Archive for the ‘foreign’ category

The Painted Bird

July 26, 2020

painted-bird-3 An intense and prolonged experience about the inhumanity of war, The Painted Bird might take its rightful place as the most prestigious endurance test since 1985’s Come and See. The point of the story, hammered home again and again over the course of two hours and forty-nine minutes, is that war destroys the soul, makes even non-combatants callous and vicious — the subsidiary point, perhaps, being that in war there are no non-combatants. Everyone is drawn into the madness, including our young protagonist (Petr Kotlár), nameless for most of the film. We begin in medias res, with the boy running through woods, carrying a small fuzzy animal (a ferret?). Some young bullies catch up to the boy; they beat him and incinerate the animal. Welcome to The Painted Bird, where even small gestures of mercy and kindness are tainted and ambiguous. Mostly, people are beasts to one another.

The movie is based on the much-debated 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, whose World War II experiences, it turned out, did not inform the book; some even doubted that he himself wrote it. Still, Kosiński — like Come and See’s Elem Klimov after him — fashioned a ghastly rat-trap reality that ground innocence under the treads of tanks. The eerie thing about the movie is that so many of its settings are rural and almost primeval it’s jarring when a plane or jeep or even a train shows up. The boy wanders through endless villages and is set upon by peasants, perverts (pedophiles of both genders), and fellow castaways of the war. The closest thing to a laugh in the entire epic is when the boy performs an act of animal cruelty to get even with a teenage girl who has abused him.

But then the whole enterprise is about cruelty in all its forms. At the risk of sounding impatient, I think The Painted Bird might have dealt subtler and sharper damage to our psyche less about 45 minutes; the constant and endless litany of offenses to our young hero becomes numbing and borderline ludicrous, which is a problem inherent in an anecdotal structure allowed to stretch out at epic length. The boy meets someone new, and you sigh and wonder how this person is going to screw him over, literally or figuratively. Occasionally someone like a kindly if clueless priest (Harvey Keitel) or a Russian sniper (Barry Pepper) happens along and takes the boy under his wing. (The American actors seem to be sounding out their dialogue phonetically in Interslav or Russian or whatever, and then someone else dubs them over. It works; it gets us away from Barry Pepper attempting a Russian accent, anyway.) Aleksei Kravchenko, once the 16-year-old star of Come and See, turns up as a Russian officer and seems to be passing the baton of suffering on to Petr Kotlár, a Czech-Romani newcomer who spent his tenth and eleventh years on the set. Kotlár holds this fierce beast of a movie together despite almost no dialogue.

Unlike Elem Klimov, the Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul allows us mitigating artistry and even beauty to offset the human ugliness. (Udo Kier comes in to do his thing, using a spoon.) Vladimír Smutný’s black-and-white photography is sumptuous, even bucolic at times; the restful country landscapes, if anything, are more chilling for the sense they give of turning their backs on carnage and sadism. You can die out there in the open air and nobody will care; you’ll be rolled into a grave or become a toy for crows. The title refers to a bit where a man daubs white paint onto a bird and lets it fly off, whereupon its fellows peck it to death in mid-air. Humans, nature — the portrait of indifference to pain and need is distressingly complete. The Painted Bird is artful, if not quite art — it needs finer threads in its tapestry than just “People suck” — but it’s without a doubt a masterwork that you will most likely give exactly one evening of your life, if that.

Come and See

February 23, 2020

come-and-see“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity,” wrote World War I poet Wilfred Owen, not long before he was killed in action at age 25. This also is the subject of the 1985 Russian World War II film Come and See, now touring the country in a newly restored print. Come and See, the fifth and final movie by director Elem Klimov, has a reputation for being hard to endure, but not because of any violence. There is some, near the end, and it is repulsive. But most of the film zeroes in on the grime and filth and desperation of war, the despairing moments in between the spasms of brutality, and the intolerable dread of inevitable apocalypse.

We’re in Belarus, 1943, and the ragtag resistance is doing what it can against the Nazi machine. We experience almost all of the nightmare through the eyes of Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), a 14-year-old who gets conscripted into the partisan ranks. Flyora doesn’t say much, but his features, dumbstruck with terror and disbelief, speak eloquently for him. He meets, and for a while accompanies, a girl named Glasha (Olga Mironova). They seem to bond solely by virtue of the agonizing and absurd reality they share. There’s no romance or even infatuation in store. War steamrolls over everything warm and comforting. Glasha may or may not even exist, except as a phantasm of grace and innocence in Flyora’s head.

Again and again we are shown how war reduces victims and victimizers alike to animals, except that animals are generally not so cruel. The narrative is anecdotal and splintered, though smoothly photographed (largely via Steadicam); there’s a bit towards the end, when an SS brigade goes from being boisterously evil and triumphant to being sniveling captives of the partisans, that takes us out of the movie — the part where the Nazis actually get defeated, which happens outside Flyora’s view, is just skipped over. I think Elem Klimov is ruthlessly efficient about what precisely he wants to show and convey. The important part of that whole section of the film — which incorporates the semi-climactic genocidal rage directed at a Belarusian village — isn’t who wins or loses, and how. Everyone loses. It’s the pity of war.

Shot in a squarish aspect ratio, with no concessions made to our need for catharsis or narrative tidiness, Come and See attempts no stylistic dazzlement whatsoever; it barely even has a style. The camera just stares at human faces creased in disgust or fear or devastation. “That is war,” Klimov might be saying, “no more, no less.” It shares more DNA with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc than with any standard war picture (at times, young Aleksei Kravchenko exudes the same frozen torment as Maria Falconetti in the Dreyer film). It’s not overtly political, either. Nobody sits around discussing how inhumane Hitler is, because the entirety of the film’s two hours and sixteen minutes is devoted to moment-to-moment survival. And yet all this stylelessness resolves into a stubborn vision of war as filth and waste, something to be strenuously depicted as the polar opposite of macho, righteous, cool. At its showiest, the filmmaking recreates an idea put forth in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, probably the most unheroic WWII novel ever written, and probably the greatest.

Aside from its 35th anniversary this year, we might wonder why Come and See is being revisited now. It may be a tale of Russian revolt against fascism, but it’s certainly not pro-Russia (or pro-anything). It paints the Nazis as degenerate primate sadists, which is fine, but seems to go a little past the usual such portrayal into caricature, almost. Then you find out the Nazis in the film are based on the real Dirlewanger Brigade, whose atrocities were so extreme that even some fellow Nazis found them over the top. These psychos burn an entire village alive inside a church, then get drunk or stuff their faces, as if at a tailgate party, in between bouts of rape and other assorted cruelties. When the tables are turned, they promptly throw each other under the bus and beg for their lives, while the saturnine partisan leader (Liubomiras Laucevičius, looking like Oscar Isaac in a bad mood) glowers — there are not very fine people on both sides here. The stoic commander is the one instance that Klimov allows himself some conventional war iconography, but at that point, I have to say, he has earned it. Most of the movie comes as close to what war must be like for the civilians caught in its midst as we would ever want to get.

Parasite

January 5, 2020

parasitefilm It’s clear pretty early on that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite — which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and may yet claim more trophies this awards season — isn’t meant to be taken literally. Taken seriously, yes, but not literally. The narrative has many, many moving parts, but the parts are also combustible, and they’re all arranged to detonate on cue for maximum damage. Bong makes you feel as though you’d damn well better catch every little detail, every flourish and filigree, because it’s all inexorably marching towards something. But that destination can’t be guessed at or controlled — it’s chaotic and brutal, and only retrospectively makes sense.

Parasite is yet another movie that demands to be evoked, not described (as a plot synopsis would just ruin the experience). Put simply, it’s the story of two families. One family, just scraping by, lives cramped together in a “semi-basement” apartment of the sort common in urban Korea. The other family is wealthy, and one of their bedrooms would probably take up as much space as the poorer family’s entire living area. Each family is perfectly nuclear — man, woman, boy, girl — and the son from the poor family gets himself hired to tutor the daughter from the rich family. And it doesn’t stop there; in short order, each member of the poor family ends up working for the rich family, none of whom realize their new employees are all related.

Okay, that’s a little far-fetched. It’s also narratively convenient; some of it depends on just the right character hearing just the right bit of information. But the point Bong wants us to get is how the families respond to each opening. Nitpick Parasite if you must, but you’ll be watching a different movie from the one Bong has made. The actual movie underneath all the ornate plot scaffolding has a lot of questions, some of which it can’t answer, though art isn’t built to answer questions but to pose them. Bong asks, first and foremost, what prosperity is built on, and how far down the hierarchy goes (not how far up). You may feel the boot of the oppressor on your neck, but are you also oppressing someone just by virtue of what you have and what they don’t? You may not intend to oppress, but in truth, few actively seek to do so — the ones who have more, and who oppress more, just benefit from a certain moral laxity, a willingness to tune out the screams and wails coming from below. In our culture of late, we have discussed white privilege, and how it doesn’t mean a white person’s life is easy in every way, just that it’s easier in every way than a comparable person of color’s life is. And there are privileges among the less privileged, too: a hetero African-American man enjoys freedoms that a gay African-American woman does not. And both have it easier than a disabled African-American does. They share one aspect of experience, blackness, but in other respects are not alike.

So that’s what Parasite is about, but it’s also about the duelling production designs of the poor family’s packed but lived-in pad and the rich family’s expansive but sparse rooms, including a vast living room whose vast window looks out onto a vast backyard, where the climax unfolds in such an abrupt series of feints and jabs that we may want to stop the film and go back — we don’t feel ready for it, even though we know we’re on an accelerating ride into the inferno. One action during the climax isn’t readable at first glance because, in the moment, we see the father of the poor family the way the father of the rich family sees him: not as a father but as a driver. But then we say, No, he’s a father, and what he does makes some sort of sense.

Parasite will drive the literal-minded around the bend, because its events pile up and sometimes recall the ruthless structure of a sitcom, or a slamming-door farce like Noises Off. Much is made of the smell of the underclass, or the rich little boy’s American Indian fantasies into which the grown men of both families are conscripted, or water as a harbinger of disaster and forestalled revelation. The movie is also a lot of smooth fun to watch, Bong being an entertainer above most else. Parasite flips through about ten different genres and takes the best bits of each; it feels like a relaxing buffet that expresses and sparks a love of cinema. Some of the suspense and incidents rubbed me the wrong way while I was watching, but in memory they gain stature and gravitas. Finally, it stakes its claim as a Juvenalian satire in which products are more than once praised because “we ordered it from America,” but we Americans probably shouldn’t take that as a compliment.

Roma

January 27, 2019

roma Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, considered the front-runner among the eight films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, comes pre-packaged with all sorts of hype about how personal and autobiographical it is for Cuarón and how artfully it has been realized. Every frame of the film could be isolated and hung on a wall, and maybe that’s what should be done with it. Roma is a beautiful boring movie. Cuarón’s laborious technique gets between us and the emotions we’re supposed to be drawing from the screen. What’s sad is that, after the accolades and awards, a fair number of people who actually sit through the thing may feel they’re the ones at fault, not refined enough to appreciate such a monumental work. To such viewers I can only say, It’s not your fault.

In outline it’s a nostalgic sketch set in 1970, when Cuarón was eight or nine, based on his family’s life in Colonia Roma, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City. The movie is dedicated to the family’s maid back then, named Cleo here and played (well and honestly) by novice actress Yalitza Aparicio. Cleo works for an educated, professional couple, whose relationship is on the rocks, and their four kids. She gets pregnant by a ne’er-do-well who, when she tells him the news, ditches her in a movie theater; the drama between them is upstaged by the far less fancy film showing on the screen (La Grande Vadrouille, a French war comedy) — my attention kept wandering to it. At least the movie within the movie moves.

Most of Roma is photographed (by Cuarón himself) in long shot, in lengthy takes. Some of the press has identified various aesthetic reasons for this, but it just keeps everything at a literal distance from us, and there’s a practical reason for the glacial pace — Cuarón wants you to see Roma in massive 70mm, the film fetishist’s preferred format (well, that or 16mm), and when you compose and edit for an image that large, the cuts can’t come too fast and furious or the movie will make everyone throw up. Meanwhile, on the home screen, which is where most of us will see Roma, it just feels pompously, pointlessly long. “Why are we watching Cleo walking this whole goddamn way,” I would gripe to myself, or “Oh goody, another slow pan across nothing much happening while yet another airplane passes meaningfully overhead.” There’s a scene where Cleo goes to find her slimy baby daddy at a martial-arts training class, and I swear we have to sit through what feels like 45 minutes of a bunch of guys doing wrathful martial-arts poses before we get to the point of the scene, which is him saying he wants nothing to do with the baby. The scene could’ve unfolded in a Burger King bathroom, but that wouldn’t have been as visually, Oscar-baitingly impressive.

I’m sorry; this all sounds harsh. Roma is, for me, a failure, but one on a higher level than a superhero movie or romcom that fails. It swings for the fences and whiffs, a big whistling whiff, but at least it swings. It’s not a cowardly bunt, and the emotionally transparent Yalitza Aparicio sustains us through a lot of it, with Marina de Tavira picking up slack as the family’s sad and angry mother. Roma has its too-facile plot points, like the revelation immediately preceding Cleo’s water breaking, and the dramatic sequence following it is blunted by, once again, Cuarón being extremely artful and clever with the camera placement. The water breaking is part of the film’s rampant water imagery, starting with the opening titles, with a window reflected off wet floor tiles — the movie is visually grandiloquent before it’s two minutes old. Every director has a polished nostalgic turd like this in them, and Roma is Cuarón’s. Now, perhaps, he can stop telling us what an artist he is and return to proving it.

Cold War

December 30, 2018

coldwar Together with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest work of beauty Cold War reminds modern viewers how lovely and, yes, roomy a film shot in the old, squarish Academy ratio can look. Towards the end, when the film’s star-crossed lovers are dropped off by a bus beneath a massive tree, they are dwarfed by it in a way they couldn’t be in a more conventional rectangular composition. Events global and intimate weigh on the protagonists, and the images (with the help of cinematographer Łukasz Żal), with their cavernous head room, imply that the very atmosphere itself is pressing down on the people.

Cold War, loosely inspired by the story of Pawlikowski’s parents, runs a brisk 88 minutes (including six or so minutes of end credits) and spans fifteen years. The next time some hot-shot blockbuster director brings a superhero movie in at north of two (or even two and a half) hours and tries to tell you the epic length is necessary, show them Cold War, which despite its brevity allows itself plenty of breathing room for ambiguity and elliptical storytelling. The couple, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), run across each other various times over the decade and a half, in Poland, in Moscow, in Berlin and Yugoslavia and Paris. Each encounter seems to make the same point about how they’re not meant for anyone else but can’t live together either.

The film’s approach to the romance (if that is the word) is a bit distanced, as though Pawlikowski had no idea what drew and bound together his own disputatious parents. Maybe he made the movie in order to find out, but I don’t think he succeeded, if so. The movie makes better sense as a metaphor for conflicting values or temperaments; she is art, he is business, she is confidence, he is fear, she is flexible, he is rigid. Most importantly, he defects to France and becomes a peripatetic session musician, while she legally goes wherever her ensemble goes and eventually builds a solo career. During all this, the music starts with peasant-authentic folk, then shifts to state-approved odes to authority, then jazz, then rock and roll; we see the evolution (or devolution, as some at the time would have said) of pop music in the mid-20th century.

Cold War has a classical old-Hollywood chiaroscuro sheen. Its black-and-white images heighten the starkness of the European settings during the titular era (1949-1964). It has its thematic and aesthetic ducks in a row; it’s an understated achievement of great elegance and awareness of the intractable illogic of people. As cinema, it’s near perfect, but there’s many another schlockier romance that actually makes us care about its lovers. Maybe if you go too far down the road of art you have to leave the basics of manipulation and pathos behind, the narrative beats that pull emotions out of us whether or not we want them to. Cold War doesn’t do that. It leaves us with a vague sadness about what might have been, and we sort of have to climb into the movie and flesh it out — imagine the dialogue we’re not privy to, the connective scenes of standard affection and attraction Pawlikowski artfully leaves out. In brief, Cold War rings the bells that respond to a gorgeous brushstroke, but ignores the basic matinee-goer’s desire to know why the boy and the girl get together, should be together, are destined to stay together.

The Night of the Virgin

June 10, 2018

night-of-the-virgin-film-review-spainish-564x264The gleefully repulsive Spanish horror-comedy The Night of the Virgin is what used to be called a party movie. You put it on late in the evening and watch all your friends either dig it or file out ashen-faced one by one. The virgin of the title is Nico (Javier Bódalo), barely out of his teens, who goes to a New Year’s Eve party looking to shed his V. He encounters Medea (Miriam Martín), a mysterious woman who has about three decades on him. Medea takes Nico back to her scummy, cockroach-infested apartment, and she wants to do something about his virginity, all right, but nowhere near in the way he expects or wants. There is, for example, a goddess named Naoshi who must be appeased.

Up front I should mention that the version of The Night of the Virgin that did the film-festival rounds for a couple of years ran almost two hours (and a common complaint was that you could feel the two hours). The version that I saw, and that will presumably be hitting video-on-demand soon, weighs in at about fifteen minutes shorter, though it looks to these eyes no less grotesque. Various bodily fluids still become buoyant, ready for their close-ups. Director Roberto San Sebastián and scripter Guillermo Guerrero may or may not be digging for metaphorical gold here — who knows? Most of it seems like a roughhouse gorehound reversal of that well-worn exploitation trope the violation of the virgin, who here is male. “Evil Has No Gender,” the tagline informs us.

This is the sort of film with character names like “Chica Vómito,” “Sodomita Pasivo” and — of course — “Sodomita Activo.” For all that, the sex in the film (in this cut, anyway) isn’t particularly graphic; and for all the liberal use of “maricón” to describe our hapless, horse-faced young protagonist, the movie seems driven by an absolute horror of hetero sex. No, the main event here is the volume of gouts, shpritzes, puddles and Pollock drip-painting of dark, syrupy blood, accompanied by comedically precise foley work on the various assaults on the flesh — enough wet squelching sounds to keep David Lynch chipper for days. The action is mostly limited to Medea’s ghastly apartment, the drama essentially a three-character play (Medea’s ex-boyfriend, played by Víctor Amilibia, makes an appearance about halfway through, eventually beseeching Nico through the locked door to sacrifice his virtue for the greater not-so-good).

What can make an antic splatterthon like The Night of the Virgin bearable and even fun despite its icky unpleasantness is some evidence of irrepressible personality on the part of its makers. When I saw Bad Taste all those years ago, could I — or anyone — have predicted that Peter Jackson, the man responsible for its farcical carnage seemingly inspired by Monty Python’s “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days,” would go on to become Tolkien’s obsessive film liaison with a row of Oscars on his shelf? Likely not, and the same goes for Guillermo del Toro, who took his own golden boy this past winter. Oliver Stone got his start with the z-budget horror Seizure. And so on.

That’s not to say that Roberto San Sebastián will be invited to the Dolby Theatre in the next ten years — but it’s also not to say he won’t. What he brings to the slimy party here is a certain sportive sadism. I’ll be curious what else San Sebastián does, what else interests him — is The Night of the Virgin the debut of a new genre star, joyfully coating the squares with bodily goo, or is it a calling card for someone who, having gotten the chaos and gunk out of his system, would now like to adapt Ibsen or Murakami? Again, I’m not sure if the events or uglinesses here are meant to represent anything larger than themselves, the way the pre-Black Knight spurts of blood through armor in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac indicated a need to strip the heroism out of the Arthurian legend, but I’m pretty sure this will be the only review of The Night of the Virgin to mention Bresson.

Vazante

April 15, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 5.26.26 PM“Why do whites love ouija boards?” asks a particularly trenchant internet meme. “If they want to learn about demons they can just go to ancestry.com.” Sharp, but not wrong. In Vazante, the first solo-directed feature by Brazilian filmmaker Daniela Thomas, we see some demons up close. In fact, Inti Briones’ rich black and white cinematography ensures that we perceive every wrinkle, sty, nook and cranny in the faces of the oppressors and the oppressed alike. Pictorially, Vazante (translating to English roughly as “ebb tide”) is unimpeachable, and more than once I felt its images might enjoy a gainful second life in a coffee-table book. “That’s lovely,” I’d say, or “Ah, the poetry of the muddy, puddly ground underneath the bare, shivering feet of African slaves trudging towards the failing diamond mine where they work,” and the aesthetics of the slaves’ anguish outweigh, I am afraid, the politics or reality of it.

I don’t suspect or accuse Daniela Thomas of amoral motives. I simply think she fell inadvertently into a Riefenstahl-like elevation of an evocation of time and place through picture and sound, at the expense of conveying much emotion about what happened in that time and place. The similarly rigorously archaic The Witch seemed to unearth themes and modern resonances from the arid soil of its milieu (and made us feel things — sometimes deeply divided things — about its people and their actions). Vazante seems neutral, at best, about the inhumanity it shows us. The owners and drivers of slaves don’t twirl their mustaches with wretched glee, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained or even Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave. Thomas has said she wanted to avoid the sort of exploitative, eroticized sadism of many slave narratives, and yet there’s not much here to replace those tropes. We don’t really get inside anyone’s head.

Worse, the plot carries a whiff of soap opera. At the start, the initial protagonist, slaveowner Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), arrives home to find that his wife has died in childbirth, as has their child. Despondent, Antonio drifts around for a while. Then he marries his 12-year-old niece Beatriz (Luana Nastas), while dallying with (well, technically raping) his slave Feliciana (Jai Baptista). Meanwhile, Beatriz develops her own thing with Feliciana’s son Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), who may or may not be Antonio’s son out of wedlock. Antonio lying morosely in his hammock becomes an almost amusingly frequent recurring image. So do scenes of Beatriz moping around Antonio’s house. Frankly, the movie starts to seem padded out, and fetishistically devoted to its visual scheme. We’re drawn to Beatriz largely because she’s virtually the only one we see smiling ever, not that a dour countenance would be uncalled-for in this story. But it’d be nice to have some levity, some lightness, even some music (aside from sparse singing and some tones under the end credits, there is none).

Vazante plucks at some plot threads only to lose track of them. The most egregious example is Lider (Toumani Kouyaté), a rebellious slave nobody can understand because nobody speaks his language. We don’t understand him either, because unlike the Portuguese-speakers in the movie, he isn’t subtitled. His character barely makes sense — one minute Lider is saving the life of the interim master he’s just escaped from, the next minute he’s back in chains, eventually ending up insane and eating mud and meeting his fate offscreen. The disregard for Lider, easily the film’s most intriguing creation, is chillingly thorough. Vazante wants to be a visual riff on the various souls destroyed by slavery, but it also can’t help shaking out as a study of a white man’s agony at being betrayed by everyone. There are memes about white people tears, too, though the movie’s final scream of horror might actually be funnier than any of them.

Tehran Taboo

February 25, 2018

Pari, Elias and Sara in a RestaurantWith animation, you can do anything, including circumventing repressive laws. In Tehran Taboo, the feature debut of Iranian animator/director Ali Soozandeh, the actors were filmed in various studios and locations in Germany, where Soozandeh has been self-exiled for 25 years. The backdrop of Tehran, where the film could not be shot due to its subject matter, was created via computer imaging; the actors were rotoscoped, or painted over with animation. The technique has been in use for about a hundred years, but never, I think, has it been used so directly in service of freedom of expression. (Usually it’s done to cut costs, or because it can look cool; the last major filmmaker to employ it was Richard Linklater in 2001’s Waking Life and 2006’s A Scanner Darkly.)

Tehran Taboo is a triptych of connected stories about sexual hypocrisy and misogyny of the sort that flourishes in Iran in the wake of the country’s rise of theocracy. Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), a prostitute, has to bring her mute little boy along with her on jobs; she wants to divorce her incarcerated, drug-addicted husband, but she needs his signature denoting his permission, which he won’t give. Eventually Pari gets what she needs from a judge, in exchange for her being a sort of kept woman for him; in her new apartment, she meets a neighbor, Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi), who wants to find work outside her home, but she needs her husband’s signature denoting … yeah, you guessed it. Sara is also pregnant, and her husband and his parents are concerned she might have a third “miscarriage.”

Pari finds herself helping a student and struggling DJ named Babak (Arash Marandi), who had a tryst with young woman Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh) in a nightclub toilet. Donya, who says she is engaged to be married to a brute never seen from the neck up, tells Babak he took her virginity and now must pay for surgery to make her hymen seem whole again. This system is insane — especially for women, of course, but secondarily for the men whose egos and blinkered consciousness it is constructed to protect. Babak just wanted some fun with a woman who liked him, and now he has to come up with a large chunk of money for a ludicrous, bogus mutilation.

Soozandeh and his gifted actors demonstrate how this kind of society mars everyone; however, some can thrive within it, while others fall. It seems to depend on how successfully one can turn off one’s humanity. The movie has been said to be a little outdated — the mores depicted in Tehran Taboo reputedly reflect how things were around the time Soozandeh left the country (although they’re not much better in a lot of ways now, and homosexuality is still punishable by death). Still, the movie speaks volumes about life for women in societies that value patriarchal religion over female experience. Yet Soozandeh keeps things personal, the conflict arising from the decisions women and men are forced to make in a place where only the elite can claim to have much agency.

The narrative is bleak and, in one case, tragic, but Soozandeh and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (I assume his compositions and color schemes were retained in the rotoscoping process?) don’t make Tehran Taboo a glum experience visually; the hues pop, rendering Tehran with a glittering magic that helps us understand why people would want to stay there despite the oppressive theocracy. (What creators of dystopian fictions always get wrong is the gunmetal-gray atmosphere of cultural blandness. If you’re going to lock down the people’s minds and souls you should at least allot them a few shiny things to look at, like skyscrapers at night, or their phones, or Netflix.) And amid the repression and pain there are some transcendent moments, some sweet shards of joy and leisure. The thickly lined bodies join together, come apart, fly or fall. Tehran Taboo captures a certain heated mood of fleshly revolt against the fundamentalist matrix — overripe at times, but vital.

A Fantastic Woman

February 4, 2018

fantasticwomanThe low-key but affecting Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman, one of 2017’s Best Foreign Language Film nominees, restores the smooth melancholic power of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Time,” long a staple of easy-listening radio. Here it feels like a deep bruise of loss. A Fantastic Woman uses the common grief narrative and the less common transgender narrative to illuminate each other. Marina (Daniela Vega) is involved with an older but smitten businessman, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After a night out for Marina’s birthday, followed by a loving night in, Orlando wakes up feeling ominously poorly. Within hours he is dying of an aneurysm, while she is symbolically locked out of the room where he is being ineffectually treated. The Parsons ballad plays twice — first during their last dance, when the song carries less meaning because we don’t yet know it’s their last dance, and then under the end credits, when it may bring a tear.

Marina is a transgender woman, and it becomes apparent that Orlando’s family hates her and considers her a freak — though I imagine they would also hate her if she were cisgender. Marina’s being transgender just gives Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) and adult though childish son (Nicolás Saavedra) something to fixate on. Others make it an issue, too, and against the dramatic backdrop of Marina’s grief and loneliness, A Fantastic Woman shows the thousand cuts transgender people weather daily, the endless, casually dealt challenges to their dignity and humanity, the misgendering and prurience about their bodies.

What sets the movie apart and may make it a cult favorite is that the director, Sebastián Lelio, gives Marina a poker face that hides a more flamboyant view of herself. A fantasy sequence finds her doing one of those empowering Living Out Loud center-of-(positive)-attention dances in a club; right afterward, she walks home alone in the rain, but for a while, anyway, Marina transcends her world. A waitress by day, Marina is also an up-and-coming singer (Daniela Vega, also a singer as well as transgender herself, has a lovely voice); this seems to indicate the partitioned lives and identities of transpeople. Marina’s case attracts the attention of a detective named Adriana (Amparo Noguera), whose curiosity about Marina seems ambiguous. In a roundabout way, Adriana seems to think Marina killed Orlando in self-defense. Adriana has seen many cases involving transpeople, you see, and she knows how often they are assaulted. I can’t decide whether this reasoning is transphobic or bitterly realistic or both. But because her job demands it, Adriana must think in this way, and Marina must contend with many other people who think that way, or worse.

The scene in which Orlando’s belligerent son and other family members take Marina for a non-consenting ride is uniquely upsetting, even though, other than wrapping Scotch tape around her head (a weird, weird detail that’s meant to silence her and temporarily deforms her), they don’t physically harm her. It’s good, I guess, that this and a few standard epithets are all they have in them; their bark is worse than their bite, and even that is a tinny “arf.” It’s debatable whether that’s worse than the scene in which she’s forced to bare first her upper half, then her lower half, for the camera of a police doctor. Or when she has to show her ID, which legally still displays her “deadname.” Or when Orlando’s ex-wife deadnames her. People like Marina of necessity develop a wary relationship to society, and the one person who loved her for who she was is dead.

A Fantastic Woman is and isn’t an ironic title; Marina strives to be read as an average, un-fantastic woman, but there’s that chanteuse side of her, the side that fantasizes being lifted up on the dance floor. Marina daydreams about the glamour she thinks she can’t have, but there’s a serene glamour in keeping one’s composure despite minute-by-minute chips taken out of one’s self-esteem, a million microaggressions. These concepts, obscure to the cisgender viewer, are smoothly advanced by way of a tragic tale of lost love. Essentially, like Living Out Loud and Truly, Madly, Deeply and a ton of others, it’s about a grieving woman who learns how to move on; such movies’ success depends more on what they do with this subject than on how original the subject is. A Fantastic Woman lets us see grief through a fresh pair of eyes.

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

November 19, 2017

Valerian-and-the-City-of-a-Thousand-Planets-(France)-1-FullI can’t quite bring myself to convince you that the entire two hours and seventeen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are worth sitting through for Rihanna’s appearance some eighty minutes in. Soon enough, she becomes a blue blob and later turns to dust. But she’s fun while she lasts, as a shape-shifting performer named Bubble who helps the titular hero, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), rescue his captured partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). For twenty minutes or so, Rihanna is a suavely fierce nonactress adding some welcome grit and personality to a mix that includes far too many aliens and special effects, far too little humanity.

Valerian is great-looking but awful, a combination that has sadly become the stock in trade of the once-impressive Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element, Lucy). Those who found The Fifth Element a jocular piece of futuristic excess but a bit on the empty-calorie side won’t find much to plug into here; the meaning of the movie is simply to get Valerian and Laureline from one hectic, shiny set piece to the next, barely stopping for a breath or even a scenery-chewing villain performance from the likes of Gary Oldman (who brightened Leon and Fifth Element). Here we get only the grouchy Clive Owen as our heroes’ commander, who gives orders to wipe out an entire species of alien pearl farmers, one of whom stows away in Valerian’s body after dying.

Look, I could go on discussing plot points to prove I saw the film, but you’ll just have to trust me. Valerian has tons of plot but no real story to speak of; our heroes hurtle to and fro to get justice for the aliens, and that’s all there is to it. The movie is so pointlessly eventful and convoluted, though, that it feels more complicated than it is. It doesn’t help than DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry or presence; DeHaan has a gruff dudebro voice like Keanu Reeves’, only without Keanu’s soulfulness, and Delevingne often just seems vaguely inconvenienced, glassy-eyed with indifference for the material. (The two have matching hollow pouts, and they both have arrogantly unmusical voices.) DeHaan does bestir himself when trading lines with Rihanna, though that just serves to prove he has a pulse. Her boss, called Jolly the Pimp, is given a naughty twinkle by Ethan Hawke, but he’s not around for long, either. (I tend to think Hawke opened the script, saw his character’s name, and signed on just on the strength of being able to play a character called Jolly the Pimp.)

What we get here instead of interesting humans is a flock of CGI aliens (the one voiced by John Goodman is amusingly stern) and various scenes of the heroes’ spaceship streaking heedlessly through space, or through trippy environments, and for minutes at a time we might as well be watching animation demo footage unconnected to any context of any interest. Valerian may be welcomed as eye candy by kids and by aficionados of controlled substances, but it offers nothing for someone who merely buckles in for a good time at the movies. Besson also no longer knows what to do with interesting humans when he has them. Rutger Hauer is tossed aside after punching his time card for what our British actor friends call a cough and a spit role; Herbie Hancock is in it, mostly seen as a hologram scolding the heroes. An international cast mumbles stale dialogue in person or as the voices of aliens.

The overstuffed yet empty Valerian is nothing new, of course; we’ve been getting this sort of flatulent, pricey “entertainment” for decades, and it’s not going to end any time soon. Every so often a Get Out or a Wonder breaks out, because it scratches a previously neglected itch, or it speaks to people. Valerian and its ilk speak to no one, although they are engineered to appeal across continents, languages, cultures. Everyone understands things blowing up. Yet you have to drive out of your way for an hour to see, say, a French film for grown-ups (Valerian is based on French comics), while plastic junk like this blurts onto 3,500 screens in America — then slinks off after nine weeks having made back a fraction of its cost. Its failure in America (and in general, worldwide) would be encouraging if we didn’t still get a hundred movies like it every year.