Stephanie Spray’s and Pacho Velez’ Ride to Nirvana

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By Robert Koehler

Possibly more than the previous feature and short work produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which includes the groundbreaking Sweetgrass and Leviathan, Manakamana (distributed by Cinema Guild, opening today at Laemmle’s Music Hall) marks a crucial intersection of the three of the most interesting developments in contemporary cinema.

Stephanie Spray’s and Pacho Velez’ 16mm film (blown up to 35mm) embraces the essence of “slow cinema,” in which tempo and rhythm are intentionally geared to andante and beyond. Just as “slow food” allows the senses and palate to take time to absorb and appreciate flavors and textures, the slow cinema exemplified in Manakamana permits eyes and ears the space and time to explore, contemplate and get lost. The movie perfectly sums up “in-between cinema,” that vast realm between fiction and non-fiction where actual figures take on fictional and even mythical essence in front of the lens, where the real is viewed through an expansive perspective that obliterates old forms of televised, instructional “documentary.” It also stands as a supreme example of anthropological cinema, applying observational rigor to cultural groups and traditions, a direct inheritor of the early experiments of Jean Rouch but aware of the much older stream that extends back to Robert Flaherty, arguably the creator of the first anthropological in-between films.

Perhaps too much of the justifiably ecstatic praise heaped on this remarkable film has lost track of its anthropological roots. It’s not just that Spray and Velez (a CalArts grad) are, like J.P. Sniadecki (Foreign Parts, People’s Park), among the most gifted grads of S.E.L., but that Spray’s previous work especially provides the basis out of which Manakamana emerges. Before her collaboration with Velez, Spray made three mid-length films in Nepal observing the Gayek family; her third piece, titled As Long as There’s Breath, is the best known and has travelled to fine international festivals like FIDM in Montreal. Not only do the Gayeks gradually grow used to Spray’s subtle and unobtrusive camera (this is very different from the bravura, physical camera of S.E.L. co-founder Lucien Castaing-Taylor in his co-directed Sweetgrass and Leviathan), but the viewer can feel that she is coming to understand the family, their anxieties, even their darkest demons.

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Fatalism seeps into the family discussion, and because this is ethnography, it must govern Spray’s film: It’s part of the content of what she’s recording, revealing textures of family life only possible through patient, time-consuming observation. Such an attitude doesn’t inform Manakamana, comprised of 11 fixed shots approximately 9 ½ minutes long observing visitors to Nepal’s Manakamana temple in the Himalayan foothills. But the same ethnographic rigor is at work, only in a more voluptuous, epic frame. The visitors are seen riding in an aerial tramway car, some arriving, some departing, some viewed from the temple side of the ride, some from the base side. Spray’s considerable experience in Nepal, her way of developing a second-nature relationship with people in this ancient, complex culture, allows Manakamana to open into a panorama of humanity in a particular place at a particular time. Departing from her previous intimate studies, Spray has found the ideal space for a wide range of folks to reveal themselves: In one shot early in the film, a serious-looking pilgrim holding a traditional bouquet of flowers in her lap cracks a smile for a moment. The sacred comes down to earth, even as we’re being transported into the clouds.

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Velez’s camera is ingenious. He rests it at a comfortable distance from the temple visitors, more or less the distance that a fellow traveler might have if facing them. He uses the tram’s large windows as a way to turn the images into stunning 2-D moving shots, so while the visiting pilgrims generally sit still, the Himalayan background is in constant movement, receding or revealing depending on the camera position. There can be comedy going on in the foreground—a woman struggling with her dripping ice cream cone always gets a laugh with audiences—while the dynamic background is constantly unfolding, like a scroll. This works in tandem with sound designer Ernst Karel, a crucial collaborator in most of the important S.E.L. projects, who heightens Spray’s sound recordings of the tram itself. As part of a field recording series for the German-based label Gruenrekorder, Karel has made a CD recording, “Swiss Mountain Transport Systems,” that turns the weird grinding and cranking of aerial trams into rhythmic sound patterns, something close to music (Karel is a trained classical trumpeter) but not quite. The same quality runs through the soundtrack of Manakamana, completing a highly complex yet seemingly simple piece of integrated cinema, where the material, the spiritual and the absurd all get into a groove and go to Nirvana.

 

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.

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.

Vidor and Ulmer at TCM Fest

Photographer: Mark Hill

Photographer: Mark Hill

The TCM Classic Film Festival wrapped Sunday, and as always, it was a whirlwind of celebrity appearances, new prints, flocks of out-of-town tourists, and general TCM geekdom.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling this year’s program emphasized the tried-and-true and was less exploratory than previous editions. One might have hoped TCM’s recent Peabody Award for its elaborate presentation of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film would have inspired it to cast a wider net.  But even the “Discoveries” section included films such as Eraserhead, Godzilla, Freaks, The Muppet Movie, and other standards of repertory or the DVD market.

Still, a lot of great films played at the festival, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone (especially, say, tourists from towns lacking revival screens) the opportunity to see such masterpieces as The Best Years of Our Lives, City Lights, How Green Was My Valley, The Innocents, Johnny Guitar, Make Way for Tomorrow, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Nutty Professor or Tokyo Story projected on the big screen.

For me, the highlights were seeing two features by King Vidor – The Stranger’s Return (1933) and Stella Dallas (1937) – and the newly restored Her Sister’s Secret (1946), a rare melodrama directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

I’m still catching up with titles from Vidor’s long and diverse career, but Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, in their groundbreaking 1988 book on the filmmaker, place The Stranger’s Return as part of Vidor’s “back to the land” trilogy (including Our Daily Bread and The Wedding Night) and describe Stella Dallas as a key melodrama that “lines up among the ‘pure’ weepies,” setting the stage for the “wild sexual struggles of Vidor’s postwar melodramas” such as The Fountainhead, Beyond the Forest and Ruby Gentry.

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The Stranger’s Return is a gentle ensemble drama about an eccentric farmer (Lionel Barrymore) who welcomes his sophisticated, east coast granddaughter (Miriam Hopkins) to the family farm; she gets to know the community, kindles a half-hearted romance, and instigates the jealousy of her relatives.  Most of the film takes place in the homes, cars, and porches of the small community, and the breezy drama culminates in a lightly comic ruse. Vidor’s relaxed visual style matches the airy drift of the characters, save for a standout scene in which the camera pans quickly back-and-forth in a seasick expression of Hopkins’ frantic attempts to feed a horde of hungry harvesters.  (On a completely trivial note, it’s fun hearing the characters champion the work of stage actor Fritz Leiber, the father of the fine science fiction author of the same name.)

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Film historian Jeremy Arnold (a TCM writer whose commentary for Sony’s DVD of Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome I’ve enjoyed) introduced Stella Dallas. Beginning, justifiably, by praising Barbara Stanwyck’s career diversity and performance in the title role, he went on to talk about the “sacrificial mother” theme beloved by Depression-era Hollywood, and said the film-within-the-film playing at a theater Stella visits is actually Henry King’s 1925 film version of the same material. Coincidentally, this film also ends on a ruse, this time involving Stella’s attempt to alienate her grown daughter to persuade her to leave home. While the famous, bittersweet ending reminded Durgnat and Simmon of Les Misèrables, I couldn’t help invoking Late Spring.

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Finally, Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret is a compelling and unusual melodrama produced at Poverty Row studio PRC. Nancy Coleman stars as a young single mother who secretly gives up her child to her married but childless sister; things don’t go as planned, of course, and when the true father turns up, the characters are embroiled in turmoil.  Shot by the noted German cinematographer Franz Planer, the film has an elegance that belies its meager budget, but what really impresses is the humanist goodwill of every character in the film – there’s not a baddie to be found in the bunch, just wounded characters trying to act honestly and graciously in trying circumstances. It’s a guileless and gripping film.

Standout Melodramas at IFFLA

One of the great things about living in Los Angeles is the many smaller festivals throughout the year that focus on regional cinema, giving us a broader sense of the movies being made in any given country than the typical artistic skimming that occurs at the larger fests. Now in its twelfth year, the well organized Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles is about midway through its run, showcasing about 16 features (plus shorts) that generally fall within the thoughtful mainstream of Indian cinema.

Two films screening tomorrow – debut features, both – are intriguing melodramas about adolescents: Phoring and Fandry (Pig).

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Phoring dramatizes a friendship between a neglected boy (Phoring) and his doting new teacher (Doel), a beautiful newcomer to their rural Bengali town who suspects Phoring is capable of better things. The film has an easygoing charm to it, often dipping into gentle comedy, absurdist fantasy sequences – even toilet humor – but just as it begins to feel predictable, it takes some dramatic turns that send Phoring on a transformative journey through the streets of Calcutta.

If the story sounds vaguely familiar to cinephiles, the film is loosely based on Ritwik Ghatak’s early feature, Runaway (Bari Theke Paliye, 1958), in which another youth with a bullying father seeks his fortunes in Calcutta and meets a variety of mentors, but ultimately abandons his fantasies in light of the harsh realities of urban living.  Both films are coming of age tales with different emphases: Runaway’s protagonist develops a social conscience but Phoring is about a boy who quiets his insecurities.  It’s director Indranil Roychowdhury’s feature debut, but it reveals a sure hand with disparate, even clashing, sensibilities.

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Fandry is a more issue-driven melodrama that targets the unofficial caste system in India, and it proceeds at a slow boil until a volatile ending implicates even the viewer. In broad strokes, it follows an untouchable Dalit boy whose poor family is a Maharashtra village’s wild pig rustlers. The story’s use of a rare black sparrow as an unwilling sacrifice is a bit too literary, but the emotional turbulence poet-turned-filmmaker Nagraj Manjule builds by layering tensions in the final act is unsettling and provocative.

South by Southwest 1

Buzzard (2014)

By Robert Koehler

Marty Jackitansky, a rather foul human being whom you can’t take your eyes off of in writer-director Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard—by many millions of miles the best movie yet screened at South by Southwest—is a feral, degenerated form of the classic grifter of the 1930s. He temps at a bank office, but can barely tolerate anyone around except fellow office staffer Derek (an amusing Potrykus) and finds innumerable ways to make petty cash by bilking people, or just by getting over, like grabbing equipment he’s ordered for the office and returning it to an electronics store for cash. Once he gets the terrible idea of signing over bank customers’ checks to his own name, Marty’s track is relentlessly downward, a course that traces from corporate America to homeless in Detroit until the final shot (worthy of a long post-screening discussion), a metaphysical transference of sorts. Potrykus casts his regular go-to “star,” Joshua Burge, from the first (the 2010 short Coyote) and second (the debut 2012 feature, Ape) pieces of his Animal trilogy, and by this point, the director and actor have developed a electrifying collaboration that recalls Lindsay Anderson (If… and O Lucky Man!) and Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) allowing young Malcolm McDowell to let his id to run free. The connection is explicit: There’s a late sequence in Buzzard, an extended take of Burge’s bug-eyed Marty consuming a hotel room service plate of spaghetti, that deliberately quotes McDowell’s Clockwork spaghetti scene with Patrick McGee and the hospital finale. Buzzard is in fact a salad of cinephilia; the penultimate scene, an astonishing travelling shot following Marty running down a Detroit street, just as deliberately quotes from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. There’s not only the line from McDowell here; Burge can easily be viewed as Denis Lavant to Potrykus’ Carax, and more than in Ape, the expression of young male animality, stemming from unresolved anger and self-hatred, reaches the level of dance and unexpected ecstasy, perhaps even transcendence.

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 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.

Post Sarkozy Cannes 7

AMOUR (Michael Haneke)

By Robert Koehler

Having just turned 70, Michael Haneke appears to be turning a new leaf in his abrasive view of humanity as being, for all its attempts at civilization, barely out of the jungle. This view might in the end be correct, but Haneke’s particularly insistence on it and his habit for mechanistic and even sadistic methods for dramatizing it can sometimes be the work of an artist who’s effectively pinning down his characters like a butterfly collector secures his possessions to a board. In his displays of complete technical and dramatic control of his materials, Haneke accentuates the impression of an uber controlling artist who allows no oxygen into the room.

The fascination of Amour is that the oxygen tank is turned on by Haneke this time, although this or any other medical device will be enough in the end to save the life of dying piano teacher Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who’s patiently and meticulously cared for in her Paris flat by her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). A film whose title permits no ironic reading, Amour is precisely what the title identifies: The response by one loved on toward another in dire conditions, in which precisely unconditional love is called for and acted upon.

At the same time, Amour is a bit too prim and proper, too buttoned-up, too designed to win end-of-the-year critics awards, too elegantly turned out to please. It’s a kind of art house movie parade, presenting all of the items that would directly please the Laemmle Theatre’s target audience (of a certain age, cultured, urban, old enough to recall Trintignant and Riva as A Man and a Woman). Haneke has made an honest film without sensationalism, but it’s also quite strategically programmed, down to the lust in its bones to win yet another Palme d’Or, which may very well happen.

The great, moving entity at the center of Amour is Trintingant, whose first perception that something is wrong with Anne—she simply shuts down for a minute or two over breakfast—produces not concern so much as peeved anger, as if she’s playing a game and he’s the butt of a joke. It’s a fascinating choice, and true to the emotional temperature that caregivers of ailing loved ones often feel. These are genuinely cultured people (like their audience), regularly attending concerts, conversing about the new biography on conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose last name is casually mentioned in the same way that NBA fans would mention Kobe. Their book shelves—always an important, revealing detail in Haneke’s dramas—are bulging with music and art books, literature, CDs, and the living room remains centered on the grand piano which is slightly out of tune. Yet this life of culture is about to retreat to the background as health matters become all-consuming.

Their only daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is genuinely concerned that her father is taking on too much; Eva may or may not know that caregivers who give their all often die before those they’re caring for, but she grows increasingly perplexed at Georges’ efforts to completely control the situation (sort of like the way Michael Haneke directs his movies), down to locking the bedroom door so nobody can see Anne in her decrepid state. “You can’t stop me from seeing her,” Eva correctly tells him, and the movie can’t stop the viewer from seeing Anne in her final phase, verging on death, and finally refusing even to take water.

Amour doesn’t so much end in murder, but relief (Rick Santorum’s response, if we care, would be outrage, confirming his worst fears about those suicidal Dutch), though Haneke makes too fine a point of it by having Georges handle an errant pigeon which has flown in the apartment window not by killing it as would have happened in an earlier movie by the maker of Funny Games but by gently capturing and freeing it. The symbolism is obvious, the gesture is telling, even close to a direct message: I, Michael Haneke, am no longer into torture. At least, not until the next movie.

Post Sarkozy Cannes 6

THE HUNT (Thomas Vinterberg)

By Robert Koehler

The strange case of Thomas Vinterberg is a model of a director not to follow, lest you fall into the chasm known as Submarino (2010). The case, though, has made a new and unexpected turn. News flash (sort of): The Hunt is a solidly made, consistently coherent and steadily intensifying drama that extols the great Scandanavian theatrical tradition of the idea of a single conscience against the world. In one sense, The Hunt is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, re-set for our era of fears (real and imagined) of pedophilia. But it’s also a case of a director who, since the vastly overrated The Celebration, has suggested the promise of making films generated by vital dramatic ideas, failed on that promise over the past decade, and yet now may have finally found his focus.

In this way, that clever promotional gimmick known as Dogme ’95, of which Vinterberg was a part, was the worst thing that could have happened to him. His best instincts are theatrical, not cinematic, and the trickery of Dogme with its pseudo-Calvinist self-abnegation and disposal of “production values,” proved a distraction. Re-positioned in the world of Ibsen, where he clearly belongs, Vinterberg finds a central idea and holds it close. Better, he plays it out to its logical conclusion.

The premise: What’s a lonely, divorced man to do when turned upon by a little girl who’s not his own but has great affection for him? Working as an assistant at a suburban Danish kindergarten, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a favorite of the kids, even as he struggles with his ex-wife to get more visitation rights with his teen son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). (This drama-within-the-drama echoes a similar charged dynamic at the center of Radu Jude’s superb Berlin festival film, Everyone in the Family.) Unexpectedly, after a pleasant stretch where Lucas gives a bit of extra attention to little, darling Klara (Annika Wedderkopp)—including walking her home—she imagines a sexual encounter with him.

People tend to believe children, as more than one character observes, and this universal tendency sets a trap for Lucas, who finds that not only the entire school staff, but much of the town suspects and turns against him. Vinterberg insists upon Lucas’ position, viewing the McMartinesque drift of the community as a pull toward collective madness that reaches a level of unhinged physical danger in a tense sequence in a supermarket. The movie increasingly becomes Mikkelsen’s: His hawk-like features soften under the continual blows to his sense of self and worth, his deflated body slowed by the weight of what’s falling down on him. Vinterberg, though, doesn’t exclusively privilege Lucas: When he’s finally arrested, The Hunt shifts for a time to Marcus as a way to illustrate the full human cost of what’s unfolding. Through this mechanism, it becomes clear that Vinterberg is fundamentally an actor’s director, and when he lands upon a naturally dramatic subject that can unlock buried emotions, the results leave a mark. Even what appears to be a facile finale (or as the supertitle on screen announces, “one year later”), the closing moments leave the viewer in a state of suspended uncertainty, once again disturbed and aware that what may have been resolved is only an illusion.