Ávila's semi-fictionalized remembrances of adolescence combine handsome production values, unexpected comic-book illustrations - and a real dearth of originality otherwise."
Michael's Grade: C+

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (Edward Burns, United States, 2012, 99 min.)
"Despite a winning cast, Burns's family melodrama sinks under the heavy weight of exposition and cliché."
Lisa's Grade: C
Michael's Grade: C

Flower Buds (Zdeněk Jiráský, Czech Republic, 2011, 91 min.)
"An exploration of Czech sexuality that moves into the field of socialist nostalgia, Jiráský's richly photographed feature largely avoids the traps of quirk and miserablism."
Lisa's Grade: B+
Michael's Grade: B

Germania (Maximiliano Schonfeld, Argentina, 2012, 75 min.)
"Produced with the support of the Hubert Bals Fund, Schonfeld's feature debut brings a lot of Tarr and a touch of Apichatpong to its Old Testament treatment of plague and incest among Argentina's Volga German minority."
Lisa's Grade: A-
Michael's Grade: A-

Headshot (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand, 2011, 105 min.)
"Thai Renaissance star Pen-ek's high-concept thriller boasts striking cinematography and sound design, but falls short of his better, more personal work."
Lisa's Grade:  B
Michael's Grade:  B-

Here and There (Antonio Méndez Esparza, Mexico, 2012, 110 min.)
"Making use of an elegant long-take style, this novelistic Mexican art film captures a few years in the life of a family whose musician patriarch has returned home after several years in the US."
Lisa's Grade: A
Michael's Grade: A

In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2012, 89 min.)
"An ingenious and often funny mobius-strip triptych from self-referential Korean auteur Hong Sang Soo and the actress Isabelle Hupert."
Lisa's Grade: A-
Michael's Grade: A

Lost Embrace (Daniel Burman, Argentina, 2004, 2004, 99 min.)
"A comic family melodrama set in a Buenos Aires mall, the middle installment of Daniel Burman's informal 'Ariel' trilogy pairs rapid-fire dialogue and vertiginous hand-held close-ups."
Lisa's Grade: B
Michael's Grade: B-

Mar del Plata (Ionathan Klajman and Sebastián Dietsch, Argentina, 2012, 82 min.)
"This charming, low-key buddy comedy about two bickering friends who find romance at a seaside resort is occasionally marred by unnecessary narrative hijinks."
Lisa's Grade: B
Michael's Grade: B-

Paradise: Faith (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2012, 113 min.)
"Combining Von Trier-esque schlock melodrama and Bunuelian dark comedy Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl paints an ambivalent portrait of a woman whose religious devotion shades into perversion."
Lisa's Grade: B+
Michael's Grade: B+

Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2012, 120 min.)
"Seidl's unblinking camera watches as a seemingly sensible Austrian woman searches for human connection on an African sex safari."
Lisa's Grade: B+
Michael's Grade: B+

Salt (Diego Rougier, Argentina, 2011, 112 min.)
"Despite slick production values and a promising premise, this Argentine homage to the Spaghetti-western suffers from poor pacing and tonal confusion."
Lisa's Grade: C-
Michael's Grade: D+

Sister (Ursula Meier, Switzerland, 2012, 97 min.)
"An affecting if derivative Dardenne-esqe coming-of-age melodrama set in a Swiss ski resort - a 400 Blows at higher elevations."
Lisa's Grade: B-
Michael's Grade: B+

Surviving Life (Jan Švankmajer, Czech Republic, 2010, 105 min.)
"A kind of psychoanalytic detective story, the latest from surrealist Czech animator Jan Švankmajer interrogates the process of symbolic interpretation."
Lisa's Grade: B
Michael's Grade: B

All descriptions written by Lisa K. Broad, except for Barbara's, Clandestine Childhood's, Flower Buds' and Germania's, which were authored by Michael J. Anderson.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Here and There

Awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes' Semaine de la Critique parallel selection, Antonio Méndez Esparza's Here and There (Aquí y allá, 2012) sketches a few short years in the life of a rural Mexican nuclear family, following the return of patriarch Pedro (Pedro De los Santos) after years spent working in a New York kitchen and supermarket. Méndez divides his narrative into four discrete parts, "The Return," "Here," "The Horizon" and "There," with each treating key junctures in the life of the under-class family following an unmarked temporal interval. The filmmaker's imposition of this epic, novelistic structure contributes to the film's larger project of constructing a humanistic universality, one that exceeds a simple social-realist schemata. Here and There's introduction of a second, younger couple likewise adds to this effect by de-centering the narrative and broadening its scope. Indeed, Méndez looks to portray the existential condition of his Guerrero villagers as their adult males are forced North of the Border to seek the financial betterment of their families - often to mixed results - time and again. That is, the Mexican-American-Spanish co-production, from the perspective of the U.S. spectator, depicts the existence of the wealthier nation's itinerant laborers and service workers both before they leave and after they return home to their geographically and emotionally estranged families.

Pedro's first-act return indeed engenders a spectrum of responses among his wife and two daughters, with the adolescent Lorena (Lorena Guadalupe Pantaleón Vázquez) slowest to accept her long-absent father. Here and There's epic temporality, however, allows for personal reconciliation, which in Pedro and Lorena's relationship comes in the form of a musical tutoring session. It is at this point worth noting that Pedro pursues his musical ambitions (with the hometown Copa Kings) upon returning to his mountain village - Pedro's music is heard both diegetically and non-diegetically, and shown in the form of rehearsal, a commissioned gig and even a private, lightly comedic show for his wife and daughters - while his younger, teenage counterpart practices his break dancing and the latter's love interest performs in a folk dancing group. Méndez's multi-generational protagonists, in other words, share an artistic avocation, which in part helps Here and There advance beyond social realist stereotypes and the polemical trap of a pitiable other.

While Here and There is in this sense lightly anti-social realist - Méndez's subject to be sure still very much conforms to expectations of this mode, with its intrinsic critique of the Mexican medical system especially conspicuous - it is much more assiduous in its avoidance of melodrama, which is to say Latin America's quintessential televisual mode of address. Méndez does this by opting for existential struggle over bathetic suffering - as exemplified by the conclusion to part two's emergency C-section - and even more, by withholding many of the narrative's more dramatic encounters. Here and There achieves this both through its elliptical structure, with key incidents happening after the cut and even between the film's four parts, as well as within Méndez's occluded long framings. Among the most telling applications of the filmmaker's strategy occurs with Pedro's initial return from New York, where his dramatic reunion with his wife is presented at an extreme remove from the static camera. In this opening scene, Méndez makes his anti-melodramatic, which is to say his counter-cinematic intentions known.

Méndez works consistently though not exclusively within a long-take idiom, with tighter, intimate compositions and even shot/reverse-shot passages interspersed with elegant plan séquences and long mobile framings. Throughout these disparate strategies, Here and There maintains an emphasis on off-camera space that elegantly duplicates the film's structuring thematic of the immediate and local here and the invisible, referential there. Indeed, in Méndez's departures from social realism and melodrama, Here and There discovers a richly contextual idiom for making Mexican art cinema, one it should be added that gently references European and Middle Eastern sources including the Antonioni of the film's emptied final sequence. Socially and economically conscious but neither pandering nor miserablist, deeply felt but gracefully lower key, Here and There is one of this year's major achievements in the annals of contemporary world art cinema, and without question will prove one of the very best films to screen at the 35th Starz Denver Film Festival.

This piece was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Here and There will screen at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Wednesday, November 7th at 1:45 and 6:45 PM, and Friday, November 9th at 4:15 PM. Here and There does not currently have an American distributor.

Friday, October 26, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Focus on National Cinema: Argentina (Argentinian Lesson & Mar del Plata)

Our current favorite for personal discovery of the 2012 Starz Denver Film Festival, Polish cinematographer and documentarian Wojciech Staroń's Argentinian Lesson (Argentyńska lekcja, 2011), a medium-length, non-fictional follow-up to the filmmaker's 1998 Siberian Lesson, displays an exceptionally deep commitment to the domain of the visual and to the medium's sovereign objective to capture images of poetic grace and grave physical beauty. Staroń's invigorating approach becomes clear from his rain-soaked, elegantly indistinct opening set-up, shot as always by the unseen documentary filmmaker in hand-held 16mm, and his consequent, rhythmically alternating visuals of his travelling wife and two children and of the verdant, overcast and extremely rural Argentinian countryside into which they will temporarily settle - for Staroń's wife's work as a government-dispatched Polish language instructor. At first focusing upon his pre-pubescent son Janek's experience of their trans-Atlantic move, Staroń rapidly shifts his attention to eleven year-old neighbor Marcia Majcher (pictured) - the discovery of this discovery - who over the course of the film's near sixty minutes, in addition to studying Polish and earning top academic marks, builds mud bricks, constructs a kiosk (demonstrating her considerable woodworking skills) and performs manual field labor; that is, Marcia does vastly more than her share to help out her economically disadvantaged nuclear family - more it would seem than even her mother and older brother. Janek serves as a near constant companion for the beautiful young local of Polish descent, as does his invisible cameraman father, who, like his son, seems invariably in awe of the film's female subject. The elder Staroń, to be sure, provides a palpable, if unseen personal presence, thanks not only to the intelligence and sense of feeling behind his lyrical selection of images, but also in his facilitation of Marcia and Janek's rail trip to visit the girl's itinerant laborer father. In their journey, we see her lovely visage behind a foggy train window, underclass child riders whom Marcia notes are travelling without shoes, and finally Marcia's emotional reunion with her father in his shack-like hovel. As Marcia is about to return home with Janek and Wojciech, her father uncharacteristically acknowledges the filmmaker to remind him of how difficult things are for his family. In Staroń's deeply moving Argentinian Lesson, the weight that Marcia's father feels rests squarely on his remarkable daughter's very capable shoulders. 

Approaching much of their slacker comedy material in a manner diametrically opposed to Staroń's observational aesthetic, first-time directors Ionathan Klajman (who also authored the screenplay) and Sebastián Dietsch instead display a Wes Anderson-style predilection for explanation in their mostly successful Mar del Plata (2012). Klajman and Dietsch's debut centers on a pair of one-time friends, Joaquin (Pablo G. Pérez, pictured left) and David (Gabriel Zayat, right), who despite their mutual distaste for one another, set off for a weekend vacation in the eponymous resort city. Pérez and Zayat demonstrate their comedic acumen from the opening set-piece, with their uneasy interaction culminating in a CD being tossed out the car window and the steering wheel commandeered in response. Klajman and Dietsch thusly establish the comedic template for Mar del Plata, with Joaquin and David remaining at one another's throats on the beach (as David ungraciously refuses Joaquin use of his boogie board) and at dinner. In the latter interaction, Klajman and Dietsch inaugurate one of their better gags with David confronting a plagiarist dinner guest (Pablo Caramelo), who along with the lead, will set off to a bookstore to prove his innocence - before throwing a punch at his persistent accuser. David, like Joaquin, also finds romance during their weekend getaway, with his first seaside date (with the beautiful Daniela Nirenberg) unfolding within a particularly lengthy split-screen set-up. Though less graceful than the film's longer compositions (including David's one-take approach of Nirenberg's Leticia in a Mar del Plata nightclub), Klajman and Dietsch's hyperactive visuals work in this instance, as they will likewise when the filmmakers project a tennis score in the corner of the screen. Less successful are Joaquin's diegetically disruptive monologues into the camera and Mar del Plata's Instagram flashbacks - though not nearly enough to discount Pérez, Zayat and Caramelo's effective comedic work.

This piece was co-authored by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Argentinian Lesson will screen at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Friday, November 2nd at 4:45 PM and Sunday, November 4th at 11:45 AM. Mar del Plata screens on Monday, November 5th at 2:00 PM, Tuesday, November 6th at 7:00 PM and Wednesday, November 7th at 9:15 PM.

Monday, October 22, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Alps / Caesar Must Die / Sister

Awarded the "Golden Osella" for best original screenplay at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, Yorgos Lanthimos's Alps (2011), from a Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou scenario, figures to be one of the stronger and certainly, one of the more singular offerings at this year's Starz Denver showcase. Succeeding Lanthimos's (b. 1973) artistically major, Un certain regard Cannes prize-winner and Oscar-nominated Dogtooth (2009), Alps brings the same pervasive absurdity and anti-naturalistic psychology to its portrayal of a four-person firm of professional doppelgängers, the "Alps" of the title, who for the bereaved, will take the place of their lost loved ones. In this sense a film that, similar to Dogtooth, offers itself up obliquely to an analysis of Greek or even European identity - as a death-saturated work that the privileges the ersatz, the copy - Lanthimos's latest, nevertheless, is even more concerned with providing a novel perspective on the nature of acting and performance in cinema that follows from the same narrative discourse. Lanthimos and Filippou indeed underline their thematic emphasis by consistently signposting the acting profession in their citations of contemporary screen stars and by repeating lines of dialogue as the film's 'actors' transition invisibly from rehearsal to performance. As they do so, Alps invites its active, modernist art-cinema spectators to consider what it means for the actor to be authentic and to adequately fill the role, and even more whether it might not be the case that there is a greater cathartic power for the performer than there is for the intended recipient of the fiction. Certainly this seems to hold for instant Lanthimos axiom Aggeliki Papoulia, who transgressively inhabits her various parts to the point of sleeping with her employer (an act that Lanthimos characteristically shoots with extraordinary tactility) and invading their homes. Together with Dogtooth and Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg (2010) for which Lanthimos served as producer and male lead, Alps confirms its young director as the most distinctive new voice in Greek cinema since the 1970s emergence of the late Theo Angelopoulos.

The surprise victor at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and Italy’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire, 2012) presents an engaging testament to the transformative power of art and performance. Directed by veteran filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani – joint recipients of the Maria and Tommaso Maglione Italian Filmmaker Award at this year’s Starz Denver Film Festival – Caesar Must Die is set in the Rebibbia high-security prison in Rome, where a group of inmates prepare to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Mixing conventions drawn from fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, the Taviani brothers chart the expansion of the prisoners’ closed world.  In a preponderance of medium close-up framings that attend to the picture's scripted dialogue, Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano, and Giaovanni Arcuri remake themselves into Cassius, Brutus, and Caesar respectively. At the same time, they also undergo another more subtle transformation from prison inmates into Shakespearean actors, creating more self-assured, theatrical versions of their own personas. Their intellectual and emotional development is echoed and reinforced at the visual level by the filmmakers’ elegant treatment of cinematic space. The structure of Caesar Must Die is made up of series of rehearsals rendered in stark black-and-white and staged within the impersonal spaces of the prison, culminating in an ecstatic live, color-footage performance. However, over the course of the film the Taviani brothers progressively break with the conventions of documentary style, introducing scripted interactions between the leading actors, more expressive camera movements, and a broader more carefully composed, longer view of the action. In so doing, they effectively open up the walls of Rebibbia, creating an immersive fictional environment that is at once vibrant and fleeting.
Joining Caesar Must Die as a 2012 Berlin prize-winner (earning a special Silver Bear for its forty-one year-old female director, Ursula Meier), Sister (2012) or L'Enfant d'en haut, as the French-Swiss co-production was originally titled, is no less predicated on a fictitious, self-created alternative reality than those witnessed in its two performance-centered counterparts. In Sister, however, this fiction is employed within a naturalistic narrative architecture and for the principle purpose of shock, making any more said inappropriate within this context. What can and must be noted of Sister, a ski-resort 400 Blows (1959) that reaches for a similarly existential ethos, is that its French's title is closer to the spirit of Meier's work, with the filmmaker's narrative and identificatory camera work built around the film's twelve year-old lead Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein). The cinema of fellow French diasporates Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne provides another social-realist touchstone for Meier's latest, with their observational aesthetic and rhythmic cutting patterns employed as Simon expertly exercises his criminal trade. Claire Denis cinematographer Agnès Godard, as The Guardian's Jacques Mandelbaum has intelligently noted, vividly juxtaposes the blown-out, bright-white sunshine of the upper class ski-slopes with the overcast (under-class) valleys where Simon and his eponymous older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) struggle parent-less in their dispiriting tower flat. All of this is to suggest that Meier has created a work of purpose that deserves its modest recognition.

This piece was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Alps, which is being distributed in the U.S. by Kino Lorber, screens at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Friday, November 9th at 2:00 PM and 9:30 PM, and Saturday, November 10th at 7:00 PM. Caesar Must Die screens once at the SDFF, on Saturday, November 10th at 7:45 PM. Sister, which like Caesar Must Die will be distributed in North America by recent start-up Adopt Films, will play in Denver on Friday, November 2nd at 7:30 PM and Saturday, November 3rd at 4:15 PM.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: In Another Country

In Another Country (Da-reun na-ra-e-suh, 2012), leading Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo's thirteenth feature in seventeen years and his third to screen in competition at the Cannes Film Festival (in eight appearances), maintains the writer-director's career-defining and spanning predilection for multi-part narratives with a three movement work that centers on the great Isabelle Huppert as three separate French visitors named Anne. As Huppert passes from film director to adulteress (in a heavily subjective, dream-centered segment) to wronged wife in Hong's three discrete parts - the filmmaker frames each with self-reflexive voice-over from the young female screenwriter (Jung Yoo-mi) who invents Huppert's diverging incarnations, out of an impulse to escape from her real-world familial concerns - Hong preserves the same coastal Mohang setting and supporting cast with whom all three Anne's will come to interact. That is, in her separate identities, Huppert's characters will encounter and spend time with a maritally unfaithful filmmaker colleague/stranger (Kwon Hae-hyo) and his very pregnant and justifiably jealous wife (Moon So-ri); a local female twenty-something who time and again hospitably supplies Huppert with an umbrella; and a muscular lifeguard (Yoo Jun-sang) whom she asks, to no avail, for the location of a lighthouse (in all three parts). Hong, in other words, creates a continuous narrative setting, a unified diegetic world - with one object pointedly carrying over from parts two to three - which Huppert's respective Anne's will each inhabit and explore.

Through In Another Country's tripartite organization, Hong effectively produces a metaphor for his broader body of work, which in the tradition of Piet Mondrian and the director's spiritual master, French director Eric Rohmer, adheres to a discrete or closed system. In Hong's particular case, the key elements - to Mondrian's primary colors, negative white or off-white spaces and thick black lines - tend to include a mid-to-late thirty-something filmmaker, typically on holiday in a seaside location, where he spends most of his waking time drinking, conversing and screwing; male and female friends, including at least one younger, romantically dissatisfied female lead, who often maintains a professional or institutional connection to the director; and, aesthetically speaking, single-shot sequences comprised of conspicuous moments of stasis, panning set-ups that alternate between two speakers and the occasional re-framing zoom. While the Huppert-centered In Another Country therefore represents some form of break from the more conventional Hong system (though it does still adhere strongly to Hong's visual schemata) the director's latest again serves to allegorize the theme-and-variation structure that heretofore has spread out across the outstanding Korean director's corpus. This is to say that In Another Country translates Hong's broader, closed method of practice into a discrete single-film form, with each part analogous to a full feature.

In Another Country of course also represents yet another in a line departures from the two-part structures that served as the director's most recognizable signature from his masterpiece The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) on through to his superlative Woman on the Beach (2006). In these films, as programmer and critic James Quandt has very adroitly pointed out, one can see the split (North and South) identity of the Korean nation as it is portrayed in a set of narratives that though they parallel and even mirror one another, nonetheless remain divided. In Another Country, on the other hand, belongs to a more recent phase in the director's body of work, one that began especially with the Parisian-set Night and Day (2008), which though it still keys on repetition, seeks instead new forms of organization - like Night and Day's Rohmerian diaristic structure or once again In Another Country's three-part division. Though the filmmaker continues in these films to portray the same feckless Korean male and his outspoken feminine counterpart (see the filmmaker and his wife of In Another Country), which is to say though he extends his depiction of Korea's dysfunctional masculinity and at times unruly femininity, he does so through forms that speak less to the broader implications of national identity, than to the aesthetic sources of his art - which true to the inter-texts of Night and Day and In Another Country, are French in nature. (In fact, one might even say of In Another Country that while the film continues to identify the shortcomings of the Korean male in particular, its primary parallel focus has become the French, rather than the Korean woman, with Huppert providing a multi-faceted, emblematic depiction of Gallic womanhood.)

Huppert of course is the catalyzing factor, as was Paris in Night and Day, in identifying Hong's latest as French in its artistic orientation. (Hong as always is the most French of Korean directors.) However, it is Eric Rohmer, again, who provides not only the conversational holiday idiom to which the director's latest adheres, but also a conceptual source for the Korean film's multi-part organization in his Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987) and the tripartite Rendezvous in Paris (1995); as well as the personal Hong favorite, Rohmer's supreme masterpiece The Green Ray (1986), which In Another Country will subtly reference. With regard to the latter, Hong succeeds in evoking the Rohmer picture in Huppert's inquiries about a small lighthouse (cf. Rohmer's eponymous ray and Saint-Jean-de-Luz seaside location), her lonely perambulations and solitary gazes toward the expansive water, and even the religious content that appears in a Buddhist shrine and Huppert's consequent discussion with a monk. Ultimately, though, In Another Country reaches its own romantic epiphany, which expressly lacks both the transformation of The Green Ray's concluding set-piece and also its the parallel religious implication. This is to say that though Hong references Rohmer, he very much makes his inspiration his own.

Most of all, still speaking of the film in its Green Ray context, there is the lack of verbal expressivity that is common to both works. In Hong's film, the inability to express oneself comes not from his characters' personalities or states of mind, but rather from their imperfect ability to communicate in a shared English language, which in the case of the Korean film provides a number of immediately pleasurable comedic exchanges. Among the most memorable, certainly, are those that feature Yoo's semi-fluent lifeguard, who in all three parts invites Huppert to visit his tent, before awkwardly offering his tiny residence as a gift. In parts one and three, Huppert's Anne accepts the former invitation with the first Anne being greeted by an impromptu musical performance, presented in an extreme-long, occluded framing, and the third by more intimate exchange - and an appropriately more restricted shot choice. Yoo's character, it remains to be said, provides much of the easy pleasure of a film that for the English viewer is nothing if not accessible. Indeed, with its effectively drawn supporting comedic players, its dialogue-centered comedy that relies disproportionately on its spectators' comprehension of the English language and most of all, Huppert's presence, Hong at long last may have made a film that will provide him with some minute measure of American commercial success. At the very least, he has made another in a long, if perhaps only modestly variably line of first-rate art house entertainments.

In Another Country, which will be released theatrically in the US by Kino Lorber, screens at the Starz Denver Film Festival Friday, November 2 at 6:45 PM; Saturday, November 3 at 10:00 PM and Monday, November 5 at 1:45 PM.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ten Years Older: Víctor Erice's Lifeline (2002)

Produced as part of the two-film Ten Minutes Older project, a set of omnibus features that premiered at the 2002 Cannes film festival, Víctor Erice's ten-minute Lifeline (Alumbramiento) represents one of the cinema's most concentrated and philosophically expansive ruminations on the nature and meaning of time - which is to say the core substance of the art form. Prefaced along with the rest of Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet by Marcus Aurelius's Meditations words - "Time is a river, the irresistible flow all created things. One thing no sooner comes into view than it is hurried past and another takes its place. Only to be swept away in turn." - Erice's short, black-and-white masterwork opens with the piercing, acousmatic cry of a newborn, followed in rhythmic succession by on-camera set-ups of the sleeping infant, his unconscious mother and a small Madonna statue. Returning to the child, a heart-shaped stain begins to spread through his white cotton garments, introducing a rudimentary form of temporally-based suspense as Erice dissolves to a second short passage.

Here, Erice showcases a pre-adolescent boy as he sketches a wrist watch on his upper arm, thereby signalling the film's thematic focus: time. So too can this subject be deciphered on the soundtrack early on, with the clicking of a pendulum adding to the crowing rooster that accompanied the first appearance of the infant. As the short film progresses, we are given further audio-visual access to this theme, with a dripping faucet marking not only the work's evanescent subject matter, but also the infant's apparently perilous condition. (Lifeline in this sense seeks to focalize time in much the same fashion that the brilliant The Quince Tree Sun [1992] does light.)

The child of this second sequence will further prove essential to the film's temporal rhetoric in that he provides an another instantiation of the film's catalog of generations and ages, following the mother and infant, and with two older men (who sit in a photo-filled drawing room) presented in the short wordless scene to follow. The boy's gesture, more complexly, also introduces a frozen form of temporality that finds more obvious expression in the aforesaid photos, and in a newspaper headline dating to the twenty-eighth day of June 1940, or two days before Erice's birth. The newspaper, La Nueva Espana, an Austurian publication - Erice was born in the neighboring Basque Country - depicts Nazi soldiers on the French-Basque border, which is to say the condition into which both the film's infant and Erice were born. In this respect, Lifeline is a film about personal history and historical time - with additional references made to Christian tradition (or the West's religious history), from the snake slithering among the fallen apples to the Virgin statue - as much as it is about the suspenseful moment-to-moment temporal sequence that the child's unacknowledged injury produces.

With regard to the photos that hang on the parlor wall, Erice highlights a portrait of workers at El Paraiso, a place of business in Havana, with his camera slowly moving between the temporally fixed workers. The location of the portrait becomes additionally significant when Erice consequently shows four village children playing in a parked automobile that also sports Cuban plates. Within the 1940 context of the short's setting, this pairing of geographical references serves to position the film's subjects as pro-Republican, inasmuch as the island nation contributed scores of soldiers to combat Franco and his allies. The memory of the Civil War, which we must be reminded also haunts the director's debut masterpiece of personal history, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), indeed returns within Lifeline, with the short's one-legged soldier providing an even more conspicuous reference. This is to say that Lifeline is a work of the past and remembrance, lost time, as much as it is about its subjects' present, or lived temporal experience.

To return to the latter, Erice's film proceeds with images of the village population, who again spread across the age and gender spectrum, as they perform their daily mundane rituals in a series of acts which though temporal in nature, feel almost timeless in their actualization: a woman sews clothes for the infant Luisin, and another kneads bread; one man sharpens a blade, while a second thrashes in is field; the crippled young adult wraps a string around his toe, while a young, barefoot girl sits alone rocking on a swing. In other words, Erice's villagers pass time participating in mundane rituals - even as, as we are often made to remember, the infant child continues to bleed off screen.

The sudden shriek and mother's cry, "he's dying," stops this assorted collection of villagers in the midst of their routines, compelling each to rush to their neighbor's assistance in what will prove a measure of the community's shared sense of purpose. (Considering again the film's historical references, Erice's work demonstrates an essentially Socialistic politics.) With each member of the community accordingly looking on, we see as one of the oldest villagers removes the infant's umbilical cord, calmly reassuring child and parent alike that everything will be fine. Erice thusly transforms what appears to be a sign of ill-health into a natural stage in the child's growth. Or, to put it another way, we see life emerging where first we feared death - a metaphor that we are invited to extend to the film's post-Civil War rise of Franco and his Nazi allies, and surely to Erice's own life story. The personal history that is depicted therefore in profoundly poetic form is at once imbricated with Spain's political past, even as it maintains the deeper existential resonances identified in the feature's opening epigram, and which we will see in the short's closing passage.

With the healthy child returned to his parents' loving care and his mother singing "you wanted to leave us before your time" in voice-over, the clock hits 3:50 as the daily rituals of the small community recommence - and as the pre-adolescent boy wipes the frozen timepiece off his wrist. Erice's Lifeline villagers, in other words, reenter the inexorable flow of time that though arrested in portraits, historical memories and the child's watch, and though pausing for the community's concern for its youngest residence, continues unabated as the filmmaker's ten-minute masterpiece of multiplying and reinforcing temporal forms fades to black.

For those who wish to view this short with English subtitles, albeit in slightly lower resolution and with adds, you may do so at this link.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Pure Spectacle, Pure Theory: Returning to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982)

In a year that has witnessed real movement toward deceased action-hack auteur Tony Scott, an unapologetic Tativille favorite since he directed one of the finest blockbuster-mode features of the early twenty-first century in Déjà Vu (2006), my own grandest moment of reappraisal and personal (though not complete) reversal came ironically with the most critically lauded of the Scott brothers' work, older-sibling Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). Of course, there are very few films of comparable aesthetic interest that owe less to their director's artistry than does Blade Runner - a fact that has dictated the elder Mr. Scott's series of post-release efforts to re-cut and re-package a film that perhaps was not nearly enough the director's own; that is, to belatedly claim authorship over his sleazier, proto-Avatar (2009) major-work. Then again, Mr. Scott is himself, like this writer, more than justified in returning to a work of science-fiction whose mode of address represents the ultimate in cult appreciation: that of the reusable commodity.

The essence of Blade Runner's re-usability resides in its construction of an intricate and immersive diegetic space that invites its spectator to return time and again, to explore, re-explore and escape into the dystopian world created by the filmmakers - an activity that is encouraged additionally by Scott's multiple re-cuts. Lawrence G. Paull's production design emerges as a cinematic dominant, with the narrative pausing to luxuriate in Rachael's (Sean Young) Egyptian flat, J. F. Sebastian's (William Sanderson) Victorian-styled mansion and the trashed-filled back alleys of Blade Runner's teeming Los Angeles. Perpetually damp, eternally nocturnal and painted in neon, Scott's soiled, Tokyoesque L.A. is indeed absolutely ripe with an all-consuming urban decay that serves to situate the film in its immediate, early 1980s moment. In short, Scott's cinema of production design and art direction provides a pure form of visual spectacle that ideally complements the to-be-looked-at-ness of Blade Runner's special effects, director of photography Jordan Cronenweth's graphic lens flaring and naturally, Miss Young's intentionally inhuman beauty. We are asked to survey, scrutinize and in the case of the film's female lead, stare.

Blade Runner's steampunk aesthetic - brought to the screen at the cultural crest of the Anglo-American "new wave" that Pris's (Daryl Hannah) white and black face paint most directly inscribes - contributes to the film's larger mapping and re-mediation of the historical nineteenth century. Scott and Cronenweth's effectively pre-electric spaces (see Joe Turkel's candlelit home) catalog the earlier historical era, whether it is the aforementioned Egyptian and Victorian interiors or the stone, steel and glass Richardsonian architecture to which the narrative shifts late in its running time. Then there are the even more discursively significant automata that link Blade Runner to the late nineteenth century time of cinema's naissance - in addition to functioning as a narratively motivated double for the film's Replicant subjects. Scott's postmodernism, like the Victorian culture that Blade Runner focalizes, samples from both disparate historical sources and remote geographical locations - no less than George Lucas's even more cultist Star Wars trilogy, with respect to which Blade Runner stands in obvious dialogue.

Scott's film indeed emerges as a theorist's alternative to Lucas's cinematic mythologizing, with the film's cyberpunk, neo-noir aesthetic and the aforementioned proto-cinematic forms providing sexy counters to Akira Kurosawa, Buck Rogers and Saturday matinee television pulp. However, it is in another sense an accidental object of theoretical interest with the filmmaker's deficiencies as a storyteller - which perhaps become clearest in Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer's limply choreographed fight sequence - implicated in the film's cult appeal. Indeed, it is not simply that Blade Runner's richly detailed environments invite further examination, but that the narrative's occasional lack of immediate clarity likewise encourages repeat viewings. In this sense it is Blade Runner's traditional imperfections (at least in part) that make it a cult-style reusable commodity. 

Monday, October 01, 2012

What White Collar Is

Let us begin with what the USA Network's White Collar (2009-2012) is not: prestige, long-form television  of the HBO-Showtime-AMC variety. It lacks the novelistic structure and density to make it hipster/Slate/coastal water-cooler fodder. In a writer's medium (to cinema's director's art), White Collar is not particularly well written, especially on the level of dialogue - David Milch, Jeff Eastin and company are not. Nor is it particularly well acted in its forty or so minutes each week, especially within a cable world that gives us the extraordinary work of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito, et al., on television's current best, and most consistently well-acted program, Breaking Bad (2008-2012). In short, White Collar does not correspond to the way that we, which is to say those of us with some stake in elite culture, consume quality television. White Collar just doesn't figure in the public discourse - and understandably so.

What White Collar is, however, is the most consistently visually compelling hour on American television; it is a series, almost without parallel for contemporary works of the medium, that thinks first, and quite a bit, of how to gracefully compose the visual field. If show-runner Jeff Eastin has not created a series that conforms to our idea of what makes television good, he nonetheless has created a visual style of exceptional density and moment-to-moment optic interest that competes with if not outright distracts us from the banalities of what we are hearing. White Collar in this regard tells us one thing about how we in-the-know types watch narrative television: we don't actually attend to the plasticity of the image. When we do consume television visually, it is typically for its sexy mid-century design aesthetic or the undeniable pleasures of seeing Christina Hendricks in a plunging neckline, not that we should take either for granted.

White Collar is different, as the above, more characteristic than you might think image, clearly attests. From about the middle of the first season, Eastin's series began increasingly to attend to the graphic possibilities intrinsic in its Midtown Manhattan settings, with particular attention lavished on its narratively focal high-rise boardroom settings. In this sense, White Collar adheres to USA's loose location-centric house style, which might otherwise be defined by its Sony CineAlta F35 HD camera work - White Collar uses the same technology - and its clean, even lighting strategies. However, there is not an once of White Collar's visual interest in all of Royal Pains' (2009-2012) Long Beach-shot images combined, with the latter opting for shallow medium set-ups tagged with the bright local yellow light. This is just to say that though White Collar shares some of the technical specs and even the fidelity to location of its fellow USA programs - one of White Collar's pleasures for this former New Yorker is its very recognizable mapping of Midtown East, from Gramercy to Kips Bay - White Collar has an aesthetic ambition all its own.

What makes White Collar's visual strategies so singular is again the use the show makes of its New York interior sets/locations. Among the most paradigmatic of the camera crews' strategies - one that since it developed, once again, midway through the first season, has reoccurred in every episode - are its wispy, lateral, mobile travelling set-ups, which cue into the impossibly reflective surfaces that predominate within the show's FBI headquarters in particular. For these typically short though frequently repeated compositions, White Collar's camera crew (helmed by a number of different directors over the course of four seasons) shoot through the space's glass walls as they compress numerous planes into a single, visually quite complex graphic field - one that asks to be looked at first, as we hear the perfunctory conversation on the other side of the semi-visible barrier. Thanks to the stylistic program that Eastin has instituted for his directors and cinematographers, we have the makings in White Collar of a whole new generation of "wagon wheel" Joseph H. Lewis's who have not yet met an intermediate object through which they did not look to shoot (see the lelouch below).

What these 'White Collar shots' encourage, whether inside the show's FBI sets or increasingly in whatever interior or even exterior locations the makers can find to enact their baroque visual program, is a pleasure in looking - a pleasure that I think we can all concede is all-too-often unknown in narrative television. This is the modest, though in another sense significant accomplishment of what would initially seem another USA Network throw-away - another show that cries out for a "What is Burn Notice?"-style parody. Of course, there are other pleasures to White Collar, beginning with Matt Bomer's (pictured right) forceful charisma and abounding sex-appeal, and the easy rapport he has created with co-stars Tim DeKay (left) and Willie Garson. In the terms of contemporary world cinema White Collar is a middle-of-the-road or better Milky Way product to the better respected (and often rightfully so), though also stodgier festival feature; though it might not have what we expect from the best of the art, we would be unwise to sleep on its many commendable qualities. Eastin's show is indeed easy to overlook - at least for those who have not spent time looking at it.

This piece was co-conceived by Lisa K. Broad, with whom I have watched most of the first three seasons, all of which are available on Netflix's instant streaming service.