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Review: Endless Poetry

Jul 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221699:43659:0[/embed] Endless Poetry (Poesia Sin Fin)Director: Alejandro JodorowskyRating: NRRelease Date: July 14, 2017 (limited)Country: Chile/France While Herskovitz plays Jodorowsky at the start of the film, he's soon replaced by Adan Jodorowsky. It marks a jump in time in from Alejandro's early adolescence into his adulthood, and a move toward adult concerns. It was fascinating to see Herskovitz again, however, who's seemed to age so fast in just a few years. Adan, who was a child in Santa Sangre, looks so much like his father; Brontis, who was just a child in El Topo, looks like he could be Adan's father. Throughout the movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky himself appears on screen, offering a kind of wizened and reflective narration for these moments in his past. If The Dance of Reality was essentially a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story), Endless Poetry functions more like a künstlerroman (a story about an artist's development and maturation). Alejandro becomes a poet, though it happens too easily, which is where Jodorowsky's flair for surreal and alchemical indulgence butts up against the mundane realities of the writing process, especially for people just starting out. Alejandro is fully formed as a poet the moment he reads Lorca for the first time, like a single book unlocks a preternatural facility with language. There is no struggle with bad poetry, there is almost no self-doubt, and no need to find his footing as a writer. The closest the film alludes to these conflicts is in one early scene at a typewriter. Alejandro pecks out a minor triumph as the giant spectral face of his father dominates the other half of the screen, calling his son a maricón over and over again, deriding the masculinity/sexuality of being an artist. But the film isn't much concerned about that. Alejandro is already great without the essential work to achieve greatness, and always certain about his greatness without a more troubled relationship with language. He's even gifted his own bohemian pad to have parties with all the rakes, wits, and creatives of Santiago. Art has no limitations, but it's part of the artist's journey to discover that on their own, and that journey isn't embarked upon here. We've already arrived at the outset. It undercuts one of the more powerful moments toward the end of Endless Poetry. On a circus stage, Alejandro transforms from a simple clown into a poet and then into a melancholic mime right out of Children of Paradise. This ought to feel like some transcendent apotheosis, a transformation from a fool into a different figure (at least a much wiser fool), like progressing through the major arcana in a tarot deck. Instead, it feels like a tautology. It's not built into the grand arc of Endless Poetry, but a smaller arc of some adjacent scenes in the movie. This sense of being fully formed as an artist extends into Young Adult Alejandro as a sage. He rarely does wrong around his friends, and if he does there's at least some justification for it. In a moment that nods to El Topo, Alejandro happens by the apartment where a dwarf friend is attempting suicide. He saves her life, teaches her a spiritual lesson about the value of living, and sleeps with her even though she's on her period. It's a little too saintly, and maybe even self-congratulatory, which undercuts the deeper sadness of the scene and what it means. This woman is the girlfriend of his best friend, Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), who is drunk and violent and asleep on the front porch the morning after the assignation. Alejandro's damaged their relationship, which has been built on their mutual anarchic virtuosity as poets, but Enrique was a jerk and the reason his girlfriend tried to take her own life. This is an autobiographical work, so of course Alejandro's the center of our attention and of this story, yet there's something that feels off to me about making yourself the Mary Sue/Gary Stu of your own life. In a lot of ways, Enrique seems like the classic and perhaps more compelling künstlerroman hero because of how flawed and embarrassing and raw he is as a person. The same guy who clowns with his best friend walking down the street as an aesthetic lark is the same raging drunk who can neglect those he loves. Maybe Alejandro and Enrique could be viewed in tandem as a composite of Alejandro's early life, where the desire to be wise was complicated by an uncontrolled appetite, and where a mastery of language was essential since other aspects of life couldn't be so controlled. But maybe that's my attempt to make this less compelling aspect of Endless Poetry work in context with the multi-film, autobiographical capstone to a career that has changed my life as a lover of film. Like I mentioned in a Cult Club piece on Santa Sangre, I keep finding Jodorowsky's fingerprints on my imagination. There's so much I love about Endless Poetry despite the middling moments and a lot of visual blandness that plagues much of the film. (Like The Dance of Reality, too much of the cinematography seems too flat, too plain, and uncinematic.) There's a strange 80s-deco art-bar like something out of Brazil where Alejandro is drawn to technicolor poet Stella Díaz Varín. She's played by the same actress who plays Alejandro's mother for maximum Freudian impact. There are a few scenes where art seems like the only refuge from the rising Ibáñez dictatorship; I'm missing that cultural and historical context that would enliven the film. There's a moment when Young Adult Alejandro and Old Alejandro must make peace with Alejandro's father. A complicated love emerges when one views a pivotal moment in the past knowing what the future holds. I might have liked more of Old Jodorowsky hopping into the film and commenting about the people and places of his life. He's the center of it all, so why stay outside when there's so much I'd like to know. What did he love about this woman? What did Lorca's poetry say to him as a young man, and what other poets spoke to him? What is machismo in the face of art? What does it mean to him to be a man? What regrets are there and what would he have liked to do differently? I wonder if the next film will be the last one, and what this all might feel like viewed as a single work rather than loose chapters with a looser shape. If this marks the end of Jodorowsky, it's fitting that it also feels like the beginning.
Review: Endless Poetry photo
A portrait of Jodorowsky as a young poet
In what may be the final years of Alejandro Jodorowsky's life, his work has turned inward and become sentimentally personal. He's exploring his own autobiography, but retelling it in his own odd way. Jodorowsky's previous fil...

Review: The Bad Batch

Jun 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221600:43618:0[/embed] The Bad BatchDirector: Ana Lily AmirpourRating: RRelease Date: June 23, 2017 (limited) Don't get me wrong. There are things about The Bad Batch that I love, but they're undermined by boring self-satisfied self-indulgence. In the film's post-apocalyptic world, prisoners are released at the Texas border and left to fend for themselves. Arlen starts the movie wandering the wasteland but is soon kidnapped by cannibals. She loses an arm and a leg before she escapes to a makeshift town called Comfort. (On the way she meets a mute and nearly unrecognizable Jim Carrey.) Comfort is run by a charismatic cult leader surrounded by an army of bodyguards/brides. He's played by Keanu Reeves, who seems to be doing his best impression of Edgar Allan Poe doing a bad Keanu Reeves impression. At night, Comfort becomes a small scale post-apocalyptic Burning Man, complete with a DJ bumping tunes in a giant, light-up boombox. In all that I've written, what's not to love? The answer is Arlen. After about 30 minutes in a two-hour movie, my patience and goodwill dissipated because of her and the film's unwillingness to do anything interesting with her. Maybe it's odd of me to expect character from a moody would-be cult movie, but Arlen's lack of character causes The Bad Batch to implode around her. She doesn't want anything, doesn't need anything, has no sense of motivation or an internal life. She just kind of wanders around. For a movie with such a strange world, it's too content with being listless. Arlen is a non-character surrounded by more interesting supporting characters. There's no compelling story to tell in The Bad Batch; it's just a bunch of sets, locations, a primary cast, and a little stunt casting. In one of the early moments of The Bad Batch, Arlen meets a scavenger and her daughter. They both come from the cannibal colony that Arlen fled, but she's never interacted with either of these characters before. She murders the mother in cold blood even as she begs for mercy, but spares the daughter, Miel (Jayda Fink). The little girl mutely follows her mother's killer. It's done out of revenge, I get it, and yet Arlen doesn't seek further revenge on those who actually amputated her limbs. She just hangs out in Comfort and that's it. Miel would have made a more interesting main character. Miel's father, Miami Man, could have carried the film as well. He's a hulking bodybuilder cannibal played by Jason Momoa doing an impression of a good Keanu Reeves doing a bad Cuban accent. Like really, really bad. Momoa's at least a driven presence on screen since I knew what he wanted (i.e., to find his daughter... and maybe eat someone). Arlen and Miami Man meet and strike up a bond that verges on attraction but, like so much else about the movie, goes nowhere. They hide beneath a sheet during a sandstorm, intimately close, Miami Man unaware that his companion is his enemy. In a different film this moment could be filled with a edgy or even erotic charge. In The Bad Batch, it's just two attractive people under a flapping white sheet. In my head, I keep thinking of The Bad Batch in terms of El Topo since they're such opposites. Everything in El Topo feels meaningful because Jodorwosky builds his movie around a character's spiritual quest and obsessions. All objects are symbols, actions have cosmic consequence, the finale is apotheosis. The Bad Batch reduces its symbols to objects, strips actions of their greater meaning, turns dialogue into babble. A rambling Reeves monologue late in the film is tedious nonsense about seeds and plumbing. Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain summed up the gist in just nine words: "You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold." Though beautiful, The Bad Batch is a tautological movie rather than spiritual or philosophical: a meaningless wasteland about a meaningless wasteland. It's not gold, that's for sure.
Review: The Bad Batch photo
What if El Topo was about nothing?
Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a sparse yet stunning debut that overflowed with languid cool. So much of Girl Walks gets by on its moody/artsy posturing, which had shades of Jim Jarmusch's early work...

David Bowie: The Image photo
David Bowie: The Image

Watch The Image, a 1969 horror short film starring a young David Bowie

At the time, this was rated X
Jun 13
// Hubert Vigilla
David Bowie had a memorable, otherworldly presence on screen. He was a believable strung out alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a seductive strung out vampire in The Hunger, a dance-happy goblin king in Labyrinth, a proper B...

Review: Manifesto

May 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221523:43554:0[/embed] ManifestoDirector: Julian RosefeldtRating: NRRelease Date: May 10, 2017 The art installation version of Manifesto takes just over two hours to complete if you were to watch every screen. As a film, Manifesto is only 90 minutes long. Rosefeldt chops up many of the monologues, and only a handful of them get to play out on screen in their entirety. There's only one moment of synchronized harmony at the very end of the film, which probably doesn't make much sense to people who haven't seen the art installation. I couldn't stop comparing the film to the art installation. Yet I think that's a fair comparison since Manifesto was an art installation first and its strengths as an art object are unique to that medium. As a film, Manifesto brings the texts of the manifestos and the brilliance of Blanchett's multiple performances to the forefront. Blanchett leaps from persona to persona seamlessly, playing a Russian vagrant, a garbage crane operator, a punk nihilist, and so on. During a funeral, a veiled Blanchett delivers a stirring eulogy by way of the Dada Manifesto. In a class full of children, Blanchett warmly instructs the minds of future through the words of Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and the Dogme 95 Manifesto. One of the standouts is her dual performance as a cable news host and a field reporter. Blanchett nails the cadence and rhythms of news, which is all false gravitas, falser sincerity, and manufactured conviviality. Both the installation and the film reminded me a lot of Cindy Sherman's work and how she portrays herself through shifting personas. Rosefeldt's able to do a few fun things with editing that simply couldn't be done with the art installation. One segment features Blanchett as a God-lovin' housewife leading her family in grace before supper. She goes on and on about the ideal art she wants in her life and the lives of others. The film cuts away and returns to this domestic tableau multiple times, drawing out all the laughs it can from the interminable prayer and the bored looks on the faces of her family. And yet while the text and the performances are important, I couldn't help but feel Manifesto is also a work about time, space, and the way its audience organizes and interprets the experience of the installation in their heads. People who see the art installation can wander if they want, and divert their attention to other screens, or to other people, or even to the potential synchronicities of different manifestos being recited simultaneously on separate screens. For instance, standing in the center of the Park Avenue Armory during the harmonious synchronization of all the screens, I noticed a lone voice at the end of the harmony. Cutting through the silence was Blanchett the Dada Manifesto mourner. She said, "Nothing, nothing, nothing" into the void of space. That's an experience that felt so personal and even so secret--as if only I noticed it, and as if Rosefeldt set that moment up just for those people who happened to be there and I was momentarily a co-conspirator, a member of this clandestine treehouse art club. I loved the way that armory space and my own ideological hobby horses played a role in my attention to Manifesto as an art installation. That's impossible to recreate as a film. Rosefeldt's is bound to guide his audience down a set path rather than giving the audience the ability to get lost in the experience of the various screens. Thinking about it in terms of game design and video games, if Manifesto the art installation is an aesthetic and intellectual sandbox, Manifesto the art film is an ideological rail shooter. Given what's lost in the translation, there were times that I felt like Manifesto the film was a supplement to the art installation rather than a fully realized art object in its own right. And yet maybe that's where the dimension of time and space comes back into play. I think what I think about Manifesto because I saw the art installation before the film. A work by an artist and an actress in conversation with another work by the same artist and the same actress. Manifesto the film might be considered a response to Manifesto the art installation. In other words, a 14th screen. Even when I thought Manifesto the film loses the unique aspects of time and space that made the art installation work so well, I am now forced to consider new dimensions of time (the order in which I saw the different iterations of Manifesto, the runtime of each) and space (the venues in which I saw each work, the strengths of the two different mediums). I may have a strong preference for one version of Manifesto over the other, but I'm glad to have been engaged and enthralled by each in their own way.
Review: Manifesto photo
Art installation becomes an art movie
When a work is adapted to another medium, it almost always loses something in translation. Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto started its life as a multi-screen art installation. I had an opportunity to see it here in New York at t...

Tribeca Capsule Review: November

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221420:43534:0[/embed] NovemberDirector: Rainer SarnetRating: TBDRelease Date: TBDCountry: Estonia/Poland November is an adaptation of various Estonian folktales which are mashed together yet don't quite cohere. There's a werewolf girl in love with a peasant boy, but the peasant boy is in love with a sleepwalking girl who's part of the gentry. There's the threat of the coming plague, which leads villagers to resort to foolish remedies. The Devil wanders the woods at night, and for a little bit of blood he can give your kratt at soul. Somewhere and somehow these different threads might have braided together, but they instead feel too discrete. Even though I loved how strange these disparate tales were (though some of them didn't have any sense of an ending), strangeness alone isn't always sufficient. I longed for something more to care about than just weirdness--plot, character, a sense of direction, some basic set-ups and payoffs. Admittedly, my disconnect from November may be cultural. There are probably aspects of Polish and Estonian history and the national character that would have informed my viewing of the film. Instead I watched in a kind of baffled awe, wondering where it was going, just going with it, and not knowing what to make of things once I arrived at the end of the film. If anything, November is so exquisitely shot that I wasn't necessarily bored by it. There's always something beautiful or strange to look at. The kratts (which sadly don't play a major part in the story) are works of brilliant tool shed/junk pile puppetry. There's a procession of ghosts in the woods at night that only really comes up once, but it's so hauntingly beautiful, with figures in white moving past torches and trees with an elegiac grace. The sumptuous black and white imagery plays with shadow and fog so well that even when my mind check out of the story by the halfway point, my eyes were transfixed from beginning to end.
Review: November photo
At least it looks really good
I want to describe the opening scene of Rainer Sarnet's November because it's absolutely bonkers. There's a sentient creature comprised of three scythes and a cow skull. It moves in a herky-jerky fashion using its scythe...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Flames

Apr 24 // Hubert Vigilla
FlamesDirectors: Josephine Decker and Zefrey ThrowellRating: TBDRelease Date:  TBD There's a moving 40 minutes scattered throughout this 86-minute film. The best bits for me involved Decker and Throwell talking about why things ended the way they did, and giving themselves time to be vulnerable and self-effacing on screen. Decker comes across better, at least to me, though maybe she's not always so forthcoming about why things ended. Throwell doesn't come across great, especially when he's being honest about what happened. There's a gleeful cruelty even when he's trying to be sweet to Decker, and I'm not sure how much of that was real or staged. Flames is an art doc and an artifice doc. But for that 40 strong minutes, there are plenty of boring moments in Flames that just sort of float there. The couple's doomed trip to Maldives feels like an inert home movie about art scene hipsters in love. And there are stretches of the movie that feel repetitive or too much like navel gazing. And there are also moments that feel a bit too precious, like when Decker and Throwell go to couples therapy. At that point, they're broken up and don't seem to be hanging out, so their time in therapy makes gestures at intimacy but also feels like a performance art piece without stakes beyond adding a scene to the film. That might be Flames as a whole for me--a blend of intimacy and performance art, each side vying for time and control, and I'm not sure what to make of it all since I don't necessarily know or feel connected to these people. Yet part of me wants to like the better-messy-business of Flames because the parts that worked well enough cast some of the film's jetsam in a different light. An act of public strip poker reveals a lot about who Decker and Throwell are as people and as participants in their relationship. And a bit of impromptu acupuncture in a naked puppet show offers some hints of the relationship that unfolds. But like relationships that don't end well and that don't feel like they're worth salvaging, it's best to just move on.
Review: Flames photo
Love burns itself down self-indulgently
Flames offers an intriguing premise. Part documentary and part art movie, co-directors Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell document their relationship as it falls apart. We start with the two of them in the best part of any ...

Review: David Lynch: The Art Life

Mar 31 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221368:43488:0[/embed] David Lynch: The Art LifeDirectors: Jon Nguyen and Rick BarnesRating: NRRelease Date: March 31, 2017  The Art Life is like passing a flashlight along a bumpy surface to watch the way the shadows shift, or standing near a painting at a weird angle to admire the thickness of the paint and note the interruptions in the path of a brushstroke. Lynch mentions that the past can often inform images or ideas, and then gets talking about an early childhood memory. In his childhood suburb standing outside, a naked woman in distress across the street; he didn't know what was wrong but just that something was wrong. Accompanying artwork fills the screen. While Nguyen and Barnes never show the corresponding clip from Blue Velvet, I couldn't help but think of that scene in Blue Velvet. Yet that's the point. This memory has been with Lynch his entire life, and there are plenty of manifestations of it in his art. This made me think about the way Lynch speaks and how that's a study in vocal texture. He uses simple language to convey deep feelings that are maybe too complex to describe. Weird Director affectation, sure maybe, yet there's also the way Lynch says what he says. I can hear the verbal underlining and italicizing, and some of the (intentionally or unintentionally) arch delivery when he means more than he's willing to say. While sharing another childhood memory, Lynch stops abruptly. Something really bad happened, and we know nothing more, so it must have been that bad. The texture of the memory but not the memory directly. As an aggregate of these biographical textures, it's fascinating to consider The Art Life as a lens through which to view Eraserhead. The documentary covers Lynch's childhood to the making of his first feature film. If the past informs images and ideas, this must be a sample of the mental material Lynch brought to Eraserhead; all that unease in Philadelphia and the intense poverty and the unspoken difficulties of Lynch's first marriage. Yet Eraserhead is still an inscrutable masterpiece of personal associations and whatever its viewer brings to it. Beyond texture, I think The Art Life is a great display of Lynch's creative process. There's something wonderful about seeing visual artists at work. How they do what they do is often an expression of who they are. Lynch is especially hands-on, and almost childlike in terms of his approach, but there's also an intuitive intellect at work that knows how to manipulate the material being worked. He uses paint layered thick for textures, sometimes applied to panels with his hands, smeared across. What better way to really control texture? Every now and then, Lynch's 3-year-old daughter Lula appears on screen, painting alongside dad. It's so idyllic in that industrial workspace of Lynch's home. It reminds me of a well-kept metalshop/woodshop class in a good public high school. I'd like to revisit the 1997 documentary Pretty As a Picture: The Art of David Lynch, which seems like a strong companion piece to The Art Life. In that documentary, Lynch mentions how he liked using latex paints and house paints when he does visual art, and how he used to incorporate raw meat into his artwork so ants and flies could pick away at the paintings and allow interesting things to happen to the images. Maybe the past doc will inform the present doc and vice versa, and maybe the old Lynch will illuminate something the younger Lynch said. The art life is a long one. Strange too, and worthwhile.
David Lynch documentary photo
For fans of Lynch's films and artwork
David Lynch: The Art Life hits a sweet spot in terms of its release date. Lynch's feature-length debut Eraserhead has just turned 40 years old, and the new season of Twin Peaks starts in May. There's bound to be a resurg...

Review: We Are the Flesh

Jan 12 // Hubert Vigilla
TRAILER IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK (NSFW) [embed]220963:43146:0[/embed] We Are the Flesh (Tenemos le carne)Director: Emiliano Rocha MinterRating: NRRelease Date: January 13, 2017 (limited)Country: Mexico  We Are the Flesh reminds me of early Clive Barker splatterpunk stories; one scene in thermal vision even recalls Barker's little-seen short film The Forbidden. There's also a hint of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man, though it's shorn of the technological madness and kinetic stuff--this transgression is luridly organic. Maybe Tetsuo by way of Gaspar Noe, with occasional outbursts of hysterical excess straight out of Andrzej Zulawski (Possession). The film also has some moist, mucus-rich makeup effects that wouldn't be out of place in a Brian Yuzna movie (Society, From Beyond). This paragraph is either a warning or a recommendation--if you want blood, you got it. There's a man with a demonic smile (Noe Hernandez) who lives in an abandoned building. He gets high on homemade gasoline and gets off on solitude. A boy (Diego Gamaliel) and a girl (Maria Evoli), siblings, enter his building. They're desperately in search of food and shelter. The man lets them stay as long as they help him construct a claustrophobic landscape within the building. Think of something like a cave and a uterus complete with a pseudo birth canal; a psychoanalytic hellscape where the id can thrive. All the while, the man tries to coerce the boy and the girl to break social, sexual, and interpersonal taboos. Minter builds up dread through whispers and shouts as he mounts transgressions upon each other. There's incest, rape, murder, cannibalism, on-camera sex, and necrophilia, and even now I can't say what it all adds up to. We Are the Flesh may not add up to anything, to be honest. Even though Hernandez and Evoli give the film their all--Evoli in particular goes for psychotic broke--the movie may just be images and noise with the intent to shock. I think there's a political allegory about Mexico and poverty, that a lack of means reduces us to some base state of nature in which social mores no longer matter. But it's a bit of a guess. It might be a stretch. Sometimes extreme cinema is just extreme cinema, but I can't help but sense something more meaningful behind all of this given how repulsed yet affected I felt. When someone lets out a blood-curdling scream, there has to be a reason, right? Maybe? Or was it just the desire to scream? This struggle for meaning is probably an intentional provocation from Minter. When confronted with something shocking, I usually feel challenged to interpret it. Yet Minter evades overt meaning making. There seems to be 10 minutes missing from the final act of the 80-minute film. Several events take place off camera unexplained, and it leads to total narrative disorientation. We Are the Flesh was a feverish nightmare already, and then that skimpy dream logic breaks down completely. No order, not for this this movie. What Minter provides is a sustained sense of unease, however. That feeling remained with me even after a less than satisfying conclusion. Even if We Are the Flesh only prompts exasperation and disgust, it's such a strange trip into the abyss I want to send others down there into the dark who are willing. Minter, like or hate it, is a Mexican filmmaker to watch. I'm reminded of something Clive Barker said about movies once (paraphrased): I want to feel something, even if it's just disgust; better that than thinking, okay, let's go for a pizza. After We Are the Flesh, pizza was the last thing I wanted.
Review: We Are the Flesh photo
The ecstasy of pure id
Reviewing We Are the Flesh from writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter is tricky. On the one hand, it's a deeply flawed film aimed at a limited audience. It's transgressive in the extreme, sexually explicit bordering on pornog...

Phantasm sequel and 4k photo
Phantasm sequel and 4k

Phantasm: Ravager and the Phantasm 4k remaster get release dates--BOOOOOY!

Balls to the wall in Sept and Oct
Aug 10
// Hubert Vigilla
A while ago we reported that J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot was overseeing a 4k restoration of Don Coscarelli's 1979 cult classic Phantasm. I speculated that the remaster would be released to coincide with the fifth and final film in...

Review: The Lobster

May 12 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219844:42633:0[/embed] The LobsterDirector: Yorgos LanthimosRating: n/aRelease Date: October 16, 2015 (UK); May 13, 2016 (USA)Country: UK, Greece, France  In the world of The Lobster, single people are social pariahs. After the death of a spouse or a divorce, a single person is forced to check into a hotel filled with other single people. They have forty-five days to pair up and get married, otherwise they are killed and have their consciousness transferred to an animal. Lots of people choose dogs, but throughout the movie we also see horses, pigs, and peacocks. Our hero David (Colin Ferrell, with a slight gut) chooses a lobster; he brings his brother (who is now a dog) with him to the hotel. You can earn extra time to prevent metempsychosis by hunting down single people in the woods with a tranquilizer gun. The hotel operates with business-like efficiency, providing scheduled social activities like some bad singles cruise from hell. To reinforce the importance of relationships, the hotel staff puts on skits: A single man pantomimes eating a meal alone, he chokes, he dies; a man and his wife pantomime eating a meal together, he chokes, she administers the Heimlich maneuver, he lives--applause. To determine whom you can pair up with, you're asked whether you're straight or homosexual (the latter sounds so much like business-ese in the context of the film). David asks if there's a bi-sexual option and is shot down--you can only choose one or the other, not both. Paper or plastic, soup or salad, efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. And it's blackly hilarious. The international cast adds to the oddball appeal of The Lobster, and they deliver their lines in an intentionally stilted manner. Olivia Colman's hotel manager strikes just the right balance between clinical, supportive, and fascistic to make her moments memorable. As for the guests, at times they seem like awkward pre-teens going through the early stages of adolescence. David befriends men played by John C. Reilly (with a slight lisp) and Ben Wishaw (with a slight limp), but they act like boys in the schoolyard. In some scenes the lines are bumbled or devoid of actual human emotion, like they're reading a script or they're pod people acting like humans are supposed to act. Flirtation is no longer about attraction or fun but learned behaviors about how people are supposed to flirt, or the desperation of a ticking clock scenario; relationships are a form of mutually beneficial transaction (i.e., we get to remain humans) that's not necessarily satisfying. Some of the best moments in The Lobster come from Lanthimos' exploration of the various forces that urge people to get into relationships against their will. The time limit might be taken as a biological imperative to have kids, or even just a desire to get married by a certain age; the pressures of the hotel staff are the different cultural, familial, and religious expectations attached to marriage and relationships. Any time your relatives have nagged you about dating, marriage, or kids, you have occupied a room in Lanthimos' hotel. Lanthimos also pokes fun at the arbitrary ways we sometimes choose who we want to be with. Limping Wishaw is looking for a woman who also has a limp, because something in common (no matter how arbitrary) might mean greater compatibility. Sometimes shared interests or traits are an arbitrary reason to get into a relationship. Does he or she really need to like your favorite band? Is a 99% match on OK Cupid really a guarantee of compatibility? A number is just a number like a limp is just a limp, and what people share together isn't a matter of arithmetic or mere reflection; there's a kind of private language and grammar that develops between people who are really fond of one another, and these things can't be forced or imposed from the outside. Since The Lobster is rooted in binaries, we also get to learn about the harshness of single-life out in the woods. In the wild and the damp, we meet the leader of The Loners played by Lea Seydoux, who's both a kind of political revolutionary and a radicalized kook. She asserts her own absurd will over The Loners that is in stark contrast to the rules of the hotel--instead of relationships, it's all about forceful solitude. And yet like the hotel, her rules are equally arbitrary, equally absurd, and also blackly hilarious. It's no longer a case of "paper or plastic" among The Loners, but rather "with us or against us." Lanthimos is equally suspicious of these denials of attraction and the repression of our desire to connect with someone else; it's another imposition on human nature and individual choice. In the woods, animals who were single people wander through shots. They're probably better off. For all the absurd and anarchic humor throughout The Lobster, the movie loses momentum before it comes to an end. It's as if Lanthimos exhausted the possibilities of his conceit and didn't figure out the final pivot his story could take. (I mentioned Barthelme earlier, and his best stories often have a sort of pivot near the end, revealing an additional train of thought that's been operating, parallel or hidden, all along.) The Lobster can feel a little one-note at times, but I suppose it's really one note that's played by two opposing sides, a kind of tyranny of logic. During the New York Film Festival press conference after the screening, Lanthimos said his screenplay was very logical. The comment drew some giggles from the press, yet it's true. The Lobster adheres to the logic of its conceit, and maybe too much. But there's still enough to love.
Review: The Lobster photo
Love is strange (so is loneliness)
I still haven't gotten around to seeing Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, though I intend to. The blackly surreal 2009 film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and drew favorable comparisons to the work of Luis Bunuel ...

Review: The Forbidden Room

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219842:42634:0[/embed] The Forbidden RoomDirectors: Guy Maddin and Evan JohnsonRating: NRRelease Date: October 7, 2015 (limited)Country: Canada  The Forbidden Room is a movie parody made of multiple movies tossed together, all in the form of an out-of-control lucid dream. There's a submarine thriller in which doomed seamen are running out of air and must figure out how to surface without blowing up. (They're hauling explosive jelly, you see.) One of the crewmen, coming out from a portal in the sub, is also a woodsman from another movie who's on a hypermasculine quest to save a woman from a group of rough and tumble feral group of cave dwellers. (Goofy feats of strength ensue.) But then we're on an island with an active volcano, and then we're experiencing the dream of a dying man's mustache, and then we're in a nightclub talking about Filipino vampires, and then we back and the sub, and then we're on a train, and then we're on a farm; and then, and then, and then. The breathless way an excited child tells a story--always, and then. Oh, also the poet John Ashbery shows up periodically in The Forbidden Room for a quirky educational film on how you're supposed to take a bath. "Hoo boy. Who's the wiseguy who put all the peyote buttons in the mulligan stew?" With so much talk of "the molten dream" in the film, it's as if we're experiencing the dream of the volcano, or that the lava from this volcano is comprised of all these stories joined together from the stuff that comprises the ground; a mingling of film history and the collective unconscious. ("Hey! Who's the mook that put the metaphorical lava in the mulligan stew?") We may simply be walking through a series of half-formed ideas in Maddin's head. Moments of The Forbidden Room reminded me of listening to friends describe their dreams, and admittedly there were times in the film where inattention set in--sometimes a dream goes on too long that's unengaging--but I would be snapped back into the molten dream by a shift in the narrative. It's as if the adult mind is at odds with the child mind of the movie. In the former, the need to explore an idea to its deeper intellectual and aesthetic ends. In the latter, the rush of the enthused conjunction "and then" until the end of the story arrives. Both, however, wind up being discursive, and the further we get from the sub and its confined spaces and singular focus, the stranger and better things get. (Did I mention the doomed submarine crew eats flapjacks for oxygen because of the air pockets?) Maddin's films tend to have a hand-made, analog quality to them, like My Winnipeg or Brand Upon the Brain. As sumptuous as the colors are in The Forbidden Room, it often doesn't feel handmade or old-timey. That due to the digital cinematography and color manipulation. The grainy "silent film look" was done in post, and it can be inconsistent, even from shot to shot in the same segment. The distortions on the images similarly have a digital sheen, as one image morphs into the next; there are even digital snowflakes at one point, and I never realized how much I longed for the fake stuff shaken out of a box from above the frame. While I don't mind digital cameras, there's something about the look of the film that took me out of its attempt at creating a vivid and continuous dream made of old movies. I also sensed a certain lack of distinction from certain movies to the next, which may have been a result of the digital shooting. The Ashbery educational film certainly look different from the sub movie, but at times the side movies seem to meld into each other--flavors blending together in the pot, multiple rocks now just a single lava flow. In some instances it's fine since characters, actors, and flapjacks crisscross through the different subfilms of the main film. One of my favorite stretches of The Forbidden Room involved a murder and the dream of a mustache and the diary of a madman since the sections were so distinctly severed. Then again, this bit was neatly nested rather than molten, and I wonder if that says more about my taste than anything else. For Maddin's fans, The Forbidden Room should feel comfy and maddening at once, and there's a lot to pick apart in this bowl of mulligan stew. Newcomers to Maddin might want to start with My Winnipeg and move on from there. Best to start in shallow and warm waters before jumping into an active volcano.
The Forbidden Room review photo
Dreaming the winding, molten dream
Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room has been described as a series of nested movies, but I don't think that description is accurate. "Nested" seems more about neat structure to me, the way that Matryoshka dolls fit neatly (or nea...

Review: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

Oct 31 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213180:39102[/embed] The Pervert's Guide to IdeologyDirector: Sophie FiennesRelease Date: November 1, 2013Rating: NR  [Editor's note: The above clip is from The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, not The Pervert's Guide to ideology.] The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is a sequel to Žižek's previous film with director Sophie Fiennes, 2006's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. They take similar forms: Žižek runs through his divergent thoughts over clips of movies, and even becomes integrated into them. In Cinema, for example, Žižek sits down in Morpheus's green-tinted room in The Matrix and drives a motorboat like Tippi Hedren while discussing The Birds. In Ideology, we open in the alleyway from John Carpenter's They Live. Žižek stands in front of a dumpster as if he's watching Roddy Piper and Keith David off camera. Later, Žižek is hanging out in a recreation of Travis Bickle's apartment in Taxi Driver (or as Žižek calls it, "The Taxi Driver"). He has a breather in the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange. He's in a plane looking out the window at the opening shots of Triumph of the Will; on an airstrip where Joseph Stalin was descending from a plane in some Soviet propaganda film (a narrative one, not a documentary.) He's even in a lifeboat at night in the North Atlantic while talking about Titanic. "What am I doing in a lifeboat?" Žižek asks, as if to say "Why am I out here in the North Atlantic? Let me answer that for you," and "Why the hell am I doing something so ridiculous for this movie?" It's a hilarious question. He's obviously on a set, the sky behind him totally black with bright stars. It's like Žižek in a diorama of Titanic (the movie) commenting on the film which is a melodramatic fiction about a real event. Žižek's own lectures and writings are often filled with jokes, and here, he's telling them and inhabiting them. But jokes have that interesting quality where they reveal the wobbliness of language, the strangeness of everyday life, and the weirdness of our beliefs. Like everything else, jokes are a manifestation of ideology. George Saunders wrote that "humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to," and I think he was onto something. In Astra Taylor's 2005 documentary Žižek!, we got some insight into the way Žižek composes his thought. He jots ideas in flurries and frenzies until they're all down, and then he tries to find the bits that connect them together to form a book. In a way, Žižek's philosophy reminds me of something I once heard music journalist/cultural critic Greil Marcus say about the nature of criticism: it's about letting an idea take hold. There seems like there's some connection there between Žižek's impulses and Marcus's notion. Both have to do with identifying what hooks the mind about an object in culture. For Žižek, he's looking for a path from idea to idea, a back and forth between the object and the culture and vice versa. For Marcus, it's the idea sparked by a cultural object that creates a path toward the writing about that object and the culture that gave rise to it. The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is basically a work of ideological exploration through film criticism -- not the "you should see this, 4 stars" sort of criticism where the value of a work is assessed in a reductive up or down vote, but the "x-movie made me think y-thought" sort of criticism that goes beyond the film and into what it says about the world. (Interestingly, my first encounter with Žižek's work was a piece on Lost Highway he did for some film journal while I was still an undergrad.) Žižek is inside these films because the x-movie/y-thought criticism is about stepping into the film as a cultural artifact and finding real culture in it, and then stepping out of the film back into culture to find film stuff in the world. This may be the prevailing method of lots of contemporary book-length criticism. It's reflective, playful, and at times memoiristic. I'm thinking here of the 33 1/3 music criticism series and the Soft Skull Press movie criticism series Deep Focus (which hopefully isn't defunct). So going back to They Live, it's about what the glasses say about contemporary capitalism and consumerism, and how much it hurts to understand the nature of the veil. Or in The Sound of Music, we're eyeing the sexual tension and fundamental friction of the Catholic structure and what "Climb Every Mountain" is really getting at. In Titanic, what is Žižek doing in that boat? He's calling BS on the idea of Titanic as a romance. If Jack and Rose got to shore alive, they'd have incredible sex for three weeks. After that, Rose would get bored with being lower class and Jack would want to draw someone else, and that would be it. What's Titanic really about to Žižek? It's about a spoiled rich girl who, at a turning point in her life, sucks the vitality out of the lower classes (and James Cameron's idealization of the lower class, no less) in order to reaffirm her own ego. I think he's onto something. Žižek steps outside of film in order to get at a broader look at ideology. He drinks Starbucks and Coca-Cola and talks about slacktivism and Lacanian desire, respectively. There's a fascinating segment about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, particularly the "Ode to Joy" part, and how various cultures and governments relate to it and make it suit their ideological ends. And of course the riots in London, the Arab Spring, and Occupy get explored a bit in the film since those are current reactions to the prevailing ideology of the West. These real cultural moments help underline one of Žižek's most interesting questions in the film: why is it that so many people in the West can imagine an asteroid obliterating planet Earth but can't imagine changes to a capitalist economy? I don't have the intellectual footholds to engage in a critique of Žižek's thought process in this film, at least not right now. Whenever reading dense material, the analytical machinery in my skull only gets working on the second or third read. In the case of The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, it'll take another watch before I can really parse the arguments. The first time through, I just dazzled at the spectacle of ideas. The audacity of Žižek and the playfulness of Fiennes (and the other way around) are a kind of intellectual Rube Goldberg machine: a series of madcap chain reactions -- history as a process, ideology as inescapable, cause and effect and divergence. There's just something so enthralling about watching ideas take hold. You get a grip on it and continue the ascent, upwards, around and slanted, until you've reached the end. These ideas result in a kind of conclusion that solves nothing but remains invigorating. (Philosophy not as a solution to big problems but as a reassessment and reframing of big problems. Solutions not required.) Like the criticism that invigorates me, at the end I find myself on top of something new that allows me to look at all the cultural stuff around me in a different way. Žižek wants you to make like Maria and climb every mountain because the hills are alive with the sound of global capitalism. [embed]213180:39101:0[/embed]
Pervert's Guide Review photo
Slavoj Žižek climbs every mountain and fords every stream
Slavoj Žižek is one of the most popular public intellectuals in the world, though maybe in a "big in Japan" sort of way. (Most public intellectuals who aren't Noam Chomsky or a member of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism have ...

NYFF Review: Stray Dogs

Oct 02 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216446:40740:0[/embed] Stray Dogs (Jiao You | 郊遊)Director: Tsai Ming-LiangRating: TBDCountry: TaiwanRelease Date: TBD I enjoy long takes and what they can do to the experience of a moment in a film (e.g., Bela Tarr's seven-plus-hour arthouse epic Sátántangó). In some cases, like Children of Men, for instance, there is the sheer virtuosity of the long take when complicated actions and camera moves are involved; and obviously this is part of the reason Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is such a hotly anticipated film. We watch to be enthralled by the filmmaking -- perhaps spot where cuts may have been hidden while pondering the complexity of the blocking -- and to eventually get lost in the experience of the film. In a movie by Tarr or Andrei Tarkovsky, the long take functions to enthrall but also to call attention to the way an image can transform if it's held long enough. Available light may subtly or gradually change, the movement within the frame may reveal a new mood a few minutes into the take that wasn't readily apparent at the beginning, or the sudden disturbance of wind and other natural elements on the landscape can become a phenomenological and aesthetic experience -- the intellect says it's just noticed the windness of the wind; the gut, which is its own kind of intellect, shivers at the awe of the received image which presents something natural in an artistic way. In Tsai's films, the same ideas are going on, but his work is more alienating and definitely an acquired taste. His concerns center more on the imagery and what the long take conveys about a given situation. Traditional concerns about narrative are secondary. Though it's been ages since I've seen it, I remember liking Tsai's 1998 film The Hole, and the same goes for his 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn. And yet there's something about Stray Dogs that kept my gut and my intellect in a constant struggle, and I have a feeling it's less about the 138-minute run time than some other things going on in the movie. The film is a portrait of a family in dire straits. The father (frequent Tsai collaborator Kang-sheng Lee) works all day as a human billboard. His son and daughter aren't in school and instead wander a supermarket, sustaining themselves on free samples. The mother was once present but is now absent. It's all lower-class plight and the struggle to survive, as if these three cast-offs are like the eponymous stray dogs that make brief appearances in the very loose narrative. In the long takes, the audience gets to participate in the ennui of the characters, but at a certain point, this ennui belongs more to the audience. I think the main reason that Stray Dogs felt so distancing to me has to do with the nature of some of Tsai's shots. All of them are wonderfully composed and faultlessly lit. There's an interesting play of color and line in many of his compositions, whether it's the haunting black and white squiggles and rips in a severely rundown apartment, or the vertical reeds that barely conceal the father pissing during a break. In some of the early shots and later shots, the takes enthrall and are all about transformation. The second shot of Stray Dogs is simply of a tree and its roots, which are quite picturesque, but as the children enter the shot and slowly pass the tree, there's a sudden sense of scale -- I'd initially perceived the tree as much smaller, but the children are completely dwarfed by it. There's something interesting about this game of perception of images and actual nature of the image. Even a shot when the father is simply holding a sign on the island of a busy roadway has a way of transforming. His fluorescent rain poncho flaps in the slipstream of passing cars. Save for some shivering in the cold, he's a portrait of stillness, communicating his routine for the day. And then suddenly as traffic opens up, like colors reticulated in a painting, I noticed in the background so many other human billboards also in fluorescent ponchos. Here was the man alone and anonymous, and here were other men, a brotherhood of misery, joined in the same fate. The shot is repeated with variation in order to further convey the soul-crushing nature of his job, and when we return one last time to the father, it's his face in close-up as he sings a song about mortality and evanescence while he weeps at his own indignity. When Stray Dogs presents images of such artistry, my gut and my intellect were in agreement. The acts of tiny dynamism take up about one-half to two-thirds of the film's shots. The remainder of the film seems too static by comparison. One shot holds on the father as he eats a chicken thigh and rice. The only change is noticing a few flecks of flesh and skin cling to his shirt. Yes, it's an allusion to the strays feeding on scraps, and yet the information  feels obvious, un-noteworthy, tautological instead of transformative like many of the best long takes are. A similar shot of a woman gazing at a mural of a mountain provides captivating stillness but then becomes distancing stillness. While the woman is probably having a transcendent experience gazing at the mural, I couldn't help feel like a voyeur of the banal; my own experience is so detached from the character, creating two independent perceptions of time and aesthetic experience. That's a great idea in retrospect, but experiencing the moment in the present was mind-numbing. This is where my gut and my intellect have their split. My intellect wants to find something to like about Stray Dogs, and there are plenty of philosophical footholds there that it can latch onto in terms of the film being about the experience of watching it. It's an idea readily apparent in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and also apparent in Stray Dogs given a moment in the film's final third that feels like a riff on Night of the Hunter. And yet my gut says that while there's something to chew on in the ideas of the film, the experience of watching Stray Dogs was ultimately not as satisfying or gratifying as the act of thinking about it. In other words, it feels as if my entire evaluation of Stray Dogs has mostly become a rambling mess on the experience of thinking about the experience of Stray Dogs -- all levels and sub levels, all telescopic distances; myself writing about myself watching a woman looking at a mural. And then she squats and pees. Why? I really don't know. Though unexpected, it's nowhere near as jarring as a memorable scene in which the father finds a simulacrum of a woman in his bed with a cabbage for a head. He proceeds in an uninterrupted take to weep and to eat and to destroy the cabbage. The intellect pieces this moment together as a metaphorical entryway into the psychology of the father, of an unspoken backstory that reveals what happened to the absent mother, and unlocks this painful portrait not just of the failure of his masculinity but also an unresolved hatred for women, whether they're mothers, sisters, daughters, or wives. And yet the hatred is also a kind of passion that wishes to consume and become one with a presence that's no longer there -- it's the attempt to nourish loneliness with an idea of a person rather than the actual person, and that is such a resonant melancholy note. My gut, on the other hand, was struck by the absurdity of the image, transfixed less by the power of the metaphor and more by the silliness of the simulacrum and the histrionics of the performance. Sure, all the heady stuff, yeah, yeah, but the gut summed up the moment with a dumb pun: "voluntary coleslaw-ter." The penultimate shot, which is 14 minutes long, has a strange feel to it. There's suspense initially, and then there's dread, and then at a certain point the dread drains away and becomes puzzlement and then confusion. I went from wondering what would happening next to why wasn't anything happening. The occasional passing of an elevated train in the background was more exciting than the characters in the foreground. Maybe that was the point. Was it? It's been said that many avant-garde works of art are less about art and more about the philosophy of art, but I don't think that this sort of pronouncement is quite fitting for Stray Dogs. I like it for some things, I don't like it for others; I like other Tsai films better, though I like many of the shots in this film; some of the long takes are excellent cinema, others are like the antithesis of cinema. It's always boring yet it's always gorgeous. There's a shot where the father walks along a path in the shape of a lemniscate -- a figure eight, an infinity symbol. There are times the film feels like it was going on forever, and the same goes for my irresolvable thought process about this film. I can write on and on, but I can't get any closer to figuring out why the film resonated at times but then also feels like it completely missed the mark. My intellect and my gut continue to go back and forth, but we can come to a few agreements for now: Even though it's beautiful, Stray Dogs is a work of art that's probably not for you, or for most people, really There's a patience required for Stray Dogs that calls for full attention rather than passivity, and a basic grounding in post-structuralist thought and continental philosophy is helpful Writing about Stray Dogs made me appreciate it more because there are images in it that I can't simply dismiss; or if not the film, I can't dismiss the idea of Stray Dogs [embed]216446:40741:0[/embed] Alec Kubas-Meyer: There's a very real chance that nobody edited Stray Dogs. I feel like maybe that on each shot, Tsai Ming Liang shouted "Action," then the camera started rolling, and it stopped rolling immediately before he said "Cut." Then some of the shots were put in an order that almost gives some sort of sense of narrative. Not all of them, but a few. Unfortunately, it also seems like Tsai Ming Liang would wander off set for some shots, maybe go buy a sandwich, maybe go buy a sandwich shop, and only shout "Cut" when he was done with his business. That's the only scenario I can envision in which a nearly 14-minute-long static shot of two barely emotive faces could get put into a film. Otherwise, it means that the editor thought that they were making something brilliant, and Tsai Ming Liang thought that 14 minutes of soul-crushing boredom was the best way that he could convey something. Did I say 14 minutes? I meant to say 138. Stray Dogs is basically a really nice art book that for some unknown reason has the ability to "play" each of the pictures. For about a minute, this is oftentimes interesting, and it's almost always gorgeous, but even as it continues to be gorgeous, nothing is added to the second, third, fifth, tenth, thirteenth minute. It's just that photo, except there's some wind in there. Maybe a few lines of weird dialogue. Now, to be fair, there are a few moments with action, but they're so drawn out that I don't even know why anyone bothered. Played at 10X speed, I think this would be legitimately worthwhile film. You wouldn't get much out of it, but it'd be nice to look at and would last about the same length as its unacceptably long penultimate shot. But as it is? No. This thing seriously needs to be sent back to the cutting room floor. 40 -- Sub-par
Stray Dogs Review photo
Is it painterly or is it like watching paint dry? Or both?
Sometimes I'm torn between the thing itself and the idea of the thing. I may not enjoy a book, for instance, but I may like the bigger ideas that are explored in the text independent of my enjoyment of it. Similarly, I may no...

Fantasia Review: Thanatomorphose

Aug 05 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216162:40536:0[/embed] ThanatomorphoseDirector: Éric FalardeauRating: TBDCountry: CanadaRelease Date: TBD If Franz Kafka grew up on a steady diet of splatterpunk writers and melt movies (e.g., Street Trash, The Incredible Melting Man), he might have penned something like Thanatomorphose. The opening line would go something like this: "As Laura awoke one morning after a night of unfulfilling sex, she found herself transformed in her bed into a living rotting corpse." In a lot of ways, that's all the set up that's required for Thanatomorphose. There's a sense of stasis in Laura's life, and actress Kayden Rose gets that across in her vacant stares and slumped mannerisms. Laura's got an emotionally detached boyfriend. She's an artist who rarely works on her art. Her friends seem pretty empty. She's been dying on the inside probably for years, and so her body finally catches up with her soul. That's a rich metaphor, and writer/director Éric Falardeau succeeds in presenting it once the rot sets in. His three-part structure takes cues from Lars Von Trier's Antichrist; Laura's disintegration makes overt nods to David Cronenberg, particularly his remake of The Fly. The process is revolting, and we get to see it all in wincing, cringing detail. The lighting and cinematography in the last two-thirds of Thanatomorphose is unnerving, with claustrophobic use of the depth of field. Kudos need to go to David Scherer and Rémy Couture, the two lead effects artists. Though the budget was limited, this is great-looking makeup. It's so ugly and moist, real-looking enough to communicate not just the look of death but its stink as well. But that first third of Thanatomorphose is a chore to get through for a couple of reasons. The performances aren't all that great, and part of that is due to poor sound. The voices are muffled, distant, or barely audible, sometimes changing in volume and quality from shot to shot. In one scene, the background music overpowers the dialogue in the audio mix. Even if I couldn't quite make out the words people were saying, I could still tell that the lines were delivered flatly. On top of that, some of the imagery in these early scenes is murky due to bad lighting. There's lots of visual noise in some of these darker shots, which makes movements, positions, and facial expressions hard to see. This is compounded by the fact that nothing really happens in those first 25 or 30 minutes of the film, or at least nothing that couldn't be communicated in about half the time. It doesn't help that the uneventful material follows a startling, nightmarish opening sequence that abstracts sex into a series of colors and blurs. (It's like The Predator watching two people in bed.) That level of intensity isn't pick up again until later in the film. Some of this inessential footage establishes where Laura is in life and what her daily routine is, but some judicious cuts could have been used that would have streamlined this preface to deterioration without affecting its deliberate slowness. That Laura's an artist has weight in the film, but there's a more efficient way to introduce this information. Laura's morning routine is similarly important given how bland it is and how the act of rotting changes her routine, but do we really need to see her making bacon and eggs for breakfast? Her small gathering with friends also feel extraneous even though there's important material about her interpersonal relationships in there. During those first 30 minutes, I began to wonder why Thanatomorphose was a 100-minute feature-length film. It's Falardeau's debut feature, and maybe that explains a lot of it. There are many apparent jitters and missed opportunities, both due to inexperience and the limited budgeted. And yet once I finished the film, I also noticed a kind of brilliance in the metaphor and how it's brought to its conclusion. Maybe the bright, rotty spots can shine through the murky technical stuff. It sort of does, but just sort of. By the end of Thanatomorphose, the question about the length changed. Instead I wondered what could have been with a little extra revision. If trimmed right, there's a great short film version of Thanatomorphose, maybe clocking in at 30-40 minutes. I think there's also a solid 85-minute film in here, though it would still suffer from technical glitches and some so-so acting. I also played a game of "What if." If the performances were up to the level of the metaphor -- big, expressive, unhinged, powerful -- and the filmmaking in that first third was as good and focused as the filmmaking in the last two-thirds, Thanatomorphose would have been a legitimately great work of extreme body horror without caveat. And so part of me is torn about the final score for Thanatomorphose. For the patient gorehound who also likes art films, there's obvious promise even amid the faults. The weirdest thing: I was put off by the technical flaws of the first part of the movie while staggered by the technical proficiency of the last part of the movie. But I want to end on a high about Thanatomorphose because the film does end on a high note and sometimes I'm willing to make allowances for debuts. (Sometimes you evaluate the potential of what's there rather than just what's there, if that makes sense.) As Falardeau's first film, maybe this can be viewed as a kind of throat clearing. Once the warm up was done, I could tell there was a strong voice in Thanatomorphose, and I'd like to hear from it again.
Thanatomorphose Review photo
A slow burn towards slowly rotting flesh
The other week, Alec and I had a good discussion about extreme horror and disturbing cinema. Inevitably the best films that are disturbing, or at least the ones that don't feel like pure sadism, are the ones with artistic val...


Trailer: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology w/ Slavoj Zizek

Noam Chomsky recently picked an oblique intellectual fight with this guy
Aug 01
// Hubert Vigilla
I really enjoyed the free-wheeling philosophical monologue that was The Pervert's Guide to Ideology with Slavoj Žižek. Directed by Sophie Fiennes's, the film was the sequel to her previous collaboration with Žižek, The Perve...

Fantasia Review: Ritual: A Psychomagic Story

Jul 31 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216161:40517:0[/embed] Ritual: A Psychomagic StoryDirectors: Giulia Brazzale and Luca ImmesiRating: TBDCountry: ItalyRelease Date: TBD Psychomagic as a practice is rooted in the power that people ascribe to symbols and symbolic actions. I seem to remember Jodorowsky talking about a psychomagic client who had issues with his father. The client was instructed to violently destroy a cantaloupe and then send his father the smashed fruit as an act of symbolic murder. The patient was cured, and the father was probably (and understandably) weirded out. I don't subscribe to psychomagic. To be frank, it seems like a lot of hokum as therapy, but if it works for some people, that's great. That's part of the power of symbols and the fetishization of objects, and it's probably helpful for people suffering from major mental blocks or psychosomatic disorders. If true, Gallagher must have some serious issues he's been working through on stage for decades. The psychomagic takes place mostly in the second half of Ritual. The first half of the film is spent introducing our two main characters and the root of one character's psychological problems. There's Lia played by Désirée Giorgetti and her boyfriend Viktor played by Ivan Franek. The couple lead chic yet empty lives in Rome. Viktor, like many boyfriends in movies about women dealing with issues, is abusive. Initially it seems like they're just a kinky couple and Lia's a willing submissive, but Viktor's cruel and gets off on it. He practically rapes Lia in one scene, but then they laugh after he's done like it's just rough sexual roleplay. Lia nervously laughs it off and thinks she's laughing with Viktor; Viktor laughs at Lia because he knows he can get away with treating her like a whore. After some troubling personal events and a mental breakdown, Lia goes to live with her Aunt Agata (Anna Bonasso) out in the countryside. It was there when Lia was just a girl that her psychological hang-ups began to take root, and it's the stuff of a Fruedian case studies: death, superstition, and sexual awakening are all bound together. And so we leave the hard shadows of sleek, bougie citylife and wind up in a place that's magical and hallucinatory. It's common with these sorts of stories since the places of our youth are places where magic or its potential are meant to thrive. Here, spectral singers appear in the distance at night, pixies frolic like friendly neighbors who tell rhymes, and comely witches creep in the shadows of some odd mental past. This is the landscape of childhood and fairy tales, and in a lot of ways the ripe ground for psychotherapy rituals, particularly psychomagic acts of performance art/sublimation, to be performed. Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi do a fine job of making the film look lush and differentiating the imagery. Though there's a stark difference between Lia's quotidian world in Rome and this rich rural life, it all feels of a piece. Away from the city is where Lia regresses into a kind of second childhood, and there's a promise here of a new coming-of-age for her. Yet the city material is good too in spots. Given, when Lia's with Viktor, the film looks like a middling erotic thriller, but there are moments early in Ritual where the imagery is elegantly composed. Unfortunately Lia's personal story of rediscovery and Agata's shamanistic gifts as a healer are thrown off course. For some reason the film succumbs to the cliches of jilted lovers and angry skepticism -- Viktor, who should have been abandoned in the first half of the film, becomes a painful presence in the second half. He's the problem in Lia's life, and ultimately he's the biggest problem for Ritual. He's too one-note and functions only as an artificial source of drama rather than having a sense of existence outside of that. From the first shot and his first glare, there's something cartoonishly evil about him. Some attempts are made to introduce psychological depth, but they feel empty. One such effort is particularly laughable. Not only do we lose sight of Lia's story because of Viktor, but he also gets in the way of Agata as a character. She's a well-respected psychomagic healer in town, which is such a kooky yet compelling idea. Agata is essentially a small town doctor, but instead of folksy charm while diagnosing a case of appendicitis, she'll have have someone ingest ashes for the transformative value of symbolic actions. That's a whole movie in itself, especially since they never really delve into the deeper artistic or spiritual ideas in the practice of psychomagic, which seems like the whole appeal of it. As with Jodorowsky's films, the beauty is the commitment to transformation; psychomagic is part alchemy and part transference. Ritual loses both of these crucial notions when it just becomes a traditional melodrama about a domineering man who overpowers a woman who feels helpless. There are hints of what could have been in the imaginative visuals and symbolic ideas throughout the film. Porn audio plays over images of industrial machines in an art gallery, which is Lia and Viktor's relationship in nutshell. Goldfish from who knows where appear in a bathtub recalling Dark City and more fundamental unconscious imagery. In one especially good scene (despite Viktor), a chanteuse gives a rendition of "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, a haunting song whose lyrics are from a poem by Abel Meeropol about lynchings in the South. A song like "Strange Fruit" points again at the potency of metaphors to make things seem more real. Perhaps good metaphors are just the uncanny version of the truth, which is why so much stock gets put into the symbols in art and the symbolic actions of psychomagic. There in the strange fruit is the truth. I try to avoid "should haves" and "shouldn't haves" when it comes to reviewing films because that sometimes feels like saying "I would have done this" rather than evaluating the work itself on its own terms. And yet I think Ritual shouldn't have abandoned its commitment to the symbols and should have remained an exploration of the role that symbols play in Lia and Agata's lives. For Viktor, symbols hold no weight or possibility. While the contrast is compelling for a moment, it wind ups severely limiting the many possibilities of the film. Poof goes the magic.
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Premium cable melodrama and 25 seconds of Alejandro Jodorowsky
Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of my favorite filmmakers. A sure cult figure, there's an undeniable pull to El Topo, Santa Sangre, or even the excessively indulgent secret masterpiece The Holy Mountain. What really pulls me into...

Review: Only God Forgives

Jul 18 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216068:40444:0[/embed] Only God ForgivesDirector: Nicolas Winding RefnRating: RRelease Date: July 19th, 2013 (limited, VOD) Only God Forgives is such a different animal from Drive. Refn's latest is an excruciatingly mannered art house exercise in style. There's no weight to anything that happens -- not the sex, not the violence, not the over-the-top offensiveness of Kristen Scott Thomas's character -- since there's no substance to the events. It's a work of accidental self-parody in line with Terrence Malick's To the Wonder and Brian De Palma's Passion. The movie is a series of ellipses followed by punctuation. It sort of makes sense, though. Here are some of my favorite lines from Ryan Gosling's character in the film: "..." "..." [nostrils flare ever so slightly] "..." "...(?)" "TAKE OFF THE DRESS!!!" "...(!)" "(...)" "...You wanna fight?" Actually, Only God Forgives is not an animal. Like Gosling's quiet-type, Refn's film is more like a robot or a machine. It's cold, empty, lacking in humanity, but undeniably well-designed in order to achieve its purpose, which was, as far as I could tell, merely to be well-designed. A drug dealer named Julian (Gosling) runs some kind of kickboxing school/gym in Bangkok. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and murders an underaged girl. Billy is murdered, and a cop played by Vithaya Pansringarm has something to do with his death. Julian and Billy's mother (the psychotic evil twin of Kristin Scott Thomas) comes into town seeking revenge on the "yellow n**ger" who's responsible. Everything she says is about as absurdly offensive as that, which makes almost everything she says play out like a farce on the ugliest ideas of ugly Americans. Throughout the film, Gosling looks like he's in a daze, barely emoting but always looking good barely doing it. In Drive there at least seemed to be thought behind those eyes. Here, you get the same expression from Gosling from beginning to end. You'd get a comparable expression from your pet cat if you showed it last year's tax return. In one scene a gorgeous prostitute named Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) presents her crotch to Julian and then masturbates in front of him while he's tied to a chair just a few feet away. Julian looks like he's watching a tea kettle on the stove. When he later paws Mai through hanging love beads in the corner of a room, he looks like he's glancing blankly out the window on an overcast day. When he's at dinner with Mai and his own mother and his mom calls Mai a "cum receptacle" (or something along those lines), Gosling looks like he's watching paint dry. The stoic posturing became so annoying that I wanted to yell at the screen, "Just friggin' say something already, you dumb jerk!" And yes, I understand the characters are empty because they're really symbols for revenge, righteousness, indecision, and other thematic stuff. And yes I understand the critique of revenge as something hollow. And sure, the cop is doling out warped vigilante justice to lowlifes which suggests a different and almost noble dimension to his brand of violence. And yeah, I noticed the portentous dog with a bum leg hobbling around in that one shot. And sure the passivity of the Gosling character reframes the idea of what sort of revenge film this is. And of course I get the subversion of unpleasantness by shooting it so well. And yeah, I totally see the Oedipal stuff between Gosling and Thomas because the movie is so blunt about it -- it reeks of Freud like Hoboken reeks of Axe Body Spray on a Friday night. But getting it is not the same as liking what I got. These are all interesting ideas and they might work for some people, but for me interesting ideas and style cannot sustain a movie alone. Sometimes sure, but I want a sense of weight of some kind that goes beyond the merely aesthetic and intellectual -- some marrow in the bones, some heart in that chest. Instead we get zonked-out Gosling looking dreamy while Thomas drops vulgarities like prepositions. But the film's biggest sin, like Beyond the Black Rainbow, is that it's just plain boring in stretches. Live by vapid style, die by vapid style. To the film's credit, vapid imagery has never looked so good. Neither has gratuitous violence. Limbs get hacked off, torsos get split open, there's a torture porn scene, there's a blood-drenched room, and it all looks splendid. Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith seem incapable of creating bad visuals, and I admire the deep shadows and the stark Dario Argento monochrome in the hallway shots even though the most interesting thing about those tracking shots is the wallpaper. (To be fair, it is very nice wallpaper.) Makeup artists Vitch Chavasit and Pattera Puttisuraset know their way around stylish viscera. If only the mayhem actually meant something. The film ends on an odd and abrupt note followed by a dedication to cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, Santa Sangre). Refn is a major fan of Jodorowsky's, and for his next project he wants to adapt The Incal, a brilliant science fiction comic that Jodorowsky did with Moebius throughout the 1980s. I can't want to see what Refn does with that material, and I hope the movie happens. Yet his invocation of Jodorowsky made me realize what differentiates the fascinating violence of a Jodorowsky movie from the banal violence of Only God Forgives. Jodorowsky declared "I LOVE VIOLENCE!" during an episode of Jonathan Ross Presents for One Week Only in 1991. Blood can be anything in a Jodorowsky movie -- grapes, blue paint, birds, smoke, paper, whatever's handy. It's all operating on a metaphorical level because everything Jodorwosky does is about acts of alchemy. We're base material, here's art turning us into something different -- horror into Guernica. "A child comes into the world covered in blood -- that is violent," Jodorowsky said in a 2000 radio interview with CFRB in Toronto. Violence is creative, and it's a force of life. It's an idea that goes all the way back to his early obsessions with convulsive art and the panic movement. The violence is just violence in Only God Forgives, no matter how aestheticized. It's generally non-transformative (unless you count broken noses as transformative) since there's little change in the characters (aside from becoming amputees or corpses) or in the movie's tone or approach to violence. Here is violence that seems merely tautological: A = A. It's not even like that tautology towards the end of Gravity's Rainbow: "The knife cuts through the apple like a knife cutting an apple." With that line in the novel, there's an odd, unveiled moment of truth. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of dense metaphor, and suddenly revelation. Hallelujah! In Only God Forgives, the man gets sharp things stabbed through his forearms like a man getting sharp things stabbed through his forearms. It's about as profound as it sounds.
Only God Forgives Review photo
What shall we do with all this useless, violent beauty?
Anyone who goes into Only God Forgives expecting Drive 2: Bangkok Drift is going to be disappointed. Drive was the unlikely combination of Nicolas Winding Refn's aestheticized violence and the fuzzy feeling of John Hughes. On...

Review: Violet & Daisy

Jun 07 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215729:40198:0[/embed] Violet & DaisyDirector: Geoffrey FletcherRating: RRelease Date: June 7, 2013 The key thing about all of the Tarantino rip-offs is that they were playing it safe. That's the comfort of being derivative: you don't have to risk anything because the person you're copying did all the innovation for you. With a rip-off, you're not just bowling with bumpers in the gutter, you're bowling with a tube slide for the ball that's the length of the lane. Each punctuation of violence, each choice on the soundtrack, each pop culture reference is already rendered accessible. Risk -- which is the key to any successful and innovative work -- would come from taking your own chances rather than taking the chances that someone else has already taken. (There's a difference between Donald Barthelme's postmodern genre pastiches and Boondock Saints, for instance.) Movies that don't risk can still be entertaining, but Violet & Daisy is not one of these movies, and a lot of it has to do with that awful smugness I mentioned above. Violet (Alexis Bledel) is a seasoned hired gun with a new partner named Daisy (Saoirse Ronan). They do hits for Russ, played by Danny Trejo, who shows up briefly and then hits the ejector seat on this movie. Their first on-screen hit together involves dressing up as nuns from a Catholic-themed pizza place (ooh, how drole) and then totally smoking guys with a gun in each hand like it's a John Woo movie (ooh, how edgy). Their next job together is to kill Michael played by James Gandolfini, a lonely middle-aged man with an estranged daughter (ooh, how sad). Violet & Daisy wants its audience to make those "ooh" comments because the film only exists as a collection of references, bits, and familiar pieces. There's a moment of fantasy and hallucination during the film in which Violet sees Daisy as some sort of spectral airline stewardess standing over the wreck of a plane. It looks good, it's stylish, but it's so incredibly empty because the movie made me feel nothing (other than contempt) the entire time. Same goes for the oversized moon that takes up most of the sky in certain night shots. It's style for style's sake and nothing more. And yet for some it's enough. When confronted with superficial things that are otherwise successful, "ooh" is the reaction. "Ooh" shouldn't be sufficient. Violet & Daisy seems to want to have things both ways: it wants the ironic, ultra-cool posturing of hip 90s movies, but it also wants an emotional weight that shines through the irony. Since the film lacks real emotional substance, it tries to use treacly sentimentality instead. Michael's loneliness and isolation is meant to engender "awws" of sympathy, but it's a manipulative ploy, one that's as transparent as the film's implication of a rape. And amid this fumbling manipulation, the movie gets cutesy. Michael serves his killers milk and cookies, Violet and Daisy get obsessed with some nebulous Barbie fashion thing, and there are games of pat-a-cake because... Well, I don't know. Probably to make the audience ooze more vowel sounds rather than think about what they're actually watching, which doesn't amount to much. And that's just the stuff off the top of my head, and much of it is tonal. I haven't even touched the flimsy story of the film. There are some gaping plot holes in Violet & Daisy, particularly when Daisy makes a series of confessions to Michael about her own life. What she reveals undoes lots of the movie. This all made me wonder about the machinery of the film's world and the clockwork in the hearts of its characters. Sometimes Violet & Daisy operates like it's a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and other times like it's a shaky melodrama. I think a sense of inconsistency that reveals a deeper consistency is the source of good drama and comedy in oddball storytelling, but here the inconsistency reveals a lack of care or a total lack of consideration. Things happen just because, and not because of something deeper. It's surprising that this film is written and directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, who won an Oscar for adapting Precious to the big screen. It's most surprising because the dialogue, though rapid fire, says nothing; words, words, words, but all verbal blanks. When characters in Tarantino movies make small talk, they do it to talk around something else that matters, and they do it with the stylishness of Elmore Leonard. In Violet & Daisy, people talk in clipped sentences and they don't talk about much of anything. Think of witty exchanges but bled of the wit. But it makes sense because maybe sheer velocity of language will distract from the sheer emptiness of the language. It's all of a piece. Violet & Daisy is a movie that wants to reduce audience reactions to a series of vowel sounds because in terms of style and substance, there's really nothing to talk about. Ooh, what a waste of time.
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Take off those glasses, you look ridiculous
There was a point in the mid-to-late 1990s when a bunch of lesser filmmakers tried to make movies like Quentin Tarantino. It was the style of Tarantino -- the pop-culture savvy, the soul music, the violence, the coolness, the...

BFF Short Film Roundup 1 photo
BFF Short Film Roundup 1

BFF Short Film Roundup 1

Five different shorts about loss and grief
Jun 04
// Hubert Vigilla
Over the weekend I caught five short films at the Brooklyn Film Festival. One called Good Grief played before the feature-length documentary Furever (review of that later in the week); the other four (Love Letter, The Phantom...
Alejandro Jodorowsky's first film in more than 20 years
It was only two years ago that Alejandro Jodorowksy turned to crowfunding to complete The Dance of Reality (La Danza de la Realidad), his first movie in more than 20 years. Here is the first trailer for the film, which scree...

Review: Aroused

May 03 // Nick Valdez
[embed]215423:40042:0[/embed] ArousedDirector: Deborah AndersonRelease Date: May 2, 2013 (VOD) May 3, 2013 (limited)Rating: NR As mentioned earlier, Aroused is a documentary by Deborah Anderson that involves 16 women in the adult film industry and one casting agent. It's a series of interviews broken up into two halves. The first half of the film are interviews with several of the women as Deborah asks them questions while they're getting ready for their photo shoot. The second half opens it up to the entire cast as it takes a more relaxed approach to the interviews (quite literally) and the women just talk about whatever subject happens to pop up.  I'm someone who doesn't know too much about the adult film industry or its stars, but when you approach the film as one that's shedding light on a career that normally doesn't get a different set of eyes, the content of the interviews work extremely well. These are all women who choose to sell their body (unfortunately, only some of the stars go into why they started) and through the film you do get the feeling that they want folks to look at them differently. You're mileage will vary depending on how close you are to the adult film industry. If you're an adult film connoisseur, you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't at least give Aroused a watch.  Unfortunately while some of the interviews approach the depth with its stars that Aroused advertises, most of them are only skin deep. Many of the women's stories are heartbreaking (especially Brooklyn Lee, who gets the closest to having true emotional clarity in the film) and the film would benefit from exploring them further. Although that's a consequence of the film's huge cast. With its 16 women, the film spreads itself too thin causing the sidelining of most of its stars (who admittedly only get 2-3 minutes of screen time) and sends a weird message in a film that wants to promote female empowerment (and in case you didn't realize that's what Aroused is going for, Anderson explicitly states this in the beginning of the film and transitions are marked with famous feminist quotes). Maybe if the film worked with a more manageable number, the cropped sections of interviews wouldn't feel so misused. And that's not even mentioning how interesting the casting agent's segments were (the film could have used more of the business perspective).  One of the more distracting elements of Aroused has to be its cinematography. Although the transition from black and white to color is handled very well (to represent the change in formality as the women get more relaxed), the second half of the film is mainly close ups of the stars' naked bodies and faces. Aroused attempts to marry the images of nudity and power, and to emphasize the control the women have over their sexuality, but this ultimately fails as the context of the interviews reach an intimacy undermined by the visuals. While the relaxed format works extremely well, it's hard to connect with a woman on screen if there's a unrelenting close up of her naked breast.  Even with all of its odd choices (backing soundtrack tends to overpower the women's voices, Anderson hilariously plugs her previous work in the middle of the film, some of the women don't get enough screen time), I still like Aroused for what it is. The women's stories make or break a film like this. Even if those stories could potentially go farther, it's still worth hearing what these women have to say.  Aroused is a window into an industry that tends to only show certain sides of itself. The window may need some cleaning, but if you put in the effort, you can still make out the beautiful interior. 
Aroused Review photo
Adult film stars emotionally bare all
Aroused is an odd documentary. It's essentially an advertisement for director Deborah Anderson's art book (which she makes sure to plug in the film), and although at times the entire film seems disingenuous, it's hard to deny...

Review: The Lords of Salem

Apr 18 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215060:39790:0[/embed] The Lords of SalemDirector: Rob ZombieRating: RRelease Date: April 19, 2013 At the heart of the film is Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering addict who works as a radio show co-host. It's like a morning zoo crew complete with sound effects, but it's done late at night. They have eclectic guests between the fart noises and springy erection sounds: one night a black metal singer with an inverted crucifix scar on his head, the next night a local man who's written a book on witches. She lives in a large apartment with extravagantly cool decor: the walls featuring images from Méliès and Commando Cody. Her life seems sitcom happy, but there's a sense of impending dread in the dark corridors of her apartment building. The shadows seem much darker than they ought to be, and for some reason an empty apartment has a new tenant. A mysterious recording by The Lords comes into Heidi's life in a wooden box bearing runes. On the thick vinyl disc is a repetitive droning sound that reminded me a little of Goblin on ludes. The song starts sending Heidi into a fit where she sees flashes of the city's violent past of witchcraft and mayhem. Her radio co-hosts (played by Jeff Daniel Philips and Ken Foree) decide to play the recording on the air. That's just the beginning of Heidi's decline into madness and centuries-old evil involving a coven led by an absolutely demented, scene-stealing Meg Foster. When The Lords of Salem builds its mood of dread, it's a surprisingly fun watch. Sheri Zombie believably slips into relapse and breakdown, and her character serves as a kind of anchor to the story as it becomes stranger and stranger. Running parallel to Heidi's breakdown is a writer/historian played by Bruce Davison who's trying to uncover the secrets of that recording by The Lords. He's like a cross between Udo Kier in Suspiria and Richard Farnsworth in Misery -- fearless Captain Exposition. As the dread goes full berserk, Zombie starts to fill his film with short, spiky moments of surreal madness. Some are like night terrors from Dario Argento and other maestros of Italian horror, while others are like Ken Russell, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Stanely Kubrick at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Heidi goes to a church, she meets up with a lecherous priest who goes into full freakout mode. One delirious segment features a bizarre creature that's both absurd and terrifying-because-it's-so-absurd, which makes for the best stuff of fever dreams. But it seems like The Lords of Salem loses its way as it tries to wind down the story through a series of visual freakouts. I can't pinpoint just where the movie goes off the rails, though. Maybe the creature I mentioned above, which caused different kinds of laughter from the audience: some nervous, some confused, some mocking. The cards are on the table and it's a pair of twos. I suppose it makes sense that The Lords of Salem would go this direction since it's Heidi's film and it's about her madness and the extent of this descent. As witchy delirium sets in, the colors in her life go into stark Argento monochrome, and the apartment devolves to an awful kind of squalor. And yet the promise of the plot and those moments of sheer dread give way to a kind of goofiness, like the radio show promo seen early in the film on bath salts. It's a fatal goofiness, however, and while some bits of the finale are memorable, I think they're memorable for being misfires. There's always been a strange connection between material that's funny and material that's terrifying; ditto sublime moments of surrealism and silly moments of surrealism. While the film's real world plot goes from lighthearted and silly to absolutely severe, the surreal psychological segments seem to do the opposite: the chilling strangeness of Foster's performance and the Bava/Russell visions give way to images of masturbating corpse priests and Sheri Zombie treating a stuffed goat like a mechanical bull. We go from horror storytelling to the in-between shots in a music video. While The Lords of Salem goes way off the rails, it at least does it in a fascinating way -- a nuclear train with an ensuing mushroom cloud; I can't look away, and I think my face is melting off, partly from the radiation, partly from all the confused expressions on my face. Thankfully it seems like Zombie is in on his own joke rather than taking it all too seriously, which makes the more pretentious moments of The Lords of Salem somewhat bearable. He knows a lot of the stuff is ridiculous but he does it anyway. Even though Zombie's next film is Broad Street Bullies -- a hockey movie based on the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s (think Slap Shot but real) -- The Lords of Salem kind of makes me want to see Zombie do a full-on Jodorowsky-style film that exists entirely in its own surreal universe. Maybe there, in that odd world, a finale like The Lords of Salem's would seem less ridiculous and more sublime.
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Rob Zombie riffs on Euro horror, a visually stunning trainwreck ensues
When we posted the trailer and poster for The Lords of Salem a few weeks back, I mentioned how the only Rob Zombie movie I've liked was The Devil's Rejects. Yet The Lords of Salem looked promising. It gave off a vibe of Rosem...

Review: To the Wonder

Apr 11 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215184:39938:0[/embed] To the WonderDirector: Terrence MalickRating: RRelease Date: April 12, 2013 I write the above acknowledging that To the Wonder is a visually gorgeous film. Moments of sublime beauty pervade the movie as it explores its interconnected notions of love and God. The film mostly centers on Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and the way their love grows, changes, sours, and attempts to endure. She's so mad about him that she and her daughter move to America with him. There's also Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest going through a crisis of faith, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman whose presence puts love in jeopardy. The narrative swirls around them and disperses, swirls around and disperses, and it's as if Malick's trying to create a series of symphonic movements that communicate more through sound and vision than through dialogue. Marina and Quintana's occasional voiceovers set the intellectual and emotional concerns of To the Wonder on the table: Marina asks questions about the nature of love, Quintana asks questions about the nature of God. These questions are interchangeable. Both love and God are intangible powers that people believe in but rarely understand. Where does love come from? Why is love cruel? Where did our love go? (And now switch "love" for "God.") The idea of exploring love and God in its various forms -- and exploring the connective tissue between storge, phileo, eros, and agape in the process -- had me hooked early on. This is the stuff of real life and pop music expanded into the realm of the philosophical and metaphysical. What also enthralled me initially were the visuals and sound of To the Wonder. There's a kind of splendor to the vast shots of tall grass commanded to whip and bow by wind, or a benevolent herd of bison come to graze while two would-be lovers look on, touched and in awe. (Maybe nature itself is the source of God and love, and maybe these moments are uncanny expressions of it. Neil's job involves surveying the effects of pollution in the soil and in people, which might hint at a deeper notion of love, God, and nature as frailer things than we think.) Emmanuel Lubezki's camera drifts like some sort of bird or angel, and there are times that this floating spectator conveys the depth of these ideas. As Neil and Jane grow closer, the score is a dissonant churn like sudden blusters on a plain, until suddenly the melody of their whirlwind romance emerges. This is the potential of the film's material when fully realized. But sometimes when the technical machinery of a work is so perfectly refined, the actual flaws in design are easier to spot. The main flaw in this film: the characters who are moved by love and God are barely realized as characters. While Malick is going for something expressionistic and writes Neil and Marina and the others intentionally flat, I can't help but feel that the flatness undermines the humanity of the whole film. By contrast, I think The Tree of Life is brimming with humanity, even if it draws on archetypes of childhood and parents in its exploration of grace and nature. In To the Wonder we don't really have those rich archetypes. Neil is the stoic man, Jane is the other woman, Quintana is the troubled priest, Marina is naive but then just gets plain crazy. (I suppose if people who talk to God are considered crazy, maybe the same's true with people who talk to love.) They are pieces on a board who don't particularly go anywhere. They don't even connect in the most meaningful of ways. Quintana's story is so to-the-side that he seems like he's from a different film set in the same universe of To the Wonder. What first seemed like human relationships became mere pairings, gears of storytelling machinery coming into contact with each other. Midway through To the Wonder, I began to wonder why Marina and Jane are so in love with Neil. He's a stern and quiet type, and he's ruggedly handsome, but he's not really there for them emotionally. He's a presence but a non-presence as well. He has the personality of a stone in the field, and he's also abusive and aloof. Yet both Jane and Marina are driven mad by their love for him. Love can drive people mad, and people love irrationally in real life, but I think in a film that has its eyes and ears trained on the divine, these simple "just because" answers are unsatisfying. The mystery of the film went from "What is the nature of love and God?" to "Why are these people acting this way?" Even the intellectual/philosophical machinery of To the Wonder that had me hooked begins to falter because of the deficiencies in these character. Marina and Father Quintana ask the same questions again and again through the film without any sense of understanding, progression, or new subtleties of observation. What I sensed instead was a cycle of ideas that are posed and then abandoned, posed and then abandoned, as if by the end of To the Wonder I was further away from a sense of the divine than I was at the beginning. It's not that I expected answers to any of these questions about love and God, but I was hoping that these questions would be asked in more interesting ways and with greater variation. Maybe what's oddest about To the Wonder is that it's made me realize something about my own taste. Even though I like alienating and strange things, they only stick when there's something human there. I don't think it's possible to explore such vital human concerns about this world (and the possible next) with non-humans like these. Without understanding the depth of their internal lives (or having those depths hinted at), these larger concerns break down around them. The imagery and sound that moved me initially become fine technical achievements by a good craftsman rather than indescribable sources of aesthetic wonderment, which is the closest I come these days to a spiritual experience. In other words, I need something human to get at something like the presence of God. In an interview I saw online a week ago, Kurylenko said that she'd filmed more scenes with Bardem's character for To the Wonder, but they were cut from the finished film. Similarly, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Michael Sheen, and Barry Pepper shot scenes for the film but were nixed. It's not out of character for Malick, who shoots a lot, cuts a lot, and leaves many actors off screen, and some of the roles mentioned above were small, but I'm curious what was left out of the film. Maybe these moments revealed other facets to Neil and Marina and Quintana and Jane that just didn't come through for me, which would be a shame since as it is now, the characters of To the Wonder are, like the film, aesthetic objects.
To the Wonder Review photo
What Terrence Malick talks about when he makes a meandering film about love
First let me get this out of the way: if you didn't like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, steer clear of To the Wonder. The untethered camera lingers like mad, and To the Wonder is rife with various other Malickisms. There...

Review: Simon Killer

Apr 05 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]214562:39910:0[/embed] Simon KillerDirector: Antonio CamposRating: NRRelease Date: TBD ♫ I'm tense and nervous and I / Can't relax ♫ Simon (Brady Corbet) has come to Paris to get his mind off a bad break up, or so goes the expository conversation that opens the film: he was a student, his girlfriend cheated on him, he wrote a thesis on the way the eyes and the brain are connected. Within the first 10 minutes of Simon Killer we can tell he's distraught. He wanders the city with his earbuds in and the music blaring to distract himself. Without the synth pop and percussive rumbling, he'd have to confront the lonely silence of the city and the slump of his life. He becomes fixated on architecture and old paintings in a way that seems too distracted. Later in the film, a character comments that she doesn't like the way Simon's looking at her. Though he's shot from behind in these early scenes at museums, I picture Simon looking at windows and fine art with the same sort of off-putting male gaze. These moments of isolation are surprisingly compelling since they capture the sense of alienation and restlessness that a bad break up can cause. Simon knows a little French to get by, but he doesn't really understand the language that well. Campos decides not to include subtitles so the audience gets immersed in Simon's world. If you don't speak French, you're unable to process anything but body language and facial expression; if you speak a little French like me, you catch snippets but remain, like Simon, mostly lost; and if you do speak French, it'd probably amusing just to see how little Simon actually understands. The credit goes to both Campos's direction and Corbet's performance. Even if the film winds up falling far short of its early potential, Corbet is fascinating to watch. Also fascinating to watch is Victoria (Mati Diop), a French prostitute that Simon meets and tries to start a relationship with. Even if you don't speak French, Victoria's introduction says a lot about her character and what she's been through. The shift in their relationship from hooker & trick to possible lovers works well since Diop and Corbet are fully inhabiting (at least for now) some extremely convincing characters. There's a narrative to their relationship in their sex scenes. Maybe two broken souls can mend each other, somehow. But Simon Killer isn't that kind of movie either. ♫ You start a conversation you can't even finish it ♫ Simon's thesis about how the eyes and the brain are connected suggests a larger metaphor about what's seen and what's actually true. There's a big difference. People can hide behind veneers of kindness in order to mask their intentions, or build up stories that selectively remove unsavory personal details. Simon Killer is full of repetitions and revisions of the past. As the audience learns more about Simon and as we watch the way he acts around others, there's a sense that he wasn't being entirely honest at the beginning of the film. I wondered what the actual circumstances of the break up were, and what he was leaving out of the story. The lies become more overt in the last third of the film as Simon becomes more comfortable and manipulative. Simon is not a killer, and he may not even be the person he said he was at the beginning, but there's one undeniable fact about him: he's a sociopath. That's another connection between Simon Killer and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both films are about how traumas in the past can affect a person in the present. In Martha Marcy May, it's the psychological reprogramming of a cult, while in Simon Killer it's something messy in a major relationship. But with the half-truths and lies of Simon Killer, we have to guess at what this past actually involved. There are no flashbacks in the film, so I found myself reconstructing Simon's last relationship from what I knew and what could be inferred. And since the film is about recurring patterns of behavior and well as stylistic and performative patterns (e.g., Spectral Display's "It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love" plays at least twice in the film; dancing leads to intimacy; Simon has a distinct groan/whine), I was intrigued by the hints of who Simon was before heading to Paris. He may have even been like this before his last relationship. As intriguing as that is as an intellectual exercise, Simon Killer falters and never recovers in the second half. Any of the languid narrative momentum of the film dies when Simon comes up with a scheme for Victoria to make more money with her clients: blackmail. Though Victoria is young, she seems far too worldly and too hurt by past experiences to go for Simon's idea. On top of that, she sleeps with clients in her own apartment, so anyone she tries to blackmail has her personal address. I can't picture any half-cautious sex worker doing something so stupid and so reckless. I think she only accepts the idea so new complications can be added to the story, and there's nothing that takes me out of a movie more than characters acting idiotic just to advance the plot. [embed]214562:39651:0[/embed] ♫ You're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything ♫ Once Simon comes up with the plan, it was like a balloon suddenly deflating. The way the film unfolds at this point is generally predictable and mostly disengaged. Gone is that intense interest in the lives of Simon and Victoria; lost are the evocative bits of writing and observation about what it means to feel alone and disconnected. It's as if the focus had shifted from a film driven by performance and writing to a film driven by contrivances to get to some sort of resolution. I found myself less engaged with the characters even though what came before was an interesting character study. I also noticed in the last half of Simon Killer that instead of trying to engage with the patterns and repetitions, I was just waiting for them to happen. Nothing new is presented in these repetitions that we didn't already know, which makes the film seem to drag on longer. That's an issue with stories that get hooked on patterns. Eventually to maintain interest, the pattern needs to be broken or altered just enough, and the story needs to go somewhere unexpected but inevitable. Some films I've watched lately reach a point where they seem to give up. They were doing something well, but then decided to linger too long without the energy to remain interesting. These movies wind up ending on sloppy, haphazard, and muddled notes, as if the flimmakers just lost the will to tell their story. These films stumble to their conclusions, and I wind up distanced from material I was really in touch with for a while. It's less like a studio fadeout and more like a half-hearted shrug -- "Eh, so that's it or something. Credits." If Simon Killer begins with the promise of color and a great pop song, it ends with a mumble that fails to move or convince. Allistair Pinsof: [This blurb was taken from Allistair's coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.] With a title like that, you walk into a movie with some expectations. You know, like maybe Simon is a killer. Except, he's not. He's a pretty endearing guy who is on vacation in France as he gets over his ex and tries to find out where his life will be going next. Simon is also pretty lonely. It's only a matter of ties until he graduates from sex chatrooms to a brothel -- where he meets hooker with a heart of gold Victoria. And then we discover Simon is a seriously fucked-up dude who ... you probably know. The slow reveal of Simon's true nature is captivating due to Brady Corbet's strong performance, some great cinematography, and one of the best soundtracks I've heard in years. Unfortunately, director gives into lame pretensions too often and bogs the plot down with dead-ends. When we know who Simon really is, we no longer care. But, seriously, where can I buy the soundtrack? 63 - Decent [This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of Film Comment Selects. It has been reposted to coincide with the film's theatrical release.]
Simon Killer Review photo
♫ Qu'est-ce que c'est / Meh meh-meh meh meh-meh meh-meh meh meh ♫
The title Simon Killer makes it seem like you'll be watching a slasher movie or a serial killer movie. It recalls Talking Heads song "Psycho Killer," and the lyrics complement the film in an interesting way. On top of that, t...

The director of Primer and Upstream Color is taking to the high seas
I just interviewed Shane Carruth today about Upstream Color, the early candidate for my favorite film of 2013. During our discussion about his DIY approach to filmmaking, Carruth mentioned a script that he's finishing up that...

SXSW Review: The Rambler

Mar 17 // Hubert Vigilla
The RamblerDirector: Calvin Lee ReederRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD The Rambler starts out with a brutal depiction of prison life straight out of the exploitation movies of old: a place of concrete, brawls, and plug-ugly people. It's all violence and harshness, which makes our nameless title character's (Dermot Mulroney) release a brief departure into normalcy. The sky is wide open and full of possibility. And then there's a strange blip in the sky: a doot-dooting UFO which recurs throughout the film. Something isn't right in the real world either, and there's a strange series of jumps through radio static between scenes, as if a dial is being turned to a new station. These are two of the more effective repetitions in The Rambler, though the plot relies on another kind of repetition I'll get to in a minute that isn't so effective. Our hero returns to his wife or girlfriend played by Natasha Leone at her trashiest. She's all sand and sweat and booze, and she's been sleeping around with our hero's cadre of grimy friends. Rather than deal with her and stay in his dead end job in a pawn shop, the rambler takes to the road to reconnect with his brother in Oregon. Out there he'll have a place to call home; a welcome journey since his old home isn't what it used to be. (Though maybe it's exactly like it used to be and he just doesn't like it anymore.) The first third of The Rambler plays sort of like a deadpan splatter road movie. Little moments of absurd humor, misadventure, and strange characters keeps the film unpredictable and moving forward. There's a mad scientist with a malfunctioning dream machine and a card game with some maniacs that leads to some illegal street fighting. It's all fucked up in a funny way, and Mulroney's character chugs through it with a stone face and and cool detachment that fits in the dark cartoon world of the film. There's a sense that this is how he got through life behind bars. But then a pattern begins to emerge. Wherever the rambler goes, he sees a certain woman played by Lindsay Pulsipher. First she's a gal on horseback who flirts and loans him a bike; next she's a waitress in a podunk diner; later she's the victim of a horrible accident. Each time we're given snippets of the rambler's dreams or memories, ones which may suggest how he got into jail or some deep regret. It could all just be part of some grand hallucination that goes back to the blipping in the sky and the twists of the radio dial, but it's never quite stated. Instead, we get more fucked up stuff, and I became less engaged with the film as it became more fucked up. Thinking back to the fucked up movies I like, there's more going on in them than mere fucked-upness. There's loads of missing limbs and bodily fluids and wrongness in The Rambler, but I kept wonder what else it had to offer. In between the shocks and loud screeches coming from the screen, there are these moments of silence and stillness. The dialogue comes out in dribbles between pauses. Sometimes it's mannered and comic, while other times it's like a irritating riff on Lost Highway without the novelty of that film. These silences and trickles are meant to be meditative (maybe), but I just felt like they were moments of dead air -- like those long stretches of white noise between stations on the AM dial. The continual reappearances of Pulsipher's character in The Rambler lead to an unavoidable sense of pretentiousness. This robbed the film of its playfulness and made all the oddness seem like a kind of posturing -- weirdness for the sake of weirdness in order to substitute for multiple deficiencies, as if playing the David Lynch card renders criticism moot. It doesn't. (And Lynch himself usually isn't doing it for its own sake.) Just because there's weird stuff and fucked up stuff there doesn't mean there's more to it than that. Sometimes a fucked up moment is just a fucked up moment, but with The Rambler I can't help but feel that writer/director Calvin Lee Reeder is trying to evoke something else that's not quite coming through. Why return to this relationship when there's a resistance to giving it some roots? We're given suggestions of a past between these two, but without the emotional, psychological, or aesthetic payoff of this relationship, it's merely unfinished material to buffer between the fucked up stuff. Instead of a sense of payoff or slow revelation, we just get yellow vomit and lots of it. Maybe there's meaning there when we see the rambler and the girl together, but I felt like the repetitions were used to generate meaning where meaning was absent. The last two-thirds of The Rambler loses the demented charm of the first third, and it just turns into a mostly somber and shriek-filled mess, albeit a stylish one. It's a shame too since the movie has potential to be a nutzoid road movie full of crass gags and brutal humor or a surreal Americana-on-crack road movie. Instead it feels like a half-realized art-horror movie hiding behind a half-realized sleaze-and-violence movie. These two things are full of promise, but when they meet in the middle, they don't quite complement each other. The rambler is on his back and down and out at one point in the film. One of the oddball side characters comes to help him out. He tells the rambler that he could have died. He also asks the rambler where he's headed. To both of these, the rambler replies that he doesn't care. Ditto, buddy.
The Rambler Review photo
Why effed-upness alone is never sufficient to carry a movie
[From March 9th - 17th, Flixist will be providing coverage from South by Southwest 2013 in Austin, TX. Prepare yourselves for reviews, interviews, features, photos, videos, and all types of shenanigans!] I've seen a lot of m...

SXSW Review: The Fifth Season

Mar 11 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215046:39766:0[/embed] The Fifth Season (La cinquième saison)Director: Peter Brosens and Jessica WoodworthRating: TBDCountry: BelgiumRelease Date: TBD Rather than being set in a large city, The Fifth Season takes place in a small agrarian community that lives off the land. First we're shown something amiss: a man talks to his rooster at the table, urging the bird to call at dawn. Instead, all the bird produces is a steaming turd. Then there's Alice (Aurélia Poirier) and Thomas (Django Schrevens), the son and daughter of two farmers. They wander the winter woods in a weird game of young love/foreplay -- they make birdcalls to one another and then tenderly snog there among the trees. There's a lovable quirkiness about this first quarter of the film that takes place in the winter. It reminded me a lot of the movies of Aki Kaurismäki, and there's even a brief song and dance number that wouldn't feel out of place in one of his films: the town together does a line dance/jig. The camera holds and, as lingering shots can often do, there's something hypnotic about the image. By letting the moment persist, small details can magnify, and repetitions/cycles become more compelling. This is a town that, at the beginning, is brimming with an idyllic sort of rural life that's all about dependable patterns, so maybe this formal choice makes sense on more than just an artful level. The dance is all part of a ritual: each year the town holds some sort of pagan rite to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring: a gigantic papier mache farmer, farmer's wife, and heifer are marched to the top of a hill, as is a totem of "Uncle Winter" (think a naked scarecrow). Atop the hill, Uncle Winter is burned and the rotation and renewal of the Earth is complete. But not this time. This time, not even pine needles will catch flame, and the moment is the first of many eerie occurrences. The rest of The Fifth Season chronicles the unstoppable decline of the world as seen from the cloistered setting of this town. The only sense of the rest of the world we get is the brief appearance of troops who commandeer the livestock, suggesting that the government is already taking measures to address the coming famine. Occasionally there's the sound of a fighter jet screaming across the sky, an ugly substitution for the sound of birds. In these moments of decay, Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth find some striking images of desolation: Alice looking blankly before a dark stone wall as souring milk begins to cascade down the surface; the empty beehives of Pol (Sam Louwyck); the jars in one household filling with a repellant meat substitute; the vacant desolation of Pol's handicapped son Octave (Gill Vancompernolle), who'd previously been full of smile and song. The young lovers eager for birdcalls and company have suddenly become more desperate as well, as has the owner of the rooster, whose attempts to coax his bird are briefly comic until we see where they lead. As desperation gives way to desperate superstition, The Fifth Season's sinister nature becomes apparent, and the remainder of the movie plays in that mode. But there's a certain distance of engagement in the film as the shots linger and as the non-seasons wear. The focus is less on this turn of the plot and the machinery that gets the film there and more on tone, mood, a sense of impending. The long shots still have their power, especially when small moments of activity are suddenly noticed in frame, but other times the long shots feel like the sort of Bergman parodies that appeared in Woody Allen's Love and Death. What's maybe most peculiar about watching The Fifth Season was finding my own patience for the film fluctuating. There were some points where I was absolutely with its languid rhythms and was undeniably enthralled. And yet at some points as the world fell into the brown and grey tones of the wasteland, I felt detached from what was happening. When the movie turns into an episode of The Twilight Zone or one of Steven Millhauser's first-person-plural short stories, I was back in, but part of that was because I wished the movie had integrated all these shifts better. I guess based on all the name-checking/namedropping I've done in this review, The Fifth Season reminded me of things I liked better than the movie itself. And yet I think The Fifth Season does latch onto those irrational fears of mine, which are more about the process of dying than just death itself. As a work of imagery about dying, it's an achievement, though I'm unsure of it as a successful film. Come winter, I'll probably remember The Fifth Season more for the artful potential of individual moments rather than the work as a whole.
The Fifth Season Review photo
The slow decline of the world as seen through the surreal decay of a town
[From March 9th - 17th, Flixist will be providing coverage from South by Southwest 2013 in Austin, TX. Prepare yourselves for reviews, interviews, features, photos, videos, and all types of shenanigans!] The Fifth Season pla...

Review: Beyond the Hills

Mar 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]214706:39748:0[/embed] Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri)Director: Cristian MungiuRating: NRCountry: RomaniaRelease Date: March 8, 2013 (limited)  Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) grew up together in the same orphanage when they were young. It seems like they were once lovers -- it's the way that loneliness and proximity can deepen already deep affections. Alina eventually left Romania to work in Germany while Voichita took refuge in a remote Orthodox monastery. Years later, Alina has returned to bring Voichita to Germany with her where they can be together again. Yet in these intervening years, Voichita has become devoted to God and the way of life at the monastery. She refuses to leave. Alina refuses to leave without her. Its in this unwillingness to give in or to give up -- another form of orthodoxy, maybe -- that leads to the eventual tragedy of the film: an attempted exorcism. The head of the monastery (Valeriu Andriuta) is an imposing figure, like a tall shadow roaming through the snow. The sole male there, the nuns do as he says at all times. He's part father, part teacher, part emissary of God. He tells Alina that if she wants to stay in the monastery with Voichita, she must submit to the way of the Orthodoxy. What follows is a series of ideological clashes: some big, some small, some internal, some through action. Each clash is a kind of fire or illumination that exposes the lengths people are willing to go to prove their convictions. It's the trio of performances from Flutur, Stratan, and Andriuta that drive much of Beyond the Hills. Until the finale, the three pinciples are generally understated throughout. There's the force of religion embodied in Andriuta's priest, and there's a representative of the world outside the monastery in Alina. Between the two is Voichita, who knows both forms of being to some degree, both for the better and the worse. The monastery is all about toil for God and ritual and tradition, but at least there is a sisterhood and a kind of family there for her. And of course, there's always God. Outside the monastery, it would only be Voichita and Alina against the world, with no family and no community. The world outside the monastery is like a world without God. Mungiu approaches this story of extremes through slow observations and accretions of details. His camera lingers and his shots take time to unfold, allowing the audience to enter into the hermetic world of the Orthodox as well as the indifferent world outside. By letting his camera hold shots in these different settings, I got a sense of the various places in the film and, more importantly, the moods that characters attached to them. We get to experience Alina's old foster home, for example, and as that scene goes on, I learned everything I needed to know about the dim and loveless life that Alina had endured. It's also a way of understanding why Voichita is so attached to the monastery. The monastery may be drab and stark, but it is a home. That may be one of the greatest strengths of Beyond the Hills. Mungiu has the patience to let the story unfold and trusts the audience to be patient with him. It's as if he's following a series of chronological facts, and each event depicted is essential to fleshing out the whole of this story and these lives. Some scenes may seem extraneous at first, but they have a way of feeding into other scenes and delivering information about Alina and Voichita. It's especially important for Voichita, who is constantly pulled between worlds, impulses, and ideologies. I was also struck by what Alina and Voichita had in the past. The backstory is never explicitly stated, but enough can be inferred through watching the performances. I side with the idea that they were once romantically involved rather than just very close like sisters. The intimacy whenever Alina touches Voichita has a mildly erotic charge; there's a moment that's verging on the erotic early on, but it's cut short by Voichita's reticence. The sudden coldness Voichita shows when touched suggests her own self-loathing about being gay and her need to repress it. Rather than give in to her passion, she suppresses her sin with prayer. Another extreme, this time involving love: agape and eros. While the monastic life comes under deep focus and is an easy target for derision, Mungiu isn't ready to let the world outside of the monastery off the hook. I mentioned the dimness of Alina's old foster home, and that pervades all other settings outside the monastery as well. While the work in the monastery is practical and about upkeep and nourishment -- cleaning, cooking, repairs -- the work depicted outside of the monastery is disconnected from essentials in life. It is a place where there is only alienation, and a place where both Alina and Voichita will always be orphans, even together. In some ways Beyond the Hills is a half-hour too long, but I wonder how the film would function without its factually-based shape. To streamline the storytelling into a more familiar narrative form might actually rob the exorcism scenes of their power -- the punctuation to an already harrowing indictment of the Orthodoxy. It may also remove the texture from the rest of the film, particularly when it comes to Alina and Voichita. I think what I can say with surety is that in his exploration of extremes, Mungiu has crafted a film I want to watch again and study even though it pales compared to his Palme d'Or-winning film 4 Months, 3 weeks, and 2 Days. Beyond the Hills is a film I admire for its craft, for its performances, for its unwillingness to proselytize or lecture but merely observe. It's a movie that watches with a kind of helpless detachment, maybe like strangers, maybe like God. Alec Kubas-Meyer: Although Beyond the Hills was inspired by the true story of a girl who was "exorcised" in a remote Romanian church back in 2007, it isn't a film about exorcism. It's much better than that. Instead, it's a film about fear, and the fear that could (somewhat) rationally cause these extremely religious people to believe that an exorcism is necessary. In that way, it is extremely successful. The events it depicts are extremely unfortunate, but it all felt very real. This is helped by the absolutely incredible use of long takes, something that director Cristian Mungiu is well known for. One particular scene which involves nailing some wood together (in the context of something must more intense) really made things feel as though they were happening in real time, and it serves to keep an unreal situation grounded. When I learned that many of the scenes were shot as many as 40 different times, I was completely shocked (that lumber budget must have been crazy). If you're a Mungiu fan, you should know that Beyond the Hills is not nearly as good as 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, but given that that is one of the best films ever made, it's not really a knock against this film. More problematic is the way it attempts to emulate some of what makes 4 Months so brilliant, including a very explicit reference to that film's amazing dinner scene, except it's much less powerful the second time around. At 150 minutes, Beyond the Hills runs long, and every one of the last five shots (all of which are extremely long) seems like it could have been an ending. Still, when it works, it works extremely well. The acting is incredible across the board, and I was invested in everyone's stories. It's flawed, but absolutely worth your time. 78 -- Good
Beyond the Hills Review photo
Christian Mungiu tells a true story of oppression, repression, and indifference
I find orthodoxy of all kinds scary, especially when clung to in resistance to inevitable change. There's just something about groups and beliefs that quell the impulse toward individuality that opposes human nature (at least...

Review: Leviathan

Feb 28 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213047:39002:0[/embed] LeviathanDirectors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena ParavelRating: NRRelease Date: March 1, 2013 (limited) Leviathan is essentially a long day on a fishing boat. At night or early morning, we're on deck covered in spray watching as nets get pulled out from the deep. The camera wobbles on a helmet, obscuring each image into shadows and Crayola blurs with occasional glimpses at the deck. The dialogue is mixed down into a murmur no more articulate than the machinery on the ship. The fish are brought up and slaughtered, their heads kicked around. Rays are sliced up into thirds while their mouths pucker helplessly in death. Scallops are scooped off the deck and then scraped out from their shells. And the great hulking beast of a ship rides on, dumping its waste back into the ocean in a stream of bloody water and flesh. Hungry gulls flap about alongside the ship, and the camera, pitched in different directions and never righted, gives the audience a bizarre sense of vertigo. It's like that, but not as interesting as it sounds, or at least not as interesting given its length. There are admirable qualities about Leviathan. The imagery can be striking, and I was especially moved by one moment in the film where the camera zips through the water behind the ship's belched out waste. Starfish and other bits of detritus shoot by the camera as if we're doing some sort of bizarre interstellar travel. The sound is also pretty interesting at times. I could swear there was an intentional sonic correspondence between the skid of scallop shells on deck to the removal of the scallops in their shell to the abrasive, tinny sound of the camera coming in and out of the water. But even admirable things overstay their welcome, and what begins as an ecstasy of sound and fury becomes an agonizing slog. How long do we linger on a fish head? How long do we dart through the ocean? Why are we shown a fisherman showering? It's all so arbitrary even if the aim is a slice of life. In one scene later in the film, we watch the ship's captain watching television while he slowly fights falling asleep. I think this was the moment that broke the last of my goodwill for Leviathan. I mentioned in my review for Tabu how the depiction of boredom in a book or a movie winds up being more boring than the boredom of real life. Here, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel captured real-life drowsiness and linger on it. For what seems like eight minutes. Signifying what? Just the nature of drowsiness. Drowsy = drowsy, boring = boring. This isn't a moment when we see the ugliness at the end of every dinner fork. This sort of thing is just the evil of banality. The only thing more evil (or more banal) would be to ascribe any sort of existential or intellectual significance to a man just barely awake while his sandwich fixings rest on the table before him. During the New York Film Festival press conference for Leviathan, Castaing-Taylor said that they ideally wanted to make films that say nothing. It was in response to a question about what Leviathan has to say about the nature of the fishing industry. They didn't want to make a film that was reducible to a point that can be easily articulated in language. So really, saying you want to make films that say nothing is disingenuous, especially since he was able to articulate a larger point and hint at others. While crafting his response, Castaing-Taylor made an oblique (and I think intentional) reference to philosopher Martin Heidegger -- the phrase "being in the world" was used -- which hints at some kind of phenomenological aspect to the movie. Perhaps it was an attempt to express the nature of Being without commentary and only through image, immersion, and a film object that is unlike other film objects. (Heidegger wrote several books about the nature of Being and never quite completed his grand philosophical project.) But doing is a kind of saying, and even if you don't want to reduce a film to a simple sociopolitical or aesthetic statement, it seems odd and disingenuous to hide behind the aegis of non-statement. To open a movie with an excerpt from the Book of Job is to say something. To make a movie in which the camera floats free and is never reoriented is to say something. To manipulate sound and color is to say something. Any attempt to divest statements of meaning from a film is still a form of statement, and still an articulation of intent. This might all be a reflection of what I perceive as the film's arbitrariness: it wants to express something intellectual but doesn't want to express something intellectual at the same time; and it wants to be aesthetic and anti-aesthetic at the same time; and it wants to be a cinematic experience while also anti-cinematic. There was a steady stream of walkouts during the screening I was at. There were also walkouts at the public screening for the film. It's unavoidable. The movie is often so interminably boring that it can incapacitate even the sturdiest of cineastes. Part of this may be, at least for me, the difference between admiration for an idea or an intent and admiration for the expression of an idea or intent. There is something rich in Leviathan that's drowned out by its presentation. Like the camera coming up from the water and down again, it's as if the significant portions I glommed onto were just repeatedly dunked and throttled. That's where the idea of venue comes in. Had I seen Leviathan at an art gallery, I probably wouldn't have minded it as much. If it were projected in a darkened room, I'd dip in and admire what I'd seen and then step out to see other pieces on the floor. I wouldn't stay for the whole thing; only long enough to be be fascinated, to have my curiosity sated, and that's it. Maybe in a gallery they'd have the sense to make Leviathan a half-hour short instead of a full-length film. Chop away the excess like the movie was a pathetic stingray, leave a latent fingerprint on the clay of this sculpture. It would turn Leviathan from an unwieldy bulk of a thing into something probably more meaningful and profound. (Maybe that says something about my own taste, like how I can sit through and love Brakhage's short films but can't do a lot of his long ones.) But I wasn't in an art gallery and this wasn't hacked down to its most essential, edible bits. To watch Leviathan in a theater for that long made me feel trapped, lost at sea, frustrated, bored, and agitated. I think of it as an alienating intellectual and aesthetic experience; I think of it as avant-garde water torture. Alec Kubas-Meyer: I hate Leviathan. I really, really hate it. In the past year, I have seen three films at festivals that have completely ruined my mood and my day with their complete and utter failure: Policeman, which showed at last year's New York Film Festival and has put me off of Israeli cinema for at least another few years; Cut, which I felt had absolutely no respect for me as a viewer and legitimately wasted two hours of my life; and Leviathan, which fits snugly in between those two on my list of worst films ever. I wish I had known that Leviathan was an experimental pseudo-documentary about fishing. Not because it would have made me like it any more, but because I would have realized that there was basically no way I could have enjoyed it. It took me about 10 minutes to realize that the film didn't have a narrative, and it took me even longer to realize it was supposed to be documenting an experience. I have talked to people who claim to have enjoyed the film, but I simply cannot fathom their logic. Leviathan is an 87-minute endurance test. Each shot is interesting for 15 seconds and then goes on for another five minutes. Nothing more happens, nothing changes, and the crashing of the waves and the rattling of the wind makes the audio unbearable to sit through. Maybe at one-quarter of the length (or less), Leviathan would be something worth considering. As it is, though, I would sooner recommend playing in traffic. It's an awful, awful film, and nobody should ever see it. Ever. 19 - Atrocious
Leviathan Review photo
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