Archive for May, 2013

I haven’t seen Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (2003) since its release, but I remember being fascinated at the time by the unresolved ambiguity in the film as to whether or not its subjects — a middle-aged computer teacher and his teenage son who both went to prison for child molestation — were actually guilty. By way of contrast, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (2012) is unambiguously the story of an innocent man wrongly accused. The hero, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), is a conspicuously normal elementary school teacher who’s accused of exposing himself to one of his students, but there can be no doubt regarding his innocence as we know that it was actually the girl’s brother who showed her some pornographic images on his computer. Therefore, the central issue isn’t whether or not Lucas is guilty but how he’s mistreated by the local community.

In addition to establishing Lucas’ innocence from the outset, the film makes it easy to sympathize with his plight by characterizing him as a secular saint who doesn’t have any flaws whatsoever, lest the abuse he suffers come across as a form of karmic retribution — the implication being that this is something that can happen to anybody. On the other hand, the movie makes it easy to feel superior to the school principal (Susse Wold) by portraying her as a blithering idiot who informs the community of the allegations against Lucas before any police investigation can occur. What’s more, the harassment Lucas endures — which continues even after he’s cleared by the cops — is so extreme and unrelenting that I half suspect that Lars von Trier had an uncredited hand in writing the screenplay. There’s one scene in particular, in which Lucas makes a trip to the grocery store and is assaulted by the staff, that wouldn’t feel out of place in one of Trier’s female martyrdom films. This is certainly a compelling yarn, though it’s a bit startling how much it resembles a passion play.

End of the Century

Although it touches on some of the darker aspects of prostitution, Bertrand Bonello’s L’Apollonide—Souvenirs de la maison close (2011) is anything but a simple condemnation. The film takes place in a ritzy Parisian brothel at the turn of the twentieth century where opium addiction and syphilis are not unheard of, and early in the story, one of the girls is permanently scarred by a client — an event that the movie obsessively returns to on several occasions, showing different pieces of it in flashbacks that are spread out over the course of the film. (Indeed, even some of the more benign encounters we see are made to seem ominous by the unsettling music.) But while the movie is in part a critique of a system that kept women in perpetual bondage through debts they could never pay off, and the restrictive laws which allowed prostitution in licensed brothels (known as “maisons de tolérance” or “maisons closes”) but prohibited the girls from going outside unescorted as it was considered solicitation, it also mourns the brothels’ disappearance by contrasting the vanished opulence of the belle époque with the harsh reality of the present.

The story begins in the fall of 1899 when the eponymous brothel, L’Apollonide, is at the pinnacle of its splendor. However, when the landlord decides to raise the rent, the madam (Noémie Lvovsky) has no choice but to close up shop. Therefore, even though brothels weren’t outlawed in France until 1946, the film identifies them exclusively with the nineteenth century. Significantly, just before Madeline (Alice Barnole) has her face slashed, one of her colleagues predicts that the twentieth century will be the era of Jewish beauty (Madeline’s nom de guerre is “The Jewess”), implying that the beauty of the nineteenth century was destroyed by the violence of the twentieth. And as Madeleine’s disfigurement marks the beginning of the end for L’Apollonide, the closing of the brothel a few months later seems to represent the death of beauty. Accordingly, the movie ends with a brief epilogue set in the present and shot on low-grade digital video in which one of the girls from L’Apollonide, looking haggard and dressed in trashy clothes, gets out of a car that drops her off in front of an overpass where another prostitute is waiting to get picked up. It’s a sign of progress even that she can walk down the street, but she sure doesn’t look glamourous doing it.


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Not to be confused with the new Cristian Mungiu film Beyond the Hills, Emin Alper’s Beyond the Hill (Tepenin Ardı) (also 2012) is a kind of Turkish Western about a divided family coming together to fight a common enemy. The family patriarch, Faik (Tamer Levent), lives in the countryside on an isolated farm, and during a visit from his two sons and their families, fault lines begin to emerge within the clan. The eldest son, Nusret (Reha Özcan), is a professor of literature who lives a comfortable life in the city, in contrast with his brother, Mehmet (Mehmet Ozgur), a heavy drinker who spends half the year on the farm helping his father — though Faik is equally disappointed in both of them. Meanwhile, the old man is involved in a turf war with some gypsies who’ve been grazing their goats on his land since the time of the Ottoman Empire. This could almost be a film by John Ford or Anthony Mann except for the spare, elliptical storytelling, which takes its time revealing information about the characters and leaves a number of unanswered questions.

The movie begins by aligning us with Faik in his dispute with the gypsies and then complicates our identification with him without ever quite overturning it. In the film’s opening sequence, an unseen attacker (possibly a gypsy) thrashes some saplings with a stick, though it’s only much later that we learn his probable motive. Accordingly, it seems that Faik is a good man defending his property against a band of savages until Mehmet’s wife, Meryem (Banu Fotocan), reveals to Nusret that Faik beat a shepherd and took one of his goats a few days earlier when he caught the man trespassing on his land. What’s more, our certainty in the gypsies’ guilt is undermined when Mehmet — who’s also angry with Faik for snatching his goats — takes his revenge on what’s left of the saplings. Later in the movie, there are three separate shootings, but as they all occur off camera, we can’t be sure if it was a gypsy or a member of the family who pulled the trigger, leaving open the possibility that the family is responsible for all the violence in the story. Beautifully framed in ‘Scope and full of unresolved ambiguities, this is the kind of Western that Michelangelo Antonioni might’ve made.

A much gentler family drama, Yoji Yamada’s Tokyo Family (2013) begins with a teenage boy coming home from school to find that his mother has moved his desk into his little brother’s room, and when he asks her what’s going on, she tells him that his grandparents are coming to stay with them for a short visit. Shot for shot and line for line, this sequence duplicates an early scene in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), but it’s already apparent that this isn’t simply going to be a carbon copy of the original. For starters, Yoji eliminates the opening scenes in Onomichi introducing the grandparents, Shukichi (played here by Isao Hashimuza) and Tomiko (Kazuo Yoshiyuki), and reduces the number of children they have from five to three. But while none of Yoji’s changes to the story strike me as improvements, it’s worth comparing this film with Ozu’s as it demonstrates how two movies can be very similar, and at the same time, fundamentally different.

The most significant change Yoji makes is to revive the grandparents’ third child, Shoji (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who in Ozu’s film was killed during the war. Yoji makes him a struggling set designer who Shukichi regards as a failure, and in doing so, he subtly shifts the story’s overall emphasis. Where the earlier movie judged the children according to how they treated their parents during their trip, this film is primarily about Shukichi coming to accept his son’s mildly unconventional lifestyle. Accordingly, Noriko (Yo Aoi) is Shoji’s girlfriend rather than his widow and she has a very different function in the narrative. In the original, it was Noriko who went out of her way to accommodate the grandparents during their trip (something none of their biological children were willing to do), but here it’s Shoji who picks up the slack. However, it’s only after meeting Noriko that Tomiko can die in peace, knowing that Shoji has a good woman to look after him. Consequently, even though it includes the sort of emotional deathbed scenes that Ozu elided, this film is generally lighter and more optimistic than the original. To be sure, this isn’t a great movie like Tokyo Story, but the comparison makes it more interesting than it would be viewed in isolation.

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This blog entry contains spoilers.

For me, the most impressive thing about Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the second collaboration between screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, is its novelistic storytelling. Divided into six chapters, the story centers on a CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who spends nine years doggedly pursuing Osama bin Laden through his personal courier. But while the movie forgoes the banal relationship subplot usually found in Hollywood films about obsessive quests (several reviewers have likened the movie to David Fincher’s Zodiac [2007]), it isn’t quite as singleminded as its heroine. This is particularly evident in the film’s third chapter, in which one of Maya’s colleagues (Jennifer Ehle) brings in a possible al-Qaeda turncoat for a meeting and it literally blows up in her face. At first, this episode seems largely extraneous as Maya doesn’t make any progress towards achieving her goal; it’s purpose only becomes apparent later on when she tells another agent that she believes she was “spared” in order to finish the job.

As this scene suggests, the film isn’t a defense of torture (as some commentators have alleged) so much as jumping to conclusions because you want something to be true. Eventually, the courier leads Maya’s team to a compound in Abbottabad, but while she knows in her bones that bin Laden is hiding in that house, the White House is reluctant to authorize a drone strike: “The President [Barack Obama] is a thoughtful, analytical guy. He needs proof.” However, despite the movie’s heralding of intuition over dispassionate analysis, the plot is presented in a dry, procedural style (à la Fincher) that reaches its apex — or rather, its nadir — in the climatic raid on bin Laden’s compound. Since all of the soldiers involved in the raid are wearing night-vision goggles, we can’t read their emotions, and Maya — the character with whom the viewer most closely identifies with — is absent altogether. There aren’t even any reaction shots of her listening to radio communications back at the base to give the viewer strong emotional cues. Accordingly, while this held my attention for all of its 160 minutes, ultimately it’s a film that I admire more than love.

Similarly novelistic, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is divided into two largely self-contained movements. The story begins in Texas two years before the Civil War with a German-American bounty hunter, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), enlisting a recently freed slave, Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), to help him track down and execute several plantation overseers suspected of cattle rustling. Impressed by Django’s talent, Schultz takes him on as an apprentice, and in the film’s longer second movement, they travel to Mississippi to find Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who’s been sold to a slave owner there. Of course, this being a Tarantino movie, the two leads wind up killing nearly everyone in sight, but in contrast with his previous film, Inglourious Basterds (2009) — where the heroes (and by implication, the viewer) were almost, but not quite, as reprehensible as the villains — here the story is painted in much starker terms.

After all, the movie is essentially about two heroes trying to rescue a damsel in distress. It’s therefore necessary for the film to portray the slave owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCapprio), as a sadistic monster — he’s first seen in a brothel getting off on a “Mandingo” wrestling match, in which two slaves fight each other to the death — so if one feels any qualm about Schultz’s decision to shoot Candie rather than shake his hand, it’s only because it precipitates his own death. Accordingly, the violence in the movie is either upsetting or comical depending on who’s on the receiving end of it. The Mandingo wrestling match and a scene in which a runaway slave is ripped apart by dogs (which both serve to establish Candie’s cruelty) are too gruesome to be taken lightly, but when Django shoots Candie’s sister (Lara Cayouette) in cold blood, the manner in which her body flies backwards through the air is so cartoonish that it gets a laugh. In a review in the New York Times, A.O. Scott called the film “a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism,” but if you ask me, I think it’s a delightful romp.

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