La Boutique (Berlanga, 1967)

I think I’ll watch a bunch of Luis García Berlanga films this year given how great The Executioner was. La Boutique is his follow-up. It’s entertaining, has some similarities to The Executioner (the wry look at relationships and the passage of time), and, though it doesn’t add up to the same power, is a really strong follow-up.

The opening title sequence reminds me of the one from Peppermint Frappewhich is interesting because they came out the same year:

La Boutique also feels Italian. Like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow or some other dark-comedy, marriage-based film. Ricardo (Rodolfo Bebán) is a playboy who is not in love with his wife of one year, Carmen (Sonia Bruno). All of that changes – and the dynamic of their relationship eventually does a complete 180 – when her mother, Luisa (Ana María Campoy) lies to Ricardo that her daughter has a terminal illness.

Berlanga utilizes a pretty loose, often handheld camera. He’s got a lot of long takes, but the formal approach from The Executioner that I liked so much, and those daring, dark frames are mostly gone.

Still the blocking is excellent. He often stays pretty wide, like in this sequence, where Ricardo is at work and his mother-in-law pays him a visit:

The camera tracks back and finds an ending frame with a lot of depth. The reverse shot-

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Is also quite deep. I feel like the film gets more contained as it progresses. This sequence, much later in the film, has the feel of the second half. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. Carmen has opened up a boutique (it’s pretty hilarious how much Berlanga makes fun of the fashion and modern art).

Like in his 1963 film we start on extras. I love the beginning of this shot also because the priest and altar boy feel so out of place. It coincides with a time jump so we’re pretty disoriented, which is good. Love that Belmondo image, too:

We navigate some tight, cramped spaces expertly before finding Piti (Marilina Ross), Carmen’s assistant, who then brings us through the rest of the space, past extras, and to Carmen:

It feels different than the first part, also because we’ve switched the focal point a bit.  What started as Ricardo’s film has now either become Carmen’s (or maybe it’s just evenly both of theirs).

Many of Berlanga’s images are either funny-

Or beautifully abstract (while also being funny. That’s a roll of toilet paper from a ridiculously hilarious ad we see being shot earlier in the film. One where the director keeps telling his leading lady, “Stanslavski! Interior Method!”)-

The end of La Boutique is really dark. It’s also pretty funny. And a little ridiculous. Berlanga’s got style, and the film mostly only suffers because an outright masterpiece preceded it. On its own it’s tight, funny, and meaningful.

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Intimate Lighting (Passer, 1965)

The only Ivan Passer film I’ve seen other than Intimate Lighting is Cutter’s Way, a fantastic movie with two unexpected leads, that makes the 1980s feel fresh. Passer only made one feature in the Czech Republic. I haven’t read much on him, but I wonder if his path is similar to Forman’s (Passer wrote Loves of a Blonde, after all).

Intimate Lighting is full of long scenes. It’s quite talky. But it’s so full of perfect human observation that it never feels slow. I think this film probably influenced Bob Rafelson a lot.

Accomplished musician Peter (Zdenek Bezusek, amazingly in his only film role!) comes to visit his old friend Bambas (Karel Blazek) in a small village. Stepa (Vera Kresadlová, who I recognized from The Joke), Peter’s carefree girlfriend comes with him.

The beauty of Intimate Lighting is, as mentioned, small observations. Stepa sits outside of a bar, bored, waiting for Peter and honking. He comes into the car and they play “guess that tune” on the horn. Peter and Bambas drink all night and, against better judgment, take out their instruments. Stepa can’t stop laughing over something trivial at lunch.

The scenes feel like they were lived, nearly autobiographical. Part of this is in how long Passer lets them run, and how he focuses his camera less on dramatic moments (i.e arguments) and more the reactions to events.

As Cinema Cats will tell you (this website really exists!), this is the kind of film that values off-screen action. It’s akin to those reaction shots. The joke is so often in the background, or, at least, you have to be patient for it.

Stepa and Peter are such great characters. Bezusek plays Peter as gently amused throughout. Kresadlová’s Stepa isn’t just the “pretty girl on his arm.” She follows her own whims, many of which are simple curiosity.

One of my favorite scenes in Intimate Lighting is when Stepa and Peter talk in bed. She talks about exercise – something that I don’t think happens much on-screen at this time:

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I just love their frankness when they talk. Passer keeps us at a relative distance, and their small argument feels loving, flirtatious, and silly.

But Intimate Lighting isn’t just great when it’s a work of satirical realism. Passer really knows how to frame for comedy. Consider one of the ending shots of them film-

Intimate

It’s not only the ending of a joke that’s been carefully built over time, but the composition itself is a beautiful wide. And it’s a beat that lands perfectly; a textbook example of when to cut out to make something funnier.

The prologue to Intimate Lighting makes me think of Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal, though that film is from 1978, so perhaps Fellini might have been thinking of Passer. It’s a pretty bold beginning. We’re not introduced to the characters, but to a concept. It’s probably no coincidence that it also made me think of The Firemen’s Ball. For me this isn’t the pointed criticism, even anger, of some other Czech New Wave films, but it hints at group mentality, bureaucracy, and the idea of the outsider “against” a more tight-knit community.

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The Best Films of 2017

The Best Films of 2017

2017 was, as I’m thoroughly convinced every single year is, a great year for cinema. It was also the hardest year since I’ve been blogging for me to narrow down my ridiculously titled The Best Films Not Made in 2017 That I Saw For The First Time in 2017 list.

Toni-Erdmann

There are a lot of 2017 films I missed: Nocturama, Logan Lucky, Lady Macbeth, Columbus, The Untamed, Icaros: A VisonMost Beautiful Island, Afterimage, Beach Rats, A Quiet Passion, The Ornithologist, My Happy Family, Knife in the Clear Water among many, many others.

You won’t find a whole lot of films on this list, because they haven’t been released near me. Those include Faces Places, The Florida Project, Call Me By Your Name, Happy End, Zama (I really can’t wait for this film!!), The Endless, Let The Corpses Tan, Un beau soleil intérieur, You Were Never Really Here, The Strange Ones, The Shape of Water, Scarred Hearts, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of ArcFoxtrot, The Woman Who Left, Phantom Thread, Lady Bird, Western, A Fantastic Woman, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and others. I’m sure some will be on my 2018 list.

Similarly, Toni Erdmann, The Salesman, and Neruda made a lot of 2016 lists. They opened for me to see in early 2017.

The Best Films of 2017

Five Favorites, in No Order:

Toni Erdmann

I don’t know that I saw a better film all year. Toni Erdmann is perfect, front to back. It’s a master class in how to make all of the right decisions, from beats to camera to production design to dialogue. It somehow makes the major plot point of a dad wearing false teeth and a wig not into a bland one-note studio tentpole and instead wrestles between philosophical and hilarious.

Neruda

Another easy favorite of the year. This is a film about myth-making and the elusiveness of art. It’s also about big personalities and the need to fill them. It’s hilarious, poignant, and really beautiful.

Creepy

Did other people love this film? I’ve heard surprisingly little about it. It’s such a strong Kiyoshi Kurosawa. One of his best, I think. It’s just so damn creepy and unnerving, thanks in large part to the performance from Hidetoshi Nishijima and Kurosawa’s technique.

A Gentle Creature

Even though I had issues with the end of this film it’s really stuck with me; more so than a lot of other films on this list. Loznitsa just has such fresh technique. The feels films sprawling because of all the side characters (it’s possibly the best cast of extras I’ve ever seen) but intensely personal because of the close-ups and control of Vasilina Makovtseva. And the end has grown on me as I think of it – that I think of it means something.

Ava

The best surprise on this list because I’d heard next to nothing about it, Ava is so good. I’m sure it’s a film that will linger with me. It feels fresh and young. There’s a lot that I’d like to take away (read: imitate) from this film, but mostly that opening sequence, the color palette, and some of the transitions.

The Next Five, In No Order:

Get Out

I haven’t seen many lists that this film hasn’t made and for good reason. It’s hysterical, scary, and meaningful, a damn hard combination to pull off. My favorite part is still Betty Gabriel’s super-eerie close-up.

Personal Shopper

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: not many people block an interior scene with two characters like Olivier Assayas. It’s just such confident blocking. Slightly handheld, comfortable with off-screen space. But Personal Shopper, like Clouds of Sils Maria (is there a third part to this would-be-trilogy coming?) is much more than just that. It’s an intense character study filled with moments of wonder, and the best texting scene I know of.

Good Time

This film just feels pretty relentless. Part of that is the score, sure, but it’s also just a breakneck film. I feel like some of the plotting shouldn’t work. Like the “mistaken identity” bit could feel hackneyed in another film, but here, thanks to Pattinson’s performance and the writing of his character, it makes total sense.

120 BPM

Maybe the most naturalistic film of the year, alongside The Levelling120 BPM just feels like real people doing real things in real time. It’s not really any of that, but the facade is basically invisible. I like the ability to make so many distinct personalities arise – credit to writer, director, and actors there.

The Square

Alongside The Big Sick, the funniest movie I’ve seen all year. Ruben Östlund is a star, and I bet that star keeps rising. Between this and Force Majeure he seems to have figured out the beautiful line between provocation, irreverent comedy, and harsh tragedy.

Rounding out The Top 15, in No Order:

I Am Not a Witch

A fantastically sharp, haunting satire. I was surprised how funny it was at times (the talk show sequence, in particular). Beautifully lensed, great turns by the leads, and a delicate sense of pacing from Rungano Nyoni.

Mother!

Man. I just love that this movie exists. It’s so daring. Totally embraces risk. I can see why some people might hate it (even mis-marketing aside), but if you just let it take you, let some of the biblical allusions flutter around in your mind, and revel in the absurdity of it all then it’s a great ride.

A Ghost Story

I think that this would be a great film to pair with Mother! Both are, in many ways, about a disintegrated relationship (though for very different reasons), and both expand time and/or space in unexpected ways. This film is much quieter and reflective. It’s also bold. One thing I didn’t note in my blog about it is the effort put into the ghost costume (I think I mentioned the eyes and that’s it): to get the effect of blackness underneath those eye-holes, to get the effect of a body but no body under that sheet…that’s a coup.

The Other Side of Hope

A Kaurismäki film feels like a reason to celebrate. One of the most distinct styles in cinematic history, I think. He’s just so instantly recognizable. The Other Side of Hope is great. It’s got his irony, and cynicism but also real compassion.

The Levelling

An amazing score, great performances, no major set pieces, basically one location, awesome dialogue. All of the ingredients are there in The Levelling, which is really quietly painful (maybe this is the better pairing with A Ghost Story…).

The Best of the Rest, in No Order:

Harmonium

I caught this one on a plane. Best movie I’ve ever randomly watched on a plane? Probably. I love the caring depiction of the daughter. It’s a beautiful look at guilt and grief.

Dunkirk

I’m surprised that I’m putting Dunkirk on this list. When I left the theater I thought that the first 10 minutes would be all that stayed in my head. And, while that is certainly the best part of the film (alongside the sequence in the beached ship), the whole film lingers. It’s possibly Nolan’s best. It at least feels like his least narrative (a good thing).

The Big Sick

Feels like an old-fashioned comedy. Deceptively simple structure. Good jokes. More than one relationship at its core. This was probably the movie that I’d heard the most hype about on this list prior to seeing it, and it lived up to it.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Speaking of absurdity…The Killing of a Sacred Deer is accomplished for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is pulling off a ridiculous scenario in a world that seems to be mostly logical but teetering on the brink of illogicality. If you have a dark sense of humor (the theater I was in did) then all the more reason to see this.

Raw

The film that took me the longest to come around to, Raw also has staying power. I like a film that knows that it’s playing with fire (this one: an analogy that rides a thin line, sometimes coming too close to comedy) and still goes for it. Plus: the color!

Joaquim

Sweatiest film of the year? That’s a compliment. I think it’s no small feat to make the audience feel texture and smell smells (without the help of smell-o-vision) while watching a film. Joaquim does both. I think this would be hard for an American director to make (the fact that it’s about Brazil, notwithstanding) because of how late the “hero” becomes a “hero.” We see very little of that on-screen.

The Salesman

I caught this at the beginning of 2017, though it’s a 2016 movie for many. It almost feels old-hat now: Asghar Farhadi makes another great movie. Farhadi makes another movie where the blocking is complex and impeccable. Farhadi makes another film where unpleasant secrets are revealed. But it all still feels fresh. In really odd way, this film feels connected to Cache. Much of it also just feels like a Farhadifilm: shooting in cars, the amazing change in tone in the classroom/censorship scene, handheld camera and fast blocking.

Slack Bay

Second-sweatiest film of the year? Slack Bay doesn’t have much else in common with Joaquim, but both are great. Bruno Dumont keeps surprising. I wonder if he’ll try romance next. Or maybe a true genre film. I’d love to see him do horror. Slack Bay is gross and hilarious, it’s indecent and mocking, it’s reverent and irreverent.

 

I Also Liked:

Blade Runner: 2049

I, Olga Heparnova

The Lure

A Dark Song

Antiporno

Beatriz at Dinner

Donald Cried

Mudbound

 

TV Shows I really Liked in 2017:

Twin Peaks: The Return

The best exercise in patience…ever? I mean this is a long series, and the payoff is so great, but a little before the midpoint it gets close to tiresome. I don’t know that you can make this film as a young director for multiple reasons: skill, confidence, and also just the conviction that the audience will go with you. This is so haunting, and if Lynch never makes another film, well, then at least we had Twin Peaks.

Atlanta

Not 2017, but this is the second-best series I watched this year. The acting from the four leads is so good (reaffirms how great I think Lakeith Stanfield is), it’s funny, and bold (that talk show episode!). I also really like how it’s shot. There are some amazing wides in here. I was waiting for Outkast on the soundtrack and when it finally came it was beautifully used.

 

The Best Films Not Made in 2017 That I Saw For The First Time in 2017.

I’m really cheating here. There were just too many. I couldn’t leave off Wedding in Blood, for example. And there were a lot of other too-hard decisions. So I made this a list of 20, with ten ties. The final 10 though: nearly interchangeable! The 1960s are, as is usual I think with my lists, well represented. 9 are from the ’60s and 5 from the ’70s.

10. Wedding in Blood (Chabrol, 1973) and Polytechnique (Villeneuve, 2009)

9. Death in the Garden (Buñuel, 1956) and The Boxer and Death (Solan, 1963)

8. The Chess Players (Ray, 1977) and The Day of the Beast (de la Iglesias, 1995)

7. Le Deuxième Souffle (Melville, 1966) and The Sun in a Net (Uher, 1962)

6. Magical Girl (Vermut, 2014) and The Arrangement (Kazan, 1969)

5. The End of a Priest (Schorm, 1969) and Summer With Monika (Bergman, 1953)

4. Fear of Fear (Fassbinder, 1975) and Invasion (Santiago, 1969)

3. Joseph Kilian (Jurácek, 1963) and Distant Thunder (Ray, 1973)

2. The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Fassbinder, 1972) and Death Watch (Tavernier, 1980)

1. The Executioner (Berlanga, 1963) and Diamonds of the Night (Nemec, 1964)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Am Not a Witch (Nyoni, 2017)

I Am Not a Witch is a great film, made even more so because it’s a debut. Rungano Nyoni is a name to watch out for.

Very small SPOILERS in here.

One day I’ll do a blog post about performances by non-professional actors. I’d love to interview directors about that. Nyoni gets such an amazing turn from Maggie Mulubwa (Shula, in the film). That she’s a child makes it even more impressive. I was also really curious about Henry B.J. Phiri, who plays Mr. Banda. He doesn’t have many credits I could find online. His face is so perfect for the role. His introduction is one of my favorite shots of the film:

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It’s a very long take, and we spend much of it looking at the back of his head, while his wife, played by Nancy Murilo, is much more open to camera. But I love this frame for so many reasons. First, it ties into Nyoni’s idea of pacing as a whole for the film. It’s so delicate and flowing. She lets shots linger (some on empty frames. I’m thinking of the great moment when Shula runs away and we hear voices long off-screen after her pursuers have carried her off frame right). This shot is no exception. Traditional urge would be to cut to Mr. Banda earlier, but the performance is right, and the blocking is great and relevant (that his wife is washing his back, holding his phone, etc fits into their relationship, which is revealed over the film).

Second, the shot is pretty. As is this whole film. Shot into a corner against a mostly-white wall. Two film school no-nos, and both are great here. Cinematographer David Gallego’s frames are exceptional throughout. No surprise – he shot Embrace of the Serpent. Possibly my favorite film from last year.

But back to Phiri: he’s got a boyish quality, like an overgrown child, but he also carries a menace. He’s like that dangerous teddy bear. You want to squeeze him, but you’re also really wary.

Nyoni’s technique isn’t just about long takes. Here’s a sequence of four shots that I really like (sorry about the relatively low still quality). A CU on Shula; a WS of a very green tree; a WS of a very bare tree; a WS of the other women in the camp with Shula:

Those trees are narrative pillow/transition shots, moving us through time. I like them so much because the idea of the drought hasn’t come into play yet, this just feels like beauty, and it’s only much later that it becomes relevant. There’s also a nice idea of montage. Shula is next to the healthy tree. The women are next to the barren tree. I think you can say something about the sight lines and/or graphic matches, too. The fence on the z-axis of the green tree nearly matches, or at least calls to mind, Shula’s eyeline in her CU (if she was looking frame right instead of left it’d be a great match). The relative flatness and horizon of the barren tree certainly recalls that same flatness and equivalent-horizon (the base of the truck) of the final shot in the sequence.

When Nyoni’s film isn’t filled with breathtaking images-

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-it’s a sharp satire (not that these things are mutually exclusive). Like this sequence where an oblivious tourist wants to take a selfie with Shula:

It’s funny and sad, just like a later scene (which is a little more of both) where Mr. Banda takes Shula on a TV show.

I Am Not a Witch has a perfect ending. The last three minutes are so exceptionally designed. I’m looking forward to Nyoni’s follow-up.

 

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Ava (Mysius, 2017) and a bunch of others

Wow, I snuck in Ava at the end of the year and am glad I did. What a film! And what a score! I may have spoken too soon when I said that A Dark Song and The Levelling have the best music of the year, because Ava gives them, at the least, a solid run for their money.

Léa Mysius’ film is so confident. It switches really artfully from something like a sun-drenched Andrea Arnold, to a feverish nightmare (including, I think, the best nightmare sequence of the year), to a Jonathan Demme-on-acid road trip. There’s so much style in here. I read in an interview with Mysius that she shot on 35mm for 8 weeks. That’s a pretty damn cushy schedule and it sure doesn’t go to waste.

Even some of the “simpler” frames in the film are gorgeous. I love these two below:

That first one is just a great angle, with fantastic lighting, and a beautiful green wall. The production design, from the director’s sister, Esther Mysius, is great throughout. Paul Guilhame is the DoP on the film, and also someone to look out for – this is how I like colors in film to look. That second image, with dusk just peeking over the horizon line, the sparkly beads in the foreground, and the way the frame seems to move from white to blue is gorgeous.

There’s an opening sequence with a black dog, which features prominently in the film, running on the beach. Alongside Florencia Di Concilio’s score it’s haunting and frightening. The palette of the rest of the scene is yellow and white-dominated, and the dog’s fur is deep black. It doesn’t fit, and it slinks along, wolf-like. You get the sense of imminent crisis, but it really just feels like foreboding prologue. The thing about that prologue is that it somehow fits, yet Ava is in the end something like a feel-good film.

You can tell that Ava features non-professional actors, but not in a bad way. You can just kind of feel it. The acting is superb, so I think it’s more of a naturalness than anything else. Noée Abita is incredible as the title character. I also felt it from Tamaro Cano, who plays Jessica. She’s got some kind of a look that manages to be at once bored and intense; it’s really compelling.

The inventiveness of Ava is in any frame. At one point Maud (Laure Calamy), Ava’s mother, reads her daughter’s diary and we cut to a center-framed, head-on shot of Ava talking to us. The background has a Blue Velvet-like texture, but it’s really one that rhymes with the beach at night:

The second act features a madcap sequence that nearly turns the film into slapstick. We get fantasy (mostly, I think, but not entirely) sequences in split screen, and a hilarious driving sequence with Ava, Juan (Juan Cano), and their dog:

The sequence is so free and fun. It comes amidst some real danger (a stabbing, pointing a gun at a police officer), and it relieves that tension for a short break.

When Ava and Juan are on the run the film departs from this high-key frolic and goes back to some of the moody nighttime photography we’ve seen before. I love this imaginative shot-reverse:

And this one, which could be from a science fiction film:

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Ava takes a lot of risks and pays off. It’s one of the best films of the year.

Some Other Films:

A few sentences on some films to try to catch up:

Thelma (Trier, 2017)

I really wanted to love Thelma and it has a lot of elements to truly love (amazing central performances; great camera, as you’d expect from Trier), but it just felt a little too muddled between three plots. And I’m a stickler for rules when they matter in a film. They matter here, and they’re fuzzy.

The Snowman (Alfredson, 2017)

I almost made this its own post because of how hilariously inept this film is. I mean, some day we’ll see the director’s cut and it will be much better, right? It has to be given Alfredson’s other films and the pedigree of cast and crew involved. But The Snowman is just such a train wreck. Luckily it’s a fun wreck. The concert that Fassbender’s character takes his son to? The fact that he’s an alcoholic, that plot point disappears, and then tries to come back at a critical moment of decision when it’s already been long gone in our mind? The notes, which feature so prominently in all marketing, and then just kind of go away? Pacing and tension which seem to randomly rise and then just evaporate? A totally stupid, and funny sequence between JK Simmons’ character and his aide involving a not-so-subtle nod to a potential prostitute in front of a gathering of admirers and reporters? It’s a long list.

Wind River (Sheridan, 2017)

Another one that I really wanted to love more than I ultimately did. Wind River‘s got a lot going for it. Strong performances, some nicely tense scenes, a pretty brutal flashback, but the sum of the parts just didn’t totally land for me. I was talking to a friend who said how tense he felt that climax was. I felt basically no tension. Different tastes, I suppose, but the film somehow felt like it skipped over a major beat and just got to the end. It’s not short (107 minutes), but it seemed like 10 minutes had been removed from somewhere before the climax; like part of their investigation had been cut off.

Split (Shyamalan, 2016)

I really love the opening to this film. It reminds me of Shyamalan at his best: off-kilter frames, a lot of point-of-view, things just out of sight. It’s a moody beginning. Then it just kind of settles into what you’d expect. Ultimately, I like Split as a pretty simple, high-concept piece, but for all the hype of the multiple McAvoy performances it doesn’t really use them to much transcend that formula.

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (Blair, 2017)

I didn’t hear too much about this film despite its Sundance win. Like Wind River (although it’s not like Wind River at all) this film feels like it’s missing a piece. The relationship that centers the film is believable enough, there’s some drama, but it seems like it wants to be either nastier or funnier than it is. It’s not really too much of either.

The Meyorwitz Stories (New and Selected) (Baumbach, 2017)

There are some scenes in this film that I really love. Like Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler’s long argument and fight outside of the hospital. Or the entire lunch and post-lunch sequence (including Stiller’s line, “I should have said something more cutting”) between Stiller and Dustin Hoffman. But it’s just not ultimately my kind of a film. I wish that Jean Marvel had more of a role than a quick, sort of obvious recollection, and that Grace Van Patten’s college films started as silly, raunchy, and cute, and then evolved along with her character. It didn’t really feel like either happened.

Baby Driver (Wright, 2017)

I’m pretty surprised to see how many people have liked this at the end of the year. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm are really good. I don’t get much from Ansel Elgort in here. The opening sequence is awesome. The long take with lyrics cleverly written along the way and into the production design is really cool. The (trailer-spoiled) dialogue about a Michael Myers mask is hilarious. And the rest of it doesn’t really go anywhere.

 

 

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Slack Bay (Dumont, 2016) and I, Olga Hepnarová (Kazda, Weinreb, 2016)

I think we’ll look back at 2014 – 2017 (and maybe beyond, depending on his next film) and see it as the second period in Bruno Dumont’s career. If The Life of Jesus to Camille Claudel 1915 is part one, then Li’l Quinquin and onward is part 2. To be fair, I think you can make the case that The Life of Jesus, Humanité (my favorite of his), and Twentynine Palms (my least favorite of his) make up part 1; that the next four are part 2; and that we’re in part 3. But I digress.

The point is that what Dumont started with Li’l Quinquin he’s now taken to further extremes with Slack Bay, which is so ludicrous, unsettling, ugly, and beautiful that it adds up to something at once repulsive and magnetic.

Some SPOILERS below.

It’s strange: this is an outright slapstick, frenzied film that still is very much a Dumont film. There’s the earthy texture (and generally, just the attention to nature: Dumont’s films might not always love people, but they love the earth), the insistence on characters who have physical attributes that set them apart from any norm, nonprofessional actors, illicit sexual relationships (in this case, incest), and of course, some kind of transcendental moment.

The interesting thing about the transcendental in Slack Bay is that it’s fairly useless. I think that’s the point. It sort of brings people closer together, but it’s not helpful in any real sense of the word. It’s more that it just happens. But why not? The two characters who levitate are ineffective. One is a housewife who does very little throughout the film in terms of narrative weight, then seems to gain some stature after her miracle, and then loses it again once we (and she, and everyone else in the film) realizes she’s not unique. The other is a totally hapless police officer who can’t solve a crime, let alone walk down a sand dune. So the miraculous is beautiful, but ordinary. And that’s true of all of Slack Bay it’s about beauty amidst ugliness, and how maybe just those beautiful moments are what’s meaningful, not whether they change anyone or not. How many shots are there of people admiring the landscape in the film? A lot:

This image feels to me like the kind of shot that a filmmaker has in his/her head and sits down to start writing with:

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It’s also an image that sort of sums up Dumont in the way I noted before: a beautiful landscape with something impossible happening. Here’s some of the sequence that leads up to this moment:

That’s Machin flying away from a grandiose party, only to float by Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville) and his sister Nadège (Laura Dupré) taking in a romantic view:

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It’s a great sequence because it’s the only time that Machin actually brings the Brufort family together with the Peteghems – something that he’s been (unknowingly) trying to do all film, and failing at miserably. It’s also something of a role reversal. The Peteghems are usually the ones who are calmly about manners, while the Brufort’s are living in the mud; here it’s opposite.

The slapstick in here is outrageous. Like Caroline Carbonnier’s character holding a severed bloody foot in a medium shot and asking over and over who wants more foot. Or  André Van Peteghem’ s (Fabrice Luchini) constantly ridiculous hand gestures and affectations (he seems to walk with a hunched over bounce, half drunk and silly). Or the adherence to practice and manners and protocol at all times, even the most inappropriate. Or the two police officers Machin (Didier Després) and Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux) who are basically Laurel and Hardy.

I think that Slack Bay is kind of a tough watch. You feel the mud and blood, the great Juliette Binoche hams it up, and you end up rooting for a cannibal, but Dumont seems to want to find humanity in some of the unlikeliest of places, and he does that.

I, Olga Hepnarová

This one’s also not an easy watch. I had a little bit of context coming in to I, Olga Hepnarová, but probably not as much as someone who lives in Czechia or nearby. I think this is a film that’s better with some context going in, which isn’t usually how I feel. It verges on exploitive otherwise. Maybe. I’d be curious to talk to an audience member on either side of that coin.

Regardless, I, Olga Hepnarová is methodical and beautiful. I quite enjoyed its fractured beginning. I was playing a bit of catch up in almost every scene. Not that I wasn’t following the narrative, but rather that time felt really disjointed and elusive. I like that at the beginning of the film: sort of like another layer of mystery. And it adds to the story later when Olga makes claims of abuse, which we never really saw. There’s some early action off-screen, and there is one beating scene (but it’s not from whom she later claims), but the beginning feels slippery in perhaps the same way it is to Olga.

Michalina Olszanska is perfectly cast as Olga. When she smiles it’s illuminative, but she spends much of the film in a very different state of mind.

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Directors Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda favor long takes. The build reminds me a little bit of that in a Dumont film (hence the post together). Maybe in Camillle Claudel 1915, though Weinreb and Kazda go for less emotion in their protagonist than in Dumont’s work (who, if he is the successor to Bresson as people have said, definitely differs from Bresson in that way).

I love the way the smoky interiors look:

The end of I, Olga Hepnarová makes the film work. Even up to the last 10 minutes I wasn’t sold on it. I was having some issues with the pacing, with the treatment of the protagonist, and with how the directors were playing for sympathy. But the final decision, which reminded me a little of the ending of We Need to Talk About Kevin totally rights the ship. It’s a strong finale, and a bit heartbreaking. I think that’s hard to do given, again, the historical context.

 

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Antiporno (Sono, 2016)

What should you expect from Sion Sono making a film for Nikkatsu’s revived Roman Porno division? I mean, basically you should expect Antiporno, which is very beautiful, isn’t really good clean softcore fun, and reminds me a bit of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy and even of Mulholland Drive.

Some SPOILERS below.

Antiporno is what the title suggests, but not in obvious ways. It isn’t Inserts. Sono’s film is mostly poppy and colorful. The strange set from early on feels that way for a reason…

…it’s a set:

That’s what the film thrives on. Once Sono makes this reveal, which is a pretty startling and fun one, then all spatial and temporal rules sort of go out the window. Is Kyôko (Ami Tomite) a wanna-be-porn actress? A superstar novelist? A schoolgirl obsessed with her parents’ sexuality? It’s not always clear, but what is clear is that Sono is interested in the idea of voyeurism being pervasive, and of life being a film.

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Moments like the one above are so creepy and powerful. It’s a great wide frame that feels so intimidating. I love how everyone down to the AC, second from the left, are leaning in, totally attentive.

Ideas of celebrity, abuse, male domination, manipulation, free speech all clock in in the film, which is at its most powerful when Sono goes full on colorful, and when he cuts freely through time and space.

Antiporno ends in a pretty ugly way and has its ugly moments throughout, but Sono keeps the mise-en-scène quite pretty all the way through – ironic at the times when people are vomiting, being whipped, and being abused.

I think you sort of go with Antiporno and its rabbit hole or you don’t. Sure, that’s true of every film, but you’re not in this one for the hero’s journey, a crazy twist, or even some of the signature Sono violence.

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