November 10, 2019

Denver Film Festival - A Final Roundup

Today marks the end of the 42nd Denver Film Festival. The following are shorter pieces on the films seen over the weekend.

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Swallow
Carlo Mirabella-Davis - 2019
IFC

In his feature directorial debut, Mirabella-Davis lays his themes clearly with the shot of a frightened baby lamb that knows its getting prepared to be slaughtered. We are soon introduced to Hunter, a young woman who has married into a family of one percenters. Dad has given the newlyweds a showroom perfect multi-million dollar glass mansion that emphasizes the isolation Hunter feels, while her husband, Richard, is at work as a top exec in his father's company. Unintentionally, Austin Powell as Richard, vaguely resembles Donald Trump, Jr. with his closely trimmed beard. Hunter, marginalized by her husband and his family, but unable to articulate her feelings, begins a habit of swallowing small, and increasingly sharp objects when she learns she is pregnant.

As one who prefers an over-determined visual style to a film with no discernible style, Mirabella-Davis' film makes extensive use of a set design with frames within frames, isolating the characters in their individual spaces. The film serves as a showcase for Haley Bennett, whose characters morphs from the overly pliant housewife who speaks barely above a whisper, to a woman discovering her own sense of agency. This is a psychological horror film where the sight of Bennett ingesting a push pin is among the least disquieting images.

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The Wild Goose Lake / Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui
Diao Yinan - 2019
Film Movement

Diao's newest film since Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), again with Kwei Lun-mei, and contemporary film noir in China. Hu Ge is a member of a crime family that steals motorbikes. After shooting a rival gang member in the leg, he's on the run, from police as well as other gang members. Kwei has arranged to have Hu turned in to the police on his own terms, with reward money going to Hu's wife. The film takes place in an unnamed "Second tier city", with the characters speaking the Wuhan dialect of central China.

While the narrative is not as tight as as Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao seems to have fun sneaking in visual references primarily from some classic films of the Forties. A slight nod to The Lady from Shanghai with a set of distorted mirrors, and big shadows on the walls of the pursuers and the pursued from several films by Carol Reed. Kwei may be the only other person to light two cigarettes in her mouth at once since Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager. There are also the indelible images of the splatter of blood against an open while umbrella, and the sight of a small army of cops seen in the distance, with only their florescent sneakers visible in the distance.

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Cunningham
Alla Kovgan - 2019
Magnolia Pictures

I was interested in seeing this documentary on choreographer Merce Cunningham because it was shown in 3D. Previously, I had seen Wim Wender's 3D documentary on Pina Bausch (2011), and the British film, StreetDance, a narrative film by choreographers Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini. The use of space and depth perception is rarely in effective use by Kovgan. The film's strength is as a record of Cunningham's life and work between 1942 and 1972 using a combination of stills, previous documentary footage, recorded interviews, and recreations of several of Cunningham's works in atypical settings - including a forest, a pedestrian overpass, and a New York City high rise rooftop.

Where the 3D if most effective is for the recreation of the dance, "Rain Forest". The quartet of dancers move on a bare set, black, surrounded by silver pillows designed by Andy Warhol that float and bounce between them. Where 3D is most effective is when there are moments when there is the sense of an image spilling beyond the screen. Kovgan keeps everything at a polite distance, which may be fine for the balletomane, but is the antithesis of visually dynamic cinema.

November 08, 2019

Denver Film Festival - A Girl Missing

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Yokogao
Koji Fukada - 2019
Film Movement

Some things never change. One of Akira Kurosawa's lesser known films, Scandal, is about two celebrities, an artist and a singer, who meet at a resort. A photograph of them having breakfast together is published in a tabloid with the headline that the two are engaged in a love affair. That the story is false and has repercussions on the lives of the artist and the singer is of no concern to the paparazzi. For Kurosawa, his film was about ""he rise of the press in Japan and its habitual confusion of freedom with license. Personal privacy is never respected and the scandal sheets are the worst offenders."

A Girl Missing is primarily about the fallout after a high school student, Saki, is temporarily abducted. This is an apparently spontaneous act by a young man who happens to be the nephew of Ichiko, the nurse of Saki's grandmother. The relationship that Ichiko tries to hide, or at least downplay, does not stay secret for long as she is pursued by journalists who initially want more information on the nephew. Ichiko becomes the subject of tabloid fodder and sees her life spiraling out of control. Ichiko's past words and actions are shifted in such a way as to be used against her, making her appear as the real criminal.

The Japanese title translates as "Side Profile". There are two sides of Ichiko, the caring nurse seen caring for the grandmother, her own sense of self prior to the kidnapping, and then the version as presented by the tabloids that eventually causes the loss of her job, her fiancé and her home. There is also a third face as Ichiko renames herself Risa in a bid to break from her past life. The narrative is also fractured, by past and present, and by moments that are revealed to be Ichiko's dreams.

A Girl Missing primarily belongs to Mariko Tsutsui as Ichiko. For those who complain that there are few interesting roles for older actresses, Tsutsui, currently 59 years old, is able to play a woman who has moments with a total lack of inhibition. She is able to convey the frustration of someone who is herself a victim of various social codes, only able to depend on herself. There is the sense at the end of the film of tightly bound fierceness, that there is no way to correct the past, that you can only move forward.

November 06, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Marighella

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Wagner Moura - 2019
ArtMattan Productions

It was a bit disappointing for me that the screening of Marighella was lightly attended. The fact is that as a result of the last election in Brazil that saw the ascent of Jair Bolsonaro, this is now a Brazilian film that Brazilians can not see. There are controversies regarding Wagner's presentation of Carlos Marighella regarding his political views as well as the casting of Seu Jorge in terms of racial representation. But for those even casually following events in Brazil, it is easy to see that Bolsonaro would want to limit the exposure of a film that follows government activity following the U.S. backed military coup that took place in 1964, that lasted for twenty-one years. For Bolsonaro and his followers that era is subject for nostalgia and commemoration.

The film is structured as a thriller. There is Marighella's organizing of stealing weapons and robbing a bank in order to finance armed insurrection with a small group that shares his political beliefs. There are also scenes of the police detective, Lucio, who doggedly pursues Marighella and his gang on behalf of the government. Lucio's obsession, which means also opposing U.S. diplomats, is somewhat akin to Javert's pursuit of Jean Valjean in Les Misarables. On Marighella's side, there is discussion of the political basis for taking direct action and a justification for what may be described as terrorism. For Lucio, the law means that even stating that there is political dissent is an illegal act, and that torture and murder are justifiable when done on behalf of the state.

The scenes of torture and the brutality of the police make Marighella difficult to watch at times. For stateside viewers, there is the added discomfort of seeing how the U.S. government has strongarmed certain countries in the name of fighting Communism. What was totally unintended by Wagner in making the film is not only that Jair Bolsonaro has been working to revive some of the repressive aspects from that previous era, but that he has found kinship with Donald Trump which some may find troubling.

Marighella is the directorial debut of Wagner Moura, better known as the star of the Netflix series, Narcos as well as his role in the two Brazilian Elite Squad films. While Moura's own politics are well known in Brazil, as he stated in an interview: "This film is not a response to any particular government, especially this one. I didn’t make the film as an opposition to any particular government, but of course any piece of art has to have a conversation with its own time. So, the way the film will be received in Brazil cannot be detached from the reality we are living here."

November 05, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Laughing

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Ride
Valerio Mastandrea - 2018
01 Distribution

Until I saw his filmography, I didn't realize I had seen Valerio Mastandrea in several films. The Italian actor might not be well-known in the U.S., but think of him as the equivalent in talent to Jack Nicholson. He even won both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in the Italian equivalent to the Oscars in 2013. Laughing is his debut film as a director.

The title is a bit misleading as this is not a comedy, or at least how most would define it. Perhaps a comedy of manners, but even that might lead to more specific kinds of expectations. Mastandrea's film is about how death is dealt with by the survivors - a wife and child, father and brother, coworkers and acquaintances. The film takes place the day before the funeral of a man, 35 years old, who suddenly died at work. Mastandrea portrays the awkwardness of offering condolences, and the individual ways people will internal process death.

Rather than depend on a more traditional form of exposition, Mastandrea demands that the audience pick up clues as to who the characters are, and their relationship to each other. The results is almost like eavesdropping on the conversations. The film begins with a conversation between the young widow, Carolina, and her ten year old son, Bruno, sitting across each other at a small dinner table. Bruno is asking about what would be appropriate to wear at a funeral, but it is not until later that the viewer is able to identify whose funeral is the subject of discussion. Later, sitting by herself, Carolina plays the Ultravox song, "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes" on a stereo. Carolina appears to be sitting rigidly, unmoved by this very danceable song about lost love. Mastandrea cuts to a shot of Carolina's foot tapping to the rhythm.

In an interview, Mastandrea has stated that the Italian title should be translated as "She Laughs". Carolina doesn't laugh but finds herself almost trapped by others who wish to share their grief with her or their expectations of how a widow is to look and behave. The only concession to tradition is being dressed in black, but in this Carolina is quite casual with her black shirt and jeans, pixie hair cut, and face free of make-up. Out of habit she continues to leave an empty plate on the table for her husband's dinner. Carolina is virtually a prisoner in her own apartment, inadvertently being the one who consoles others, finally experiencing her own reconciliation following the film's break into magic realism.

It should be noted that the actress Chiara Martegiani, who is also Mastandrea's wife, won the Nastro d'Argento award for Best Actress, an award given by Italian film journalists.

November 04, 2019

Denver Film Festival - The Traitor

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Il traditore
Marco Bellocchio - 2019
Sony Pictures Classics

In less than a week, November 9, the master Italian filmmaker, Marco Bellochio will be 80 years old. If one was unaware of Bellocchio, or how long he's been making films, one might easily mistake The Traitor as the work of a much younger man. Usually when I write about a film, I don't go for the easy superlatives that some alleged critics toss off, nor do I usually write the kind phrases known as pull-quotes that are usually seen in print advertisements. And yet, my immediate reaction to The Traitor is that it's the gangster epic we didn't know we were waiting for.

Let me first temper that by noting that I have yet to see Oldfellas The Irishman, and just maybe Scorsese's film is as good or somehow better. From it's opening scene of a celebration of a truce between two major crime families in Palermo, The Traitor made me think of The Godfather, but more fully embracing of being operatic, and having greater emotional heft. There is also the nod to the Italian produced gangster films, especially the more openly political docudramas such as Francesco Rosi's Lucky Luciano.

The film is based on the life of Tommaso Buscetta, a self-described "man of honor", a former member of the Cosa Nostra. Buscetta was the first crime family member to provide information on the workings of the Cosa Nostra in the 1980s. The traditional families in Sicily, with their very specific rules, were challenged by newer organizations that consolidated power primarily in heroin traffic, and had no qualms about the murder of extended family members including children, as well as government officials. Disillusioned following betrayal by one of the capos, and facing imprisonment, Buscetta works with Judge Falcone, putting his life and that of his family in greater danger.

Bellocchio frequently ties events together with ritual celebrations - weddings, funerals, the commemoration of a saint. The film cuts back to past events in Bruscetta's life that have future reverberations. Bellocchio even goes as far as using a bit of old fashioned symbolic montage, cutting between shots of the top Mafia boss about to be arrested and shots of a caged hyena. The sense of opera is in full force with Nicola Piovani's music against a shot taken from the interior of a car, hoisted mid-air in slow motion following the explosion of a bomb. The antics of the arrested gangsters on trial is reminiscent of similar scenes in Bellocchio's somewhat infamous Devil in the Flesh from 1986 which depicted trials of student activists.

The story of Tomasso Bruscetta has been filmed previously on a couple of occasions for Italian television, and Bellocchio has no problem in acknowledging that his new film travels on familiar turf - "Of course, we've all seen those masterpieces about the Mafia - b>The Godfather, for example, and also a number of Italian flicks. Nevertheless, it would have been a mistake to try to make something different at all costs. Therefore, all of the artists who were involved in creating the film, and I myself, afforded ourselves a lot of freedom in order to try to find our own voice, but we weren't afraid of trying something new or doing what had already been done."

November 03, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Invisible Life

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A Vida Invisível
Karim Ainouz - 2019
Amazon Studios

One of the recurring visual motifs in Invisible Life is the use of frames within frames as restricted spaces. There are a couple of shots where there is an open door in the middle of the field of vision, but the viewer is not able to see what is going on the room. In one key scene, the disinherited daughter, Guida, is in a restaurant that has an aquarium. Through the aquarium glass, she spies her father sitting at a table. Reduced to a working class existence, Guida is forcibly restricted from eating at the restaurant by a doorman claiming the empty tables are all reserved.

Most of Invisible Life takes place in Rio de Janeiro between 1950 and 1958. It is the story of two sisters, daughters of a baker, whose lives take unexpected turns after Guida runs away from home to marry a Greek sailor. Guida is banished from her solidly middle-class home by her father after returning home, pregnant. Euridice, an aspiring concert pianist, has married her father's business associate, and has been left unaware that Guida has returned to Rio. Time is indicated by off-screen reading of letters between the two sisters, correspondence that is never received. The two imagine the idealized lives of each other.

Euridice has the concrete goal of wanting to go to a music conservatory in Vienna, while Guida is searching for a sense of family. Both women are thwarted by patriarchal traditions, first with their father, who dismisses Euridice's desire to be a professional musician, and keeps the sisters separated due to his sense of shame. Euridice's husband is hardly better than her father, not understanding why a woman might want more than to be a wife and mother. If women aren't wives, they are expected to be available sexually. The sex here is awkward at best, at worst a distasteful transaction out desperation. Guida's existence may be hard-scrabble, but she finds a kind of salvation in establishing an informal family with a former prostitute.

Ainouz background prior to becoming a filmmaker was in architecture. His previous work has also involved exploration in both the physical and psychological spaces of people, especially where there are marked class differences. When Euridice and Guida are first introduced, they are in a jungle. But it is a jungle that is not far away from the city, visible are Sugarloaf Mountain and the giant Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio. The two sisters lose track of each other within this jungle. There is no resolution, so that it is never quite clear whether they found each later or if this scene is symbolic of their relationship in the main narrative. The film ends in the way it began, but with secrets eventually revealed leading to a kind of reconciliation.

November 02, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Portrait de la jeune fille en feu
Celine Sciamma - 2019
Neon

Anybody interested in placing Celine Sciamma's newest film in the context of her earlier work will be rewarded by Oswald Iten's video essay on the coming-of-age trilogy on Vimeo.

Among the changes are centering the film primarily on two women of unstated, but marriage age, in the 18th Century, in a remote part of Brittany. Marianne is an artist hired by a Countess to paint the portrait of daughter Heloise. The portrait is to be presented to a Milanese gentleman, a man originally to have been married to Heloise's older sister. The sister reported died by committing suicide prior to the wedding. Heloise had previously been living in a convent, the film taking place at a time when some family's of certain classes could only provide a dowry for one or two daughters, and placing any unwed daughter in the care of nuns. Heloise is uninterested in marriage, and has refused to pose for the previously hired artist.

Unlike the previous films by Sciamma, there is a sense of visual austerity, especially in the beginning. Much of the film takes place in the interior of the mansion which takes on the appearance of a prison with the undecorated gray cinderblock walls. During the time that the countess is in the house, Marianne has her meals with the house's only servant, Sophie. Brightness and color take over when the countess leaves temporarily. In addition to Marianne and Heloise acknowledging their mutual attraction, there is the sense that hierarchies have been abandoned with the inclusion of Sophie. This is most clearly indicated in a scene with the three all taking up different tasks of preparing a dinner that the three share. With this fleeting equality, there is more conversation, more physical contact, and a concurrent decrease in silence and solitude.

There are also moments of mysticism. Climbing up the dark stairs at night, Marianne believes she has seen Heloise in a hallway, dressed in white. The image of Heloise is only briefly illuminated before the hallway turns back to black. It's a ghostly image that the film returns to at the end. There is also a scene with Marianne, Heloise and Sophie attending a bonfire, a celebration of women. A group of women begin singing a round. The vocals begin with what sounds like electronic music, and for all I know, could well be electronically altered vocal work, the initial group of singers is joined in harmony by a second group, followed by a third. It's a repetition of sounds, that it both contemporary, yet musically is not to distant from the music of the time presented in the film. I am assuming this was composed by Sciamma's previous music collaborator, Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, whose own work is under the name of Para One.

Sciamma establishes her thematic concerns early. When Marianne takes a rowboat, rocked by waves, when she travels to Brittany. One particularly violent wave knocks the box with her canvasses into the water, the sailors and porters are indifferent to the loss of cargo. Marianne dives into the ocean to retrieve the canvasses. When Marianne is left at the beach, it is up to her to climb from the shore to the countess' mansion. Men make up a negligible physical presence in Portrait, but their influence is everywhere, from Heloise's obligation to be married, to how Marianne defines how she creates her art, and her need to sell her work under her father's name to be taken seriously.

This is no diatribe. Sciamma knows how to make her points without the need for underlining. There are moments of sly subversiveness at play throughout the film. Ultimately, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about how people communicate with each other through art.