Greetings

Welcome to the formal launch of my new professional site, Patrickzmcgavin.com.

I am a Chicago-based writer, cultural journalist and film critic. My writing on film has been published in the New York Times, Screen International, Hollywood Reporter, RogerEbert.com, Stop Smiling, Cineaste, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Playboy, LA Weekly, The Nation, City Pages and Crain’s Chicago Business.

I have also been privileged to cover film festivals at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, New York, Turin and Thessaloniki.

With this new site, I wanted to have a single place where I could provide ready and available links to other professional work as it becomes published. It is important to have a place for archival material. For instance, the recent restoration, theatrical reissue and publishing of the Criterion Blu-ray of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental Dekalog allowed me to publish a series of interviews with the director.

My primary impulse was to have the freedom and range to write on movie, director or movement worth evaluating and discussing—film festival dispatches, new releases, restorations, special Blu-ray boxed sets, new streaming options, director interviews and actor profiles.

Unless otherwise noted, all material on this site is original and previously unpublished.

Please enjoy and explore the content of this site, and help deepen and expand film culture.

Ceylan’s Winter Sleep

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

The festival is over, and the best films from Cannes embody what truly matters: the ability to move backward and forward, projecting a sense of the moment, live bulletins of a country’s pulse and state of mind. With his scalding and magisterial new work, Winter Sleep, the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan walked off with the Palme d’Or.

In his acceptance speech, Ceylan dedicated the film to the young people of Turkey who have lost their lives in the last year protesting the country’s unnerving political repression and withholding of essential freedom. Because of its three-hour and 16-minute running time, the film had just one official screening, on Friday, May 16th. At the screening, Ceylan and the rest of his artistic delegation wore black protest bands.

Winter Sleep is the most political of the director’s six features. The movie’s social grievances and class conflicts sharply distill the conflict between the professional, bourgeois and modernist state and the encroaching fundamentalist strain. As outsiders, it’s hard not to sense a particular cultural schizophrenia. (My friend visited Istanbul last year after Cannes, and he was immediately struck by the disparate attitudes of the women. The young and educated wore provocative, sexually alluring Western dress, in strong contrast to other women he saw that were fully covered.)

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Ceylan developed the story and script in close, even contentious, collaboration with his very gifted wife, Ebru (the two played opposite each other in his earlier film, Climates). From its visual precision to the emotional believability of the characters and their sad, beautiful and emphatic faces, I was knocked out by his original and astonishing visual syntax. The movie needs time to breathe and take hold.

Like all of the director’s movies, Winter Sleep is suffused with a painterly beauty and Ceylan has a fluent, innate ability to ground his protagonists against telling and evocative landscapes. He has a great feel for tableau imagery, like the tactile and immersive opening images of mist hovering over the rocky steppes of the spectacular mountain landscapes of Cappadocia, in Central Anatolia.

The director dedicated the work to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Voltaire. The movie’s protagonist, Aydin (played by the astounding Haluk Bilginer), combines characteristics of Lear, Prospero and Prince Hal. The name of the family hotel he runs is significantly named Othello. From his father, he inherited wealth and vast tracts of land. He appears rational and benevolent, an aesthete who earned renown as a film actor and now writes newspaper columns and is gathering material for his magnum opus, a cultural history of Turkish theater.

Winter Sleep is divided into three dominant movements. The first part underlines the extent of Aydin’s fiefdom, his subjects, and how cold-blooded and mercurial he is in his business dealings as he directs his wrath against a family of impoverished tenants unable to pay rent. (His top lieutenant, or enforcer, actually metes out the punishment).

A young boy, furious at the embarrassment and shame to which his family is subjected, responds with his own violent action. The consequences lay bare an existential dilemma that open the possibility of Aydin as either an imperial fool (“more sinned against than sinning”) or flagrant hypocrite.

As Ceylan’s superb previous work Once Upon a Time in Anatolia used genre material to meditate on the most serious moral and existential concerns, the new work counters expectation in a more radical and astounding way, through its form and construction. The film’s long middle, comprising about half the running time, reframes the action, subtly altering subjectivity, space and time.

The disruption is marked by the most transporting single moment I saw at Cannes, a radical cut as the young boy who committed the act of vandalism collapses in trying to make his contrition toward Aydin to a sudden and enthralling action of man and nature as Aydin’s workers try valiantly to corral a wild horse.

The temporal cut foreshadows the severe shift in mood and tone, as the focus of the films turns toward Aydin’s acrimonious and difficult relationships with his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag) who is reeling from a divorce, and his much younger wife, Nihal (the astoundingly beautiful Melisa Sozen), openly rebelling against her husband’s controlling nature.

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Instantly the focus of landscapes, rock formations and weather is given a wholly different range of expression in a series of private, withering and extended scenes, lasting up to 20 minutes and filled with the kind of baroque, caustic and corrosive language more prevalent in the works of Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes.

The trademark of those two great artists, the poisoned couple, takes center stage—a form of annihilation, as the pain, regret and disgust are made explicit in the tense body inflections and hurtful exchanges. The sister charges that Aydin never lives up to the privileges he was bestowed. The wife is far more cutting and damning, finding him unbearable.

Ceylan is more direct and expansive, concerned with how language distorts and conceals, the riffs and counterarguments yielding a sustained and musical flow, despite the bitterness and rancor. It’s a different kind of poetry, of faces and the architecture of bodies as the camera remains steadfast and locked in. Regardless, the imagery beguiles, like an extraordinary moment with Nihal’s face illuminated from the flare of a fire, her very presence more radiant and stunning.

Like the greatest filmmakers, Ceylan is both elliptical and lapidary. The work is beautifully constructed, but like Chekhov, appearances and illusions invite the viewer to cast about and glean from looks and exchanges deeper significance. Ceylan’s cryptic though elastic style casually hooks you.

What makes the journey extraordinary is not finding answers but submitting to the ride.

Grading the Cannes Competition

By Patrick Z. McGavin

This year’s Cannes Film festival, the 19th I’ve covered and written about, showcased a strong competition. The trajectory was like a bottle rocket, blasting off with superb work by Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu), Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep), flattening out with an uneven stretch before picking up and soaring with strong new works by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan) and French master Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria).

Curatorially, the main competition was tighter than normal (with just 18 films). Only seven of those are given what I consider mixed or negative grades. Yet, it always takes time to really fully assess the impact, range and originality of each competition. Last year’s competition, for instance, now that enough time has passed, seems infinitely stronger than it did on initial responses.

What follows are my personal rankings, with corresponding grades, of the 18 films in the competition.

1. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey): A+

2. Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland): A

3. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France): A

4. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia): A-

5. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK): A-

6. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali): A-

7. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada): A-

8. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium): B+

9. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, USA): B

10. The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy): B

11. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada): B

12. Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello, France): B-

13. Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, Argentina): B-

14. The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, USA): C+

15. Jimmy’s Hall (Ken Loach, UK): C

16. The Captive (Atom Egoyan, Canda): C-

17. Still the Water (Naomi Kawase, Japan): C-

18. The Search (Michel Hazanavicius, France): D

Cannes Awards

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

The 67th edition of the festival ended today on a superlative note. On Saturday night, the professional jury awarded the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, to Winter Sleep, the extraordinary new work by Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

The director’s sixth feature marks the ideal crystallization of his style, sharply yoking physical wonder and emotional acuity. The director Jane Campion, a Palme laureate in 1993 for The Piano, admitted going in, she felt a bit daunted by the prospect of the movie’s three-hour and 16-minute running time. “But I sat down, and the film had such a beautiful rhythm and it took me in,” she said. “I could have stayed there for another couple of hours.”

Ceylan had its admirers, though indicative of the breadth of the programming, Cannes denied any shot at consensus this year. We all have our prejudices and feel protective about specific directors and films. Film culture has mutated pretty radically in the last three decades, but one prevalent track has focused on foreign auteurs such as  Krzysztof Kieslowski and Abbas Kiarostami, followed by Bela Tarr, who assumed, whether deliberately or not, the mantle of the serious film artist, the heir of Bergman, Antonioni, Godard and Fassbinder.

Ceylan is now that man. His recent films are long though voluptuous and beautifully made. With Ceylan, the rhythms are sensuous and achieve a serpentine hold in violating narrative expectation to achieve something far more mysterious, knotty and plangent. Part of what makes the new work so exciting and involving is how it scuttles expectation, invoking the previous films as he expands his ideas and storytelling into different directions.

The Grand Prix, effectively the runner-up award, went to Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher for her second narrative feature, The Wonders, about a family of beekeepers.  It’s a lyrical and nicely observed work that draws extensively on her own life. (She even cast her own sister in the part of the family matriarch.) Rohrwacher’s movie was one of just two films in the 18-film competition directed by a woman; the other was Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water. The movie is tough and keen-eyed, alert to the confusion and stirrings of the family’s older daughter. It is never sentimental, and the camerawork is clean, patient and often hypnotically precise.

The festival had a lot of echoing movements and concerns. So it happened that films by the oldest and youngest directors in the competition shared the Jury Prize. The great Jean-Luc Godard, at 83 and offering his first film in four years, detonated the placid calm with his remarkable cine-collage, Adieu au language. It’s another of his sorrowful and contemplative looks at the end—of cinema, of the 20th century—only this time shot in 3D, with some startling and poetic imagery, layered through a nimbus of quotations, aphorisms and classical music (most prominently Beethoven’s 7th Symphony). It utilizes the depth of field in radical ways, opening up all manner of looking, hearing and watching.

Godard’s opposite, the rakish and impossibly ambitious young Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan (this is his third film in two years) split critical reaction with Mommy, the alternately feverish and grueling story of the hyper-compacted family dynamics involving a middle-aged widow (Anne Dorval, excellent) and her ADHD 15-year-old son (Antoine Olivier-Pilon). Suzanne Clement is the next door neighbor caught between the two.

Dolan invented his own aspect ratio, a highly vertical band, a negative ratio of approximately .67-1, that simultaneously centers the action and destabilizes the frame. I found himself strangely in between, finding much to recommend (especially the two actresses) though also finding it unmoored and somewhat exhausting to experience.

“It’s a great brilliant modern film from such a young director, like a genius I think,” Campion said about Dolan. “When I saw the Godard film, I wasn’t expecting this. I was blown away by it. I loved the experience of the film, I found it so modern, like the fact that he throws a narrative away. It’s like a power, I found myself awakened, this is a free man, a very moving man. We coupled them, we were aware that they were the oldest and youngest director. The directors here know we owe our life’s blood to Godard.”

As expected, Timothy Spall captured the best actor prize for his role as the great British painter JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. Julianne Moore surprised with her ferocious, unhinged turn as an actress unhinged by her fading power in David Cronenberg’s deft, chilling Maps to the Stars. Working with his the skilled satirist Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg violently upends social behavior with his bracing, exceptionally disturbing, using the framework of the anti-Hollywood screed. Moore’s turn is unsettling, perverse and technically brilliant.

This is the full list of the award winners:

Palme d’Or: Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Grand prix: The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher)

Director: Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Jury prize: Mommy (Xavier Dolan) and Adieu au language (Jean-Luc Godard)

Screenplay: Levithan (Andrey Zvagintsev and Oleg Negin)

Actor: Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

Actress: Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars

Cannes Dispatch #1

By Patrick McGavin

The 67th edition of this year’s film festival is roughly one-third over, and the early signs are pretty ecstatic. The competition has been tightly slotted, with just 18 features, three or four fewer than most years. It means the films get to breathe and live on their own.

In the first three days of the festival, three superb movies—one I think that will be seen in time as one of the greatest of its era—have already jolted the festival, defusing already the criticism of the festival selection committee playing it safe and familiar. (By the way my feeling has always been the people who criticize the programming most severely are the ones who rarely actually attend the festival.)

Cannes is the festival by which all others are judged. The competition titles are a kind of artistic referendum on the savvy, taste and ambition of the curators’ range, daring and originality. It’s early, but so far they have been vindicated. In turn it is the vast assembly here—of critics, writers, programmers and cinephiles—who get to viscerally experience the deep pleasures. (And that is with new works by Jean-Luc Godard, the Dardenne brothers, Olivier Assayas and David Cronenberg still unseen.)

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The Mauritanian-born Abderrahmane Sissako is, I think, the finest director at work in Africa today. His disturbing, powerful new work, Timbuktu, was the first competition film shown and it is altogether stunning. The movie is angry and mournful, visually expressive and bound together by a sense of outrage and horror that gathers a tremendous cumulative power.The movie opens with an act of Taliban-like act of cultural desecration of militant Islamic jihadists spraying automatic rifle fire and laying waste to a series of culturally invaluable artifacts and statues.

The horror only escalates from there. Sissako was inspired by a horrifying episode from two years of a young couple stoned to death for having two children without being married. The movie conveys the severe social restriction and cultural coercion by the imposition, through force, of Sharia law as dancing, music and soccer are banned and women are ordered covered.

The jihadists are significantly primarily Arab, not black, unable to speak the local dialect and enforce a totalitarian stranglehold that bleeds the vitality and beauty of the village culture. The jihadists are solemn, reactionary and primitive (the leader arrives there unable to drive a car). The tightly regulated social behavior gives way to an annihilating form of sexual subjugation, the jihadist leader is constantly prowling around the dedicated, forceful Satima (Toulou Kiki). The story turns on a violent encounter between her husband, a cattle herder, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), and a fisherman.

Sissako has a poetic feel for landscapes, and his velvety, sinister black imagery is haunting.It contrasts brilliantly with the open, lunar-shaped surfaces of the desert landscapes. Timbuktu weaves a spellbinding arabesque combining the lyrical (a group of young dissidents partake in an invisible game of soccer to protest the crackdown) and the absurdist (a former “rapper,” drafted to make a propaganda video to atone for his “sins,” proves incapable of carrying out the assignment).

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Mike Leigh’s enthralling Mr. Turner is, principally, a fragmented, impressionistic study of the last 25 years of the life and art of the visionary Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Leigh has been talking about making this movie for at least a decade, and his passion fortunately never suffocates the material. It’s enlivening and provides a bracing perspective of the painter whose abstracted landscape works is regarded in some circles as an antecedent of Impressionism.

Leigh regular Timothy Spall plays (or, more accurately, incarnates) the eponymous Joseph Mallord William Turner, prickly and self-contained, a man of enormous appetites and needs. There’s a ferocious pas a deux with his housekeeper Hannah (the superb Dorothy Atkinson), and his arm grabbing hold of her is like a tentacle drawn to its prey. Turner’s harsh discipline and majestic solitude grants him a commanding solidity and shapes his intuitive grasp of nature.

Like most of Leigh’s players, Spall has always been an eccentric performer. He threw himself into the part with a manic gusto, practicing sketching and painting for more than two years before Leigh even commenced his patented rehearsal process. Mr. Turner excels in the way that fits Leigh’s own strengths, his extraordinary rapport with actors. The byplay between Turner and his father (the fantastic Paul Jesson), gruff and tender, and the widow, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) with whom he carried out a serious clandestine affair, are absolutely entrancing, skillfully teasing out aspects of character, reflection and mood that color the portraiture.

The most exciting part of the film, elevating it beyond the restrictions of the biographical form, is Leigh’s acumen and skill with the camera. Leigh is a colossus on the international art film scene. It has been a revelation to chart his almost radical evolution as a filmmaker, from the early actor-driven, plaintive style of his 16mm works to the deeper range and subtlety of Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake. Dick Pope is his cinematographer, and also the camera operator.

From the majestic opening shot of a long pan in which two Dutch women slowly walk into the frame and cross the line of Turner, who’s furiously sketching, Mr. Turner is tactile and diaphanous. The cutting is also very bracing, like a sharp movement in closeup of Turner examining one of his own paintings to a jump cut of the solitary figure standing in the vast space of the interlaced rock formations and pock-marked landscapes. The man who started as a playwright, his dominant influence the work of John Cassavetes, and who cut his teeth making television commissions is now a certifiable master in his own right.

Mr. Turner is the most emphatic evidence yet.

The towering achievement, for me, is Winter Sleep, the 196-minute work by the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It deserves its own time and space, and I will return to this space soon with more.

Jonathan Glazer: Finding the Form ‘Under the Skin’

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

Under the Skin is the third narrative feature by the London-born Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). This new work is a radical reworking of the 2001 novel by the Dutch-born Michael Faber (although Glazer admitted his writing partner, Walter Campbell, never even read the book). The story follows Laura, a beautiful alien seductress who falls to Earth and takes the shape of a carnal loner who navigates the streets of Glasgow in a white van.

She seduces a series of men who come to a rather unsavory fate, yet one that is spellbinding to watch. The men are led into an inky-black pool of silt, with Laura hanging above them, as if suspended in air. The movie has some truly knockout images: a motorcycle cutting like a blade through the nocturnal landscapes, the coastal cliffs of the Highlands, or most frightening, the transmogrification of those avid, ready men seduced by the mysterious central character.

The movie has generated a very polarizing response since its debut on the festival circuit last fall. The movie opened in Los Angeles and New York last Friday to very promising commercial returns, and it now expands around the rest of the country.

Under the Skin is a meditation on the form and erotic wonder of Scarlett Johansson, who plays the seductress. The movie’s second half is much more abstractly beguiling and disturbing as the alien’s pas a deux with a virginal, severely deformed man fundamentally alters her and deepens her own humanity and vulnerability.

In this interview, Glazer talked about art and matter and how the long-gestating project came to being.

Patrick McGavin: The idea of subterfuge is central not only to the story but the making of the film. As you’ve mentioned, the pickup scenes were shot clandestinely, with hidden cameras and the performers had no idea it was Scarlett Johansson.

Jonathan Glazer: That hidden camera idea came over a period of thinking about the story; you’re just looking for it and you don’t know yet what it is until you find it, you’re not sure what it is. I didn’t feel sated yet. I knew there was a big method, a methodology we hadn’t yet discovered.They don’t just come out of nowhere. They come out of being immersed in the problems and the issues and you continue to turn them over until things coalesce and you just understand how to do it.

I’d been testing lots of multiple camera angles. I shot something once in Toronto with a woman running down the street and I had 57 hidden cameras, because I wanted to keep the street completely open and have the woman run through, having people coming into and out of shops, going onto buses and seeing her negotiate her own life. I guess that was a sketch. Alongside that, I was trying to find a way of being able to cast this film with a familiar actress.

I felt disquiet about how to shoot this film with somebody who was really familiar to us. We needed somebody to be alien, and this was a way of achieving that. The idea of surveillance, the idea of shooting the world as it is, felt so critical because if the film is about her observing human beings and what we are and how we behave, in order for us to have some kind of value to her, than it has to be real. Everything has to serve that.

PM: Had you watched any Abbas Kiarostami films, in your preproduction or preparation?

JG: I haven’t seen any Kiarostami movies, I know about Ten (2002). I will get to him. I’ve been watching some Jafar Panahi films, and I think he’s wonderful. There’s nothing new about actors driving. To me this whole thing was not a stylistic idea, it was a fundamental narrative idea. It became the pillar that held everything up. It felt like a critical method.

PM: The movie’s couched in the mood and style of science fiction. The plot obfuscates a great deal, and the deeper we get into the film, the more it becomes a kind of inquiry into what it means to be human.

JG: I hope so. Those are the things we were interested in. Also the fact that there’s no way into it, there’s no salvation or redemption, there’s no completion. It’s evolving as we are. People go into the cinema and they want to come out with answers. The more this film would have made sense, the less it would have worked. It needed to be in charge of its ambiguities.

I think Scarlett’s character is  fabulously complex and inscrutable. I find that all very human. Charting that drift from a very clear objective to this confusion and delusion that she has was a very difficult arc to create; it was constructed not just on the page, but in the editing and the music, and just finding the right curve. It was never about one event is going to be happen, and she’s going to turn left now or right. That was difficult to chart and calibrate.

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PM: How did you shoot the film, and how, in a wider sense, has your work been impacted by the radical changes wrought by technology and digital?

JG: We invented cameras to shoot this film. Once we decided we’re going to shoot her in disguise and the world as it is, we started to ask, How can we do that?  How can we achieve that? Testing the cameras that are out there didn’t give us the result that we needed. So we had to build on our own. We built these cameras because we needed a tool that wasn’t out there. We used a German camera that was used to shoot the inside of industrial machinery, if they want to see the inner workings of the mechanics of an engine. Film is the censor in the camera, we developed it and shot most of the film.

I love the aesthetic of  [the camera]. It had the quality not of film, or even digital, the blacks bled and the colors rolled and it was beautiful. The aesthetic comes from the need of that tool. I think the idea of images and wanting your film to look a certain way, I’m less interested in that now. I think it’s about what suits the story you’re trying to tell.

PM: All of your films possess this quality, but this is probably the most extreme example of that dialectic, that is a conflict between your need to innovate though also make something that conforms to the idea of commercial cinema.

JG: I think you’re right. I do find plot tyrannical. I want plot to be light-footed. I want it to follow emotional truths. What’s interesting is that sometimes when you shoot, what you write is emotional truth and what you shoot, what you think is the emotional truth, is not in the scene. You then look for the truth again when you look at the rushes. When you look at the rushes, you’re looking at the things that feel most truthful and you begin to assemble that. You have to tell the plot in an unexpected way. You’re still aware that you have to tell the story, but you’re doing it less predictably. It’s about understanding the life and the footage you shot.

I’m still making my way through that. I feel like I’m moving further away from narrative. I appreciate a story, I love a great story, but I’m always looking for an idea that I could wrap around the back of a cigarette package and then investigate the form of that. I’m not the best person to go and shoot a story. I don’t think it would challenge me in the way I want to challenge myself. I’m fascinated and preoccupied with the form. When you see those moments that transcend, they become something else, they take off and it’s very hard to go back from that, to identify that and not want more of it. Perhaps some of the music videos I’ve done has gotten me into that habit.

PM: You become more liberated in the process.

JG: Film’s gone now, but I think you have to look at that as an opportunity. I mourn the loss of film, but I’m not preoccupied by that. These aren’t the tools anymore. It’s not immersive. We invented a camera that ended up having an aesthetic that satisfied that; you could fall into the image. It was alchemy to the image somehow, which you never get from a digital camera. I like the way an iPhone camera image looks, but at the same time I can see an Eadweard Muybridge print of how San Francisco looks and be rocked backwards.

I think it’s important to look for the idea and what’s important for that.

Highlights from Toronto

GRAVITY

By Patrick Z. McGavin

With some 278 features shown at this year’s edition, Toronto is not just a film festival; it’s a virtual orgy of cinema. No matter how hard one tries, the festival proves logistically impossible to fully assimilate. Even if you include the films screened beforehand, primarily at Cannes and Sundance, I saw only a fraction of the program. According to figures the festival released, nearly half a million people attended the festival.

To their credit the festival organizers have a method to the madness. Toronto has always had a fairly egalitarian, open-ended approach to its programming. It has proven very adroit at yoking together a mélange of high echelon Hollywood, international masters, documentaries, works by emerging and unknown filmmakers and probably most impressively, an experimental offshoot with its Wavelengths program.

At the same time it is possible to make all manner of connections and dovetailing themes and preoccupations. Two of the most talked about works, for instance, were the science fiction-inflected Gravity and Under the Skin.

Gravity is the new film, his first in seven years, by the superb Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. The story of two astronauts (superbly played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) unmoored in deep space, the movie is infused with a majestic and soulful purity. The extreme digital manipulation of the image is, of course, the dominant technological story of the last four decades of cinema. The great paradox is as the technology has become more seamless and expressive, the directors have become enthralled a little too much, losing a great deal of personality in the process.

Gravity is a bravura technical work, made explicit in the stunning opening fourteen minute shot as Cuarón’s gliding and highly mobile camerawork draws on the vast and infinite space that evokes a daunting and magnificent physical world. Cuarón’s great skill here is to personalize the material (he wrote the script with his son, Jonás Cuarón). He intuitively contrasts the immaculate and stunning imagery against the particulars of the human quest, in this case, the mission involving the jocular, veteran pilot (Clooney) and the gifted scientist and doctor (Bullock) tasked with her first mission.

The poetry and beauty of the opening is soon disrupted by a frightening blowback, a firestorm of debris from a downed Russian satellite, leaves the two astronauts the only survivors of their mission. With their own station damaged beyond repair, the two must improvise to secure their own safety. The movie, which does not have a wasted moment in its fleet and sharp 93-minute running time, is the only aesthetic justification of 3-D I know of late.

Cuarón is savvy and smart enough to meditate on the classics of the form (2001, Solaris), but the marvel, complexity and impudent wit that are his signature are subtly woven into the movie’s rhythms. It’s a sly and subversive comedy of marriage as the extreme pressure and intensity of incident draws out a marvelous and lyrical exchange between the two principals, Clooney’s natural wit masking his extreme competence and Bullock, the serious one haunted by a personal tragedy, discovering untapped powers of thinking and problem resolution.

To say anything more risks overstatement. Just see it, again and again.

 

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Under the Skin is just the third feature by the exceptionally gifted London-born Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), and his first feature in the nine years since his fascinating though rather problematic Birth. If Gravity is a work of a lucid and emphatic wonder, this movie is composed is wholly different register of exacting strangeness.

The movie generated a highly polarizing response, from rapture to walkouts and it is easy to understand both points. As storytelling, the movie seems an acute failure, deprived of clarity, emotional insight or psychological intricacy. It’s frequently hypnotic though inchoate and the parts rarely cohere.

No less than Gravity, the movie testifies to the power and alluring wonder of image and sound. The movie has some truly knockout images, a motorcycle cutting like a blade through the nocturnal landscapes, the coastal cliffs of the Highlands or most frightening, the transmogrification of those avid, ready men seduced by the mysterious central character.

Perhaps most interestingly, Under the Skin is a meditation on the form and erotic wonder of Scarlett Johansson. She plays the alien seductress who falls to Earth and takes the shape of a carnal loner who navigates the streets of Glasgow in a white van, seducing a series of men, before leading them to a rather unsavory fate, one utterly transfixing to watch, the men led into a inky-black pool of slit as the alien being walks, as if suspended, on air.

The movie is adapted, very loosely, from Michael Faber’s novel, by the director and his writing partner Walter Campbell. Johansson, who’s so astoundingly beautiful, has never really received her just due, as both an actress and very skilled comedienne. She is electric, especially in the movie’s brilliant centerpiece, an extended pas a deux between her character and a virginal, severely deformed middle-aged man she meets in the street and offers a kind of erotic sanctuary. The emotional exchange alters her being, deepening her own humanity and, conversely, exposing her to a wholly different form of vulnerability and weakness.

Johansson avails herself emotionally and sexually in a way she has never really been demanded of in the past. Under the Skin is a great many things, often contradictory, the exasperating and annihilating alternating side-by-side. Personally I could have done with less of the severely disassociation. The tradeoffs, Johansson’s performance, the score (Mica Levi) and the voluptuous, sinister visual rhyming, offer more than compensatory thrills.

 

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

Finally, it is impossible to discuss Toronto without the work that towered over much of the festival, relegating much else to the shadows. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave arrived amid a torrent of excitement after it showed as a sneak preview at Telluride the week before. It is the kind of galvanizing work that actually matches the hype.

The third feature of the English director and artist (his first two features were Hunger and Shame), the movie repudiates the trash aesthetics of Django Unchained and The Butler, accurately reducing them to vacuous minstrel acts. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” the great social theorist and black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his landmark, The Souls of Black Folks.

The irreconcilable is the movie’s dominant mode of expression. McQueen and the writer, the talented though erratic John Ridley, adapt the astonishing memoir of Solomon Northup, a mid-19th century black Northerner who, victimized by an elaborate ruse of white bounty hunters, was kidnapped and sold into the service of a succession of vicious Southern plantation owners. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, a dandy and aesthete, a gifted violinist, subjected to the same peculiar brand of self-lacerating as Michael Fassbender endured in McQueen’s first two features.

What registers, initially, are the images, especially the frightening rendering of captivity and confinement worthy of Robert Bresson, especially the deft early sequences that contrast Northup’s freedom with his appalling new conditions. He personifies DuBois’ notion of the black “twoness,” a man who must renounce his own abilities, talents, his very worth and being, in order to survive.

Again working with his great cinematographer Sean Bobbit, McQueen locates the poetry of terror in the everyday, an overhead shot of a wagon as its tarp is uncovered, revealing the black bodies, some quite small, packed into compacted space; the churning of a steam engine boat, echoing the Middle Passages that brought the first generation of Africans to the New World; and the harshness of the Rembrandt lighting as Northup comes to the sobering realization of his loss of status, identity and existence.

The movie is bound by harshness and staggering injustice, at the systematic and brutal manner blacks are denied their worth, sexually subjugated or worst of all, violently torn from their families. (“You’ll forget your children,” is the most chilling line spoken.) Like Edward P. Jones’ great novel, The Known World, the work has a moral sophistication and depth, especially about race and class, that defies easy analysis, evident in the figure of the great Alfre Woodard, who plays a former slave and now wife of a more progressive white Southern plantation owner. She provides learned counsel and friendship to a traumatized young black woman (the astounding Lupita Nyong’o) desperate to retain her humanity.

12 Years a Slave looks both backward and forward. McQueen, like Claude Lanzmann’s great Shoah, exists to bear a particular kind of witness. Like Lanzmann’s masterpiece, it is great filmmaking shaped to a subject that stands outside our ability to ever explicate. Call it the sorrow and the pity.

Cannes Rankings

01

Only Lovers Left Alive

By Patrick Z. McGavin

My Cannes started this year with the cooly suggestive image of a beautiful young woman under surveillance, as captured in the viewfinder of a pair of binoculars, in French director Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful, and ended with probably the most famous fall in the history of cinema, that one that concludes Alfred Hitchcock’s magisterial Vertigo.

The Ozon was part of the official competition selection, the Hitchcock, preceded by a terrific introduction from Kim Novak, the concluding work of the Cannes Classics program. All told, I saw 37 films: 20 in the official competition, two in official selection, out of competition, seven in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, three in the Directors’ Fortnight and five in the Cannes Classics.

Every festival is an object lesson in frustration and thwarted ambition. I especially regret not being able to see more of the Un Certain Regard program, because I was largely impressed by what I did sample. I also heard or read about especially encouraging reports of Lav Diaz’s reportedly extraordinary 250-minute long Norte, the End of History, Rithy Panh’s prize-winner The Missing Picture, Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Diego Quemada-Diez’s La Jaula de Oro and Hiner Saleem’s My Sweet Pepper Land.

The competition is what excites and infuriates the critics, writers and assembled press. These are the also titles most likely to dominate the art-house release schedule and also turn up at other festivals, like Telluride, Toronto and New York, in the fall. Many of the key works have already been acquired for American distribution, and new deals are still being announced.

What follows are my own rankings, if you will, with corresponding grades, of the films of this year’s competition. Let the arguments begin.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (A)

Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin (A-)

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (A-)

James Gray’s The Immigrant (A-)

Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) [A-]

The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (A-)

Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (B+)

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (B+)

Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (B)

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (B)

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (B)

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s A Castle in Italy (B-)

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Grigris (B-)

Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son (B-)

Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful (C+)

Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman (C+)

Arnaud des Pallieres’ Michael Kolhaas (C)

Amat Escalante’s Heli (C)

Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw (C)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (D)

Cannes Awards

blue_is_the_warmest_color

Blue is the Warmest Color

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes is as much of an endurance test as a film festival. The organizers have their own peculiar way of how to slot the 20 competition titles. After a less than audacious start and a permeating sense of disappoint, Cannes accelerated to another gear down the stretch, the propulsive finishing kick providing a jolt of excitement.

More so than any of the other 18 previous festivals I’ve covered, this year’s edition was marked by the absence of a consensus.

I left Cannes on Sunday morning and I was traveling when the jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, announced their awards of the 66th Festival de Cannes. After the first couple of days, the prevailing assumption was that Spielberg, politically liberal, artistically conservative, would opt for something fairly safe and accommodating. To that end, the betting money swirled around Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son, shown fairly early, on just the second full day of the festival.

The movie, about the severe disruptions and moral confusions of two children switched at birth, was problematic on a number of levels, artistically and intellectually. The director, so skilled and deft with the young performers, annihilated at pretty much every turn my resistance.

Of course, not every title is treated the same. The palace intrigue that surrounds all things Cannes is never more perverse than the morning screening of the festival’s final Wednesday. This is the acknowledged showcase of the festival. A couple of years ago, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds premiered there; last year, it was Walter Salles’s On the Road.

This year, Only God Forgives, the much-hyped new feature by Danish stylist Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), was unveiled there. My friend Robert Koehler, writing here at Film Journey, thought it the favorite for the Palme d’Or, before the festival started. It was obvious, about ten minutes in, that the pretentious and lugubrious Thai-set thriller, featuring an inchoate Ryan Gosling and an overwrought Kristen Scott Thomas, was destined for the festival’s junk heap.

Where to go from there.

The breakthrough did indeed unfold that day with the first evening press screening of Abdellatif Kechiche’s extraordinary Blue is the Warmest Color. The Tunisian-born, French-based director turned heads with his exhilarating fifth feature, adapted from a highly-regarded French graphic novel, charting the emotional tumult and bracing sexual experimentation of a young woman whom, introduced as a fifteen-year old high school student, becomes enthralled with a slightly older college art student (in blue hair).

The remarkable young actress Adele Exarchopoulos is sensational, incarnating a sexual abandon and emotional fragility she makes terribly vivid and lucid. She has beautifully expressive eyes and lovely face, but it’s what she connotes through her body, power, pain, thrill and liberation, that carries the work. As her slightly older lover, Lea Seydoux achieves a glancing, wounding quality, the emotional result of spending so much of her life going against the tide of what is popular or easy. The scenes between the two are electrifying, tense and moody.

The movie’s French title, The Life of Adele – Parts 1 and 2, is preferable to the English. The movie secured American distribution, through Sundance Selects, a division of IFC FIlms, before the conclusion of the first press screening. The dissident crowd was complaining about the running time and some prominent women critics raised sharp objections to the alleged sexual objectification of the material. As is widely known, the film has three knockout graphic sex scenes, the first a 12-minute stunner that is volatile, intense and nervy. At the first public screening, some people fled the theater; otherwise, the crowd erupted in sustained applause. The limpid cinematography by Sofian el Fani is attuned to feeling, colors and shape. Some were calling for more discipline and order on the three-hour film. For me, the 179-minutes were just the beginning.

I never wanted it to end.

Spierlberg’s own movies I’ve always felt almost painfully ambivalent about, his intelligence and knowledge I’ve always been wowed by. His jury made the nervy, right and admirable choice of awarding the Kechiche the Palme d’Or.

The Coen Brothers won the Grand Prix, or second prize, with their new film about the bourgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village, Inside Llewn Davis. Every jury produces one indefensible prize, and this year’s was the directing prize to the talented Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante for his Heli. It’s a shock film, artistically negligible. C’est la vie. Kore-eda captured the jury prize. The great Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke won the screenwriting prize for his A Touch of Sin.

The American James Gray, a highly-regarded figure in France, was thought the wild card with his excellent The Immigrant, with the superb Marion Cotillard as a Polish emigre trapped between a theater impressario (Joaquin Phoenix) and his cousin, a magician (Jeremy Renner), as she stakes out all manner of freedom, sexual and social, in 1921 New York. Cotillard speaks excellent Polish in several crucial scenes, and produces arguably the finest moment of the festival, her shattering confession. She deserved the best actres prize; the Spielberg jury went with Berenice Bejo (The Artist) for her role in The Past, the French-debut of emerging Iranian master Asghar Farhadi (A Separation).

The craggy, deeply enjoyable Bruce Dern scored something of an upset with his lead acting prize in Alexander Payne’s wistful road movie, Nebraska. When I suggested the scenario the night before, one of my dinner companions and friends, violently rejected the possibility.

That’s the kind of year it was.

Chinese Cinema at Cannes

touch

By Patrick Z. McGavin

As the world’s most important festival, Cannes is composed in many parts and layers. Yet one inescapable aspect, seemingly more acute with each year, is how much of the programming—thematically, formally—dovetails.

The narrative at the festival follows a fairly predictable trajectory: the festival slots its weaker titles at the start and then, slowly, starts to introduce the stronger material, probably as to not induce people to leave the festival early but also build a certain momentum leading up to the final weekend and the awards.

Two Chinese films meditate on national identity, representation and the moral and personal consequences of the society’s transformative shift from Maoism to an unbridled capitalism. A Touch of Sin, the new work by China’s greatest contemporary director, Jia Zhang-ke, is the most daunting, rigorous and stylistically impressive of any competition film shown the first week.

The director’s most impressive achievement since Still Life (2006) won the top prize at Venice, the new work is suffused with a blistering, tragic intensity and palpable anger illustrating the moral rot and social despair resulting from the country’s willful and energetic Randian obedience to new wealth.

Jia has collected four stories, each dealing with death and personal tumult, and drawn from recent fact-based incidents in China to address issues of inequality and corruption, whether the soul-crushing marginalization of the poor to the perverse and appalling greed, cynicism and avarice of the country’s new social elite. “I wanted to use these news reports to build a comprehensive portrait of life in contemporary China,” he said in the accompanying filmmaker’s notes.

The ideas and concerns are familiar from the director’s previous work (Platform, The World), but the violent sense of loss and interruption contributes to a grave and wounding tone. Jia intertwines all manner of influences, of East and West, the movie’s English title is a play on King Hu’s iconic A Touch of Zen, to the extraordinary opening chapter, which opens like a Chinese Once Upon a Time in the West and by its chilling conclusion feels like Crime and Punishment.

In the opening, set in the province of Shanxi, where Jia was born, a ruffian and agitate miner (Jiang Wu), dismissed by most of the community as a village idiot, takes extreme action in his violent protest of what he regards as the graft, corruption and self-dealing of the business and social leaders. In Chongqing, a southwestern city on the Yangtze river, an enigmatic young man (Wang Baoqiang), the same one seen at the beginning, draws on the innate power and authority conferred on him from a handgun to reverse his social marginalization. In the third piece, unfolding in Hubei, in central China, a woman (Zhao Tao), already flouting traditional values by carrying an illicit affair, strikes back at a man who arrogantly believes his wealth entitles him to unfettered sexual aggression. In the final chapter, a young man (Luo Lanshan), living on the southern coast and desperate for his own brand of social mobility, lights out from his provincial village but tragically finds just a continuation of his thwarted and circumscribed life.

This is not Intolerance; the stories never exactly interweave, but they definitely exist in relation to one another. The great Yu Lik-wai, Jia’s regular cinematographer, working in in the unusual format ratio of 1:2.4, weaves together one dazzling, immersive image after another, to the point they collate and dance in the imagination. The use of color, especially red in the first chapter, is expressive and suggestive,  binding shape and color and movement.

If anything, the first two pieces are so sharp and precise and wounding in what they have to say that sustaining that was almost impossible. The third and fourth pieces are not at the same level. As an arabesque, the four parts cohere. Jia’s preoccupations remain central, but what’s different, even shocking, about the new work is the violence, but it is grounded in the film’s carefully considered psychological register.

The most eruptive change is the sudden onset of snow in the dusty landscapes of the first chapter. Jia also, I suspect, realized the need to reinvigorate his own art, and change the tone and tempo of his work and try out new ideas and modes of being. A Touch of Sin is the work of an angry man, but it has a throbbing acuity and tension. The New York distributor Kino Lorber completed a deal to acquire American theatrical rights.

bend

Flora Lau’s Bends, a first feature that debuted in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, is also concerned with the country’s extreme social stratification. The lines of demarcation are not just about money, but also the fault lines—historic, cultural—between Hong Kong and the mainland. In the generation now passed since the handover of British control, Hong Kong cinema remains fixated on themes of cultural dislocation and assimilation, moving rather uneasily as a imperial subject shaped by exile to a now coercive body of a vast empire.

In Hong Kong cinema, especially the films of Wong Kar-wai, loneliness and impermanence are a constant, his characters often caught in the growing disconnect between what they long for and what is realistically available. Love stories that were continuously unconsummated became the director’s trademark. Flora Law is a child of the cinema of Wong—significantly, she works with his key collaborators, the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the production designer and art director William Chang Suk Ping and actress Carina Lau.

Flora Lau has made a movie slippery and ethereal, her vertiginous mise-en-scene giving shape and feeling to its dominant theme of concealment in relating the story of Anna (Carina Lau), a wealthy woman whose carefully maintained life of comfort and privilege is decimated, incrementally and then devastatingly, by her husband’s malfeasance. Lau entwines the story of Anna with that of her young chauffeur (Chen Kun).

The young man is engaged with his own form of subterfuge. He is hiding his Chinese-born wife, pregnant with their second child, in the border town of Shenzhen as he desperately tries circumvent China’s single-child policy and secure her a private facility in the expensive (and overcrowded) Hong Kong.

Flora Lau’s relative inexperience as a storyteller produces the occasional awkward moment, the too spot-on linking of the two characters, but she finds her rhythm relatively early and demonstrates a sureness of mood and feeling. Doyle’s evocative and moody imagery casts a deep hold, from the thrilling use of the subjective camera from inside the high-end Mercedes to a recurrent sense of enclosure and confinement.

A Touch of Sin reiterates a master. Bends uncovers a bright and thrilling new voice.