Review: For a Woman

This is a family drama told in hindsight. Anne (Sylvie Testud) tells the story of her parents Léna (Mélanie Thierry) and Michel (Benoît Magimel) as Russian emigres in post-war Paris especially after Michel’s estranged brother, Jean (Nicholas Duvauchelle) returns.

What’s most intriguing about this film is not just the fact that a daughter is wondering about the origins of her family, specifically what her parents’ life was like before she was born, but the facts that it commingles familial dramas and postwar political intrigue. All too often films that deal with Wold War II in some way see the liberation of Europe as the endgame. Some of the most fascinating European films are postwar, set either during reconstruction or in involved in the politics of a new Europe. This one goes there and furthermore examines some of what happens when you’ve moved past survival and are living with compromises made to move on.

Jean arrives enshrouded in mystery. His return to Michel’s life is sudden and almost unceremonious. There’s always some doubt about his nature or identity, but the conflict ends up being one in family rather than the fact that he’s still a Soviet and comrade, and his brother is a communist expat.

These narrative elements may seem like they’re too different to connect but when family is involved everything connects. With everything connecting there could be a tendency to lose the characters behind the ideas they represent and to muddle through to a conclusion. What this film does is end its commentaries on family and politics in separate scenes. One in a discussion and one in a voice over to close a tale. Each is astutely stated and a perfectly presented synthesis of hypotheses.

The most interesting thing again is that it wanders into gray areas, and fights to explain that gray against characters and a world that insist on black-and-white both in political and familial arenas. When not wanting to lose your characters to your ideas the performances by the actors are crucial.

Thierry compassionately portrays a woman torn between her emotions and duties; Magimel plays a cockeyed-optimistic struggling to hold on to ideals in the face of staggering new realities, and Devauchelle a passionate yet embittered cynic seeking unattainable levels of revenge. Each conveys characters as they are and makes you wonder both about where they came from and where they end up. While this film is an origin story of sorts for its narrator, it resists the flashier sacrificial, survivalist beginnings of the characters maturely realizing that life does goes on, and the future is constantly striven for.

The film keeps apace on both its fronts working with a smooth ease that allows you to settle in and ruminate on this situation without losing your interest or pushing it too quickly. The balance that For a Woman strikes may be imperfect but it’s not an easy one to strike and it holds on well enough to entertain and provoke thought in equal measure.

7/10

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Review: Cannibal

Set in Granada Cannibal follows a renowned tailor living a double-life. In the his second life he preys and feeds on women, literally. What disrupts his depraved routine is when Nina comes into his life. She introduces feelings of guilt and genuine affection into his life, and from thereon conflicts ensue.

With a set-up such as that it can be difficult to see how a film of this kind can be easily watchable. While the facts and some of the events of film are undoubtedly disturbing, it’s the way they are introduced and addressed that makes it clear from the outset the approach here will be different than most. There have been famous cinematic cannibals, of course, perhaps the most notable being Hannibal Lecter. Yet as good as The Silence of the Lambs is there is intended shock elements there, and even more so in some of the sequels.

The film opens softly, relatively speaking. After having the facts established as non-grotesquely as possible, we watch much of his routine and how this psychotic is part of his commonplace. The editing of said sequence as well as the framing builds the world effectively. The effect redoubles because of how it works around the viscera. As such it’s not daring you to look away, but daring you instead to continue to look. As intimated, the ritual is not the focus of the film.

The film seems like it’ll play out like a revved up version of Jeanne Dielman, but rather than a slow slip from a solitary, maniacal existence it’s a spiral to real consequences as Nina arrives not knowing him, and seeking answers. As such, starting in the second act it patterns itself like a more traditional suspense film. Due to the mitigating factors of this story, and how it starts, you know it cannot end in a very conventional way, and it doesn’t.

Another thing that lowers the tenor is the fact that there are narrative ellipses. This means that the film will not dwell on the facts, instead we know what happens, and much as it does in real life, we don’t know where it’s happening or how, or maybe not even that it is happening just that it does.

Where the simulacrum attempted in this film really hits home is in the performance of Antonio de la Torre as Carlos, who convincingly portrays the type who many would describe as charming and affable if they met him in a business setting, whom apartment-dwellers would say “nice, but kept mostly to himself” if news reporters came asking about him; and Olimpia Melinte, who is perhaps more compelling because as both Nina and her sister Alexandra she adds to the commentary of the film. Melinte, like her characters is Romanian but working in Spain. She not only performs with equal comfort in either language, but also renders these two sisters as separate, yet clearly related despite having little time to work with one of them.

Cannibal works because it departs from an expected course, revels in ambivalence and discomfort; and eschews histrionics. The close of the film is jaw-dropping due to one revelation, if not the overall outcome. Fans of suspense or horror and art house films may find something to like here. Those who appreciate both are likely the ideal target for this film. For any of the above it is worth seeking out. It is available on DVD now from Film Movement.

7/10

Review: Stop the Pounding Heart

Stop the Pounding Heart is a low-key modern neorealist look at cloistered religious upbringing clashing with the pitfalls of adolescence. It carefully treads the line between narrative and documentary perhaps more so than any other film I’ve seen recently – as such evaluating it becomes tricky. However, my interpretation of the film having seen it (through the end credits) was that I would treat it as a narrative feature. This notion is reinforced by something the director says in response to that vagary in the press kit:

I work exclusively with real life people and their true environments, so there are no actors involved in the traditional sense. At the same time, the underlying arc of the story is my own so you could say that the hand of the director is present. My involvement with these communities is a deeply intimate experience, and it required a lot of mutual trust. They were willing to open up their lives up to me, and me for properly portraying their lives to the public. In addition to the relationships that are cultivated over time, I also credit my shooting style with allowing people to feel comfortable in front of the camera. My production consists of a five person crew, no artificial lighting, and one take for each shot. One could say that this film follows in the traditions of Rossellini and Bresson, the latter of whom once said that more than realism, he was interested in truth. That comment has always stayed with me.

The brief synopsis up-top is the most succinct encapsulation of what passes for a narrative in this film, and that is not a slight; it does pass. For a while most, if not all, the turmoil is internalized and when it does overflow near the end it does so in a tearful confession by the lead, Sara (Sara Carlson), in which she cuts to what’s bothering her, but does not enumerate the events/symptoms bringing on such feelings.

Much of the running time of the film is spent watching Sara’s life unfold. All the characters in the film are eponymous. The film in large part engages in watching the characters behave and the most basic voyeurism known to man; the psychological root of our interest in cinema. There are established routines that come around full circle and at times have different iterations: homeschooling, bible study, selling at the farmers market, talking to Colby, watching bullriding, going on the firing range, etc.

While this film enjoying a different shade of behavioral observation that Chantal Akerman, Bela Tarr and others occupy what separates this tale is the documentarian removal. There is, due to the fact that there is a loose scripting, no talking heads, natural light; a distance and lack of judgement. Because the lives of these people is being explored as uninterrupted as possible it does achieve a sort of real slice-of-life effect.

This film is an affectation though, much as a more conventional documentary would be. What the guise of narrative allows it to do is widen its exploration of this family and place. A traditional documentary has to be about one thing only, even off-beat docs like Leviathan and Bestiary are about one unifying notion. As an affectation it is an affective one as it finds a humanity in these people regardless of what differences we may have. In a traditional documentary there’d likely be a point of view, in a narrative there is a slant to any tale, a commentary or moral. In this film the characters just are and we just watch them and have a small notion of what it’s like to be in their home, their town, their work, and their life. Because of the way these ideas, emotions and images weave together it just washes over you with minimal focus on where those differences lie, but more focus on where commonality exists.

6/10

Mini-Review: Under the Bed

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Under the Bed

This is a film that’s a classic non-starter. The work that’s done to build the characters, the brothers, at least, is appreciated; as is the late reveal of several key pieces of information. However, the issues that come into play are that the film ends up not having enough jolts or enough incidents. The battle against the evil entity these brothers fight is forestalled too long, is resolved to quickly and far too anti-climacticly. So you have a film where engagement is barely kept for as long as it takes and then there’s no real pay-off. With a horror film, especially one of this type, you know certain characters are going to be safe so it really ends up being more about how things occur rather than who makes it. The film has really good performances by Jonny Weston and Gattlin Griffith, especially the latter, but not much else to show for itself.

3/10

Review: Mercy

Mercy was a film that I had on my radar for quite some time. It was a film announced a while ago. It was one of a rash of projects that Joel Courtney got involved with on the heels of his outstanding performance in J.J. Abrams’ Spielbergian Super 8. Combine that with the fact that it is a Stephen King adaptation, the signing of Chandler Riggs (The Walking Dead), the involvement of Blumhouse and Universal and there were plenty of reasons to look forward to this film. Eventually though, without and fanfare (as there usually isn’t), this film kind of vanished from consciousness as all involved moved on to the next job.

Then with just as little fanfare the film plopped up available as a digital first download on Amazon ahead of its DVD release.

Mercy mainly concerns a young boy, George (Chandler Riggs), who with his grandmother (Shirley Knight) bedridden starts to wonder about and discover her true nature and family secrets buried in their past.

The difficulty of divorcing one’s fanboy self from an objective film-viewer is epitomized by the fact that this film could have harvested an intriguing internalized tale from the prose, but instead it perhaps over-externalized it. One of the pitfalls it faces is also expanding a short and building out characters because it only does so part of the way. More dimensions are added to characters but it only goes part of the way. Mark Duplass, plays an uncle, he comes to George (Riggs) to disavow him of his notions because he idealizes her. However, this has to be assumed. He’s barely introduced when he makes this leap, and knowing how jaded he is, why not try and talk to Buddy instead (Courtney)?

The aforementioned facets of the film nits; smaller quibbles. There are things that occur that in some ways make you wonder about the production, and in general questionable decisions. The very first scene in the film cuts awkwardly. Riggs and Courtney overall do fine jobs, but in the early scenes they seem a bit ill at ease in their roles, Courtney especially; as they get caught up then the stakes go up. Unfortunately, CG plays a hug role in the latter third and it doesn’t really work that well at all.

I think to convey it best to King fans I can frame it this way: the CG-heavy climactic portions of this film remind me of a 21st Century Langoliers, only this film isn’t anywhere near as compelling as The Langoliers is before being heinously under-served by the effects work.

Up until then the film is passable, and there are things worth watching it for, Shirley Knight is another. In a film whose running time is less than 80 minutes it tries to spread the tale between too many inconsequential supporting characters, and doesn’t move as quick as it should.


When Mercy is available on rental platforms it’s worth it if you’re curious enough, but in this case sadly the whole is far less than the sum of the parts.

5/10

Review: Annabelle

When The Conjuring came out, I, like many enjoyed it a great deal. Not necessarily like many, and moreover, a bit uncharacteristically; I was really psyched about the prospect of Annabelle. It was one of the rare cases where I thought a prequel, or more appropriately, a spin-off had the potential to expand a bit of backstory into a feature-length tale on equal footing with its progenitor.

After having seen it, however, it did bring to mind Dario Argento’s response to when I asked if he ever considered further examining the backstory of Deep Red. Basically, what this ended up feeling like was a vacuous money-grab even though it, and the Deep Red concept, still could theoretically work.

What Anabelle lacks is not only atmosphere, which it is sadly in wont of throughout, but also a compelling narrative. In The Conjuring James Wan and the Hayes brothers wrung out so much effect from this doll affectation to give the protagonists a background you were left wanting more, in getting it you are left dissatisfied.

One issue the film contends with is that it’s not really an origin. The accursed doll comes to the couple at the center of this story and they deal with it. However, that’s not really a fault of the film. One true fault is that its zest for innovation peters out on the first act when introducing the notion that the world is changing in light of the Charles Manson killings. Much of the rest of the film following the inciting sequence is methodical and rote, and rarely introduces a wrinkle that is unique to this tale.

BANG!

There. Are you scared yet? No, well then don’t see this movie, because as it is unable to generate palpable atmosphere, real concern, or interest, in its characters the film then resorts mostly to jump- and false-scares. This is really a shame because the score does have some nice moments but it has to be an accomplice to the lacking script and direction and try and pry scares out of its prospective audience.

One would think that it would be hard to bungle a film wherein one protagonist is either pregnant or raising an infant, but this film manages to quite easily. Some milquetoast performances along with all else that’s plain to lacking really doesn’t help.

To add insult to injury the obligatory, somewhat open ending is as anticlimactic as the rest of the film is. It’s rare I use the phrase “forgettable” as it usually employed crassly, but when one has recently experienced a film so empty, so devoid of soul and verve, that you could easily forget that you just saw it. “Forgettable” one of the most fitting words there are.

3/10

Film Thought: The Tableau Vivant in Halloween (1978)

Each year I will revisit the original, classic Halloween at least once. This year, owing to the new Blu-ray box set I will be revisiting the whole series anew. However, the one I will likely come back to more than once, and always find new things to say about, is the first.

With very good reason there has been much made about the use of Steadicam not only in the film as a whole, but also during the opening sequence (one of the last shots in the can during principal photography) where Michael’s POV is taken as he stalks around the house and kills his sister, Judith (Sandy Johnson). Now in technical, artistic and production terms this shot is quite a feat. In the narrative terms it, of course, begins the film with some mystery, a thrill when the POV is broken and a great reveal. However, over the course of time that has obfuscated something of almost equal intrigue (if not anywhere near as hard to achieve as the prior sequence).

The shot that immediately follows reveals Michael to be a young child of six years of age (Will Sandin). Here again narrative shock may distract you from absorbing what’s happening in its fullest implications. The cut occurs when his mask is removed. We see his face and pull back. As we do, we are introduced visually to Michael’s parents. They look shocked, try to get his attention and the camera continues to methodically crane away. As the camera makes its move there is an unnatural lack of movement in the mise-en-scène, it can be argued, by all parties. Even if you’ll give a pass to the fact that Michael doesn’t move; owing that to some semblance of shock he may be feeling (which would be the last time he really, totally felt any sort of human emotion), then you still have to consider the parents who having found their six-year-old with a bloody butcher knife merely stand there befuddled and scarcely move or comment after having merely called his name a few times, mom crosses her arms and dad takes a step back. That’s it.

Previously, I believe I had dismissed such concerns owing to the fact that the shot needed to happen, and being a director that sufficed. However, the shot can still go on with some more movement by the players as the camera drifts away. So, what was it that was compelling this blocking? It’s a choice so conscious it cannot be dismissed as an oversight and has to be viewed as intentional on the part of the director.

Halloween (1978, Compass International Films)

As I watched it this time it struck me. It was so obvious I can’t believe I hadn’t considered it before. What is being created is a cinematic equivalent of a tableau vivant. This is a technique that is rarely implemented on film, however, it’s one I always felt a powerful to implement on stage, and when one considered some instances in which they are used (such as in fairly tales or religious stories) it starts to make sense.

The tableau vivant is described as:

Tableau vivant (plural: tableaux vivants) means “living picture”. The term, borrowed from the French language, describes a group of suitably costumed actors or artist’s models, carefully posed and often theatrically lit. Throughout the duration of the display, the people shown do not speak or move. The approach thus marries the art forms of the stage with those of painting or photography, and as such it has been of interest to modern photographers.

Usually the only times this has been approximated on film or television that I can recall off the top of my head is is in very obvious circumstances where a character would say “Freeze” or some other directive like it and rather than freeze framing the actors stop moving. One notable example of this was the children’s sitcom Saved by the Bell. Now here you have a far more subtle form and the reason I believe it is: one, is that it is allowing the events to sink in; two, building a legend; three, ending a chapter in the story prior to moving to another one. In the world of this film, in this town, this is the local legend; this is the boogeyman. Now that we the audience know what happened, have ruminated on it for 29 seconds during the shot (Yes, 29 whole seconds this shot runs uninterrupted; quite nearly unconscionable now) here is a story set in the present (1978) about the same town, and what happens when he comes home.

It’s the kind of time-taking and camera move that you wish was easier to get away with in the modern language of cinema. However, it is the way that this shot works, the way it so perfectly caps off the opening salvo of this film that has allowed it to stand the test of time and multiple viewings without even being subject to tremendous amounts of scrutiny. Although, as with most things in Halloween, added scrutiny only enhances the mastery of the work, and doesn’t diminish it in any way, shape or form.

Mini-Review: Shadow People

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Shadow People

I could probably write a much longer piece on this film. One thing it does fairly successfully is mash feature and documentary techniques together. It fully commits to the this “inspired by real events.” The subject matter (Seeing malevolent shadows that would kill you in your sleep if you know they exist) is very strong. This commitment to approach, and the scoring help driving home despite missteps in the approach on occasion and casting issues. A testament to it’s efficacy is that it still was unsettling even in spite of nagging doubts about the quick escalation of the investigation of the phenomena and the fact that much of the second into the third act is spent crystallizing the modus operandi of these beings. Some aspects work brilliantly, for example, it’s a shame I watched it on TV because it was trying deft, slight scares at time that would read better in a theater, some facets of the myth aren’t quite as strong as the others, however, it’s a fascinating one.

Granted the bones of it do have a source in popular culture but its impact on the cinematic realm, as far as I know, is fairly small at current. What one can say is that this film is not unlike The Curse with better production values that’s slightly less clear on its own rules – in short, it excels in spite of itself. Taking that into account, and owing to how it made my skin crawl, I can give it a…

8/10

despite my reservations.

Mini-Review: Stoker

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Stoker

This is one of those films that grabs you from the first frame and scarcely ceases long enough to let go. It’s the kind of film that peels back layers of mystery and intrigue, slowly at first, but, then it escalates them until you find yourself in a delirious whirl of rapt tension and drama. All the while, as it slowly sets the foundation of the most basic facts, it’s setting up reveals of more precisely sinister revelations of motivation and past incidents.

The film is technically constructed to match this narrative drive employing montages, cross-cutting sequences, frames and L-cuts (cuts where audio lingers after a scene, or starts before an accompanying visual) to link what are at first seemingly disconnected events.

Stoker builds mystery regarding enough elements of its story, while keeping things simple, such that it easily achieves misdirection from one unanswered riddle to another. Thus, answers you had half-formed are forgotten briefly as you puzzle something else and when you’re confronted with confirmation of a fact it lands with the desired impact, whether you intuited the information or not.

Practically everything regarding Stoker is precise and stylized to the utmost for impact, yet scarcely ever feels forced when you consider all the pieces in the whole. It’s a mesmerizing portrait that is sure to rank among the best of the year.

10/10