GRADUATION

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GRADUATION
Romania
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Runtime: 128 minutes
Language: Romanian

A father will seemingly stop at nothing so that his daughter can graduate with honors and go to Cambridge in Cristian Mungiu’s absorbing follow up to 2013’s Beyond the Hills.

When the movie starts an act of shocking violence fills the screen and becomes a motif of forces outside of the film’s main character’s control. A rock crashes through the first-floor window of Romeo Aldea’s apartment. Romen assesses the damage, knowing it will cost money, money he doesn’t have, so he puts a temporary fix to it. His mind is preoccupied with his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). Eliza has exams the next day and she needs to have a 9 average in order to be accepted to Cambridge. Romeo has dreams for her, and that is to get out of Romania and its crumbling society. Aside from his collapsing marriage, he doesn’t see any reason for Eliza to stay and waste her life when the world could be hers.

So far, so good. What parent wouldn’t want the best for their kids? I know mine did; coming from a small town not dissimilar to the one Romeo lives in my father pressed on that I study, go to the best college, and get out. What Romeo doesn’t anticipate — and neither does Eliza or do we — is that on her way to school, she gets assaulted by a stranger. The stranger doesn’t, thankfully, go all the way, but causes enough damage to twist Eliza’s arm so that now she has to wear a cast. The issue that now arises is that, because other students have used casts to cheat on their tests, this creates a problem for Eliza. So Romeo gets pulled into a corner where the only way out is by going the route of approaching people to “help” her pass her exams — a thing that is practically considered a criminal offense and one that could ruin his reputation and that of the other people implied.

At the same time this is happening Romeo is having problems at home. Like I mentioned, his marriage is over — his wife sulks and does little more than express a languid sense of hurt. Romeo on the other hand is carrying on with a teacher at the school where Eliza goes to. She herself has a young son, but the point is, she’s been seeing Romeo now for some time and would like to define her relationship because she’s getting older, and . , , well, she just wants something solid to hold onto.

Also, more acts of violence directed at Romeo seem to be occurring. However, Cristian Mungiu leaves these acts as ambiguous as possible. My only educated guess is that because he is a well-known doctor, there may be some resentment in those not as well off, but it seems to be framing the situation of the attempted rape on Eliza, and tension that is now befalling the Aldea’s household that is falling apart at the seams. However, because shortly after the rock through the window Eliza gets attacked, I’m inclined to believe that these events, as random as they may be, could somehow indicate something bigger. Perhaps because Romeo is pushing Eliza to do the wrong thing — cheat — that he is getting a larger punishment for this transgression.

For the most part Mungiu remains neutral. Graduation as a whole remains a neutral exercise in what is right and what is wrong. Yes, Romeo has problems, and his problems get bigger as the possibilities of getting caught through surveillance talking to the people helping him out with Eliza’s finals narrow his circle of action, but is he someone who is a bad man, who even deserves this? We don’t know. What we do know is this is a man who is stretched out to the very limit to assure a future for his daughter, and perhaps this might sound far-fetched, but never do we once doubt that what motivates him is not acting out of love for Eliza.

Graduation is still playing in theaters around the country and in IFC in New York.

GLORY

GLORY
Bulgaria
Director: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov
Runtime: 100 minutes
Language: Bulgarian

Imagine that you’re a railroad worker living on the outskirts of society, alone, and one day, while doing your rounds, you find a rather large wad of cash. You’d probably think you’d won the jackpot, right? No more hard work, live a life of leisure, or perhaps keep it, and use it for your own purposes, right? Not Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov). When the movie opens we see Tzanko stutter doing his rounds, repairing screws on train tracks, and then coming onto a bill, then another, then a huge pile of cash. Next scene, he’s surrounded by officers and the like, having returned the money (although he does keep a small amount.

When the Ministry of Transport gets wind of the event they decide to use this chance to make a stance on government corruption. They label Tzanko a national hero and appoint their PR representative, Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) to handle the entire event, Julia comes across as a woman completely and utterly absorbed by her career. She’s abusive to her colleagues, her husband (who stands by her like some kind of modern-day emasculated martyr), and treats her own visit to the fertility doctor with the same self-absorbed attitude while conducting work-related calls on her phone.

Tzanko arrives to the Ministy of Transport for a conference, but a minor accident with food has Julia — a practitioner of image — ordering her male staff to replace their clothes so Tzanko can make his public appearance. A last-minute replacement of Tzanko’s old and unseemly watch with a nicer one, an action consistent with her need to present an image for her benefit, will provide the gas that makes the movie take off. You see, after Tzanko’s conference is over, everyone moves on, no one takes notice of him. The following morning he realizes that he’s still wearing the new watch Julia gave him. The watch, we will learn later, is a family heirloom (Glory is a direct translation of the Bulgarian word Slava, which means heirloom).

Tzanko wants his watch back. It has sentimental value.

His attempts to get in touch with Julia at the Ministry prove fruitless; the man has a crippling stutter that makes pronouncing even simple words a near-impossibility. Julia, who is aware of these calls, dismisses Tzanko — she has other things in her mind and can’t be bothered to look for something so trivial. Events escalate until the movie takes on a darker, nihilistic tone. It seems as though Tzanko is slowly turning into a patsy out of a Kafka story: it seems that no matter where he turns, forces outside of his control seem to be undermining his very moves. Glory makes no attempt to present Julia as anything other than a self-absorbed monster, which is why she, the clear antagonist of the film, lets things go so far until they threaten to spiral out of control and take her down. You almost hope that she gets her comeuppance (don’t worry, she will get it) — that is how awful of a character she is, and that she is trying to have a child at all costs almost makes you wonder what kind of a mother she’d be.

Glory is, while Bulgarian, universal. Anyone who sees this remarkable feature film will recognize the progressive indignation that a forgotten man continues to suffer (when there is no need to), and while it also addresses corruption, it is inherently a story of righting a wrong and what can happen when you treat people as less than human.

A QUIET PASSION

A QUIET PASSION
USA
Director: Terence Davies
Runtime: 126 minutes
Language: English

A little over a year ago Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, a clever little comedy of errors based on the little known novella Lady Susan by Jane Austen, became the surprise hit of the year, playing well into the fall, and ending rather high on critics’ list. It was a picture you had to listen to. Its screenplay had crackling dialogue that kept you on edge, laughing, wondering what could possibly happen next and made what could have been a lesser piece of work sparkle. While there is nothing in Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion that resembles the farce of Love and Friendship, other than perhaps an early scene where the adult Emily, her sister Lavinia, and their friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) gather together to size of the male prospects in a social event, the presentation of Emily Dickinson’s life in Massachusetts, her struggles to find her own place in a world where only men could be independent, her longing to find someone to love, and her witty exchanges with everyone around her made me recall the language used in Love and Friendship.

This is a movie that begs to be listened to more than observed. Davies, who wrote the dialogue, makes every line a quote within itself and by doing so, uses words rather than performances themselves, to describe and define its players. Emily (played by an intense Cynthia Nixon — without a doubt the best performer of her Sex and the City co-stars and one of the best actresses working today) uses her words like a master — she can be soft spoken at times, witty the next, and incredibly cruel when provoked. To see her spar with her father (Keith Caradine), and later, her own brother (Duncan Duff), but then collapse onto the soothing she gets from her sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle, her perfect foil) is that of an actress who knows exactly how to verbalize feelings instead of just speaking in a clipped accent and use gestures.

Also, listen to how words are used when Dickinson recites her own poems, themselves marvels of apparent simplicity. Nixon’s voice seems to be enacting a sort of mental strip-tease for the literary audience. I don’t think there is a movie that uses poetry as voice-over to the razor sharp effect as A Quiet Passion. The last time I saw something like this was in Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s characterization of Dorothy Parker, while more self-contained, was in tone that of a woman trying to convey the inner storm she might be feeling through the simple usage of cleverly chosen words and punctuation. Perhaps we need more pictures like this — with powerful words that once spoken leave an indelible mark and only enhance the cinematic experience.

A Quiet Passion is still playing at the Quad Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in NYC. Check Moviefone for showtimes near you.

THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MAKI

 

THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MAKI
Finland
Director: Juho Kuosmanen
Runtime: 90 minutes
Language: Finnish

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Not many Finnish movies make it to NYC unless it’s under film festivals where they remain, undistributed and unreleased, so when I heard that Finland’s entry to the 89th Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film had arrived to the Angelika I rushed to go see it without even knowing what it was about. Reader, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is a gorgeously made black and white film that tells the story of retired boxer Olli Maki and the days leading up to his fated match with Davey Chase in 1962.

When the movie starts, Olli Maki (Jarkko Lahti) is an amateur boxer who during a wedding party meets and falls for Raija (the lovely Oona Airola). Soon after, Olli’s manager Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff) has Olli and Raija travel to Helsinki to prepare him for bigger and better things — in this case, his first big match, against none other than the American Davey Chase. From the get-go, Olli manifests a certain doubt about his own mettle, a thing that doesn’t go over too well with Ask who wants Olli to act as aggressive as possible and secure the Finnish win.

Problems start appearing soon after — Olli needs to lose a certain amount of weight to make his class and the weight isn’t coming off. Raija soon begins to feel out of place in Helsinki, and a telling trip to the salon, where the stylist gives her an updated do, speaks pages about isolation in a strange place. Compounded with Ask’s own marital problems, and the hiring of a documentary crew to film Olli’s every move as he prepares for his match, and we have a recipe for a man who may have a meltdown in the middle of all this pressure.

However, the movie, as restrained and documentary-like as it is, never caves into the more American expectation of this kind of drama. Instead it allows itself to move naturally, with events taking place in a realistic form until the day of the match arrives. This is a thoughtful movie about facing one’s own doubts and fears, and the true courage it takes to stand up in quiet defiance against the potential pitfalls of glory, and walk away gracefully.

ALL THESE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS

ALL THOSE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS
Poland
Director: Michal Marczak
Runtime: 100 minutes
Language: Polish

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The documentary has slowly morphed into a narrative that could be a fluid as water, or as animated as a cartoon, with snippets of the real mixing seamlessly with the acted/performed. All These Sleepless NIghts, the debut film by Michal Marczak, falls under that large umbrella, something that you could call “experimental film” or “documentary – narrative fusion” in which we observe the story transpiring in fragmented pieces of time, played by actors playing versions of themselves, with the vaguest of definable plots unifying the entire product as whole. Sometimes it yields harrowing drama, and sometimes it can misfire. In this case, I’m going to remain somewhat in the middle of the two extremes because All These Sleepless Nights tackles topics of extreme hedonism, bromance gone wrong, and an aimlessness in life that I can’t quite relate to but find fascinating anyway.

So, onto the story per se: we come in, it seems, into the story in medias res, sort of at the end, with Krzysztof watching a display of fireworks from what seems to be a rather comfy Warsaw apartment. Soon later we get a sense of what happened for him to end up here; he was extremely close at point to his buddy Michal, so close that they may have almost hooked up together and lived in their own world of late-night debauchery, acts of defiance, and parties that seem to last forever. They walk around the city from event to event, discussing the type of things 20-somethings would. Somewhere along the way, Krzysztof hooks up with Eva, a waifish blonde who used to date Michal. The faintest of dents appear out of nowhere, possibly because of a sense of jealousy, perhaps? And off they go, in different tangents, Krzysztof into his own world of late-night chill out dancing and drugs; MIchal drops out of sight for a bit. When Krzyssztof breaks up with Eva he seeks Michal out but Michal either is still not too willing to take him back, or has moved on and is starting to get his act together. [After all, nights of endless partying can’t go on — life has to have a meaning, and while they both continually do discuss the meaning of it all through the early portions of the movie it’s clear they’re just dicking it around, behaving like fratboys out on the night, maybe getting into a little mayhem here or there.

My only guess is the director, Marczak,has tried to make a social commentary about the state of the youth today — in particular millennials — who seem to have no purpose but the here and now.  On one end there looks to be a fascination with that life; on the other, it’s less mere observance and more passive critique. Acquaintances form from thin air and vanish in seconds. It’s as if though life were a constant merry go round where everyone is trying to impress — but not to climb socially inasmuch to get the next high. It’s an interesting movie to see if you’re into chill out / late night lounge music, but the macho posturing that starts out somewhat insolent (and potentially dangerous; in one sequence the boys head into the metro tunnel to walk in between moving trains). There is a unsubtle nod to French New Wave. As a matter of fact this could have made a sharp little movie with its own social commentary. It premiered at New Directors – New Films and if you have an interest, please go catch it.

TRUMAN

TRUMAN
Argentina / Spain
Director: Cesc Gay
Runtime: 108 minutes
Language: Spanish

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Whoever said dying is easy; comedy is hard never met Julian (Ricardo Darin), a man who it seems, has had fame, success, and a pretty good life through being in the Spanish theater. What he doesn’t have, however, is a lot of time left: Julian has lung cancer, and after a brief remission in which he and doctors alike deemed it gone, it’s made an aggressive return and has spread throughout the rest of his body. His good friend Tomas (Javier Camara), at the summoning of his (and Julian’s) friend Paula (Dolores Fonzi), has arrived to be with him in his time of need, and also to convince Julian to resume treatment and hopefully extend his life a bit more. Julian doesn’t want Tomas’ pity or help — he’s in financial straits due to his medical bills — he just wants Tomas to be with him, as a friend, for the compressed time they have together.

That, and to find a place for his dog Truman, who makes the title of the movie.

Tomas, temperamentally it seems a total opposite to Julian with his Type-A,  no-nonsense attitude, decides to entertain Julian in his last wish and goes along for the ride (or, let’s rephrase that — he’s mainly bamboozled into doing so; Julian as an actor can be quite manipulative). Off they go into finding a suitable home for Truman, but other trips take place as well, such as one impromptu visit to Julian’s son Nico (Oriol Pla) in Ansterdam without even knowing if Nico might even be available. Other situations transpire and slowly begin to elevate what could have been a dark comedy about dying into one that reveals its compassionate nature underneath.

The good thing about Truman is that it never once tries to wrench tears from you; the emotional impact arrives on its own two feet, and before you know it, you’ll be silently weeping to the way the movie reaches its own conclusion. Darin couldn’t have been a better choice for this role; playing an actor past his prime, with his now rugged good looks and silver hair, he has that twinkle in his eye that suggests he’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve yet and would be able to pull them off if he weren’t ill. [Still, he does manage to pull the wool on his friends several times before things get a little serious.] Javier Camara plays his character like a foil to Julian — the movie makes it clear that these are very close friends who have known each other a long time. You can sense that despite the constant pushing of buttons there is a bond there, even when Tomas continues to express either flat-out embarrassment at Julian’s behavior in public places or that he is only here for four days, no more. The scene that defines just how much Tomas cares for Julian this is one that doesn’t involve Darin’s presence at all, but one where Tomas and Paula, after a rather tense night of recriminations at Julian’s, both wind up in each other’s arms in a sex scene that collapses due to how tragic it is and how much of an emotional toil theirs has been.

Never sentimental, Truman is a bromance that seeks to present, without much embellishment, the emotional facets of two men who are about to say good bye to each other and can’t. It’s an ultimately devastating picture about living in the present, but mostly, about being present in the present, but also, dying with dignity.

THREE FROM RENDEZVOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA

Francois Ozon’s “Frantz”, still playing in US cinemas, one of the highlights of the 22nd Rendezvous with French Cinema.

I’ve been going to Rendezvous with French Cinema now for about 5 ears and it’s somewhat of a disappointment for me to announce that their 22nd year has been nothing short of dismal in respect to French films getting their US Premiere in NYC via Unifrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Consider that last year, their lineup was one of the strongest, with pictures reflecting a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and solid storytelling — the Palm D’Or Dheepan and Cesar nominated Fatima come to mind — this year, standout entries were few and far between. Of their over 20 films, I can think of only Frantz, by Francois Ozon, and Raw, by Julia Ducournau, as must-sees. Slack Bay would be a distant third, and only because of its strident humor and entries into farce. I haven’t as of this writing seen the biopics Django and The Odyssey or the transgressive  Nocturama (the latter was sold out almost immediately and I’m a FSLC member; the former two . . . I mean, how many more biopics can a person take without wanting to slash one’s eyeballs a la Chien Andalou? Perhaps once they come to the US — and they will, I’m sure of it — I’ll see them. And neither Marion Cotillard nor Natalie Portman were enough to attract me to see them in From the Land of the Moon and Planetarium, at least not at the festival. Perhaps when they make it here, if they do.

 

DAYDREAMS

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

For a year, artists and intellectuals of all types converge in Villa Medici, a place (and I mean this not as a term but as a plane of action) in Rome where they develop their works through the power of isolation and their own creativity. This might not sound like movie material for you, but bear with me: it is. Among this group are two story lines that transpire in today’s time. One involves Camille (Clothilde Hesme), a writer who feels increasingly suffocated by the success of her also writer husband (Tcheky Karyo) who not only is much older than her, but also has procured an old fashioned typewriter to bang away his thoughts. On the other end there is Axele, a photographer trying to find some link to her surroundings through her own photography.

A third, and more subtle, story, emerges once the artists are left to their own. It’s one that seems to come from another time, whilst occupying Villa Medici’s mane rooms and halls. It would seem that perhaps Villa Medici may be haunted — and to a degree it is, by its own art, which lives on and occasionally and sometimes in a spooky way seems to take a life of its own, to recreate scenes for us, the witness, to bear testimony, as if we were a part of something greater, cosmic. There is a casually surreal tone to these proceedings — it often seems that they’ve been happening forever, and I recalled briefly the concept that Stephen King touched in The Shining — the party never ended. They — the energy of the departed, had always remained, semi-sentient, hoping for some vague acknowledgement from the physical world.

This development is by far the more curious of the two women’s stories which are on a collision course; however, first-time director Caroline Deruas-Garrel doesn’t seem to find the glue to make these and the paranormal stick together. Sometimes it does seem as though one were watching two separate movies at once, so much that it seems a tad schizophrenic tonally and visually. For substance, Daydreams is as ethereal as they come even in its more organic confrontations. Stylistically, the film feels as pretty as a painting, two-dimensional, and stiff.

 

RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Office politics take center stage in Pascal Bonitzer’s convoluted soap opera of a movie, Right Here, Right Now, in which Nora (Agnes Bonitzer), a young and ambitious corporate bee on the rise attempts to make her mark despite the conflicts of interests that exists between her bosses — one good, one bad. Adding to the mix are subplots involving Nora’s sister Maya, a bartender / singer who gets involved with Nora’s colleague Xavier (Vincent Lacoste), and her boss’ wife, Solveig (Isabelle Huppert, the sole reason to watch this movie), a frosty blonde who seems to know more than what she conveys. Right Here, Right Now suffers from too much plot while leaving its characters undeveloped as people. No one really emerges as a true, flesh-and-blood person, and even Huppert seems to walk through her scenes with an air of icy detachment . . . until a development late in the movie has her almost exploding in emotion. Simply put, it’s the equivalent of walking into an all-white house with minimal decor: you feel as though you must take your shoes off, and walk on eggshells because of how perfect everything looks. It might have a chance to play in the US due only and exclusively to Huppert, but then again, the film is just not the kind that will have any resonance this side of the ocean.

 

 

HEAL THE LIVING

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

I was very surprised when Heal the Living made its bow in US cinemas (becoming the first of two new films to launch the newly renovated Quad Cinema, the other being the NYFF Official Selection A Quiet Passion by Terence Davies). Katel Quillevere’s quietly lyrical and delicate feature film deals with several intersecting stories that focus on a  fatal car accident and its eventual outcome.

Heal the Living begins underwater, as three surfers ride the waves as though they lived in them. Much of this sequence transpires in and out of water, but mainly underwater, and in complete silence. Quillevere then transitions to them returning back home, and the manner that she films this scene — of the car moving along the road — is of transforming it into the ocean itself, with larger and larger waves looming towards them, until something horrific happens. One of the teens, Simon, survives, but he’s on life support and with next to zero chances of resurfacing.

He leaves behind grieving parents (played by Emmanuelle Seigner, last seen in Francois Ozon’s In the House, and Kool Shen) who are given the task of deciding what organs they;d like for Simon to donate once the inevitable happens. The story then shifts focus to a woman, Claire (Anne Dorval, last seen in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy and incredibly touching here). Claire is a former musician who has a heart condition that needs to be treated. When we meet her, she’s with her two sons who could almost be twins but have their own distinct personalities (one of them is played by Finnegan Oldfield). The scene is almost unabashedly tender as they cuddle in her bed while watching a movie but seem to be protecting her from any tiny disturbance from the outside.

As Claire awaits for news that she will get a transplant we see glimpses of her life — her romantic relation to another woman (Alice de Lencquesang), her going to see a concert which requires she be carried up the stairs, since she is disabled by her heart. Intermixed in between is a touching flashback sequence where we see Simon before his fatal accident romancing a young girl, and then, in a dream sequence, coming back to say good bye to her. Quillevere’s film is almost too lyrical for its own good; it’s so touching to see these people relate to one another with a sense of fragility, as if life itself were an ephemeral thing. When a film that is only 100 minutes long can make it feel as though one would like another hour to see more of these people, then it’s time well spent. Heal the Living is one of the best surprises from this years Rendezvous with French Cinema with a quiet accumulation of emotion that swells until the final, symbolic shot.

NEW ON DVD: THE ARDENNES (D’ARDENNEN)

THE ARDENNES

Belgium
Director: Robin Pront
Runtime: 96 minutes
Language: Dutch / French

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A striking opening sequence informs you all you need to know about the events that will transpire in Robin Pront’s debut feature film The Ardennes. A man crashes into a pool, making his escape with a young woman from the scene of a crime. When she asks about the man’s brother, he screams at her to drive off — the brother in question has fallen to the police. Moments later, we see their getaway vehicle in flames, the woman crying in horror. It’s a simple setup but one that sets a chilling tone to a movie that is brutal and cold as the brother left behind.

Four year pass after this short prologue. Dave and Sylvie (Jeroen Perceval and Veerle Baetens, formerly seen in 2013’s The Broken Circle Breakdown) have gone cold turkey from the drug scene and are trying to make an honest living. Unknown to Kenny (Kevin Janssens), Dave’s brother, who is introduced gazing a picture of Sylvie in his jail cell (shared with Jan Bivjoet as an avid horticulturist with a decidedly murderous streak, my God is this guy creepy in every movie he appears in), both Dave and Sylvie are a couple. Once Kenny gets out of jail you would think he’d reform and try to live a normal existence, but once you’ve known the taste of crime and easy money, old habits die hard.

From then on, The Ardennes is a slow-burn crime drama that threatens to explode at any moment. Kenny clearly is the loose cannon of this threesome, having learned nothing during his stay in prison. Dave’s attempts at watching over him go nowhere, and as Kenny spirals down into a world of nefarious people and also attempts to insinuate himself into Sylvie’s life, the movie threatens to explode at any moment with unspeakable violence. However, Robin Pront saves all that bloody mess for the gruesome finale that has almost Jacobean levels splattered all over it. You could say that there is a message embedded in the fabric of The Ardennes — don’t ever, ever, date your psychopathic brother’s ex-girl — but it’s safe to say this is a pretty good thriller that with its forbidding, moody look, hardness of its characters who never amounted to much, and spiraling into nihilism, recalls the best of noir with its seedy, fated characters and a pervasive sense of the walls closing in no matter where you go.

THE LOVE WITCH

THE LOVE WITCH
USA
Director: Anna Biller
Runtime: 120 minutes
Language: English

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Every so often I’ll come upon a movie that is so left of weird it deserves to be examined under a microscope the size of the Hubble. The Love Witch, a movie that barely got its release at the very end of 2016 (not in Manhattan proper, but outside), somehow managed to wow the one or two critics that saw it, and by the time early 2017 rolled around, it seems that more and more critics were extolling on its glossy satire, its tale of feminism through the eyes of a Wicca witch, and acting so wooden it would be an insult to trees to call it that.

Of course, I got curious, and curiosity got the better of me, but I decided to wait until April when the physical DVD became available. Something about this oddity made me want to experience it, to see if in fact it lived up to expectations. So, when the DVD finally arrived at my house, I sat there in a mix of barely controlled anxiousness and a sense of doom all rolled in one. After all, this could go so far south as to fall off the globe, so I wanted to tread waters lightly. So. In went the DVD, and on came the movie, its main character’s lips a massive rose, her eyes as blank as an empty house that has never, ever had a tenant, and off we went to the races.

Let me pare this one down shortly because I don’t want to make a theses in an age when no one reads more than they can and anything north of a couple of paragraphs becomes a tl;dr thing. What is The Love Witch about? It’s about Elaine (Samantha Robinson, whom I’m not sure is a bad actress because I’ve no idea who she is), essentially subbing in for Kim Kardashian at her most expressive, trying to find that elusive young prince in a sea full of Californian frogs. Not a bad concept, but the catch is, she’s a practicing witch, and all the men who love her, die. So, as you can see, she’s in quite the predicament.

How do you retain your man when his emotions go bonkers and essentially kill him?

That’s the question the movie doesn’t bother to ask, much less answer. Anna Biller, who basically created a one-woman show here, pulls out all the stops in re-creating the mood and feel of the late 60s / early 70s genre films — the kind you would see playing super-late at night on Channel 11. And, because this is a spoof of that kind of film, it comes with its choice of bad editing — not in the choppy sense; The Love Witch is stilted but has no “old footage look”. Biller lets several scenes — such as when Elaine goes to a bar to meet up with Wiccan friends who essentially, talk to the camera for an uninterrupted 20-minute stretch about the story and purpose of Wicca. Much later, there is another extended sequence where Elaine meets the man she finally falls for (Gian Keys) — a man who was formerly investigating her for the untimely deaths of her former lovers — stumble upon a scene that seems straight out of a Medieval play. That scene also does nothing to advance the plot, and goes on interminably.

It’s hard for me to call this a bad movie because it’s clear it’s a spoof of bad B and Z-grade films. That it’s such a faithful rendering of that type of film — artless, plastic, cheap, with no scares to be found — that on that level, it should be noted. However, a spoof should at least have a slight sense of self-awareness to keep us in the know that this is not the real thing done by an inept director but a pastiche of it. It’s supposed to be a wicked send-up of feminism; I didn’t sense it, unless you call Elaine’s ultimate act one of the darker Lilith conquering Adam. [Wow — I got Biblical and all that!] It just runs 30 minutes too long, and it’s so stilted you’re often left wondering if a little editing and change of pace might not have helped.  When you wind up sitting with an expression as blank as Samantha Robinson’s, that feeling sums up the entire experience of watching The Love Witch.

AFTER THE STORM

AFTER THE STORM
Japan
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Runtime: 117 minutes
Language: Japanese

4 Stars (4 / 5)

 

Failed fatherhood, careers, dreams . . . had this been an American movie it would have reduced the father to a punchline and thrown all else out the window. The father would have been played by a bumbling Robin Williams or Steve Martin, trying hopelessly to save his link to his family and potentially making amends with his own past and facing an optimistic future. Fortunately, Kore-eda has other sensibilities and plans, and judging from the way he delicately handled similarly difficult topics involving fractured families in both Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister, After the Storm might very well be his best so far.

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) once published a novel that had great success — so much that to this day his mother Yashiko, lovingly played by veteran actress Kirin Kiki who single handedly walks away with the movie with her dry humor and insight, is more than happy to yammer away at how good a writer her son is. The problem is, since that novel, nothing else has happened. Ryota seems to have entered a funk of sorts, spilling his money away in gambling, which in turn has allowed himself to fall behind in his wife’s alimony. This in turn has led Ryota to moonlight as a private investigator for a surveillance company where he hopes to make the money he needs to give his ex-wife (and continue to be in his son’s life).

Meanwhile, an impending typhoon looms against the country. You would think that there is some physical importance to its presence but its part in the story is more metaphysical. Once the typhoon strikes, Ryota, his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki), and his son Shingo all converge in Yashiko’s apartment to spend the night there. The inability to leave the apartment — which takes up almost the entire second half of the movie — makes for some interesting family interaction, and while there are some unsettling revelations to be made, Kore-eda’s intention is more focused on how to weather this broken family’s current situation, force Ryota into accepting what is, and thus, being more present for his family. After the Storm is as delicate as the works of Ozu, albeit a slight more updated in sensibilities: it’s got an enormous sense of humor about itself, has completely realized characters who live and breathe, and presents its situations in a naturalistic style. But more importantly is the topic of becoming someone better: being in the present, and that, Kore-eda’s picture has in spades. Truly affecting.