No does not look good. But that’s Larrain’s masterstroke. By shooting this film on the same VHS recorders that Chilean TV stations used in the 1980s he’s able to not only create a film that appears unearthed from the 1980s, but seamlessly weave real advertisements and programming within his narrative. If it weren’t for a well-known actor (Gael Garcia Bernal), it’d appear that we were watching a documentary. While it is not a documentary, No is a political film that packs as much punch as Z and The Battle of Algiers.
In Chile 1989, the revolution was televised. Beyond the actual programming, and type of camera used, what makes No extra interesting is that it doesn’t focus on political activists, but instead on advertising executives. Rival brainwashers. Whether or not Pinochet is overthrown, they’ll still have products to push.
(For purists: while the script was based on the structure of a play called “El Plebiscito” by Antonio Skarmeta (Il Postino), the play was neither finished nor ever performed.)
I am actually surprised that Spring Breakers ended up here. Initially, I chuckled at James Franco’s performance and admired the stunning cinematography by Benoit Debie. The film left me cold, though. But, like a pop song, after writing it off, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Video games, pop music and gangster posturing don’t speak to me, but more than any other film released this year, certain images and refrains are burned in my head: the neon glow of the bikinis during a shootout that is filmed like a living, neon arcade game; the revisited fast food robbery: presented first in a game-like single take, second as a violent brag; Franco performing fillatio on a gun. It’s a cotton candy film: full of empty calories, surrounded by blinking lights, but handed to us by a carnie filmmaker; Korine has hosed down the vomit from the roller coaster so we can ride again.
The chorus might be inane, but the bridge has some major hooks: Spring Breakers is an album built for re-mixes, and in that way, it truly is “forever.”
Speaking of albums, a week in the life of folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as presented by the Brothers Coen, is just like vinyl. If Spring Breakers is a confounding one-hit wonder, Davis is that new album from a reliable, longtime performer, playing and succeeding with a different structure.
The pops in the record is the dry Coen wit, here provided by a jazz junkie (John Goodman), for-hire studio musicians (Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver) and professor squares (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett). The circular nature isn’t just the story of shit that Llewyn keeps shoveling on behalf of his art (or is it to spite his art?), but that of a man with no foresight – someone who’d sign away song royalties for quicker payment to cover his already misguided steps.
Davis is one small Gump-like cameo and one broken record character (Carey Mulligan) from being one of the all time best films in the Coen catalogue. As it is, the more it’s pulled of the shelf, perhaps the more loved it (and Llewyn) will become.
If you are interested in the craft of storytelling I highly suggest you see Stories We Tell. If you prefer dinner parties to dance clubs, I highly suggest you see Stories We Tell. If you’ve ever heard someone tell a story that you’ve heard them tell before, but been disappointed that they left something out, I suggest you see Stories We Tell.
Simply, Sarah Polley set out to make a film about her family. She uncovered a secret and recreated it. Ultimately, what she’s done with this documentary, however, is look at how and why we tell stories. It’s joyful, but it’s also heartbreaking. There is one person in her film who holds the story so close to his heart that, in a way, it’s replaced his heart. There are people at a dinner party who’ve heard a story so many times they can start to tell it themselves; others might have to be excused from the table from exhaustion. Stories We Tell beautifully reconstructs that feeling, while also aching to set the table for one more guest.
Frances Ha is similar to Baumbach’s own 90’s post-grad-what-do-we-do-now? Kicking and Screaming, but Ha is enhanced by its feminine center. It’s rare (and refreshing) to see a female relationship (Gerwig and Mickey Sumner) explored without male entanglement/competition. Baumbach’s generation might have been concerned with lofty Boomer expectations as well, but this time the female characters counter-balance the male culture-referential malaise. Frances is only sorta trying to get somewhere, but she’s not trying to impress.
Frances is surrounded by these young men (privileged people denying their own privilege), but there’s no desire to pursue them. It’s refreshing to see a film about the journey of a young woman, where romance is never explored, nor complained about. Frances exists. She forces circles into squares. She has expectations for herself and - like many from her generation - they’re probably too large. I laughed with this movie and enjoyed her journey (particularly David Bowie dance scenes, a Parisian ticket to Puss ‘N Boots and Frances moving from unaffordable Brooklyn back to her dorm).
A Touch of Sin is the most clenched tension I felt this year. Sorry, Sandra Bullock, we knew you’d ultimately be safe. Jia gives four stories of violence in China. Where the stories lack in interpersonal connection, they reverberate in a patchwork.
Jia sees the widening wealth gap in China and the uptick of murders in his country, as being related. Instead of wallowing in a pitiful puddle (a la Iñárritu), Jia imbues this film with different genre trappings: exploitation (a man takes a shotgun to a closing plant, a boy runs away from home and works as an usher at a high end brothel) and wuxia (a hired assassin travels home, a woman is confused for a prostitute). Common imagery includes a man whipping a horse whose cart is stuck and a woman that is beaten similarly with a stack of bills; both classes are abusive.
The imagery is beautiful, the killings are wrapped in an uncomfortable moral murkiness and – despite being an angry film – they are certainly not romanticized. A Touch of Sin is an onslaught of reactionary sin.
It’s hard not to think of Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, when watching The Past. In fact, Farhadi makes you. There’s an impending divorce and children stuck in the pending paperwork; Farhadi keeps a respectful camera on them, knowing that a child’s silence is usually saying more than their words, which might not be fully heard by adults.
A Separation provided a glimpse of Iran that many Western filmgoers had never seen. There was an added tension in investigational proceedings and whatever preconceived government notions we brought to it. Farhadi’s new film is set in Paris and, in this regard, it’s much more familiar. The problems are more personal, with less governmental intrusion. What The Past does do is solidify that Farhadi is a master storyteller. The natural and slow way that he reveals the equal moving parts of two families coming together and pushing other members out, is magnificent. Motivations are carefully revealed. The Past doesn’t have Iran to add tension: it is human tension of pettiness, miscalculations and misunderstandings. As the past should be, The Past is something to learn from: it’s a master class in screenwriting.
As labor changes, there are lots of places that need good news -- even if it’s just a former resident (Bruce Dern) getting lucky with the lottery. Nebraska is enhanced by its black and white film stock, which also seems to be how most characters view their lives: being owed something, or earning something. It’s the characters caught between these ideas (owed vs. earned) who standout in Nebraska.
I’m not a huge Payne fan, but this is by far my favorite film of his since Election. There’s a playful, deadpan sense of humor in Nebraska, somewhere on the oddball clothesline between Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch (scenes seem to go longer than comfortable; performances by Will Forte, June Squibb and Dern take a bit more assimilation to their groove to catch their beats.) By the time all the pieces start to gel in Nebraska it becomes more than a small-town wonder – it’s kind of a modern Frank Capra film with a more sardonic (and true to the times) heart: get something and you’re a somebody; parade it around to enhance your status.
What a joy of a film about the difficulties to find joy with other people. Jonze has laid out a buffet of simple truths and probable truths. The simple truths are about love and the need to share something with someone else; that technology has enhanced how we live but has often replaced interactions; that first post-intimacy period is full of unknown planes. The probable truths are the adventurous scenarios that Jonze puts Joaquin Phoenix in, who’s fallen in love with his data system, one that was built to have, grow and maintain a distinct personality. The premise should be very difficult to pull off and so I won’t spoilt the escalating scenarios to make an unbodied love feel more real, but that is indeed the marvel: it’s difficult to make a new love story, but that is indeed what Jonze has done.
Part of what makes Her so successful is that Jonze isn’t pessimistic. There’s a big beating heart in Her about humans learning to retain their humanity. Another component that makes Her successful is that, unlike I’m Still Here, Phoenix has a lot of chemistry with … himself.
It’s just remarkable that this film exists. Oppenheimer has taken individuals, still revered by Indonesia, for executing thousands of supposed communists and asked them to re-enact their genocide crimes in scenarios of films that they loved: gangster films, war films, musicals. It is very uncomfortable to watch because his subjects have such glee in retelling what they did.
The principal subject of the documentary, Anwar Congo, started his tough guy stance shaking down patrons at Indonesian movie theaters in the 1960s. He was informed by films of certain ways to act: what jackets to wear, how to dance, and in some cases, how to kill. The idea of being in a film is exciting to him. But when he does start to act out the roles of those that he did kill it adds a remarkable weight on him that he didn’t seem to carry before. Congo begins the film joyfully bragging about a bloodbath, he ends by being unable to talk about something he did, disgusted by his actions, his body trying to vomit. It’s a remarkable journey. The Act of Killing is a deft remark as to the power of film.