Posts Tagged ‘2010s’

Given that the central nugget of Paul Schrader’s biographical legend—the one fact endlessly cited in reviews of his films as if it explained everything about the man and his work, for better or for worse—is that he had a strict Calvinist upbringing and did not see his first film until he was seventeen, it is all the more dispiriting that, as a writer-director, he seems incapable of functioning independently of his influences. Indeed, to judge by “First Reformed” (2017)—which recycles massive, undigested chunks of Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de compagne (1951) (a solitary priest keeps a diary while dying of stomach cancer and drinking copiously), Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963) (with global warming substituted for nuclear war and Victoria Hill for Ingrid Thulin), and Schrader’s own script for Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), itself largely derived from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) and Dostoevsky by way of Bresson—one might guess that he learned everything he knows about spiritual angst from watching European art movies. As in the Bergman film, Schrader’s protagonist, Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), is the minister of a small church where one of the few remaining parishioners is a young man with a pregnant wife who is driven to despair by the spectre of an impending apocalypse and takes his own life; the twist is that here the young man is an environmental activist, and his death pushes Rev. Toller to become more outspoken about the moral outrage of man-made climate change and eventually to plot a terrorist act. This at least is an innovation on Winter Light, where the possibility of any type of political action is simply not on the table. But while the theme of environmental collapse and a clumsily executed levitation fantasy both suggest the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, Schrader has not updated the Russian master’s reactionary sexual politics: The only roles for women he seems capable of imagining are as opportunities for carnal sin (Hill) or as madonnas promising renewal for the hero (Amanda Seyfried as the dead man’s widow). Also mildly innovative, if not particularly purposeful, is the film’s locked down camera style which largely eschews reframings, yielding compositions that are conspicuously decentred when they are not emphatically symmetrical. And despite its familiarity, the plot does manage to generate a certain degree of suspense, though ultimately Schrader winds up blowing it with an unsatisfying final scene—cribbed from Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), which Schrader wrote—that, in true Hollywood fashion, posits heterosexual romance as a solution to all the world’s problems.


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My report on the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks as always to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it. Since writing this article, I was able to catch up with Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which — in spite of its stylistically awkward conclusion — rivals Western as the best and most moving narrative film in this year’s festival. On the other hand, I don’t consider Darren Aronofsky’s mother! a success as its allegorical story isn’t grounded in enough realistic detail (few real poets can support themselves on their work alone, much less afford a house like the one in the movie), and I didn’t really enjoy watching it, but it’s such an audacious and at times exciting failure that you should probably see it anyway, if you haven’t already.

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My report on the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks once again to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it.

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My review of László Nemes’ Son of Saul for Offscreen. My thanks to the editor, Donato Totaro, both for accepting it and for putting it up so quickly.

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Note: This blog entry contains spoilers.

Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) is one seriously weird movie but not in a good way. It starts out as a realistic drama about Sri Lankan refugees adapting to life in a French housing estate and then gradually morphs into a multiculti retread of Death Wish (1974) with a Tamil Charles Bronson mowing down street trash. I found the latter more compelling than the former (which tends to drag), but Audiard seems reluctant to go all the way with it, keeping one foot in the art house and the other in the grindhouse. Ultimately, one gets the sense he couldn’t make up his mind which kind of film he wanted to make.

The opening scenes in Sri Lanka are promising. The movie begins with an extreme long shot of some men placing branches on a pile, and the relaxed tempo of the action and the sound of leaves blowing in the wind create a contemplative mood. So it’s all the more surprising when the film cuts in to a closer view, revealing that the men are building a funeral pyre with several bodies on it. As it’s never explained who the people were or who killed them, it’s unclear why their deaths inspire a member of the Tamil Tigers (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) to burn his uniform and defect.¹ Furthermore, the narration elides the details of his escape, instead cutting to a refugee camp where a young woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) walks around asking every child she sees if they have any parents. The subsequent revelation that she and the ex-Tiger are planning to go to Europe using the passports of a dead family cues the viewer to infer a sequence of events the narration has omitted.

Once the characters arrive in France, however, our interest turns from their pasts to future events—namely, how they’ll fare in their new lives. Accordingly, the narration becomes much more communicative, showing how the ex-Tiger (who assumes the name Dheepan) secures refugee status for himself and his new family with the help of a sympathetic translator (Nathan Anthonypilai), and their arrival in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, where Dheepan becomes caretaker of a neglected housing estate and the young woman, now called Yalini, finds work cooking and cleaning for a senile invalid (Faouzi Bensaïdi). Only the material involving the various drug gangs operating in the estate is handled obliquely so as to emphasize the impact of gang violence on Dheepan’s family. When representatives of the two factions start shooting it out in one of the buildings, it’s not explained why the situation turns sour, and the camera remains outside with Yalini and her new daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby).

As the characters goals are somewhat vague for much of the movie, the plot tends to proceed in fits and starts, lacking the sure-footedness of Audiard’s Un prophète (2009). At one point, Dheepan visits a deranged former colonel in the Tigers, who beats Dheepan viciously when he tries to tell him the war’s over and then disappears from the film entirely. And while Yalini is evidently attracted to the invalid’s grandson, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers)—a recently paroled gang member who likes her curry—they never get beyond making small talk. In one sequence, a low-level drug dealer explains to Dheepan the advantages of hiring people from outside the community to do his job, leading one to assume Dheepan will start selling drugs to buy a thaali for Yalini. Instead, he literally draws a line through the estate’s courtyard and forbids the gang members to cross it.

It’s at this point that the plot promises to become interesting but Audiard doesn’t follow through. Instead of developing the conflict between Dheepan and the gangsters as an escalating back and forth exchange, à la Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), here Brahim threatens to kill him if he doesn’t back down and Dheepan responds by producing a machete and going on a rampage. (Earlier, he appeared to be forming a vigilante army with his caretaker buddies, but contra Hawks, when the time comes for action, he inexplicably decides to go it alone.) What’s more, Audiard perversely underplays what should be the film’s dramatic highpoint by shooting it in a sub-Bressonian fashion, keeping the camera on Dheepan’s feet as he slashes his way up the stairs of the apartment building where Brahim lives with his grandfather, and by having Brahim (who’s already been shot by a professional rival) bleed to death off camera before Dheepan arrives, thereby depriving us of a final showdown. The movie gives a whole new meaning to the idea of “vulgar auteurism.”

1. In a review for the Guardian, Andrew Pulver proposed an alternative explanation: The war is already over when the story opens and the men are burning the bodies of their dead comrades. Accordingly, Dheepan isn’t a deserter but a defeated soldier trying to pass for a civilian refugee. Regardless of which explanation is correct (and admittedly, I find this account more persuasive than my own), the very fact of different viewers making disparate inferences about the story is indicative of just how uncommunicative the narration is in this part of the movie.

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In October, I submitted a festival report on the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (mostly about the Wavelengths section) to the online journal Offscreen, and the editor, Donato Totaro, was kind enough to accept it. The new issue just went up and you can read my article there.

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Jia Zhangke’s first movie about his hometown since Unknown Pleasures (2002), Mountains May Depart (2015) is both a throwback to his early work and something of a departure. For one thing, he places his characters much closer to the camera than in his previous films — necessitating more cutting within scenes and lots of panning back and forth in the first section of the movie, which Jia shoots in the squarish academy ratio. Consequently, it’s all the more surprising when Liangzi (Liang Jindong) punches out his nouveau riche romantic rival, Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), as he only enters the frame a few milliseconds before making impact — whereas had we seen him approaching, we might’ve been able to anticipate the blow.

The story opens in early 1999 when Liangzi (who has a job handing out helmets to coal miners) and Jinsheng vie for the affections of Tao (Zhao Tao), who works in a stereo shop in Fenyang. In contrast with the more easygoing Liangzi, Jinsheng is possessive and creepy, so it’s a bit of a mystery why Tao chooses him, especially after standing up to him when he demands she stop seeing Liangzi. Accordingly, the movie doesn’t need to explain why they ultimately divorce when the story skips ahead fifteen years to find Tao back in Fenyang after several years in Shanghai, where Jinsheng is living with their seven year old son, Daole (aka Dollar). The last section of the film is set in Australia in 2025 and centres on a teenage Daole (Dong Zijiang), whose longing for his estranged mother manifests itself as an attraction to his equally lonely professor, Mia (Sylvia Chang).

In both Platform (2000) and this movie, Jia associates pop music with the end of Maoism and the economic reforms of the 1980s — changes he views with some ambivalence. Mountains May Depart opens with a euphoric group dance number accompanied by the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” (1993) — which alludes to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe — and ends with a touching solo set to the same song, implying that China’s move from socialism to capitalism has made the characters freer but lonelier. (Or as Jinsheng puts it, “Freedom is bullshit!”) At the same time, however, a Cantonese pop album creates a bond between the characters (as well as helping to unify the episodic plot). Jinsheng impulsively buys it from a couple who come into Tao’s shop so he can give it to her, and soon after they become a couple. In 2014, Tao plays it for Daole during his first and only visit to Fenyang, and hearing it again in Mia’s class causes him to associate her with his mother.

Jia underscores the characters’ increasing remoteness from one another by shooting each of the film’s three segments in a different aspect ratio, starting out narrow and gradually widening as the characters become more dispersed. The early scenes, set during Chinese New Year celebrations, are swarming with out of focus background activity, and on the soundtrack, one hears a cacophony of offscreen noises, while the movie’s Australian settings are antiseptically clean, colourless, and sparsely populated. The harsh sound of Jinsheng cocking a gun in the middle of a tense conversation is shocking not only because it occurs offscreen without warning (we don’t even see him pick up the gun, much less cock it) but also due to the absence of other noises which makes it seem even louder. It’s touches like this that make Jia mainland China’s greatest living filmmaker.

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