HORROR TIMES SEVEN: THE EYES OF MY MOTHER AND OTHERS

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4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

At the time of its release the concept that guides this South Korean horror movie was rather new, so it’s a problem for me to review this movie when its conceit has practically worn itself out. a Tale of Two Sisters is the story of Su-Mi and Su-Yeon Bae, two sisters who come to live with their father and their stepmother. Soon after their arrival, they begin experiencing paranormal visitations of vengeful ghosts unwilling to left bygones be bygones. An accident precipitates the mental deterioration of one of the sisters, and what transpires on film may not be what is exactly happening.

A Tale of Two Sisters is good in establishing its ghost-lore rather quickly — from the get-go, one of the sisters who has been institutionalized hints at horrible secrets yet to be revealed. Her and her sister’s arrival to the house is met with Gothic coldness; the stepmother, a porcelain beauty, has what seems the heart of a dead animal. Night scenes are almost impossible to appreciate directly without staring into the flat-screen. It’s as though director Jee-woon Kim wanted to portray a household whose very own darkness has been swallowed by petty passions and unresolved issues.

One sequence in A Tale of Two Sisters is a standout and it involves a guest a dinner party completely losing her mind at something she sees. We never truly get the glimpse of it (although we are made privy to it later), but the progression is frightening and once unleashed, it becomes impossible to control. However, Sisters loses a bit of its steam later on and its switcheroo — a device that by now has been done to death — while shedding light, brings little satisfaction, and as the final scenes approach one gets the feeling that a great horror  movie sold itself short by execution and the use of an overused plot technique of an unreliable narrator.

 

MARTYRS 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs finds itself in this list because I saw it a month ago even though it was released in 2009. I just felt it was appropriate for me to see the original as it was released in lieu of renting the American remake that went straight to VOD a little under a year ago. Knowing the penchant we have for fucking up originals, I didn’t wish to take a chance and waste my own time.

Martyrs is a movie you’ll either like due to its visuals and ultra-violence or hate because your trained eye will catch a glaring plot holes that by proxy should have buried the plot before it took one final tumble down the rabbit hole. When Martyrs starts we see a young girl fleeing a run down warehouse, screaming in pain as she’s been tortured and has narrowly escaped a horror beyond all imagination. The young girl, Lucie, finds herself in an orphanage where she befriends a young girl named Anna. Anna becomes her only link to the outside world as she suffers from extreme bouts of PTSD following her ordeal and continues to see a horrific apparition that refuses to let her alone.

Years later, we come into a scene of domesticity: a family having dinner. [Catch a young Xavier Dolan, who would go on to direct I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways, Mommy, and most recently, Just the End of the World.] In bursts Lucie who swiftly dispatches them. She informs Anna that this is the family who kept her captive years ago and submitted her to unbearable torture. Anna, wanting to help, is a little freaked out by what just has happened, and you would think they would leave the place and start anew, but Laugier has other things in mind. Darker, more depraved.

Anna overhears the matriarch, still alive, and tries to save her from certain death to no avail: Lucie interferes with bloody results. At the same time, Lucie gets attacked by the spirit who’s been tormenting her since she was a girl. Anna realizes that something else is happening: Lucie is having hallucinations that she can’t seem to control. Becoming aware that this apparition will not leave her alone — having been a girl she was unable to save years ago, she does the unthinkable. Anna, now, has become our Final Girl.

From here on Martyrs takes a different turn that if you can stomach, you will probably like. Leave it to the French to commit to the art of delving into pure, creative sadomasochism that would make Sade a happy man. Martyrs takes one last turn into its own heart of darkness that takes the viewer into the limits of tolerance. It is a terrific incursion into complete cruelty into another human being, and that as a viewer I was still there, wanting to know where it would all lead, shows that this is either a good movie or I’m a potentially twisted individual with nothing better to do than watch the unwatchable.

Laugier seems to be onto something but his love for nihilism for the sake of it makes me refrain from recommending this level of horror to anyone but the die hard.  If you do watch Martyrs, just be advised; it’s not an easy film to stomach once the carnage begins.

 

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

You’ve probably never seen a movie quite like The Eyes of my Mother, and this is precisely why you need to see it immediately. If it’s playing in an art-house near you, go. If you can rent it on Amazon or DirecTV, do so. If you still would rather wait a while, that’s okay, but please see it. This is how horror should be — slow, devoid of a single jump scare, disjointing, and progressively shocking.

I don’t want to talk too much about this movie because this is the kind that you have to go in with only a thread of information in order to experience its enveloping layers of horror firsthand. We get introduced to a quiet household in rural America. A little girl lives with her elderly parents in what seems a suspended paradise. One day — because that is how every basic story begins — a stranger arrives, and despite his googly smile, he’s not one to trust. His visit, as it turns out, comes with the heaviness of fate and impending doom, and doom does  happen . . . but the story is less interested in this aspect. It’s interested in the little girl and how she grapples with the ultimate horror — loneliness — which invades her perfect world and tears it apart, only to permutate itself into something even more gruesome and perverse.

The Eyes of my Mother, a movie whose title can be interpreted several different ways, uses black and white to striking, nightmarish effect. One early sequence shows a woman running for her life in a deserted road as a truck looms behind her. Shots done overhead, from a distance, or in near darkness give the movie a sense of rising discomfort and dread and often recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but more importantly, Georges Franju’s Eves Without a Face (to which this film does owe a little its own title). Then the sound — one murder sequence is mostly heard but never seen, and then there’s a disturbing sequence involving a man in chains eating food from a plate that is frightening in its own context.

Nicolas Pesce has created a horror movie drenched in poetic imagery that begs to be seen and experienced in its austerity.  You will almost regret how short it is.

 

LIGHTS OUT 

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

Lights Out exists as a cheap imitation of other horror movies reviewed here — like Martyrs and A Tale of Two Sisters. That it does have a couple of good visuals doesn’t make it exactly anything remotely watchable. However, I’m pretty sure that ghosts do not behave like the living; and could we please — please! — stop with the floor dragging already? What are people, stand-ins for Swiffers? Jesus on a stick. Oh that Paranormal Activity had never been made. Ever! Now every ghost we see is outlined in black and can, it seems, drag people under a bed, through doors, and act as through they were completely alive. Let it go already. Surely there are other ways to present haunts as actual scares.

Also, the jump scares again. When a movie can’t offer any plausible reason for an action to go on without something scary to see, in waltzes the fucking jump scare complete with the loud, shrieking violins and the boom. I’m so sick of it. Kill it already. There has to be something better than having them on cue, every ten to twelve minutes because the director can’t trust his or her audience enough to feel scared — or at least, very uneasy — without going “BOO!” If a movie does this, reader, just get up, count your losses, and sneak into the next theater to watch a potentially better film. Or call it a day and move onto something truly horrifying, such as watching our “president elect” deliver some speech and attempting composure.

Also, what’s with ghosts looking like featureless, ashy humanoids? This one is in dire need of Vitamin D, stat.

I think this is all I have to say about this movie. It’s garbage. It stinks. It wastes the talent of Teresa Palmer who should be doing better. It really, really, REALLY under uses Maria Bello, and that in itself is a crime. Just stay away. There’s nothing to see here.

 

THE MONSTER 

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

Someone must have read Stephen King’s Cujo and thought that rather than film a remake, better, do a reconfiguration. If any of you read the book (I did) or saw the movie (did that, too), you’ll remember that much of the book’s conflict takes place in a lonely stretch of rural America where a woman and a child huddle inside a car that won’t start while a rabid dog stalks them. Bryan Bertino’s latest movie The Monster seems to have borrowed snippets from Cujo down to the backstory that interrupts the story in flashback sequences. It tells the story of Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a train wreck addict who just can’t get it together. She has, it seems, custody of her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentina). However, from the looks of how badly she treats Lizzy, both in the present and in flashbacks, how awful, how completely, irredeemably dysfunctional their relationship is, fractured to the point of no return, it becomes clear that Lizzy needs to be with her absentee father. This is Mommie Dearest, played straight and with a bite. Kathy is basically a monster-mother.

On the night that Kathy has to drive Lizzy off to give her up to Lizzy’s father, they take a dark and lonely road. Nothing out of the ordinary; there are many roads like this in the country. When they hit an animal, an event that causes their car to break down and force an injured Kathy to call for roadside assistance and an ambulance, Kathy, selfless mother that she is, tells Lizzy to go out and inspect. It’s a wolf, all right . . . but there are teeth embedded in its fur that don’t belong to any animal Lizzy knows. Something just out of visual reach is out in the woods. Something large, bestial, and hungry.

Sure enough, the mother-daughter tension that had been brewing like a pot of water blows wide open when havoc breaks loose and the two of them now have to come together to defend themselves against this horrifying new attacker. I found it rather interesting that here we have yet another film that uses symbolism to perhaps narrate the real story of a woman fighting the monster within her — the beast of her own addiction. It’s been done before, so well, in movies like The Shining, Under the Shadow, Goodbye Mommy, and The Babadook. If you think of it, the apparently unrelated flashbacks, who at first seemed to be filler for a movie, clearly telegraph who the monster of the story really is, but in horror, you can always alter the perception of reality and use other techniques in order to get the point across. And so, here we have an actual beast and a woman who is largely unsympathetic diving headfirst into motherhood at its most violent, committed to seeing her daughter doesn’t get killed. It’s probably not going to win any awards but who cares: this is a very good movie from a first-time director and it delivers the shocks in spades

 

NEXT TIME I’LL AIM FOR THE HEART 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It is said truth can be stranger than fiction and there is no better example than Cedric Anger’s 2014 movie that was an official selection for Rendezvous with French Cinema and officially released earlier this year for a very limited run.

During the winter of 1978, the Oise Killer terrorized the region. Several women were found murdered at gunpoint, their bodies abandoned on the roads. What no one knew was that the gendarme in charge of the investigation, Alain Lamarre, was also the same person doing the murders.

Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart is dark and slick, never deviating from a rather drab blue-grey palette that fills the story with a sense of dread right around the corner. It doesn’t over-glamorize Lamarre — here renamed Franck — and doesn’t go into overkill  during some of the more salient murder sequences, particularly its shocking opening sequence and another sequence where Franck picks up a hitchhiker. Even so, these are handled with great delicacy and remain a tough act to watch. Of course, being that this is based on a notorious case, it’s somewhat predictable only because much like its companion movie that also was a part of 2014’s Rendezvous with French Cinema, SK-1, it has a well-known ending. Even so, the pace never lags, there is one surreal sequence involving a case of Franck seeking a woman for company and arriving at a rather hilarious surprise. One of the better surprises from France, a country that continues to turn out surprising features that have long since left the sunnier French New Wave in the dust for good.

 

ALWAYS SHINE 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The ghost of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona looms large in this well-executed, tense  psychodrama about two actresses on the rise who find themselves circling each other like lionesses about to engage in a fight to the death. Sophia Takal’s second feature following her 2011 little-seen film Green follows the story of Beth (Caitlyn FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) as they plan and execute what seems to be a weekend getaway at a distant lodge cabin in Big Sur. Already before the movie’s plot’s wheels are beginning to spin we’re given cues of what might be trouble underneath: Beth comes first, facing the camera, crying, hair disheveled, clearly uncomfortable, begging an unseen person she’ll do anything to win him back. It’s revealed to be a mere audition for a part, and it presents her in a passive, almost simpering feminine role not unlike Shelly DuVall’s Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Anna comes next, also facing the camera before a white background. However, her face is more androgynous — bordering on soft masculine. She’s also angry and spews out line after line in a furious tirade. Her introduction, however, turns out to be Anna herself living this moment in real life as she complains about a bill for her car repair.

We later learn that Anna is having trouble getting film parts while Beth has been luckier, landing parts here and there with extreme ease. Anna’s resentment rings loud and clear — particularly in a sequence that starts with Anna making a discovery about Beth. In this sequence, Anna finds out Beth has landed a plum part in a commercial that is giving her loads of exposure. Anna feigns happiness, but it rings shrill. Anna, however continues to make a point to state how much she’s happy that Beth is making it. A later reading of Beth’s lines starts to morph slowly into something completely disturbing once Anna encourages Beth to play the other part so she can show her how Beth’s part should be played. Here is where Sophia Takal’s camera draws you into the unseen tension building within the two women: a slow, creeping zoom-in shows Beth growing increasingly uncomfortable as Anna, as the antagonistic character, rips right into her, a mass of what Addison DeWitt called “fire and music.” Anna clearly could be playing it too well . . . but there are layers and layers of subtext hidden right on the surface of her delivery — how she seems to strike out at Beth with every hurtful word, wanting to push Beth, make a point.

Beth, of course grows increasingly cautious of Anna’s increasing anger. I felt my breath getting tighter and tighter during the movie. While not a lot happens that may register as a plot per se, the noose between the two women continues to grow tenser with each frame. It’s almost a rule that in a movie in which two people engage in continuous conversation pregnant with the unsaid and rife with emotions bubbling under the surface calls for a moment where the lid will essentially, blow, and  Sophia Takal directs her movie with a sure hand, escalating each scene into something bigger. And midway through, the film starts fucking with you.

This is a sharply made psychological thriller that also dares to push the boundaries of film, identity,  and reality — at one point cleverly inserting a shooting clapper that again is reminiscent of the scene in Persona where Bibi Andersson discovers Liv Ullman has been using her and the film per se breaks apart, only to reform again. It’s an important little insert because while it still ensures you that you are watching a filmed story, it still brings a wink in tow telling you this is merely a film within a film, meta-narration, maybe even just a state of mind.

As a female-centric movie,  Always Shine boasts a critical look at how women can be as ruthless as men in outperforming the other when it comes to landing plum parts in film or commercials, but also, a way that we see them — sometimes with clearly distinct personalities, sometimes interchangeable.

AQUARIUS

AQUARIUS  

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

aquarius

The last time Sonia Braga was on the big screen was a little under 30 years ago in 1989’s Moon Over Parador opposite frequent co-star Raul Julia with whom she appeared in movies like (the aforementioned) Moon Over Parador, The Milagro Beanfield War, The Rookie, and The Kiss of the Spider Woman. Sadly, both before and after this all-too brief stint in American cinema Braga wasn’t given the chance to show her acting chops, I assume because of the usual lack of roles for actresses not fitting a “white mold” and the fact that Braga had been before that known for softcore movies that made less use of her acting and more use of her sex appeal. Braga later all but disappeared from acting altogether, venturing into cable-made movies, short stints in a couple of series — most notably her story arc opposite Kim Cattrall as her lover in Sex and the City, American Family, Alias, and most recently, Luke Cage. Of her scant movie appearances the only one I can vaguely recall was a small role in Randall Miller’s 2005 indie Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dance and Charm School. Past that — nothing that I can recall.

aquarius1

So when the 54th New York Film Festival announced Aquarius as its lineup and listed Braga in the lead, complete with glowing performances, I jumped at the chance to see her regardless of the story. There is something magnetic about her that wants you to see her in front of a camera. So big, so powerful is her screen presence that is almost overshadows her character, a single retired author living in a deserted apartment defying the construction company who wants to give her the boot. Even so, that doesn’t matter: Braga isn’t just a presence; she is a force to be reckoned with from the second her character appears on screen in a group laugh therapy group to her final scene. One could say that Braga represents Brazil in its current situation and her defiance against the corporate forces who want her to leave the place where she grew up, suffered and survived breast cancer, and has lived in near bliss. I know little of external politics involving Brazil, so I’ll limit my writing to focus on Aquarius as a story.

As I said, Aquarius focuses on Clara, a woman who has survived cancer and is the last resident of a two-story apartment complex that gives the movie its title facing the Atlantic in Recife, a plum location. The area around the apartment has been progressively developed, older buildings giving way to high rises labeled as luxury apartments — which is the global trend signifying the rapid advance of gentrification which displaces residents who have lived in their homes for their entire lives. Clara receives a visit from Diego and his father, both owners of a construction company seeking to buy her out of her apartment in order to develop the place. Clara kindly rebukes their advances, but their persistence clearly disturbs her: she has decided that the only way she will ever leave Aquarius is, quite frankly, dead.

aquarius2

Clara thinks nothing of the visit and continues living her life as if nothing had happened. Despite the mounting pressure that begins forming a noose around her — Diego has visited her daughter who alongside Clara’s son stages an intervention to convince her to sell. This brings some unresolved emotions to the surface, and even then Clara will not budge. Soon later, her place — indeed, her privacy — become progressively violated as Diego and his men continue to make advances on her living space, using dirty tactics to force her into a state of desperation that will leave her no other choice than to leave. And even then, she doesn’t budge.

Throughout the events that transpire in Aquarius we see Clara intensify in her resolve to remain in her apartment even when the odds are completely stacked against her. Kleber Mendonca Filho directs his movie as if it were a bullfight. We have Clara at rest, enjoying her time alone, or with a lover she takes later on in the film. And then we have Clara fighting, fearless, resolved to do this to the bitter end. The cancer at the beginning of the story begins to take another more symbolic life that literally threatens her entire space, and you have to see it to believe the moment Clara — and we — not only discover it, the cause of her pain, but what she does with it. Aquarius is a doozy of an actor’s showcase, and we see Braga go through the gamut of emotions and stages of fear leading into the eventual fight. It’s the role of a lifetime and she dives headlong into it, fearless, her character baring her scars like a breastplate, an Amazon on the attack. She should get an Oscar nomination for her performance.

Aquarius opened on October 14 in NYC, and is scheduled to make a return to NYC at the Village East Friday December 16th for a limited engagement. If you haven’t, go see it.

FIVE HEAVY HITTERS TO WATCH IN DECEMBER

Here are five of the best, if not strongest films that played at the 54th Annual New York Film Festival — and this is saying a wallop, considering that this year, almost every entry — a little over 25 of them to be exact, with some tangential exceptions — were home runs from auteurs and rising directors alike.

 

THINGS TO COME

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

One of the reasons Isabelle Huppert is, aside from Meryl Streep and a handful of others, one of the greatest living actresses of film is her ability to artfully, and without the slightest effort, create deep characters out of thin air. This is the fourth movie she’s been seen in — she’s currently competing against her own box office with Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and has been seen in Valley of Love and Louder than Bombs. If I were to choose what performance of hers was the best out of these four films I wouldn’t know where to begin. Huppert doesn’t repeat herself for a second. Every character she plays is entirely independent of the other. In Valley of Love, her character was haunted and distraught over a message from her dead son. In Louder than Bombs she played a supporting but critical role of a photographer who may or may not have committed suicide over the images of suffering she constantly photographed. Elle is a standout all its own as a woman who refuses to see herself as a victim and dances with the dark side. In Mia Hansen-Love’s new movie, which screened at the New York Film Festival, presents Huppert as a philosophy professor and an authoress whose life collapses piece by piece until she’s literally left with nothing but herself (and a cat) to hold on to.

When Things to Come opens, Huppert’s husband leaves her for another younger woman. Her mother (Edith Scob) is not all there and has bouts of neediness. Her publisher also decides not to continue with her — a decision tied more to ageism than anything else. One could say that anyone would collapse under so many forces or give into some form of conspiracy against themselves, but Huppert’s character — and the way she plays it — defies expectations; instead she swims along with the ease of an expert, tackling every event with the amazing aplomb. Things to Come is not a movie with major earthquakes but an assured, sensitive (but not melodramatic) dramedy that may be considered the best of Mia Hansen-Love’s career. It is thoughtful and provides the right amount of humor in scenes that need it in order to elevate it from too much heavy-handedness.

Things to Come is playing at the IFC and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Go see it.

 

TONI ERDMANN

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

It’s safe to say that 2016 was the year of the fractured family attempting to mend the wounds of estrangement. With films like Moonlight — still playing in theaters around the country and recently nominated for several Golden Globes, which just increased its Oscar chances — the as-yet unreleased Julieta (see review below), Things to Come, Louder than Bombs, I, Daniel Blake (also see the below review), none have as of yet captured the topic quite like the German screwball comedy Toni Erdmann. Maren Ade, a director barely known this side of the pond, has crafted a supremely touching and often downright insane comedy of manners with this incredible film. Its premise is as old as time: a father, Winfred (Peter Simonischek) tries to reconnect with his daughter Inez (Sandra Huller). Winfred isn’t exactly the buttoned up older gentleman you would expect to see. Inez? A humorless workaholic with a spartan apartment (all white),  whose only passion is, it seems, the corporate world.

I want to say that every that can will go wrong here, but I’ll leave this review brief because, to be honest, as straightforward as Toni Erdmann is, nothing can prepare you for the sheer level of insanity that begins to insinuate itself in the narrative from its very first scene, which introduces Winfred and gives us a hint of his antics to use disguises for the heck of it. Like a perfect Rube Goldberg experience, Maren Ade’s movie piles on the crazy relentlessly (and credibly so). It’s safe for me to say that despite its running time of almost three hours won’t be noticed one bit. This is how ridiculously funny Toni Erdmann is. The laughs — which go in a crescendo from a chuckle to full out guffaws —  arrive one after the other with little time for you to rest, Just when you think that you’ve reached a comic high point involving a musical scene that uses  a Whitney Houston classic to almost unbearable, screeching hilarity, we segue into the piece de diamante back at Inez’s place. Let’s just say that all hell breaks loose in her perfect, white, minimalist apartment, and it starts with an ill-fitting dress and ends with . . . well. You’ll just have to see it to believe it. It’s that jaw-dropping. Not even the French!

That’s not to say Toni Erdmann is just laughs for the sake of it — this is a well crafted story that has enormous heart and soul. The comedy only serves to drive its more intimate point and it works the entire time down to the last moving shot. I never would have thought that Germany — a country most known for sternly acted dramas with little time, it seems, for humor would have produced such a riot of a movie. Consider: for almost ten years now every German film shown in the US (with some exceptions such as 2013’s Wetlands) has been austere dramas and thrillers, some tied to horrors of the Holocaust in one way or another. So for this extraordinary screwball comedy to come out firing on all cylinders, all I can say is I completely loved it, and will go see it again when it premieres Christmas Day at the Film Forum. Go see it. It’s an epic romp; it’s unpredictable, and above all, it’s a sensitive story that will also make you shed a tear of joy.

This is the movie of the year. Hands down.

 

PATERSON

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

This is going to sound rather flowery. Sorry. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is poetry and cool jazz in skillful visuals. It’s the deceptively simple story of a bus driver, played by Adam Driver, who plays a man whom we will only know as Paterson. Paterson lives in the New Jersey township of Paterson, and reads William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. During his commute he keenly observes his riders (some who are, interestingly, twinned, and notices details no one would even think of paying attention to. During rests either in between or post shifts Paterson sits down and meditates a line or two of poetry, reading it into his own mind as if fleshing out the sound and feel of the words. [We even see the words which hover like motes of light and shape his thoughts.] When he returns home to his wife Laura he realizes his mailbox is slightly tilted as if pushed by a careless mail man. And finally, there is Laura herself, greeting him with quirky openness and displaying a fondness for white and back decor that slowly insinuates itself until it becomes an uproarious sight gag.

Paterson clearly loves Laura. He even muses that, should she ever leave him he’d rip his heart out and leave a hole where it should be. After dinner, he takes Marvin, his dog, for a walk up to a bar where he enjoys one beer only and interacts with the bartender who has his own little story to tell, as do some of the bar goers. [There is a side-splitting subplot with another bargoer, William Jackson Harper, having some rather interesting dating issues with another bargoer played by Chasten Harmon — that one should get its own movie.]

And so, Paterson slowly evolves, bringing in elements from the outside bit by bit, until we realize that we’re in the middle of a visual and aural orchestra of interconnections that is tremendously vibrant and greater than the sum of its parts — a Fibonacci sequence if you will. Paterson, we could even say, isn’t about “a week in the life of” although certainly it does end up right back at the start of a new week, as a film like this should (and no, I’m not spoiling a thing), but as a promise if you will, a sense that despite where you are, and what you may or may not accomplish, you exist and you matter. Wonderful, sensitive (and often funny performances are at the center of Jarmusch’s multilayered little movie by Adam Driver and Goldshifteh Farahani (as Laura, and she single handedly waltzes away with the whole thing), as well as the beyond cute dog that is a character all its own as Marvin.

Paterson will have its premiere December 28th.

 

JULIETA

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

If Almodovar‘s 2013 film I’m So Excited managed to be a slight disappointment — silly, queeny campy fun that had no other pretenses other than momentary escapism — his latest entry, Julieta, sees the director back in territory he knows well: female passion. Based on three stories written by Alice Munro and collected in her book Runaway, Julieta presents another facet of an estranged mother-daughter dynamic Almodovar already explored in his now classic melodramas High Heels and All About My Mother, and while it’s devoid of much of the emotional overtones present in these two — it is a rather restrained affair, directed with a sense of self-effacement as to draw more attention to the film itself than the director’s stylistic choices — Julieta still delivers the emotional blows as its layers of truth become revealed to the audience.

A chance meeting of two friends in Madrid — the older Julieta (Emma Suarez) and her daughter’s best friend Bea (Michelle Jenner) — lead to a conversation about a third woman. That woman is Julieta’s daughter, Antia, whom she has not heard of in quite some time. Bea is only willing to inform Julieta that Antia has started a family and lives in Switzerland but not much else. This information proves to be a bit much for Julieta to tolerate and she impulsively not only moves out of her apartment, but rents another one, where she started her life with Antia years ago. Alone, she starts to write a diary  recounting the events that led to their estrangement.

From here on, the film moves into a long flashback sequence in which we meet the younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) en route on a train where, escaping a lecherous older man (who may have had some vague but sinister intentions with her) she encounters Xoan (Daniel Grao), a fisherman whose wife is in a coma. Death soon follows, and both Julieta and Xoan keep each other company, a situation that leads to a moment of passion. An invitation to come see him later on begins some interesting repercussions for both Julieta and Xoan; Julieta encounters his housemaid Marian (Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma) who clearly dislikes Julieta and would rather she be out of the picture for reasons all her own. Marian hints that he has a mistress, Ava (Inma Cuesta, seen last in 2012’s Blancanieves).

That misunderstanding gets quickly pushed aside because the film has more of an intent to see Julieta and Xoan eventually settle in as she is now pregnant with his child. Almodovar then rips the rug off of your feet when tragedy strikes Xoan’s household and leads Julieta to return to Madrid with her daughter Antia in tow. A visit to Julieta’s parents also ends in grief when Julieta learns that her father is having an affair with the woman assigned to take care of her mother who has Alzheimer’s. Julieta, unable to stand this betrayal, also abandons her father . . . and sets the stage for her own abandonment to follow.

Almodovar treats this rather straightforward triptych with the brushes of a murder mystery and it pays off in spades. Not only are we not privy to Julieta’s internal psyche, it itself gets revealed only gradually, layer by layer until finally we get to the core (and watch for a scene on how he makes the transition from the Julieta younger to older — it’s a clever motif for how much the character’s older self may have always been simmering underneath, waiting for a moment to manifest itself.

Julieta is a poignant examination of the consequences of one’s rashness and inability to empathize, and we witness Julieta’s suffering as an extension of the pain she herself brings upon her family early on. His style remains intact — lush reds abound throughout the entire film starting with the very first scene and his bold use of wallpaper and kitsch, while a tad subdued, is still very much a part of his narrative. The camp may be have been lowered to barely a whisper, but Julieta as a whole is very much pure Almodovar.

Julieta premieres December 21 in theaters.

 

I, DANIEL BLAKE

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

 

Brace yourselves for the most gut-wrenching drama neo-realist director Ken Loach has ever made. This is the movie that won the Palmes D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and having seen almost all of the other contenders — some of them on this very list — I would have to hand it over to I, Daniel Blake hands down.

The story of the titular Daniel Blake (an excellent Dave Johns in his motion picture debut, no less, and where has he been all this time??) is that of many. His is the story of being a forgotten person in a world that allows no time or space for the elderly. Having been a carpenter all his life and being recently declared disabled due to a failing heart Blake now needs to register online to get his benefits.

The problem is, Blake’s incomprehension of how the modern day works — it’s a virtual nightmare for him — is palpable. At the same time the state wants him to go back to work while his doctors are against it. Such minor nuisances that would take a computer literate person seconds to guess take Daniel days, even weeks it seems. The equivalent of our own Department of Labor places so many stakes up against Blake it’s almost certain he will fail, and the more he tries to navigate against the current, jumping through hoops to get the tiniest sliver of hope he will get a disability check, the more it seems he won’t be allowed the dignity of even that.

In the meantime, he strikes up a friendship with a woman who’s also in a predicament. Katie (Hayley Squires) is new in town, has no connections, a son and daughter to maintain, and is barely making ends meet. Let me rephrase that: she’s starving herself in order to place food on the table for her kids. Blake becomes a surrogate father figure to her and her kids, fixing up the place and allowing her to live with a little more dignity — more than he himself has been denied.

The movie, for a short time, has a happy outlook; it does seem as though things will look up for the cast. But Loach is interested in turning the stakes up one or two pegs higher to strike his point home, and boy, do we see it. I Daniel Blake might be upbeat in a downbeat sort of way, laughing through the misery (because sometimes that is all you can do), but it manages to reveal a completely broken system that does not allow those who have been left behind a chance to even live. And with that, this is one of the most powerful depictions of social injustice Loach has ever done. It is unsentimental but warm at the same time; brutal but kind; despairing while defiant in the face of total degradation. And it is anchored by the two leads — David Johns and Hayley Squires to perfection.

DVD-BOUND: BIRTH OF A NATION, CHRISTINE, AND COMPLETE UNKNOWN

BIRTH OF A NATION

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

I have never seen D. W. Griffith’s epic of the same title released  a century ago or its companion Intolerance; it’s unlikely that other than as the inevitable lesson, I won’t go out of my way to see it. And if it means anything, Ava Duvernay’s scorching documentary 13th features ample footage from Griffith’s movie for me to feel repulsed by it. That this is how white people thought and felt about a race that their ancestors dragged in chains and against their will out of their African homes and condemned to a life of indignity that still pervades today is incomprehensible to me. I will never understand how this propagandist film would have ever received the adoration of the critics and thinkers of its time, but there it is, in black and white, its proclamation of an instant classic, or as someone said, “history written in lightning.”

Watching Parker’s version — a revolt from the opposite of the race barrier led by Nat Turner whom Parker plays — one has to come in with a little distance and an enormous sense of objectivity. While not a savagely violent as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, we do get scenes of African Americans being debased and humiliated in ways that McQueen’s movie never touched. Some of them are subtle — at one point, Turner witnesses a girl playing with her slave whom she is holding on a leash as if she were a dog; in another, he witnesses a slave  unwilling to eat having his teeth pried out of his mouth by his master while another pushes food into his mouth. There is the brutal rape of Turner’s wife, done off-screen,. Then there is the subtlest of all, when early in the movie, Penelope Ann Miller,  the Turner matriarch who takes pity on Nat Turner, informs the young boy he can’t read books that are out of his range, but instead gives him a Bible to read. It’s a cry of outrage if I have ever seen one, one that demands retribution.

Reader, you need not wait more, because there is the well-documented revolt, and when it comes, it’s nothing short of a coup de grace comparable to a simmering pot of boiling water exploding because it cant contain its pressure. Nate Parker may have condensed certain elements of Turner’s life to make a more dramatic point. but the essence remains: here is a man who, by reading the only book he was allowed to, moves from being someone not even sure why they landed here in the first place, submissive to a fault, to a leader of vertiginous power guided by voices and his own spiritual convictions. Parker doesn’t shy away from presenting Turner’s rebellion in its gruesome sense; it arrives at a point when we as an audience can’t bear it no more than he can — and he gets a plentiful of punishment by his former friend/master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer, in a somewhat underwritten role), who sells his soul to the promises most poor whites back then did: the promise that their status would be elevated as long as they didn’t interfere with slavery.

Almost 200 years have gone by since Turner’s rebellion in which he spared no one in order to make a point [History has him and his followers killing both the innocent and guilty alike.] That this created an even bigger wave of anti-black sentiment further explored as convict leasing, segregation, and the subsequent propagandist film of the same name, almost makes it sound as though next to no progress has been made. Parker’s Birth of a Nation tries to present not what white revisionists would like you to see but a close rendition of this nation’s dark and difficult role in creating slavery not just as a concept but a state of mind. Some may think Turner was too radical for his time; I believe radicals are sometimes the only chance anyone has if there is ever to be any change at all.

 

CHRISTINE

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

Something about Christine Chubbuck’s short life which led to her on-air suicide in a Sarasota news channel must be still demanding for more stories to be told. First there was Kate Plays Christine, a documentary-movie that depicted Kate Lyn Sheil doing her research for the role of Christine Chubbuck and seeing bits and pieces of her own self start to disintegrate as she got closer and closer to the dark black cloud that was Chubbuck’s own tragedy. Antonio Campos’ Christine presents a woman falling apart at the seams from the moment we first see her. In a moment that screams help early on in the film we see her approaching a young couple, and in what amounts to a short, unwelcome, and uncomfortable interview on the spot she can’t help but remark how much in love they seem. You see, Christine walks through life almost as though she was an alien in a foreign land. It’s the very unremarkable nature of her life that makes her progressive, internal collapse the more poignant. She can’t stand her mother seeing another man; she has no clue her own co-worker (Michael C. Hall) likes her and pushes him away, citing her work as an excuse. Clashes with her boss (Tracy Letts) are the topic of the day. Her search for news topics almost always amount to a failure to connect and communicate — even the way she interviews draws a picture of a woman not really trying to engage her guest as much as going through the motions, eyes perpetually downcast, voice hushed and measured. Her unraveling is only a matter of time, and it’s a shame that this is what Christine Chubbuck is known for: her final meltdown at the hands of a gun and little information as to what were the causes of her depression. Rebecca Hall may have found her breakthrough role after several years being little more than a decorative figure in film; she fully embodies a scream for help that just never gets the attention it needs, or at least, until it’s too late and she’s become another statistic.

 

COMPLETE UNKNOWN

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

 

Another woman who seems to be falling at the seams is the one  — or many — that Rachel Weisz portrays in Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown. It’s a fitting title. Weisz plays Alice, a woman who it seems, may have been familiar with the works of Anais Nin — most notably, Spy in the House of Love. When she appears in the home of her former flame Tom ( Michael Shannon) who’s celebrating his birthday party, we wonder what her intentions may be. Snippets of conversation indicate they were an intense item at one point 15 years ago when she suddenly disappeared leaving no trace. Now she’s returned, a glamorous older woman with the gift of witty stories that completely win over everyone . . . but Tom. Tom is no fool;  he instantly recognizes her and sees through her veneer. Later as they leave the premises with a couple of friends to continue to celebrate, Alice makes a crucial mistake in one of her many stories. This leaves Alice with no other choice but to give up the mask she’s been hiding in, and as she and Tom are left alone in the city, they initiate an epilogue of a relationship where the question of Alice’s behavior isn’t so much that she does what she does — change identities as often as she can and essentially move across the world in a constant state of a chameleon — but the why. This doesn’t come so much as clear, but it seems that Marston’s interest lies less in explaining a mystery inasmuch as showing it. Complete Unknown is bittersweet — both Weisz and Shannon fully make you believe they once had a Great Passion — but it’s too short of a psychodrama to even grant closure to something that wasn’t even reciprocal to begin with because the female half was absorbed in her own selfishness and the glamour of her wispy persona.

THE ALIENS AMONG US: EVOLUTION & ARRIVAL

EVOLUTION

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

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Has horror ever looked so boldly sensual while dialing up the dread? The opening scene of Evolution establishes the tone of Lucile Hadzhihalilovic’s new feature which was screened last March at the Film Society’s New Director – New Films festival, and the tone is disorienting at best. We’re brought into the surreal via the ocean, with undulating flora reacting to the currents of the turquoise sea. Into the frame enters our protagonist, a little boy in red trunks named Nicolas, swimming. He catches the glance of what winds up being a large red starfish . . . and then something a little more gruesome.

Like a figure in a Lovecraftian story he’s seen then running across a rather desolate coastal landscape where he informs his mother of what he’s seen. The mother, rather coldly, dissuades Nicolas that he saw such a thing. She is one of several mothers who dress in the same identical beige nurse’s outfit and take care of a boy with almost clinical detail. The women per se are extremely strange; they seem lifted up from a different period altogether — I kept getting the Renaissance as all of them have pale Raphaellite faces, barely visible eyebrows, and wear their hair in a tight bun. There are scenes with them involving gurney beds and injections under harsh lights that are squirmy to say the least, and all one can ask is, “What is going on here?”

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Not wanting to spoil anything, because there will be discoveries and one particular scene pulled straight out of a Hieronymous Bosch with the violence culled, but the horror intact that made my skin cringe. Even more disturbing is a friendship of sorts Nicolas develops with a sympathetic nurse who behaves in a way that is in direct contradiction her colleagues for reasons left unexplained. Many might feel very squeamish at some of the scenes, but Evolution‘s purpose is precisely to evoke a different sort of horror — not the one with jump scares and humans revealing the monster inside, but what a perverted sense of cultural and racial preservation can do when it involves the young and frail.

Evolution is playing in limited theaters but is also available on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, and other on demand platforms.

 

ARRIVAL

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

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One of the reasons I’ve been staying away from sci-fi pictures is because when what hits the screen are essentially variations of either Aliens or Independence Day, it’s only time when the glitter will fall off the rose and leave me blank. [Note, that I don’t include anything Star Wars or Star Trek as part of the genre, because those, my friends, are space operas and rely on science fiction just as much as melodramas rely on realism to make their plots work.]

So I was a little apprehensive when Arrival was announced in trailers early in the fall. I kept expecting yet another iteration where Amy Adams would somehow be a part of a mission that would transform  her into a potential Final Girl coping with having to save the world. All over again. It was also being played right next to the future release of Life starring Jake Gylenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, and if you see the trailer, you’ll understand my hesitance.

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This is not to say Arrival is terribly original: ever since George Melies’ 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, man has attempted to make contact with alien worlds to find out if the age-old theory that “we are all alone” is true or merely a myth. Heck, there are paintings from the Renaissance depicting what seems to be egg shaped spaceships floating above the skies while a pastoral scene takes place. Also, who can forget the now classic scene in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still where “they” arrived to Earth — right on DC — and despite initial horrors, attempted to teach us the basic concept of universal love through the humanoid presence of Michael Rennie?

Arrival starts from Wise’s film at the root and grows into the structure Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters presented. All over the world in 12 apparently random locations, giant eggs not dissimilar to the ones in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day arrive and hover over the globe, vertical towers that emit no exhaust or pollutants. The initial expectation is that of the menacing alien invasion of War of the Worlds. Looting happens, stocks plummet, and the world jumps into chaos that drip of “end of the world” sensibility.  Adams, who plays linguist Louise Banks (who has opened the film just losing her daughter to cancer), is called upon to attempt to communicate with the aliens manning one of the ships to see what their true intention is. Along with a colleague, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they ascend the ship in a sequence filled with incredible dread because there is no possible way to guess where we (as the audience) may be headed to. Plus, the appearance per se of these creatures — two of them — is of such frightful, but also, majestic nature, mainly because all we glimpse are seven tentacles which they utilize to squirt black into onto the panel separating Adams and Renner from them.

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The black ink is crucial because it forms floating rings. At first, this would signify nothing, but Adams’ keen observation starts to see patterns in the way the ink flows — there is a highly evolved language at display here, complex sentences that convey thought and meaning. Just at the point that Adams is about to make a breakthrough, the aliens issue forth a cryptic message: “Use weapon.” All this time, other governments around the world have been trying to also crack a communication with the aliens — some with varying levels of distrust, as it does happen — so when they also get this message, panic breaks loose, and China issues their own ultimatum to the coalition of nations working together. Either the aliens remove themselves from the Earth, or they risk getting attacked.

This is the point where Denis Villaneuve could have turned this story into a more basic “us versus them” story. Everything points at this direction. But like the story from which it’s based, there is something else at play. Adams, by now the only link between us and the two heptapods (whom she has named Abbot and Costello in an affectionate, but clever scene that instantly bestows the heptapods with humanity), starts to approach a deeper truth in this odd message. It’s here as well when the nature of interpretation and language analysis comes center stage. How many times have wars been started over a mis-translation? The Bible itself is riddled with them,  most notoriously the passage of Sodom and Gomorrah and how they met their ends — which, again, is not too removed from the crux of Arrival’s problem, and when you see it, you will agree. Adams plays her third act as a mangle of nerves, fear, and internalization as she searches for a solution to the situation at hand. This is her movie all the way despite Renner’s and Forrest Whittaker’s presence. It’s Adam’s selfless character who transcends the fears we all have of the unknown, and allows for a deeper sense of understanding that ultimately proves essential for mankind.

SPOTLIGHT ON LGBT CINEMA

HOLDING THE MAN

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

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Based on Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 memoir of the same name, Holding the Man attempts to recreate the events that took place i  an Australian town where Conigrave (Ryan Corr) met his future life partner, John Caleo (Craig Stott) when they were still freshmen. the film actually starts somewhere in the 90s when an HIV positivec Conigrave was living in Lipari, Italy, well away from his homeland, possibly trying to forget it all and live in suspended animation while death arrives while he (admittedly) strikes up some flirtation with a local waiter. We see him frantically racing to a pay phone and making a long distance call to his childhood friend Pepe (Sarah Snook in a small role, although third  billed) where he inquires about his lover. Before she can answer, the call gets cut, and we’re thrust back to the beginning, when both of them met in the late 70s.

It’s remarkable that for a society that is still rigid and conservarive, Australia seemed to display glimpses of progression. While in school and clearly a couple, Conigrave and Caleo never felt the wrath and homophobia that others have in other countries including and especially in the US. Theirs was an easy entry into an almost exclusive union that most, if not all, were aware of, and seemingly accepted. [Quite possibly, sexual liberation had something to do with it, as people were experimenting all over with new and unusual living arrangements.) A little less accepting is Caleo’s father, played by Anthony LaPaglia, who very begrudgingly accepts their union only when it becomes clear they have no intention of being separated through conventions. More accepting, to a degree, are Conigrave’s parents, who resign themselves to their son’s will — which is strong, incidentally, even for such a time.

Holding the Man flips back and forth in time which is a little irritating. We see both Tim and John shack together, attend gay rights meetings, and even agree to having what is now a common practice among couples: an open relationship. While we never see the extent of Caleo’s sexual practices, we do see Tim, and he clearly embraces a new form of freedom that he could have never have envisioned had he lived a more “traditional” life according to what society imposed on him. No one will ever know for sure.  Both men get infected with the AIDs virus, but while John becomes actively sick, Tim does not, at least not initially. Here is where the movie shifts tones and turns into the kind of movie you could find on HBO or Cinemax when touching the “gay topic”. Gay men would meet, fall in love, get sick, and die. End of story.

Perhaps Holding the Man arrives to cinemas 20 years too late. It certainly would have been popular had it been filmed in the mid to late 90s. By placing it in a 2016 context when gay men have PrEP, Truvada, and other forms of protection, when men are more aware of their own bodies than ever, it somehow winds up looking a bit dated. I don’t think this is a problem necessarily — surely stories about AIDs and HIV men can be told without wincing or eliciting a groan from the audience — but I think that society, to a degree, has moved on from illnesses that could kill you, especially when less men are dying from it and more are living healthy lives. Even so, Holding the Man is an honest, moving account of two men who lived a life full of love against all odds, right up until the end. And that should speak  volumes about the power of love which transcends sexual orientation.

 

DON’T CALL ME SON

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Sao Paulo/ SP - Dezembro, 2014 STILL Longa ' Mae So Ha Uma ' , de Anna Muylaert Fotos: Aline Arruda *** OBRIGATORIO O USO DE CREDITO EM FOTOS PUBLICADAS NA WEB ou IMPRESSO ***

Barely seen in the US other than perhaps Film Forum in NYC and maybe Los Angeles theaters, the Brazilian Don’t Call Me Son is an interesting film about sexual identity in the face of incomprehension. Anna Muylaert’s film is probably a bit too short and only scrapes the surface of such a topic, but even at this level, it’s a strong entry. When the movie starts we see Pierre (Naomi Nero in his film debut) is having sex with another guy. The camera pans out to reveal that he’s wearing female underwear. It’s a simple shot but it establishes that Pierre isn’t just comfortable with his sexuality –which is in a grey, non-comforming area that shows signs of being Queercore or potentially Transgender — but that it defines him.

Shortly after we learn that is mother Aracy (Daniela Nefussi) stole not  just Pierre but his sister as well from the hospital from where they were born and raised them as her own. Home life is pretty stable, but when the authorities close in and take Aracy to jail, both Pierre and his sister are left without a place to go and being claimed by their biological parents. The movie focuses only on Pierre’s story, and it quickly proves to be a horror show: Pierre finds himself in a prison of sorts, an affluent house where his biological mother (Daniela Nefussi, again) and his father try to understand what happened, and try to reconnect. Pierre’s mother discovers a woman’s dress in his suitcase and casually throws it away, setting the stage for more crucial discoveries.

The animosity between Pierre and his new situation builds to a boiling point where his mother tries to force him into not leaving the house, followed by a trip to a men’s department store where Pierre stuns his parents — passively-aggressively — by emerging from the fitting room in a tight little dress. The father thinks it’s a joke, but Pierre is dead serious.

Don’t Call Me Son feels somewhat incomplete because it ends everything right when the wound has been opened, and right when we feel like we want to see more about this broken family dynamic, the credits start rolling. A subplot involving Pierre’s biological brother feels somewhat underwritten — a situation pregnant with possibilities, as the boys form the beginning of a bond that we are not privy to past its start. There may even be a slight indication that the brothers have more in common than language and the obvious would express, but that’s up to the viewer to decide. It is something I sensed and accepted.

In short, this is a very good film that didn’t need such a convoluted prologue to establish the real conflict between father and son, more deeply explored in the Cuban-Irish film Viva.

 

THE HANDMAIDEN

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

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It would be impossible for me to review Park Chan-Wook’s masterpiece The Handmaiden without venturing into plot spoilers. so I’m going to leave it at this: if you haven’t yet seen it, go. Go see it, and go without even peeking into IMDB.com or Metacritic. Go blind. This is a lush, detailed to a fault puzzle of female passions and masculine perversions that unfurls itself to the eyes of the viewer . . . and then it deftly reveals the corruption lying just underneath its glittery surface. The Marquis de Sade would applaud if he realized how well his works of sexual fetishes translated translated into the fabric of this story which reveals more stories that titillate and exacerbate the senses. I can promise you, whether you get it the first time around or have to see it twice, this is a masterpiece of riches, superbly told, atmospheric to an art form — in short, this is a movie that is the equivalent of X hitting the spot with a margin of error in the negative numbers. It sizzles, it seduces, it draws you into its complicated web. You walk on eggshells the entire time because you have no idea what may lurk around the corner to throw you off. If there were a better chess game, I haven’t seen it yet.

 

STAYING VERTICAL

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

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When we see him, Leo, a screenwriter in search of inspiration, is wandering the remote fields of France, trying to engage a young man into sex. Somehow that doesn’t yield anything satisfactory, so Leo moves onto the next, a female shepherdess (India Hair) named Marie with whom he strikes up some conversation. They don’t exude any chemistry, but I guess as life would have it, sex happens with some improbable people, and before you know it we are seeing Marie’s vagina blown up to almost gargantuan proportions. Before long, she’s given birth (on camera, mind you), and in a moment of post-partum depression, abandons her rural life for something more urban.

Now on his own, living in Marie’s father’s house, Leo finds himself in a quandary. He’s become oddly attached to the baby Marie left behind, for one. He’s also walked straight into a gay man’s dream scenario. Marie’s father, it seems, has the hots for Leo, and isn’t coy to show it. [Talk about walking into your own gay wet dream!] To top it off, Leo continues to run into (and harass) the kid from the beginning of the movie who continues to rebuff him; we learn that this kid is the boy toy of a decrepit older self-hating gay man who condemns the kid for engaging in imaginary sexual scenarios while blasting Pink Floyd for the countryside to listen to. As if this weren’t enough, there are detours of the surreal kind where Leo, apparently in a moment of flight from his publisher, finds himself in a pod getting some odd massage from a mysterious woman.

Convoluted enough for you? It should be. I had a hard time wondering what was I supposed to be watching, who I was supposed to root for, and I kept glancing at my watch every quarter hour when the story dragged. Nothing of the minimalism and bare-bones suspense that Alain Guiraudie displayed in his 2013 Stranger by the Lake is even vaguely present. That film was an exercise in flirting with the dark side of eroticism; this one . . . i’m not sure where to classify it. Leo, as a father, is completely unfit and he winds up completely broke and humiliated. Marie disappears midway only to resurface later to turn some tables. Marie’s father, it seems, fares better, but all in all, once Guiraudie decides his story should step aside to let surreal images that may or may not be real take center stage, Staying Vertical falls into a heap and just doesn’t quite recover. Some interesting passages it does have, yes, but at nearly 100 minutes, the weak interest just doesn’t summon enough power to make one care who does what and who reaches the finish line.

Staying Vertical will come to the Film Society of Lincoln Center January 20, 2017.

 

KING COBRA

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

 

I’m patiently waiting for the moment James Franco finally decides that the jig is up and it’s time to basically call it a night and come out. Really. I am. This, “my art is gay” thing can only go for so long unless the man has a mission to be a hetero actor unafraid to play sexually active gay men unafraid of male intimacy, or, like many actors, uses performance as a way to work through “stuff”. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really care what side of the team he bats for; I’m more than glad that he’s one of the few actors working today who will openly embrace a gay character and make him not a wilting wallflower, unsexed and safe for the masses in Middle America to consume. His work is intelligent as it is provocative and it takes cojones to put onesself to out there in what would have been career killers and still come out swinging. Joining him, now, is Christian Slater, which is a complete surprise for me. I’d never think to see Slater act in a movie like this — its subject matter is rife with the sordid and tabloid fodder. Both play rivals in the porn industry, directors of cheaply done porn flicks that gave birth to one of porn’s biggest stars, Brent Corrigan.

Brent Corrigan was a cute little twink who was all over the place about ten years ago. You literally could not walk into a gay bar, go online to your favorite dating site, or yes, rent/buy your porn, without bumping into his cute likeness, his lightly muscled body, his pliable sexuality. He was ubiquitous. A discovery, it seems, of a man who lived a double life in suburban America with his wife The film is based on the murder of Cobra Video director Bryan Kocis (here called Stephen, played by Slater). Kocis hired and got sexually involved with Corrigan when Corrigan was barely 15. When Corrigan, realizing that he’s been making the studio money while being grossly underpaid, wants out, he ventures to Viper Boyz, a competitor in the scene led by director Joe Kerekes (Franco) and protegee Harlow Cuadra. Joe and Harlow have been, it seems, been having money problems and are in massive debt; bringing Corrigan into their roster of performers would make up for lost revenue and bring them back on top. However, a clause by Cobra videos has it that Corrigan can’t perform as his own name. So a plan starts to brew. . . .

Personally, I think King Cobra is a pretty solid movie about the false hedonism of gay male performers that comes hand in hand with queer shame and a sense of debasement in the name of orgasm and a quick buck. These are people who are enamored with money, with selling a product (in this case, what we see in your typical gay porn movies as hard-bodied studs ready for action), and for one half at least, a sense of escapism of what would be a false life, a white ideal of the lovely house, lovely wife, white picket fence, manicured lawns, et. al. I don’t think Justin Kelly, its director, is attempting to make a statement other than narrate a story of the rise of a porn star, but as it is, King Cobra is a cut above the rest.

 

EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

In a growing trend of biopics that shun the cradle-to-the-grave trajectory, Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, also included in 2015’s Newfest Film Festival, is less a direct story of the director of Battleship Potemkin as it is an abstraction of his life in Mexico during the early 30s. As it is, the director, played with manic energy by Elmer Puck, displays what is essentially a man-child, open to the world, while almost coy of his own budding sexuality. The foil to open his own orientation comes under the guise of a history professor played by Mexican actor Luis Alberti. Alberti, in complete contrast to the sheer, lily-white innocence of Eisenstein, arrives brimming with sex and desire from the moment we meet him. Greenaway takes his time to let the actors get to know each other, and as Eisenstein’s stay in Mexico lengthens, so does a budding romance that seems to defy the times of its existence. A highly stylized, visual tour de force of the kind one as come to expect of the director of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover — complete with bold lighting, triptychs, elaborate sets that jump at the screen and of course, nudity (lots of it!) — , lovers of gay cinema won’t be disappointed. Certain Russian leaders, however, may not be as welcoming. Are there no gay men in Russia?