Monday, November 17, 2014

THE WAY HE LOOKS | Review | ****


Of all the genres in all of cinema, my favorite is coming-of-age films. Because when done right, they can reflect on life just about better than any other art form.

THE WAY HE LOOKS, Brazil's entry to the Oscars
THE WAY HE LOOKS, Brazil's entry to the Oscars
THE WAY HE LOOKS  (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho) is Brazil’s submission to the Best Foreign Film category at the 2014 Academy Awards. By the third scene in the film, I had decided that I had unreasonable love for this film, and from that point on, it did not once betray my judgment. Written and directed by Daniel Ribeiro, it tells the story of Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) a somewhat shy teenager. He is blind and aware of his place in school due to his disability. His parents want to protect him even as they struggle to let him be independent. Leo’s best friend since childhood has been Giovana (Tess Amorim) and the two are inseparable. In many ways he sees the world through Giovana’s eyes. One need only watch Giovana looking at Leo to know how she feels about him. Enter the unreasonably amiable new student at school, Gabriel (Fabio Audi) and Leo and Giovanna’s friendship may need to be redefined.

Nothing in this film is what we haven’t seen before. And yet, the film is written, acted and played out with such a matter of fact honesty and simplicity that it rises up to be one of the better films of the year. We have seen these young love triangles a hundred times before. Jules et Jim kicked off the entire French New Wave for crying out loud. We’ve seen well-meaning coming of age films do an admirable job again and again. But it is the control over this material that singularly elevates this film to something of a discovery. The refusal of the film to make a big deal about developments is what is truly surprising, in comparison to say Blue Is The Warmest Color from last year, which carried an unbearably heavy agency about it. The Way He Looks makes its observations without fuss, without drama, and without prurience. So what if the lead character is blind. So what if he happens to fall for another guy. Without tilting into caricature, the film strikes authenticity while never submitting to melodrama. One The Way He Looks can do more good than a hundred after-school specials about tolerance.

MV5BMTQ5NjYxODk2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTgyNTU4MjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Who hasn’t experienced the dynamics with a friend change due to the necessary introduction of a new person. Best friends get married. They move to other cities. They follow other professional tracks in life. In recent years Frances Ha and Bridesmaids has dealt with these situations with some degree of depth. But see how the material is handled in The Way He Looks; the respect the script grants these characters, to be contrary and complex, to be hurt and to stumble, and to grow and find their footing, is something to behold. To watch a movie capture this universality on screen without heavy chest-beating is a minor miracle.

Like the best films, this one is populated by characters who are for most part, all inherently good. Which is like life; people we interact with in the real world are seldom all out evil. Films that understand this and refuse the easy out by creating conflict through a single malevolent character are already leagues ahead of other movies. See how this first time filmmaker, Daniel Ribeiro,  treats even the least likeable character, that of the school bully Fabio. He constantly taunts Leo. He is cruel, yes, but not necessarily because Leo is blind. It is because Leo is an easy target, a misfit, different because of his blindness. Fabio makes fun of Leo, first alone, and then when he is with Gabriel. And at some point the film asks the audience, do you want to be Fabio? Do you want to be this insecure person who is unable to accept anyone who is different? It is strikingly mature handling of this material, when it would have been so much easier for the film to simply paint Fabio as a villain.

If there were justice in the world, this script would get nominated for year-end awards. Watch this film if only for its writing, particularly with sly observations about how the world deals with someone who is visually impaired. And like the no-fuss aesthetic of much of the film, it does not linger on the dialog, as exacting and truthful as it is. When Gabriel is first making friends with Leo, he asks Leo if he has noticed something in a particular movie. And then realizes with a start that Leo couldn’t have seen the film since he is blind. Leo isn't offended, and Gabriel takes him to a movie instead, where he explains the film to him in whispers. Touches like this make you realize that this is the work of a gifted storyteller.

Any lover of good films should make plans to watch The Way He Looks because of all the things it gets right. It gets the acute hurt that a person with disabilities feels when they are made fun of. It gets the love of parents who are protective of their child and the horror they must feel to forfeit what part of their child’s environment they can safeguard from harm (another masterful film Margarita, With A Straw, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, also dealt with this situation with uncommon empathy). Most of all The Way He Looks is worthy of veneration for how it makes a hero out of Giovana, because it gets that best friends and real friends will sacrifice their own thumping affections for the sake of their friend’s happiness. The film gets the hesitation, the tentative thrill-and-despair dance of acknowledging first love, just right. It gets just about everything right.

Yes The Way He Looks may just be a film about a teenage love triangle set in Brazil. But it is the best example of its kind to make you realize that sometimes a truthful story told with a good heart is all it takes. The hell with CGI. The hell with histrionics. The hell with unnecessarily complicated non-linear, non-narrative mumbo-jumbo. Give me something as simple and well-intentioned and humorous and kind as The Way He Looks any day of the year. When films these days are seemingly only interested in hipster posturing and cynicism, the most provocative thing of all may be a film that gifts viewers with genuine sweetness.

 [THE WAY HE LOOKS is playing in San Diego November 14-20 at the Landmark Ken Cinemas]


Sunday, September 7, 2014

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update Two



The man ahead of me in the line has just arrived from the Telluride Film Festival. While you wait to get into a film screening, you strike up all sorts of film conversations. And this man gives me his opinion of what will be celebrated at year's end. BIRDMAN, the latest from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a wonder he says. Adding that it is about a filmmaker trying to take control of the world around him. That sounds a bit like Fellini’s 8 ½, I offer, and he says no, no BIRDMAN is far more serious than that. The entire film has been shot to simulate a single continuous take, so it gets high marks just for that he further explains. And Michael Keaton is Oscar bound he prognosticates.  As is Steve Carrel, for FOXCATCHER he says, another film bound for Academy awards honors. The biggest disappointment for him has been WILD in which he complains that Reese Witherspoon is horribly miscast. I mention that I am part of that small minority that believes that Jean-Marc Vallee’s previous effort DALLAS  BUYER’S CLUB was a terrible film. Then WILD is not going to change your mind about this director, he says. What was his best film he saw at Telluride, I ask? Oh, it’s the Argentine film WILD TALES he says with much excitement, and it is playing at Toronto and I must buy a ticket. And then we get into the cinema, leaving my head spinning. And that is the opinion of just one person at the festival. Throw together all the world’s cinephiles and you wouldn’t sleep for fear of missing an important film at the festival.

THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is the latest film from Francois Ozon. It wasn’t so long ago that Ozon was the reigning enfant terrible of French cinema, having helmed movies that gleefully crossed the line. But with wit that went beyond the shock value;  SWIMMING POOL, WATER FALLING ON BURNING ROCKS, and CRIMINAL LOVERS were the films that put him on the map. Then he turned respectable with UNDER THE SUN, 8 WOMEN and POTICHE. How curious that in what seems like only a matter of years, Xavier Dolan (who is not even 25 years old) has taken over the enfant terrible title, bringing into question Ozon’s ability to still rock the boat by making films that simultaneously provoke and impress. THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is not going to change Ozon’s calling card, not least because this film has the unfortunate timing of coming out on the heels of the somewhat similarly themed LAURENCE ANYWAYS from Xavier Dolan last year. No matter how you cut it, Dolan’s a superior film.

With THE NEW GIRLFRIEND Ozon is clearly paying homage to the films of Douglas Sirk (with a dash of Almodovar, for good measure). So it is necessarily a melodrama, which is not a liability if handled well (Todd Haynes did an admirable job doing just that with FAR FROM HEAVEN). But THE NEW GIRLFRIEND, through most of its running time, feels like a helicopter trying to land in gusty winds; it keeps circling and circling, but is unable to settle on ground.

The film tells the story of Claire (Anais Demoustier) who is trying to shake off the sorrow following the death of her best friend Laura, who has also left behind a bereft husband David (Romain Duris) and infant child. Trying to deal with her grief and offer comfort to David, Claire walks into his home unannounced, to find him dressed in women’s clothing. David explains that he wants to be both father and mother to his child, and while Claire fails to understand this at first, she eventually becomes David’s accomplice in exploring his feminine sensibility. Much to the dismay of Claire’s husband who begins to suspect Claire’s time spent away from work. This can play as a light-hearted farce, as a serious look at the fluidity of sexuality and identity, or even as bitter satire of the overzealousness of political correctness in contemporary mores. But to play this material as a Douglas Sirk melodrama presents with issues. For one thing Ozon over-commits to the Sirk sensibility to the extent that David’s home has the look and furnishings of sixties décor. It is difficult to shoehorn this into a story set in contemporary times without it seeming anachronistic. And what should have been frothy and giddy comes off labored, and worse, dated. The film suffers as a whole from seeming like something that was made at least a couple of decades ago, not least from the way certain characters react to situations. I wish that Ozon’s desire to do Sirk had led to him setting this story in the sixties, which would make the look, and more critically, the behavior of the characters in this story a lot more believable.

TOKYO FIANCEE is first-time director Stefan Liberski contribution to all the stories in all the films about star-crossed lovers. It is based on a popular European novel by Amelie Nothomb about a French-speaking Belgian girl (Pauline Etienne) obsessed with Japan who happens to go to Japan and fall in love with a local Japanese boy (Taichi Inoue) who is obsessed with France. There have been many films about this sort of cultural dislocation. In particular such films that are also wittingly or otherwise romantic, tend to have a way of getting twee. TOKYO FIANCEE is very much a film about cultural dislocation, but it keeps the whimsy somewhat in check, doling out only homeopathic doses of it, for the most part. These are individuals you enjoy spending time with, even as you wonder why your own life did not come pre-filled with this sort of charm offensive. Heck, the lead is even named Amelie which should remind of you a certain Audrey Tatou confection that is much beloved but extra-frosted all the same. While the film spends the first half by playing with the mores of this sort of cinema (honest, if a little indulgent look, at the fish out of water), the latter part of the movie ultimately finds a defiantly unique voice. About being dispossessed in youth, and trying to locate a sense of self in a scary uncontrollable world.

Films of this type live and die by their lead actors who essentially have to carry the entire film, convincing every audience member that their company is worth having. And this film is worth watching, and you must do so, for Pauline Etienne. Looking uncannily like a young(er) Carey Mulligan, Etienne grounds the film with an openness that is disarming. Even when the plot calls on her to be charming beyond reason, she makes us believe that this person would indeed have this effect on these other individuals. Fragile, irrational, lost, impetuous, and searching, Etienne’s Amelie seems to convey these all with enviable flair. Even in the Q&A session after the end of the film, Etienne came across as effortlessly disarming. Discover this actor before the world catches up to her wonders. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

CART is a South Korean film loosely based on true events in which female workers at a supermarket who were abruptly notified of being laid off prior to the expiration of their contracts went on a strike to protest. What initially started as a frightening but also empowering stance to take on the system, eventually led to grave and worsening outcomes.  What starts out seeming like a feel-good David vs. Goliath tale descends into a reckoning with reality in which corporations almost always prevail over workers. There is no doubt this film has a sincere focus, and it spends a fair bit of time investing in the individual lives of several of the key characters, if only to make clear the cascaded effect of social injustice on those beyond the direct victims. All of which is almost undone by a shrill background score that cues up every scene with the exact sentiment that the audience member is supposed to be filming. This very nearly destroys the film, but unlike say the nakedly melodramatic MARY KOM, this film makes it clear that hope may be the most elusive currency when a group of individuals decide to take on those who control them. This is an angry film, and necessarily so. And it is acted with honest conviction by a group of persuasive screen presences. Even with its flaws, including an over-eagerness to elicit sympathy, the cinema of the disenfranchised is essential. And CART is a good entry in this genre.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update One

You do not realize how much you have missed the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) until you settle down in the darkening theater just as your first film screening is about to begin and the title card warning against video recording pops up on the screen, and avid festival goers howl "aawrrr" at the screen. All at once. I have no idea as to what started this. Or what it means. It is an old TIFF tradition, present at least since the first time I started attending this most equitable of film festivals in 2006. But somehow the sound of all of us unknown movie lovers howling in unison at the screen like dogs at the moon, is unexpectedly comforting. 

The first day of screenings is a wet one, with rains pelting cinephiles waiting in lines snaking across multiple blocks ahead of each screening at each venue. The rains seem cruel, but this is a sturdy lot of moviegoers, unfazed by lightning and instantly soaked clothing and squishy shoes. Toronto, ordinarily a city of enviable infrastructure and efficiency, seems to have added its own impediment this year with road constructions on every other street in downtown area where the TIFF Lightbox headquarters and surrounding other festival venues are located. Add to that streets closed off to road traffic specifically for TIFF activities/premieres/red-carpets, and it makes for quite an obstacle course to get to the film venues on time for those who do not live in the immediate vicinity. But as I said, this is a town where cinema is religion, and the masses show up in hordes for the festival. 

TIFF 2014 publicity still for FORCE MAJEURE
The film FORCE MAJEURE arrived to TIFF already on the waft of rapturous reviews out of Cannes. And it did one of the more difficult thing for movies to do: live up to high expectations. What a film this is. First of all, it is majestic just from a technical standpoint. Conceptually, it is the examination of the consequences of a single act that plays out as a tightrope walk of grand suspense.  Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist and earns the right to be compared to those filmmakers. There is an obvious pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors (some of them kids) and allow them to do remarkable work. And the sound design! The sound design is pristine; the creaking of ski lifts, the vacuum cleaner in a hotel lobby, the roar of an avalanche - all add incomparably to the texture of this film.

I have deliberately not mentioned much about the plot. Not that this would be a terrible spoiler, and these days so much of a film's plot is generally known even before it is released. But I enjoyed this film as much as I did because I knew little about it going in. So I hope the principal moral inquiry at the center of this film is not given away by reviews. I will say this much though: the movie is set around the inhabitants of a ski resort in Sweden. And while the film proceeds about its business, it makes wry observations about relationships - the soft, vulnerable, unexamined, scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships - as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is easily earned humor at every turn in this film. And wit. In one scene, two characters start to argue in the elevator of the ski resort, and their words are getting to an increasingly dangerous place. The elevator stops, and a hotel staff member steps into the elevator with a huge cart, forcing the characters to back all the way to the rear. The scene ends there. And you smile realizing that this couple has literally been pushed into a corner. At another point, a wife says the following words to her husband upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation: "What's wrong? That's not us!" It is a marvelous way to think of one's relationship. This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate upon viewing. 

The second film I watched today was MARY KOM, which is a biopic about India's first female Olympic boxing medalist. Mary Kom, born Chungneijang in a rural corner of northeastern India, rose to prominence in a sport dominated by men in a country where female athletes already have a tougher ride. Outspoken and spirited, she earned the ire of many within the Indian Boxing Federation by voicing her complaints about their abysmal lack of support for athletes. She stepped away from the sport at the peak of her popularity soon after she got married and had kids, only to return back and re-challenge her position as the most winning Indian female medalist in boxing. Her journey involved challenges with many: her parents who were justifiably concerned about her prospects, a hard-to-please boxing coach, as well as numerous adversaries in the professional matches.

When you have a story that is this strong, the best thing a director can do is to get out of its way. Unfortunately, this treatment relies too heavily on melodrama that mostly comes off as unearned. So that the true accomplishments of this individual appear depicted on screen as rote and shallow. Were this film not so bent on manipulating an emotional response from the audience at any cost, it could have been a quieter, more powerful endeavor. Mary Kom is played in the film by Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, who in spite of having impressively worked on the physical transformation for the role, remained unconvincing to me. And unable to get behind the essence of this individual. Part of the problem may be a shallow, paint-by-the-numbers script that jumps from adversity to adversity, and has too few scenes that clamp down on the motivations of the central character. We have seen this story in any number of sports films, and when they work they can be remarkably potent; there is a reason the ROCKY films are so effective. 

There are a few pieces that work well in MARY KOM, including Mary's relationship with her husband, as well as scenes involving a farm cow.  But it comes off as a lost opportunity. The universal female struggle to find balance between career and family is so much more heightened when your career happens to be competive sports; that this film misses the chance to tap into this with respect and depth speaks to its failure. By the time the Indian National Anthem played in the last act in a shamelessly jingoistic attempt to further rouse audience fervor, I had had enough. 

Tomorrow will be another day at TIFF. Stay posted. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

LOVE IS STRANGE | Review | ****


I like all sorts of films. And amongst those films that I like, I hold a special place for those that are interested in depicting the decency of its characters. Most stories pit the protagonist against a person who means him harm, but in my opinion those are lesser stories, lazier stories that take the easy way out. The more accomplished ones, the more human ones, are those where all of the characters are inherently decent. Filmmakers who refuse to create villains, but instead watch generally well-meaning individuals crash and bump into each other’s orbits by virtue of who they are, come the closest to approximating life on the cinema screen. Because no one in the real life is all out evil; there are few bonafide villains in the real world. And it takes a giftedly perceptive writer to be empathetic to every character on the pages of his script. Ozu’s films are watched by film-lovers more than half a century after they were made for this reason alone. In contemporary cinema, Asghar Farhadi, the director of A SEPARATION and THE PAST is able to pull this off. And the lovely, remarkable films by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, the heir to Ozu are case examples of how to do this right; Kore-Eda’s latest movie, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is my favorite film of the year for its impossibly clear-headed commitment to seeing the inherent decency in its assembly of characters. The new film LOVE IS STRANGE joins that rarefied cadre of films.

My favorite moment in LOVE IS STRANGE comes at about the halfway point when the two sixty-plus year old leads of the film are squeezed into the bottom half of a teenager's bunk-bed. George and Ben (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina), together for almost four decades, have been recently forced to seek roof in separate homes. On that bunk-bed, they are finally together after a long time, and Ben says "After thirty nine years together, I am used to the presence of your body next to me in bed. These new living arrangements are putting a serious damper on my sleep patterns". He says it only half jokingly.

And it is a rare moment of self-pity (no matter how aching) in a film that is not particularly interested in wallowing, or in yelling what it wants to say.

As the film opens, it catches George and Ben getting married in the presence of a small group of family and friends who gather in their New York City apartment to celebrate after the ceremony. Like the elderly couple at the center of AMOUR, you can tell that the decades George and Ben have spent together has brought them to a place of unquestionable burnished commitment. They are used to each other and understand each other and know each other. Lithgow and Molina, taking their cues from a gentle, keenly observant script rise to the challenge of this film with remarkable dexterity; you will not find a scene in this film where they are not exceptionally convincing. History has finally allowed George and Ben to legally cement their relationship; one can sense that these two have waited their entire lives for this privilege. But this simple act of commitment snowballs into much undoing. George who teaches music at a Catholic school is told that he can no longer keep his job. The mortgage to their apartment no longer affordable, George and Ben have no option but to sell their home, and move out, if only temporarily, until they find another place they can rent in the city. After living together so long the two are suddenly, in effect, homeless. And you realize that this is the space the film has wanted to explore all along.

What are their family and friends, as well meaning as they might be, to do to help them? This being New York City, nobody has room to spare for two guests. Ben goes to live at the home of his nephew, his wife and young son (Dan Burrows, Marisa Tomei and Charlie Tahan). Ben is offered temporary housing at the home of friends who are cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). With the best of intentions, the presence of a house guest in an already cramped home space is bound to create tensions. Tomei’s character, a stay at home writer, tries her best to concentrate on her work while Ben talks up a storm all day. She is patient, and perceptive, and naturally kind, but slowly the strains begin to show. The teenaged son Joey, already upset at having to give up his (bunk) bed and room to his uncle is further unsettled by his best friend’s rapport with Uncle Ben.

George soon realizes that the home of his friends is one that is constantly committed to entertaining others. There is loud music and singing and coming and going of many, and literally no place for George to hide.

Being separated from each other after decades of co-habitation is one thing, but finding a physical state of stability in their respective new residential arrangements is even more elusive. In many way the condition of Ben and George evokes that of the older parents from TOKYO STORY, who realize that their presence in the lives of their grown children has a intrusive effect, and hence strive to respectfully step away. Everybody means well, and everyone is inherently decent, and it is in this, that these films manage to find of reflection of our own lives.

This could have been a film about the First World problems of the privileged. But with its shrewd script and studiously underplayed tone, LOVE IS STRANGE (just as LIKE FATHER LIKE SON) provides a definition of family that is relevant. Not just for Ben and George but for all those around them. And it is the only definition that matters.

As Roger Ebert liked to say, whenever it opens, this will be the best film playing in town.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Natural Sciences | Review | Los Angeles Film Festival 2014 | ****


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]

Nothing in the world is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, wrote Victor Hugo more than a hundred years ago. And so it is with the lead character in the quietly amazing Argentinian film NATURAL SCIENCES (CIENCIAS NATURALES).

Lila, a teenager in a boarding school at a rural mountain town has suddenly reached a juncture in life where her paramount need is to find her biological father. Her mother who works a bare, hard life on the farmland will not give her any information regarding the man. Freezing winter is fast approaching but Lila is undeterred in her pursuit. She has tried to run away from school in search of her father, once on a horse through the snow-covered hillsides, and once in a car she doesn’t know how to drive. The school Principal is perplexed, then angered by this sudden, irrational desire on the part of someone who had until then been a quiet, unremarkable student. Reasoning or discipline prove ineffective. Lila is consumed by her mission and is unstoppable. A more sympathetic faculty member, who teaches Natural Sciences at school, also tries to deter Lila. But recognizing that Lila will not relent and likely concerned for her safety, she joins Lila in her quixotic quest. With nary a clue about the man they are looking for, the two hit the road.

This should sound like the sort of sappy, road-trip movie that Hollywood likes to dole out with some regularity. If you are more generous, this may seem to you like one of those well-meaning, heartfelt indie films about strangers connecting through unusual circumstances. But NATURAL SCIENCES transcends those categories altogether.

This is an accomplished film from first-time director, Matias Lucchesi, who retains a strong, confident hold over this material at all times. Pick a scene from this film, pick any scene, and notice the rigor with which it has been constructed, how it completely bypasses familiar traps, or cliché. You can notice this on a minute by minute basis, in the precise writing, the affectless acting and direction that does not draw attention to itself. In its hard-won naturalness and rigor around all of filmmaking components, NATURAL SCIENCES draws easy comparison to the austere, stark and no less devastating Chilean movie from last year, THURSDAY TILL SUNDAY (DE JUEVES A DOMINGO).

The actor who plays Lila (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) necessarily carries the film on her young shoulders. And effortlessly brings it to a place of believability, capturing the sullen, untalkative affect of the teenager whose world is dominated by a singular myopic obsession. She may seem possessed by the fever of an irrational pursuit, and may not have the means to articulate it fully, but she is also inherently a good person, a person trying to discover herself as a grown human being and unable to do so without locating her roots first. And how about Paola Barrientos who plays the teacher who accompanies Liza on her search; one of the hardest things for an actor to do on screen is to transmit empathy, and Barrientos does it with a rare authenticity that never once tilts into cheap sentimentality. What great fortune for this director to have been able to recruit these two actors for his first film.

This is a film of quiet wonder. It tells a story that may initially seem familiar, but in how it goes about telling it, the film is note-perfect . I cannot wait to see the next project from this filmmaker.

NATURAL SCIENCES is the best film I saw at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. And by a wide margin.

[Natural Sciences is an Argentinian film currently making the festival rounds and was screened at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival.  It is awaiting distribution in the U.S. You can watch the trailer here].

2014 Tribeca Film Festival | Review | Something Must Break | ***1/2


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]

SOMETHING MUST BREAK (Original Swedish title: Nanting Maste Ga Sonder) is an astonishing film.

It tracks the progression of a relationship between two unlikely individuals with a rigid honesty that is a little reminiscent of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. Sebastian works in the backrooms of a furniture store in Stockholm. Andreas comes from a more affluent background.

Publicity still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK
Publicity still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK
One day, as bullies taunting Sebastian for his androgynous looks are about to get violent, Andreas steps in to help. Gradually the two, both in their early twenties, start spending time together with the start and sputter rhythm of individuals not entirely sure of where they are headed. As the relationship progresses to something deeper and physical, Andreas is caught off guard, unable to reconcile the significance of this development with his otherwise traditional life. He doesn’t even consider himself gay. Long unmoored with regard gender identity and comfortable with it, Sebastian too suddenly finds himself starting to gravitate toward the possible emergence of a female persona of himself: Ellie. And the all-consuming connection between Andreas and Sebastian inevitably takes a dark turn. Think of this as a stark, spare version of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH.

This could have been a preachy film. But it has no interest in polemics or political statements. Like its central character, the film is not too concerned about labels that viewers may ascribe to it…too uncomfortable, too gay, too extreme. It simply tells this specific story without filter, without condescension, without judgment. Where most films, either out of tact or politeness, stop when a character closes the door, this one walks in behind the door with the character. Sebastian makes plenty of terrible choices and mistakes. The film (based on a novel of the same name) has no intention to edify Sebastian or turn this individual into some sort of role model, and in doing so actually humanizes him. I do not know that I have seen a better on-screen treatment of a person forging through a gender identity crisis. What is particularly commendable is that while Sebastian is the more atypical character, the film is as much interested in Andreas as it is in Sebastian. And one can argue as to which of the two goes through a greater transformation during the course of this story.

Publicity Still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK
Publicity Still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK
I give this film credit simply for being what it is about. And being in-your-face unapologetic about it. It may be a film about the first connection between a man who wants to be a woman and another man who starts to question what it is to be masculine. But in its honesty, it demonstrates the universal struggle of any person who learns to come into their own, and the pain as well as the grace of the process.


2014 Tribeca Film Festival | Review | Alex Of Venice ***1/2


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]

The film ALEX OF VENICE made me think about how we think about films.

Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE, directed by Chris Messina
Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE, directed by Chris Messina
I have noticed, more so of late, that most people are eager to stamp a film as belonging to a particular genre, and then in the same breath penalize it for being just another example of that genre. For example, a film will get labeled a British comedy and then criticized for not living up to the standards of good British comedy. But why should a film have to be this, orthat? Why cannot it just be a slice of life. With no aspirations other than that. Is that not enough? ALEX OF VENICE is the sort of film I watched and then wanted to hug afterward. Many will brush it aside as inconsequential, trite even. But I warmed up to it. And later, just believed in it. And you can’t say that about much of cinema these days.

A great deal of the film’s success lies in the casting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the lead. Winstead, like Shailene Woodley or Brie Larson, has such an honest, open screen presence, that the audience instinctively rallies behind her. To have a protagonist in a film that the viewer automatically roots for is half the battle won. Contrary to expectation, ALEX OF VENICE is not about a man in Italy. Its about a girl named Alex (Winstead) who lives near Venice, California.

Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE
Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE
Alex, an attorney at a grassroots organization, returns home from work one evening to be told by her husband (Chris Messina, who also makes his directorial debut with this film) that he has had enough of being the stay at home dad to their ten year old son, and wants out for a while. He is gone the next morning. Which leaves Alex’s life suddenly thrown into a whirlwind. Her father (an unexpectedly wry Don Johnson, who plays a famous former television star, natch) invites Alex’s free-spirit sister (the plucky Katy Nehra, who also shares writing credits) to come stay with them to help things out. As much as Alex struggles to reach a new equilibrium, it stays persistently out of reach. How do you convince a son pining for his father that things may never return to how they used to be? How do we reconcile with our parents’ worsening health, striking the balance between keeping your pride and granting them dignity? How do we negotiate the boundaries of a siblings’ involvement in our lives? Who amongst us has not dealt with all of this. The film deals with these issues with a lightness of hand and even though it tows toward being a mainstream film, it also pulls off being authentic.

Plus how can you find fault with a film that finds roles for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Beth Grant. Chris Messina, who has quietly being creating a fine resume of acting credits (VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, ARGO, the underrated 28 HOTEL ROOMS, and many television credits including THE MINDY SHOW), shows remarkable empathy behind the camera as well, and I am eager to see what he helms next. He has already demonstrated uncommon savviness with picking the soulful Mary Elizabeth Winstead to be main player in his directorial debut.

This is a lovely little film.

ALEX OF VENICE screened at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently awaiting distribution.

2014 Tribeca Film Festival | Review | Loitering With Intent | **1/2


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]

LOITERING WITH INTENT is a light-hearted lark of a film.

It is a film about film. If it comes off a bit lighter than expected, it is only because one expects a film with Marisa Tomei and Sam Rockwell, two of the more woefully underemployed actors in Hollywood, to be outright implosive. The film is going for a gentle, messy, wistful, stage comedy-like affect.

Publicity still from LOITERING WITH INTENT
Publicity still from LOITERING WITH INTENT
Directed by Adam Rapp, the film is about Dominic and Raphael, your prototypical out of work New York actors (played by Michael Godere and Ivan Martin) who head out to the countryside quiet of Upstate New York to churn out a script in ten days in order to get funding for the resulting film they can also star in. But silent respite is not theirs for the taking. Dominic’s force-of-nature sister (Marisa Tomei) descends upon the place licking her wounds from having separated from her unstable boyfriend. Other unexpected guests include a free-spirit bombshell (Isabelle McNally) and the said boyfriend (Sam Rockwell) who shows up with a buddy (Brian Geraghty, making good of the best lines from the script). And you know that this being a particular kind of film, old grievances will surface, new alliances will form, and everyone will get drunk one night and do things they will eventually regret. It is all out of the standard film script playbook. But these actors, seasoned and newcomers alike, are an inherently likeable lot and they keep the goings-on reasonably grounded. If anything I wish the film had a stronger, heftier emotional pull.

The script is ‘in the know’ about the New York film scene, and there are cinema references aplenty, and even though the writing is occasionally uneven, the whole enterprise makes for an engaging overall product. It’s the sort of film you watch with a smile on your face the entire time.

LOITERING WITH INTENT screened at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and is awaiting distribution. 

2014 Tribeca Film Festival Dispatch


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]

One shows up at the Tribeca Fim Festival not knowing quite what to expect. And then like any other festival, one gets their bearings in the next couple of days.
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One finds out, for example, that none of the three venues where festival films are screened are actually in Tribeca (two are in Chelsea and a third in East Village). One expects the general sensibility of the festival to be like that of the city it is in, hectic and impatient, and no-nonsense and talky. But I am a bit surprised, if pleasantly, to find that the festival is actually rather laid-back and matter of fact. Without exception, the screenings occur like clockwork with nary a hitch. Nobody hyperventilates at the sight of celebrities, and the voices of filmmakers do not crack with nervous gratitude when introducing their product before the start of a screening. Maybe its just that New York crowds are so inured to celebrity run-ins that nothing would be more gauche than to get excited upon seeing Sophia Loren or Mark Ruffalo.

The Tribeca Film Festival was founded by Robert DeNiro and producer Jane Rosenthal in 2002 at a time when Tribeca was an oft ignored neighborhood of the city. Things have come a ways in the thirteen years since during which more than 1500 films have been screened. Created initially as a salve to the 9/11 events and to foster recognition for the Tribeca area, the festival has now evolved into a full-fledged player in the big festivals film circuit.

I will be posting reviews of films I saw at the 2104 Tribeca Film Festival in the coming days.

A little bit of awesomeness; the Ken survives


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com on April 24, 2014]

Its a day that make me proud that I live in San Diego.
Unknown-38As the headline from the Landmark Cinemas press release (below) today states: “A Community Speaks Out For Its Favorite Theater (And Wins)“, the good people of the city of San Diego have managed to reverse a disturbing trend, the trend being the closure of small, independently run cinema houses across the nation. The giant multiplexes have displaced the smaller venues for screening films, particularly those that show independent and foreign films. How many times have we heard of such theaters shutting down in town after town. It is no different than the systematic closure of smaller book stores around the country.
It seemed the Ken Cinema, that bastion of fringe/independent/foreign cinema in San Diego, and the only single-screen movie theater in the city, had run its final mile when it was announced two weeks ago that the legendary theater was going to shut down at the end of April. How could the place where I had watched The Kid With A Bike, and The Dark Horse and The Great Beauty, and the Oscar Nominated Shorts not exist anymore? The cinema, formally part of the Landmark Cinemas chain, was to have its final movie screening this week. It was unbearably sad to see the demise of a great local institution. There were the expected protests from movie lovers, but truth be told I had little hope that much would come from the outrage expressed by a small community of cinephiles. After all, the decision was based on economics and therefore immune to all the emotional reasoning in the world.
Imagine the great surprise then to hear this morning that the Ken Cinema owners were able to miraculously figure out terms to keep the cinema going! I know that the likes of Scott Marks (lead film critic for The Reader) refused to take no for an answer and became an indefatigable champion to keep the Ken alive. And many others added their voices. And alive it is now!
In a usually not so awesome world, this is a little bit of awesomeness. It fills me with pride to live in a place where people care about cinema enough to reverse a national trend! Not bad, San Diego, not bad at all.

LANDMARK CINEMAS PRESS RELEASE:
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contacts:
Lauren Kleiman                                                                                    Chris Principio
LaurenK@landmarktheatres.com                                                   ChrisP@landmarktheatres.com
A Community Speaks Out for Its Favorite Movie Theatre (and Wins)
San Diego, Calif. (April 24, 2014)— Landmark Theatres, Property Owners, Barry Green and Randi Hock along with Torrey Pines Property Management President, Chip Crandall are happy to announce today that they have come to terms ensuring that the Ken Cinema will remain open for many years to come.
According to Ted Mundorff, President and CEO, Landmark Theatres, “the community spoke and we listened. Because of the outrage to the closing of this beloved theatre, it caused Landmark and the Berkun family to sit down and get it done.”
In addition, Landmark is looking to implement several upgrades to the theatre including a new digital system and luxurious seating.
This weekend, the theatre has scheduled a special ‘thank you’ celebration of their patrons favorite films including screenings of Seven Samurai, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Lawrence of Arabia, The Big Lebowski and Singin’ in the Rain. “Now instead of a sad celebration, this weekend will be filled with smiles and gratitude”, added Mundorff.
The Ken will reopen on May 2nd with a full schedule of showtimes.
About Landmark Theatres
Landmark Theatres is a recognized leader in the industry for providing independent and select commercial films in a sophisticated adult-oriented atmosphere. They have 50 theatres in 21 markets across the country.
Landmark Theatres is part of the Wagner/Cuban Companies, a vertically integrated group of media properties co-owned by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban that also includes Magnolia Pictures, Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2929 Productions, AXS TV and HDNet Movies.
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STRANGER BY THE LAKE (L'INCONNU DU LAC) | Review | ***


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]

The French film STRANGER BY THE LAKE (L’INCONNU DU LAC) examines the extremes of blinding desire.

Here is another film to file under ‘this too is what cinema can be’.  It is an oddity of a film that will alienate some viewers and confound others, but there is no denying that there just hasn’t been another movie like this. Its creates its own unique category, and how often can you say that about cinema these days? And that category would be films that are channeling Hitchcock, are rigidly naturalistic in their aesthetic, and feature copious nudity.

Unknown-30The film is set entirely in and around a stretch of sandy beach by a lake in rural France that is popular amongst gay men. The thirty something Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps) is spending his summer days by the water, slowly building a friendship with the middle-aged Henri while developing a serious attraction for Michel, a man that everyone seems to be lusting after. One evening by the lake, Frank witnesses what appears to be a murder at the hands of no other than Michel. The film tracks the events that unfold after that. And you slowly realize that the movie title may have a second meaning; the goings-on indeed get stranger by the lake.  And what we have is a sort of reversed parallax to Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, in which James Stewart becomes obsessed with a murder he suspects may have occurred. In STRANGER BY THE LAKE, Frank resolutely refuses to act on the murder he know has occurred.

Lets get the obvious out of the way. Yes, this film features more skin than what the typical filmgoer is accustomed to. Think of it as the male equivalent of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, the other Cannes film from last year that got a lot of ink by virtue of its unwaveringly explicit sex scenes between the two female leads.  Well, STRANGER BY THE LAKE does its part for gender equality with its male characters. The two films are vastly different in tone, scope, and aesthetic, but in a way both movies reflect on the consequences of an unfathomed attraction that is absolute in the destruction it wreaks.

The defining aspect of STRANGER BY THE LAKE is its naturalistic construct. The film appears to have been shot using only natural light. Also the filming rigidly eschews obvious camera movements; most scenes play out with a patiently stationary camera. Note the single take of more than five minutes during which the said murder (involving the drowning of a man at the lake) occurs; it is a marvel of lighting, choreography and pacing. The naturalistic vibe extends to the dialog which save for the very last act has a calm, studiedly casual cadence. The conversations between Frank and Henri are so authentic in their hazy, lilted rhythms that it makes you wish the film had been only a study of these two characters. Most commendable of all is the extension of the naturalism to the physical acts on screen; all of the sexual content miraculously bypasses the prurient and is presented with a shrugged matter of factness. If you are uncomfortable with its frankness, the shame rests with the viewer because the film disavows it.

The power of the film comes from its ability to render believable a protagonist so drawn to the object of his desire that he overlooks the fact that this man is a murderer. Does Frank truly doubt what he saw? And then use that doubt as an excuse to not report the crime. And to even actively contribute to protecting the murderer. We hear all the time about rational people who willingly partner with criminals to abet in murder. We know of women who write love letters to imprisoned criminals. We read about the kidnapped who eventually help their kidnappers on their spree of crime. The irony with the Frank character in THE STRANGER BY THE LAKE is that he is suffering from Stockholm syndrome even though he is not physically captive. However his attraction to Michel is so strong, so consuming, that he might as well be literally imprisoned by Michel. To the film’s credit it makes it obvious that there isn’t anything mentally disturbed about Frank. Frank is not delusional; he is doing what he does because he sees no other option. Few films explore the pathology of a person who walks with eyes open into a potentially fatal situation – by virtue of a desire so blindingly absolute that reason cannot permeate through it.

This is a fascinating concept, and the reason for the very dark places the film gets to in its final act. But even then, the last act of the movie plays out in such a tangent to the gentle natural rhythms of the earlier part, that it becomes an altogether other film. Which is a shame because the film up until that time had been one of uncharacteristically sharp character observations. Even then, STRANGER BY THE LAKE is such a strange brew, such an untasted concoction, that most film lovers will not be able to resist it. And they should not.

STRANGER BY THE LAKE is currently streaming live on Netflix.