Archive for the ‘foreign’ category

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.

Tom of Finland

October 15, 2017

tomoffinlandTouko Laaksonen, better known as the fetish artist Tom of Finland, liked to draw what aroused him: beefy men in uniform, or leather, or leather uniform. A veteran of World War II, Touko seemed to draw his aesthetic partly from the Nazis, with whom the Finnish army fought against the Soviet Union in an example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend — kind of.” (Finland stayed independent and never formally allied with Nazi Germany; near the end of the war the two countries got into it with each other anyway.) I don’t think the new Finnish biopic Tom of Finland gets into the Nazi thing, which is probably for the best; by his own admission, Touko was never particularly political at heart, though his work ended up being plenty political.

Touko (Pekka Strang) cuts an artsy figure — with his porkpie hat and mustache, he resembles a Eurotrash R. Crumb (whose bizarrely sexual comics, like Touko’s art, are as notorious as they are renowned). He slouches around Finland, furtively pursuing men in parks or at “poker parties” and risking arrest. (Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in Finland until 1971.) He has a job in advertising, and on the side he draws painstaking pictures of men posing alone or in twos or threes, sometimes busy, sometimes just bulging. What made Touko’s drawings so magnetic to gay men in later years, and what gives them a spark that transcends the usual porn, is that they come from such an obvious, desperate place of, well, concupiscence. It was his inner orgy life given form, though in technique it was, as one critic said, illustrative but not expressive. The men’s expressions are sullen or glazed over with lust (there are some exceptions). The blankness of their faces is a good screen on which the viewer can project his fantasies.

The movie’s Touko seems to follow suit, eventually shopping for leather-daddy gear and becoming one of his own stolid cartoons. Touku never seems especially cheerful or even happy. The frequent same-sex encounters are filmed rather neutrally by straight director Dome Karukoski. The heart of the movie is in the relationships between Touku and those who love him, such as his disapproving sister (Jessica Grabowsky), or his younger lover who succumbs to AIDS, or the Californian gays who invite him out to see the impact he had on American rough-trade culture (in the West Coast ‘70s as well as the Helsinki ‘40s, it’s all about butch hair and mustaches and shared cigarettes and sexuality so aggressively lunging it seems almost like Kabuki at times). What we don’t know is whether he loves them back — or can. The film cites Touko’s wartime stabbing to death of a Russian paratrooper as the event that froze his soul, took him out of the human race and sidelined him as a watcher, an artist.

Once the movie gets to California and the snarky twinks and amiable bears who revere Tom of Finland’s work, its outlook improves and it shakes off, at least temporarily, the Helsinki blues. It does spend a lot of our time beforehand being dreary (though, as lighted by cinematographer Lasse Frank, gorgeously dreary — not drearily dreary as in the recent England Is Mine). I found myself wanting a whole movie documenting Touko’s bright years in the ‘70s, before AIDS decimated the community and before Touko himself fell to emphysema in 1991. But in order to appreciate Touko’s liberation and vindication in his later years we need to see the repression/oppression of his youth. In the ‘40s, Touko passes one of his naughtier drawings under a toilet stall as a come-on; he gets a fat lip for his troubles. Fast-forward to the ‘70s, and dudes are dueling with giant inflatable phalluses at pool parties where wayward police, rather than being feared, are catcalled.

That juicy round of hooting at embarrassed cops who, in another time and place, would have been arresting the whole party is gratifying and about as close as Tom of Finland comes to pure comedy — except when it shows us Touko’s work. The drawing has the fizz of an artist mesmerized by his own onanistic images, like all those so-aroused-it-hurts drawings by R. Crumb of fat-bottomed girls, or S. Clay Wilson’s seething panoramas of filth. It has wit, and a refreshing lack of sentiment. Would that the same were true of the film, which goes a little soft (flaccid, if you will) near the end, with a bunny brought into a dying man’s hospital room — the scene is, I think, a mistake. But most of the handsomely assembled film pays tribute not to the man’s pornography but to the way it pointed gay men away from shame towards pride, like an arrow, or like something similarly shaped.


May 7, 2017

alena-jpgThe Swedish horror drama Alena, out on American DVD this week, is an awfully slow burn. Normally I’m behind that, but this movie makes its earlier countryman Let the Right One In seem like an explosion in a chimpanzee factory. It feels a bit padded out, perhaps because it was: It began as a 59-minute piece for Swedish TV, then got expanded a bit to feature length. Despite that, I recommend it to fans of Let the Right One In: the sullen, angsty mood is well sustained, the performances are on point, and the movie applies artsy touches to scenes that could have been sleazy retro exploitation. Well, they kind of are anyway, but it’s amusing to see them accomplished with Bergmanesque somberness.

Amalia Holm carries the movie as the eponymous Alena, a disturbed teenager who’s just been transferred to a ritzy boarding school. There she swiftly runs afoul of resident bully Filippa (Molly Nutley), the school’s star lacrosse player, whose rich dad contributes a lot to the school’s funding. Not only is Alena a potential threat to Filippa’s standing on the team, she also attracts the cool loner Fabienne (Felice Jankell), whom Filippa wants for herself. The level of same-sex yearning here may satisfy those who enjoyed Lost and Delirious and The Moth Diaries, though those films were helmed by women and Alena was directed by a man, Daniel di Grado, who seems to have jettisoned almost every male character except a fleetingly seen kid and the lacrosse team’s easily intimidated coach.

What tips Alena into the neighborhood of horror is its treatment of a mysterious character from Alena’s past — Josefin (Rebecka Nyman), who follows Alena everywhere and who is, to say the least, more than first meets the eye. Josefin seems to bring violence whenever she shows up, especially in a potentially icky scene in which another of Alena’s classmates is confined in a locker room with Alena. Is she real, a ghost, or simply Alena’s mind luxuriating in her guilt? Could be all three, though the rules of her influence on her surroundings are murky.

The movie takes its time, creates its own chilly world run by female angels and demons. Alena is both, and Amalia Holm’s performance is properly uningratiating. She makes Alena an avatar for repressed, abused youth, like Carrie White in all her iterations, or Angela Bettis’ May. Innocence of a sort is represented not by the film’s namesake but by the rich Fabienne, who doesn’t care about Filippa’s mean-girl games and who appreciates Alena’s gauche outsider aura, complete with chopped-up hair dyed black, which might be a nod to Swedish goth-geek goddess Lisbeth Salander in either of her iterations.

Alena on some level is a compilation of tropes and influences, a calling card for its first-time cowriter/director. It won’t dazzle anyone with its originality. But it’s a sturdy, carefully wrought calling card with considerable feeling for its wounded subjects, and that’s not nothing. Di Grado has a sense of compassion for these troubled girls, even the destructive and conniving Filippa. Eventually the movie leans more heavily towards drama than horror, which is fine; it’s just the characters facing up to the consequences of their actions. The horror derives from pain and grief reaching from the past into the present.

They Call Me Jeeg

March 5, 2017

they_call_me_jeeg_italy_390The grimly realistic Roman superhero drama They Call Me Jeeg, which swept the Italian equivalent of the Oscars last year and will soon open in America, doesn’t put any particular emphasis on its feats of power and heroism. They just happen, in a gray-blue gunmetal world, and sometimes they go viral on YouTube. The title, perhaps bewildering to some, refers to a 1975 Japanese anime called Steel Jeeg. The protagonist, career thief Enzo Ceccotti (Claudio Santamaria), falls into a submerged barrel of toxic waste and emerges with heightened strength and healing powers. Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), the mentally unstable daughter of one of Enzo’s associates, is obsessed with Steel Jeeg and sees the newly super Enzo as her long-awaited Jeeg. At first, though, Enzo does nothing more noble with his gifts than, say, ripping off an ATM. And when I say “ripping off an ATM,” I mean he literally rips it off of a building.

In a movie like this, special effects are used in a matter-of-fact way, and it often leads to strange, memorable details; in a Marvel or DC superhero movie, for instance, you won’t hear the unique hollow thud-thud of a shoe being shaken with a severed toe rattling around inside it. You’ll hear it in They Call Me Jeeg, for sure. But you’ll also see things like Enzo making a ferris wheel turn with his bare hands to cheer up Alessia, who’s in one of the cabins — it’s a nicely understated but still grandly romantic moment. The severed toe belongs, or belonged, to Enzo, who has already healed from gunshots and now assumes he can simply duct-tape the toe back onto its little stump and wait for the flesh and bone to meld. What happens the following day is a deadpan sick joke, and it establishes that this slice of fantasy in a grubby real world has its limits. Enzo can’t fly, for example, but he can survive long falls, though even then he rises slowly and has to shake off the effects of the impact.

Even a stubbly superhero like Enzo needs a supervillain, and he gets one in the form of Fabio (Luca Marinelli), a manic and preening young gangster who relishes the theater of evildoing. Fabio fancies himself a singer and used to be on Italy’s version of Big Brother. He’s always holding rallies in his head, and the numbers are tremendous. At first I thought Marinelli’s performance was cringe-worthy, but soon realized he was playing a scared kid playing a bad-ass — putting layers of identity on the character. His flashy corruption runs counter to the cracked innocence of Alessia; Ilenia Pastorelli makes her a shattered girl stronger in the broken places, with a fantasist’s desperately escapist zeal. The acting in They Call Me Jeeg is far better than it needed to be, sharper and respectful of people’s complexities and need to see themselves as the center of their stories. The movie sneaks up and bounces some satirical riffs off of the nature of fame in the selfie/YouTube/Instagram culture.

The climax involves cobwebbed tropes like the ticking bomb and the antagonists facing off one last, big time. But director Gabriele Mainetti dials down the traditional histrionics, and we end up thinking more about the people involved. On some level, They Call Me Jeeg walks the same path as previous überschmuck films like Super, Defendor, Ichi the Killer, and Chronicle. But it also comments on its own genre in a way that those films more or less didn’t. The characters’ imaginations have been fed by the same pop culture that feeds ours; everyone acts the roles of the people they would like to be, but we see the cracks in the façades. Those cracks fuel the tensions of the film far more than punches or explosions do.

We Are the Flesh

January 15, 2017

wearethefleshEvery so often you need a movie that’s so defiantly uningratiating (and often unpleasant) it seems to clear the air, like an especially intense thunderstorm, and demonstrate that art doesn’t always play nice. The surreal, sexually explicit Mexican art-house horror film We Are the Flesh unfolds in a cruel universe occupied most of the time by only three characters, bringing in other people only to feed them into the meat grinder (figuratively — or maybe literally; it’s that kind of film). It is steadfastly not for everyone, yet I feel it’s important to note such work; it is also heartfelt about the point it seems to be making about the soulless squalor of society — or at least the society it depicts, which may not have a lot to do with society as we know it. Art doesn’t always play fair, either.

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter sets up a scenario that sometimes feels like an Off-Off-Broadway play. It appears to be the days after apocalypse. A mysterious man named Mariano (Noé Hernández) lives alone in what seems to be an abandoned asylum, building things or taping up liquids into large drums or obtaining food through a tray in the wall. Two siblings, Fauna (Maria Evoli) and Lucio (Diego Gamaliel), break in to rob him. Instead, he dominates them and makes them have sex with each other — something they warm to after some (not much) initial resistance. During his onanistic oversight of these events, Mariano dies, but then is reborn through a slimy tunnel in the wall. The siblings, especially Fauna, seem altered by Mariano’s influence.

In a way, We Are the Flesh is a contemptuous fulfillment of what voyeuristic audiences claim to want from entertainment. It’s full of sex, drugs (a substance in an eye-dropper), and violence. But these things are presented in an aggressively weird, anti-audience manner; it gives you what you want in ways you didn’t want it. The movie isn’t completely devoted to Funny Games-style game-playing, though. On another level it seems quite sincere about its message of madness, and admirably committed to it. It has an addled purity, and the purity extends to its rigorous if sometimes chaotic use of cinema to express inexpressible states of emotion. The camera trembles, spins, lurches, zooms, and other times stays pristinely still or lingers. The color scheme begins with despairing grays, the shades of a corpse, but then the corpse gradually wakes up until blood flushes its skin with red.

The movie’s very context itself is untrustworthy: what’s real and what isn’t? There’s no baseline of sanity here — it begins on a savage and dimly intelligible note and keeps playing that note. Faced with nonsense, the brain seeks the solace of allegory. Everything comes to seem abstract, everyone a representation rather than a person. That’s also how a brain can shield itself from onscreen atrocities, and there are a lot of them as We Are the Flesh winds down. Maybe it’s best simply to say we’re getting life as seen through the filter of an outraged, terrified artist, a heightened, gory reality presided over by demons.

Is Mariano the devil? Or is he a construct to give the siblings license to sin — much like God and Satan? Noé Hernández plays him as a man delighted by each potential of perversity, each corruption of innocence, he happens to run across. Mariano doesn’t go out and recruit souls; he mostly stays holed up, and the souls come to him. Is Emiliano Rocha Minter saying that we hold our souls so cheaply we’ll simply offer them to Satan? Or, in this context, is Lucifer more of a chaotic-neutral agent, happily flouting hypocritical moral codes? We Are the Flesh could inspire evenings of fervent disputation and interpretation, but first there needs to be an audience for it, and for this? I’m not so sure. There was once a time, though.