Category Archives: Foreign Films

THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET is caught between tWO SCHIZOPHRENIC STORYLINES THAT NEVER MEET.

Valerie Pachner, caught between her personal and professional life in Marie Kreutzer’s psychodrama The Ground Beneath my Feet. [image from The Hollywood Reporter]

THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET. Country, Austria. Director, Marie Kreutzer. Screenwriter, Marie Kreutzer. Language, German, English. Cast: Valerie Pachner, Pia Hierzegger, Mavie Horbiger, Michelle Barthel, Marc Benjamin. Runtime, 108 minute. Venue: IFC Cinema. Mostly Indies: D

Here we have a movie that boasts a trailer that makes it look and feel like we are going to walk into a thriller filled with dread and portent. Marie Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath my Feet announces itself as a story about a woman haunted by the almost omniscient presence of her sister who may be closer than she would like it, and points at this woman potentially losing her mind as a result. So imagine my surprise when expectations turned to disappointment when the movie failed to deliver on all accounts, settling on a tepid psychodrama so cold, so devoid of life, it may as well been stillborn.

[Image from Cinema Austriaco]

This is what pains me when I see feature films like this. I respect the intent and the artistry behind the final product because it’s clear the director has something to say. I also respect a story that seems to point at something, only to unfold into something completely unexpected. The problem I have here is simple: movies that become festival darlings and then go on to get released all over the world, and film critics who throw caution to the wind and hail praise and accolades and announce a “strong new voice” when, frankly, and maybe I’m missing something, there isn’t.

The Ground Beneath My Feet is a massive disappointment at all levels. It tells the story of Lola Wegenstein (Valerie Pachner), a rising young business consultant who is so committed to her job, so stoic about her emotions, and so minimalist in her personal space she makes Diana Christensen from Network seem like an Earth mother you would gladly confide your darkest secrets to. Often framed maniacally jogging, often before dawn, or riding stationary bikes, pushing her body to the extreme, Lola is an example of the workaholic at the most extreme. Barely ever in her own apartment, she is often seen at work in hotels, her own office, and even airports, constantly discussing business with robotic zeal. The fact that we find out that she’s romantically involved with the company’s owner — her boss Elise (Mavie Horbiger) brings next to no warmth even when the couple exchange gestures of affection. Dressed in perpetual black and both looking like ice princesses, this is not a relationship borne out of love but mutual, financial interest.

The point of interest in the story occurs when Lola’s sister Conny (Pia Hirzegger) attempts suicide (off camera), and has to be committed to a mental hospital. Lola, who serves as her caregiver, continually expresses almost no affection towards her sister, and keeps this piece of information solely to herself. When Conny starts calling Lola at all times, complaining of staff mistreatment, Lola does not make this own to Elise who demands that personal affairs not intrude into the workforce.

[image from Another Gaze]

So far, so good. This I could completely understand and buy into. However, for some unexplained reason, Marie Kreutzer veers the story into some strange territory. For almost the entire first half we are slowly and inexorably drawn into a feeling of uncertainty, where nothing seems to be what it is. Lola gets informed that her sister cannot be calling anyone as she doesn’t even have access to any phones. However, the calls continue, and in one scene, Conny appears to have followed Lola all the way to Rostock. In another sequence, an elevator malfunctions (in a more restrained fashion than the insane elevator sequence from Neil Jordan’s Greta). She spies Elise doing research on schizophrenia on her laptop upon learning her family secret (and getting bumped off a project). Lola has a confrontation with a homeless woman who accosts her at the airport and raises her own paranoia. At another point, Lola gets informed that she is supposed to be at a meeting, and had completely forgotten about what day it was.

What is happening here? Is Lola living a parallel life? Could this woman, who keeps everything bottled and under control, be on the verge of losing it? Could madness, then, be inherited? Will her sister’s illness, now that it’s been discovered, be the cause of her failure as a power exec?

Marie Kreutzer answers none of these questions since this thread gets dropped midway and the movie then turns into a more straightforward drama of a woman attempting to micromanage every aspect of her life and succeed at all costs while her sister collapses, mostly off-screen. In return from the initial suspense we get a half-baked story of sexual politics at work in which one colleague comes onto Lola at dinner (which could be in her head), and another exposes himself to “show her who’s in charge). Meetings with Conny become more typical of estranged sisters, and seem a bit repetitive and bring none of the pregnant tension from the movie’s promising start. It’s as if the movie had forgotten where to go, and decided to turn around and seek for the blandest resolution.

Most egregiously, is Lola’s own character development. For the most part she is supposed to be cold, restrained, but not inhuman. Her fears seem real, her need to succeed feel like filling the void left by her familial failure. So, when Lola encounters the same homeless woman and callously throws her a bill, what are we supposed to feel then for her? That she’s somehow better than the poor woman asking for money? It comes at odds when at a key moment, Lola faces her worst fear this is a well-crafted character study, and its inability to define itself as a psychological thriller or a psychodrama only accentuate its flaws. Because of this, The Ground Beneath my Feet comes as a colossal misfire at all angles.

LUZ: Film Review

LUZ. Country, Germany. Director: Tilman Singer. Screenwriter: Tilman Singer. Cast: Luana Velis, Jan Bluthardt, Julia Riedler, Nadja Stubiger, Johannes Benecke, Lili Lorenz. Language: German, Spanish. Runtime: 70 minutes. Venue: IFC Center, NYC, NY. Rating: B

The ironically titled Luz opens with a wide shot of a police precinct. A woman practically drags herself in, serves herself a soda, and is about to leave when she blurts out an incomprehensible question to the clerk in the lobby. When he doesn’t reply, she repeats the question in an ear-splitting shriek. And that sets the tone for Tilman Singer’s college project-turned movie Luz, which hit its (very) limited release last week in NYC, LA, and other cities around the country for its one to two week engagement.

The woman in question is Luz, a cab driver, but we’ll get back to her in a bit. The movie cuts to a scene in a bar where a blond woman named Nora (Julia Riedler) is eyeballing a man (Jan Bluthardt) nursing a drink. She aggressively hits on him, but her intentions are a bit murky at best. She proceeds to tell the man, who we learn is Dr. Rossini, a story of a woman she knew back in Chile named Luz. Both she and Luz performed some Satanic ritual to summon up a demon, and now it wants Luz. Dr. Rossini seems completely hypnotized by Nora’s gaze (hypnosis will figure prominently from here on), and allows her to lead him to the bathroom, where some weird exchange takes place. [It sure seems like she’s masturbating him, but we don’t get to see that — only his shaking body after she kisses him and sends in a bright light into his horrified, gaping mouth.

Weird enough? Don’t worry; it gets better. Back at the precinct, Dr. Rossini is about to commence a regression therapy to extract a confession from Luz. Luz, who has been up to now incoherently babbling some reverse prayer in Spanish, begins to recount how it is that she got to this place. And then. Singer lets whatever was hinted in the background take center stage, and we’re in the middle of a hazy nightmare shot in thick shades of grey fog that continue to suggest something evil is in the midst, more felt than seen, seconds from announcing itself.

Singer never lets Luz go off the rails like most other possession horror movies do because of a need to raise the body count and produce shock after shock for shock purposes alone. There is a thick pulse running through the film, and it reaches an early peak before plateauing somewhere in the middle, then building again until the movie reaches its nightmarish conclusion. I don’t think that it could have been scarier than it was, though. This is exactly the type of fucked up shit our minds and subconscious throws at us while we dive deep into sleep, and when we wake up, we can’t quite place the pieces together. In that sense, Luz “makes sense” and illuminates a dark event reaching its natural conclusion. It will produce shivers and a sense of unreality. And frankly, this is all I need for a movie like Luz to take effect. It’s sparse set, minimal players, and brief running time give it the right amount of dread needed to make Singer’s film be a memorable entry into both the cinematic world and the horror genre.

Picking at the scab to reveal festering wounds in “I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians.”

I DO NOT CARE IF WE GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS BARBARIANS. Country: Romania. Director: Radu Jude. Screenwriter: Radu Jude. Cast: Ioana Jacob, Alex Bogdan, Alexandru Dabija. Language: Romanian, English. Runtime: 140 minutes. Venue: IFC Center, NYC, NY. Rating: B–

I’ve come to realize that every country not only has its skeletons well hidden (or perhaps preserved in formaldehyde) in certain parts of the psychic closet, forgotten… but not really, right? The powers that be, those who control information, what gets released, what is suitable, would rather no one ever touch the topic of the more unsavory aspects of what transpired in past generations (especially if anyone from that time, particularly the guilty, could face judgement). and the scars that still haven’t healed properly, that haven’t even scabbed proper. Radu Jude, two years or so after his period piece Aferim!, returns to the theaters with I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History a Barbarians, an examination of Romanian history, and his topic of choice, heralded under the guise of Mariana (Ioana Jacob), who stands in for himself, is the reenactment of a historic event in 1941 in Odessa, Romania, where the Romanian Army, headed by Marshall Ion Antonescu, allied to Nazi Germany, carried out the ethnic cleansing of Jews, managing to kill by hanging, execution, or plain fire, a total of 25,000 – 34,000 Jews between October 22 – 24, 1941, and ultimately, over 100,000 civilians — among them Roma, Jews, and other ethnic groups — in total.

Mariana (Iona Jacob, in a committed, brazen performance) isn’t having it. She may have, it seems, have access to Jude’s short documentary The Dead Nation. (I digress; some of the pictures and one shocking short clip from the era seem to nod at its inclusion.) Mariana, from the word go in which she breaks the fourth wall, talks to the camera, and introduces herself as Mariana (not the poet, a thing she repeats several times) announces to the invisible camera operator she is preparing a reenactment of the events of the Odessa Massacre of 1941. So far, all looks good. She talks to potential cast members auditioning for parts, asks them how they would react to, let’s say, being burned in fire, or pleading for their lives. She reads passages of obscure books to a man she’s dating on Skype, and continually banters away at Romanian complicity during the War. A scene from the movie The Mirror makes its way into the movie as Mariana and others criticize Antonescu. Oh, and it seems that she might have missed her period, but tells her pilot boyfriend not to worry.

It’s when rehearsals commence that things begin to get contentious. A crew mate refuses to do a scene the way Mariana wants it, and this one leads to other crew mates not wanting to participate alongside Romas. Most contentious of all is the appearance of Movila, the government official (played by Alexandru Dabija) who has concerns with Mariana’s vision and would rather she place focus — and more blame — onto the Russians and Germans. Mariana, however, remains staunchly committed to filming her piece her way, and you can see tensions rising among her and her crew as many refuse to even participate in her show, in one case leading to a fistfight. Even now, Jude points out with his deadpan calm, there is a complacency afoot in Romania, who would rather negate than confront, deny than acknowledge, wash their hands instead of holding itself accountable for such a tragic event. Movila’s continues to throw the famous “Never again!” slogan from the Jewish Defense League onto the audience, not as a cry of progress, but with a heavy dose of cynicism. It made me think of the way Hannibal Lecter addressed the screaming of the lambs to Clarice after she had prevented another murder. Would Mariana’s reenactment do the same?

Mariana’s idealism and sheer force of feminist rage would tell you that yes, it would, and by the scorching finale, which is its own feat of direction and is presented in crisp images that contrast the home movies feel of the previous scenes, she’s practically got you by the balls. In her and Movila’s first and longest scene together, Mariana and Movila lock horns in an intellectual battle, throwing out names like Hannah Arendt, Wittgenstein, Hitler, and Spielberg, and then including their current iterations under the terrors of ISIS, or the destruction of Syria, which serve as another picture that even now it’s still happening because sadly, that is the nature of humanity.

There is so much history both analyzed, acted, or presented in film that it felt a bit like information overload. There were times when I felt I was being waterboarded into submission by the sheer force of history and current events. It doesn’t help that Jude extends his narrative into 140 minutes, which for a movie like this, seems a bit excessive. However, like Mariana, every director has a precise vision. Between arguments, he places a camera in static mode to point at the approximate location where Jews were hanged… and then does so, after the reenactment, now with mannequins posing as murdered Jews. It’s one of many striking visuals, which will disturb the audience with their sheer savagery. And all the time, the echo of “Never Again” continues to resonate after the credits have appeared. They’ve just now been punctuated by a question mark.

ROJO pictures an Argentina with its eyes wide shut against the climate of political corruption during the 70s.

Dario Grandinetti in Benjamin Naishtat’s Rojo.

ROJO. Countries, Argentina/Brazil/France/Belgium/Germany/Netherlands, Switzerland. Director: Benjamin Naishtat. Cast: Dario Grandinetti, Alfredo Castro, Diego Cremoesi, Rafael Federman, Laura Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio. Screenweiters: Benjamin Naishtat. Language: Spanish, English. Runtime 108 minutes. Venue: Quad Cinema. Grading: B

From the opening shot, Benjamin Naishtat’s Rojo establishes a world where the normal order of thing has been replaced with something darker and deadly, unseen, but heard of through the grapevine in coded conversations. We see a house,and our eyes inform us, this is just another Spanish-styled house sitting placidly, its doors and windows shut, nothing out of the ordinary. Moments later, someone comes out with items that we understand were up to that moment inside the house. More people come out, each one carrying objects. A man (Diego Cremonesi) appears, this time facing the house, his back to us, as if in calm observation. Meanwhile, several more exit the front door, each one carrying an artifact. A pregnant moment later, the man who’d been silently observing become a participant and goes inside.

Diego Cremonesi interrupts Grandinetti’s world in Rojo.

We then cut to a scene in a restaurant. Sitting quietly, reading the news, Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) who we come to learn is a respected lawyer in this unnamed city. Conversation weaves in and out, indistinct and hushed. With almost no warning but without announcing himself the man who’d been observing the looting of the house at the opening scene is at the restaurant, again observing, but this time with rising indignation. A scene follows: the man would like to be seated at a table, and Claudio, who is clearly not having any dinner because his wife (Andrea Frigerio) has not arrived, is occupying one that the man would like. A confrontation develops between the two, escalating from the mildly annoyed to flat out contentious. Claudio relinquishes the table, gives it to the man… but not before unleashing a tirade of well-modulated insults as a final stab at the man who broke into his bubble of privilege and dethroned him. Violence suddenly explodes, the man is ejected from the restaurant, and Claudio once again returns to the table that was his, where he sits back to smugly wait for his wife who finally arrives, completely unaware of what just happened.

However, the night isn’t over — it’s just begun. On their way home Claudio and his wife are approached by the same man who now shows a gun. What happens next is shocking enough, but it’s Claudio’s reaction that sets the tone for the movie. You see, this is the Argentina of the 1970s, which was then under control of a dictatorship and was on the brink of a coup d’etat. There is a palpable sense of paranoia running through the entire narrative, and while we won’t see the man who opens the movie after his fateful encounter with Claudio, he will actually pretty much dominate the events to unfold much like the dead who do not rest in peace.

All of Naishtat’s movie evolves in ellipticals. It’s really the only way I could express it, because when you live under such repression and even daylight sequences are marred with the fear of being watched and heard, every word, every action carries the huge burden of code, side glances, and innuendoes. Claudio, safely detached for now from his encounter that starts the movie proper, learns that a neighbor has not been seen for a while. Perhaps he is on vacation, a woman says. A colleague approaches him to pitch the purchase of a house — the same house seen at the prologue of the movie — and that purchase comes with a wall of shady undertones. Does Claudio relent? Not really. What importance could that house have? We never know. Like a commercial from the period, where a well-dressed man eating some chocolates blithely shoots another, off-screen, who wanted a piece, and returns to his thoughts without as much as batting an eye, we are in a place where the hand does not connect to the heart; where actions do not think of consequences.

Rojo is a reflective, albeit disturbing look into Argentina’s past that attempts not to pass judgement but to simply observe how people, both from the old and new regime, lived and reacted through that dark period of oppression. When another boy goes missing — missing being the mode of operation in which those who were seen or even suspected of being dissident were dealt with — the reality of fascism comes home and reveals only repetition into the future. Tellingly, the story occurs in the months before the coup; Argentina would be walking dark waters until the early 80s, and finally acknowledge — though, not fully — its participation into controlling its populace through the Triple A.

The great Alfredo Castro, in Rojo’ climactic sequence.

So, it is a bit of irony that we finally see a glimmer of poetic justice arriving under the presence of Detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro). From the word go he’s set his eye on Claudio, and circles him like a vulture, gathering bits and pieces of information. When we realize his true purpose, but that his knowledge and position prevents him from taking action against the unjust, it is a powerful scene that happens in the middle of nowhere and resonates well past its run, bleeding right into the foreboding ending where Claudio appears to have embraced his own hand in suppression, but now moves about under a mask of normalcy, while his daughter (Laura Grandinetti) will have to contend with the next generation of abusers of power.

in the meantime, all we can do is sit back and watch a nation bathe in the blood of the innocent and walk around with eyes firmly shut. Because when you live in such countries, ignorance is bliss, and knowledge means to carry a load too heavy to bear. Rojo is Naishtat looking at Argentina with a mirror, and what a haunted mirror it is.

HOTEL BY THE RIVER, an intimate story of healing, and regret

Hotel by the River

HOTEL BY THR RIVER, South Korea. Director: Sang-soo, Hong. Starring: Ki Joobong, Kim Minhee, Song Seonmi, Kwon Haehyo, Yu Junsang. Language, Korean. Runtime, 98 minutes. A NYFF premiere. Release date: February 15, 2019. Rating: A—

One of the reasons I have a penchant for these talky, moody pictures in which most if not all the action is confined into a limited space — kitchen sink dramas, as they are commonly refered to — is that usually we start at the crux or even at the tail end of some pending matter, and in the fashion of a game of chess, we see cards placed, one by one, on the table, slowly revealing a story, gradually peeling away layers of gauze until we reach the center. We don’t necessarily have to reach a pat conclusion, but always, there is some form of closure at least for one of the characters involved.

Love lost, poetry, cinema, bad choices, and fractured families collide quietly in this intimate movie — the latest of two new releases by prolific S Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, the most recent being Grass, also currently playing in select arthouse cinemas across the country, both 2018 New York Film Festival favorites. Two stories that on regular circumstances would not intersect (except perhaps, in a contrived romantic comedy, which this one, despite moments of humor, is not) coexist side by side in a distant, unnamed hotel during a chilly, snowy winter. The first, and the one which unifies the entire oeuvre, is that of the poet Ko Younghwan (Ki Joobong) who has taken refuge in this hotel for reasons only hinted throughout (although those remain somewhat obscured and only known to the character as he meanders through the hotel’s grounds). He has summoned his two sons, the younger whom is a well-known but “artsy” director, the older, a man who, while never clearly stating it, somewhat resents his younger brother’s success as he has only marriage to prove his worth.

While the brothers make their way to meet up with their father, Younghwan stumbles upon two women, Sanghee (Sang-soo muse Kim Min-hee, luminous and fragile as ever), whom at the start of the movie he spots standing outside in the snow, and her friend. Sanghee opens the film literally showing us a wound in her hand as she wraps it up in gauze and summons her friend over. Both have shared pain that points at a relationship that ended rather badly between Sanghee and the man she was seeing, and echoes of Sang-soo’s previous features Claire’s Camera and On the Beach at Night Alone creep in to glean just enough information to explain what might be the matter with Sanghee.

Younghwan is clearly taken with the women’s beauty, and before meeting his sons, a sequence which seems to take forever, he exchanges some awkward banter with the women, whom he regards as angels (while failing to acknowledge Sanghee’s wound). In the interim, the brothers arrive, express their irritation towards their father (who they keep missing), and exchange barbs where the older brother points out his younger brother’s perceived weaknesses. When the brothers finally meet with their father, the table literally gets set to unfold the other, more psychologically damaging wound that has been barely mentioned (as much as Sanghee’s was prominently shown at the start). Younghwan seems to want to make some amends with his sons and meditates on his own impending death, an observation that while being somewhat bleak and morbid never get too dark.

Throughout the film, Sang-soo never becomes too intrusive into the narration, often choosing to remain as an invisible spectator who just happens to be on scene when the five characters converge. The use of black and white not only mutes the story’s emotional center down to internalized reflections and barely felt notations, but it also gives the film a chilly feel that gives the story its somewhat somber note somewhat reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films from the late-80s, particularly September and Another Woman. I personally think it’s fascinating that someone as Sang-soo can use so much material from a failed relationship and even poke fun at his own persona through not one but two characters to tell a story about fleeting connections with the idealized and painful reconnections with old wounds. It’s a little mood piece, one of many that Sang-soo has managed to turn out in near-record time, one that doesn’t pull all its characters together in a cohesive whole, but leave matters as they are. However, for Sang-soo, that in itself is enough.

55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: LET THE SUNSHINE IN

LET THE SUNSHINE IN
France
Director: Claire Denis
Runtime: 92 minutes
Language: French

Mostlyindies.com grading: C+

If there is something one can state about acclaimed French film director Claire Denis is that she definitely is unpredictable. Most directors tend to have a connected style in their storytelling, and that, one can say, defines the director’s body of work. With Denis, you can’t really say her pictures have a theme, a sense that one story somehow flows right into the other even when some of her greatest films (Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum, and White Material) have taken place in Africa. Her 2013 film Bastards (Les salauds) was a compelling black hole masquerading as film-noir; the movie reeked of pure, conscious evil that lay within its characters. It was almost a horror movie by way of the human exploitation (and particularly the subjugation of women to their masculine counterparts).

Her latest entry couldn’t be more divorced from the underbelly of society and is even more removed by anything she has done before. The poorly titled Let the Sunshine In (technically, the title should read Bright Sunshine Inside) is a light as a feather character study of Isabelle (luminously played by Juliette Binoche), an artist going from one relationship to the next, each one ending in what seems to be an ellipsis. When we first see her, she’s in the middle of having sex with a married banker, That doesn’t end well, predictably so. She moves right into the arms of an actor, and then into yet an unnamed man who sweeps her off of her feet in a club to the sounds of Etta James’ “At Last“. [I sensed some perverse irony in the selection of this title, and Denis of course, delivered.]

My one problem with the movie stems from the fact that other than a leisurely paced portrait of a woman who’s basically clueless about herself and what she wants, Let the Sunshine In never quite manages to intrigue you about Isabelle’s misadventures in a way that Woody Allen’s female-centric studies do. It takes the very late entrance of a certain French actor posing as one thing, but being something completely different, to neatly explain Isabelle to us, even when she herself remains totally and tonally blind. Perhaps this is what Denis’ movie is meant to be: a snapshot of a ridiculous woman, on a love treadmill, going nowhere. Maybe I need to see this odd little film again when it reaches US cinemas (a thing that seems meant for next year). Directors love to play games on their audiences and remain one step ahead. For now, my impression is that of a movie that didn’t quite deliver despite having a brilliant star on scene for 90 minutes, living, breathing, and failing to love.






55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Italy / France / Brazil / USA
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Runtime: 132 minutes
Language: Italian / French / English / German
Mostlyindies.com grading: A+

There was a pregnant tension in the air inside the Alice Tully during the half-hour leading to the world premiere of Luca Guadagnino’s film version of Andre Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name — would it remain faithful to the novel, how would the performances be, and what about that famous scene with a fruit? Not having read the book or known what the plot was about other than the synopsis featured in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s page and a little apprehensive after seeing Guadagnino’s awful 2015 film A Bigger Splash that made its rounds in US theaters last year, I figured I’d give it a try based solely on the trailer. When it comes to LGBT cinema, I’ll usually watch them all — the bad with the good — because hey, if one can’t support it, what’s the use in complaining there aren’t any stories being told? And considering that this year the New York Film Festival has not one but three in its Main Slate — the other two being the Norwegian Thelma and the French BPM as well as Todd Haynes new film Wonderstruck and a restored version of G W Pabst’s 1929 classic Pandora’s Box, there should be enough quality to glean a lot of positive chatter about the state of Queer Cinema yesterday and today.

Luca Guadagnino again returns to his native Italy to take us into a sensual trip through a lazy summer in 1983. Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) lives with his parents, both intellectuals, in a secluded part of Italy and have a tradition (established by his father, a history professor (Michael Stuhlbarg in a role that anchors and elevates the film) of inviting a student over for mentoring. Elio doesn’t quite care for this since his privacy will be altered, and could you blame him? The look of disdain on his face as he and his girlfriend Marzia get their first glimpse of the impossibly beautiful Oliver (Armie Hammer) emerging from his parents vehicle says it all. Elio is frankly, not impressed one bit.

Not that Oliver makes it easy, either: a good ten years older than Elio there doesn’t seem to be much holding them together. Both are clearly sophisticated in their fields; Oliver in his knowledge of history and languages; Elio, in music. However, Oliver varies from being dismissive to vague, flighty interest, and any attempt at dialog ends with a sense of the both of them being completely incompatible. Conversations end in moments of awkwardness, and no one seems to know how to break the ice. A visual discovery that Oliver is also Jewish, while striking a spark, also fails to really make things work between them. All Elio can hope is that the six weeks that Oliver will be in Italy will go as quickly and painlessly as possible so life can return to normal.

It’s this tension between the two that carries the story to its conclusion; constantly framed together, it only seems logical that something has to give. A first attempt at physical contact during a volleyball game backfires. A night on the town, where both Elio and Oliver dance with women, also goes south. It’s precisely at the halfway mark when we realize not that Elio has been resenting Oliver’s presence, but that he’s attracted to him, and this being 1983, a crucial year for gay men as the Disco era had begun to feel its aftermaths and AIDS had made its way to the cover of Time magazine, such feelings were best kept in the quiet and resolved in the dark.

What makes Call Me By Your Name succeed is precisely this need for silencing: Elio obviously doesn’t need his parents to know yet, but Oliver suddenly becomes less a Greek God in the flesh and turns into a vulnerable young man who doesn’t wish to harm this boy who’s clearly growing up and has a world to learn. Perhaps, also, he has his own demons to wrestle with, and again, the timing of the story is crucial. Both begin a dance of wanting to be as close as possible to wanting to stay away from each other, a thing that leads Elio to experiment with Marzia and sadly, lead her on. In the meantime we’re left to wonder, how much do the parents know about what’s going on?

The only one who seems to hint at something is Mr Perlman (although a telling expression in Mrs Perlman answers the age-old question of “Does Mother know?”). There is a build up to a scene that happens in stages. Firstly, a gay couple appears, and Perlman wants Elio to at least try to behave with a certain tolerance not because they’re gay or ridiculous but because they’re “both.” It’s the film’s one self-hating moment, a subtle slap that strikes at the way gay men were still seen at the time — campy, effete, diva-worshiping, and overall, emasculated. This is followed by another scene in which Perlman goes on and on about the male form and how it was admired in Grecian times. It’s a very telling revelation. MIchael Stuhlbarg’s delivering of his lines reveal something completely startling about his until then very worldly, bourgeois professor. So disarming it is, that even Hammer’s Oliver gets taken aback and it hovers over the second half of the picture until Stuhlbarg, practically doing nothing other than sit with his son, has the most ideal,naked, and emotionally revealing conversation any father should have. Because of this, his is the character that stands out the most because of how it informs the viewer of where he comes from other than making him “the clueless father”. Anyone — me included — knows that parents always know, but to do what Perlman does during the film . . . priceless. An Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actor could happen for him.

I dare anyone to view this movie and not reminisce about those days of experiencing first love and choke a little on tears. It is as nuanced and detailed a love story as a coming of age, beautifully rendered by everyone onscreen, meticulously acted to a point where one would be hard pressed not too see oneself in any of the two leads, or perhaps the father. Several 80s New Wave classics make their way into the film (notably The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way), but it’s Sufjyan Stevens ethereal music, reminiscent of the early 70s, that paints this film in smoldering passionate hues that will still evoke emotions well past the end credits. Guadagnino in my opinion has made the perfect gay romance.

Call Me By Your Name just had its screening at the 55th New York Film Festival and will make its US premiere November 24.






55TH NY FILM FESTIVAL: ZAMA

ZAMA
Argentina
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Runtime: 115 minutes
Language: Spanish
Mostlyindies.com grading: C —
Argentina usually produces strong dramas that engage you right from the onset, so it confuses me as to why Lucrecia Martel’s film, Zama, based on an obscure novel by Antonio di Benedetto, winds up looking austerely beautiful with hints of the Colombian Embrace of the Serpent and Argentina’s own Jauja. Now, looking at the sheer lever of the producers involved – which include giants like the Almodovars alongside Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover, Julia Solomonoff (who’s own picture Nadie Nos Mira won Best Actor at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and just enjoyed its run at the Film Forum; do seek this film out on DVD please) – I can perhaps see a reason. Twenty-seven producers thought adapting di Benedetto’s novel would be a great idea and perhaps on paper, it does look like it. But the film version never takes off unless we take into account a burgeoning relationship between the lead character (Daniel Jimenez Cacho) and the treasurer’s flirtatious wife (Lola Duenas).

 

To wit, this is the synopsis of the movie: Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer stationed in Asuncion, awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires. As it reads, this synopsis doesn’t exactly translate into compelling or engrossing and the picture itself remains unwilling to truly introduce us into Diego de Zama the man, how he arrived, who he is as a person, and his almost paralyzing fear of the mostly unseen super-villain Vicuña Porto who does make a late appearance in a rather surprising way. There is precious little that engrosses you to want to know what transpired in Asuncion. Yes, we wait for Zama’s transfer, while he parades himself as though he were a statue in movement, and it slowly becomes clear that this might not happen.  Zama, at first seen proud and authoritarian, begins to age and crumble by the sheer force of time imposed in exile. Meanwhile, we fail to truly connect because the movie’s own dense nature makes it nearly impossible to understand only at a marginal level. If at least the film had a hint of humor at what seems to be an absurd situation, perhaps it would be more engrossing, Sadly, we are left with a movie that slogs forward at a pace some art cinema snobs aficionados would like to identify as deliberate. To me, it’s as fast moving as the waters of those nearly still rivers covered in moss pictured at the end in what could be the film’s most dreamlike and serene sequence.

 

Zama, a curious movie without a start and an ending,  has been selected as the Argentinian entry for the Best Foreign Language movie at the 90th Academy Awards. Its release date will be sometime in 2018.

 






55TH NYFF: MADAME HYDE

MADAME HYDE

France
Director: Serge Bozon
Runtime: 91 minutes
Language: French

Mostlyindies’ grading: A–

I doubt that Isabelle Huppert will ever repeat the same kind of powerhouse performance like the one she turned in a year ago in Paul Verhoeven’s rape-comedy-mystery Elle (a movie that was one of my top five of last year). That picture gave Huppert a role actresses unafraid to push the boundaries of their own selves would die for: a woman who, despite having gone through a horrific assault, still managed to come out on top and assert her dominance in the most unusual way possible. She returns to the 55th New York Film Festival with a completely different performance altogether.

In Serge Bozon’s newest film, a novel approach to the Robert Louis Stevenson horror novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Huppert plays Mme. Gequil, a woman that is basically living in abject fear (of what, we don’t know). Her home life is a quiet shambles as her husband (Jose Garcia) treats her with a certain condescension while he focuses on his composing. Her school life fares no better as students openly dismiss and mock her while she teaches and a colleague (Romain Duris), decked in outfits that resemble rejects from Miami Vice) basically finds any way to diminish her. One night, while working in her lab to prepare materials for her next class she gets struck by an enormous power surge caused by a lightning storm. Soon after, she’s showing signs of not being all there . . . displaying a ravenous appetite (until then she would secretly deliver half her food to neighboring dogs), a sudden desire for sex with her husband . . . and walks at night, where, glowing, she sets things on fire.

She also takes an approach to a disabled student, Malik, and by nurture alone she cracks the shell that Malik up until then had kept intact, turning him into her most prized student. Problems arise when the other part of her, the one that acts out at night, starts to manifest its own presence. It’s only time before things will get slightly out of hand. Will Mme. Gequil be able to control the Mme. Hyde she is slowly morphing into?

Huppert, as usual, delivers strong acting in a part that requires her to be basically two different personalities. For the most part Madame Hyde is fairly comedic — a class project based on the Faraday Cage serves as a perfect tool to enact a certain revenge filled with a restrained “fuck you” approach. It’s in the final act when Mme Gequi’s alter ego takes over, that Huppert sinks into what she does best, which is finding the pathos and tragedy within.

For lovers of Huppert, seek her out in Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs, Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, Bozon’s previous Tip-Top, Francois Ozon’s 8 Femmes, Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, and Claude Chabrol’s Violette.

Madame Hyde has no known US Premiere date, but will premiere in France March 28, 2018.






SUMMER CINEMA: JUNE

Because, sometimes you see a flood of movies, both new theatrical and DVD releases as well as classics. Unfortunately, time constraints and life don’t always comply with allowing you to be on time with all of them and you wind up falling behind. Part one of two.

WONDER WOMAN
USA / China / Hong Kong / UK / Italy / Canada / New Zealand
Director: Patty Jenkins
Runtime: 141 minutes
Language: English, German, Dutch

I generally stay away from almost 99% of superhero movies that come out at the rate of one per week. I just don’t feel that I’m the target audience they wish to cater to and for me, unless it’s something directed by Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton (who to me, directed two of the most memorable Batman movies) then I’m just not interested in watching hyper-kinetic action from the word go, cartoon villains, two dimensional acting, and the requisite confrontation scenes in large cities that offer only a mock-up of urban destruction, the kind Roland Emmerich would positively fall in love with.

So, with that in mind, it took me close to two weeks and voice of  mouth before I found myself sitting at the back of theater 10 in an AMC allowing me to, naked of bias, experience Wonder Woman. Reader, I was totally taken in by her origin story in an invisible island off the coast of Greece, living in perfect paradise, away from the world of men and its complications. The intro section is one of of the best in the film even when it compresses time and shows Diana growing up before our eyes, unaware of the role she will have to play against the god of war, Ares, who has turned his powers to place the world in complete turmoil. Chance has it where Diana, now grown up, meets a downed pilot who turns out to be Steve Trevor who somehow has penetrated the bubble of invisibility that hides Diana’s island home.

While many of the women, Diana’s mother (Connie Nielsen) included, feel uneasy with a man in the midst, Diana learns through Trevor there’s a war raging outside her kingdom and sensing Ares must be behind it, they both set out to London; he to stop the Germans, she, to find Ares. Does this seem unbelievable? Of course — every story involving superheroes are, but at least this one has some roots in reality with the Germans attempting to use and release lethal gas as a war weapon. Also, Gal Gadot as the titular Wonder Woman is a hell of a performer and will erase most memories anyone has of Lynda Carter. Her Diana is completely ahead of her time, a feminist, and a conscientious warrior focused on the higher good. Chris Pine has the less meatier of the starring roles — all the action goes to Gadot — but his is still, much more solid than the TV version played by Lyle Waggoner, and provides enough comic elements when the story threatens to become too serious for its own good.

To me, the real surprise and sole reason to go see this film is Patty Jenkins, a director I only knew from her 2004 movie Monster, a film that garnered Charlize Theron an Oscar for Best Actress. Monster was essentially a chilling portrait of Aileen Wuornos, and after that, Jenkins did very little. It seems she has had time to prepare for a movie like this that is action-driven and female-centric. She does not disappoint, establishing Diana’s world from the onset, introducing strong women like her aunt and teacher Antiope (Robin Wright), and then fast-forwarding her isolation to catch-up to 1918, and from there moving towards action sequences filled with Gadot’s balletic movements until the emotionally satisfying finale. It is a tour de force part for Jenkins who announces herself as a director to pay attention to.  [A+]

THE WORLD OF KANAKO
Japan
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Runtime: 118 minutes
Language: Japanese

Viewing The World of Kanako is akin to looking into the abyss for a second too long. There is so much carnage, so much nihilism involved and not a branch, nothing to hold on to, that once the film was done there was a sense of something truly ugly hovering, as if somehow, the story I’d seen was penned by a lucid madman who wanted to plaster on paper all the ugliness in society into one vertiginous tale of deceit and murder. Anchored by Koji Yokushio as former detective Akikazu Fujushima, a broken man separated from his wife who finds himself investigating his daughter Kanako’s disappearance. It seems as though she’s been swallowed up by the underbelly of society and, hell-bent to save her, Fujushima dives head first into it, running into all sorts of undesirables. If there is a sense that Kanako may make an appearance in the style of Orson Welles in The Third Man, it’s due to how much of an impression she’s left on people. It is as though she herself was a ghost living in the narrative of the movie, invisible but omniscient, and instead of bringing a sense of solace that her eventual discovery may allay the anguish of her absence, it does the contrary.

What denies Kanako the points it would need to become great in the eyes of movie lovers is that it’s frankly, so frenetic, so ferocious in its editing — a scene not lasting more than a second, placed against others that fly by so quickly it’s not far-fetched to say one could get a headache — that the notion of suspense is gone and all that remains is shock and buckets of gore. On top of this, the women in the film — and there are several — are never seen as sympathetic. Ranging from simply alienating to downright monstrous, Kanako is a film that serves as a cry of misogyny that only stops once the film itself is over. [Although, to be honest, I may be over-analyzing; extreme cinema doesn’t abide by the rules of having nice characters. On the contrary, the more transgressive the better to express how black the human heart can be, and how far its tentacles can go. This is one ugly, ugly film that mysteriously manages to come off as strangely compelling.  [B]

A DOG’S PURPOSE
USA
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Runtime: 100 minutes
Language: English

When did Lasse Hallstrom lose his shit? Can someone please inform me? While I recall that Hallstrom rose from being a fluke Oscar winner for My Life as a Dog to direct Oscar winning performances in thoughtful movies starting with Once Around and ending in the Oscar-pleaser Chocolat, I also recall that somewhere in the mid-aughties he began directing films that either went nowhere (An Unflinished Life, anyone?) or became parodies of feel-good romance and general goodness. Perhaps it’s me, but it seems like by the time he came up with Hachi, he’d somehow just checked out and chosen to go to the path of making a quick return on a movie that was based on a real dog who waited for his owner, even when the owner himself was dead. Hallmark had suddenly hijacked the building.

But the whole descent into sap didn’t end there: earlier this year we had a movie pounce upon us with paws made of concentrated sugar, licking us with a tongue made of syrup and eyes made to stare lovingly at us while we wondered first what had just happened, but taken in by the charm, decided to stop thinking and just submit/ It was all very Orwellian. A Dog’s Purpose took the sentiment of Hatchi and dialed the lachrymose aspects of its story to eleven and then some. Predictably, Hallstrom’s film was based on a written book — yes, someone came up with the idea to write a story of a dog who has to reincarnate over and over in order to Come Back Home. [And I wonder why I’m still working a nine-to-five in corporate America. . . . ] That the dog, a lovable thing voiced by Josh Gad, who starts out cute and devolves into plain creepy (you’ll see if you rent it) is bad  enough, but the plot developments are just plain implausible to a degree that I can’t. If Lasse Hallstrom wanted to do yer another film about a dog he could have remade the Hungarian film White God and eliminated some of the incursions into animal abuse, steroids, and violence and still come out a winner. As it stands, A Dog’s Purpose is a parody of shameless emotional manipulation that wants you to believe it’s got some cosmic understanding when in fact, all it understands, is dollar signs. [C-]

THE JOURNEY
Ireland
Director: Nick Hamm
Runtime: 94 minutes
Language: English

For all its good intentions, the events depicted in Nick Hamm’s The Journey didn’t exactly happen the way they are shown. While the two leaders of opposing forces — Martin McGuiness, allegedly the former leader of the extremist IRAs who now heads Sinn Fein, and Reverend Ian Paisley, an ultra-conservative anti-Catholic minister who heads the Unionists — did meet in 2006 to put an end to the Troubles, a conflict that has plagued Ireland for over hundreds of years, Hamm’s reimagining of it sounds and looks a bit contrived but winds up working. When both men find themselves sitting side by side in a limo driven by a covert MI6 operative (played by Freddie Highmore, who brings a little more than just a thankless, passive presence to his role as a driver), the feelings of tension could cut the air like a knife. However, a conversation and a truce must be reached, and it’s the driver’s job to ensure that this event transpires between the two political enemies.

The greatest asset that Hamm’s picture has going for itself is the dialog. For a movie to have lines such as “You can almost taste the hatred” delivered almost in a scenario of “same-shit-different-day” is an early sharply drawn observation of how violence had become so entrenched in Ireland as to have been matter-of-fact. Both McGuiness and Paisley use words like daggers but also with a sense of humor; these are seasoned pros who know, it seems, what buttons to push against the other, and at times (and for those of us who know the results of this meeting), it appears that as much as they might want to believe they are on opposite sides of the fence, the movie portrays them as actually much closer than that, barely divided by a thin wall of pride. If anything, reveals that despite what we may think of how different opposing forces are, once the veil of ego is removed, we can all see the other for whom they are and work together. [I know, it sounds a bit trite, but it’s true.] The presence of Spall and Meaney alone is worth the 90 minutes of your time; plus, you can spot John Hurt in one of his final roles, and Toby Stephens as Tony Blair.  [A]

POP AYE
Thaliand / Singapore
Director: Kirsten Tan
Runtime: 102 minutes
Language: Thai

Kirsten Tan’s debut film, still playing in cinemas at the time of this writing, will be only affected by one thing: its timed release with another film about the relation between a human and an animal, and that film is the more commercial-friendly, sentimental Okja . The difference between the two starts almost at the start: while Okja is a superficial examination on mass consumerism and exploitation of available resources, Pop Aye is a little more complex. An architect past his prime (if I can say that) finds himself questioning his marriage, his life, his eventual replacement by younger, hipper architects. Out of nowhere — and it does seem fantastical — a pet from our architect’s childhood appears. But it’s not just any pet that has made its reappearance. It’s a full-grown elephant.

For reasons unexplained Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroth) has a moment of epiphany and makes it a point to take custody of the elephant. It’s a completely off-the-wall moment, but made to look as if it were the most normal, natural decision, especially when it involves a man going through a mid-life crisis. He takes it home, much to the horror of his wife with whom he’s alienated with (and nothing could spell alienation more than the scene when Thana discovers a dildo in her belongings, brings it out, and places it nonchalantly on a coffee table waiting for her reaction).

When the presence of Pop Aye clearly has an unnerving effect on his house hold, Thana sets out to deliver Pop Aye to an animal sanctuary where it won’t be forced to perform in circuses for the amusement of others. On his way across Thailand he experiences the kindness of strangers (a thing that seems to be requisite of these road movies). Among these strangers are a bum who seems to be at the end of his life, a transgender nightclub singer, and a hooker. Pop Aye presents each encounter with a sense of greater connectivity, that even the most loneliest person can find his own place in the world. If anything is absent it’s in the fact that Thana as a character is so alienated to everything that he seems to be on his own island and thus it’s a bit hard to relate to him, and that the elephant in question seems more a background prop than an actual presence — that is, right up until the final sequence, which is rather moving.

Pop Aye had its premiere at the Film Forum on June 28 and is still currently playing around the country. Look for it soon on DVD.  [B]