Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Film Capsule: Frederick Wiseman's Model (1980)

Model (1980)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman

This mid-period standout by the veteran vérité filmmaker brought to the field of fashion and design the same curiosity and critical eye which so exactingly excavated such earlier, sociologically significant environments as basic training camps, welfare offices, and psychiatric wards. Locating a symbiotic method of craft and visual conception in the work of affluent media and advertising artisans, Wiseman is able, with nary a deviation from his observational methodology, to construct both a consumerist exposé and a working allegory for the cinematic process itself. Capturing the day-to-day bustle of photo shoots, dress rehearsals, and runway campaigns, the film nimbly yet thoroughly notes the behind-the-scene efforts of those who work to turn blank subjects into glamorous enigmas. And like many of the director’s New York chronicles, Model holds an equally detailed peripheral interest, documenting Ed Koch’s Manhattan as it transitioned from the post-punk squalor of the late 70s to the new-wave facade of the impending 80s. (October 24, 3pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “Frederick Wiseman’s New York”) [BKMag]

Film Capsule: Maurice Pialat's Le garçu (1995)

Le garçu (1995)
Directed by Maurice Pialat

The final work by the great French filmmaker scaled back the narrative and thematic immensity of his two preceding landmarks, Van Gogh and Under the Sun of Satan, opting instead for a return to the highly personal, familial-minded interests of his formative years. Starring the director’s long-time surrogate Gérard Depardieu as a middle-aged philanderer simultaneously navigating obligations to his young son (played by Pialat’s own son, Antoine) and the affections of both his ex-girlfriend (Géraldine Pailhas) and current lover (Fabienne Babe), the film instills autobiographical detail into a casually nimble temporal framework, compressing a lifetime of broken promises and emotional transgressions into a painfully recurrent present tense. With his uncommon sense of intimacy and ability to keenly negotiate the nuances of human behavior, Pialat unfolds an unassumingly devastating tale of misplaced passions. The film’s final image, a moment of tear-stained resignation to an impossible plight, is as stirring an artistic encapsulation as any, and one last poignant flourish in a career defined by them. (October 18, 7pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s Pialat retrospective) [BKMag]

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Love Letter to Chantal Akerman

This piece originally appeared in issue 60 of Little White Lies. Chantal Akerman subsequently passed away on October 5, 2015. 

I fell in love with Chantal Akerman somewhere between East Germany and Moscow. Not literally, of course, though it may as well be, so evocative and transportive is her 1993 masterpiece D’Est. Essentially a visual diary of the Belgian director’s travels across the former European communist bloc, the film (whose title translates as ‘From the East’) in many ways encapsulates the many modes and methodologies with which Akerman worked throughout the most prolific phase of her career (which this work could further be said to mark the end of). Composed primarily of meditative tracking shots captured as sequenced tableaux through unidentified urban and countryside locales, D’Est documents with an outsider’s eye a very specific moment of cultural transition, as the thaw of the Cold War opened to a newly liberated, modern iteration of Soviet society.

Film Capsule: Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson's The American Dreamer (1971)

The American Dreamer (1971)
Directed by Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson

Filmed during the editing of his infamously outré Hollywood disaster The Last Movie, this captivating docu-fiction portrait of director Dennis Hopper at the peak of his drug-fueled, quasi-mystic phase of ass-backward fame and fortune is both companion piece to a ceaselessly fascinating film and a standalone revelation all its own. Capturing Hopper at work and play in the New Mexico desert, the film consists primarily of stream-of-conscience insights and inanities from one of cinema’s great charlatans, here elevating his persona into the pantheon of acid-fried geniuses. Episodes of the director waxing philosophical on the artistic process (at one point off-handedly comparing his sure-to-be-misunderstood latest to The Magnificent Ambersons) sit side-by-side with orgiastic displays of group foreplay and creatively cleansing experiments in public nudity. Hopper’s natural charisma and slyly self-reflexive nature turn what could be a mess of pretension into a revealing mediation on creativity and the precariousness of inspiration. (October 11, 5pm at BAM; Q&A with Schiller follows screening of new digital restoration) [BKMag]

Los Angeles Repertory Recommendations: October 2015


In a month with no shortage of horror titles to choose from, a selection of potentially more startling discoveries are on offer in the UCLA Film and Television Archives’ retrospective of the great French filmmaker Jean Grémillon. Running from Oct. 17 to Nov. 21, the series surveys the breadth of the poetic realist’s career, from early silent experiments to his eloquent dramas and short documentaries of the 1940s and ‘50s. Each evening features one treasure or another, but the rarities hold the most promise for adventurous cinephiles, particularly the Oct. 18 presentation of the proletariat parable Maldone, and an Oct. 25 double bill of early ‘30s social indictments La Petite Lise and Daïnah la métisse.


Cinefamily’s annual Halloween bonanza plays host throughout October to any number of cult and outré efforts from the golden age of VHS shlock. Two of the month’s sub-programs, however, feature particularly unique offerings. First, the ‘Unseen! Unscreened!! Obscene!!!’ weekend brings with it the likes of such self-explanatory efforts as Hack-O-Lantern and Night Feeder. Highlighting the weekend, however, is an Oct. 10 screening of the restoration of the surreal 3D strangler classic The Mask, from Canadian director Julian Roffman (era-authentic “Magic Mystic Masks” will be provided). Later in the month is the ‘Ladies of the ‘80s’ series, a three-day, eight-film selection of thrillers directed by women. An Oct. 24 quadruple-bill of Humanoids from the Deep, Slumber Party Massacre, Sorority House Massacre, and Stripped to Kill is the obvious centerpiece. But just as enticing is the following night’s (Oct. 25) double-feature of Jackie Kong’s Blood Diner and Genie Joseph, Thomas Doran, and Brendan Faulkner’s Spookies, a notoriously troubled work which has lived on far longer than anyone involved could have anticipated.


This season’s Halloween selections at the New Beverly impressively run the gamut from horror comedies to giallo thrillers and back again. But most enticing is a generous serving of genre offerings by big-name auteurs, presented, as always on 35mm. On both Oct. 7 and 8, a pair of early David Cronenberg classics, Shivers and The Brood, will screen back-to-back, followed on Oct. 14 and 15 by two of George A. Romero’s most underrated films, Day of the Dead and The Crazies. Elsewhere, on Oct. 25 and 26, you’ll find John Badham’s Dracula and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, a pair of remakes which arguably outpace the originals. And finally, on Halloween night, Oct. 31, three of the most influential: Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon, Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, and Romero’s genre-defining Night of the Living Dead.


Alongside thematically, if not necessarily seasonally, appropriate screenings of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Oct. 16) and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (Oct. 17), this month’s Tuesday matinee series at LACMA features many less recognized Hollywood horror pictures. Three of the films––The Wolfman (screening Oct. 6), Ghost of Frankenstein (Oct. 13), and Weird Woman (Oct. 27)––star Lon Chaney Jr, paired along the way with such names as Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, and Claude Rains. Between these, on Oct. 20, is Son of Dracula, directed by the great journeyman filmmaker Robert Siodmak, who, as in the best of these films, elevates a potentially tired concept into the realm of the truly morbid curiosity. [THR]

TIFF 2015: Wavelengths Features

Visual artist Mark Lewis’ first feature, Invention, is something of a quintessential Wavelengths selection. Considering the section’s modus operandi, it’s not surprising that every couple of years would bring with it a film indebted to the program’s namesake work. A Canadian working in the realm of media art, Lewis has wisely made little attempt over the years to forsake allegiance to his most celebrated artistic compatriot, avant-garde figurehead Michael Snow. And while certainly a descendant of Wavelength (1967), Invention is perhaps of even more direct stylistic lineage with another of Snow’s major works, namely La Région Centrale (1971). Like that landmark of structuralist cinema, Invention uses the cinematic frame to reshape the viewers perception of space, time and the environment through which the camera, as a physical object, tilts, twirls and travels in unencumbered motion.

TIFF 2015: Wavelengths Shorts

Film festivals, by their very conception, are inherently curatorial endeavors. Particularly with regards to a festival as sprawling as the Toronto International Film Festival—this year celebrating its 40th anniversary—such program initiatives and individual delineations can prove imperative in negotiating the sheer number of films on offer. In the case of the festival’s experimental Wavelengths program, and in specific the Wavelengths shorts programs, these curatorial efforts are concentrated—even heightened—by the narrow interests they serve. This year’s programs, spread across four nights over the festival’s first weekend, above all else continued to exemplify lead programmer Andrea Picard’s continued attention to the art of curation, not simply in the typically stellar selection of films, but also in the careful grouping of works within individual programs. The program’s first evening, for example, while featuring films from artists both young and old, from a diverse array of cultural and cinematic backgrounds, proceeded in beautiful synchronicity, with each film speaking to one other in alternately subtle and overt fashion.

Film Review: Pedro Costa's Horse Money (2014)

This piece originally appeared in issue 61 of Little White Lies

Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, the Portuguese filmmaker’s first fiction feature in over eight years, crescendos with an intensely cerebral 20-minute sequence set inside an elevator in which a flood of dialogue works to collapse an entire history’s worth of personal and political tragedy in one virtuoso display of accumulated aggression. Undeniably bracing, the scene––a slightly reworked version of Costa’s 2012 short Sweet Exorcism (originally featured in the Centro Histórico omnibus film)––is but the final and most violent example of the film’s foremost allegorical conceit, that of indoor space as physical manifestation of repressed cultural memory. In Costa’s cinema, the act of representation is an act of exorcism in itself––or, as he put it in an interview with Cinema Scope magazine, a means to fully leave the past behind: “Some people say they make films to remember. I think we make films to forget.”

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Film Capsule: Roberto Rossellini's Fear (1954)

Fear (1954)
Directed by Roberto Rossellini

Befitting its title, this psychodrama, the fourth of five collaborations between Rossellini and his then-wife Ingrid Bergman, trades much of the metaphysical mystery of the pair’s prior projects for a visceral immediacy, transposing years heavy media scrutiny into a self-reflexive thriller. Bergman plays Irene Wagner, the privileged wife of a German scientist (Mathias Weiman) whose extra-marital affair turns ugly when her husband’s former girlfriend (Renate Mannhardt) begins to blackmail Irene in a display of apparent jealousy. This tangled web of infidelities unfolds before a backdrop of post-war Munich, cinematically reconstituting the industrial wasteland the director so memorably detailed in his earlier Germany Year Zero. With his wife as both muse and instrument of ideologic intensity, Rossellini was, in less than a half-decade’s time, able to redefine notions of neorealism, conceive of an integrated moving image infrastructure which Gilles Deleuze would later term the “time-image,” and, with Fear, offer an economical but unmistakably passionate rejoinder to the tired tenets of the genre film. (September 9, 7:30pm at MoMA’s Ingrid Bergman centennial) [BKMag]

Film Capsule: Sterlin Harjo's Mekko (2015)

The once fresh idea of integrating a vérité sensibility into drama has grown, in recent years, into one of the most recognizable trends in independent cinema. Adding to this modest lineage is Mekko, an agreeable if unremarkable work of indigenous realism whose familiarity of form is ably offset by the singularity of its milieu. Directed by the Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, the film centres on Muscogee-bred ex-con Mekko, just released from a 19-year prison stint for murder, as he attempts to re-establish himself in contemporary Oklahoma, where communities of mostly homeless Creek Indians continue to persevere against a backdrop of drugs and urban development.

Played by Rod Rondeaux (a Hollywood stuntman whose ethnic background has mostly relegated him to the background in genre films such as 3:10 to Yuma [2007] and The Lone Ranger [2013]), Mekko is hulking yet gentle, soft-spoken yet articulate. He’s enough of a galvanizing presence to anchor some of the film’s more fantastical forays, which largely manifest themselves in ruminative, vaguely existential voiceover passages which intermittently take the film away from the small-scale Americana of Minervini (whose new film The Other Side, also screening at TIFF, touches on similarly bleak subject matter in a corresponding Midwest locale, to much stronger results) and towards the astral realm of Malick. By and large, however, the rural realism of Minervini works as a handy aesthetic analogue for Harjo’s approach, which is generally unobtrusive in its inquisitiveness. An unexpected third-act turn into a kind of violent revenge fantasy confirms that this young director is at his best when simply allowing his feel for the rhythms of the real to guide his course. [CS]

Film Capsule: Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (2015)

As a film about adolescent girls, told from the perspective of adolescent girls, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature Mustang immediately stands out amidst the largely male-dominated efforts of contemporary cinema, its concerns distinctly feminine in constitution, its context specific in circumstance yet universal in scope. In a secluded Turkish village along the banks of the Black Sea, five orphaned sisters are being raised by their grandmother and uncle in an atmosphere of sexual, religious, and ideological repression. They’re physically reprimanded and verbally chastised for harmlessly cavorting with their male classmates, kept under strict house arrest during the summer months, and forced to submit to virginity tests as their guardians furiously arrange for their individual marriages to local Muslim boys. In an early scene one of the sisters forlornly describes the house not as a home, but as a “wife factory.”

Strange and involving, the opening act of the film proceeds something like a culturally reconstituted The Virgin Suicides (1999) or perhaps a less arch, more pastoral Dogtooth (2009). In this case the girls prove to have little trouble fooling their elders, and embark on a series of youthful exploits outside their domestic confines. One of the best sequences in the film finds the sisters lying and bribing their way across the city and into the crowd at a FIFA game, a moment which calls to mind Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006). But Ergüven seems less interested in the political than the personal, focusing on the familial and psychological ramifications of the sisters’ situation and their attempts at rebellion (the adults, by contrast, essentially remain caricatures). Each girl responds in a different way to the tyrannical treatment, and the narrative moves accordingly from comedy to tragedy to, in the case of the two youngest and most restless sisters, epiphany. All told it’s an understated, undemanding journey, and if the worst one can say about a film by a first-time director is that it (not unfavorably) resembles other, better films, then that bodes well for Ergüven’s future. [CS]

Film Capsule: Grímur Hákonarson's Rams (2015)

Rams, the second narrative feature by Icelandic director Grímur Hákonarson, represents the kind of thematically familiar, stylistically anonymous filmmaking that comfortably achieves consensus sympathy. Indeed, the film won the top prize of the Un Certain Regard strand at Cannes this year, and against some rather formidable competition at that. As per this breed of fest-feted cinema, aesthetic interest consistently yields to conceptual scenario in this story of two aging brothers (played by the believably grizzled Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson) who live and raise their prize sheep on neighbouring farms in the remote Icelandic countryside.

For reasons that are gradually and undramatically revealed in the film’s methodically unfolding narrative, the brothers haven’t spoken a word to each other in 40 years, tolerating one another’s company only on the occasion of the annual livestock contest or when one is forced to assist the other through their nightly drunken stupours. Of course, a dilemma outside their control—in this case a valley-wide outbreak of the neurological virus known as scrapie, a disease which threatens to infect the brothers’ entire flock—must inevitably bring the two together in a reluctant display of fraternal synergy. Despite a certain pictorial elegance and an admittedly stirring final image (courtesy of cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen, who manned the ambitious single-shot thriller Victoria, also playing at TIFF), Rams is the kind of film whose evident craft belies its lack of adventurousness; its virtues are mostly predictable, its revelations far from revelatory as it plods inexorably from one situational hurdle to another. [CS]