120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017, Robin Campillo)

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There is a key scene located someplace in the last third of the immensely moving and rousing activist drama 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) involving that most intimate of moments: a conversation about the past. There have been many such discussions between boyfriends Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a HIV-positive founding member of ACT UP Paris, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a HIV-negative new member, but this is the first to take place during one of ACT UP’s meetings. As one of the speakers talks to the group at large, the two men turn to each other and slowly, considerately discuss how Nathan has managed, at the height of the AIDS crisis in a group comprised almost exclusively of HIV-positive gay men, to stay negative. The content is moving enough, but the context, of moving from this purposefully public forum into a private space, makes it all the more vital.

120 BPM is built on breaking down this foundational dichotomy, of making public activism a deeply personal mission and vice versa. Not one member of ACT UP is less than totally committed to their mission of fighting for better treatment, prevention, and medicine for HIV-positive people, and this sense of urgency pulsates from the screen in both the overtly political scenes and the ones motivated a less obvious purpose.

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VIFF 2017: The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)

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It seems fair to say that one of the biggest breakouts in the film world during these past few years was 2015’s Tangerine, co-written and directed by Sean Baker. Garnering almost as much attention for its empathetic, energetic focus on trans female sex workers in Los Angeles as it did for its ultra-low-budget shooting style on three iPhone 5Ss, one could easily assume that the movie was Baker’s directorial debut. But in point of fact, the movie was his fifth feature, and with his sixth and latest film, The Florida Project, Baker returns to his favored shooting format of 35mm, this time in the at once fantastical and sober environs of Orlando, Florida.

Whereas Tangerine aimed for an almost abrasive, unapologetic energy, with its narrative confined to the drama of a web of relationships on Christmas Eve, The Florida Project‘s goal is something more sprawling and languorous. The film takes place over a summer at the Magic Castle, a motel-cum-extended-stay complex in the shadow of Disney World, focusing on Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, remarkable), a wild six-year-old, and Halley (Bria Vinaite), her equally uncontrolled mother. What framework of a narrative unspools at a leisurely pace, mostly content to observe as Moonee plays with a set of friends around the alternately pastoral and urban area surrounding the motel.

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VIFF 2017: Faces Places (2017, Agnès Varda & JR)

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At this point, it seems moot to emphasize the collaborative nature of film. With almost no exceptions, every single movie requires the work of many talented, gifted artisans and craftspeople who provide incalculable contributions. Yet, with the very valid tenets of the auteur theory in mind, films co-directed by two distinct voices are special cases, especially in the case of the magnificent documentary Faces Places. The first credited director, Agnès Varda, the octogenarian filmmaker of Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, The Gleaners and I, and other such acclaimed works, almost needs no introduction to cinephiles. On the other hand, her creative partner JR is quite literally an unknown quantity: the visual artist and street photographer’s identity is uncertain, and while he has directed a handful of films, including a short starring Robert De Niro, to my knowledge he has made no significant splash in the world of cinema until now.

Varda herself is coming off of a partially self-imposed hiatus from feature filmmaking, having made her previous and ostensibly last documentary The Beaches of Agnès in 2008. But the fusion of their two diametrically opposed figures – she an elderly, world famous director with two-tone hair, he a 34-year-old visual artist with perpetually perched dark glasses à la Godard (according to Varda) – only enhances both directors’ innate sense of exuberance and sensitivity. Faces Places‘ ostensibly modest aims of photographing and plastering large photographs of average people onto structures across France provides a surprisingly humanist and playful backdrop, against which two remarkable artists create something both profoundly personal and entirely universal.

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Perhaps what strikes most is how Faces Places‘s sense of collaboration arises. The film begins with a playful series of scenes imagining how the duo could have met (on a road, in a bakery, and most amusingly on the dancefloor), and while the actual point of first contact is much more mundane, it arises without ambiguity from a place of strong appreciation for each other’s work. Flashes of film clips from Varda (including Cléo) and some of JR’s large posted photographs appear at the very beginning, but on the whole the film relies solely upon the interplay between the two artists and their many camera subjects.

Whether it be the last woman living in a row of miners’ houses, a photograph of an old acquaintance pasted onto the side of a toppled bunker at Normandy, or the wives of shipyard workers, Varda and JR continually manage to tease out the fascinating and even fantastical via their particular mode of documentation. This isn’t the realm of, say, Humans of New York; the filmmakers do happen across incredible stories, but they are augmented and enhanced by the act of photographing, both in still and moving form. And, at least for Varda, this process is soon coming to a close: throughout the documentary her eyesight is failing, and there is a scene of an ocular injection quickly likened to “Un chien andalou.” Yet Faces Places feels no burden to be a capstone or a simple elegy, even if Godard almost makes an appearance. It is buoyed by sheer humanity in many forms, almost always managing to hit the perfect balance between the sentimental and the clear-eyed, prone to flights of fancy but persistently aware of when to come back to earth.

VIFF 2017: A Skin So Soft (2017, Denis Côté)

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As a general stereotype, body types tend to fall within a particular range in most films, whether they be studio-crafted or independently made. Save for films dealing with a particular subject and milieu, it is rare to see on-screen characters with a significantly larger or significantly smaller physique than what is considered attractive at the time. Even so, the professional bodybuilders that make up the principal subjects of A Skin So Soft possess truly startling builds, their muscles not so much rippling as erupting from their bodies. Yet while the camera lingers over these almost alien protrusions, the documentary is less about the figures than the people beneath them; the ways they interact and present themselves in various states of training, parading, and existing.

The film – billed as a docufiction, though I didn’t spot any sections that seemed particularly staged – is structured around six Québécois bodybuilders of varying backgrounds, each training for a pageant competition in various methods. Much of the runtime is built on these training sections, on patiently observing these large men on their own personal missions to mold their bodies into desired outcomes. Director Denis Côté ensures that the pace never flags by jumping around between the men, but the most notable aspect of A Skin So Soft is its sense of humanity and compassion; though the bodybuilders are plainly unique and unusual, it is emphasized how ordinary and quotidian their existence is. One has a family to take care of, one juggles his bodybuilding with his wrestling career, the youngest of the athletes seems obsessed with VR – none of them are depicted with any hint of either deification or condescension. The documentary ends on an odd note, after the first time all six men have met on screen, but it scarcely seems to matter; it remains intently observant, almost loving, to the end.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

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Note: Per the requests of Warner Bros. and Denis Villeneuve, this review will not discuss the majority of the basic set-up of Blade Runner 2049.

First things first: it seems important to acknowledge that for me, and likely many of those reading this, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 science-fiction neo-noir is one of the crowning cinematic accomplishments of the latter half of the 20th century. This point is more salient than for the average sequel, given the relatively mammoth amount of time between the original and the sequel, the rightfully towering status of the first movie, and the debt, narratively and topographically, that this successor owes to its forerunner.

And to their credit, Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators only rarely feint towards slavish imitation of the original; certain scenes come off as echoes and evocations rather than simple copies – for example, a postmortem scan of bones corresponding to the photograph analysis in the original. Even though star Harrison Ford (albeit in a significantly less central role), scribe Hampton Fancher (subject of the magnificent documentary Escapes, which is a more enjoyable and insightful experience all things considered) and director Ridley Scott (in an executive producer role) all return, the contributions from all involved feel fairly fresh and distinctly modern.

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VIFF 2017: “Scaffold” (2017, Kazik Radwanski) & “Let Your Heart Be Light” (2016, Deragh Campbell & Sophy Romvari)

scaffold

It seems oddly fitting to begin my VIFF coverage with a few shorts that hail from the country in which the festival is located. Though I saw many wonderful features, there is something congruous between these works and the low-key but still kinetic feel of the festival itself, a peculiar humble vitality that I haven’t truly seen elsewhere.

Kazik Radwanski’s “Scaffold,” which premiered at Locarno to large acclaim, exemplifies this mindset extremely well. Taking place over the course of a workday, it (narratively, not visually) depicts two Bosnian-Canadian laborers working on various jobs in and out of homes around Toronto. The shooting style takes many cues from Bresson in the almost exclusive focus on hands interacting with various objects, including the eponymous scaffold, and there is a quietly optimistic tone about the whole venture. There are small dramatic moments – a dropped phone and flower vase – and some themes of class and nationality hover around the edges, but on the whole the actions are extremely quotidian. The gestures are humble but always striking, and the short knows exactly when to end, which is always a pleasure in short-form works.

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There are many films at this year’s VIFF, but I would wager a healthy sum of money that “Let Your Heart Be Light,” written, starring, and directed by Deragh Campbell and Sophy Romvari, is the only one to feature footage from a Vincente Minnelli movie. Said film is Meet Me in St. Louis, and as might be extrapolated the short deals with affairs of the heart during Christmastime. During the Q&A afterwards, Campbell mentioned that the use of the Minnelli, with its swooning, grand emotions, was meant to act as counterpoint, and much more influence can be found in terms of worldview, if not shooting style, in Akerman – who is visible on a coffee mug here. The principal character, Sophy (played by Campbell) is coming off of a recent breakup, the short invests much more interest in her simple desire to celebrate Christmas the best she can, listening to religious holiday songs and slowly decorating a tree. When Deragh (played by Romvari) arrives to comfort her friend, the short takes on additional resonance, emotion in a truly gentle and honest way; sometimes the most precious gift to have is a modest tree and a friend to hold, an idea which is executed with elegance and kindness. [Though I hadn’t seen the short before, it premiered last year as part of the omnibus film 🌲🌲🌲, and can be found here at 22:35.]

mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)

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Give credit where it is due: it is rare to find any studio film this brazenly and recklessly self-confident in its own twisted and sick artistry, especially when carried out to the logical extremities of the subject matter, both literal and allegorical, without an iota of care for good taste. To be clear, mother! is a horrifically awful film, dull when it isn’t completely repugnant and so blatantly up its own ass that it becomes almost bemusing in its complete arrogance. But it is fascinating nonetheless, not the least because it has divided critical opinion so sharply and along entirely unexpected battle lines, but because the movie has somehow, through some alchemical combination of intention and luck on the part of Darren Aronofsky, managed to be both asininely clear and completely opaque in the ways it can and has been interpreted.

Perhaps the establishment of a film’s premise is a fool’s errand for a film like mother!, but it is useful nonetheless. The movie is centered around a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) married to a slightly older acclaimed poet (Javier Bardem) living in a house seemingly in the middle of nowhere – indeed, the woman, and by proxy the film, never leaves the house. He is busy grappling with a bout of writer’s block, while she is renovating and rebuilding the house after a fire that occurred in the house – which was the husband’s before he met his wife – an unspecified number of years ago. Their fairly idyllic existence is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of an ailing doctor (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who ingratiate themselves into the household by praising the work of the husband despite the protestations of the wife. From there, multiple turns occur, including a brief interlude before the movie culminates in a truly horrendous and apocalyptic third act free from any sense of coherent logic or structure, which will not be spoiled in this review.

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2017 Local Sightings Film Festival: Natural Experiments

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During the summer, I was given the rather wonderful opportunity to assist in programming the experimental shorts program at the 20th Local Sightings Film Festival, which runs from tomorrow through the end of the month at the Northwest Film Forum. Though I wasn’t given a specific prompt, the shorts I helped select fell into two programs: Natural Experiments and Hurtling Through Space. Of the two, the one containing almost all of the shorts that genuinely excited me is the former. While I must say I am no expert in writing about the avant-garde, all of these shorts offer no small amount of visceral and visual pleasure.

Though I must reiterate that I approached this assignment with no set theme in mind, I gravitated towards shorts that showcased the ways in which development in the Pacific Northwest intermingles with other elements, whether they be natural surroundings or various cinematographic techniques. In this respect, “Erased Etchings” (Linda Fenstermaker) is the perfect introduction. Dreamy and hazy via the texture of 16mm, the depictions of both natural foliage and the houses in their midst don’t develop so much as unravel. Some context is introduced – a few pointed shots of housing development plans – but this is mostly purely experiential, with some lovely music choices to match.

My favorite of the shorts is “Lost Winds” (Caryn Cline), which reminded me much of what little Brakhage I’ve seen. Consisting entirely of damp plants, leaves, and flowers as seemingly seen through a microscope, the short manages to create a very appealing dynamism in the quick edits which invite the viewer in rather than disorient them. Coupled with the ambient sounds of water and fascinating inserts that create iris shots out of the leaves, it is calming in so many beautiful ways.

“Bell Tower of False Creek” (Randolph Jordan) is a curious case. It approaches documentary more than something purely experimental, and I must confess much of the context – which, per the summary, “uses the church bell as metaphor for the traffic on Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge” – went over my head. But the black and white 8mm images are lovely, and the way in which voiceover interviews and the natural (or not-so-natural) sounds are interwoven is fairly skillfully done.

Featuring two filmmakers already in this program, “Tri-Alogue #3” (Caryn Cline, Linda Fenstermaker & Reed O’Beirne) nevertheless feels like something different. The screen is divided into thirds, with each filmmaker taking a section and creating their own individual short, but all of the images take on a collective unity, all exploring the city and using a particularly active mode of shooting, all never-ceasing shots that bleed into each other. There is no particular effort to make the shots line up, from what I could tell, and that in itself gives the endeavor a certain interconnectivity.

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One of my other favorite shorts in the program, “Shared Space” (Champ Ensminger), stands out from the others. Its approach is blatantly digital and virtual and focuses on individuals rather than their surroundings. Yet they tackle the notion of the city as well, as each person interviewed talks about the culture that they take part in and said culture’s various pros and cons. All the while, they are fragmented and almost abstracted into lines, pixels, and other digital constructions. The human figure is still there, but it is made into something both alien and familiar.

Perhaps the only truly abrasive short in the selection, “HearNW” (Ben Popp) continually puts hindrances in front of its images of the natural world, whether they be the outlines of the objects being represented, overlapping prismatic images, or just the relentless thrum of the soundtrack. But the experience is never assaultive, the techniques never distracting, and the experiments with the frame are wonderful.

My third favorite of the program, “Game Plan” (Lynn O C Thompson), takes a rather novel look at the modern industries. Vintage game boards are overlaid onto relatively normal shots of power lines, trucks, factories, and other industrial mainstays, and the effect strikes as exceedingly playful. One could read a potential critique (the use of games similar to Monopoly commenting on the ubiquity of money), but it seems like the most productive path is to appreciate this short’s inherent buoyancy and energy.

“A City in Four Parts” (Jon Behrens), in the context of the other shorts, isn’t the most adventurous of experiments, but the effect of its images still allows for some appreciation. Taking four different shots of the waterfront and overlaying them over one another, with occasional inversions, the short creates the illusion of buildings building on top of each other, ships sailing upside down on a water-filled sky, and while the impact may be slightly less surreal than hoped, the deep blues of the 16mm film speak for themselves.

The most far-flung of the shorts, “Silk Scream” (Brenan Chambers) uses a seemingly endless amount of overlays of similar shots to create a legible yet intensely blurred portrait of Tokyo city life, set to a wordless and shimmering instrumental track. The effect is indeed that of a city in motion, and a rather astonishing balance is struck between clarity and abstraction.

“Vernae” (Ethan Folk and other collaborators) is by far the longest film in the program at 28 minutes, and is by turns the most conventional and the most daring short. Comprised mostly of rhythmic dances by various figures in some clearly elemental and highly sensual state of being. By turns gorgeous and somewhat disturbing, the short seems clearly cloaked in some inner meaning, but the spectacle of numerous bodies in motion suffices.

The final short, “Disjunct” (Brian C. Short), is a rather appropriate closer to this stunning program. Adopting a highly free-wheeling and almost everything but the kitchen sink approach, the short moves through modes with abandon, synthesizing nearly every technique in this program to create some portrait of the Pacific Northwest. But nothing feels necessarily inorganic to the short, such is the general deftness with which everything is unveiled.

Though all of these shorts may confound, delight, and move in certain measure, what connects all of them above all is the spirit of experimentation, a willingness to render familiar sights with new resonances and filters. In this regard, the program is utterly remarkable, and a very worthy experience.

Escapes (2017, Michael Almereyda)

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Among the aspects most crucial to the creative success of a documentary is one that should be all too obvious: the subject. This isn’t necessarily to say that there are a preponderance of documentaries that fail because of their material, or that there are many topics that are ill-suited to the medium. But, as with narrative films, the right subject almost always must be paired with the right filmmaker in order for the venture to truly get started.

So it is with Escapes, one of two films premiered this year from the eclectic director Michael Almereyda, the other being his science-fiction drama Marjorie Prime. Though he is better known for his fiction works, including Hamlet and Experimenter, the filmmaker (from whom I’ve sadly seen no other film) has made several documentaries, including one with the late Sam Shepard, and he turns in something quietly spectacular, stylish, and moving.

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Nocturama (2016, Bertrand Bonello)

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Cultural context, even as it relates to single films, is a difficult issue to fully unpack. In the case of Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, which plays this week for one night only at the Northwest Film Forum, this idea is especially relevant, given the curious nature of its reception both here and across the pond in its home country of France. This is perhaps to be expected, on account of its incendiary subject matter, but all of these reactions, praise and criticism alike, stem from the extravagance, the seemingly inappropriate ways in which the film presents its ideas. But, crucially, Nocturama is less a film of ideas than of images, of mindsets that remain just out of focus.

The scenario itself is fairly simple: a group of terrorists – all of whom are young adults, half white upper-class and half Arabic lower-class – execute a highly coordinated series of simultaneous attacks around Paris, and hole up for the night in a popular, cavernous shopping mall, à la Dawn of the Dead. The motivations are purposefully left largely unstated: many mentions of capitalism and its ill-effects are made in two extended flashbacks during the film’s first half (there is even a statement that states that the existence of capitalism is a precondition for the downfall of capitalism) but no affiliation with any specific ideology is otherwise named, and each and every member of the crew slowly succumbs to the decadent pleasures of the mall’s many products and accoutrements. In a structural gambit that pays many dividends, especially during the harrowing climax, Nocturama is conducted from so many perspectives that the action is somewhat jumbled; despite the frequent use of on-screen timestamps, the main thread of coherence lies in the rush of movement and motivation from the cast (all of whom possess astonishingly emotive faces, presenting varying levels of fear and determination).

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Such a bare-bones description is fundamentally inadequate for any competently-directed film, but especially for this movie and the films of Bertrand Bonello in general. Bonello, as evinced in previous works such as House of Tolerance and Saint Laurent, is known and justly praised for his sense of space and flair, largely expressed through snaking Steadicam long takes. While those other two movies are all about languor (I cannot speak to the contents of his films prior to those), Nocturama takes tension and mounting dread as its modus operandi, in both the first half, dedicated to the execution of the bombings, and the second, which takes place almost entirely inside the mall, with only a few brief sojourns to the eerily quiet city just outside the soundproofed walls. At least in a film this focused, such an approach fits like a glove, moving with a precision that often mirrors that of the characters, at least until they slip up.

It was almost inevitable that Nocturama would come under some form of scrutiny for utilizing such flagrant cinematic techniques, including the use of both Bonello’s own pulsing electronic score and some choice cuts that run the gamut from a show-stopping lip sync of Shirley Bassey’s rendition of “My Way” to Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” But it is as much a victim of poor timing: attacks occurred in Paris both during production (which caused the change in title from the phenomenal Paris Is a Party) and leading up to the release, and as a result it was received with roundly mixed reviews in that country, with some labeling the film as irresponsible. These reactions were much less prevalent when the movie opened here, perhaps because no “significant” attack has occurred in the past few months.

But at the same time, there is an increased urgency in the present, modern moment, a darkness and pessimism that is mirrored and amplified in this film. After my slightly more mixed view of the film when I saw it at SIFF, I rewatched it this past week in New York, and I was struck anew by how vivid, how confidently sleek Nocturama feels, on its own and in comparison to many of the more pedestrian films this year. Seen in a city whose intestines are made of subways not so different from the ones that are so crucial to the first half of the film, more and more resonances emerge from the elegant surfaces, whether it be thematic or purely on a gut level. And, at the end of the day, perhaps only the body matters, whether it is alive in ecstatic motion or silenced by the efficient crack of a gunshot.