Friday, August 28, 2009

Pablo Trapero's LION'S DEN

I saw Lion's Den at MSPIFF earlier this year and it opened in New York a couple of weeks ago. Although it is not slated to play in the Twin Cities again theatrically, it is well worth checking out on DVD. Here's the review that I put together for In Review Online:

Put a woman in jail and she is either a victim or a martyr. The brilliance of Argentinean director Pablo Trapero’s fifth feature film, Lion's Den, is that it succumbs to neither formula. Proof that careful restraint can be more powerful than forced drama, Lion’s Den is able to tread a fine line between manufactured storytelling and organic development.

Julia (Martina Gusman) is one of three people involved in a violent incident that leaves one dead. The film opens with Julia waking up disoriented with blood on her hands, literally. She takes a shower, goes to school and is arrested for murder. With one person's word against another, Julia takes the blame for what is being played as a crime of passion in a convoluted love triangle. Although that in and of itself is enough for a full-fledged thriller, it is only the whirlwind introduction to Julia’s impossible yet probable situation. While being admitted to prison, a blood test shows that she is pregnant. A mixed blessing, her pregnancy guarantees her a spot in the prison’s maternity ward.

This is where the film and Julia’s journey begins. Lion’s Den is not a thriller nor a mystery, but a rich drama about a young woman predicament. Julia must learn how to survive by completely different rules. Treading unknown waters, she has to navigate not only her new life as a prisoner but also as a mother. Neither pretty nor painful, Julia’s metamorphosis from adolescent twit to shrewd prisoner and mother happens as naturally as it does dramatically. Saddled with a young child and the fate of imprisonment, she struggles to find meaning in this limited existence. The script artfully dodges all the melodramatic traps hidden behind the subjects of false guilt, single mothers, and women’s prisons.

Martina Gusman gives a gut-wrenching portrayal of a woman refusing to give up. Her on-screen transformation that is both physical and emotional is one of the best performances of the year. In the same way Trapero avoids exploitation, Gusman (who, it is worth noting, is married to Trapero and very much pregnant in the film) never reduces her character to a stereotype.

Trapero cunningly omits details and refuses to give easy answers. Julia’s past is a mystery leaving us little clue if she is capable of the crime or deserving of the punishment. Elusive and ambiguous, the film never concludes with any clarity who has committed the murder. Julia’s actions are suspicious, and before we are fully vested in her character, our reasonable doubt is put to the test. Slowly over the length of the film, the issues of judgment—guilt and innocence, right and wrong—dissolve in favor of reason. Lion’s Den is far more concerned with examining other burdens to be concerned with that of proof.

Lion’s Den does its best as a film to embrace the ambiance of reality, shooting on location in a maximum-security prison and using actual inmates as extras. The two worlds of ‘realism’ and ‘film’ are contradictory bedfellows, but Pablo Trapero comes very close to creating a rare symbiosis. As a result, even the conclusion transcends cliché. While most films strive to engender the closing of a book after a final chapter, Lion’s Den’s final scenes are more akin to starting a new chapter.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fleet Foxes: Live at First Avenue

I saw the Fleet Foxes last week and wrote this review of the show for In Review Online.

The Fleet Foxes have receded from the limelight, but you can feel that it is only temporary as artist and audience alike bide their time until a new release. It was just a little over a year ago that the Fleet Foxes debut self titled full length CD took the world by gentle storm. With only a two song single in the time since, they return to Minneapolis to sell out a venue three times the size the club they played last fall. Graduating from an intimate venue to a place like First Avenue—where the stage is chin height and the musicians instantly become larger-than-life rock stars—is an inevitable but odd step forward for this self-effacing band. I gladly signed up for the second opportunity to be lifted to the sky by Robin Pecknold vocals, but I was also curious to see how their show translated in the larger venue.

Sold out shows at First Ave mean a lot of people and a lot of sweaty bodies maneuvering for the same space. My agoraphobia sets in almost immediately, so I purchased an overpriced 22oz Fat Tire in order to have a decent bottle to swing at the unruly fans. Oh wait, wrong show. The crowd, filled with love for the Fleet Foxes, was one of the most benevolent that you are likely to find at a packed rock show.

Swedish psych-rockers Dungen opened with sassy authority. It turns out that reading that article in the New York Times on the anniversary of Woodstock over dinner proved precognitive, as Dungen powered onto the stage with a display of hair and hip shaking that would put any hippie to shame. Leader of the pack, Gustav Ejstes, alternated between piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, flute and tambourine—which usually included the aforementioned hip shaking. Their brand of folk jam easily won the audience over and when invited to sing along (in Swedish) we tried our best.

The Fleet Foxes were invited up onstage with little fanfare to play various percussion instruments for one song and they left as quietly as they appeared. It was a tease. We wanted to see the Fleet Foxes, but not shake maracas or tap wood blocks together. As enjoyable as Dungen was, when the Fleet Foxes took the stage with the a cappella “Sun Giant” it was like a breath of fresh air. Their beautiful harmonies live were as much a surprise now as they were a year ago. I have never seen four guys harmonize like the Fleet Foxes. It is utterly breathtaking.

The sound was full and crystalline and they had no problem transforming the dark cavernous space into something more cathedral-like. The long pauses between songs—tuning, guitar changing and the like—is an open door for drummer Josh Tillman to initiate or propel a live commentary, but the first two breaks were awkwardly silent with only a couple thank yous from Pecknold. A sense of comfort settled in as audience members started talking to the band and they stated talking back. Their sharp-witted conversations makes you want to go out for coffee with them, but maybe not with 1500 other people. Tillman felt it necessary (after a slight diversion about Target and Miley Cyrus) to share an experience in Times Square where a passerby said, “Look, it’s the Jonas Bothers in 15 years.” to Tillman, Pecknold and Pecknold’s older brother.

Mid-set the band left the stage and Pecknold did two songs by himself: an incredible rendition of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and a new song that was equally as beautiful regardless of its unfamiliarity. The songs Pecknold performed by himself were an undeniable highlight of the show. The humble acknowledgement to the heart and soul of the band gave his solitary presence a potency that you miss with the other four members in full regalia.

The Sunday night show at First Ave was their last show with Dungen and their last show stateside before heading to Europe for a month and then back home to record. They played an hour-long set and returned with the most perfect encore. Pecknold first did “Oliver James” solo, and then pulled everyone back onstage, including Dungen, for one final song. Ejstes, who had changed into a Public Enemy shirt, proclaimed the Fleet Foxes “The best band in the world!” and gestured to all the band members. Without missing a beat, Tillman said, “He’s pointing to The Black Crows. They’re standing backstage.” Their gleeful performance of “Blue Ridge Mountains” ended with a bone fide group hug, one that we felt just as much a part of.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Robert Bresson's L'ARGENT

Originally published on In Review Online, this review is one piece of the critical retrospective on Bresson's films.

L’Argent will forever carry the weight of being the final film of a great auteur. Ironically, at the age of 82, Robert Bresson still had more films in him. In a paradox that was probably not lost on Bresson, L’Argent was his last film because of the lack of l’argent, or money, leaving his planned adaptation of Genesis (yes, the Genesis) unmade. Anti-commercial to the very end, Bresson’s forty years of fighting for funding came to an inevitable resolution. L’Argent is a pessimistic film, even for Bresson, but it is not a film from a man who appears ready for retirement. Quite the contrary; thematically and stylistically vibrant, the film won Bresson Best Director at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.

Loosely based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, L’Argent retains the original’s main theme of spiraling corruption. A bourgeois delinquent, unsatisfied with his monthly allowance, gives in to peer pressure and spends a counterfeit banknote at an unsuspecting photography shop. Bitter for being duped, the shopkeeper defers responsibility by passing the fake franc to an innocent deliveryman, Yvon (Christian Patey.) Latent deception is transferred from the most naïve pretenses of a boy to the much more culpable, and dangerous, manipulations of adults. From victim to culprit, the shop proprietor allows Yvon to suffer the burden of guilt. When Yvon is arrested, the shop assistant boldly denies ever seeing him before. It is a sloping downward spiral for Yvon whose life is torn apart by the fateful series of events.

It is no coincidence that two young boys initiate this devastating domino effect. Since 1967’s Mouchette, Bresson has been preoccupied with the plight of youths. But it's the intentional actions of the adults in L’Argent that create the social maelstrom. Getting caught has no repercussions for the boy other than a weak admonishment from his father. His mother actually goes so far as to ‘fix things’ with the photography shop with an envelope of money that exonerates her son from responsibility or guilt. Likewise, the shop assistant who perjures Yvon justifies stealing by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Molded by the actions of adults and their self-preservation, in the eyes of Bresson the boys youth of the world a grim future.

A brilliant observer, Bresson uses the tangible world to evoke character and drama. His actors are physically engaged with the world but emotionally detached. This deliberate aesthetic couldn’t be more evident in L’Argent. Bresson felt that the naïveté of non-actors was more truthful than the false emotions of ‘trained professionals.’ The result is a jarring austerity that has earned Bresson as many detractors as it has fans. Despite the lack of sensationalism, L’Argent gains tremendous power through the vitality of the tactile world. Underlying the minimalism of the acting is the understated but richness of sound and image. It’s when the camera is diverted away from the faces that we see (and feel) Bresson’s masterful sense of detail. A friendly slap on the ass, a brief altercation between patron and server, a brusque moment causing coffee to spill from a bowl, and the abstract sounds from solitary confinement are all moments where Bresson uses aural and visual coding that is completely unique.

The majority of L’Argent ascribes to a moral ambiguity. Bresson openly displays society’s skewed version of guilt and selfish version of justice. Yvon bares the brunt of the damage and is left teetering between redemption and downfall. As Yvon befriends an older woman, his dark brooding face remains as unpredictable as the conclusion. He is caught between fate and free will, but ultimately finds the torrent of social corruption—in the form of money—too powerful to resist. It is within those last five minutes that Bresson offers his final blow: a sequence that is as poetic as it is brutal. L’Argent is not a film of absolution, but a dark film of decay.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Home Movies - July

Originally published on In Review Online:

July was an extremely good month for animation. Of the DVDs of I have recommended below, there are two incredible compilations from Kino, Extreme Animation: Films by Phil Mulloy and The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu and Henry Selick’s amazing animated feature Coraline. Two other releases that didn’t make the list were the Hong Kong release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea—due out in theaters soon with an insipid Disney song for the US version—and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues—already widely available online under a ‘Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.’ All five of these releases sum up an eclectic group of some of the best animation ever made. Rounding out the list below are three from Criterion, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in the U.S.A., Two or Three Things I Know About Her, three cultish choices, Hazard, [REC], Big Man Japan, international arthouse hit, Unknown Woman, and finally a solid music documentary, Anita O’Day – The Life of a Jazz Singer.

(1965) Directed by Roman Polanski (1965) [Criterion]
This film is a barnburner even today. I re-watched this film a couple of years ago and was shocked and how bizarre and truly potent it was. This was Polanski’s first English language film, and his breakout film in the West. Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is a sociopath on the verge of becoming a psychopath. Left alone in a very claustrophobic apartment causes a downward spiral that you see coming, but can’t believe is happening. I can’t wait to watch the Blu-Ray and all the extra crap that come on this new release: audio commentary with Polanski and Deneuve and two documentaries.

Hazard (2005) Directed by Sion Sono [Evokative]
Personally, I think Sion Sono is one of the most interesting (and mind-boggling) directors working today, and that is based on seeing only three of his films, Suicide Circle, Noriko’s Dinner Table and Exte. His offbeat and completely random stream-of-consciousness narratives are unlike anything I have ever seen before. Our forward thinking friends North of the boarder have thankfully brought another Sono film to those of us reliant on English subtitles. Staring Japanese indie darling Jô Odagiri as Shin who travels to NYC in search of meaning and adventure.

[REC] (2007) Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza [Sony]
Riffing off reality TV and a half dozen other films like it—most notably Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead[REC] is a taut, low-budget Spanish horror film that stands out. The first-person filming technique can be incredibly effective and scary when cleverly used. In this case, a two-person crew is filming the goings-on of late night firefighter work for a show called ‘While You Sleep.’ When they accompany the firemen out on a call, things start going awry and the camera keeps rolling. If this sounds familiar, [REC] was remade in the US as Quarantine.

Made in the U.S.A.
(1966) and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard [Criterion]
Another month, another Godard release. But this month it’s not just one, but two; and it is not just any ol’ DVD, it’s a Criterion. For Godard fans who recall the days of simply having to wait for the next Godard film to show up in the cinema, Godard DVD releases must represent a sort of bittersweet joy. The ability to pause the movie while you go to the toilet or grab another beer must seem absurd, but the privilege of owning your very own high quality copy was probably unimaginable forty years ago. Just like that: two essential Godard movies are available for you to watch whenever and however you like.

Coraline (2009) Directed by Henry Selick [Universal]
This is the only ‘mainstream’ release in this list and for good reason. I read Gaiman’s "Coraline" when it came out five years ago and remember enjoying it, but forgetting specifics. As a result, it was a joy to revisit the story in this eye-dazzling version. Director Henry Selick, the man behind James and the Giant Peach and Nightmare Before Christmas, embellishes the story with visual details that spark the imagination like no other animated feature this year (save for Ponyo opening next month.) The DVD release comes with four pairs of glasses and has the option to play the film in 3D.

Unknown Woman (2006) Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore [Image]
The director of Cinema Paradiso spins a classic yarn of suspense where the title says it all. Irena is the unknown woman whose past is as much of a mystery to the audience as it is to fellow characters. Puzzle pieces are methodically thrown on the table one by one and it becomes a game to see if we can put them together before the curtain is drawn. An award winner in its home country of Italy and a popular favorite on the festival circuit, Unknown Woman is a cleverly crafted homage to Hitchcock that relishes in the art of storytelling.

Extreme Animation: Films by Phil Mulloy
Phil Mulloy is an underground British animator with a style all his own. Dark and satirical, Mulloy uses a naïve style to attack social and political mores. Although most of his work can be found on the Internet, his cult status in the 90s resulted in his work being sold and traded on VHS recordings and dodgy bootleg DVDs. This North American release of 24 of his short animations is long overdue.

The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu [Kino]
If you have ever seen someone wearing a t-shirt with a cute white lion and an inflammatory statement about Disney, they are defending Tezuka Osamu’s work. Upon the release of the The Lion King in Japan, it was clear to everyone that it borrowed heavily from Osamu’s Kimba, The White Lion. Disney, protecting its cash cow, denied having any knowledge of Kimba. Best known for Kimba and Astroboy, Osamu was hugely influential to Japanese anime and animation around the world. This DVD includes thirteen shorts that span from his heydays in the 60s to his later work in the 80s. When asked about the messages in his work, Osamu is quoted as saying, “What I try to say through my works is simple... ‘Love everything that has life!’ I have been trying to express this message in every one of my works.”

Anita O’Day – The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007) Directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden [RED Distribution]
An innovator and a brash personality, Anita O’Day was, as stated by jazz critic Will Friedwald, “the only white woman that belongs in the same breath as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.” This documentary, co-directed by O’Day’s last manager, is as insightful as it is intimate. Pulling from stock footage from the 40s to interviews during her comeback shortly before her death in 2006, the film builds an incredible portrait of O’Day’s rollercoaster life. Like most jazz musicians of her time, she live hard and fast, successfully battling addiction to heroin and alcohol living to the age of 87. The clips of O’Day performing will send you straight to iTunes.

Big Man Japan (2007) Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto [Magnolia]
Hilarious and unique, Big Man Japan is part superhero film, part kaiju film, part mockumentary, and part over-the-top comedy. A comedian by trade, Hitoshi Matsumoto writes, directs and acts in his debut feature. Protecting Japan from monsters ain’t what it used to be, but this is Daisato’s fate carrying on the family linage of killing monsters. When needed, Daisato must rush to the nearest power plant and get the jolt of electricity needed to turn him into, well, Big Man Japan: a giant version of himself armed with tall hair and a club. With low-tech effects and a brilliant sense of absurdist comedy, Big Man Japan is gleefully lowbrow.

MnDialog: Twin Cities Film Log: 8/6 - 8/8/2009

Twin Cities Film Log: 8/6 - 8/8/2009

More baloney from me on MnDialog if you don't get enough here. I regret not battling the Uptown Art Fair in order to see In the Loop, but hopefully it will be around for at least a couple more weeks. Sunday was reserved for the Fleet Foxes, which was well worth it. (I'll chime in on that soon as well.)

Next weekend is pretty huge: Ponyo, District 9 and a Bollywood movie that looks pretty rad called Kaminey. I am very excited about all three. Care to place wagers on which one(s) will fail to live up to my own personal hype?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

We are Generation X: John Hughes - RIP

Forget Douglas Coupland, for better of for worse it was John Hughes who defined our generation. Slackers, preppies, jocks, geeks, punks and even the undefinable outsider had a place in Hughes' world. Before my world of film ballooned into a something much larger, and admittedly much more ostentatious, Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) were perfect films due to their perfect moment. And like all movies of a generation, that perfect moment is completely age subjective. For me, it was the heart of my high school years with those films spanning ages 14 - 17.

It never struck me at the time that an adult, 20 years my senior, was drawing such thoughtful sketches of characters my age. It was less about 'liking' these movies, and more about accepting their situations and individuals as a small step away from my own. I ignored that they were Hughes' creation by hating Clair for turning Allison into a Barbie Doll, or longing for Watts and Amanda to have their magical moment instead of Watts and Keith. For many of the actors in these films, this was their time to shine. Although they have popped up in surprising places over the past 20 years—Anthony Michael Hall in Six Degrees of Separation, Ally Sheedy in High Art, Molly Ringwald in Office Killer—I could never see any of these actors outside of the 'Hughes context.'

Because all interesting clips of Hughes' films seem to have been taken off Youtube, here is something that will always be connected to John Hughes and my high school years:

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Originally published on In Review Online, this review is one piece of the critical retrospective on Bresson's films.

While the rest of Europe was embroiled in World War II and France itself occupied, Robert Bresson was entangled in other issues. In 1943, Bresson was busy planting more timeless seeds of moral and social query in his first feature film, Angles of the Streets. Built around themes that would hold his attention for the next four decades, Angels of the Streets draws heavily from his religious beliefs as a Catholic to create his most formally conventional film.

Anne-Marie (Renee Faure) is a strong-willed and prideful young woman from a wealthy family who hears a higher calling. She renounces the material world and devotes herself to a Dominican congregation dedicated to the reformation of women prisoners. Her high-spirited and out-spoken ideas gain the praise of some and the disdain of others. Her compassion and eagerness comes to a crest when she meets Thérèse (Jany Holt), an angry prisoner who shows little chance for reform. Anne-Marie makes it her goal to save Thérèse and take her under her wing. But Thérèse has other fish to fry upon her release, namely to shoot the man who duped her.

Bresson finds his most visually poetic moment in Angels when Thérèse goes to seek her revenge. She shows up in a dark hallway of an apartment building to confront the man who had her locked up. Draped in shadow, she knocks on the door and when the door opens, a halo of light pours out on Thérèse. She becomes the visual embodiment of an “angel of sin” (the literal translation of the French title Les anges du péché.) The man only exists in voice, as the camera, trained on Thérèse, never reveals his face. He is only a vehicle for Thérèse to find sin and delivery from it.

Seeking refuge for her crime, Thérèse arrives at the doorstep of the convent with no interest in saving anyone but herself. Anne-Marie is beside herself with joy, thinking that Thérèse wishes to be absolved. Anne-Marie doesn’t see that there are more devious forces at work behind her back. Naïve of other’s manipulations, her altruism for doing God’s work blinds her to other’s bad intentions. Falling from grace at the convent, she is expelled. Unable to return to her worldly life, she secretly holds vigil at the grave of Father Lataste, the founder of the congregation. The sisters find Anne-Marie unconscious from exhaustion, and make a hopeless effort to nurse her back to health. Even on her deathbed, Anne-Marie stays committed to Thérèse‘s salvation.

The final scene to the Angels of the Street oddly mirrors the end sequence of L’Argent, Bresson’s final film made forty years later. Thérèse, having just spoken the final vows for Anne-Marie, turns herself in for the crime she committed. As she walks past her sisters in a state of resolve, she is nothing less than ideological twin to Yvon who will make the same walk through a pub after murdering a family. Her deliverance, exactly like Yvon’s, relies on sacrifice—in this case the benevolent sacrifice of Anne-Marie. The two women are counterpoints of freewill and determinism as well as virtue and vice, and how in a Bressonian world those attributes are freely exchanged between characters.

Dripping with symbolic melodrama, Angels of the Street involves more emoting than you are likely to find in any other Bresson film. Employing professional actors, Angels is far from the austere characterizations he utilized in later years. Renee Faure offers a robust and glowing performance as Anne-Marie, plying for the tears that theoretically troubled Bresson so much. The overwrought sentimentality strikes a somber tone and without a fully capable cast, ‘Angels’ would be unable to transcend so gracefully into the 21st century. It is unlikely to cause any tears, but more importantly its over-the-top drama will not force any laughs.

Although Angels may be lacking in the traditional style that Bresson was later so well known, it is nonetheless a study in formalism. Relying on his training at a painter, Bresson frames every scene as if it was his last. Exquisitely composed, every shot glows in his lush use of black and white.

The resonance that Angels of the Streets has on the rest of Bresson’s career is quite astounding. Direct reverberations can be seen in Diary of a Country Priest (1951), The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), and L’Argent (1983). For most directors, a first feature can be clumsy exhibition of hesitant narrative and loose style, but that is hardly the case with Bresson. He is just as conscientious and resolute with Angels as he is with any of his subsequent films. Solid in style and prophetic in subject, Angels of the Street was less of a launch and more of landing for one of the most unwavering careers in filmmaking.

Angels of the Street isn't exactly the easiest film to see. Rarely included in retrospectives, it is probably one of the more obscure Bresson films. Those with a little cash need not look any further than France for an exquisite DVD that includes English subtitles. The extras, including a book with the full script, will require you to dig deep for your la connaissance française.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

MnDialog: Twin Cities Film Log: 7/30 - 8/2/2009

Twin Cities Film Log: 7/30 - 8/2/2009

My first post for MnDialog is bloated, random and haphazard, but hopefully an enjoyable read. I've cataloged my weekend film activities because, gosh darn it, I have so much fun, I want to share it with everyone. If you weren't there in the theater with me at some of these screenings, perhaps you will be in the future. Either way, please go to MnDialog and check out my post and leave a comment so I don't get fired.

Do I do enough interesting things to post a log each weekend? I wonder. Stay tuned.