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Archive for November, 2014

I first became acquainted with Mike Leigh through his powerful film Vera Drake. That one was part period piece and part dramatically improvised bombshell for a dying conservative Britain. This film, starring the impeccable Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, focuses on a fussy older couple dealing with the variety of minute hardships life throws at you during any given year.

Another YEar

This year, though, is especially hard. As we traverse four seasons with this extremely generous couple we are privy to a variety of the private doubts, fears, and accomplishments of the kind which are extremely personal and yet almost immediately recognizable. A loner son seemingly incapable of finding romantic fulfillment, friends with substance abuse problems, dysfunctional family dynamics, poor listening skills, and the querulous tendrils of old age creeping at the door. Broadbent, now well known for as a stalwart of British cinema and deeply recognizable in his old age, was a real pleasure in this movie. As Tom, an engineer with a one-track mind for work, he pulls off a sort of gentle intelligence which is intoxicating. The same is true of Ruth Sheen, who as Gerri offers a warmth and sensitivity so fitting for her role as a behavioral counsellor. Leigh visits these characters season after season with a gentle, empathetic camera rich in understanding.

Sequences of farming, work around the house, and family comings and goings is frequently soundtracked by earthy guitars. It’s a pleasant English soundtrack, and at moments I was even reminded of the textured sounds of Nick Drake. However, not all is so pleasant in the world of our characters. They’re frequently visited by the loose cannon known as Mary, a work colleague of Gerri, played by the terrific Lesley Manville. Here, as an increasingly neurotic alcoholic, we’re given witness to a genuinely honest character portrayal with dollops of understanding and sympathy instead of monstrous characterization. Here I was a bit reminded of the subtle hues also displayed a film like Blue Jasmine. The shifting seasons, and stages of drunkenness, reveal shades of character which are honest and frequently raw.

Leigh’s film has a slow, randomized feel about it. This makes sense, as the entire conceit of the film fixates on a particular year and the events which will later define it. These moments are just a collection of moments. Two hours is not a year. A year is not a decade or a lifetime. Still, there is much depth and richness to be found in this particular year. Moreover, it’s a wonderful antidote in stillness to have such a gentle, assured film in place of all the explosions and volume 11 dialogue which can too frequently scuttle the real emotions on screen. Leigh trusts his actors to create performances which, in their short time, contain multitudes. Spend some time with Another Year and you’re likely to linger on the moments the film suggests lie far outside a simple 365 days.

(9/10)

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This is a pretty neat double-header in that it includes (accidentally, really) two award-winners from the Cannes film festival. I try to only pay nominal attention to award ceremonies, but I am always appreciative of the way in which they can bring increased attention to art and, particularly, films which deserve to be seen by as many people as possible.

amour

My main familiarity with director Michael Haneke stems from the excellent film The White Ribbon. While the subject matter (and language) of the film Amour is different from Haneke’s previously lauded film, there is certainly an uncompromising rawness/edge which hovers over the film. Like director Lars von Trier, there are moments in Haneke’s filmography which can deeply shock. I won’t spoil the one in Amour for you, safe to say it’s likely to have an impact. In fact, there is seemingly little narrative trickery going on in the film. We follow an elderly couple through the ups and downs (mostly downs) of their twilight years, in effect able to appreciate the gravity of aging and the deep bond and commitment of a love and lifetime which is flickering out. Regarding these ideals the film is surprisingly subtle and nuanced, almost musical in the way in which it endlessly revolves around the same actions, interactions, physical spaces, and ultimately how it resolves. The characters rarely leave the same enclosed house/apartment, and thus much can be made from the way the camera (often an obtrusive observer) is almost always framed through doorways.

The act of witnessing is hugely important in the film, a fact reflected both by an early scene in which we watch an audience appreciate a musical performance or the multitude of scenes in which the character of Georges (Trintignant) watches over his partner Anne (Riva). Pay particular attention to the lack of music in the film outside of diegetic performances, as well as the way the sound-mixing emphasizes natural sounds like water.

This film is deeply melancholy and, at times, very tough to watch. It’s also filled with emotional richness and will reward patient viewers with a rawness and maturity in discussing concepts like grief, death, and aging. Highly recommended.

(9.0/10)

Uncle Boonmee

I’ve been meaning to watch Uncle Boonmee… for about two or three years now. I think it went off Netflix at one point and I was pretty peeved, but I figured since it’s a holiday I could stand to indulge in some spacy philosophy and tripped my way into one of the most unusual films I’ve seen in quite some time. It definitely equals Computer Chess in terms of strange-ness, but manages to use its power for far more interesting ends. Playing out a bit like a dream, but more like a stream of fading memories, we trace the final days of Boonmee (Saisaymar) as he confronts severe kidney problems at the conclusion of his life. Appearances from ghosts, monkeys, and catfish all contribute to the strong supernatural vibe which emanates from the film.

It’s a deeply spiritual experience, filmed in a variety of styles, and truly earns the term “atmospheric”. There’s little resembling a concrete plot here and it’s sure to frustrate those who think that world cinema has the tendency to chug along aimlessly without the standard linear plot many United States viewers typically expect. At times this movie is truly baffling, even maddening in the way in which it rejects being understood easily or literally. Rather, the film seems to float by in a sort of permanent state of mu, a sort of ultimate nothingness which grants it an eerie serenity. Come to this film looking for an experience rather than an A-to-B story and you may find yourself deeply enriched by the spiritual awareness the film suggests is an important part of everyday life. But be prepared to listen intently to this koan, to do otherwise is to ensure failure.

(8.5/10)

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The kid

with an
X-Box One
is going
to have
so many
good
memories
with his
little
brother.

They’ll
remember
this day
forever.

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Every day

I try to make that chip on my shoulder a little lighter.

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Hosp., 2009

The moon looks so much closer
with one eye,
I say,
the day S. removes
the bandage.

Such sculpted out
remains of silence
and an
eyepatch.

Her fingers undo
the webs of gauze
and press against
my cheeks.

Am I dreaming?
I say
into the vacant
space of my eye.

Am I dreaming?
I think
from the
hospital bed.

S. places her
hand over the burn
after she finishes
unwrapping, says,

the skin will heal
and you will wake up
but the moon will not
get any closer.

I wonder about Greek myths and,
if I prayed hard enough, how
difficult it would be to connect
her wrist to my eye socket,
a sort of tree-limb extension
of my body wrapped around a
branch of arm.

A dream, I say,
but do not blink.
Pressing my finger
into a squeamish
half-moon.

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Endlessly
tumbling
in the
waves
of dreams
and bodies
begun
yesterday
when
yesterday
seemed
so
different
from today

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Am I just becoming more cynical about romantic comedies?

The Giant Mechanical Man

Probably. But that doesn’t make this one any better. I remember the quiet rumblings a few years ago when this came out, mainly focused on Jenna Fischer in all of her post-Office glory. However, despite decent turns in films like Walk Hard, it seems like the Fisch has had a hard time parlaying that level of TV notoriety back into the cinematic universe. And here, with a maudlin script and a droll acting counterpart, nothing’s ever done quite well enough to truly draw attention or provoke a strong reaction.

The film reminded me immensely of another romantic comedy (dramedy?), A Short History of Decay which fails at eliciting either joy or sorrow. In large part this can be attributed to the mawkish and unenticing tone of both films, which frequently play up their existential crisis with heavy-handed and nagging symbolism/pretension. Indeed, the whole fantastical element of the mechanical man never really comes to fruition and plods ponderously throughout the film, which doesn’t do much in the way of shooting/editing to make the scenes feel as though they are part of a larger whole. Fischer and her romantic interest Chris Messina have relatively flat chemistry, with his particular brand of cynicism and self-loathing coming off as more of a repulsing tactic than one which breeds sympathy or interest. They hit the occasional right moment, as in their talks during their shared work breaks, but it’s often overshadowed by a certain laziness and disinterest which could be said to stand in for the whole film. When Fischer’s character heads off to spend time with her sister and the pretentious loser who wants to date her (handled nicely by Topher Grace) the film putters out and the stakes all but disappear.

At its worst this movie is egotistically annoying a parody of the sort of self-serious moments which can (rarely) contribute to the idea of a meaningful adult relationship. But here they’re rendered in a way which even those in their aimless mid 20s to 30s will likely find off-putting. My life has changed a lot since graduating college, and of course I want to relate to the sort of film which tackles that emotional malaise and the way a meaningful relationship can help re-invigorate us. This film, however, never rises above the level of a nattering friend of a friend who would rather stew in frustration than move forward and take steps to make their life better. And for all the emotional weight the film purports to wrestle with in sequences of deep frustration from both protagonists, the scenes themselves feel like rough sketches rather than delicately linked pieces of a narrative. The Giant Mechanical Man is a gigantically mediocre film. A few moments of interest and a lot of dead weight.

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