Tag Archives: New directors

Tackling loss in two very different ways: PIG and REMINISCENCE

The topic of loss — and in essence, the loss of a loved one — is the gift that keeps on giving. Every year there you can count on a movie or two that tells the story of a character, or set of characters, dealing with the loss of a loved one, the loss of innocence, the loss of a time gone by. Most recently, Chloe Zhao presented her magnificent Nomadland and single-handedly gave Frances McDormand a role so meaty, so juicy, that when the movie was over, and all you saw was her POV of the road ahead, you cried and cheered and kept wanting more.

Recently a movie called Pig came out, starring Nicholas Cage. Admittedly, I wasn’t too keen on seeing this movie because the poster made it seem as though it was yet another horror or revenge movie (and he has been known for doing both, and making something of a career resurgence with it in movies like Mandy or Color Out of Space). Pig, however, is… a bit different, and it left me quite speechless.

Not since the days of Leaving Las Vegas, which gave Cage his first (and so far, his only Oscar), have I seen Cage give such an understated performance in a film. Remember, Cage has a slight (okay, let’s call a spade a spade) tendency to bellow out his lines and telegraph emotions so far out into the bleachers you would grasp a clear picture of how sad or angry he is in the depths of space. When Pig starts, and throughout the entire run of the movie, Cage physically and emotionally embodies suffering in silence. So mute is the character he plays that we actually hope to hear him talk just a little bit more.

Playing Robin Feld, a former legend of a chef whose loss of his wife years ago left him completely stunted, Cage emerges from what seems to be a shack deep in the Oregonian forest to go about his business. Accompanying Feld is his beloved pet pig, Feld has a partnership with a twenty-something businessman named Amir (Alex Wolff) to whom he sells truffles, which go on to get sold to high-end concept restaurants. One day, unknown assailants attack Feld and steal his pig, leaving him destitute. Feld reaches out to Amir to help him find his pig… and here is the crux of the movie, which unfolds in some rather unexpected ways.

Look at that adorable face!

First-time director Michael Sarnoski fools the audience to think we are about to watch a movie about a man not only getting his prized pig back but also leaving a trail of mayhem behind him. His movie gives Cage ample opportunity to go through a progressive reveal of his personality which has remained stunted since the loss of his wife. There are no major reveals here, but the wife’s presence, like that of the pig of the title, hovers heavily throughout the entire story which takes us on a journey into darkness and pain, unlike any other movie I have seen and eventually gives us a fine portrait of a man wanting to recover his last connection to something, even when that connection is an animal. The movie also gives you a little bit of ambiguity between Amir and his powerful father (Adam Arkin). It remains implicit that the father seems to be thwarting Amir’s own entry into the business, but the movie never quite spells it out for us — rather, it lets us decide what exactly is the crux of their dysfunction, and if it may stem from the loss/absence of Amir’s mother.

Side story and all, this is, ultimately, Feld’s story, which binds them all, and Cage demonstrates why he is, despite his weird output of shabby movies, one of our best actors. Take the slightly chuckle-inducing title and you have a shattering drama of near-silent proportions, beautifully shot, atmospherically perfect, and one that ends in a cathartic moment of mourning while Springsteen sadly sings “I’m on Fire.”

Reminiscence should have been a comedy or a cheeky homage. Not this.

Less successful is Lisa Joy’s debut movie Reminiscence. Considering her output with Westworld (and that the HBO series also carries some key actors over to this movie), I was flummoxed to see her not just fail, but fall flat on her face in delivering a compelling mystery that links a man (Hugh Jackman) and a woman (Rebecca Ferguson) together in a downward spiral of love lust and betrayal.

Jackman is Nick Bannister, a private investigator of the mind (okaaay…) who operates a machine, not unlike the ones in Westworld alongside his sidekick Watts (Thandiwe Newton, criminally underused here). With this machine, Bannister seems to be operating an underground memory market that delivers clients’ memories to them for a fee. In the world of science fiction, this seems to be fair enough, but memories can be tricky, and sometimes downright impossible to decipher.

Joy’s already lofty script doesn’t care to answer those questions. Instead, she barrels full steam ahead and introduces Ferguson as Mae, a femme fatale so obvious she may as well be telegraphing it with the force of a banshee in the night. Mae is a lounge singer with an agenda. [Here’s a question. Why do femme fatales always have to have the requisite role of “lounge singer” and need to appear as a variant of Jessica Rabbit with the Veronica Lake hair? Are we still in the 40s?] Bannister, upon seeing Mae sing, doesn’t just melt, he goes full Tex Avery, all giant eyes and a river of hearts escaping his chest as a 16-ton anvil flattens him to a tortilla.

Really, Bannister?

Here is the problem. When Mae appears, she brings not a single gasp with her. Where the camera would normally highlight a woman’s entrance and her movements, Mae never registers a single thing. She’s just a regular, pretty woman. Vapid, with a vaguely foreign accent for kicks, but does that make a memorable femme? Nope. Think of Bergman in Casablanca, Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Anne Revere in Detour, Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Even Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. These are women who have you stand up and take notice of their presence alone. In Westworld, Tessa Thompson plays both Charlotte Hale and a lethal version of Dolores Abernathy. She exudes equal parts smoldering (but cold) sensuality and steel menace in both roles. Thompson, instead of Ferguson, would have been ideal — and she would have saved an unsalvagable movie. She has the silky voice that hides iron; she has the allure, and she can definitely carry her own self so that whoever watches her, will remember her. On the other hand, Ferguson, as Mae collapses even before she enters the scene, or as I prefer to say, before the scene portentously introduces her.

Ferguson, through no fault of her own, since she is merely a player, hurts the movie far more than she should. Hers should have been a small but crucial part. Laura, she is not, and it shows. What Bannister sees in her is a mystery all its own that deserves its own documentary or movie. It’s almost an insult to a performer like Jackman to reduce him to a slobbering mess of tears who can’t control himself. Even Fred MacMurray, never a great actor but intoxicated with Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, had some self-respect and went down nobly.

For Joy to then hinge the entire plot — which involves a heap of other things, such that cringe-worthy voice-over narration, the world of the criminal underbelly, and a land baron who’s placed a waterlogged Miami in a divide from the have and have nots — on a badly named woman who seems to be in every single plot development is ridiculous. Lofty, yes, perhaps ambitious, but a disaster, nevertheless.

Take away all the science-fiction gobbledygook and you have a basic noir. Why Joy needed to add so many extra layers that do not work is beyond me. In concept, this seems to work, but then, for kicks, let’s just go with the concept of memory. Do you remember things in chronological order? Even people with excellent memories have slips, which make them unreliable narrators of their own experiences. Joy seems to have brought Westworld sensibilities into a story that should have been more human. Her androids in Westworld have complicated memories because they’ve been implanted to program that way, in chronological order, with cleverly placed gaps to delete whatever was “problematic” and could deviate them from their storylines.

People don’t behave that way. Even the cheapest sci-fi story knows that. Memories are shape-shifting things, fit to mold themselves to whatever we prefer them to be. They are hardly the elaborately choreographed dance routines that Joy presents here, and while the concept is interesting it saps the main story from all its energy. And Reminiscence, in trying to keep the concept of memory alive, does the worst a movie could do, which is to repeat scenes we’ve already seen, over and over. Meanwhile, we are left with about three-quarters of the story left, and no care or interest whatsoever in what comes next, who does what, or how it even ends.

In all fairness to Joy, I know she did not set out to make a terrible pastiche of every noir movie known to man. No director ever does. Perhaps separating herself from the show would help? While bringing in Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan feels like a good choice she mirrors their stories (and fates) to their android counterparts from the show. Another thing that isn’t helping might be the Nolan association — too much of that seems to be distracting rather than enriching. But what do I know; I didn’t create this movie, I’m sure there was significant studio interference as there always is, and this is the end result. All you can do if you love movies, and love noir, is go and watch a good one. Even an okay one. Just not this one.

Under the Radar: Gelateria

British humor is something that you can either totally get into, or completely negate as a comedic expression stemming from a situation that is completely bonkers and most likely has no clear, logical solution. In Christian Seritiello’s and Arthur Patching’s surreal comedy Gelateria, the story of an artist on the trail of her artwork — the centerpiece of their movie — gets introduced by a series of vignettes that seemingly have no relation to one another. However, if you step back and pay attention, you will see how there is a thread that forms a larger, albeit wonky whole.

Even if I chose to go frame by frame I still wouldn’t be able to give much in the way of spoilers. Gelateria begins with a man screaming out to sea, only that his voice gets muted and in its place, crashing piano keys. It then throws you into what has to be the convoluted mind of Zbigniew (Serritiello) who seems to spend the movie trapped symbolically in a non-moving relationship that somehow has taken the form of a non-moving locomotive. He wanders in and out of locations, either as himself into a jazz club where he gets relentlessly hazed by a singer who looks a bit like The Weeknd, as an outsider looking into a barbershop that has its own weirdness going on, and as merely a background picture in an art gallery that hosts the most unusual of (mostly failed) art and performers.

In the interim there are tangents — some a striking, some simply become incursions into bizarre observations on how we treat others — particular foreigners. The piece de resistance arrives almost by accident and requires an introduction, which happens via animation. We then get thrown back into the action with both Serritiello and Patching alternating the role of the unnamed artist who takes off into the unknown to retrieve her art. Her story goes completely off the rails. However, it does deliver a clever, self-referential wink of a pause that shows her, in the middle of a chase scene, re-applying lipstick. [Hey, a lady has priorities.]

If you’re reading this and it still makes little sense you’re in luck: it doesn’t, and it’s totally fun. I have to confess, I haven’t seen a movie quite like this in some time. The closest I can come to compare it to is to the early Monty Python skits and I do so reluctantly because I liked this movie on its own level of zaniness. Gelateria is its own lucid nightmare that makes you laugh, but nervously. On the surface, this movie arrives with an awkwardness closer to the comedy of discomfort. As its collage barrels along the entire piece morphs into something darker, sinister. I laughed because and despite its absurdity. In one scene a translator gets used for no purpose at all. In another. the artist in search of her missing body of work finds herself in a wake in which a woman drank herself to death, and now her mourners (and the dead woman) demand that she herself take a drink.

This is a striking debut feature film that transcends any linear narrative in lieu of presenting what seems to be its own internal logic and uses both its directors as substitutes for everymen (or everywomen). If this movie ever gets to see an American release, I hope that it will be through a prestigious film festival like New York Film Festival or next year’s New Directors – New Films where it would be completely at home.

Gelateria has been screened in various European film festivals to include Kinolikbez International Film Festival in Russia, Salerno Film Festival in Italy, and Mostra Internazionale di Cinema di Genova, also in Italy. A big thank you to director Serritiello for forwarding me his and Patching’s film. Please bring it to New York.

New Directors/New Films: El Planeta, Destello Bravio (Mighty Flash), Azor, Madalena, All the Light We Can See, and Liborio

Now that the 50th installment of New Directors / New Films is over I can finally resume reviewing. Having missed all of last year’s due to the pandemic (and many of the movies making their debut have not even made it to the initial stages of distribution) I didn’t want a repeat, So, to compensate, out of the 27 feature-length movies that came out, I managed to capture a little over half of them (while still seeing both recent virtual cinema releases and the foray into classics which I have yet to write about, so my apologies).

Trailer for Liborio, courtesy from Rotterdam FF

To understand a movie like Nino Martinez Sosa’s Liborio you would need to have read extensively and/or studied Dominican history. Yours truly lived for almost two decades in the Dominican Republic and while I can recall most events that transpired in the country’s 500-plus year life, the life of Olivorio Mateo Ledesma, better known as Papa Liborio, was not one of them. I don’t know why; perhaps my Dominican History teacher opted to graze the chapter. In short, the life of Papa Liborio, today, has become somewhat obscured to the point that it’s mostly a curiosity known to only the old guard and a few erudite.

(His)story goes that Liborio (Vicente Santos), a simple man of the fields, disappears in a hurricane in 1908. When he returns several years later, he is a markedly changed man. His return, seen in itself as a miracle, now sees Liborio speaking in prophetic terms, performing miracles, and carrying within and around him the glowing, magnetic aura of a new Messiah. Word of his abilities as a shaman and spiritual leader makes its way around the country. Followers in search of meaning and enlightenment arrive. Eventually, during the US occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1916, Of course, as it happens with many fringe cults — because Martinez Sosa never shies from presenting Liborio’s compound as anything but a cult run by a shyster with no actual powers — they become a target of American interest, with disastrous results.

A difficult topic to touch because of its inscrutability, Liborio comes across a bit of history lesson speckled with a lens into a time when the Dominican Republic was emerging from its former Haitian occupation and becoming its own country. All of its action takes place in an isolated portion of the country — San Jose de las Matas, with its gorgeous scenery — so in many ways, the people of Liborio are a community lost in time and faith and innocence of the outside world. Martinez Sosa displays much respect for his take on Papa Liborio but never turns his film into a hagiography. Quite the contrary, while his community truly believes (to this day) that Liborio was a holy man, the movie winks at us by letting us in on the secret that he’s really just another clever man able to sway the masses and turn rabbit tricks that look like miracles.

In another continent and time, women are succumbing to reveries and locked in a state of suspended femininity in Ainhoa Rodriguez’s Destello Bravio (Mighty Flash) The first shot gives us two women, one of them the movie’s central character Cita, drunk in euphoria, high from a wedding. The camera never intrudes but lets this moment of drunken bliss play itself out. Cita, one of the women, embraces the other, unnamed, and both fall to the ground, laughing. Later on, Cita will play a recorded message in an old cassette recorder to remind herself that one day soon she will see a mighty flash that will quite frankly, obliterate everything from existence.

That mighty flash never arrives, but that’s not the case. The women of Ainhoa Rodriguez are stuck in what seems to be a forgotten place in Spain where nothing happens. Extremadura stands in for this sense of isolation, which Rodriguez films in mostly muted colors. The entire look of the movie conveys a sense of the very essence of life sucked out of its few remaining residents, and of these, a strong divide appears between the women and the men. The men are mostly non-entities who simply exist as ghosts of their former selves.

teaser trailer from Destello Bravio (A Mighty Flash)

The women, however, still behave as if they were in pageantry and it was the 19th century. Female churchgoers criticize Cita for not coming to church in a glittery gold dress she wore to a wedding. Another expresses her fear of her dead husband. An early gathering yields to vaguely threatening noises that not everyone hears. Later on, another gathering of women peaks in early arguments that dissolve into a state of sexual reverie, and the lingering question is, what exactly is going on here? I would simply point at a place that has lost its sense of purpose. When all you have is frustration, despair, and passions that have been unresolved, you get the sexually and emotionally starved female ghosts of Ainhoa Rodriguez’s intriguing movie pregnant with desire.

The women in Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta are in a similar state of despair, but Ulman, instead of having their fabric of reality melt into a living nightmare of stasis and unfulfilled lives, prefers to take the route of a comedy of manners with a hint of something rotten underneath. That something reveals its ugly head but gradually. Ulman tells her story with enormous patience and a keen eye that observes its two leads, herself and her mother Ale Ulman.

The start of El Planeta posits Maria (Amalia Ulman) and Leonor (Ale Ulman) as women trapped by their own inability to be self-sufficient, depending on the kindness of unseen others. Maria is a make-up artist trying to land a good job, but her financial situation doesn’t allow her to travel outside Gijon where she lives with Leonor. An early scene has her finagling the price of sexual favors, which sets up the stage for something unsaid.

Meanwhile, she and her mother go on spending sprees, living the high life, acting as if they have it all when in fact, Leonor has been left destitute following a bitter divorce. Ulman slowly reveals the vapidity behind the appearance of glamor, and I kept being reminded of a much softer version of Midnight Cowboy without the extreme grittiness. Where the two men in that movie lived in squalor and followed a pipe dream that was already collapsing at the seams and turning into a living nightmare, El Planeta remains serene, almost as light as a bubble, until Ulman rips the rug from under our feet and we are left not just with an abrupt ending, but a sense that Leonor, the true narcissist in the movie, may have snapped.

Still from Madalena

In another movie, Madalena would be a mystery and being a mystery, it would have to get solved. Madiano Marchetti takes an oblique approach and focuses not on the main character itself, but on the people who either knew her or came upon her lifeless body dressed in white in a soy field. It is a novel take, but during the three semi-connected stories we get next to no information on who Madalena was as a trans woman and how did she end up murdered. The first story concerns a club patron whose only concern is to procure money that Madalena owes her so she can use that money to pay for her Vespa. The second story delves into the son of the owner of the soy farm where Madalena’s body was found. Fearful that a discovery like this could derail his mother’s political career, he spends the entire portion of his storyline trying to find the spot where Madalena was killed… only to never see her again. The final story comes with a hint of bittersweet resolution. Madalena’s trans friends, led by Bianca (Pamela Yule), come to her home to collect her belongings. Some reminiscing happens, but not enough to establish a sense of loss, so we transition towards an outing that places the three transwomen in a space of safety.

Watching Madalena I got the feeling that I was revisiting some of the banalities observed/listened in Bobbi Gentry’s 1967 song Ode to Billy Joe. While nothing in Marchetti’s movie comes even close to the Southern Gothic of Gentry’s song, the tone of reducing Madalena’s murder to a blip in time barely touching those who knew and didn’t know her seems to be the point here. We listen to the briefest of mentions of women murdered in unfortunate circumstances and it doesn’t quite touch us; all we can do is shake our head and go, “That poor woman,” if at that. Madalena, then, becomes a reveal of how society reacts to a trans woman’s disappearance: for one, she’s an inconvenience, for another, a threat of scandal, and for her very own sisters, just another day in paradise.

For Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), the private banker in Andreas Fontana’s Azor, the gradual realization that he may be in over his head might not as a surprise. After all, he is replacing a missing banker with a rather ominous reputation. Simply put, the very mention of the former banker’s name is enough to raise eyebrows and darken a room. Considering that de Wiel’s former colleague seems to have vanished overnight, it begs to question if he had a hand in mishandling certain securities he was entrusted to. There is an obscene amount of money and financial securities being moved from here to there, and with Argentina, in the middle of its Dirty War period in which many who didn’t walk a fine line or were even suspect met a grisly end, de Wiel seems to be the object of intense scrutiny. If these people are to place their trust in someone, they better abide by their rules.

Still from Azor

Fontana’s movie is elegant and filmed with a mainly brown palette. He fills every scene with hints of a greater evil just hiding in plain sight. Conversations are always filled with portent, and while it’s clear that something is foul in Denmark, no one gives as much as veiled explanations and narratives that leave a sense of dread pregnant in the air. Azor, for Argentineans, means “silence”, so during the story, it will be up to de Wiel that he sees nothing, hears nothing, and says nothing. In essence, there is a lot of Benjamin Naishtat’s 2018 Rojo which also dealt with the darker part of Argentinean history. Here we never see but the aftermath of the atrocities: homes and possessions repossessed, in line for the highest bidder. We get that these items belonged to “the disappeared” and now, are simply commodities. It is a horrific sequence because of how banal it looks. Judging from the way de Wiel reacts during the final sequence, it becomes clear that he has literally sold his soul for a life of comfort and protection.

Lastly, there is All the Light We Can See. Pablo Escoto has made a movie that will no doubt play well in film festivals and art galleries alike. Commercial, left of indie, it is not, with a story that isn’t as much a narrative as much as an exposition in the style of the Greek tragedy of a love affair gone wrong between two couples. While the movie is truly gorgeous to look at, at two hours, it is cumbersome to watch because of how stilted its language is, how mannered its performances are, and how much in ideologies he attempts to cram into what is essentially a fable of love.

The Cinema of Nicholas Pesce: Piercing and the Eyes of my Mother

Almost 20 years ago, multiplex horror was declared unequivocally, irresolutely dead by many a moviegoer who, tired of seeing travesties coming in the form of packages stacked with a jump scare every approximate 10 minutes and denouement that made no sense simply stopped going to such movies and searched other means to get their horror on. J-horror (and its clones) were dead on arrival. How was a lover of all things dark to get one’s dread on?

The decade that just ended brought quite the relief, but I won’t get into a convoluted essay detailing the arrival of critically-acclaimed, artsy horror courtesy of indie cinema. Indie horror has been delivering since Night of the Living Dead, if not earlier — can we lump the producer Val Lewton in this group? — so before I get ripped to smithereens by what I said, I am referring to popcorn horror made to make a killing in the box office during its release week and then run.

Nicholas Pesce made quite a debut in late 2016 with a brief little black and white horror movie called The Eyes of my Mother. That movie told, with minimal special effects and a wall of atmospheric dread, the rather disturbing story of a young girl living in the country who sees a strange man do something unspeakable to her family. What happens after that is just as atrocious, in that it perpetuates the same act that brought down her family, and seeks, through repetition, permutate itself into the future, with horrific consequences.

Pesce’s follow-up, Piercing, veers closer to J-Horror in that it was written by the man who brought you 1999’s Audition so if you saw Audition you know what to expect with Piercing. Pesce’s sophomore movie tells the story of a businessman (Christopher Abbott) who has a penchant for murder. It’s safe to say that he keeps it well-hidden from his unsuspecting wife (Laia Costa) for obvious reasons (who would want to bring a wife into this situation? said no one ever). When he meets the woman he’s decided to perform some unspeakable stuff on, he’s in for quite a treat. Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) as she is called comes with some rather disturbing baggage herself, wrapped in a cocoon made of fur.

It is safe to say that from here on nothing goes as planned in Pesce’s movie, and thank God. It would have been an exercise in misogynistic porn to see Abbott stalking and tormenting Wasikowska’s damaged character for a prolonged sequence of time. That, in fact, is the least of what happens here, as both actors switch on the power button at ease and we, the viewer, just sit back and see the madness unfold.

I wish that Pesce had not caved in to pressure to make a studio film when he came out early in 2020 with his re-imagination of The Grudge. Pesce has a sharp, dense style of telling stories. His characters navigate dark, murky waters and ask for help while lashing out at the rescuer. We really don’t know how deep we will go with his leads, and I love that because it means that anything might happen at any specific moment in his films. Piercing is truly grotesque in ways that made me recall David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike without flat-out imitating them. No, Pesce has his own style, streamlined and defined, and while in The Eyes of My Mother he went for a Val Lewton look, here he goes for a more late 70s period, somewhere deep in Argento but also Fulci or Bava without the excess.

Abbott continues on a streak of unusual roles, following an exercise in Cronenberg horror via Possessor. He’s very good in his part here, showing next to no emotion where it matters the most and an almost unsettling amount of dread at what he may be capable of. Wasikowska, on the other hand, completely deceives as a woman who may be in for more than she bargained for. It’s safe to say that I think these two are a match made in heaven and should make another movie, albeit with a lot less gore, and see what comes out of it,

Grade B+