Wednesday, January 28, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: CHUCK NORRIS VS. COMMUNISM


A scene from Chuck Norris vs. Communism.
 Lone Wolf Nistor

By Don Simpson
 
By the year 1985, Nicolae Ceausescu had been the dictator of Romania for 20 years. Ceausescu controlled all media and entertainment, reducing television access to one channel that only broadcasted for a couple hours per day. The masses could only endure so much oppression, so a secret underground movement was established to illegally import and distribute bootlegged VHS recordings of movies from the Western world. Amazingly enough, a majority of the bootlegs were overdubbed with the voice of one person, Irina Nistor; she was the person everyone associated with the bootleg VHS tapes and became a mysterious savior to the Romanian public.
 
Combining talking head interviews with reenactment footage, first-time director Ilinca Calugareanu reveals the inner workings of an elaborate VHS smuggling ring that arguably might have prompted the eventual overthrow of Calugareanu’s tyranny in 1989. Oddly enough, there were plenty of Romanian officials and members of the secret police who helped out the VHS bootleggers (in exchange for free bootlegs, of course). In other words, Calugareanu’s government may have contributed to its own demise.
 
Through th title, Chuck Norris vs Communism, suggests that Chuck Norris was Romania’s savior, it was an entire catalog of films, mostly from Hollywood, spanning the gauntlet from action films to romantic comedies. These films taught Romanians about the many wonders of the Western world — specifically 1980s pop culture, free enterprise and materialism, but the films also served as an escape from the grim reality of their daily existence. While we can certainly debate the educational merit and the sociopolitical messages that most of these films communicated, it is quite invigorating to think that cinema might have been the root cause of a working class uprising.

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

A scene from Take Me to the River.
Head games

By Don Simpson

Ryder (Logan Miller) is a gay teenager who lives in Los Angeles. He recently came out to his mother (Robin Weigert) and father (Richard Schiff), yet they have refrained from spreading Ryder’s news to his mother’s family in Nebraska. When they arrive in Nebraska for a family reunion, Ryder quickly learns what is deemed normal in Los Angeles might be considered totally anomalous in Nebraska.

Ryder has no problem being the black sheep in midst of what he perceives to be a backwards family of Midwestern rednecks. With no intention of trying to fit in, Ryder wears his red short-shorts and yellow sunglasses loudly and proudly. His relatives might not jump to the conclusion that Ryder is gay, but they definitely assume that something is “off” about him.

The young girls of the family, however, love their cousin, Ryder. Specifically, Ryder forms a unique connection with Molly (Ursula Parker), but this only exacerbates the Nebraska family’s freakish perception of him. It is not long before Ryder finds himself the target of a witch hunt and is exiled to an abandoned cottage on the family’s property.

Secrets and denial have serious consequences in Matt Sobel’s darkly contemplative Take Me to the River; and though this film is set in Nebraska, this familiar problem is certainly not limited to Cornhuskers or Midwesterners. There are some things that need to be discussed and explained openly, especially among family, no matter how uncomfortable or painful. Pretending everything is normal simply does not make the secret disappear. The longer these secrets fester, the worse the eventual impact will be. Whether the motivation is self-preservation or to protect others, running away is never a viable solution.

Sobel’s film masterfully leaves important details up to the viewer’s imagination, allowing us to come to our own conclusions. When the closing credits appear, it is still unclear as to what in the hell just happened, which is precisely how Ryder must feel as he drives away with his parents.

Presumably the film’s title is a reference to the Al Green’s song (popularized by Talking Heads) “Take Me to the River,” which David Byrne once described as: “A song that combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend. All praise the mighty spurtin’ Jesus.” Sobel’s film is not all that different from Byrne’s description of the song. The film certainly serves up a potent blend of puberty, sexuality and conservative values. Also, the story represents a seminal moment in Ryder’s coming-of-age, which could be interpreted as a baptism into adulthood; though rather than being cleansed with water, Ryder ends up with mud on his chest.

SUNDANCE 2015: CRONIES

A scene from Cronies.
Lean on me-an/der

By John Esther

Louis (George Sample III) and Jack (Zurich Bucker) go way back. Childhood friends, these two share the kind of special bond that no two kids should ever have to share. But the years have gone by, and while Louis seems to have matured -- at least a little -- Jack is as angry and edgy as ever. 

Accordingly, Louis currently prefers the company of Andrew (Brian Kowalski), a kid from the other side of the 'hood but no less  slothful and youthful than Louis or Jack. However, "Andy" is a lot more mellow than Jack.

Until the day of the (mostly) black and white Cronies takes place, Jack had never heard or met Andrew. Obviously, because if Louis had mentioned Andrew, the mistrustful Jack would have annoyed Louis with questions fueled by insecurity masked by anger.

When the three do collide in front of Louis' house, they decide to go out and run some errands: pick up a birthday present for Aisha (Samiyah Womack), play some dice for money, pick up some girls (if they can), and smoke large amounts of cannabis.

For the most part, Jack is a relentless nuisance, Louis smokes more weed than anybody  I know, and Andrew  keeps the party going. Will gambling, violence, drugs, grand theft auto, robbery, and jealousy ruin a friendship or two?

Produced and presented by Spike Lee, writer-director Michael J. Larnell's second feature film, Cronies, skillfully blends gritty cinema and faux documentary interviews with the film's very skilled three leads. Buckner, in particuar, is a talent to keep an eye out on. 

For the most part, the result of the fimmakers' efforts is a rather straightforward, entertaining film about the bonds of friendship -- old and new.
 

Monday, January 26, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: GIRLHOOD

A scene from Girlhood.
Oh you petty thieves

By Don Simpson

Opening with an all-girl football game, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood showcases the confidence that teenage girls possess whenever boys are not around. Post-game, the girls boisterously walk the dark and menacing streets of their Parisian banlieue défavorisée; but as soon as they reach the courtyard of their public housing development, the sudden silence is audibly jarring. This introduction immediately transports us into the mindset of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a 16-year-old who seems content and self-assumed in the company of other girls, but she shuts down in the presence of males — especially her abusive older brother.

Marieme’s one remaining hope of escaping the inherent trappings of her ethnicity, gender and class is dashed when she is informed that she will not be promoted into high school. Immediately after receiving that news, fate delivers Marieme into the hands of a local female gang. Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Marietou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamou) are looking for a new recruit, and Marieme is in desperate need of female camaraderie. The three gang members are like hyper-real caricatures representing a temporary escape from Marieme’s grim reality. Gang culture is like a video game for Marieme; the seriousness of the bad girls’ actions does not seem real. Marieme is hypnotized by the cool and carefree nature of Lady, Fily and Adiatou. By the time that the four girls are lip-syncing Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a hotel room, Marieme has fully entered the fantasy world of her comrades. That moment might be when Marieme feels the most free, but it is not long before she realizes that it is a false sense of freedom.

Petty thievery will not sustain her for very long.

Girlhood is told in four parts, each of which shows Marieme in a different stage of evolution. Each chapter ends with a cut to black, then Marieme appears in her next phase, showcasing how Marieme adapts to the world by physically and mentally reconstructing herself. The most obvious change is in her hairstyle. Her face also mutates from smooth features and a shy, downward gaze to hardened features and a cold, intense stare. Marieme begins to carry herself differently, too, as her body movements grow more forceful and determined. That sweet young girl from the beginning of the film changes into a powerful young woman.

This is not just purely out of survival instinct for Marieme, but it is also a rebellion against societal norms. She will do whatever she can to avoid the destiny determined by her ethnicity, gender and class — specifically, Marieme does not want to grow up to become a poor and abused single mother. Men are a constant threat to women in Marieme’s world, so she cuts her hair short, binds her breasts and wears baggy clothing to appear less womanly.

Marieme may be the only gang member who attempts to look less feminine, but she is also the only one with a boyfriend. Girlhood may not directly speak to LGBTQ issues, but the female characters do prefer the company of women. As far as we can surmise, there is nothing sexual about their relationships, but the girlfriends are extremely protective and supportive of each other. It seems very possible that Lady, Fily and Adiatou would not be able to survive without each other.

Skillfully avoiding any of the usual tropes or cliches of gang-related dramas, Girlhood is not about redemption, nobody gets “saved.” Girlhood does not glamorize gang culture, nor does it overtly criticize it. In Sciamma’s eyes, female gangs fulfill the desire to be accepted as part of a social group, kind of like a sorority or sports team. Though these wild packs of girls do occasionally grow rambunctious and volatile, they also function as surrogate families, providing the girls with a level of safety and security that they cannot find at home. That is not to say that Sciamma glorifies thuggery either. Since we see female gang culture from Marieme’s perspective, we witness just how it is fake. You can only do what you want for so long before you have to grow up and find a way to make a living.

SUNDANCE 2015: STATION TO STATION

A scene from Station to Station. Photo by Alayna VanDervort.

All aboard artists

By Don Simpson

Over a period of three weeks in September 2013, a bedazzled train traveled from New York City to San Francisco, making seven other stops along the way. Doug Aitken’s goal with this project was to connect key players in the underground worlds of art, music, food, literature, and film, and have them participate in the creation of a series of “nomadic happenings” across the United States.

What is most striking about Aitken’s Station to Station is the way the film’s kinetic aesthetic structure mimics the feeling of traveling by train. The 61 one-minute short films pass along the screen like the ever-changing landscape outside of a train window. Each short film represents something unique, like a land formation or building that might gain your attention; before you know it, something new catches your eye. Yet with so many images passing by, the individual units eventually become a blur. For most viewers, the short films associated with familiar names -- Kenneth Anger, Patti Smith, Thurston Moore, Beck, Cat Power, Eleanor Friedberger -- will likely become the most memorable; but hopefully everyone will walk away from Station to Station with a renewed interest in train travel.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: CHORUS


Christophe (Sebastian Ricard) and Irene (Fanning Mallette) in Chorus.
Good grief

By John Esther

Shot in black and white and mostly during Canadian winter months, the look of Chorus is as dreary as its tale of woe.

A man named Jean-Pierre (Luc Senay) walks into an interrogation room and sits down across from a police official named Hervé (Didier Lucien). He does not want a lawyer. The overweight, slouching (toward Gomorrah) criminal is there to admit to another crime he committed. It happened 10 years ago and it involves an 8-year-old boy who was not very good at sports, had lost his bike key and broke the cardinal rule about getting into a car with strangers.

As Jean-Pierre continues his story, a sense of dread seeps in. This is a story which cannot end well. But, before Jean-Pierre is done telling his story, writer-director-cinematographer-editor Francois Delisle's film cuts away to the film's two protagonists, a couple filled with existential dread. Except the couple are no longer together.

Far from the cold winter of Montreal, Christophe (Sébastian Ricard) does odd jobs around the sunny shores of a Mexican beach. Other than that, he spends a lot of time in the nude, either with a woman or rolling under the ocean's breaking waves. A desire to dissolve.

Meanwhile, Irene (Fanning Mallette), who has not left Montreal, sings in a classical music chorus and helps her mom, Gabrielle (Genèvieve Bujold) out with money. Her life is essentially free of companionship or coherence. Anything -- a smell, a sound, a word, a gesture -- can send her into a tailspin of emotional nausea.
 
 

Both now in their early 40s, it is rather obvious that Christophe and Irene are the parents of the dead boy who could not throw a baseball (although he was quite the painter). The parents were not sure their only child was dead, but when the news comes down from the police, the couple must now moved to a different kind of grief. Guilt and uncertainty have been replaced by guilt and certainty. Closure comes as both a relief and near-unfathomable woe. How can the parents go on? They could not even master their previous form of grief. They must go on (even if Irene's father could not).

To its credit, Chorus does not just limit itself to a couple's personal grief and loss, it shows how grief becomes compounded by one heinous crime. Not only did Jean Pierre rape and kill a boy, he ruined a marriage, produced a further rifts in the family dynamic, and scarred a young boy who was friends with the dead boy. Chorus does not stop there, either. A smaller narrative in the film illustrates the fact that not only can those who act against society, like Jean Pierre, kill children, but society itself can kill children, too (well, as long as the kids are foreign).

There is also another harrowing scene where the parents must essentially do the shopping for their dead son. Their tragedy is someone else's financial gain.

Part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2015, Chorus is a gritty, emotionally honest (and draining) film about coming to grips with the horrors life can throw at you at any given moment. Yet the film is not a tearjerker nor is it the kind of film made for year-end bourgeois acting awards. It is too gritty, too relentless and too sexually graphic to be that reductive and sinister. It also has a smart soundtrack featuring medieval classics as well as the Suuns.

It is the kind of independent film one expects from an independent film festival.
  



SUNDANCE 2015: THE AMINA PROFILE

A scene from The Amina Profile.

Desperately seeking gay girl in Damascus
 
By Don Simpson
 
Sophie Deraspe’s The Amina Profile begins with a sultry online romance between Amina Arraf and Sandra Bagaria. They met on Facebook then soon began emailing and sexting each other. Based in Syria, Arraf achieved international celebrity via her blog “Gay Girl in Damascus.” Arraf bravely risked her life by attaching her real name and image to a blog which rebelliously documented her participation in the early days of the Arab Spring. Bagaria observed Arraf’s revolutionary actions from the safety of her home in Canada, impressed (and turned on) by Arraf’s audacious behavior, all the while concerned about Arraf’s safety; because, despite living thousands of miles away apart and having never met in person — let alone heard each other’s voice — Arraf and Bagaria considered themselves to be in a relationship.
 
After Arraf was purportedly kidnapped by the Syrian government, Bagaria began to search for anyone who might have some information regarding Arraf’s situation. As more people began asking questions, it became increasingly obvious that Arraf was nothing like her online profile. Arraf’s blog “Gay Girl in Damascus” was promptly discredited and major new organizations admitted that they were duped. It was not all that comforting to Bagaria that she was not the only one fooled by the online persona of “Amina Arraf,” so she takes it upon herself to confront the real person.
 
In the greater context of things, it was probably the LGBTQ Syrian communities who were harmed the most by this charade. They were given a false sense of security by “Gay Girl in Damascus,” leading them to believe that it was safe to “out” themselves and stand up to Bashar al-Assad and his cronies. “Gay Girl in Damascus” also gave the Syrian LGBTQ community a voice in the international media, but after the blog was outed as an elaborate ruse, the mainstream media lost interest in them.
 
For better or worse, the “Gay Girl in Damascus” affair has spawned a greater level of reluctance towards online activists. Perhaps this will serve as a lesson for people (especially the media) to authenticate sources before believing them. Though no matter how many cautionary tales about false online personas are presented to our society, there will always be people intent upon believing everything that they read on the Internet. This is especially true with online relationships, which most likely is why Deraspe chose to enter this story via Bagaria’s interactions with Arraf. Deraspe is extremely careful about her representation of Bagaria, carefully avoiding making her out to be a romantic fool. In Deraspe’s eyes, there is only one fool in this story and that is the person hiding behind the “Amina Affaf” avatar.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: THE BLACK PANTHERS VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION

A scene from The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.


Bringing sexy back (those cops do not know how to act)
 
By Don Simpson
 
Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution opens with the story of the three blind men and an elephant to illustrate that the Black Panther Party meant something different to everyone. When the organization was formed in 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale's goal was to put an end to police brutality against Blacks in Oakland, California with legally militarized patrols. The Panthers enjoyed a meteoric rise to the national consciousness due to the media appeal of black men clad in black leather jackets and berets, brandishing guns in public places like the State Capitol grounds in Sacramento. With this free publicity, their membership grew exponentially and chapters began to pop up around the country.
 
Totally unprepared for all of the attention that they gained, the Panthers seemed destined to self-destruct from the very beginning, especially once they became targeted as a threat by the United States government. Making certain that the Panthers would never become a unified entity with a single, well-respected leader (a "messiah"), J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI's top secret counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) to destroy the Panthers from the inside. The FBI also knew that if Panther leaders were trapped in prison, the organization would grow increasingly fragmented. This is when the aforementioned analogy to the blind men and the elephant really makes the most sense.
 
Nelson's documentary relies heavily upon talking head interviews to capture the multitude of perspectives (Seale is strangely missing from the interviewees). The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution takes a very black and white perspective when chronicling the Panthers' interactions with the police; though in most cases the Panthers were probably right and the police were probably wrong, Nelson seems afraid to question the legitimacy of the Panthers' actions. For example, Nelson does not care if Newton actually killed Oakland police officer John Frey or not, he merely focuses on the media attention that the "Free Huey!" protests received. That said, Nelson has no qualms about revealing the warts of the Panther leadership -- Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, specifically, are shown in fairly unfavorable light.
 
The timing of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution could not be more perfect, with police brutality against black populations once again getting media attention across the United States. We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Black Panther Party, there is a black President in the White House, but otherwise it seems like very little has changed. Well, okay, the mainstream media's perspective has changed; black militant groups would never be glamorized in the same way that Panthers were in the late 1960s. Now when the media covers protests of police brutality, they focus solely on the supposed violent and destructive acts of the "unruly mob" rather than the purpose of the protest itself. Maybe -- just maybe -- The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution will remind the media that revolution is incredibly sexy and it should be televised. 


SUNDANCE 2015: THE ROYAL ROAD

A scene from The Royal Road.
Paved with intentions

By Don Simpson
 
At one not so distant point in the history of the United States, el camino real (spanish for “the royal road”) was a fairly direct route that connected Spanish missions from Mexico to Sonoma, California. Technically, any road under the jurisdiction of Spain was considered a camino real; this particular route has since evolved into a juggernaut of highways and local roads, marked — seemingly haphazardly — by a series of roadside bells. Though it is never directly addressed, it seems director Jenni Olson chose this specific route to address just how complicated things (like relationships) have become,
 
Rhat said, Olson freely admits that the history of The Royal Road is not quite that simple.
 
Olson’s voiceover narration — by way of stoically-framed postcard perspectives — dives headfirst into California’s Spanish colonial past, the American notion of “manifest destiny” and the Mexican American War. It is by no means an attractive American (his)story; certainly not one that is sold in Texan textbooks. Olson obviously feels guilty about her appreciation of the cinematic past, but that is only because her perspective has been admittedly filtered/altered by the lens of Hollywood (his)stories, specifically director Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. and director Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
 
The Royal Road is an intriguing film essay, one that will be deemed all but impenetrable by mainstream audiences. Essentially a slideshow presentation shot in the likeness of Chris Marker by way of James Benning, the individual 16mm frames of The Royal Road offer very limited movement; instead, the shots suggest an ever-mutating landscape. Olson attempts to capture the San Francisco of her romantic fantasies, but that image (like the image of el camino real) grows increasingly more complicated. Several shots are rudely — yet oh-so-purposefully — interrupted by cars or planes, thus spoiling the essence of the (perceived) tranquility of urbanity. Life’s rich pageant is skillfully extinguished; in other words, keep this oblique artfulness up and Olson will most likely never achieve commercial dominance. Regardless, Olson represents a very important voice to be heard. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

FILM REVIEW: GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE

A scene from Goodbye to Language.
Rad Dog

By Ed Rampell

During the 70-minute Goodbye to Language the soundtrack fades in and out, but to paraphrase TV’s 1960s sci-fi series The Outer Limits: “There is nothing wrong with your screen. Do not attempt to adjust the picture” -- because the effect is deliberate. This is a Jean-Luc Godard production, after all.

And your humble critic doesn’t have the slightest clue as to what Godard’s latest film is about, and God(-ard) only knows if the 84-year-old filmmaker does. Goodbye to Language is completely indecipherable to this reviewer, just as his 2010 Film Socialisme was (but seriously comrades, can anybody please explain what that movie remotely had to do with socialism???). Indeed, probably every post-1982 Godard work yours truly has seen has defied his comprehension and description. Could this Nouvelle Vague motion picture pioneer be any vaguer and more opaque?

However, now that this obligatory disclaimer is out of the way, please permit your most obedient scribbling servant to add that he nevertheless quite enjoyed Goodbye to Language. Godard's 43rd film is his first shot in 3d and the result is a film full of visally striking, arresting imagery.

During this 70-minute barrage of pictures and sounds there is some sort of love triangle, including graphic nudity, and a lead actor is completely naked (if furry) throughout Goodbye to Language. That’s because this protagonist is a dog, portrayed by Godard’s own pet, Roxy. There are stunning images of Roxy, whose snout is quite glorious in 3D and who provides a kind of animal’s eye view on the doings of we mere mortals. Press notes don’t reveal whether or not Roxy uses the Stanislavsky Method and the mutt isn’t granting (or grunting) any interviews, but Roxy is a good actor with a naturalistic technique, although it should be noted that this thesp speaks with a canine accent.

Goodbye to Language is full of the Godardian leitmotifs and techniques that he has hurled on the screen for more than half a century, since his first 2D feature, 1960’s Breathless and earlier shorts. There are titles, jumpy cuts, clips from Hollywood flicks, lots of philosophical ruminations, mutterings about Mao and Che, a male/female couple striving to transcend alienation to find love (see Godard’s recently re-released 1965 masterpiece, Alphaville), the aforementioned full frontal nudity and more. Interestingly, Goodbye to Language ends with verbal references to the Marquesas Islands, located in Paris’ overseas territory of French Polynesia. There is some sort of murder mystery, perhaps terrorism (hey, if you haven’t seen it yet your guess is as good as that of the initiated), overbearing, omniscient state suppression and so on, but much of it is offscreen, oblique, fragmented, hard to piece together. Or maybe it’s just all over this cinefile’s poor muddled head?

To be sure, Goodbye to Language isn’t every theatergoer’s cup of Tinseltown tea. Most popcorn munchers at the multiplex keen on explosions, exposition, plot, dialogue, escapist action and most other Hollywood movie conventions will probably prefer to spend their buckeroos elsewhere.

But for those hardy few who favor the avant-garde, experimental, poetic, philosophical and challenging, Godard’s newest film is essential existential viewing, must-see cinema by one of our movie masters, as he transports serious cineastes beyond art’s outer limits. One muses that Goodbye to Language is speaking its own language and is as hard to understand today as Breathless’ jump cuts were difficult for 1960 audiences to grasp. This film historian may not have understood Goodbye to Language, but he sure liked it.