The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

the-lure-club

“What is that fishy smell?”

Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature film functions as a pastiche of “The Little Mermaid,” but it comes to us by way of smoky cabaret clubs of a Warsaw in the 80’s, New Wave synthpop music videos, and the queasy glamour of capitalistic excess. It’s a gritty fairy tale of slyly telepathic sister-mermaids whose siren calls satisfy carnivorous tastes – until one sister falls in love with her prey, and their world and their sisterly bond begins to disintegrate.

It’s more grim Grimm than gentle Hans Christian Andersen: no swift and bloodless magic here, just buzzing grinding surgeon’s tools, human legs and mermaid tails on beds of ice. But the surgeon drunkenly dances and the mermaid sings until her voice wheezes dry, and I remember I always did prefer the intoxicating horror of Grimm to Andersen anyway.

Does it all add up to a fairy tale moral or even a thematically cohesive whole? I’m not sure it does, but it does fully commit to its individual scenes: carnal, sordid, crunchy, or sexy, and like the immersive quality of a vivid dream, its overall sensations linger, far into the waking hours.

 mermaid-on-ice

The Lure plays at Grand Cinema on February 24 and 25. 

(Note: This review is adapted from my notes on 5/25/16 on Letterboxd.) 

Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015)

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(This review was originally published in 2015 as a part of the Vancouver Film Festival coverage.)

Ixacanul opens on a young woman’s passive form and impassive face. Her name is Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), and her mother (María Telón) dresses her and then smooths, parts, and plaits her hair, securing a crown-like garland upon her head. The two Mayan women, alone together in their home, near a volcano, an ixcanul, in a remote region of Guatemala, both absorbed and silent in the exclusive intimacy of their shared activity, indicate that they inhabit a world with which they are familiar, and I am not. I guess, as I first look at them, that Maria is not quite happy to be so taken in hand by her mother – or perhaps she is not quite happy with the event, unknown as yet to me, for which she is being prepared. Continue reading

Kensho at the Bedfellow (Brad Raider, 2016)

bedfellow

Kensho at the Bedfellow, the feature debut film, starring, and written and directed by, Brad Raider, opens with a bang. A literal bang. And a cat. A towering, talking puppet cat, who, when the man we will come to know as our main character, Dan (Raider), staggering, asks, “Is this a dream?”, answers, “It’s an opportunity – to know thyself.”  It seems preposterous, of course: what can an over-sized puppet with whiskers have to say about the ontological questions of the self? And on another, more meta, level, a cinema-goer, in the age of slickly immersive computer graphics and special effects, might ask, why am I sitting here looking at a stuffed animal, creakily moving its pretend mouth? Something like Falkor, the Luckdragon, from The Neverending Story, certainly has its place in a children’s movie, in fondly nostalgic memory, or in the evolution of visual effects, but now? This kind of thing in 2016 in a film for adults?

The very audaciousness and seeming ridiculousness of such an opening prepares us for the journey and tone of the film, winding as it does down unexpected paths and embracing both playfulness and seriousness. Even further, the opening gets at the heart the film’s central questions: who am I and why am I here, and how can art – which might not look like life but like only a crude, perhaps silly, representation of life – have anything to say to those fundamental questions of self?

The film explores these questions as it follows a few days in the New York City life of Dan, a one-hit wonder playwright turned Bedfellow hotel doorman, an appropriate career for a man who cannot decide where he belongs and who does not really have a home but co-opts the bed  and apartment of a long-suffering friend who gets only promises, not rent-money.   Dan’s habit of taking freely from his friends extends into other parts of his life as well: borrowing from his own body’s health, he consumes diet pills and gorges on desserts; carelessly using the women around him – a woman staying at the Bedfellow, a troubled ex-girlfriend – he takes sex and the women’s emotional investment as his right, leaving them behind when convenient. Continue reading

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)

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At the center of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister is a house, and in the garden of the house is a plum tree. It is an old tree; generations of the family have seen it blossom and bear fruit, season by season. It is a tree at the heart of a house tradition, too, the making, storing, and consuming of umeshu, a sweet and sour green plum liqueur that is allowed to ripen to perfection over nine months beneath the floorboards. The family members prick their initials into the plums and these sit, soaking, as uniquely individual parts of the collective brew.

A family. A messy, powerful organism and a thing that Kore-eda, over the course of his film career, has continued to explore and expose, its raw bitternesses and its loving tendernesses. In earlier films, like Nobody Knows, heartbreak and tragedy are the centers of feeling; in more recent films, like I Wish, buoyant, infectious hope permeates. Our Little Sister tends towards the warmth of these latter films, and like the joyous, crucial moment of the speeding train in I Wish, there is a similarly ebullient defining moment in Our Little Sister, where two children on a bike fly through an avenue of blooming cherries.

Continue reading

Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, 2016)

hank and manny on beach

(NOTE: I also reviewed this film with Adam Kempenaar on the Filmspotting podcast, when I was a guest host for the show. You can take a listen here.) 

It isn’t a new idea, the idea that mental health and happiness are related to accepting yourself as you are. We could reference Free To Be You and Me, that album of the 70’s that challenged gender norms and promoted a celebration of individuality –

Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll run
To a land where the river runs free
To a land through the green country
 . . .
 To a land where the children are free
 And you and me are free to be

Don’t be afraid, the song encourages children. There’s no shame in anything that you are. Just be yourself. Celebrate that.

It’s a message that you can find everywhere now.  Children’s movies, in particular, often contain some version of this idea. If you have short term memory loss like Dory in Finding Dory, if you’re a bunny like Judy Hopps in Zootopia, you are still just as important, just as valuable as anybody else.

In Swiss Army Man, the debut feature film from Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, we have a return to this essential kind of story and these themes. It centers on a man called Hank (Paul Dano), who can’t live with himself anymore. He’s alone, literally and figuratively. He feels bad about life, he feels bad about himself. He feels like “broken,” “dirty,” “trash.” He lacks the courage to seek out a relationship with the woman he admires. He’s ashamed of his desires and his own corporeal reality. And that’s his basic problem. He can’t stand himself and his disgusting body and “weird,” disgusting self.  The film’s journey is, then, about the way he struggles with coming to terms with himself and all of the weird, gross, socially unacceptable bits.

So far, so good.  And so far, a lot like something we’ve seen or heard before.

The film has received attention though for the conceit it employs to tell its story. You’ve probably heard about it already: it’s the farting corpse movie.  The story isolates Hank in the wilderness and gives him a dead body for a companion (Daniel Radcliffe), a companion whose most socially uncomfortable bodily functions take center stage. It is through his interactions with this embarrassing corpse, whose name is Manny, and a very literal dealing with bodily functions, that Hank has to face himself. In Manny, he sees his corporeal, death-fated human reality, and ultimately, must decide, whether or not he will reject it or embrace it. Continue reading

Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

 women in underwear

“You ever have a girl screw you out of a job?”
“Yes.”
“What did you do?”
“I ate her.”

Early in Nicholas Winding Refn’s new film, Neon Demon, Jesse (Elle Fanning), a pretty young hopeful from the Midwest and a new arrival to L.A, walks back to her room, down the long balcony corridor of the seedy Pasadena motel where she’s staying. The lighting is lurid, the corridor horribly dark, and when Jesse arrives at her door and the grungy looking lock sticks, an initial feeling of unease rises to panic. Finally force opening the door, she feels for the light, switches it on. Only it doesn’t switch on, and we sense Something is waiting for her in her room. It thuds and moves, and Jesse screams and flees, back down the dark passage. She arrives at a hotel manager’s metal-mesh screen door and cries out for help. A dark, indiscernible figure appears behind the screen, and instead of the relief of the presence of another human being, here, it seems, is another threat. Even when the manager’s figure shifts into the light and we see his face, the menace does not lessen. Hank (Keanu Reeves) leers at Jesse, and when he finally yells for a friend, and the two men escort Jesse back to her room, we fear for her. The men hem her in as they walk, one going before her, one behind. The one in front casually rips away what looks like “Police Do Not Cross” tape. There’s a creeping horror, as we think, Jesse, this naïve innocent, must get out, must get away – and yet she walks on.

Jesse’s room, the three discover when they arrive, has been ransacked by a mountain lion; as the men beat the door open, breaking that sticking lock, the cat looms out of the darkness, a prowling lithe presence. Hank, infuriated, blames Jesse for the destruction of her room. She, he insists, brought the thing into the room. It’s a charge that is horribly unfair; Jesse, surely obviously, didn’t bring the cat into her room. She’s simply an unsophisticated Midwest girl who didn’t realize wild animals roam the hills around L.A., sometimes eating house cats or small pets left outside for the night. Maybe they even enter one’s home at times if a screen door is left open.  Poor Jesse. She doesn’t get it. Continue reading

SIFF 2016: Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)

Chris's wedding song

I’ve heard the liltin at oor yowe-milkin,
Lassies a-liltin before break o day
Now there’s a moanin on ilka green loanin –
The Flooers o the Forest are a’ wede awa
 . . .
We hear nae mair liltin at oor yowe-milkin
Women and bairnies are heartless and wae
Sighin and moanin on ilka green loanin –
The Flooers of the Forest are a’ wede awa
            From “The Flooers of the Forest” (read in full and/or listen to the song here.)

At the center of Terence Davies’s new film, Sunset Song, adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 book of the same title, is a wedding. It is a modest affair, a barn for its stage, humble farming folk its participants. It is a celebration of love, a communal joyful gathering, a candle-bright warm pocket in the middle of a dark, snowy New Year’s Eve. And when the bride, Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), sees the barn, prepared by her friends, she says, delighted, “It is like a picture book.” And it is.

In the midst of the merriment, the company calls for a song from the bride, and she sits at their center and sings. It is a sunset song, glowing in the deep colors of grief for the day that has gone, a song for the dead, a song of mourners. It is “Flooers of the Forest,” traditionally a tune played by pipers to commemorate those Scots lost in battle.  A strange choice, it might seem at first, for a wedding, but a choice that gets at the heart of this story, this place, this people, and at the heart of Chris herself. A mournful song is itself a thing of intrinsic paradox: the beauty of its words or music sit, impossibly, within the grief. The song might seem, to a strictly literal mind, to devalue the grief by the very beauty, and yet it is not a devaluation. The grief itself is more grievous, the deeper the beauty of the song. And so such a song defies the intellect, bowing to mystery. Continue reading

SIFF 2016: Under the Sun (Vitaly Mansky, 2015)

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“My father says Korea is the most beautiful country in the eastern part of the globe. Korea is the land of the Rising Sun.”

Granted rare access to North Korea, documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky follows the story of a young girl who joins the Children’s Union and prepares for the Day of the Sun, birthday of Kim Il-Sung, conqueror of the “American scoundrels.” Working around Korean handlers by filming before “Action!” is called or by lingering on drooping eyelids and fidgeting fingers, the camera captures extraordinary, unscripted moments. Such spontaneity, juxtaposed with the official Korean script that demands its subjects act “with joy” and “patriotism,” offers a complex, poignant portrait of life in a rigid regime.

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Under the Sun screened at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival.

SIFF 2016: Long Way North (Rémi Chayé, 2015)

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In his feature debut, artist and director Rémi Chayé, with screenwriters  Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix, brings us the animated story of a 19th century Russian girl, the 14 year-old Sacha, whose aristocratic parents’ hopes for her are that she live up to her status as a “real young lady” and appease the political status quo with a suitable marriage. Sacha, however, her childhood imagination set fire by  the stories from her seafaring, explorer grandfather, hasn’t much use for the balls and gowns of fine ladies. Her heart is set on seeking out this same grandfather, declared to be lost at sea in an expedition to the North Pole, but who, she believes, is still waiting for rescue. The story follows her path after she runs away from parents and her St. Petersburg home, and, applying her wits, her navigational knowledge, and her courage in a societal context that doesn’t expect much self-sufficiency from any girl, much less an aristocratic one, she eventually finds a passage on a northbound ship, where Sacha and the crew face the dangerous cold, crushing ice floes, and their own fears and conflicts.

Sacha’s sturdy character is a delight in a film landscape where female characters rarely take center stage, and she recalls the vibrant characters my daughters and I love so much in the Ghibli studio oeuvre: Chihuro of Spirited Away; Satsuki of My Neighbor Totoro; Sheeta of Castle in the Sky; Kiki; Arrietty; Nausicaä. While there is a slight nod to a possible love interest in Sacha’s story, the primary focus has very little to do with her male peers and much more to do with the adventures her deep convictions and life passions bring her. Sacha grows up on her journey north, her understanding of the world, of herself and her capabilities deepening through what she encounters and through those she meets, boys, men, and women alike. In fact, Olga, a gruff and kindly innkeeper, is perhaps the character with whom Sacha has the deepest connection and from whom she learns the most.

Continue reading

SIFF 2016: Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)

measuring suzo

Our Little Sister tracks a gentle arc, where drama develops through quotidian domesticity, gradually deepening emotion, small personal revelations. Hirokazu Kore-eda dares, in an age of superheroes, to believe audiences want to see something as simple as sisters sharing a series of meals, making family recipes, scratching a height measurement in a door-frame. He trusts these things carry emotional weight that will wrap viewers into the film’s world and hold them. In this slow accumulation of delicate specificity, tastes, and textures, is a gift: a celebration of the very fabric of being.

Our Little Sister screens for the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival at SIFF Cinema Uptown on May 21 and May 22.  (Note: Full review to be published when Our Little Sister opens for its Seattle theatrical run in July.)