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world cinema in Los Angeles and beyond

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“New” Site; RSS and URL Changes

May 2nd, 2013 by · No Comments

Dear Film Journey readers. After a hiatus the past in year in which I focused more on print publishing, I’ve reformatted and restarted Film Journey at www.filmjourney.org or www.filmjourneyblog.wordpress.com.

Please update your RSS feeds and don’t hesitate to stop by or leave a note!

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Robert Koehler and Kent Jones at Lincoln Center

September 20th, 2012 by · No Comments

“A programming duo will replace longtime Film Society of Lincoln Center Program Director Richard Peña. Kent Jones will return to the Film Society next year to lead the New York Film Festival and Robert Koehler will move from Los Angeles to New York to handle year-round programming duties at Lincoln Center.” More.

I’m very pleased that longtime Film Journey contributor Robert Koehler is now program director at the Film Society at Lincoln Center. We’ll miss his enthusiastic presence at film events here in Los Angeles, but the Film Society couldn’t have chosen a harder working, more informed and dedicated cinephile for the position. (He also happens to be a pretty nice guy.) Congratulations, Bob!

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Post Sarkozy Cannes 8

May 27th, 2012 by · No Comments

By Robert Koehler

THE NOT-SO-SWEATY PALMES

Palme d’Or: Amour (Michael Haneke)
Grand Prize: Reality (Matteo Garrone)
Best Director: Carlos Reygadas for Post Tenebras Lux
Jury Prize: The Angels’ Share (Ken Loach)
Best Actor: Mads Mikkelsen for The Hunt
Best Actresses: Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan for Beyond the Hills
Best Screenplay: Cristian Mungiu for Beyond the Hills
Camera d’Or: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Behn Zeitlin)

Michael Haneke can no longer have anything to complain about. Expecting to win the Palme every time he makes a film, Haneke has now broken general patterns and won two Palme d’Ors in four years—a rarity surpassed only by, yes, believe it, Bille August. (Cannes used to be even worse.) With plenty of amour for Amour, a film that reportedly was widely and strongly supported by nearly the entire jury, Haneke can go home and not worry anymore. He’ll then be back later this year and early next year to pick up more prizes from critics groups. The man may have to build a new wing to his house to hold all the awards still to come.

Meanwhile, Leos Carax wasn’t called back to Cannes by Thierry Fremaux, and he must be wondering what he has to do to get some of the Haneke Treatment. It’s Carax who should be throwing a hissy fit, since his astonishing Holy Motors should have won the Palme at the end of the day. It was, along with Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, the competition film that marked out a new path for cinema’s future, and managed to completely revive the career of a director who was deemed by many to be dead in the water. To give nothing to Holy Motors seems like some kind of statement in itself, only slightly mitigated by throwing Reygadas the best director bone—maybe more than a bone, really, since the most divisive movie in Cannes looked like it would be completely ignored for the prizes. And to give nothing to Denis Lavant, the sui generis actor at the heart of Holy Motors, its Lon Chaney, Jr., is beyond reason and responsibility. If there was love, this feels like outright hate.

Meanwhile, yawn, Ken Loach takes home another Cannes (jury) prize, as if he needs one, this one for a movie I plan to never see: The Angels’ Share. More bad choices include two awards, which two too many, for Cristian Mungiu’s profoundly annoying drama, Beyond the Hills, which contrives characters’ silence and stupid decisions to propel the narrative. And for this, it wins best screenplay. Mungiu’s co-leads shared the actress prize, which must be a compliment for whispering your lines, and whispering them as flatly as possible. This from a jury composed of four actors.

It’s not the worst Cannes awards ever, since a far worse film than Amour known as The Tree of Life won the Palme last year. And Amour isn’t bad, and is a vast improvement on The White Ribbon. But it’s a safe set of awards, with the exception of Reygadas and perhaps for Matteo Garrone for his adventurous if overly schematic Reality. When the jury had the opportunity to support the dangerous in cinema, they preferred not to. No love for that.

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Post Sarkozy Cannes 7

May 26th, 2012 by · No Comments

AMOUR (Michael Haneke)

By Robert Koehler

Having just turned 70, Michael Haneke appears to be turning a new leaf in his abrasive view of humanity as being, for all its attempts at civilization, barely out of the jungle. This view might in the end be correct, but Haneke’s particularly insistence on it and his habit for mechanistic and even sadistic methods for dramatizing it can sometimes be the work of an artist who’s effectively pinning down his characters like a butterfly collector secures his possessions to a board. In his displays of complete technical and dramatic control of his materials, Haneke accentuates the impression of an uber controlling artist who allows no oxygen into the room.

The fascination of Amour is that the oxygen tank is turned on by Haneke this time, although this or any other medical device will be enough in the end to save the life of dying piano teacher Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who’s patiently and meticulously cared for in her Paris flat by her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). A film whose title permits no ironic reading, Amour is precisely what the title identifies: The response by one loved on toward another in dire conditions, in which precisely unconditional love is called for and acted upon.

At the same time, Amour is a bit too prim and proper, too buttoned-up, too designed to win end-of-the-year critics awards, too elegantly turned out to please. It’s a kind of art house movie parade, presenting all of the items that would directly please the Laemmle Theatre’s target audience (of a certain age, cultured, urban, old enough to recall Trintignant and Riva as A Man and a Woman). Haneke has made an honest film without sensationalism, but it’s also quite strategically programmed, down to the lust in its bones to win yet another Palme d’Or, which may very well happen.

The great, moving entity at the center of Amour is Trintingant, whose first perception that something is wrong with Anne—she simply shuts down for a minute or two over breakfast—produces not concern so much as peeved anger, as if she’s playing a game and he’s the butt of a joke. It’s a fascinating choice, and true to the emotional temperature that caregivers of ailing loved ones often feel. These are genuinely cultured people (like their audience), regularly attending concerts, conversing about the new biography on conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose last name is casually mentioned in the same way that NBA fans would mention Kobe. Their book shelves—always an important, revealing detail in Haneke’s dramas—are bulging with music and art books, literature, CDs, and the living room remains centered on the grand piano which is slightly out of tune. Yet this life of culture is about to retreat to the background as health matters become all-consuming.

Their only daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is genuinely concerned that her father is taking on too much; Eva may or may not know that caregivers who give their all often die before those they’re caring for, but she grows increasingly perplexed at Georges’ efforts to completely control the situation (sort of like the way Michael Haneke directs his movies), down to locking the bedroom door so nobody can see Anne in her decrepid state. “You can’t stop me from seeing her,” Eva correctly tells him, and the movie can’t stop the viewer from seeing Anne in her final phase, verging on death, and finally refusing even to take water.

Amour doesn’t so much end in murder, but relief (Rick Santorum’s response, if we care, would be outrage, confirming his worst fears about those suicidal Dutch), though Haneke makes too fine a point of it by having Georges handle an errant pigeon which has flown in the apartment window not by killing it as would have happened in an earlier movie by the maker of Funny Games but by gently capturing and freeing it. The symbolism is obvious, the gesture is telling, even close to a direct message: I, Michael Haneke, am no longer into torture. At least, not until the next movie.

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Post Sarkozy Cannes 6

May 22nd, 2012 by · No Comments

THE HUNT (Thomas Vinterberg)

By Robert Koehler

The strange case of Thomas Vinterberg is a model of a director not to follow, lest you fall into the chasm known as Submarino (2010). The case, though, has made a new and unexpected turn. News flash (sort of): The Hunt is a solidly made, consistently coherent and steadily intensifying drama that extols the great Scandanavian theatrical tradition of the idea of a single conscience against the world. In one sense, The Hunt is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, re-set for our era of fears (real and imagined) of pedophilia. But it’s also a case of a director who, since the vastly overrated The Celebration, has suggested the promise of making films generated by vital dramatic ideas, failed on that promise over the past decade, and yet now may have finally found his focus.

In this way, that clever promotional gimmick known as Dogme ’95, of which Vinterberg was a part, was the worst thing that could have happened to him. His best instincts are theatrical, not cinematic, and the trickery of Dogme with its pseudo-Calvinist self-abnegation and disposal of “production values,” proved a distraction. Re-positioned in the world of Ibsen, where he clearly belongs, Vinterberg finds a central idea and holds it close. Better, he plays it out to its logical conclusion.

The premise: What’s a lonely, divorced man to do when turned upon by a little girl who’s not his own but has great affection for him? Working as an assistant at a suburban Danish kindergarten, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a favorite of the kids, even as he struggles with his ex-wife to get more visitation rights with his teen son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). (This drama-within-the-drama echoes a similar charged dynamic at the center of Radu Jude’s superb Berlin festival film, Everyone in the Family.) Unexpectedly, after a pleasant stretch where Lucas gives a bit of extra attention to little, darling Klara (Annika Wedderkopp)—including walking her home—she imagines a sexual encounter with him.

People tend to believe children, as more than one character observes, and this universal tendency sets a trap for Lucas, who finds that not only the entire school staff, but much of the town suspects and turns against him. Vinterberg insists upon Lucas’ position, viewing the McMartinesque drift of the community as a pull toward collective madness that reaches a level of unhinged physical danger in a tense sequence in a supermarket. The movie increasingly becomes Mikkelsen’s: His hawk-like features soften under the continual blows to his sense of self and worth, his deflated body slowed by the weight of what’s falling down on him. Vinterberg, though, doesn’t exclusively privilege Lucas: When he’s finally arrested, The Hunt shifts for a time to Marcus as a way to illustrate the full human cost of what’s unfolding. Through this mechanism, it becomes clear that Vinterberg is fundamentally an actor’s director, and when he lands upon a naturally dramatic subject that can unlock buried emotions, the results leave a mark. Even what appears to be a facile finale (or as the supertitle on screen announces, “one year later”), the closing moments leave the viewer in a state of suspended uncertainty, once again disturbed and aware that what may have been resolved is only an illusion.

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Post Sarkozy Cannes 5

May 19th, 2012 by · No Comments

PARADISE: LOVE (Ulrich Seidl)

By Robert Koehler

As the first part of a trilogy with the umbrella title of Paradise about three middle-aged sisters on some kind of vacation, Paradise: Love is Ulrich Seidl at his most unexpectedly emotional. A study of one of the sisters, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter), being seduced by the idea and then the reality of sexual tourism while on holiday in Kenya, Seidl’s movie attacks less an enchanting paradise than a fascinating paradox: Feminist Colonialism, or, if you wish, Colonialist Feminism. Beginning her getaway as the innocent abroad soaking up the rays, sights and sounds of a resort catering to the tastes and sensibilities of the European tourist (a condition that ideally serves Seidl’s highly developed taste for cool satire), Anna Maria finds herself drawn to the possibilities of abandoning conventional sexual morés and following other women into the same kind of business that Laurent Cantet attempted and failed to dramatize in Heading South: the exchange of female cash for young, black male sex. The desire for The Other—a pal describes the taste of the young Kenyans’ skin as “like coconut”—is played in the early sections for comedy, and then finally, as absurdly impossible. In the course of things, Anna Maria finds herself able to puncture an unspoken barrier, between closely held notions of proper and improper sex, interracial relations, and the sense of what money can buy. In a superbly sustained and staged closing sequence when the corpulent gals try play a contest to see who can get one of the “Negroes” (as the subtitles, presumably written in the year 2012, astonishingly state) to get it up first. The sequence encapsulates Seidl’s challenge to his audience, which is to make sense of women turning men into their playthings and performing as the sexually dominant partner, yet at the same time acknowledging that these women are playing out the age-old roles of European occupier of African space, still colonizing (the tourism business, the sexual tourism business) and maintaining the master-servant relationship of the European colonial period, which Paradise: Love suggests, is not over. Yet the enigmatic, dancerly closing image suggests yet another reading: In a long shot—symmetrical, as always with Seidl—facing the resort’s beach and the ocean, a woman who may be Anna Maria walks in one direction while a group of Kenyan youth approach in the opposite direction, passing in the middle, and doing cartwheels in an act of complete freedom.

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Post Sarkozy Cannes 4

May 17th, 2012 by · No Comments

MEKONG HOTEL (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

By Robert Koehler

A sketch for the larger “Mekong Project,” which will include at least one other film, Apichatpong’s work dances between time zones, physical spaces, bodies and finally, the Mekong itself, a wide swathe of drifting water whose flow forms a steady, epochal background for several, lightly handled dialogues. Some of these involve chats between a woman named Phon and a guy named Tong, whose dog is eaten by a ghost called a “Pob ghost,” a unique Thai apparition that can infect its human hosts with the desire to gobble flesh. Ghosts are real in Apichatpong’s cinema, and they take on extremely carnal, almost Grand Guignol effect: At times, they munch on raw meat (it looks a bit like ground steak tartar), but the mood is never close to horror. Rather, Mekong Hotel is pitched more to the tone of a reverie, made even lilting by an element which Apichatpong has never deployed before: Constant music on the soundtrack, written and performed by classical guitarist Chai Bhatana, who describes on-screen to the director that it’s something like “Spanish blues.” It’s perhaps the right kind of music to listen to in order to salve the pain of the recent terrible floods in Thailand, which effectively shut down the country during the end of last year. The scars of the flood haunt the film—an exposed tree trunk at one point appears in the middle of the giant river, reminding one and all about the disaster. Many of the scenes offer glimpses of what could be a much larger film to come. But Mekong Hotel is more rounded than a mere sketch: The spectre of the flood gives way in the astonishing closing image to the river as a field of play and continuity. In a grand long shot from the hotel balcony, several people race around on SkiDoos, carving curves and circles and paisley patterns in the gray-blue current, and then a long boat emerges at the bottom of the frame, cutting a straight line against the current, an arrow of tradition intersecting with the whirls of modernity. It one-ups the magnificent river race sequence in Antonioni’s Il grido, where race boats are seen cutting lovely lines on the surface of another gray river, a set of images that draw great beauty from the interplay between the infinite flow of the river, the shift and shape of the water created by the playful boats. Apichatpong’s final image expands on this, with boats of the past and present brought together in an integrated pattern, history unfolding as the river flows past.

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Post Sarkozy Cannes 3

May 17th, 2012 by · No Comments

RUST & BONE (Jacques Audiard)

By Robert Koehler

A straight, flat and blunt object, Jacques Audiard’s new movie sits there, like a dumb thing. It is literally what it is, and no more; that is, everything Audiard presents on screen is the sum total, with no subtext, no metaphor, no underbelly. Here it is: Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali, an occasional petty thief and former boxer and kickfighter, who takes his little boy to the Cote d’Azur to live with his sister Louise (Celine Sallette), a grocery store checkout clerk. Finally landing a job as a club bouncer, Ali encounters Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a trainer of orcas at the local Marineland, where she experiences a terrible accident that leaves her without her lower extremities. Lured into the world of street fighting by the suspicious Martial (the intensely bearded Boulli Lanners), Ali wins some and loses some (including his teeth) while maintaining a relationship with Stephanie that’s both erotic and de-personalized: Ali can’t connect with people, while Stephanie, finding a way to walk with artificial limbs, revives herself. She’s light on her feet, and he is all bulk and punch and growl, impervious, willing to allow himself to be a player in human cockfights. Why he does this is apparently of no interest to Audiard, whose reason for making the movie is, in the end, a mystery. Ali’s son finally redeems him, but it’s through yet another water-bound, near-death accident, and the whole project seems irrelevant in its gestures and effect, the kind of film that King Vidor made far better 70-plus years ago. Audiard utterly lacks poetry in his filmmaking and direction, relying entirely on his actors to provide grist and blood and a pulse. Schoenaerts and Cotillard do this, but is this any surprise? They’re arguably not good but great actors, and they’re here to deliver, which they do. But, like all of Rust & Bone, there’s no surprise or shock in the performances, except for possibly the (highly digitized) sight of legless Cotillard, her thighs tattoed “Gauche” and “Droite,” astride Schoenaerts for some lusty sex. The images don’t last in this instantly forgettable melodrama.

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Post Sarkozy Cannes 2

May 16th, 2012 by · No Comments

AFTER THE BATTLE (Yousry Nasrallah)

By Robert Koehler

It didn’t take long to find the first work in the competition that doesn’t belong there. Nasrallah is a veteran Egyptian director who makes socially minded films with blunt directness. Subtlety isn’t where he ventures, and After the Battle hammers its messages home. Since those messages are about Egypt’s semi-revolution after Tahrir Square, they could be welcome and interesting. But he chooses to couch them in a poorly conceived tale with flatly drawn characters meant to represent their classes. Reem (Mena Shalaby) is a middle-class activist and environmentalist—the closest thing in Egypt to a member of the Green Party—who becomes involved with the doings of the movie’s working class hero, Mahmoud (Bassem Samra), who was part of the group of horsemen who famously attacked Tahrir protestors as henchman for then-President Hosni Mubarek. Much of After the Battle plays like a Ken Loach movie—as if we need two Ken Loach movies in the competition—and which may partly explain why it’s here. Scenes of political debate alternate with scenes with personal interaction, but the agenda is always at play, which to have Reem understand what makes Mahmoud tick, and for Mahmoud to realize that there’s a bigger world beyond his small, rounded world of horse training and male values. Nasrallah’s camera is extraordinarily clunky, and the pacing and structure gives off the odor of commercial television. A dunderheaded finale of Mahmoud symbolically climbing one of the pyramids at Giza is, incredibly, handled with great, literal seriousness.

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Post Sarkozy Cannes 1

May 16th, 2012 by · No Comments

MOONRISE KINGDOM (Wes Anderson)

By Robert Koehler

“Why,” asked a skeptical-sounding Chinese TV journalist with an assertive microphone of those exiting the Wednesday afternoon press screening of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, “is Moonrise Kingdom the opening film of Cannes?” To which one could only respond, “Why not?” I thought back on my impassioned support for the decision to program Anderson’s previous and best film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as opening night film of AFI Fest in 2009, and realized, as the microphone inched closer to my face, that Anderson’s cinema contains a peculiar mix that makes it an ideal opening night vehicle. There’s a kind of absolute auteurism, a hyper-aggressive formalism, an insistence on the camera’s view as a proscenium arch inside of which an entirely theatrical universe is created, alongside a lightness, a preference for melancholy swathed in the scent of vanilla, sadness as a weekend romp, the melodramas of parents and the children they don’t understand as storybook fantasies.

Unlike the wily, crafty Mr. Fox, Anderson’s heroes this time are children on the cusp of teenhood in 1965, an interesting time to become a teen and a time when color films had an odd sheen to them, with the color sometimes draining out of them on contact. That’s the look here—the film was shot on Super 16mm and then transferred to digital—and it oddly helps the film from feeling nostalgic. The opening minutes, for that matter, the opening 40 minutes, are fairly divine, as Anderson and Roman Coppola’s screenplay relates an escape into the wilderness by Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman), both deemed disturbed and unmanageable by those adults who supposedly care for them. In the movie’s most experimental and dangerous tack, Hayward and Gilman—who share a large amount of screen time together—are deliberately directed to perform awkwardly, verbally flat, their sheer botchedness designed to become an expression of pre-teen discomfort. The strategy works. Their flight is told both in straight chronology and in a few extremely clever flashbacks—one of several signs in Moonrise that Anderson’s work as a director has been fundamentally altered by making Mr. Fox—but above all, as a lunchbox/storybook/Capt. Kangaroo version of Tristan und Isolde without the liebestod. Most of the adults, as usual with Anderson (Mr. Fox being a striking and moving exception), are idiots: Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents pose as authority figures but they’re just sticks, Edward Norton as a Scoutmaster for the Khaki Scouts of America’s Camp Ivanhoe tries to be a general in charge but he’s worse than one of Lincoln’s commanders, and Tilda Swinton showing up as a child services official is nothing but hot air. Bruce Willis, as the top cop for the story’s New England island setting, at least is seriously trying to find the runaways, while carrying on an affair with McDormand. And Bob Balaban, in the movie’s best performance, delivers direct-address backgrounders on the nature and history of the island, and knows of the devastating storm about to hit the place.

Anderson doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone, and piles it on in the second half, until Moonrise Kingdom loses much of its mirthful charm. Its storybook pages get gummed and marked with a pile-on of business, rivalries within rivalries within rivalries, Hurricane Harvey Keitel making an entrance (even Coppola’s relation Jason Schwartzman, in a fairly pointless turn), the flood stirred by the storm and, for good measure, Benjamin Britten’s own operatic version of Noah and the Great Flood. What was gliding along is now stomping along, and there’s the itch to want to make it all stop, or at least, calm back down to what it was. It’s one thing to have Britten, in his classic Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra (used as a leitmotif here), adding on an instrument at a time until you have the fully rounded orchestra; it’s another to add on to something that’s already complete, as the early phases of Moonrise Kingdom are.

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