Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018)

 

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You can read Sean Gilman’s previous review here

Hale County is a documentary in the poetic mode – it is not straight reportage with talking heads and a didactic method, but rather built of texture and mood. RaMell Ross has staked his film on the belief that his image fragments can sustain the viewer’s interest, and for the most part he is right. He films those in his community, the young men who become fathers, who go off to school but remain attached, the people in their orbit and their stories. Every so often an intertitle will appear, marking a new section, “whose child is this?”

When watching the films of Frederick Wiseman one marvels at his precise distance. Over 50 years he has honed his craft to the point where the distance between camera and subject is always finely judged, never out of place, his gaze never tips the scales. Ross works differently in that each image works as a moment-by-moment recalibration of this distance, between observer and participant; his gaze trembles before his subjects as he is intimately involved in their lives. Certain images would not be possible without this collapsing of distance – the sharing of a cellphone background image, the small child back and forth in the living room, literally walking up the camera’s lens and obscuring it with his presence. Sometimes he does not get things right and his gaze feels invasive, such as when he films the digging of the grave or the intrusive angles of the mother’s face after she has given birth (this after an intertitle tells us she does not care about the film).

Each image is linked to another one by a series of visual and aural echoes and gains strength through these repetitions and reworkings. There is no straight through-line besides the general one of the years passing. Certain images stick in the mind: a basketball shooting drill where the camera sticks closely to the figure, the physical gesture made visceral; the inside of a locker room with players in every corner, testosterone and energy waiting to be released; the children playing outside while lightning is visible in the background. Each moment sticks momentarily and then we are on to the next. Sometimes what sticks is a small detail, the look of a child curious about the camera, water on the ground, a shadow. The editing makes these images abstract, become a tapestry of daily life.

In today’s cinema one of the pressing issues is the matter of representation. So it is necessary to see these images – modest domestic images, shot with sensitivity. We have small-town Alabama, its parking lots, its gatherings, made strange and beautiful, given focus. As in the newly restored 1898 actuality Something Good – Negro Kiss, we are witness to intimate moments of black life, which have longed been missing in American cinemas. We have been robbed. Charles Burnett should have made a film every single year, like Renoir in the 30’s. Julie Dash and Cheryl Dunne and Kathleen Collins and Bill Gunn and more. Each time a struggle, each time necessary. When Ross uses footage from 1914’s Lime Kiln Field Day, Bert Williams in blackface, it is not just a comment on representation, the effect of this figure emerging the woods, seemingly observing the everyday events in front of it, as it cuts back and forth, acts as a specter haunting these images, the distant past commingling with the right now. Soon after however Ross films the smoke of a bonfire rising from the trees, the speech of a bystander comes on the soundtrack and says, “You see, we need more black folks making photos in the area and taking pictures and stuff, you know?” It’s beautiful and troubling.

Hale County remains fascinating, imperfect; in an interview Ross states that his film language is “growing” and this feels right. It feels like a first step, but hopefully one among many.

Playing at Northwest Film Forum

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Mirai (Mamoru Hosoda, 2018)

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A small 4-year-old boy named Kun plays with his trains in the living room. His exasperated grandmother tries to clean up the house. Soon the boy’s parents come home from the hospital with Kun’s newborn sister in tow. She does not have a name. Later, Kun is amazed by her and the reality of being an older brother – it feels like a small revolution. The rest of Mirai is an extension of this first feeling, witnessing the thousand private awakenings which constitute a childhood, the growing awareness of the self and others.

The bird’s eye view. In Mirai, it works two ways: in the beginning it directs our attention toward the family home, one among many, situating the film among the essentially domestic; later, we drop from the sky, not toward the domestic, toward realism, but rather toward the fantastic, the characters going from the past to the future. Mamoru Hosoda’s strategy is to combine these approaches – to illuminate the realistic through the fantastic. In Hosoda’s best films, Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the balance between these is almost right–neither is overwhelmed. In Mirai, the results are mixed.

Going back to the family living room. Kun whines for attention while his parents busy themselves looking after the baby; soon enough he loses patience and begins to cry as he’s ignored. Instinctively he understands that his little sister is monopolizing his parents’ attention so he strikes out, hitting her with a toy train. Kun’s mother loses her tempers and yells at him. All of this happens fairly quickly, each action escalating inevitably until we’re left is crying children, frustrated parents, and a quiet domestic chaos. Variations on this scene happen early in the film–Kun is ignored, lashes out, rinse and repeat. After establishing the family dynamic (the mom wants to go back to work, the dad is going freelance to watch the children), Hosoda introduces his fantasy.

Initially, the switch toward fantasy seems entirely unmotivated and it risks being a minor disaster. Kun walks down a few steps, the scenery shifts around him and all of a sudden the family dog is turned into a character called The Prince, who remembers when Kun was born, and his parents stopped paying attention to him. The film then resets and the pattern is established: each domestic mishap is followed by a flight toward fantasy. Kun meets his sister when she’s in middle school. He meets his mother when she’s a little girl and they make a huge mess. He meets his great grandfather who takes him on a bike ride. But soon enough these encounters grow in depth, and when at film’s end we revisit these characters on last time, Hosoda has made perfectly clear the million tiny tremors across his family tree which paved the way for Kun.

But this idea that it’s all quite arbitrary does not quite go away.  Kun’s leaps through time eventually lead to him losing his way, ending up in a giant train terminal with no one there to recognize him. Although the design of this train terminal is quite impressive and the details behind the challenges placed in front of Kun ring true to his experience (he’s four so he doesn’t actually know the names of his parents, they’re just mom and dad), it does not feel natural. The logic which has developed the scenario seems tossed out the window for an impressive design; something similar occurs at the end of The Boy and The Beast, where the emotional narrative conclusion is suddenly resolved by defeating a weird giant spirit whale. The emotion which leads Kun to recognize Mirai as his sister feels true, but it is surrounded by an abstraction which seems at odds with the feeling which is animating it. The finale of Wolf Children is instructive in this respect. Hosoda achieves a perfect harmony between the realistic and the fantastic – the final emotional leaps of his narrative are set against roaring winds and heavy rains, the transformative power of nature understood as necessary, just as much as the inner revolts that forever change our characters. Mirai does not reach the same heights; perhaps there’s something more powerful and immediate about breaking away from family, asserting your own individuality, rather than accepting that you are a part of a continuum of people and choices, understanding your place in the whole big thing. Perhaps it is just harder to get to a place like that when dealing with the growing consciousness of a four-year-old like Kun. Instead of leaving feeling like Kun is forever changed, Hosoda leaves us with the idea that this is just the beginning – the first of many small revolutions which mark a child’s life. No doubt we will return to the bird’s eye view, and one day see a small memory of Kun being passed along to someone else. Another growing consciousness.

Mirai was previously reviewed by Sean when it played at VIFF (here’s the link)

Mirai is currently playing at Lincoln Square, Regal Meridian and Regal Thornton Place.

VIFF 2017: Close-Knit (Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

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While watching Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit, I often remarked to myself, “The camera is always at the right distance! Every Time!” like an idiot. But it is this observation that best captures the appeal of Ogigami’s cinema. She is not fashionable or current or modern in ways that are obvious. Indeed, her concepts and sensibility are probably downright corny. But she has judgment, and her gaze is always a respectful one. Thus her camera is always at a careful distance, marveling at the nature of her characters and accepting them for who they are. Hers is a welcoming vision, perhaps most ably realized in her masterpiece Kamome Diner (2006), where all sorts of people are brought into the fold of the narrative, their tastes, mannerisms and behavior given their place. The same applies for her latest feature, Close-Knit.

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SIFF 2017: Chronicles of Hari ( Ananya Kasaravalli, 2016)

The film begins with a series of Yakshagana artists readying themselves for the show. They sit still and silent as makeup is applied to their faces, and rituals are performed to bless their performances. In an interview, a man backstage explains that in a Yakshagana performance, men play the female roles. He extols that some performers’ movements are so feminine that they are mistaken for women. He is questioned off-camera about a particular performer who might or might not have worn women’s clothing at all times, and committed suicide. After a few more questions, the camera gives us the reverse shot, showing two young filmmakers huddled over a camera, listening to the interview subject.

These early sequences depict the film’s strengths and also its limitations: its fascination with these performers and their pathologies is earnest and often illuminating, but the film layers on a critical distance which feels unproductive and tacked on, rather than organic in approach. It posits the main character, Hari (Shrunga Vasudevan), as a sort of enigma – the film’s narrative does a great job of shading in the detail of this particular person, but the film’s conception casts him as a host of contradicting details and stories, reduced to what might or might not have happened to him.

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Hari is a young star in his rural theater troupe who specializes in playing female roles. However, after his request to play male roles is rebuffed, he becomes more unsure about who he is. He begins to wear a skirt which causes trouble at home (his younger’s brother marriage proposal is laughed off because of Hari’s reputation). He finds himself sharing a house with another man so the neighbors threaten to take them to the authorities. His struggles with his identity haunt him and Vasudevan’s performance is wonderfully mopey, but more often than not the film sits there on the screen, its dynamics and conclusions set in stone.

This is the first film of  Ananya Kasaravalli, the daughter of famous Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, and she acquits herself well for the most part. Most of the interest here is in Vasudevan’s performance, the slow rhythms of the rural villages of Karnataka, and the strange, stylized rituals of the Yakshagana art. But the film truly sabotages itself with the frankly useless conceit of the filmmakers trying to find out more about Hari and his life. The ending is as ill-judged as I’ve seen in a long time, essentially commenting on the film’s emotional high point (a long shot of a character walking into the middle of a lake, followed by a stunning look at the camera) and rendering the emotional fallout of these images as meaningless. The film’s failures are crystallized in its final image: two useless characters stare out at the ocean, deflating the drama, and putting the whole thing in quotation marks. Why wasn’t Hari’s story enough?

 

Baahubali: The Conclusion (S.S. Rajamouli, 2017)

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S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning (dutifully reviewed here at SSS) was a work of grand spectacle, visual wonder and narrative simplicity. It found Rajamouli delivering a shot across the bow, if you will, announcing his intent to deliver a film worthy of the epics which drive the mechanics of the plot, and could stand side by side with Hollywood. But it is Baahubali 2: The Conclusion which truly delivers on that promise.

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My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (Dash Shaw, 2016)

The debut feature of comic book artist Dash Shaw, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, begins by firmly zeroing in on the concerns of young adult fiction: the new school year, the character’s social status, and all the insecurities that are inherent in being a teenager. But these early moments soon take backseat to what is basically a disaster film in miniature, inserting small nuggets of character detail and humor into what is a tired narrative. However, the stock scenario does nothing to derail from the wondrous sensibility of the animation, which is relentlessly inventive.

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Max Rose (Daniel Noah, 2013)

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Max Rose marks Jerry Lewis’ first starring role in a film in about 20 years. It tells the story of the eponymous character, an 87-year-old former jazz pianist whose wife has recently died. While going through her belongings, he finds evidence of a possible relationship his wife had with another man.
This is the material of a somber drama, but the film never quite arrives there. This is mostly because first time director Daniel Noah’s script is rather banal and trite. The film’s insights into marriage are sketched out in a series of flashbacks of Max with his wife, Eva (Claire Bloom), which are simply clichés of what a long-term companionship consists of. There’s nothing unique at all about their interactions, or about their conception. The film also throws in Max’s relationship with his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak) and his granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé). The former has some sharp moments; primarily, a tense, awkward scene where Max refuses to say “I love you” to Christopher. The latter is downright maudlin and has Bishé be reduced to putting on a clown nose and trying to get Max to smile. Noah’s staging is also flat and usually cut up into a series of unnecessary reaction shots which betray a lack of visual imagination (the film’s final shot is a catastrophe). The lighting at points reminds of a bad TV movie.

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Mia Madre (Nanni Moretti, 2015)

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Mia Madre, Nanni Moretti’s latest film, tells the story of Marguerita (Marguerita Buy), a filmmaker in the middle of making a political drama about a factory strike. She’s dealing with her mother’s failing health and other personal relationships. The film is reportedly based on Moretti’s experiences with dealing with the death of a loved one while making We Have a Pope. So, in essence, Marguerita is something of a Moretti stand-in but the character has shades that wouldn’t quite fit if Moretti played the role, and allows for new wrinkles to Moretti’s cinema (three generations of women). Instead, Moretti settles for a supporting role as Marguerita’s brother, who seems to have abandoned his job in order to care for their mother. His scenes and performance act as counterpoint to the work/life balance difficulties of Marguerita. Mia Madre finds Moretti in European Master mode with measured compositions, Arvo Pärt strings and a general tastefulness that makes the whole project somewhat bland.  And yet it remains of interest.

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SIFF 2016: Rainbow (Nakesh Kukunoor, 2015)

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Dhanak (English title Rainbow), the latest film from director Nagesh Kukunoor, concerns a pair of siblings traveling the deserts of Rajasthan in order to meet Shah Rukh Khan. The reason is sentimental: older sister Pari (the wonderful Hetal Gadda) wishes to help her blind little brother Chotu (Krrish Chhabria) get his eyesight back. Inspired by a poster in her village that has SRK asking for eye donations, and learning that he’s shooting a film 300 km away, she takes her brother and hits the road.

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SIFF 2016: Angry Indian Goddesses (Pan Nalin, 2015)

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Contemporary Hindi cinema is not the most hospitable place for women’s stories. Bollywood largely casts them as doting mothers or arm candy for buff heroes. Angry Indian Goddesses begins with an actress (Amrit Maghera) being told by a director to make sure her hips and butt are shaking while she’s struggling against her captors. She blows up at him, declares Bollywood to be fake, and storms off. So, the film explicitly positions itself as a realistic alternative to this brand of escapist cinema which sees women only as sex objects, and a society that mistreats them at every turn. The other opening vignettes show the other main characters lashing out at their oppressors as well.

Billed as India’s first all-out female buddy film, Angry Indian Goddesses concerns the relationship between a group of friends gathering at a bungalow in Goa in order to celebrate the wedding of Freida (Sarah-Jane Dias) to a mystery suitor. This allows for director Pan Nalin to let a host of personalities bounce off each other and let things flow from there. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see these talented actresses inhabit the screen together, free of the pressures of the roles they might have in a normal Bollywood production. It’s a shame that this is such a rare sight.

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