Upstream Color

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USA 2012. Dir: Shane Carruth, Scr: Shane Carruth

At Better Than Disneyland we sometimes worry that we get too bogged down in trying to tie things down, trying to understand what the director wants to say.  Sometimes we just want to answer the question, “Is it beautiful?” For Upstream Color this definitely feels like the more relevant question to ask, but the answer isn’t simple. This is a film whose powerful beauty is of the strangest kind. Instead of luxuriating, we find ourselves worrying. While it might be the most sensuous film we’ve seen this year – we feel the images and sounds they are so strong – it’s also possibly the most challenging.  The narrative is not only obscure it is also far from a pleasing montage – the content is at times disturbing and horrifying.  Although an award winner (for Sound Design) at Sundance, the film divided opinion – but what metaphysical science fiction romantic thriller wouldn’t?  We don’t find ourselves doing anything as simple as loving it, we find ourselves absorbed by it, lost in thought about it and we nod in appreciation of a director who is challenging conventional cinematic language, comfortable with a bold language other than words.

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A natural organism – a worm, a bug – is fed by a thief to a woman to drug her. The drug puts her under his control so that he can commit a sophisticated robbery. The organism, seemingly alive inside her, makes her ill. After an X files-like sequence to extract it in which she is “sampled” – her body is connected to a pig, she begins a difficult process of recovery and rehabilitation. She is thrown together with a man she meets on the train.  He has lost his job due to a financial crime he committed (to recover money lost in a similar way?).  Both are desperately fragile but they find protection in each other from things like the malevolent “surgeon”/pig-farmer who provides an otherworldly threat throughout.

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If this seems bonkers, Carruth manages to keep the audience transfixed. His extraordinary use of sound, his mix of camerawork both angled and direct and his mix of the lyrical and the brutal amplify our emotional responses:  we grimace as the woman clumsily tries to extract the organism herself, we feel the precarious safety of the two lovers as they hide away in their bath, wrapped in each other. He also handles the disturbing scenes in the early part of the film delicately. The drugged woman loses all choice, all power. The thief is in her apartment. But any sexual violence or exploitation is avoided and, at the same time, the thief is shown without judgement, almost in the abstract. Carruth also stars in the film with Amy Seimetz, who has a face that can reflect perfectly both emptiness and, in turn, inspiration by love. His bold creative talent is matched by his intelligence and his ability to worry. He worries about identity and what happens to someone when this is lost. He worries about how life is pieced together when someone has been violated.  And he worries about nature and purity.  Has man, or something, already interfered too much? Just as significant as the wild orchid turning an artificial blue is the final image: at first sight an upbeat, gentle note. But it’s a much more ambiguous image. Of mother and child, perhaps? It is a film to file under “special”, “unique”, a film to respect.

Emanuel And The Truth About Fishes

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USA 2013. Dir: Francesca Gregorini, Scr Francesca Gregorini

Gregorini’s second film, after Tanner Hall, is a fairy-tale with a deep soul.  It isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, to deal with those who are and feel marginalised – those whose secrets and experiences create a behavioural tension with society’s norms but, with a light touch, Gregorini links them with important questions about motherhood: the absence of a mother, the loss of a child, the inability to have children. It’s an imaginative story, it has surprises and dark humour and it’s gorgeous to look at – a modern fairy-tale about souls, lost and empty, looking for connections and being saved by doing the saving.

Emanuel is a “troubled” 17-year old who has never been able to shake off feelings of guilt and longing linked to the death of her mother as she gave birth to Emmanuel. She lives with her father, played sympathetically by Alfred Molina, and his new wife of a year – a benevolent and understanding woman but a stepmother that Emanuel can’t accept.  But when a new neighbour, Linda – played by Jessica Biel, moves in next door Emanuel is captivated. She sees not just a single woman with a young baby but an ethereal, mysterious figure resembling her absent mother. Emanuel agrees to babysit and, from the moment she walks into Linda’s elegant bohemian home the two women are drawn to each other and the more Emanuel sees of the Linda’s complex inner world the closer and more protective she becomes.

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Gregorini avoids cliché.  The stepmother is not a selfish schemer, but a primly fragile, caring woman with her own secret. Emanuel is “difficult” because she lives on the edge of sadness but she coolly delivers smug lines – a precocity that we laugh with or get irritated by – she is not the hackneyed child from hell. But the film does have its flaws: some of the dialogue feels forced and, sadly, it verges on Hollywood overstatement in the final sequence. That said, Gregorini is an honest storyteller and we are moved by how openly her heart is worn on her sleeve. She is sensitive to the fragility of the human, particularly female, psyche, and she knows beauty when she sees it.  She pulls us in with lingering close ups of a stunning face or eyes or a dizzying 360 degree take or carries us away with an astonishing underwater sequence, when we experience fully the feeling of immersion but breathe easily. And Kaya Scodelario, last seen as Cathy in Wuthering Heights – where her beauty lost out to a vapid part, relishes the role of Emanuel, originally written for Rooney Mara, balancing perfectly a vast emotional range with deadpan humour.

Also by Francesca Gregorini:

Tanner Hall (2009)

PS: for those kind enough to look at our posts we apologise for the hiatus.  We’ve had some technical problems.  We hope to post a review of several other Sundance films over the next few days.

Withnail and I (UK, 1987) is on tv in the UK this week

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1969. Two out of work actors escape their frustrating existence in a London flat and go on holiday to the country.  That’s it.  But it is the film most deserving of it’s mythical status and fanatical cult following that we know.  It is a national treasure.  A favourite cousin remembered with love, distraction and (sometimes uncontrollable) giggling.

From a blurry alcoholic haze, Bruce Robinson created some of the most memorable characters, lines and scenes to bless the Silver Screen.  Richard E Grant as the flamboyant but desperate Withnail, Richard Griffiths (sadly recently deceased) as the predatory Uncle Monty and Ralph Brown as Danny the Dealer are all unforgettable.  And their lines – always delivered perfectly – are touched with genius, with bohemian abstraction. The scenes are similarly inspired: remember “Lighter Fluid” or “Fishing”, the “Camberwell Carrot” or the “Tea Room”.  But we just have to mention “I’m making time!” when “I” wakes up in the back seat of the beaten-up MkII Jaguar, with an intoxicated Withnail hurtling down the motorway to Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack.

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As students, aspiring writers, musicians or, of course, thespians, we saw that, if these characters weren’t our alter egos, we knew them well.  Part of the film’s attraction was that these extraordinary people were very real in our young lives.  A unique film for all the right reasons.  Beautiful, really.

If you are in the UK, Withnail and I is being shown on Film 4 on Friday 26th April at 12.20 am – technically that’s Saturday the 27th.

In The House (Dans La Maison)

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France (2012). Dir: Francois Ozon, Scr: Francois Ozon

I came out of this film with an uneasy feeling that it was worth quickly checking that my wife really was my wife and my friends really were, well, friends.  But it didn’t last long.  It was just Ozon, full of mischief.  He was being more mischievous than usual.  I’d enjoyed a film that was imaginative, very funny, poignant, satirical (of course), well-acted and with music that enhanced each scene. I’d also been carried off to a place where it wasn’t clear what was fact and what was fiction and where longing seeded betrayal but guilt and innocence weren’t pinned down.  Consequences were unintended and in a spiral. And it was all possible when, and because, we write stories.

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Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, a disaffected school literature teacher who wishes he was a writer.  His wife, played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, is the curator of a commercially precarious art gallery.  He is aloof in his scorn for her choices for the gallery and insensitive to the pressure she feels at work. But they engage, albeit in slightly distracted language. He is marking the first assignment of the term, deriding the lazy efforts of  “the worst class he has ever taught” when he stumbles on something by one of his students, Claude, that he reads out to his wife. Claude, who lives at home with his disabled unemployed father, records how he puts into action his desire to be in the idyllic family house of his friend, Rafa, closing sensually with how he was struck by “the singular scent of a middle class woman”.  It feels voyeuristic, manipulative and calculating but it’s a fabulous read.  It is also “To be continued…”.  Both Germain and his wife take the moral high ground immediately, “He’s making fun of his friend and his mother” she says and he gives it a B+.  But the story has them hooked and, in Claude’s inchoate talent, Germain rediscovers his purpose.  The film then charts Germain’s deepening involvement with the development of the story and, as the sequence of decisions, actions and consequences progresses, the lines between fantasy and reality become increasingly blurred.

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When it comes to the bourgeoisie, Ozon loves picking the wings and legs off the comfy insect. He encourages ridicule at the modern art in the gallery.  He makes Rafa’s benevolent father suitably alpha, with mid-level manager anxieties.  Both of Rafa’s parents hold dear aspirations that are both pointless and shallow.  Ozon also loves the idea of an intruder disturbing the stable protected harmony of the bourgeois unit.  He loves kicking off that unpredictable chain of events.  And in this film they are kicked off by the young but arrestingly talented Ernst Umhauer, who can perfectly reflect moral ambiguity in an otherwise beautiful face.  So, there is much to enjoy in the film’s dark playfulness – in Ozon’s particular take on life imitating art and art imitating life.  Some will spot literary references in the title and elsewhere (how bourgeois is that?) and, I think, we forgive a slight messiness towards the end as a moving, optimistic final scene reminds us that there really are a million stories.

Also by Francois Ozon (selection):

Potiche (2010)

Swimming Pool (2003)

8 Women (2002)

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000)

Memories Look at Me (Erinnerungen schauen mich an)

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China (2012).  Regie: Song Fang, Drehbuch: Song Fang

Eine dreißigjährige, alleinstehende Frau kehrt zurück in die Wohnung ihrer betagten Eltern in Nanjing und gibt sich Mühe, wieder eine Verbindung aufzubauen zu ihnen und anderen Verwandten und wieder an Früheres anzuknüpfen. Sie bilden eine enge Familie, miteinander verbunden durch bedingungslose Liebe und Respekt. Sie tun, was solche Familien tun – reden, essen, lachen und in Erinnerungen schwelgen. Sie mögen sich und helfen sich gegenseitig. Und sie sorgen sich um den anderen. “Wie lange willst du noch alleine leben?”, fragt die Mutter. Die Sorgen der Tochter bleiben unausgesprochen, aber sie hört ruhig zu, als ihre Eltern und andere Verwandte dieser Generation in sehr berührender Art über Verlust und dessen Auswirkungen sprechen, in ihrem Alter häufigere und daher gewohnte Ereignisse.

Physische und emotionale Intimität unterstützt den Film: er wurde fast vollständig in der kleinen Wohnung gedreht – die einzige Szene ausserhalb spielt in einem Auto; wir sehen die Tochter, wie sie liebevoll die Augenbrauen ihrer Mutter zupft und dem Vater die Ohren reinigt. Und wir sehen die Eltern und den Bruder schlafend, verletzlich. Aber es ist keine klaustrophobische Intimität. Der Soundtrack -es gibt keine Filmmusik- vergegenwärtigt in der Wohnung das geschäftige Hin und Her, das draussen herrscht, und Song gibt uns Raum und Zeit zur Betrachtung: sie filmt mit feststehender Kamera, die Charaktere sprechen nicht direkt in die Kamera, sondern aus der Umgebung heraus – zwei- oder dreimal sprechen alle gleichzeitig im Hintergrund, während sie sich auf die Einrichtung oder einen bescheidenen Gegenstand konzentriert.

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Song erinnert uns daran, wie beunruhigend schnell die Zeit vergeht “Ist es jetzt zehn Jahre her, seit er gestorben ist?” und reflektiert über den Kreislauf von Leben und Tod und den damit zusammenhängenden gefühlsmässigen Handlungen und Reaktionen. Dabei sind Erinnerungen entscheidend. Während sie einerseits manchmal emotional belasten, verbinden sie andererseits die Familienmitglieder und schaffen eine Art Basis für philosophische Akzeptanz. Wir werden aber auch daran erinnert, wie unser normales Ordnungsempfinden gestört wird, zum Beispiel wenn die Tochter früher als der Vater verstirbt. Song und ihre Familie, die bezaubernde Nichte eingeschlossen, sie alle spielen sich selbst, schlicht und real. Es ist ein universeller Film, umso mehr aber auch einzigartig, kraftvoll und bewegend durch die weibliche Sensibilität. Und er ist grosszügig und umhüllt uns am Ende mit Trost und Wärme.

Reality

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Italy-France (2012).  Dir: Matteo Garrone, Scr: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso

It was many years ago, in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  I saw the tiny frail old lady standing alone, completely transfixed on a painting of the Madonna, lit by a beam of sunlight. Oblivious to everything around her, she was staring upward, lost in audible, feverish supplication.  Now, in the cinema, Garrone shows me Luciano, the fish-stall trader from Naples, sitting alone in a broom-cupboard staring upward, transfixed on a tv screen, oblivious, lost. Giggling feverishly, he watches Grande Fratello, the Italian Big Brother. Of course, the idea that celebrity is the new religion isn’t new nor are we unaware that the basis of celebrity is becoming more random. But, from its fairytale opening sequence to final pathos, this film feels deeply for those who scrape a living among the beautiful buildings of old Naples and it worries about how they need desperately to make life feel more complete.  Slightly sentimental?  Possibly, but these things are worth worrying about.

Luciano is a canny, popular member of his local community and a loving husband and father.  We first see him at a fantasy wedding reception, at which a short appearance by Enzo, a previous winner of Grande Fratello, is the highlight for the couple.  Luciano causes hilarity when, in drag as one of his party pieces “The Bag Lady”, he accosts Enzo as he is leaving.  Up close, Enzo and Luciano are very similar.

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Luciano is too busy with the fish-stall and a credit scam to care much about Grande Fratello, but to keep his daughter happy he agrees to audition for the programme in the local shopping mall, “Just point the camera at me, it doesn’t matter if it’s on”. But sometime later, he receives a call asking him to attend a second audition in Rome. The community is buzzing and he returns to a hero’s welcome.  But time passes and he hears nothing. Gradually he starts losing touch: he sees signs, feels that he is being watched, being tested, for selection. In a sadly comic but  significant moment at a crematorium, he seeks advice from two old ladies paying their respects, “Be patient. You only need faith and hope to get into the ‘House’”.  The worse his quasi-religious obsession becomes – he gives away all his worldy goods and loses his family – the more he seems to achieve a state of bliss.

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The film is rich with ideas and contains stunning cinematic flourishes: aerial, sweeping shots of beautiful settings; at one point an elegant, single take of simultaneous scenes playing out in different rooms of a gothic mansion, and images of the destitute carrying off ornaments from Luciano’s house.  It burst with empathy for the ordinary folk of Naples – Luciano is played by Aniello Arena, who was permitted day-release from prison to take part – and their lives. Rather obviously, it is a tragi-comic morality tale about the pursuit of celebrity and fame. But Garrone wants to say a little more.  He delicately handles the importance of religion in the lives of the people he cares about – he makes Luciano’s most loyal friend the most religious. But when the priest says that “God understands the difference between being and seeming” (we can’t be sure), if Garrone is not adding religion to his list of hoaxes he is, at least, cautioning that no opiate should be allowed to take over.

Reality won the Grand Prix at last year’s (2012) Cannes Film Festival.

Also by Matteo Garrone:

Gomorrah (2009)

Stoker

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United States/United Kingdom (2013). Dir. Park Chan-wook.

Full of sound and fury, Stoker signifies everything. Or rather, in Stoker’s cinematic universe, everything signifies. After all, Park Chan-wook’s newest (and first in the English language) is wildly, almost overwhelmingly cinematic, a strange film whose tightly-controlled palette of pastels is so beautifully saturated that they sometimes cease to be pastels at all, and whose every surface is so intensely polished that they don’t so much conceal depth as produce a different, weirder variety of depth, of reflections and shadows.

In a way, it’s the perfect thriller, but it’s also the perfect subversion of that genre. On her 18th birthday, the father of India (Mia Wasikowska) dies mysteriously. Attending his funeral is one Charlie Stoker, who uncannily resembles a younger, more handsome version of the deceased, and indeed whose very existence as the deceased’s younger brother was hitherto unknown to the surviving Stokers. Afterwards, he stays with the family at their creepily immaculate manor in rural Connecticut, professedly taking time off from “commitments in Europe” to help out in his late brother’s absence. The ensuing, dread-drenched family mystery is built entirely of stuff that would be only subliminal detritus in another, more typical murder mystery.

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To be clear, I’m talking about the Freudian stuff. And the film, too, makes this very clear — the breathtaking atmospherics produce an effect of the viewer having stepped out of Plato’s cave and into some realm of pure, Oedipal archetypes. So instead of having an unspoken, incestuous subtext, the film — and thereby not entirely unlike Park’s Oldboy — is fairly blatantly about incest! And instead of featuring a shower scene with a Pyscho-style sense of repressed sexuality, this film’s shower scene is… well, I won’t spoil it.

Speaking of Hitchcock, Matthew Goode plays Charlie with a (way-more-than-)”not quite right” charm easily worthy of Norman Bates. Like Psycho, Stoker isn’t so much a movie of compassionate, human performance as of uncannily robotic anti-acting. (That said, Nicole Kidman’s wonderfully jarring take on this as India’s distant mother, is more Lynch than Hitchcock). And although Mia Wasikowska’s role as the hypersensitive India initially seems to veer toward a young adult fiction-ish style of adolescent disaffection, much of the film’s intoxicating momentum comes from the gradual realization — paralleling her transition to adulthood — that our 18-year-old protagonist might not be as horrified at the events taking place around her as the typical thriller has taught us to expect.

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Okay, sure: the film’s demonic coming-of-age storyline is less an eye-opening exploration of authenticity and destiny, and more a delightful pastiche of those things. But even the campiest of parodies can’t help but contain a slippery kernel of the truth — and to be sure, this is far from the campiest of parodies. Instead, and not unlike, um, embracing your true nature as an incestuous spree murderer, Stoker provides the guiltiest of pleasures, and the guilt doesn’t entirely come from the fact that it’s so much goddamn fun to experience.

Also by Park Chan-wook:

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

Oldboy (2004)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Joint Security Area (2000)