L’avventura — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avventura” is the first in a trilogy of modernist relationship films the auteur created to reflect Italy’s post-war crisis of desensitized culture trapped in an identity of alienation. Notable for its distinct lack of empathetic characters and slow pacing “L’Avventura” met with fierce criticism during its premiere at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival where it was widely jeered. It wasn’t until four months later that the beautifully composed film appreciated respect at the London Film Festival, where it won a prize for “the most original and imaginative entry to be shown.”
Antonioni subverted his mentor Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist ethos into an equally minimalist style, but one that examined the mindset of Italy’s upper class rather than neorealism’s exclusive concern with the working class. The enigmatic story for “L’avventura” follows Anna (Lea Massari), the daughter of an Italian diplomat. Anna’s wealthy boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a disillusioned architect. Anna’s undeniably beautiful friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) joins Anna and Sandro for a boating trip to the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily with two wealthy couples whose relationships suffer. Adultery is in the air. A bored husband describes his wife as similar to Oscar Wilde. “Give her luxuries and she’ll do without the little necessities.” The nature of the remark is given context by another character that claims, “If you don’t quote someone, you die.” These are people who have everything, and yet are incapable of expressing love or respect. Only lust and desire matter.
Once on the jagged shores of the remote island, Anna and Sandro discuss their relationship. Upset at Sandro’s month-long business trips, Anna dismisses their marriage plans since they are already living like an unhappy married couple. The thought of losing Sandro makes Anna “want to die,” and yet she doesn’t “feel” him when they are together. In close proximity to the group, Anna mysteriously vanishes. She is nowhere to be found. Sandro and Claudia remain on the island while the others leave to send for a search team. Anna’s father arrives the next day. Upon discovering a bible in his daughter’s luggage, he dismisses the idea she committed suicide.
Once back in Italy, Sandro engages ineffectual local police and a journalist who covered Anna’s disappearance but nothing comes to fruition. Sandro and Claudia strike up a romance that obliterates all memory of Anna. The emotional substitution works only up to a point.
“L’avventura” is a haunting film that presages Fellini’s post-modern cinema, and informs the French New Wave that gave way to such iconic auteurs as Jean Luc Goddard. Antonioni’s depiction of Italian males as beauty-obsessed dogs flips on itself to show a similar phenomenon in the privileged women who audaciously pursue Sandro at the extravagant San Domenico Palace Hotel where Sandro hunts for fresh meat while Claudia sleeps in their room. No one is satisfied.
Colossal Youth — CLASSIC FILM PICK
“Ascetic,” “austere,” and “challenging” are typical adjectives that critics reach for when describing Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s enigmatic films. Costa’s theatrically bound approach to narrative structure is so striped down and existential in its nature that his audience is left to sink or swim on the still breezes of stark cinematic poetry the filmmaker provides. Working in a purely proletarian manner with a skeleton crew of three or four friends enables the director to obtain a delicacy of substance and bare dramatic inflection unavailable to most filmmakers. Windows are an essential image system Costa uses to artificially light scenes with a clinical shade of white that sears the drama into the viewer’s mind.
“Colossal Youth” (or “Forward Youth,” as its French title “En Avant Jeunesse!” translates) completes a trilogy of films placed in the since-demolished Fontaínhas district of Lisbon, where a shantytown ghetto inhabited by a community of creole-speaking Cape Verdean refugees struggle for daily survival. Heroin and methadone addiction exacerbates the hardships suffered in this dark place. Vanda — a returning character from “In Vanda’s Room,” the second film in Costa’s trilogy, is a key character here in the “houses of the dead.”
A tall thin black man called Ventura navigates between the ghetto and glaringly white project housing units built to shelter him and his destitute neighbors. Ventura is the actual man who serves as Pedro Costa’s muse for the melancholy existence that unfolds on the screen. Dressed in a black suit and dirty white dress shirt, Ventura represents a patriarchal phantom, or even prophet, visiting with friends and family members who refer to him as “Papa.” They too represent ghosts of generations of oppressed and impoverished peoples.
Ventura’s wife Coltilde inexplicably abandons him after throwing their worldly possessions out their window and stabbing him in the hand with a knife. The film opens with her giving a monologue through a darkened window while holding the small blade. She condemns everyone. Still, Ventura remains preoccupied with the idea of reuniting with Coltilde. The prematurely old-seeming Ventura frequently recites a love letter he teaches to his adult son, so that his descendant might tell it to Coltilde should she ever return. Memories and traditions are being wiped out, only to be replaced with prefab architecture and the economic constraints that go along with economically imposed slavery.
Marcel Proust and James Joyce are literary relations to Pedro Costa’s cinema of timeless recognition. How human beings learn from history in the face of unending injustice, or retain their dignity when everything is taken from them, are just a couple of the titanic issues Pedro Costa grapples with. It wouldn’t be reasonable if “Colossal Youth” weren’t a challenging film.
Guy Maddin's euphoric black-and-white phantasmagoria of nostalgic filmmaking washes over its audience like a storm of hot and cold hail. A dreamscape atmosphere of theatrical danger arrives with psychosexual implications, imperial gestures, tricks of light, and a fetishized appreciation for all things physical — the more worn by age, the better. Guy Maddin's love of cinematic illusion fills every crack of fractured narrative space. If all of this tightly wound passion comes across as an acquired taste, then so much better to activate a rarified audience experience.
Jason Patrick carries a mythic weight around his neck as Ulysses — a smalltime mobster returning to his family home after a long absence. A team of police waits outside while Ulysses and his men take refuge in the house, which is teeming with ghosts. Downstairs, Ulysses’s adult son Manners (David Wontner) goes unrecognized by his father who kidnapped him. Upstairs, Ulysses’s late wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) bides her time in bed with her naked and shriveled ghost of her father (Louis Negin). Fortunately for her she can open doors with her hair.
“Keyhole” is a puzzle of a movie Freud would have a field day with. Maddin might have been loosely inspired by Homer’s “Odyssey,” but you’ll have a tough time untangling the thematic threads that cross like so many telephone wires from a long gone era. The off-kilter images and fuzzy storyline are more likely to give you nightmares than daydreams. Think of “Keyhole” as an avant-garde melodrama to cleanse you palate of all of the insipid Hollywood crap you’ve ever seen over the years. You need it.
Rated R. 105 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
4:44 Last Day on Earth
Filmmaking legend Abel Ferrara adds his own installment to the cinema of apocalypse with a stagey reverie occuring, like Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” of the last day of human existence. At “4:44” am, global warming is set to come calling once and for all. Aside from a few suicides, Manhattan appears to take the doomsday alert in stride. Although the linear storyline is made up mainly of uncomfortable Skype conversations, lovemaking sessions between Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh, and a signature Abel Ferrara drug interlude, the movie holds a weird theatrical charm.
Usually, cameos detract from a picture, but brief appearances by Natasha Lyonne and Paz de la Huerta work wonders. Defoe plays Cisco, an East Village ex-junkie bohemian living in a penthouse loft apartment with his young painter girlfriend Skye (Leigh).
“Where are the experts?” Cisco’s burning question leads him to an energetic burst of anger as he shouts at people across the street from his rooftop vantage point. Inside the apartment Skye meditates without breaking concentration. Evidently, she’s used to such dramatic outbursts from her mate.
Abel Ferrara peaked a long time ago, but his unique cinematic take on Manhattan is always a welcome distraction. “4:44 Last Day on Earth” is enjoyable for those New York-informed or inspired audiences that can appreciate the drama for what it is, a work of cinematic art from a director whose taste we appreciate. The film won’t appeal to a broad commercial audience, but for those of us who love Abel Ferrara’s work for his own particular sense of filmic madness, it’s a welcome movie.
Not Rated. 85 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
This Is Not a Film
Facing almost certain jail time, and exiled to his apartment under a government-imposed house arrest and ban from making films, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi records a day of his existence with the help of a cameraman named Mirtahmasb. Some of the film was shot on an iPhone. The experimental result certainly meets the demands of its title. There is no storyline or even much of a plot except that of the external forces that threaten to come crashing into Panahi’s elegant apartment at any moment. A giant crane from a nearby construction site passes uncomfortably close to our subject’s face as he waters plants on his balcony. His pet iguana Igi likes to dig his claws into Panahi as he uses his master’s t-shirt covered chest as a ladder to gain higher ground on the couch where Panahi looks on his laptop and drinks tea. A DVD copy of the lame thriller “Buried” sits prominently on a shelf as an ironic commentary on the situation at hand.
Bored to distraction, Jafar Panahi uses some of the time to tell the camera the story of a film he wasn’t allowed to make. Talk about grace under pressure. Using tape to mark out a girl’s bedroom on a large carpet, the filmmaker slips into a kind of directorial reverie that doesn’t translate very well. Upset at the limitations of his attempt at storytelling, he allows himself to be distracted by thinks like phone calls with his attorney about his appeal against a six-year prison sentence.
Smuggled out of Iran on a USB hidden inside a cake sent to the Cannes Film Festival as a last-minute submission, “This Is Not a Film” is a rough document of life in Iran from the perspective of a persecuted intellectual. The fireworks that punctuate the night sky could easily be mistaken for gunfire. More than a clandestine documentary, “This Is Not a Film” is a revolutionary act. Hopefully, it won’t be his last.
Not Rated. 75 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
El Topo - Classic Film Pick
Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970 avant-garde showpiece of transgressive cinema revolutionized the commercial landscape of what was possible for an "art film" to achieve. Jodorowsky's off-kilter use of religious symbols and Western genre motifs, against a visually open palate of a Mexican desert, fit naturally into the era's lexicon of drug use. "El Topo" became the catalyst for the Midnight Movie phenomenon where stoned audiences returned week after week to absorb unusual films--the bloodier or weirder the better.
In spite of its limited production values, "El Topo" is an obviously ambitious effort. Jodorowsky employs asymmetrical storytelling devices in conjunction with exploitation elements of violence and sex to weave an inventive film that challenges its audience on intellectual and visceral levels. The filmmaker’s abundant casting of dwarfs, amputees, and nonprofessional actors adds to an atmosphere of seething underground rebellion.
“El Topo” announces its bizarre socio-political allegory in an opening pre-roll that describes a protagonist mole digging tunnels toward the sky only to discover that when he finally breaks through, the sun blinds him. That brief synopsis encapsulates the A-B story that follows.
El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) is the film's allegorical mole. He is a black-clad avenging cowboy who differs significantly from the Don Quixote archetype upon which he is loosely based. El Topo’s naked six-year-old son rides on horseback with his father. They arrive at a recently massacred town covered in paint-textured blood. Corpses cover the ground. A dying man crawls, begging to be put out of his misery. El Topo hands his son his pistol to do the honors. The vulnerably naked child complies. Jodorowsky's version of a brave new world is a retro post-apocalyptic country where life is cheap. El Topo hunts down the fascist Colonel responsible for the massacre and castrates him, prompting the autocrat’s consequent suicide. Our hero abandons his son in the care of monks in the interest of taking off with a passionate woman of the desert. He names her Mara. Their relationship turns on her demands that El Topo prove himself as the best gunfighter around. Mara encourages her lover to engage in duels with religious zealots from four divergent disciplines, existing in nomadic isolation. The ethically challenged El Topo cheats to dispatch his holy rivals until he sees through his contravention. El Topo’s dubious victories momentarily satisfy Mara before she slips into a lesbian affair with a whip-wielding dominatrix. The outlaw destroys his pistol before transitioning into a Christ-like phase of existence that makes up film’s ladder half where our mole of salvation attempts to free a community of deformed people by digging through their cave toward the relative freedom of a Western-styled town run by violent cultists.
For all of its easily mocked elements, “El Topo” is a work of mad cinematic genius that stays with you.
In the Realm of the Senses - Classic Film Pick
Nagisa Oshima's towering influence over world cinema came as a result of the counter-culture self-identity he developed while involved in '50s-era student protest movements at Kyoto University. After stumbling into a filmmaking position at Japan's state-run Shockiku film studio in 1954, Oshima snaked his way through Japan's New Wave film movement of the '60s with groundbreaking films such as "Night and Fog in Japan"--a film whose controversial nature caused him to leave the studio and launch his own independent production company. Oshima's fiercely leftist temperament was not given to repetition or to safe subject matter. Instead he gravitated toward topical allegories based on actual events that questioned Japanese social mores. He consistently reinvented his cinematic approach with each new project so that no two of his films are alike.
Under the inspiration of adventurous French producer Anatole Dauman, Oshima set out to go beyond the constraints of Japan's thriving Roman Pink industry. “In the Realm of the Senses” would be a pornographic depiction of the legendary story of a woman named Sada Abe, who remains a unique folk heroine in Japan. Oshima was also intent on celebrating Japan’s erotic traditions which had been diminished by foreign influences, especially after World War II.
After working for years as a prostitute at the age of 31 the real-life Sade Abe took on a restaurant job in Tokyo where she fell into a torrid affair with its married owner, Kichizo Ishida. The couple's sexually obsessive relationship led to their running away together to stay at various hotels where they could explore their sexuality to its farthest limits. After several weeks Sada brought the affair to an abrupt end when she strangled her lover before severing his genitals. Sada carried her lover’s penis and testicles in her purse until she was caught by police several days after the murder.
In Oshima's formally composed film Eiko Matsuda plays Sada to Tatsuya Fuji's Ishida. Set almost strictly indoors the episodic story gains momentum through increasingly fetishistic sexual games between the lovers, often in the presence of voyeuristic geishas who arrive to entertain or bring food. Several of the geishas fall under the spell of the couple’s sexual activity to become willing or unwilling participants. Sada’s ferocious insatiability comes to dominate Ishida who accepts his place as an ardently willing slave to her sensual desires.
With its juxtaposed camera angles, bright color palate, purposeful foreshadowing, and taboo subject matter “In the Realm of the Senses” builds an inevitable type of suspense not unlike what you experience in a Hitchcock film. That graphic sexual expression is the narrative currency Oshima uses to explicate a connection between sex and death only adds to the film’s incalculable power to provoke, offend, frighten, and spellbind its audience.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay Can’t Commit to Horror
By Cole Smithey
Forced, stultifying, and artificial beyond belief, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's off-key treatment of Lionel Shriver's novel. Ramsay co-wrote the screenplay with brother-in-law Rory Kinnear. The story is about a bad-seed son who terrorizes his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) from the minute he's born.
Unsure of whether it wants to be a cynical drama or a horror thriller, the poorly paced film inches through Kevin's bad behavior from infant to teenager. The only thing more reprehensible than Kevin’s unwarranted hatred of his mother is his parents’ unwillingness to straighten the kid out even as his behavior spirals out of control.
Kevin plays nice when daddy Franklin (played by a miscast John C. Reilly) is around but he has a knack for methodically pushing his mom's buttons the rest of the time. As an infant, Kevin never stops screaming, except when dad’s around. At six-years-old, Kevin trashes his mom's newly designed home office with a squirt gun filled with paint. Discipline is off the table. Instead, daddy gives Kevin a toy bow-and-arrow set reinforced by readings from Robin Hood--the only book Kevin owns. Later, Kevin will graduate to a high-powered bow, also given as a gift from pops. The teenaged Kevin is bound for disaster. However, when the much foreshadowed crisis moment finally comes, it arrives with all the force of an overflowing bathtub—not the least because it occurs off-screen.
Production designer Judy Becker’s lazy approach relegates the film’s mise en scène to an afterthought. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a text book example of how not to design a film. Everything is bright shiny surfaces without texture or depth. Context is nowhere in sight.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” plays like a narrative negative. What the viewer sees are all the extraneous scenes between what should be shown. It’s as if the editor confused what was on the editing room floor with what should have gone into the projector.
Filmed in stagnate fly-on-the-wall compositions, the film emphasizes Tilda Swinton's inscrutable performance as a woman unable or unwilling to come to grips with her nightmare spawn. In short, Eva is the same brand of idiot as her husband and her diabolical son. There’s no one to empathize with in the story-not even Kevin’s abused younger sister who barely shows up except to be inexplicably blinded in one eye by her hateful sibling.
Some people should never be parents; some children should never be born; some novels don't deserve to be made into films. "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a minimalist mystery with no hook. Whether there’s more to Shiver’s novel of “maternal ambivalence” is immaterial. The movie sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from a well executed art film like "Melancholia," whose characters take action in a framework of fertile social commentary. Rather, “Kevin” falls into a pejorative category with half-films such as “Martha Marcy May Marlene” or “Shame” where the abstract narrative and underdeveloped themes never connect. It’s not enough to instigate suspense. There has to be a story. Moreover there has to be character development. You won’t find any such luxuries here.
The parents of a psychopathic child don’t even bother to have the conversation the film's title suggests. Perhaps the filmmakers hope their audience will do their verbal articulation for them in circular what-if conversations. Sadly, there isn't much to say about Kevin except that he wasn't properly disciplined as a child and so he went all Columbine without going so far as to take his own life. A year ago Mumblecore was the dumbest film movement around. Now dumb is the province of a minimalist subgenre that has yet to be named. Perhaps we should call it the “Shame on Martha and Kevin” movement. Let’s just hope it stops here. Film audiences should be so lucky.
Rated R. 112 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
A bold feminist exploitation think-piece about the perceived and disguised societal demands placed on women, "Sleeping Beauty" is a hauntingly erotic film that languishes in the recesses of your subconscious. With the producing endorsement of famed director Jane Campion ("The Piano"), Australian novelist-turned-filmmaker Julia Leigh explores what she terms "Wonder Cinema" by way of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, upon which she embellishes and extrapolates. Yasunari Kawabata's "The House of Sleeping Beauties" and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" are meaningful tomes of reference.
Waifish Emily Browning ("The Uninvited") is Lucy, an Australian college student working various jobs to make ends meet. She gives her esophagus and stomach up to paid medical testing, works in a restaurant, and collates copies for a tyrannical female boss. In her spare time the freespirited lass likes to indulge in spontaneous meat-market pick-ups with random men and women. Casual drug use is also on her menu. Ideals of shame or restraint are not in Lucy's vocabulary. She's a poker-faced extreme urban explorer.
Emily takes on a high-paid position as a nude banquet server for private dinner parties in the private mansion of an elegant Madame named Clara (Rachael Blake). After serving her first dinner party, Lucy burns a hundred dollar note from her ample pay. Capitalism, you see, isn't her motivation in life. The fearless femme de provocation is promoted to the position of a sleeper. Mistress Clara administers a sleeping potion that ensures Lucy's unconscious state for a male client to do with as he pleases in bed--short of marking or penetrating Lucy's ridiculously nubile body. The idea of semi-impotent older men paying to lie next to an unconscious woman connects to the obvious choice one such man might make to end his life during the experience. The three episodes we witness reflect on damaged male psyches grappling desperately for a self-identifying, albeit clinical and economic, conquest. Each episode is prefigured by a host/client chat which allows for some character explanation on the part of the ostensibly misogynistic men.
In her private time Lucy likes to spend time with her best friend, an alcoholic bachelor edging closer to committing suicide. The two communicate in a shorthand of polite repartee that disguises their deeper emotional issues. The subplot is the most forced in the film, but contributes a layer of altruism to Lucy's transparent identity.
This deeply sensual character exists at the polar opposite of American cinema's Mumblecore movement of dumbed-down slackerdom. Lucy takes action with gusto even if it means giving herself wholly over to an experience with which she cannot consciously interact. "Sleeping Beauty" is an artistic exploitation film meant to rankle bourgeoisie attitudes of propriety. It’s a dirty job, and Julia Leigh has done it with panache.
Not Rated. 104 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Mill and the Cross
Very few audiences will ever see Lech Majewski’s glorious work of filmic art. What a shame. “The Mill and the Cross” represents the closest that any filmmaker has come in the age-old pursuit of translating a painting into a living, breathing, cinematic context. Without putting too fine a point on Majewski’s accomplishment, with the help of some very dedicated crewmembers, “The Mill and the Cross” is a dazzling examination and explication of Pieter Brugel’s fourteenth century panoramic masterpiece “The Way to Calvary.”
Anyone familiar with Brugel’s magnificent painting knows it depicts a complex tableau containing more than 500 citizens of Flanders in 1564. The occupying Spanish Army represents the authority responsible for carrying out Christ’s execution before a huge crowd of followers. Rutger Hauer plays Brugel, whose patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York) commissions the painting. A spider web gives Brugel the compositional template to stage seven focal points for his manifold narrative. Christ’s Passion is the barely visible drama that unfolds at the center of the landscape, set in a valley. A high tower-shaped rock mountain provides the elevated foundation for a overlooking mill that represents God’s vantage point for all that transpires below.
History, art, and political criticism collide in Majewski’s deconstructionist approach. A young farmer and his wife enjoy a picnic before being interrupted by the arrival of Spanish troops. The husband makes the mistake of running down the road where he must surely be captured and tortured before being tied to a Catherine wheel elevated in the sky where vultures pluck away at his tattered flesh.
Placing living actors against the background of Brugel’s painting allows the filmmakers to use computer-generated technology in a way that cinemagoers have never experienced before. Much more so than a film like “Avatar,” “The Mill and the Cross” exerts an imaginative use of 2D and 3D technology toward a film that invites the audience inside state-of-the-art technology to interpret an artistic statement of colossal scope. Critics say this a lot, but this film really should only be viewed on the big screen.
Not Rated. 97 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)