Freitag, 25. September 2015

Venice Film Festival 2015

Of the 34 movies I saw at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, these are my favorites.

Best film: "Desde allá (From Afar)"
Runner-up: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"
honorable mentions: "Francofonia", "Anomalisa", "Abluka (Frenzy)"

(Two brothers descend into paranoia and lunacy as conflict takes over the streets of Turkey in "Abluka (Frenzy)" (u.l.); a Russian old master reflects on history and culture looking at the Louvre under Nazi occupation in "Francofonia" (u.r.); predator, benefactor, lover, betrayer are all one in the atypical romance from Venezuela "Desde allá (From Afar)" (central); little puppet man finds the one in a sea of sames on a business trip to Cincinnati in "Anomalisa" (l.l.); time is ticking as a woman battles the corrupt Mexican insurance practice that is the very embodiment of "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)" (l.r.))

Best director: Aleksandr Sokurov ("Francofonia")
Runner-up: Lorenzo Vigas ("Desde allá (From Afar)")
honorable mentions: Rodrigo Plá ("Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"), Duke Johnson / Charlie Kaufman ("Anomalisa"), Emin Alper ("Abluka (Frenzy)")

Best lead actor: Alfredo Castro ("Desde allá (From Afar)")
Runner-up: Abraham Attah ("Beasts of No Nation")
honorable mentions: Guillermo Francella ("El Clan (The Clan)"), 馮小剛 (Xiaogang Feng) ("老炮兒 (Mr. Six)"), Fabrice Luchini ("L'hermine (Courted)")

Best lead actress: Catherine Frot ("Marguerite")
Runner-up: Valeria Golino ("Per amor vostro (Anna)")
honorable mentions: Alicia Vikander ("The Danish Girl"), Juliette Binoche ("L'attesa (The Wait)), Jana Raluy ("Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)")

(Catherine Frot as the worst opera singer in the world whose very public acts of self-humiliation have very private motivations (u.l.); Valeria Golino as a professional woman grappling with her messy family and love life through spontaneous musical numbers (u.r.); Alicia Vikander as portraitist Gerda Wegener and devoted wife of the man who would eventually become Lili Elbe (l.l.); Juliette Binoche as a grief-stricken mother hanging onto a lie with dogged resilience in order to survive (l.central); Jana Raluy as a desperate everywoman who goes to unthinkable lengths to secure the drug that could save her dying husband (l.r.)) 

Best supporting actor: Luis Silva ("Desde allá (From Afar)")
Runner-up: Michel Fau ("'Marguerite")
honorable mention: Jesse Plemons ("Black Mass")

Best supporting actress: Lili Popovich ("El Clan (The Clan)")
Runner-up: Dakota Johnson ("A Bigger Splash")
honorable mention: 許晴 (Summer Xu) ("老炮兒 (Mr. Six)")

Best screenplay: "L'hermine (Courted)"
Runner-up: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"
honorable mentions: "Desde allá (From Afar)",  "El Clan (The Clan)", "Marguerite"

Best editing: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"
Runner-up: "Francofonia"
honorable mentions: "El Clan (The Clan)", "A Bigger Splash", "11 minut (11 Minutes)"

Best cinematography: "A Bigger Splash" 
Runner-up: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"
honorable mentions: "Abluka (Frenzy)", "El Clan (The Clan)", "L'attesa (The Wait)"

Best art direction: "The Danish Girl"
Runner-up: "L'attesa (The Wait)"
honorable mentions: "Per amor vostro (Anna)", "Equals", "Anomalisa"

Best costume design: "The Danish Girl"
Runner-up: "El Clan (The Clan)"
honorable mentions: "A Bigger Splash", "Equals", "Marguerite"

Best film music: "The Childhood of a Leader"
Runner-up: "A Bigger Splash"
honorable mentions: "El Clan (The Clan)", "Francofonia", "Looking for Grace"

The terror and perversity hidden within the Puccio household elevated to chilling heights through an unexpectedly upbeat song selection in "El Clan (The Clan)"(top); the feelings between the sexy foursome are as jumbled and alive as the by turns blaring, suggestive, ominous notes in "A Bigger Splash" (right); a whole new level of scale and cultivation is brought about by the grand, floral orchestral music in "Francofonia" (bottom); nothing else can quite keep up with the humorous, fanciful, über-quirky score in "Looking for Grace" (left); the violently restless mind of a tantrum-ready child aurally realized through Scott Walker's deafening, frightening creation in "The Childhood of a Leader" (central) 

Best sound: Abluka ("Frenzy")
Runner-up: "Beasts of No Nation"
honorable mention: "Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster with a Thousand Heads)"

Best musical number: "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" in "Anomalisa"
Runner-up: "Emotional Rescue" in "A Bigger Splash"
honorable mentions: "Der Hölle Rache" in "Marguerite", "Waiting for the Miracle" in "L'attesa (The Wait)", opening sequence of "Per amor vostro (Anna)"

Mittwoch, 23. September 2015

Interview: Sharon Maymon / Tal Granit (The Farewell Party)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Sep. 22 , 2015)

Is any aspect of your film based on real-life events or experiences?

Sharon Maymon: The idea of the film came from the death of Helga, the grandmother of my ex-boyfriend. She died at the age of 80 from cancer. We were there the day she died and saw how death released her from pain and suffering. But then the paramedics came into the room and, for half an hour, tried to bring her back to life. It felt so absurd. From that moment of absurdity came the idea of the film.

What made you decide to employ comedic elements in a film about assisted suicide?

Tal Granit: Sharon and I had directed short films together before and in most of them we approached heavy social subjects with humour. We found that it’s a powerful tool to open the hearts of the audience while talking about very difficult issues.

Maymon: And it was not just a scriptwriting decision, either. We also cast comedians for the film. All the actors in this film are well-known comedians in Israel from the 1970s. We knew that if we cast these people, they would bring the humour, the right comedic timing with them.

And how did you make sure the comedy works – that it’s funny but, in view of the context, not insensitive?

Maymon: It’s very hard. We had lots of arguments. We would argue about one word in a sentence for a whole week. We knew that we had to stay very sharp in order to strike the right balance. It’s certainly a risky thing to do, but if you’re not taking risks when you make a film, it’s boring.

Have you noticed different reactions to the film in different countries?

Maymon: I’ve noticed that in countries where euthanasia is legal, people are more interested to know how it is in Israel. But ultimately this movie is about feelings, love and separation. So I think it’s the same everywhere.

Granit: Also, wherever we travel with this movie, there’s always someone in the audience who wants to know if we kept the “mercy-killing machine”. It seems that, across cultures and borders, everyone is secretly hoping to have such a machine – just in case.

Speaking of the mercy-killing machine, where did you get the idea for that?

Maymon: It all started when the characters wanted to put their friend Max out of his misery but realised that they couldn’t do it themselves. Because we wanted to add a light touch to the design of the machine, we used the Shabbat timer and the bicycle chains. We knew the apparatuses that Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian and Dr. [Philip] Nitschke used, and ours is a combination of those two and some humour.

Your movie features an entire cast of senior performers, which doesn’t happen that often.

Maymon: I actually think that these days, there are quite many movies with senior casts, like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel parts I and II, Quartett, etc. – and they’re all blockbusters! Now Hollywood finally figured out only pensioners go to the cinemas anymore. [Laughs] Actually, we’d worked with the main actor Ze’ev Revach on a short film 11 years ago. We wrote this role specifically for him. It’s the same with lead actress Levana Finkelstein, who I’d also worked with before. We didn’t think about their age.

Roundtable interview: 蔡明亮 (Tsai Ming-liang) (那日下午 (Afternoon))

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 21 , 2015)

When I was watching the film, I almost felt like I was watching something too personal. What made you decide to open up like this? 

I’ve always been very open about myself. And my movies have always made people uncomfortable. In Taiwan, this movie first appeared as a book. So journalists were excited about all the “scoop” they found in it. As far as I’m concerned, however, there’s no scoop here. It’s my life, I’ve never been secretive about it. Kang-sheng Lee and I, we just rarely talk about it. And I mean, what are movies supposed to be about if not private thoughts and emotions? The creative process is inevitably private. People might think it’s strange for artists to bring their private life into the films they make, but that’s exactly what we do and what we ought to do.  

You also shared things about your creative process in the film, which many directors avoid doing. 

This is not a film on filmmaking. The reason why I inquire about Kang-sheng Lee’s process in the film is that I almost never communicate with my actors. So when we had a chance to talk like this, I was genuinely curious to know what was going through his mind when we shot this scene or that. It was definitely not my intention to lecture on filmmaking or share my method through this film. Everyone approaches filmmaking differently anyway.  

Many filmmakers also avoid the discussion of what cinema is, but you seem ready to engage in such discussions.

I remember when my fifth film Good Bye, Dragon Inn premiered here in Venice, every single one of the journalists – well, at least all the Occidental ones - asked me the same question: “What is cinema?” I was excited by that question because it hadn’t been discussed enough. Just now another journalist pointed out to me: “There’s never a script to your films.” I asked him in response: “Do you think a film must have a script?” He answered with some exasperation: “Yes, of course!” This serves to prove my point that cinema has been industrialized, commercialized nowadays. Within that structure, there’s not much room for creativity anymore. So we actually need to re-think what cinema is under such circumstances.  

When this film was revealed as part of the official line-up, the initial festival designation was neither feature film nor documentary, but the curious term “non-fiction”. 

People have often had trouble categorizing my films. The Marseille Festival of Documentary Film wanted to have the Walker series in competition, for example, to which I said: “It’s not a documentary though!” The programmers simply responded: “But we think it’s a documentary!” So film festivals all have their own criteria, and many of them are willing to be flexible when it comes to my work, which is often hard to categorize. This year, I purposefully submitted Afternoon to the Golden Horse Awards as a narrative feature, almost as a prank to see how they’d react – and sure enough, it got eliminated.  

But did you set out to make a narrative feature or a documentary with Afternoon?

I didn’t think in those terms when I was making it. But after I saw the finished movie, I felt like I was playing myself in a way - like I was the co-lead of my own movie. We were getting filmed after all. So even if we weren’t “performing”, we were kind of playing ourselves. There was actually another film festival that wanted to have Afternoon in their competition as a narrative feature, they thought it’s a love story! But in the end I chose Venice to premiere the film.    

People generally like easy labels though. 

For me the product of a creative process doesn’t have to be categorized one way or another. But the world we live in works in very standardized ways. It demands you to put things in categories. A short film or a feature film must be how many minutes long etc. I never quite understood such rules. I’ve tried to break these restrictions with my work before.    

In the movie you talked about selling tickets to your films on the streets of Taiwan, which seems quite a contrast to the kind of rock-star status you enjoy at A-list European film festivals.

Well, I started out doing theater and have always had a commoner’s perspective. I don’t think of art as something exclusive or elusive. Directors aren’t emperors. Whether I go on the streets to sell tickets or get treated differently at film festivals, I find it all very normal, because the circumstances are different. Lately I’ve been busy preparing for an exhibition in Guangzhou in connection with the museum screenings of Stray Dogs, where I also needed to do promotional work to sell tickets, giving speeches everywhere. People were surprised how low-maintenance I was but I thought it’s the most logical thing in the world. This is what the circumstances require. My goal is clear: I want as many people to see my work as possible. Whether they’ll like it or not is another question.    

You seem to really enjoy challenging the conventions, the rules, even at such traditional, classic film festivals like Venice.

In Asia, especially in Taiwan, I rebel even more strongly again any form of establishment. I chose not to release my films in cinemas but in art museums. And even then I would change the usual practice of art museums. I made them extend their opening hours to nighttime and allow people watching my films to sleep in the museum. Art museums also have their share of established rules, which I think only makes them less approachable for the public. And when people see my films in a museum, they also tend to be more open-minded about them – the slowness doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore. So I do like to play with these rules about how things are supposed to be done. In Taiwan I’ve also shot a 23-min film to be shown in cinemas. In the ad campaigns I asked the question: Must a movie be 90 minutes long?        

Can you talk about the genesis of the project Afternoon?

After Stray Dogs became a prize-winner at the Golden Horse Awards and at the Venice Film Festival in 2013, people became really curious to see the movie. I insisted on showing it only in art museums, because otherwise it would have been the same small group of ticket buyers who’d see it in cinemas. This idea got the attention of some publishers, who contacted me to write a book as a companion piece. I thought it’d be boring to go the usual route and publish the script, attach some film stills and making-of materials. So I came up with the idea to have an in-depth discussion with Kang-sheng Lee, who’s the focus of Stray Dogs. After we shot the whole thing, I watched it back and thought it’s actually quite nice, visually in particular. Together with the images, it became something that’s more than just words. So I decided it should stand as a cinematic piece.  

Your films, including Stray Dogs, have often raised the critique that they’re not films, but art pieces. 

Well, film is art. That’s why I always go back to the essence of film when I make one. And for me that’s the image and not the story, not even the performances. So I spend most of my efforts on perfecting the images of my films. You can look at it the other way around too. In 2007 I was invited by the programmers of fine arts to do an exhibition at the Biennale, but my concept for the piece was still film.

Where did this refusal to stick to labels come from?  

It is true that I’m wary of labels. I’ve never liked limitations since I was little. I think that has a lot to do with my childhood. I grew up in Malaysia in the 60’s. Back then things were fairly relaxed, free. The limitations came later. And they made me uncomfortable. After I left Malaysia and started working in Taiwan, I also encountered many limitations. A screenplay should be written in a certain way, for example. I always tried to rebel against such rules and was fortunate enough to meet many people along the way who supported me. After I started making films, my work quickly found its way into the European market. The European investors or distributors were much more open-minded.

You mentioned you rarely communicated with your actors. But, from Kang-sheng Lee to Shiang-chyi Chen (female lead of Stray Dogs), you coached such amazing performances out of them! How did you do that?  

It’s different with individual actors. With Kang-sheng Lee, you don’t need to coach him. All you need to do is give him a scenario. Because of his age and living experiences, he can naturally give you the appropriate response. In the case of Shiang-chyi Chen, it’s more about getting rid of things because she, as a student and now a professor of performance arts, carries too much baggage with her. As a director, all I’m after can be simply described as authenticity.

The 15-min dialogue-free penultimate scene of Stray Dogs is already legendary. How did you make that work?

My goal as a filmmaker is not to create drama, but to craft images. So scenery is of the utmost importance to me - the actors must become part of the scenery. When that happens, they’ll be able to express everything there is to express. The scene you mentioned we shot twice. The first time I quickly yelled cut because it was obviously not working. But we got it the second time. The thing is, filmmakers generally work under a lot of restrictions like running time, storyboard, plot etc. I don’t submit myself to such restrictions. Of course, I face a different kind of challenge as a result. The process I need in order to get to the result sometimes seems pointless. A scene of two people standing next to each other for an extended period of time, for example. At some point it also strikes me as empty. But should I accept this emptiness? Emptiness is a part of life after all. These are the questions I have to consider before making my decisions. So I allow imprecision in my work from time to time. I actually like this imprecise quality. It strikes me as true to life. The audience responds to this kind of film differently as when they watch conventional dramas, where they know when to laugh or cry. Instead, everyone would have their individual reaction. To me, that’s the proof of true creative work.

Venice Film Festival: 老炮兒 (Mr. Six)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 20, 2015)

From the late 80’s til the early 00’s, Chinese cinema has been a mainstay at A-list film festivals worldwide, picking up trophies left and right. Things changed, however, as the Mandarin film market experienced an exponential growth in the last decade, inspiring many award-winning “underground” filmmakers to go “mainstream”. While making movies for a mass audience is in itself a perfectly valid pursuit, the drastic decline in quality of these auteurs’ commercially-oriented work has been more than disheartening. Golden Bear (Red Sorghum, 1988) and two-time Golden Lion (The Story of Qiu Ju, 1992; Not One Less, 1999) winner Yimou Zhang, for example, has given us splashy CG-extravaganzas like House of Flying Daggers (2004) or Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) that are a far cry from his earlier work in terms of subtlety and insightfulness. Palme d’Or winner Kaige Chen (Farewell My Concubine, 1993) crashed and burned with the much-maligned Sacrifice (2010); and Cannes Granx Prix winner Wen Jiang (Devils on the Doorstep, 2000) also dropped to career low with his box office hit Gone With the Bullets (2014). And so one approaches Hu Guan’s latest effort Mr. Six, which closed this year’s Venice Film Festival, with understandable caution.

Guan certainly hasn’t struck gold internationally the way those mentioned above have, but he’s been quietly establishing himself as a distinct new voice in Chinese cinema over the past decade. Whether it’s the thickly atmospheric Design of Death (2012) or the kinetic, Tarantino-esque The Chef, The Actor, The Scoundrel (2013), his films display sharp personal, societal observations mixed with an unapologetic genre sensibility. With Mr. Six, traces of those attributes are still noticeable, but it’s sadly still a step-down that feels suspiciously market-driven.

The titular character (played by Xiaogang Feng) is an ex-gangster pushing sixty who no longer has money or turf wars on his mind but patrols his old neighborhood as a self-appointed magistrate. He doesn’t allow bullying, swindling or any such injustice and tolerates neither ill-mannered crooks nor bad cops. Because he’s been the boss of things for so long, people both sides of the law naturally defer to him and he gets to keep up the appearance of an authority figure. That changes as his estranged son Xiao Bo (Yifeng Li) is abducted for crossing über-rich heir of Party functionary, Xiao Fei (Kris Wu). A washed-up gang-leader who used to call the shots must now face a new generation of bad boys who don’t play by his rules anymore.

Sounds ripe for an exciting father-son drama, Taken-style. All the more surprising, then, to find a movie this tame, thoroughly unspectacular. On the action front, there’s very little happening except for a couple of car chases and modestly staged fist fights. The former, unimaginatively shot and heavily reliant on additional light and sound effects, fails to produce any convincing sense of speed. The latter, brief and scarcely choreographed, betrays a half-heartedness at odds with the film’s promised hard edge. Indeed, not much of the bold, fancifully theatrical camera work one associates with Guan’s films is on display here. There are striking shots of daily life along ancient Beijing hutongs or, signaling the final showdown, an old man trekking over the surface of a giant frozen lake, but the beauty is more of a more plastic, superficially pleasing variety that’ll probably sweep nobody off their feet. The editing is also underwhelming, cutting scenes into such short, digestible units they barely have room to breathe or build up a rhythm. Add to that a production design as sleek and posh as per modern Chinese blockbuster standards, and you get an overall visual impression of a carefully groomed teen idol who’s easy on the eyes but lacks depth, heft, personality.  

Speaking of teen idols, pop stars Li and Wu are both serviceable if unremarkable in their roles which, to be fair, aren’t terribly well written. Li can’t quite shake this doe-like quality from his big, pretty eyes to play an angry son living out his rebellion, while Wu simply can’t work up the venom or fury needed for the villainous part. There’s a brittle two-dimensionality to their performances that prevent them from registering on any emotional level. It falls on veteran director/actor Feng to bring the weight of screen presence that ultimately saves the picture from completely tanking. With tremendous poise and an oceanic calm that comes from decades of experience - in life as well as in film – he nails a character who’s seen everything, has life long figured out, and feels impatience above all else when imposing young chaps try to rattle him with bravado and threats. Paternalistic, fair-minded, loyal to a fault, Mr. Six is someone born in another time and who still fights for his values. As a metaphor for the endangered conscience in an ever more materialistic Chinese society it’s a bit obvious. But as a movie character it’s a fine creation, one that’s enhanced invaluably by Feng’s wonderfully aged star turn.

Plotted with limited imagination and directed with atypical flatness, Mr. Six features a strong central performance and shares its humanistic concern with Hu Guan’s previous work but is nevertheless an artistic underachiever. Altogether it’s not so much an outright disaster as a worrisome indicator of Guan’s readiness to compromise. Ironic then, how in a movie where the protagonist is constantly lamenting the good ol’ days, we also wish its helmer would go back to the way he used to do it.          

Venice Film Festival: Desde allá (From Afar)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 14, 2015)

Proving yet again that festival juries don’t read the trades or pay attention to chatter, the Golden Lion of the 72nd Venice Film Festival was presented to the Venezuelan drama Desde allá (From Afar), a film that screened relatively late at the fest, when general opinion on the Lido seemed to have settled on this being a race between Rabin, the Last Day, Blood of My Blood and Francofonia. In a discerning and gutsy move, the star-studded jury chaired by Alfonso Cuarón decided to recognize the achievement of writer/director Lorenzo Vigas’ debut feature over those higher-profile pictures from established masters. It’s gutsy because this film tells a moving if deeply unpleasant story with a significant ick factor that’s going to put many people off. It’s discerning because, as contained and particular as the film’s subject matter and as unassuming as its approach, From Afar delivers an incisive, poignant, surgically precise character study that deals a fatal blow in one crisp, clean stab.

We first meet Armando (Alfredo Castro), a middle-aged dentures shop owner who finds release for his closeted urges by bringing home young men he picks up from the streets. Not five minutes into the film we already see him fervently masturbating to the sight of a teenage boy’s exposed behind. There doesn’t seem to be any physical contact involved and the brief rendezvous goes down consensually. Yet the hushed atmosphere, the cash exchange and the marked age difference between the two participants, underlined by close-ups of one’s wrinkled face and the other’s babyishly smooth skin, give the whole episode a sleazy, repellent air.

Judging from Armando’s nonchalant demeanor and practiced orchestration of the meeting, you get the idea he’s been doing this for a while. But nothing has prepared him for Elder (Luis Silva), a street kid with a fiery temper who backs down from a deal, turns to assault and rob the older man before fleeing his apartment. It’s no surprise that Armando doesn’t report the incident to the police and silently stomachs the injuries he suffered. Things get interesting, however, when he seeks out Elder again and, without a hint of anger or fear, willingly offers to pay this violent, unreliable person a second time, thereby setting in motion a chain of events none of them could have expected.            

Written with a forthrightness that cuts through caution and shame, the screenplay allows a highly unconventional relationship to run its course. The two main characters are anything but sanitized, amply demonstrating their least appealing qualities while trapped in some desolate far reaches of the human psyche. There are no labels put on the many emotional gray areas they go through. Instead, we simply witness how out of an animalistic, mutually exploitative arrangement grows something approaching tenderness, which in turn triggers reactions in both of them as subtle as they are devastating. Through it all, Vigas’ writing remains non-judgmental and keenly observant. He doesn’t attempt to explain everything with words, but the raw honesty of his voice compels every step along the way.

Vigas the director also knows to keep the ambiguity alive, playing with composition, depth and distance in a way that emphasizes the gap between the protagonists. Armando is often seen from the back, looking out onto a pool of potential prey, his estranged, supposedly abusive father, or just this mysterious boy who might be sleeping right in front of him, yet could not be more remote, heartbreakingly unknowable. In the scene where Elder first introduces Armando to his family and friends at a dance, the camera traces the wondering looks of different parties from across the floor, communicating with little verbal help a tension simmering in the room as curiosity, attraction, jealousy and everything in between slowly take control. Like the rest of the film, the staging here is economical, the styling modest, but the immediacy and effectiveness of the visual language are unmistakable.  

Both leads are excellent. After a brilliant turn as a pedophile priest in Pablo Larraín’s Berlinale-winner El Club (The Club) earlier this year, Castro dazzles again with the complex portrayal of someone harboring a secret. Restrained, alert, camouflaged by an exterior of prudence and indifference but desperate from a mind coarsened beyond repair, Armando is an exceptional creation that repulses, captivates and mystifies. On paper it would take some persuasion to buy a character of such contradictions and obscure motivations, but Castro’s face, at times hardened by despair, at others softened by longing, informs you so much of a chronically lonely person that, on an intuitive level, everything falls into place. Newcomer Silva brings an unpolished explosiveness to the picture, which plays off Castro’s calculated placidity tremendously.    

Powered by a sea of suppressed, unreciprocated feelings, From Afar beautifully describes the mechanisms of desire in what begins as an almost-love story that ends up something tragically different. It might not be the most ambitious or technically achieved film of the Venice competition line-up this year, but it certainly cuts closest to heart, leaving behind the most jagged tear.

Roundtable interview: Juliette Binoche (L'attesa (The Wait))

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 12 , 2015)

What attracted you to the project?

When I read the script and met with Piero, I sensed there’s a real director in him. Also it’s very exciting for an actor to work with somebody new, to take that risk. And I hadn’t done a film about losing a child since Blue. I thought this is a film I’d like to do, as it explores the subject matter in a different way. It’s about denial and how the mind of a mother works. It’s almost a creative process - she’s created a whole world in order to survive this loss. I also found the journey of the two women very interesting. It’s ambivalent, you never know where it’s going. My character goes through all these contradictory feelings. There’s hope and, at the same time, a deep despair.

Is your character Anna pretending in order to accept her loss? 

It’s a way of putting distance between herself and the pain because it’s so difficult to accept. There’s nothing worse than losing a child. As a mother, the death of a child is almost like a betrayal of life. There’s a lot of anger involved, and probably shame as well. And guilt of course. It’s a very complex situation.

How do you protect yourself from those negative emotions when you act?

When you act, you don’t want to protect yourself. There’s no escaping. Some directors aren’t aware how hard it is on the actors. It’s your dedication to descending into the darkest parts of humanity in order to tell a story. There’s no way around it. You have to believe you’re in that situation. I remember having a very interesting conversation with Abbas Kiarostami. After a scene where I was crying, he said to me, “They’re false tears”. I said, “Well, try false tears!”. He didn’t understand how that worked, the place an actor has to put himself into. You have to make your body believe that it’s true. Otherwise the emotions wouldn’t come to you. So it usually comes from sensations. That’s why I need to always try different ways of acting. Because you’re always making yourself feel new things. It’s not the director’s job. They decide where to put the camera and when to cut. After that it’s up to the skills and sense of responsibility of the actors.

A lot of things are left unsaid in this movie. We don’t always know what the characters are thinking. The scene where Jeanne dances with the young guy, for example. When Anna sees that, she first seems content, happy almost. But then her expression changed suddenly, without any explanation. As an actor, do you have to make up your mind as to what exactly is going through your character’s head before you perform?  

Oh yes definitely. Because there’s no words. And even with words you have to figure out what’s behind them. It depends on the way you work though. Sometimes I don’t make the decisions beforehand and just throw myself into it but other times you have to for the sake of creating an arc for your character. You have to know where your character’s going and where you’re taking your audience to. For that specific scene, I had a conversation with Piero. In my mind, Anna enjoys seeing Jeanne falling in love with somebody else. Because it gives hope that she’ll be able to move on. She herself, as the mother, can’t do it yet, because it’s too painful. Her own enemy is herself. She’s not ready to live again yet. So it was very important for me to look at Jeanne with joy. By the time she looks back at me, I notice she stops and looks taken aback, probably thinking I’m judging her as the mother of her boyfriend. But I don’t want to judge her, I get unsettled by the thought and leave. The whole process is as complex as that. Of course in a film you’re not going to explain everything. The audience must be made to wonder about the many maybe’s. Films should take the audience to wherever they want to go. In the editing room, Piero originally didn’t keep the expression of joy in the picture. I told him he’s missing a step here. Because she’s happy to see Jeanne moving on. Which is also why she later lies and tells Jeanne that Giuseppe has gone with another girl, and that she should move on as well. So it’s interesting, the choices directors and actors make.

The director mentioned he made you do a lot of takes during shooting. Did that upset you? Or do you prefer it that way?

I’m used to doing a lot of takes. You always adapt to a director’s method though. I don’t have a recipe. I can do just one take or do many. When you’re in a creative process, you’re not counting anyway. You recreate life. You recreate moments. So you’re not asking “another one?” because every take is another chance of exploration.

Has this shoot been an emotionally draining experience for you?

I was already drained when I arrived for the shoot because I’d just done a film that was really draining. I was completely exhausted but that was good for this part. So I used it to portray someone in grief. For me what’s really draining is when you cannot reach where you’re supposed to go.

You mentioned feeling free while shooting this film. Can you elaborate on that?

I think that’s because I prepared for the part, wasn’t satisfied with my preparations and decided to throw everything away, to just not know anything. That was a very interesting experience because it felt dangerous. But then I could tap into this fragility inside me, which I think helped me through the whole film.

Do you participate in the film editing process as well?

Yes. As an actor you’re right in the middle of it, so physically you know whether it works or not. I generally enjoy working with directors because if I wanted to work by myself I would have chosen to paint or something. But to work with others it becomes a co-creation. With Piero, he wanted to have my opinion on the editing. It depends on the directors - how open they are to collaboration. Abbas, for example, also showed me his edits. We didn’t agree on one scene, but in the end they had to make the decisions.

You have worked with some of the greatest directors of our time. From Haneke to Kieslowski, from Cronenberg to Hou Hsiao-Hsien. They’re all completely different filmmakers of course. But could you identify something they have in common that makes them such great storytellers?

I think it’s because there’s something so personal about the piece they’re doing that it becomes universal. I think the common denominator is that they’re doing something really close to their heart. But also the intelligence, particularly the intelligence of the heart, related to all the layers of humanity. And most great directors, they let you be, because they trust you. And with trust you get a lot more than without it.

The director mentioned you said on your first meeting that you don’t act, you are. Can you elaborate on that? 

I was lucky enough to have an acting teacher when I was 18. Back then I was really acting with a capital A, and she destroyed all that, until I touched the core of what it is to just be. It’s a completely different feeling. When it’s time for you to perform, you have to let it breathe.                

Roundtable interview: Piero Messina (L'attesa (The Wait))

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 12 , 2015)

Did you reference Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue (1993) when you cast Juliette Binoche for this part?

There was no reference to the film actually. Blue is obviously a masterpiece, I loved it but I wasn’t thinking about it when I cast the part. There are two reasons why I wanted Juliette Binoche. First of all, the film is set in an empty house, so I needed two great actresses to fill out the empty space. And Juliette certainly fits the bill. The second reason is that this film is about what’s not said, it’s about concealing. And I think Juliette is the perfect choice for that.

How did a first-time feature director convince Juliette Binoche to be in his movie? And what was the experience like working with her?

I think the main reason is that we had a good script. When the producers first sent Juliette the script, they didn’t even hope to hear back from her. But she did. She called and said yes. So I think once you have a good script, part of the job is done.

What was the experience like working with her?

It was really exciting and extremely interesting to work with Juliette. The way we worked together was very straightforward, partly because I don’t speak French, so there’s a language barrier. For that reason, we would reduce things to the essential. So it was a no-frills communication, bordering on the rude. But in the end, the character did come out. It took a while, it was a slow process, but the character gradually took shape through repetition. We did a lot of takes. At first, Juliette was acting outwardly. So it was a matter of taking it inside - sort of introjecting the story and the character - take by take. The more we repeated, the more inwardly the performance would go.

I remember Juliette told me on our first meeting that she had a method, which might sound a little megalomanic but it’s really not. She said: “I do not act. I am.” It’s not preposterous because what she can do is amazing. She can really recreate, assimilate the pain the character feels. She’s able to get into that and really live it. And she does so in a very generous way, because she puts herself completely at the disposal of that kind of emotions. To me it was very interesting, because as we were repeating many, many times, I would use her as a sort of probe that would dive into this ocean of suffering. And then it was my role to make the selection from those many takes.

What was the experience like doing so many takes?

At first it was quite tiring, because it was such a long and demanding process. But after a while we became totally passionate about it. For me, it was the first time that I got to work with such a great actress. But also for her, I think, it doesn’t happen that often that she gets asked to do so many takes.

How many takes do you do?

On average 20, 25. For some scenes even 40.

What was the purpose of doing so many takes?

It was a process of research. We were looking for something. For me that was an ideal condition, because we would both be doing this continuous research. We could have just used the first takes, but in my opinion, that would have been a waste of talent. There was also another factor, the factor of tiredness. We ended up using none of the first takes we did. Because when a person has gone to the bathroom to cry and is now back, you can tell from their eyes that they have been crying even without them saying it. That is partly why we always chose from the later takes for the final cut.

Can you talk about the adaptation process? Why did it take as many as four writers to adapt this play?

Actually we need to clarify: It was not really an adaptation. In the beginning what I had in mind was just something a friend told me, about a friend of his denying the death of a loved one. My memories of the religious processions in Sicily, along with many other things, also played a part. And then somebody told me that there’s a play by Luigi Pirandello (La vita che ti diedi) which dealt with those similar themes. So only then, during the fourth re-write, did we consider Pirandello’s material. I didn’t read the whole play myself, although my co-writers did. In all the official press materials Pirandello’s play is mentioned because it’s true we took some elements from his play – so it’s the necessary and respectful thing to do - but we really only used a few such elements. So I wouldn’t call it an adaptation, because that’s not how the project evolved.

The writing experience itself was weird, exciting and beautiful. All four of us had no experience writing feature films, so there was no method to be followed. We were very naïve, very pristine in how we approached the project. We had no idea how to write a script so with every re-write we would write a complete and completely different script. Two years ago I read all the different versions and put them together in our final screenplay.

But you have had filmmaking experiences before? 

Yes I have worked with Sorrentino and I had shot as many as 15 short films before, so I had filmmaking experience. But this was for me and my co-writers our first feature film. We all went to the Italian National Film School together. It took us four years to write this script and it was great, because we had the liberty to write and re-write. We had no deadlines so we would just keep writing. If it hadn’t been for the producer who told us to stop, we would still have been working on it.

Can you talk about the many religious symbols used throughout the film?

Well, I wouldn’t call this a religious film. What interests me is the mythology, the rituals of religion. The whole system of code, whereby universal truths are represented in a way that’s popular, easy and can attract people. It’s almost like a mise-en-scène. In Sicily you find it in the daily life. I’m very interested in that type of code and narrative. The Easter procession, for example, is amazing as you see thousands of people crying because they believe that a piece of wood is alive. That’s the power of representation and what really interests me.  

Roundtable interview: Pablo Trapero (El Clan (The Clan))

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 12 , 2015)

This movie is the biggest commercial hit of your career so far. Did you consciously try to broaden your audience?

No I wasn’t thinking of that. I’d love to have a broader audience, but when I was trying to make this film - and I’d been trying for seven years since starting to write and work on it in 2007 - people were telling me: “Pablo, not one of these films again. You should do a comedy” etc. The truth is you never know when or how a movie is going to do well with the public. I’m happy and thankful that this film got made because it’s not easy, it’s not a franchise film.

Can you talk about the relevance of this film for Argentina today?

Well, in any film I made, I tried to only talk about something specific. You can’t talk about the world or your country because it’s too big a theme. To me it seems like you can only talk about a couple of people, and that’s always been my goal. With White Elephant, it’s not about the Church but the main character’s dilemma. In my first film Crane World it’s about a guy trying to find a job. For me, it’s actually easier to make something universal this way. I mean, there’s no other case like the Puccio family in Argentina. That’s one of the things that struck me when I started doing research. In the end, it’s a story about a father and a son. The crime aspect, how they pulled off the kidnaps etc, aren’t really the core of the film. Of course when you see the film you see it’s based on a true case, and things really happened more or less like that as far as we know. We reenacted everything as closely as our research allowed. But at the end of the day, it’s more about how this family works from within. It was a normal family after all: the mother was a teacher, Arquímedes was an accountant, their son Alex is a star rugby player. Everyone was integrated in the society. When you first hear about this story, you’d imagine a freak family but in reality that’s not the case at all.

Did the Puccio’s neighbors really never notice anything?

That is strange but it’s true. Maybe some of them knew but they refused to believe it. When the whole thing finally blew up, the neighbors were actually most skeptical, they thought it was a mistake, that these people are victims of a bigger complot or something. It took years for them to accept that it was for real. It says a lot about humanity. You have it right in front of your face and you pretend it’s not happening. So you can put the film in today’s context – it’s about how people face reality, the hypocrisy of it.

Did you talk to many people involved in those crimes?

Yes, well as much as we could. The Puccio family didn’t want to talk to us but we talked to the victims’ families, we talked with lawyers, judges, journalists who have covered the case and the neighbors.

Why did you specify at the start of the film the change of political regimes in Argentina at the time the story took place?

Well, the family had actually been doing the kidnapping for years. But in 1985, the system changed. Many people like Arquímedes, they were befriended with the shadow forces during or even before the dictatorship. It was the new democratic government after 1983 that finally passed judgment on the corrupt military. Otherwise, Puccio might still be there today.

The film suggested that Arquímedes was disillusioned by the politics from that time. Do you think that also played a part in why he did what he did?

It’s a clue but it’s not conclusive. It’s like a symptom. Every crime, in general, says something about that society. I didn’t intend to explain everything so clearly for the audience to understand everything. This is not a documentary or the Discovery Channel, it’s a movie. So if someone wants to get to the bottom of things, they should go and do their own research.

Can you talk about the casting of the movie, especially in the case of Arquímedes?

One of the most interesting parts of making this movie was the recreation of the characters with the actors. When you’re telling the story of a real person, you have all these references and pictures to go on, so we spent a lot of time on that. If you’ve met Guillermo Francella you’d know, he has nothing to do with Arquímedes. He’s the biggest comedy guy in Argentina. He’s huge, the biggest guy you can have for a comedy. And I asked him to do this part! I wasn’t sure if he’d want to do it, because actors sometimes prefer to be safe, not alienated from the audience. But he said he loved it, let’s go for it. So we went through a very long process. We did a lot of physical tests with make-up etc. And it was a lot of work for him to change himself completely in order to play this part. But I mean, a great comedian has to be a great actor. I’m a big fan of Chaplin, for example. I think he’s the reason why I became a filmmaker.

Your choice of music in this film is very surprising, often not what you’d expect to hear in such a gritty crime drama. Can you tell us the reasoning behind that? 

It’s not easy to answer. A lot of movie-making decisions, at least in my case, are based on intuition. It’s hard to explain why. Mostly just things you think might work, but you never know if they will turn out to be big mistakes. I can tell you that I love the song Sunny Afternoon, and that’s the reason why I decided to use it. Also I think, even though this is a period movie, we shouldn’t only use songs from ’82, ’83. So we had some songs from outside the time period. Apart from that, it’s unbearable to see what these people do on screen. They’re just so brutal. So the music became a way to invite the audience to join the ride. And I mean the Puccios’ way of life was in a way crazy like that. The car in which Alex made love to the girl, they also used it for the kidnappings, and that is not fiction!      

Can you talk about the shocking last scene?

Well, it wasn’t in the first draft. All the other long takes, the scenes of the kidnapping etc. were all in the early drafts, because then you have the time to build the sets or find the places to do them. But the final shot, which we’re not going to say what happens, took months of preparation and then months of VFX work afterwards. In the end it’s very close to what actually happened. It’s literally like a ride.

Are you inspired by filmmakers who make artistically ambitious films that are entertaining at the same time?

We’re in Fellini’s land, what can I say? (laughter) I mean, again, Chaplin, Scorsese, these are the filmmakers that made me want to do what I do. They showed me that you can have all these things in the mix. Your films can be entertaining and also offer a chance for the audience to reflect, to think, to be touched. I personally like movies that change you in some way when you leave the theater. For me, the real relationship with a movie starts when it finishes.

Roundtable interview: Guillermo Francella / Peter Lanzani (El Clan (The Clan))

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 12 , 2015)

Did you have to learn to play rugby for this part? What else did you have to do for research? 

Lanzani: I love rugby, I started playing rugby when I was four years old. My father played rugby all his life. He’d played against my character Alex actually. My father was a friend of the second guy they kidnapped in 1983. So he could really tell me about a lot of things. He told me that Alex was an introvert, a sad guy who didn’t speak much with anyone. I also met with some of Alex’s friends who told me other things from which I could build this character. It’s a very difficult role to play. Alex has an inner duality. On the one hand, he knew what he was doing was wrong. On the other hand, he loved money and he couldn’t betray his family.

Many actors say playing the villain is more fun. Can playing someone like Arquímedes Puccio be fun?

Francella: It wasn’t fun at all. It was very stressful emotionally. The content of the film is difficult to digest. But as an actor I can say that it was a positive experience in the sense that I had to work a lot to get it right.

Was the Argentinian audience taken aback to see you, the biggest comedian, in this role?

Francella: The director and I worked a lot to make this character very different from what I am, so people don’t even recognize me on screen. And I didn’t mean just the physical transformation, but also how I changed my behavior completely to play the part. When I saw my eyes in the mirror, even I couldn’t recognize myself.

Johnny Depp wore special lenses to play the part of Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, which also premiered here in Venice. But yours are your own natural eyes, right?

Francella: Yes, I didn’t wear lenses. I had to practice not blinking though, and also this icy stare. It was the thing that we worked on the most actually.

Can you talk about how the experience was like working with a newcomer / veteran actor?

Francella: For me it was a great experience working with Peter. He’s an excellent actor and person. He’s still very young (25 years old) but he has respect for the profession.

Lanzani: I grew up with his work so I was a little intimidated. But he’s such a good person, it was nothing but a pleasure to work with him. Day by day I also learned a lot from him. He taught me to be a good man and a good actor. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
Did you stay in character during the shoot?

Lanzani: Well it depends on the situation. If it’s just a three-minute break, then it’s better to stay in character to be prepared for the scene. But we don’t do that all day long, because that’d be a little crazy.

Can you talk about shooting that final scene?

Lanzani: We’re not going to tell you how we did it! But yeah, it was a fun scene to shoot. Really difficult too, because it’s one long sequence with the same camera the whole time, during which my character goes through very different emotions. At first he’s sad and a bit lost, and then he was surprised to see his father, then came that smile on his face before he made the leap. It was a crazy scene. That scene and the scene in the jail are the most powerful scenes in the movie for me.

What has the success of the movie brought you personally?

Francella: Just the satisfaction of having made a good film that the people in Argentina like.

Lanzani: It’s a really nice thing. We spent like two months making this film and it was really tough for us. It’s like getting a hug when people like it and say nice things about it. In terms of my career, I don’t think it will change things too much, because this success is only temporary. Although It is good for people to know me from something other than TV.

Did you know about the story before the shoot?

Lanzani: Yes, people in Argentina know about the story. Guillermo used to be practically neighbors with the Puccios too.

Francella: Yes, I used to walk past their house. I just never thought crimes were being committed inside.    

How has the political context of that time affected you personally?

Francella: The time of the dictatorhip certainly affected us all a lot. But in the 70’s I was rather young, so I didn’t understand exactly what was going on. I just saw my parents carry on with their lives, go to work, and we never spoke about politics at home. At that time there was very little information available too.

Dienstag, 22. September 2015

Venice Film Festival: 那日下午 (Afternoon)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 11, 2015)

It’s always been easier to review Tsai Ming-liang’s films than to make sense of them. Characterized by an often impenetrable language of silence and immobility, the Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based filmmaker’s work triggers all kinds of intuitive response that writers crave, yet those same writers might be hard-pressed to explain what they’ve just seen on screen. In this sense, 那日下午 (Afternoon) poses the exact opposite dilemma, in that it’s by far the most verbal and straightforward project from Tsai – but how do you assess, evaluate, grade something so close to life you’re not even sure what to call it in cinematic terms?

Featuring Tsai and his long-time actor-of-choice Kang-sheng Lee as themselves in an extended, unscripted conversation shot on static camera, 那日下午 (Afternoon) has no discernible narrative arc, resists somehow also the categorization of documentary. Is it an interview? A visual essay? A behind-the-scenes reel? An improvisational performance piece? Ultimately the initial festival designation of “non-fiction” might just have to do. As with his narrative work, 那日下午 (Afternoon) is formally stripped to the very essential. One dilapidated room with two openings in the brick wall. Two chairs supporting a couple of plainly-dressed, middle-aged men. The unmoving gaze of a single camera which, except for three momentary blinks, records the whole thing uninterrupted. There are no visual tricks being played and, with one glance, you feel like you’ve seen all this unspectacular square of image has to offer. This lack of distraction serves the film well, though, because it’s all about these two people: director / actor, mentor / pupil, creator / muse. After working together continuously since 1991 and leaving behind one of the most remarkable collaborative filmographies in world cinema, what has their relationship become? What do they have to say to each other?      

Turns out they have, or at least Tsai has plenty of things to say. Beginning emotionally with the wish to have his last words documented before deteriorating health leads to imminent death, Tsai goes on to talk at length about his upbringing, missing sense of belonging, and how he has experienced some of the saddest, but also the most purely blissful moments of his life with Lee. From there it shifts to his admiration of Lee from a professional perspective and how he has come to be his indispensible alter ego, his motivation for continuing to make movies. The train of his thoughts follows no particular trajectory of coherence or logic. Random tidbits from their past, travel stories and personal losses are thrown in here and there. At times it gets incredibly specific to the point of banal. Lee, meanwhile, smokes and only chimes in every once in a long while, usually prompted by the director who’s noticed the dialogue was again turning into a monologue. As broodingly unresponsive and slurringly inarticulate as Tsai is agitated and eloquent, Lee often tends to bring the talk to a halt or sends it in another direction. So questions would remain unanswered and sentences often start in one place, only to end in a contextually, grammatically discontinued second half.

Isn’t this how we think, speak, perceive the world though? Continuous but chaotic, with no chance of a second, better take afforded. At the very beginning of the film, Tsai says with some exasperated embarrassment to the camera: “I don’t know how to imagine the crew not being there!” But as the defenses of the two subjects gradually get lost in their somewhat jumbled reminiscence, the pretenses also drop away. What we get is a rarified access into the minds of two individuals irreversibly joined by 20+ years of shared history. A history that, mixed with feelings of gratitude, attraction, caring and appreciation, hangs in the open space around them and fills the pauses with poignancy.            

All this is not necessarily to say 那日下午 (Afternoon) is a good film or an enjoyable film. Returning to the opening question, is it even a film at all? For those unfamiliar with Tsai’s work or uninterested in him and Lee as artists, it might seem like the most tedious stunt of self-promotion, an unwarranted act of indulgence. For those who ever wondered what sustained the Scorsese-DeNiro collaboration or how Diane Ketaon and Scarlett Johansson gave Woody Allen his creative juices, however, this proves a fascinating look at the chemistry between the inspiration and the inspired. And for Tsai’s numbered but avid fans everywhere, it offers a highly informative, almost voyeuristic peek behind the creation of such masterpieces of urban loneliness as 愛情萬歲 (Vive L'Amour) (Golden Lion, 1994) or 郊遊 (Stray Dogs) (Venice Grand Jury Prize, 2013).

45 Years

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Sep. 10, 2015)

As linear and contained as it is freewheeling and expansive, British writer/director Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years tackles the progression of relationships, albeit from a fixed, microscopic point of view

Counting down the last week before the 45th anniversary party of aged couple Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay), the film essentially begins as the body of Geoff’s first girlfriend Katja is discovered in the icy embrace of the Swiss Alps. Memories are unearthed, old feelings of guilt, jealously, suspicion and insecurity released. But surely a decades-long marriage can withstand the strains created by the whispers of a distant ghost – or can it?

Haigh might have had some trouble repeating the keen eye and subtle touch memorably displayed in his breakout arthouse hit Weekend, as certain scenarios here strike one as forced, motivated by reasons more petty than profound. However, there’s no denying the leanness and cleanness of his approach, the scalpel-like sharpness of his attention, which combine to set the perfect stage for a pair of veteran performers to flex their acting muscles. And they do not disappoint. Rampling, in particular, dazzles with the quietly devastating portrait of a woman in doubt. Taking full advantage of the brilliant final scene, where the camera lands on her face amidst a merrily ignorant crowd, she gives the audience such naked access to her character’s inner turmoil it feels almost intrusive to watch. Time, you realise then, may help cover one’s tracks, but it always preserves the evidence for a later day.

Knight of Cups

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Sep. 10, 2015)

Relationships are organic things. They evolve, adapt, blossom and, for one reason or another, perish.

Building on this premise, legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick uses the theme of journey to examine the metamorphosis of a man on his quest for love and fulfillment in the LA-set Knight of Cups. This being the City of Angels, our protagonist Rick (Bale) is – of course – a screenwriter, whose life is marked by –what else? – excess and emptiness. In answering the question “Where did I go wrong?”, more aspects of Rick’s past are revealed, including failed marriage to Nancy (Blanchett) and a budding romance with model Helen (Pinto),before we find him having an affair with the equally unhappy Elizabeth (Portman), who might turn out to be his one chance at salvation.

And so we witness the various incarnations of love, from the hormonal rush of courtship to the bitter scars left by a divorce. Technically echoing his recent work like To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, Malick goes about telling the story in a highly fragmented, freely associative way. Characters drift into the picture unannounced, only to drop out again unexplained. Seemingly random shots of geological formations or snippets of performance art are inserted at irregular intervals. In short, those who look for conventional narrative logic in their movies will not be pleased. That said, this film is propelled by such a strong sense of rhythm – the cuts so intuitively yet precisely timed, the changes of pace so masterfully controlled – you can’t help but get swept up in its maker’s momentous, psychedelic, thoroughly compelling stream of consciousness.

And not unlike the waves off the coast of Malibu, heavily featured and beautifully photographed by two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, our lonesome hero’s musings on searching and finding seem also to culminate in an exquisite sigh of regret, a tentative hope for change.

Venice Film Festival: A Bigger Splash

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 6, 2015)

Despite a loose script that justifies little, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s follow-up feature to his glorious melodrama I Am Love (2009) is a sweaty, kinetic, dangerously unpredictable ride of a film. One is frustrated by the final stroke of genius that never came, but boy was it fun to spend two hours inside such a whirlwind of desires, mind games, delirious sights and sounds.

Based on the 1969 French drama La piscine (The Swimming Pool), the story essentially begins as Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) – a couple vacationing on an Italian island – get an unexpected visit from her former lover and record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), along with his daughter Penny (Dakota Johnson). Harry, a raging bohemian who still harbors affections for Marianne, and Penny, a confident Lolita-type who has her sights set on the hunky Paul, will make sure feelings old and new get kindled, leading to frictions that may end up being more than harmless.

The screenplay establishes the characters well, fleshing their shared histories out – except for Penny, who shall remain a mysterious property - via numerous flashbacks. Even when the particulars aren’t always clear, you get the idea there’s some trauma in the past, adding gravity to the tension at hand. This is, however, not the most focused of screenwriting. People run errands, prepare meals, engage in swimming competitions, and even break into full-fledged musical numbers. Through these actions you grasp onto a sense of their personalities for sure, but sometimes you find yourself asking where all this is going. The most obvious failing of the script comes in the third act, when a crime is committed and later on, a slap is dealt. These are of course the dramatic climax after the film just spent over 90 minutes building and crafting atmosphere, but the scenes themselves confound more than anything, as both the motivation and the intensity of the actions seem somewhat inexplicable.

With that said, one probably wouldn’t get too hung up on meaning and explanations in a movie this jaggedly hypnotic. In a fundamental stylistic departure from the celestial classicism of I Am Love, Guadagnino opts for a rawer, much wilder look here. The texture of the frames is coarser, the lighting less gentle, the production and costume design ten shades plainer. But if anything, the unrefined, almost primal aesthetics of the film only serve to bring out the rampant carnal energy coursing just beneath the sun-kissed surface, which in turn gets captured by the predatorily alert cameral of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. In grand, fluent movements, he picks up every signal of flirt, suspicion and panic to striking effect. The aforementioned crime scene is photographed with such immediacy, continuity and scope it engrosses and repulses to equal measure. Also worth mentioning is the boldly instinctive editing. By constantly bringing scenes to an abrupt end or cutting between strongly contrasting scenarios, it further enhances the bluntness of the visual experience and keeps you on the edge of your seat. Same goes for the music selection, which is as eclectic as it is eerily evocative. From rock tunes to discordant orchestral notes, they take you by surprise and summon an ominous sense of restlessness even before anything bad happens.          

The four lead actors are excellently cast, their vastly different screen presence contributing to the pivotal yin and yang of the mix. Fiennes is on fire playing the philandering music man who “does not believe in limits”. While his grandstanding entrance might strike one as over-the-top, the scenes where he switches from clownish banter to sobered retorts in the blink of an eye give you a hint of the stupendous range and elasticity of his performance. Swinton is her reliable diva-licious self. Even though this is a less showy role for her, she still compels at any given moment with an open face that seems to have no filter for emotions. Belgian it-boy Schoenaerts also has a quieter part but he brings the stoic steadfastness and easy masculinity that’s vital to the picture. The biggest delight of the bunch might be Johnson. After turning in a performance that’s better than it has any reason to be in Fifty Shades of Grey earlier this year, she takes on a role that’s the polar opposite of the demure, repressed Anastasia Steele and runs away with it. Playful, assertive, utterly unself-conscious, she not only holds her own opposite other veteran actors in the cast but again elevates a character that could well have been a harmless cliché.

Realized with extraordinary craft and verve even if insufficiently contextualized, A Bigger Splash might not have achieved the desired impact, but the wicked spell it casts remains a bona-fide stunner.

Venice Film Festival: El Clan (The Clan)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 6, 2015)

Who says there’s no place for meaty, gritty thrillers at A-list film festivals? Argentinian director Pablo Trapero’s El Clan (The Clan) is exactly the kind of cross between high drama and genre exercise that should have no problem pleasing steak-eating critics and audiences everywhere. Perhaps not lofty enough in its aim and too gung-ho with its approach to win award favors, this is nonetheless a solid piece of storytelling served with just the right amount of sauce.

Based on true events from the 80’s, when Argentina was on the cusp of re-establishing democracy after years of dictatorship, the film is centered around the Puccio family under an authoritative, enigmatic patriarch Arquímedes (played by Guillermo Francella). The white-haired, physically unimposing man is a decorated government official, a reserved, soft-spoken man who sweeps the sidewalk and greets his neighbors. He spends a lot of time with his wife and children, takes obvious pride in his rugby star son Alex (Peter Lanzani). In a couple of celebratory party scenes, the unity and good cheers of this happy bunch would have you believe they’re the very definition of a model family. Well, that is if one overlooks the fact that they also kidnap and kill people on the side.

With the first abduction carried out even before the title card drops, it’s hardly a secret what really marks this clan. The depravity of the situation is later highlighted when Arquímedes is seen bringing food to the hostage imprisoned in their home, urging kids to come down for dinner along the way while muffled screams can be heard in the background. Notably, the script keeps several family members’ level of involvement in these crimes vague. In some cases, as with the either clueless or gullible daughters, the ambiguity weakens the dramatic impact somewhat on the day of reckoning. In others, however, it makes the character all the more fascinating. The mother of the house, Epifanía (played with wicked precision by Lili Popovich), for example, has such an unknowable moral compass you’re not only mystified by how she sleeps at night but simply can’t stop wondering about her.

Lanzani also does a respectable job conveying the inner tug-of-war of a young man trying to make his parents proud yet increasingly rattled by the cruelties he witnesses. Ultimately it’s Francella who owns the film, though. His portrayal of a manipulative, calculating, utterly cold-hearted monster is brilliant in its unassuming passivity. No evil laughs or any ticks and gimmicks, this is probably what someone would look like when conscience no longer plays a part in their decision-making and the only thing that gets them to lose their temper is an operation gone awry, the idea of failure. Planning and executing despicable crimes with the unperturbed dedication of a scholar or a monk, nothing but the stillness and absolute chill radiating from his reptilian eyes betrays an inkling of antisocial tendency. Seen against the backdrop of a country finding its way through painful adjustments, this performance carries enough weight to turn an intense personal and familial portrait into a reflection of the confused, restless, violent times.      

Known for hard-hitting social dramas like Leonera (Lion’s Den) (2008) or Elefante blanco (White Elephant) (2012), Trapero is not only in his natural habitat here but actually tops himself with daring, colorful directorial choices. Instead of remaining relentlessly grim, he allows more moments of levity to add a vitality to the proceedings and accentuate the perversity of the brutality described. Borrowing generously from genre conventions, he shoots a number of sequences with graceful fluidity and showmanship, while many of the most horrendous scenes are accompanied by soulful, laid-back or downright joyous tunes. It’s true that none of this is particularly groundbreaking and that, as hinted above, the limitations of a biographical film are still palpable towards the end, but the pure, visceral satisfaction of seeing an exciting story expertly told cannot be denied either.

Venice Film Festival: The Danish Girl

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 5, 2015)

As far as directors go, it doesn’t get much more middle-of-the-road than Tom Hooper. His films tend to feature clear-cut, identifiable conflicts sketched out in studied, orderly lines and relayed with an extra helping of heart. Coherent, approachable, emphatically inoffensive, they often prove difficult to discredit except for being just so exasperatingly… pleasant. With The Danish Girl, the story of transgender woman and one of the first recorded recipients of sex reassignment surgery Lili Elbe, he takes on a potentially subversive subject matter while remaining his mild, decorous self, delivering yet another earnestly told, splendidly visualized film that could please the masses but electrify few.

Lili is born Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a celebrated landscape painter living in Copenhagen with his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), a less successful portraitist, in the 1920’s. The two are deeply in love, share common interests and lead a generally enviable life. A new self-awareness or perhaps an old suspicion is awaken, however, as Einar is made to cross-dress and pose for Gerda. Gradually, he starts putting on women’s clothes in private and one day - at Gerda’s suggestion – he makes his first public appearance as her female companion. Soon afterwards, both of them will realize this is not an impulse or a game, but a question of identity on which the happiness of the rest of their lives depends.

The adapted screenplay by Lucinda Coxon is dutiful if rather stiffly documentary, following the various trials and challenges the couple faces with strict linearity. Its anecdotal structure chronicles the progression of Einar’s journey to becoming Lili but doesn’t quite have the organic rhythm to fill in the blanks of a compelling inner arc. For the sake of focus and momentum, it could probably also drop a couple of romantic subplots that don’t seem to go anywhere. There are succinctly worded exchanges between a tormented wife and someone who’s no longer her husband where the impossible situation of a person trapped inside the wrong body is communicated with piercing exactness. But then there are also such smarmy one-liners as Gerda’s final send-off that threaten to neutralize all the surprise.

Acting-wise, both leads do a commendable job and fare even better together. Redmayne displays tremendous ease and grace with his body in a role that requires absolute physical candor. When he probes his exposed torso in search of an angle, a position, a missing piece, you don’t see any trace of hesitation but only the curiosity and determination of someone genuinely perplexed by an anatomy not their own. And as Einar dives ever more deeply into his inherent femininity until he inhabits it completely, Redmayne walks the fine line between expression of an identified gender and parodical effeminacy with great precision. Speaking as one of the few not too impressed by his Oscar-winning work in The Theory of Everything, however, it must also be said that the same issue of a patently outward, overly labored performance manifests itself in some of the later scenes in the surgery room.

Vikander is every bit as good as the vivacious, sexually assured Gerda. As someone who knows what she wants and is not afraid to experiment, she plays the scene where she persuades Einar to attend the party in drag with just the right mix of tease, encouragement, mischief and arousal. Her bossy confidence and Redmayne’s elfin bashfulness are both highly appealing and balance one another perfectly, turning a scenario that’s often treated with an air of taboo into something refreshingly fun and desirable.

This being a Hooper film, everything looks and sounds exceedingly agreeable as expected. Danny Cohen’s cinematography, in particular, captures the soft texture and lovely hues of the Danish harbor city to delicious effect. The production and costume designs, from the Oscar-nominated teams behind The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, make no bold statements in their choices but pretty they certainly are. All these acting and technical achievements ultimately culminate in a whole that feels decidedly less than ambitious and way too eager to please. Considering it tells such a singular and important story, one only wishes The Danish Girl could have been made with a lot more edge and not the usual Academy-friendly faux-progressiveness.

Samstag, 5. September 2015

The Transporter Refueled

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Sep. 3, 2015)

Those sleek and trashily enjoyable Euro-actioners that all vaguely star Liam Neeson seem so easy to make. After all, professional enfant terrible Luc Besson alone is responsible for like two of them every year. It's somewhat surprising then to realize even this very specific type of film is an art unto itself and not nearly every try hits the mark. While Besson's own directorial stint Lucy was a bona-fide guilty pleasure and Neeson-vehicles like Run All Night or Non-Stop (which Besson was, rather incredibly, not involved with) also had their moments, Taxi 4 and Taken 3, both written and produced by him, had little gas of their respective series left in them and were painful to sit through.  

So one approaches The Transporter Refueled, a reboot of another brainchild of Besson's that has spawned three previous films and made Jason Statham a star, with understandable caution. Well, the good news is it's not quite the flat-out bomb like the ones cited above. The bad news is it's still far from the best of what this genre has to offer.

Replacing Statham in the driver's seat is the equally hunky Skrein, whose rugged looks and lithe movements make the casting choice an obvious one, although he lacks that air of eminent menace which really gave this character its teeth. Playing his mysterious, devilishly good-looking employer, Chabanol is just as easy on the eyes, if even less convincing as the femme fatale whose revenge scheme the transporter and his father get dragged into. Together these two chiseled and curvy specimens make for an undeniably hot onscreen pairing, but their strictly two-dimensional presence might be more fitting for a perfume commercial than a full-blown motion picture.    
Without wanting to sound too critical of the plot – because let's face it, no one's in this for the story – some of the scenarios Besson & Co. came up with here go beyond the coolly simplistic to the jarringly rudimentary. How four girls plan to take down a Russian crime boss by stealing from his buddies and planting it on him seems foolishly suicidal the moment it becomes apparent. And the bits where the characters try to demonstrate their smarts by carrying out operations in disguise or playing doctor while explaining their every outlandish and dubious move look like unintentional parodies of Mission: Impossible or MacGyver. As for epic action sequences, which the film is supposed to deliver, the requisite daredevil stunts are there, leaving a trail of havoc in their wake. But while the speed and mayhem would keep hardcore fans happy, they never add up to anything truly original, extraordinary, satisfying. There's some exaggerated, Jackie Chan-esque slapstick fight choreography that's fun to watch, but in terms of the series' trademark car chases, hardly anything memorable.

Ricki and the Flash

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Sep. 3, 2015)

Say what you will about Diablo Cody, the stripper-turned-Oscar-winning- screenwriter of Juno and Young Adult – this lady has a way of bringing out the most endearing aspects of human relationships by describing the meanest, cruellest ways we treat one another. It’s the childlike frankness to her observations that make them so affecting.

So yes, the plot she cooks up for this musical dramedy about an ageing rock star returning home to face the children she left behind years ago doesn’t always seem sound – the reconciliation between Ricki and Julie (real-life mother-daughter duo Streep and Gummer) feels oversimplified and the whole backstory of career-driven abandonment vaguely theatrical. But the ugliness of betrayal is real, the comfort of falling back into a familiar embrace is real, the simple kindness that tells us to keep up appearances and help make the wedding dance of a loved one perfect is very real.

Directed with fluidity and featuring a virtuoso performance by Streep, this realness resounds. Underneath all the happy and regretful tunes, it seems to say: while we must live with the choices we make, as long as the music’s playing, we might as well enjoy the hell out of those choices.

Queen of the Desert

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Sep. 3, 2015)

Tastefully designed and exhaustively told, this biopic about British explorer/archaeologist Gertrude Bell traces her uncommon upbringing and extensive travels throughout the Middle East at the dawn of the 20th century. While at no point betraying egregious filmmaking incompetence, as a whole the linearity and sheer bulk of the narrative give the ultra-old-fashioned picture a cumbersome, airless feel.

Kidman is in fine form here, carrying decades of an iconic life on her regal frame, communicating through a calm, oceanic voice the dispassion of someone who calls the desert home. The handful of private moments featuring her lost in introspection, heartbreak or solitude are quietly moving. Whether the broadly staged scenes of Bell’s various romantic pursuits send the story to its emotional heights or tip it over to eye-rolling territory, however, will be largely dependent on the beholder’s threshold for schmaltz.

Covering the regional history and geo-political tensions surrounding the demise of the Ottoman Empire while chronicling the extraordinary journey of a woman far ahead of her time, this character epic is all scale and little subtlety. It showcases impressive craft, both technically and performance-wise, but lacks the blood flow that could make something this informative engrossing as well.

Venice Film Festival: L'attesa (The Wait)

(Originally appeared in The Film Stage on Sep. 5, 2015)

Seeing that the film starts in the middle of a memorial service, it doesn’t qualify as a spoiler to reveal that the unseen hero of L’attesa (The Wait) - the subject of both female protagonists’ devotion - isn’t going to show up as claimed/expected. With this mystery gone, the story is firmly set around the dynamic shaped by an absence, an illusion, a lie. Which is a more-than-valid premise for sure. Except the screenplay, adapted from the Italian play La vita che ti diedi by a whopping four writers, can never quite expand on that wistful idea and comes up short at every turn.

We meet Anna (Juliette Binoche) first, a grief-stricken mother who needs to summon up a prayer and the last of her strength just to get out of bed after the unexplained passing of son Giuseppe. On one of those identical, insufferably quiet days that follow, she gets a call from Giuseppe’s Parisian girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), whom he has invited to join them at their Sicilian family house. Knowing full well the girl’s mistake, Anna bids her over nonetheless and together they shall wait for a shared loved one who’s never going to return.

When considered in abstract terms, such vague, subliminally kinky plotlines promise fertile ground for intensive psychological explorations. There are plenty of interesting questions to ask: Why wouldn’t Anna tell Jeanne the truth? What does she seek to achieve by keeping the young girl in this wishful limbo? How much does Jeanne really know or pretend not to know as the wait drags on and she could easily find out about everything by herself? What’s going through the mind of caretaker Pietro and other guests at the wake who witness the absurd situation and become unwilling accomplice to deceit by not pointing out the obvious. To be fair, first-time feature director Messina does hint at deeper, more subtle motivations beyond a protective self-delusion or –denial at certain moments. But such flashes of inspiration are fleeting and the majority of screen time is spent in flatly written two-woman talks by the lake, at the dinner table, in the Turkish bath, where they keep skirting around the real issue, the only issue, until all believability drains out and character development stalls. There’s the chance for the relationship to take a turn for the abusive and for the story to acquire a more ostensibly genre edge, but Messina never took that bait. It might have been an opportunity lost, though, for the film never gained the seductive force of something like Swimming Pool (2003) despite a similar emphasis on female sensuality.

Visually there’s a lot to salivate over in this beautifully designed, almost compulsively artful picture. It’s not just the land, water, the vivid expanse of Sicily that provides a constantly stunning backdrop to the proceedings. Distinct color schemes and careful framing turn everything from a silent car ride to a frying egg into oeuvres of considerable sophistication. While Messina’s taste cannot be denied, this observation is not entirely complimentary, for there’s a calculated quality to all this exquisiteness – when you render even the X-ray images of an airport baggage scan so chicly commercial-ready, it can appear quite suspicious, not to mention exhausting to watch.

Binoche is as ever a master of her craft. How she commands the most miniscule aspect of her physicality, countenance, disposition to emote and affect betrays no technical blemish, creating a visage that’s full of fascinating clues even at its most immobile. It’s a shame, then, that the role of Anna is so direly underwritten and her domineering position in relation to Jeanne so firmly established, that there’s just not enough stuff for a solo homerun, nor much of an acting duet at all. In the end, like a breath of stylized, impassioned hot air, L’attesa evokes feelings associated with bereavement effectively but has nothing substantial to add to the whole psychology of loss.