THE PINK SMOKE'S 2014 YEAR IN FILM
After preparing Top Ten lists for Pinnland Empire and noting a 60% crossover (more like 80% once John finally caught up on some films he'd missed), Pink Smoke papas Christopher Funderburg and John Cribbs decided to join forces and release a joint review of 2014's cinematic high and low points. The next two pages reflect their favorite films of the year, arranged in no particular order, although it should be noted that the second page in particular includes a few variables that don't necessarily reflect the thoughts of both participants. The final two pages are Funderburg and Cribbs' respective "awards" sections for more individual ruminations on the year's big and little movies.
We Are the Best!
Winner of the Pink Smoke's Consensus Most Delightful Film of 2014, Lukas Moodysson's ballad of three pre-teen punk enthusiasts in Ebba Grön-era Stockholm is guaranteed to charm your pants off. Seriously, if you don't come out of this movie bustling with a desire to break into spontaneous cartwheels and somersaults and goad total strangers on the street into high fives, I honestly feel sorry for you. Moodysson, adapting a graphic novel written by his wife Coco Moodysson, taps into an indefatigable energy that can be felt even in scenes of its characters moping about, weighed down by their glum existence, pining over crushes or being brutally mocked by mean-spirited contemporaries. A lot of that vitality comes from the film's outstanding young cast. You're pretty much hooked the minute you see Mira Grosin's Klara roll her eyes at a couple of critical gum-chewing classmates - she sets the tone for the rest of the film so that even her juvenile endeavors and less-than-noble actions don't distract from her infectious enthusiasm. Mira Barkhammar as Bobo, trying to escape to the sanctuary of her bedroom as a group of adults drunkenly paw at her, is so good it's hard to believe she's not a professional actor. She perfectly conveys sympathy, jealousy, heartsickness and genuine concern on her dejected face. Less instantly endearing is Liv LeMoyne's Hedvig, an awkward case study in insecurity and loneliness, who nevertheless becomes the heart of the film through her surprising confidence in the one area to which Klara and Bobo can't lend their unflagging energy: actual musical talent. The performers share such an organic chemistry it fuels the entire film, making it the most worthy story of three females to deserve an exclamation point since Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Brazen title punctuation aside, the secret of the film is that it's defiantly anti-defiant. Refusing to fall into kitschy homage by saturating the film in 80's-style production design and costume, Moodysson really understands that time and place when the world was gearing up for a truly awful era of conformist culture and declaring punk to be "dead," when the rebellious spirit of the 60's and political dissent of the 70's had greatly plateaued, and how it perfectly represents all the emotional ambiguity of pre-adolescence. Klara and Bobo share a healthy anti-social attitude, but it's unfocused - all the big targets of their favorite bands have been neutralized (Brezhnev having already "fucked off" by being demoted to figurehead and subsequently dying) or, like the use of nuclear power, become trendy causes célèbre. Turning their sights to more tangible targets such as makeup, dessert and school gym class, the girls are able to express their appropriated indignations, but even these minor uprisings are wasted on family members who find their aggressive style "cute" and even encouraged by the two squares who run the local youth center.
But who are they trying to impress, anyway? Moodysson has defined the spirit of Scandinavian punk as "the belief that I can do whatever I want," subverting the idea that "punk" is some kind of tool to be used against the system. As far as the film's concerned, punk isn't about changing the world or earnestly challenging the status quo - it's about shamelessly begging on the street for money to buy a guitar, refusing to quit after being rejected by a crush, to continue playing when everyone is booing. It's clean-cut Hedvig playing while being mocked at a school talent show with a decidedly un-punk classical guitar piece that impresses Klara and Bobo, whether they realize it or not, to invite her to join them. One thing that sets this excellent film apart from giddy "let's form a band" classics like The Commitments or female punk trio-with-rival-male band cult favorite Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is that the band never gets a name. It's not about the name! It's about the characters asserting their right to exist, not about what they stand for. Whether the chorus of "Hate the Sport" turns anyone against high-jump teams is irrelevant. They don't have the power to influence anyone away from god, as they plot when recruiting Hedvig. The haircuts alone aren't doing it, the brash demeanors are outdated, they certainly aren't converting anyone with their musical prowess...the only way Klara and Bobo can effectively rebel against the world is to rechannel their vaguely delinquent aggressions - "They are the worst!" - into a newfound affirmation - "We are the best!"
To be honest, I'd offhandedly given up on Moodysson. Much as I enjoyed his earlier work, his last two films, Container and Mammouth, were so under-the-radar that I never even realized they existed until recently. His first in four years, We Are the Best! suggests a return to the playful rebelliousness of Fucking Åmål and Together and a relief from the soul-crushing bleakness of Lilya 4-ever and A Hole in My Heart. But even though his latest could easily be connected to those first two films as a sort of loose trilogy about rebellious young suburban women growing up in the 70's, 80's and 90's, respectively, there's a refreshingly unforced approach to the subjects of Best! which allows them to exist outside any specific political agenda. Which isn't to knock Fucking Åmål, a great debut film that still holds up - as a more mature filmmaker, Moodysson is simply more accomplished in depicting his characters' internal struggle without nakedly "bad" characters to represent their oppression. Steering clear of heavy-handed melodrama or the usual clichéd coming-of-age trials you see in movies about girls of this age, the film is able to focus on the potential power and joy in being a young woman when the typical teenage hang-ups are left behind. Even a conflict between Klara and Bobo in which they fall for the same guy (which is ostensibly Bobo reacting to Klara's assertive authority over her) is cleared up in the relative running time of a fast punk song - these girls are too good to let bullshit emotions break them up. To some it might seem frivolous, or like Moodysson's lost his edge, or that there needs to be a scene where the parents sit the girls down and tell them they'll hear no more of this "rock group" nonsense,* but all that is entirely missing the point. Which is that there may only be one good thing happening in your life, but that's all the more reason to pour everything you are into it and become, truly, the best. - John
* I already pretty much despised Richard Brody, but after reading his review of this film I realized he must really be one miserable bastard; I offer this as a footnote since movies are better to review than reviews. [Anyone who would rather watch Goodbye to Language multiple times than We Are the Best! is a human being literally not worth knowing. Can you imagine having to have a conversation with that fucking guy? -- chris]
Frederick Wiseman makes films about institutions. That goes without saying - his decision to focus a sprawling three hour documentary on the bureaucratic inner-workings of London's National Gallery couldn't be considered surprising by any standard. But while Wiseman has always produced multifarious examinations that wind their way through complex organizations, in recent years there's been a change. Instead of focusing on those institutions that dispirit him like a poorly-run mental hospital (Titicut Follies), the military (Basic Training, Sinai Field Mission), bureaucracies corralling teenagers (Juvenile Court, High School), housing projects (Public Housing) or a welfare office (Welfare), he's come to focus on those that he plainly enjoys. Following a stretch at the turn the century of particularly tough films (Public Housing, Domestic Violence 1 & 2), he seems to have chosen to now only concern himself with institutions that charm or delight or amuse him: the Paris Opera Ballet (La Danse), a sleepy training gymnasium (Boxing Gym), a legendary Parisian burlesque house (Crazy Horse), a liberal California university (At Berkley) and now London's premiere fine art museum.
The shift has not made for less compelling work - these films are a delight to sit through. His films often scare away audiences by their substantial length (for example, his 1999 film about a small town in Maine clocked in at an amazing 245 minutes) but of these recent works, only At Berkley cracks the three hour mark. He has always made such flowing, engaging films that the concerns about their running time are more annoying than important, but it's interesting to note as part of his overall softening that, along with his subject matter, his running times have become more inviting. It's funny to think of a three hour documentary about a museum as "short," but National Gallery goes by in a blink and, like all of Wiseman's work, constantly reveals new facets along the way so even when it's over, you don't feel like it's done. He has always packed an enormous amount into his films, but recently with a growing focus on economy and grace. As he's gotten older, Wiseman’s gotten lighter on his feet.
As you would expect, National Gallery flows between scenes touching all of the gallery's strata: there are boardroom meetings between the curators and clueless marketing types, asides with school children being introduced to art, art appreciation classes for blind people, group lectures to tourists, gala events, quiet moments alone watching talented artisans repair massive frames and, most memorably, lengthy discussions and demonstrations on the process of restoration and maintenance. So much of the life of the museum is grappling with how to preserve and present the work, how to make sure it looks its best without damaging it or undermining it - how to keep artworks alive. There's a lot to the film, but scenes where they consider how to keep these works as vibrant and awe-inspiring the day they were finished gets to the essence of what a museum actually does. Naturally, the lectures and classes in conjunction with exhibitions are the public part of that mission, to make the works accessible in every meaning of the word - the preservative process happens almost exclusively hidden away.
Wiseman used to use his films to shine a light on the darker corners of civic life, now he's much more excited to take us behind the curtain (often literally, when he's in Paris) to show us the hidden parts of universities and museums. It would be easy to regard this change in direction as moving towards more inconsequential work - what's a cheesy burlesque house compared to dealing with domestic violence? But Wiseman has spent a lifetime demonstrating the ways in which institutions can smother and dehumanize, exploring the tension between human beings and their need to organize and structure their society. To take a moment, at age 84 to simply focus on the best that our organizational impulse can achieve isn't trivial. Showing the best of an impulse he has previously spent a lifetime exploring the worst of - that isn't a shift towards frivolity; National Gallery is a triumph. - Chris
Like Father, Like Son.
As a card-carrying dad, I can attest to finding my kids infinitely fascinating. I could stare at them for hours in pride and bewilderment, just trying to figure them out: how they work, what they're doing, what they're going to do, and how much of all that is some sort of reflection of me. Based on his reverent portrayal of children, Hirokazu Kore-eda obviously feels a similar fascination but he also recognizes the supreme arrogance of a father scrutinizing his offspring in search of himself. In Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda constantly catches Masaharu Fukuyama's staid architect Ryota scanning his six-year-old son Keita to discern signs of imperfection that he can adjust, a gesture that indicates a specifically Japanese way of child-rearing but is really something we all do. The closest Ryota can come to communicating affection towards his son is to make sure that Keita is a perpetual example of impeccable upbringing. It's only natural for the industrious white collar worker to approach parenting as more of a project, one that, like the joyless, sterile walls of the family's high rise apartment, expresses his own dedication to hard work and success - an extension of himself. Therefore the shocking news that Keita is not his biological son is that much more devastating to him: how could the son ever truly reflect the father if they're not even related?
On the other hand, Kore-eda points out, how could a six-year-old not naturally be a product of the two people he's spent his entire life with? "What is family?" is a question the director has been asking his entire career, ruminating on the stifling obligations to relatives, even after death (Distance, Hana, Still Walking), as well as the threat of the family unit dissolving altogether (Nobody Knows, I Wish). His latest is so essential to his filmography because it examines an area inbetween, where conservative views on the importance of heredity threaten to destroy two healthy families - it's only through the acceptance of a looser definition of the term that they ultimately survive. Kore-eda loves groups of patchwork and surrogate families, from the abandoned kids forced to take on different roles in Nobody Knows to the ragtag squad of I Wish, but this is the first time one of his adult characters has been made to deal with the concept. The idea that blood is the sole determinant in what makes someone a member of your family is as absurd as basing school placement on a child's favorite season, but that's a hard thing for Ryota to accept (not uncommonly either: Kore-eda has mentioned in interviews that adoption, for instance, isn't as easily accepted in Japan as it is in the west).
It doesn't help that the second clan who circumstances have brought into Ryota's life, Keita's "real" family the Saikis, are the exact opposite of every value he thinks is important. Their patriarch is an unkempt, laid-back big kid of a dad whose job tinkering with electronics in a dirty shop which doubles as home never comes before his family - as far as Ryota's concerned, he's the absolute worst kind of person to influence either his current son or his stranger of a biological son. Ryota resents the natural bond Saiki has with his own kids and instantly strikes up with Keita, one impartial to biological background and at odds with Ryota's methodical "building" of his son. Amazingly, the conflict of the film is almost entirely internal as he weighs the affinity he's developed with Keita against the organic connection he's supposed to have with a son raised by someone else. Unfortunately his adherence to "real family" clouds the issue and he takes the advise of his own father (Isao Natsuyagi, so great in Shôhei Imamura's Warm Water Under a Red Bridge and Shion Sono's The Land of Hope, in one of his final performances) to make the swap. "You don't have to be like your father," Saiki offers upon hearing Ryota's dad never took him kite-flying, unknowingly parsing Kore-eda's very complicated point into a simple observation. Seemingly contrary yet equally as profound: "No one can take your place as your son's father."
Kore-eda caringly brings his characters to these conclusions with his trademark humanistic direction, allowing them to come together even under the threat of being torn apart. He doesn't judge one way or the other, making a case for a work-intensive, disciplinary, stringent method of upbringing while also arguing there's nothing necessarily harmful in the more relaxed, unruly, playful atmosphere of a multi-sibling home. Without overstating it, Kore-eda acknowledges a white collar/working class separation that's only a conflict in the character's mind. It's just as easy to sympathize with Ryota lamenting the "corruption" of his son who chews on his straws as to understand why the Saiki's home/shop is a much healthier atmosphere for raising children. In his best films, Kore-eda disregards sentiment for empathy, and there are a number of beautiful moments in Like Father, Like Son where the effectiveness of this approach becomes distinct: the way Ryota studies his son, assigning his son "the mission" of joining another family and never seeing his parents again, finding the pictures Keita took of him that suggest family relations aren't a clock-in/clock-out arrangement, confronting the nurse who confessed to intentionally swapping the babies years ago on her doorstep (which leads to a decisive turning point in which Ryota comes to appreciate his own stepmother) and the unlikely inspiration of cicadas in a man-made forest. Another side to the story is subtlely yet essentially represented by Ryota's silently suffering wife, who never questions that the boy she raised is her son yet treats her biological offspring with great affection ("I couldn't switch a pet either!") And as always, Kore-eda displays an impressive knack for casting great child actors, something the film shares (along with terrible English titles) with Nobody Knows and I Wish. If Kore-eda never made another movie (which I'm not suggesting would be the least bit acceptable), he could at least be content that these films have formed his legacy. - John
My favorite subgenre might be the "Endearing Psychotic Achiever" subgenre, tales of men (and women) who have understood that reality is the only thing standing in the way of their dreams and remain undaunted. These films aren't comedies per se and you don't necessarily root for the anti-hero to achieve his goals, but when they are good, they some of the funniest and most exhilarating and perversely, horrifyingly life-affirming films you will ever see. King of Comedy, To Die For, The Stepfather: heart-warming stories of violence, greed and psychosis. Believe in your impossible dream and let nothing, not morality, not decency, not self-worth, not reality, stand in your way. Is there anything better than when a deluded character takes it on themselves to fuck, steal, lie and kill their way into our hearts?
Jake Gyllenhaal brings his October Sky "aw shucks" charm to the ghoulish world of crime-and-accident scene videography, a corn-pone hustler first seen talking his way out of an arrest for stealing scrap metal with an assault of politeness and grins and yokelism. He works his way up in the freelance world of L.A. t.v. news - generally, the film has erroneously been described over as a media satire, but it doesn't appear to care deeply one way or the other about the subject. The focus is squarely on the freelance part of the equation: it's a detailed exploration of acquiring skills and equipment in your chosen field, hiring and training employees, developing a business plan and actualizing a philosophy intended to help you achieve your goals. Like The Stepfather, it's a nakedly shameless goof at the expense of some of the dearest American Ideals, but similarly misunderstood as one.
Its basic premise is that if you earnestly believe in the promise of hard work, ambition and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, there is a non-zero chance that you are not a dangerous nut-job. Gyllenhaal and debuting director Dan Gilroy make sure that in this instance it is a lovably dangerous nut job. They thread the needle where you are not precisely rooting for Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom as he extorts Rene Russo's desperate t.v. producer into sex, hides evidence from the police and baits a dullard into getting murdered, but there's an exhilaration found in Bloom's doctrinaire immorality; his unpredictability as a character is genuinely thrilling. Few movies contain narratives so unhinged. Lou Bloom is compelling because he has a philosophy and, as Max Renn was warned, that's what makes him dangerous. There's a fun and a horror in seeing reflections of his philosophy in what any hard-working, ambitious human believes to be true and how that admirable life-blood of industry gets garishly splattered on everything in Bloom's path.
Like King of Comedy, To Die For and The Stepfather, this is one of the funniest movies of its year, the humor gushing out of it after surgical slices at capitalism, the lies told to the underclass, the omnipresence of "business thinking" and a society where nothing is out of bounds for economic exploitation. It's a film of amazing verbal dexterity, its rhythms and cadences generating energy and laughs even without the content - Gyllenhaal and Gilroy have an amazing rapport, it'd be a shame if this ends up being their only collaboration. It's a film that gleefully channels the disdain for "nice" and "unambitious" and "behind the times" into an oppressive business-speak fantasia and chases that all-too-common disdain for decency to its logical ends. It saves its biggest sardonic grins for ingenuity: not just the cleverness associated with small business entrepreneurs but with willful naivety. There's a worst they have to offer. "Aw shucks sir, I will be taking your Rolex. Whether I take your life as well is up to you." - Chris
Abuse of Weakness.
My life is a continual balancing of the elegant and the horrible. - Catherine Breillat, post-stroke
If it seems insensitive to suggest that suffering a debilitating stroke was a great move for Catherine Breillat's career, at least the sentiment is backed up by an entire novel and film created by Breillat herself. Following a long line of characters preoccupied with the rejection of their physical form - Marie in Romance, Alice in Brief Crossing, the unnamed heroine of Anatomy of Hell - director surrogate Maud Schoenberg (Isabelle Huppert) finds herself strangely liberated once her body has rejected her. That's the audacious balancing act Breillat pulls off with her latest film: the suggestion that an involuntary surrender of control is rectified by a voluntary surrender of control. This idea sets up one of the most beguiling and Breillatian of couplings, a platonic sadomasochistic rapport between enfeebled filmmaker Maud and brutish, uncultured yet undeniably masculine swindler Vilko. Even as she's bullying him intellectually, effortlessly spurning his feeble attempts to gain her trust with a transparent dash of dangerous charm which fails to conceal his general oafishness, she still allows him to walk away with everything she has in the world. There's something in the relationship between these two people that is penetratingly universal about every relationship on the planet, which is even more striking when you realize the entire scenario is based on Breillat being defrauded of thousands of dollars in real life by a man who would become the template for duplicitous Vilko.
At the Lincoln Film Society screening of Abuse of Weakness, guest host John Waters expressed aloud what many of us were undoubtedly thinking: how could someone as fiercely independent, successful, self aware and smart as Catherine Breillat fall for a reputed con artist who did little more than repeatedly ask her to write him checks for increasingly large sums of money, which she unhesitantly agreed to do for several months? There's no easy answer as to Breillat's situation, but with the film she suggests an unspoken symbiosis between the two characters which demands that Maud allow Vilko to take advantage of her as a pretext to the physical power she now lacks. A binding corruption of the body is counteracted by a freeing corruption of self, part of Breillat's ongoing fascination with the painfully close approximation of victimization and domination. If Maud's being exploited, it's because that's how she wants it: her body taken away from her, her last weapon is to allow Vilko to do what he will, as long as he understands it's what she wants him to do. Breillat has always explored the duality of exploitation, whether it be the older sister in the "seduction" scene of Fat Girl or the actor giving in to the director (another Breillat proxy) while shooting the same scene in Sex is Comedy. The deals these characters make are presented as mutually beneficial, but as Breillat draws out the relationship it becomes apparent that the rules have shifted in favor of the more manipulative party. But which one is worse: the abuser or the victim complicit in his or her own abuse?
Breillat herself doesn't know the answer, but in Abuse of Weakness the inquiry has resulted in her most unusual and exquite horror movie yet. It's the kind of film I've been waiting for since Marina de van's In My Skin 10 years ago, a step forward in the long-festering cinéma du corps. Vilko puts on an aggressive act in front of his mark, but from the first shots of the film it's obvious that the real monster is the crippling attack and resulting palsy that robs Maud of the control that's so much a part of her. Adamantly unconquered, Maud (a German name meaning "powerful battler") allies herself with a new, more tactile corrupting entity, in this case the rascally Vilko, always glad to lend a supporting shoulder to lean on or help with small chores. Convinced of her authority in the relationship, she crafts herself a pair of dominatrix orthopedic boots to wear as she belittles him, unaware that her allocation of duties and dependence on her "servant" slowly shifts power to him. Soon Maud finds she has no choice but to give in: it's either let Vilko guide her or fall helplessly with a real risk of never getting up again, two involuntary actions that can't both be rejected. Beyond that, Breillat observes (quite introspectively, considering she actually went through all this) how Maud restructures shame into self-punishment, a crippled woman who subconsciously allows herself to be victimized to gain power over her own vulnerability. Out of misguided conceit, she denies her body the right to rule her mind by creating an enemy she can see and feel...then letting him defeat her. Afterwards, there's nothing to do but identify the mind-body split: "It was me, but it wasn't me."
Enough can't be said about how thoroughly Isabelle Huppert inhabits the role, not only displaying her usual selfless approach to a flawed individual but conveying dignity and understanding (not to mention nuance) in performing a disabled character. Her chemistry with rapper/graffiti artist Kool Shen, whose hangdog face almost melts off his leather skin, makes both of their performances better. Seriously, how great is it that Huppert's late career highlights have been the result of her teaming up with an established filmmaker (Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Hong Sang-soo, Marco Bellocchio) to knock one out of the park? Surprisingly restrained, Abuse of Weakness is not at all what you'd expect from the director of Fat Girl and star of The Piano Teacher. But then those who were maybe expecting a sleazier, straight-forward story of a manipulative young suitor conning his way into the life of a smitten benefactor (which had to have contributed to what feels like an overall ambivalent reception towards the film) would probably prefer 50 Shades of Gray or something. Having made three of her best films (Abuse, Bluebeard and The Last Mistress) in the years since her stroke, Breillat has proven herself no weaker than the provocateur of Fat Girl and resurfaced as an atom bomb. - John
The Unknown Known.
The Fog of Word.
The biggest complaint about Errol Morris' portrait of former Secretary of Defense and Teflon Politico Donald Rumsfeld is that Morris never nails him. Many folks despise Rumsfeld and believe him to be not only an infuriatingly smug liar, but a bona fide war criminal and Morris does nothing to put the screws to him. This misses the point in several ways, the most important of which is Morris' entire theme: you will never nail Donald Rumsfeld. Men like Rumsfeld will never feel regret or shame, they will never lose an argument, they will never be punished and they will go to bed at night in a mansion and sleep like a baby. They will not die until a very, very old age and then they will pass peacefully in their sleep with a grin on their lips. It's tough for me to believe that anyone would be sated by Morris more rudely barking questions at him on camera, but I have no idea what people want. If they want Rumsfeld to not sleep soundly at night, that's beyond Morris' power.
The film is an equal and opposite flipside to his extraordinary portrait of former Secretary of Defense and Human Computer Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War. That film is another Morris portrait of self-deception, of McNamara's inability to comprehend himself and why he did what he did. It's a striking film because McNamara is so candid and guileless - it's almost impossible to believe he could be so naïve. But all of his naiveties suspiciously work towards his exoneration. Rumsfeld is the opposite: his self-deception is indistinguishable from deception. It is impossible to know whether Rumsfeld believes the parade of evasions, reversals and dubious propositions he rolls out. His consistency is remarkable; he has an astounding recall of what he said back when he said it and an intimate knowledge of seemingly every one of the thousands and thousands of memos and missives that were his signature while at the White House. He always knows what he said and can explain quite clearly why he said it. And he is very specific with his words.
The film makes a lot of hay about his devotion to parsing terms and only a man so obsessed with precise dictionary definitions could be so disinterested in truth. Etymological obsessiveness isn't intended to communicate clearly but to clearly define terms as a way of manipulating perception; there's a sickness in him that pits the rightness of a word against veracity. Morris has joked that McNamara's excuse for his actions concerning Vietnam is "the fog of war ate my homework." Any conversation with Rumsfeld instantly becomes about precisely what is meant by "homework," "fog," "war" and "ate." In this regard, he's amazingly craven: concerning the idea that the public supported the invasion of Iraq because they believed there was a connection between Sadam and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he simply says "I don't believe that's true." Notice his words: not "That's not true," but "I don't believe that's true." There's no way to disagree with the sentiment, because how could we know if it's truthful? We can't know what he believes; he alone possesses his belief. It's the unknown known.
The dirty secret and the thing that I think makes liberals hate this film down in their heart is that Rumsfeld is delightful. He's funny and charming, he constantly outsmarts Morris and shatters accusations with clever rhetorical flourishes. He's very hard to hate and it's remarkable how his political career survived everything from a heavy association with Nixon to failed presidential bids to stepping down in ignominy during the war in Iraq. Every move works out to his advantage, to an improbable degree. It is impossible to know what he actually thinks about Watergate or George Bush Jr. or the existence of chemical weapons in Iraq because his lies are the same as his truths. As Morris explored in his NY Times column, a lie requires words - and no one possesses his words more tightly than Donald Rumsfeld. You will never get him. If you try, he will pummel you with some of his words and laugh. Smugly. It's almost enough to make you want to laugh along with him. - Chris
Norte, The End of History.
If Louis Bloom and Donald Rumsfeld made for two of the year's most irresistibly charming monsters, Sid Lucero's Fabian has to be its most weirdly sympathetic self-hating, destructive wreck of a human being. Portrayed in the first of the film's pleasantly brisk four hours as a pedantic law school dropout bantering contrarian views on the morals of nationality and capitalism with haughty former classmates, he soon begins to find himself disillusioned with his own polished polemics. Determined to put his theories into practice he becomes increasingly withdrawn and nihilistic: tapping into his inner-Raskolnikov, he strikes out against an unscrupulous moneylender and her daughter. The murders are blamed on a local family man and Fabian wanders through the rest of the film in a deep malaise that, unsated by empty Christian reassurances, begets further violence. A slave to idealism, dogged by hypocrises (was the murder of the moneylender really just motivated by the fact that he owed her money?), Fabian is a malignant mass of indignation, a holy fool of decimated idealogies in a dirty t-shirt, and when he becomes totally unhinged his belligerant quests of righteousness is as fascinating an unraveling as Rip Torn's Maury Dann in Payday or Philip Hoffman's Andy Hanson in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (with his unexpected attacks as phantasmal as those of William Tokarsky's rampant psycho in Too Many Cooks).
If Fabian was the only thing Lav Diaz's superlative film was interested in, that would be enough to fill an engaging feature-length film. But Diaz devotes the second act of the story to Joaquin, the man wrongfully imprisoned for Fabian's crime, and his wife Eliza, left to raise their two children with the income from a fruit cart. It could have been the stuff of sappy melodrama, but instead Diaz uses the ordeal of a condemned man and his struggling family as a pointed contrast to Fabian's calamitous trail. It's an incredible feat to expose the viewer to the tragic ramifications of Fabian's vicious act - the hardships Joaquin faces in prison as well as Eliza's improverised life without her husband - and have them make Fabian somehow more amendable, even as his misguided attempts at redemption only result in more destruction. The reason is nothing short of the history of the Philippines and political misbalance across the globe: some people, some very good people, poor and undereducated, simply carry out their existences doing their best to survive without standing up against the injustices of law and government. Other people, some very bad people, the opposite of poor and very well-educated, take it into their own hands to change the way things are and continue towards that goal undeterred and often unchallenged. With the small drama of these characters' lives, Diaz argues that the noble suffering of good people is doomed to be vanquished by the crashing wave of cyclical social tides, even in the guise of a aimless murderer; that ruinous sophistry can end in transcendence while the reward for selfless mortification is nothing but further anguish.
Norte avoids preachy political overtones and focuses on being absolutely fucking gorgeous, with Larry Manda's beautiful photography complimented by Diaz's measured tempo. Distinguished by expansive wide shots that last several minutes, the images are connected by a consistent mood which gives the sedate crane shot of a quiet night in the seaside town the same emotional weight as the somber pan across the aftermath of a horrible accident. Diaz's masterful hand is felt in sudden, unexplained meetings between myth and nature like those found in the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, night scenes filled with unforced moments of poignancy a'la the recent work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and little pockets of erratic magic dissevered from banal reality not too far from those created by Carlos Reygadas. Even more impressively, the film's rich, novelistic scope - its small leading cast among extensive sets that reflect big ideas - recalls the subtle epicness (or the majestic minimalism) of Edward Yang.
"Like Edward Yang" is not praise to be dished out frivolously, but Diaz earns it by never losing sight of the human story within his large canvas. Fabian and Eliza, as often geographically separated as they are culturally, are still spiritually linked in surprising ways: strained relationships with siblings, internal prisons they make for themselves, suicidal inclinations neither can quite carry out. Their arcs, which intersperse with scenes of poor Joaquin in jail and unexpectedly converge upon Fabian's reappearance in the coastal town where the crime was committed, form the overburdened conscious of Diaz's triptych. Fabian, half Raskolnikov, half young Ferdinand Marcos, shares the same good intentions as those who transformed the Phillipines into the mess it is today, all commitment and no direction: he wants to correct his country's social failings but merely ends up making things more difficult for the people whose lives he seeks to improve - it's nothing malicious on his part, it's just the way things end up. In aligning personal history with national history, Diaz cultivates an understanding of how people unwittingly play the tragic parts laid out for them. For Diaz, history ends when it becomes achingly apparent that it will never change. - John
The Whole Show.
The prevalence of the praise around Mike Leigh's portrait of 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner rightfully focuses on Timothy Spall's grunting, wheezing, heavy performance as the man himself. Spall gives one of those performances that is so delightful that it borders on comedic; it's almost too much. Several times throughout the film his work threatens to slip into the kind of caricature that pops up here and there under Leigh's direction, like Jeremy Crutwell in Naked or Mark Benton in Career Girls. Leigh and Spall, however, find the absolute edge of how marvelously larger-than-life they can make their ursine virtuoso of light and color, the performance's charm stressing the film at its seams. The story itself, which covers only a fragment of Turner's later life after he had been well established as a Titan of British Art, lacks (almost certainly by Leigh's intention) a driving narrative that might distract from the film's sole focus: Spall's Turner.
This is a notably fragmented and meandering work, even by Leigh's standards - his films are generally circuitous and episodic, designed to come together in unexpected ways, his methods intended to produce unexpected insights rather than standard climaxes. But his films are usually ensembles and get carried off in unexpected directions by side characters and sudden intrusions. He's done total ensembles like Life is Sweet, All or Nothing and Another Year where you'd be hard pressed to identify a main character. Just as frequently, he's set up his films to engineer a collision between two equal and contentious forces: Cynthia and Hortense in Secrets and Lies, Gilbert and Sullivan in Topsy Turvy, Poppy and Scott in Happy-Go-Lucky. In even these instances, his films are messy and unpredictable and frequently hijacked by secondary characters. It's rare for Leigh to let a single figure dominate a film so completely and he takes care to ensure Spall fills up his work to a point it just might burst.
Perversely, Mr. Turner most closely resembles Naked, Leigh's other tale of an irritable loner trying to cope with life. They even both begin by catching up with their heroes mid-story. Spall's Turner and David Thewlis' Johnny share a similar cutting humor and an unsettling capacity for cruelty. While Johnny smashes face-first into reality's harshness over and over, Turner simply ignores its messes into near total non-existence. He's not just a master of the brush, but the master of his reality and won't hesitate to simply deny the existence of his illegitimate daughters or the affections of his diseased housekeeper. No, "deny" is too strong a word - "ignore" is correct. There are confrontations over these issues but they don't seem to make a dent in him. He's a Johnny who has figured out how to live without being destroyed by life; or rather, if Johnny had ever been able to channel his restless brilliance into something useful and been deemed by society the genius he so clearly believes himself to be, he would have become Mr. Turner.
Like all of Leigh's theatrical releases, it works itself circuitously towards devastating emotional gestures and other moments that strike at you from unexpected angles. Turner's trip to a prostitute after the death of his father is one of the most remarkable scenes of the year, one that I hesitate to spoil, even though to describe it would make it sound pedestrian. When Leigh is at his best, as he is with this sequence, his work functions almost like a magic trick. You can't understand what's just happened to you, how he pulled it off, what's inside his little box and how you couldn't see any of it coming, even though you knew, after all these decades of watching him work, that the surprises and epiphanies would come. While the film contains almost all of Leigh's signature themes and remains unmistakably the work of the Manchester grump, it never feels like more of the same. You won't be able to figure out what he and Spall have done to you. - Chris
CONTINUE ON TO "THE BEST!" PART II
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