SIFF 2017: Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, 2016)

terrorizers

Like a not-so-metaphorical bomb, one of the only truly exceptional films that played at the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival landed in the final weekend. That film was Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, the controversial and highly touted “thriller” (for lack of a better term) about a group of young terrorists who plan and execute a highly coordinated series of bombings around the City of Light. Bonello more or less eschews a concrete and obvious stab at relevancy – the group’s ideology is almost totally ambiguous, save for a likely anti-capitalist bent – in favor of something much more oblique, frightening, and ultimately powerful.

Bonello, who came to prominence for his acclaimed films House of Tolerance (2011) and Saint Laurent (2014), continues his penchant for stylish and meticulous direction, choreographing both the actual terrorist acts and the second half, a long unraveling of both team and sanity in a massive, labyrinthine department store, with the utmost precision. His Steadicam shots have a genuine sense of motion, snaking through subways and seemingly infinite hallways and watching intently for the slightest change in expression on a character’s face. These faces are key in a way; built from a group of relatively new actors, the diverse ensemble has a freshness and uncertainty about them that fits spectacularly well with the ambiguity about their personas and motives, even being conflated with store mannequins at several points. Nocturama has, as might be expected, a certain sort of cold-blooded brutality to it, but it also has vitality, driven forward relentlessly by a pulsing soundtrack and the vividly clear vision of Bonello.

SIFF 2017: A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

ghost

Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Kudos to David Lowery for attempting to introduce fairly mainstream audiences to Weerasethakul, Tsai, Hou, etc. Unfortunately, his coopting of the slow cinema aesthetic has some of the outlines, especially when it comes to the picturesque settings and highly muted performances, but very little of the feeling and passion behind the great works of that style. Well-mounted and occasionally rather involving, A Ghost Story nevertheless ends up with a muddled, unclear sense of purpose.

SIFF 2017: Gook (Justin Chon, 2017)

gook

Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Centering on the first day of the Rodney King riots in LA, Gook turns its eye to an underseen perspective on that monumental event: the Korean-American shop owners. The riot is used mostly as a backdrop to a small-scale story of familial bonds, a feint which works for better and worse. Writer-director-star Chon excels in the more comedic and subdued moments, but his film seems to escape his grasp in the self-consciously “lyrical” moments.

SIFF 2017: I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)

daniel blake

Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

The unexpected recipient of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes, I, Daniel Blake is a shotgun marriage of the social critique and character study. It is an often funny, sometimes touching, occasionally intensely preachy affair, following the eponymous character and a young single mother caught in a catch-22 relating to the government’s healthcare benefits. The film finds its footing in the little, earnest interactions, while stumbling somewhat with the larger issues at stake.

SIFF 2017: Ma’ Rosa (Brillante Mendoza, 2016)

ma rosa

Amid the kerfuffle over the generally baffling awards given by the jury headed by George Miller at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, a fair bit of attention was paid to the award for Best Actress, which was given to Jaclyn Jose, the ostensible lead of Ma’ Rosa, the film directed by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. This arose for relatively transparent reasons: among the unusually crowded field vying for the award were a plentitude of truly astonishing performances from the likes of Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Sonia Braga (Aquarius), Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann), Adele Haenel (The Unknown Girl), and Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden), all of which were films that ultimately went home empty-handed. Of course, tearing down a film based on what it beat for fairly ephemeral awards is usually unfair, provided of course that said film is worthwhile in its own right.

Unfortunately, Ma’ Rosa is something less than a mixed bag, although there are certain elements that transfix in a way that the whole is unable to sustain. Mendoza’s film concerns itself with a family which owns a convenience store in the depths of Manila headed by the eponymous matriarch, who acts as a third-level crystal meth dealer. Early in the film, she and her husband are arrested for drug dealing on an anonymous tip by clearly corrupt cops, who take them to a back-alley police station and proceed to offer deals to let the couple go. They are forced to first give up their immediate superior and then raise 50,000 pesos ($1000 in US money), a task which is delegated to their three teenage children roughly halfway through the film. They each adopt different tactics, some more drastic than others: begging relatives and friends, selling household items, and even (in the case of the teenage son) prostituting themselves for ambiguous reasons.

Ma’ Rosa takes place in this highly compressed span of roughly 24 hours, which in this instance seems to act more as a stumbling block than anything else. Mendoza and company’s characterization of these people ultimately feels paper-thin, existing more as cogs in the machine that drives what is apparently a hellhole of a city. For her part, Jose appears in what feels like little more than half of the film, and her presence is only slightly less flattened than the rest of the cast.

An additional issue is the frankly ugly cinematography, which almost looks as if it hadn’t been color-corrected at all. This clearly digital look occasionally produces some striking effects, but otherwise is headache-inducing, as the camera careens through crowds and relentlessly tracks one anonymous figure after another.

Perhaps inevitably, there is a slight bit of pathos and interest to be found in Mendoza’s journey through hell. Such single-minded focus, however misguided and unintentionally voyeuristic it feels at times, has a certain amount of merit, and when Mendoza settles down completely (notably in the final scene) something deeper than the surface instinct to survive is conjured. These moments are few and far between, buried among the muddy characterizations and even muddier camerawork, but they are there. Whether that is enough is difficult to judge.

SIFF 2017: Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa, 2017)

Person to Person

Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

A self-consciously NYC network movie, Person to Person follows five loosely tied plot strands over the course of a single day in the Big Apple. Whether it be a crime investigation, a moment of self-discovery, or the chase for a rare vinyl, Defa manages to find the sweet and lovely in every close-up and every little character moment, precisely jumping around in a characteristically lived-in city. It’s clear-eyed and wonderfully executed with gentle precision.

SIFF 2017: Bad Black (Nabwana IGG, 2016)

badblack

It is perhaps not incorrect to say that the goal of any film festival should be to highlight the most interesting and fascinating works of world cinema, especially those which are unfairly underseen. Such is the case with Bad Black, one of the newest films from the immensely prolific Nabwana IGG, the auteur of the Ugandan film unit lovingly referred to as Wakaliwood. Nabwana IGG first came to prominence in 2010, when the trailer for his film Who Killed Captain Alex? went viral on YouTube for its insane and seemingly amateurish action and special effects. Bad Black, as far I can tell, is the only Wakaliwood film that has actually shown in theaters in the United States, premiering at Fantastic Fest last year.

The aim of Wakaliwood films hews closely to the action comedy, as does the overall arc of the narrative, but the means of achieving this are entirely different. Nabwana IGG’s aesthetic is proudly low-grade, immersing the viewer the slums of Kampala, Uganda as seen through blurry digital video and overflowing with quick cuts and rapid-fire action scenes interspersed with the most archetypal, blatant narratives.

Continue reading

SIFF 2017: The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2016)

Jenny

Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Unfairly dismissed last year at Cannes, the latest Dardenne Brothers movie is another iteration of their fiercely humanistic, engrossing filmmaking, for once wrapped in a more conventional mystery. Adèle Haenel stars as a doctor who becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of a young woman found dead near her practice. The Dardennes’ style is as keenly focused as ever, and if the emotions are slightly muted this time around, the film pulls no punches nonetheless.

2017 SIFF Preview

siff17

The time has come once again for the month-long extravaganza across this city known as the Seattle International Film Festival. This is my second time attending but the first covering it as a member of the press, and while I can’t say that there is an overflowing multitude of films I am absolutely dying to see, there are enough curiosities to satisfy.

As a means of organization, I will be listing out many of the most notable titles roughly by order of interest. It should be noted that my views (based solely on a fairly light perusal of the film guide) on what are the most noteworthy films may diverge wildly from yours, and should thus be take with a grain of salt – The Big Sick, tonight’s opening gala film, isn’t on this list for instance. But otherwise, on to the films.

Almost certainly the most noteworthy and delightful inclusion is one of the latest works from the South Korean auteur and master filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, entitled Yourself and Yours. His wholly idiosyncratic and hilarious style, filmed in long takes with obtrusive zooms and bountiful amounts of soju, typifies some of the best and most intelligent films of world cinema. Equally noteworthy is his quick working method: since Yourself and Yours premiered last year at the Toronto Film Festival he has completed three films, including two that are set to debut at Cannes in the next few days. It should be noted that this particular incarnation of Hong’s pet obsession, the fraught relationship between men and women, has been reported to be more abtruse than much of his previous work, so a prior immersion in his work is recommended, something like his great film last year Right Now, Wrong Then.

Nocturama is the latest film by French director Bertrand Bonello, who has garnered much praise for his meticulous, hypnotic brand of direction. This film in particular has been received with a great deal of controversy, as it deals with a terrorist attack perpetuated by a group of teenagers, who spend the second half of the film hiding out in a mazelike shopping mall in the heart of Paris. Also very noteworthy are João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist, a Portugese jungle exploration into the erotic and the spiritual, A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s tale of semi-supernatural romance starring returning collaborators Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, and Person to Person, a New York multiple-storyline “network film” starring, among many, Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, and Phillip Baker Hall.

On the repertory side of things, the most noteworthy inclusion is Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. The film for which the late director, perhaps the greatest of all modern artists, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it attracted strongly divided critical responses and has emerged as one of his most definitive works, an immensely contemplative work on suicide and the human condition that takes place, as with many of Kiarostami’s works, mostly over a series of car rides. Other intriguing repertory titles include The Marseille Trilogy, a series of films about a love triangle written and conceived by Marcel Pagnol, Maurice, a gay Merchant-Ivory romance, and Love and Duty, a silent drama starring Chinese film icon Ruan Lingyu.

There are, of course, other notable films showing during the next month, and here are just a few more.

  • After the Storm, the latest film by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda
  • By the Time It Gets Dark, a Thai film that plays with notions of reality and cinema
  • Columbus, the debut film of noted video essayist kogonada
  • The Unknown Girl, the new Dardennes Brothers movie
  • Beach Rats, an exploration of sexuality on the beaches of Brooklyn
  • Bad Black, an explosive, crazed no-budged action film from Wakaliwood in Uganda
  • Afterimage, the final film by Polish direct Andrzej Wajda
  • I, Daniel Blake, the second Palme d’Or winning film by Ken Loach
  • Manifesto, a series of monologues performed by Cate Blanchett in 13 different roles
  • Wind River, the directorial debut of Taylor Sheridan, script writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water
  • Searchers, a Canadian Inuit film based partly on the legendary John Ford movie

This list forms a good portion of the truly noteworthy and worthwhile works showing at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, but it is naturally incomplete. The rest is up to the viewer.

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

walter

Alien: Covenant, like the many offerings of that benevolent hydra known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, depends to no small extent on the foreknowledge of its filmic predecessors, both directed by Ridley Scott: the landmark sci-fi horror touchstoneAlien, of course, but more obviously the unjustly maligned Prometheus from 2012. Fittingly, it borrows strands of DNA (as it were) liberally from both, melding the basic structure of both with the grimy, generally no-frills mode of the former and the sense of wonder and existential doubt of the latter. The result is something slightly uncanny, as initially shocking as the notably CGI aliens (a far cry from the hulking suit of the original film), but thrilling and hard-hitting all the same.

What sets Alien: Covenant apart from its forbears is its method for unleashing hell. Functionally speaking, it takes a two-pronged approach, conveniently divided into two halves. The first concerns the various crew members of the Covenant, a deep-space colony mission diverted by a mysterious transmission issuing from a heretofore unknown planet that seems completely suitable for life, including acting captain Christopher (Billy Crudup), second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), and android Walter (Michael Fassbender). The second picks up neatly after various survivors of the initial alien attack are assisted by David (Fassbender again), the android figure from Prometheus who has been dwelling on the hostile planet for ten years.

Continue reading