Epic and Intimate Film
So, my friends, movie ads promoting Dunkirk claim that it’s both epic and intimate.
Ok, I get the epic sweep of the movie with the horrific bombing scenes, the spine-tingling rescues, the vast lines of soldiers on Dunkirk beach completely defenseless against German planes, the claustrophobic scenes of soldiers trapped inside flooding gun-boats and sinking rescue ships.
The movie as an “intimate” portrayal of war? I am hazarding a guess here: maybe the intimacy of the movie was the existential fear an audience felt for the six or seven characters who were, literally, given more characterization time than anyone else in the film.
In a sense we befriend them, on a somewhat personal level, certainly more than just seeing the epic, detached shots of soldiers on the beach.
Toni Erdmann a German-Austrian production about a father and adult-daughter relationship. The father is a playful eccentric who loves to impersonate. The adult daughter is an up-tight, angst-driven corporate executive trying to succeed in a male dominated work environment.
Her father, impersonating an executive, uses the interventionist, in-your-face approach by invading her corporate world.
The psychological clash between the two of them vacillates between her rage and frustration with her father’s antics and an occasional surrender to the playful world and love of life he is trying to convince her has more intrinsic worth than all the compromises of self-worth she has to make in the corporate world.
Does the father succeed in winning her over to his side of life? Well, let me just say the movie’s ending gives you an ambiguous clue.
Directed by Raoul Peck, the documentary, I am Not Your Negro, is based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin about the three modern iconic black leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X.
All three represented the three distinct movements in contemporary black history and culture: the NAACP, the peaceful resistance movement of MLK, and the more activist Nation of Islam Movement of Malcolm X.
The documentary, on so many levels, is almost impossible to take in in one sitting. Its sweep is large, including archival photos and footage of lynchings; some of the divisions among the black leadership; the civil rights era, including the school integration crisis in the south prompting visceral white reaction: the riots and the Black Panther confrontations with the police; footage of the trauma within the black community after the assassinations of Evers, King, and Malcolm X.
All of these historically momentous events became more compelling with the brilliant language of Baldwin’s text woven into the documentary and footage of Baldwin’s provocative speaking and debating skills (Baldwin had early training as a preacher).
Peck’s brilliant directing made use of images of the volatile civil rights era seamlessly blended in with the more contemporary images of Obama’s presidency, the Black-Lives-Matter protests and the photos of some of the young blacks killed by the police, prompting the protests.
Peck managed to brilliantly incorporate brief excerpts of classic films showing either how blacks had been demeaned and stereotyped as characters or how they began to be slowly given substantial character roles. He also included snippets of some classic white films with characters who were portrayed as western heroes or as romantically desirable, two characterizations denied blacks in the Hollywood film industry for decades.
Be prepared for an emotionally engaging film at the top of its game in presenting a comprehensive look at post-World War II black America under the exquisite direction of Raoul Peck and the literary brilliance of James Baldwin.
Images and Story: Call and Response
Vittoria de Sica’s classic 1947 film, The Bicycle Thief, has probably been written about more than any other film in history. At one time, film audiences considered it to be the best film ever made; unfortunately, it has slipped off the charts in recent times.
I have longed maintained that films consistently use visual and auditory images as stories in and of themselves. They often become complementary social plots replete with cultural values and world-view perceptions. The central story line in many classic films becomes more than just ornamented with these visual and auditory images, it often becomes a kind of call-and-response complement to the less evident images of a film.
Winter Sleep, 2014
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Interiority, Pathos, Survival
There are many things to like about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s exquisite film, “Winter Sleep.” (Palme d’Or winner at Cannes Film Festival, 2014).
First of all, it is a very interior film. Ceylan manages to create a strong inner sensibility of pathos, an aching sense that life, in the end, is cruel, relentless, and merciless. Inside of that psychological cosmos, however, is the other half of Ceylan’s Sisyphean fatalism: people do manage to survive in spite of the quiet desperation of their lives.
There is little question that Aydin, the central character, is the personified form of Ceylan’s world of pathos. And he is also a survivor, not unlike Hidayet, his lower-class assistant, who does all the managerial tasks and is Aydin’s personal chauffeur. (Hidayet’s constant, but strong background presence in the film appears to be Ceylan’s way of reminding his audience that the poor and the service class, in their uncomplaining stoicism, will always be with us.) Continue reading
Surrendering to Age
Aging. For some of us, it is a gradual process of surrender. For others, it is a panic-driven free-fall into mortality.
Maria Enders (Juliet Binoche), in the latest Assayas film, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” is a middle aged actor who is thrown head-long into the realities of her age. After some grueling moments of rage in learning the lines of an aging lesbian character in a play she once starred as the older woman’s younger lover, she eventually, but reluctantly, takes the role.
She takes on the elder lesbian character only after being prodded by her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), and more forcefully by two other characters in the movie, particularly the new director (Lars Eidinger) of the play, who replaces Maria’s long-time friend and director who dies unexpectedly. Continue reading
Prosperity and the Good Life
“Who doesn’t want to see their kids prosperous?” says the mother of Qin and Yang in the documentary, Last Train Home. This is a refrain begun earlier by the grandmother: “But who doesn’t want their children to live a good life?”
If we are to believe the mother and the grandmother, prosperity and the good life are the two goals of all families. China appears to be no exception to this rule in Lixin Fan’s brilliant documentary of one family’s attempts to achieve some form of prosperity in the new hypercapitalist China.
But it is a prosperity that has a profound emotional price tag. Over a period of thirteen years, the Zhang family becomes fractured when the mother and father leave their two children home with the grandmother as the parents pursue the Chinese dream to succeed.
And they don’t just leave home to go to a nearby city. They travel a little over 1300 miles to work in a makeshift factory in the city of Guangzhou in Guandong Province. Like the other 130 million migrant workers working in cities all over China, the Zhang couple returns only once a year to their small village.
The Great Beauty
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
The Squandering of Talent
“Therefore, let this novel begin. After all, it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick.” This is one of Jep Gambardella’s final statements in the Italian film, “The Great Beauty.”
Spoiler Alert: So, now we know that Jep will begin writing again as the movie ends. Even if Jep’s goal may be more aspirational than real, we are left with imagining what the sequel to his 65 year-old life will be.
Up to that point, it looked as if he would squander his one-novelette talent, living among Rome’s “idle rich.” And my God, are there many of that ilk in this film.
In another of his final soliloquies, Jep says, “This is how it always ends, in death. But first there was life hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah.”
And what was that life, according to Jep: “the silence and the emotion; the excitement and the fear; the fleeting and sporadic flashes of beauty amid the wretched squalor and human misery.”
“All,” Jep says, “buried beneath the awkward predicament of existing in this world.” Continue reading
India: The Sacred and the Sensual
India, as I have said in another Blog Post, is a land of many contradictions.
On the one hand, India is deeply rooted in its Vedic/Hindu sacred culture, a culture of inward-journey paths, self-knowledge journeys, enlightenment/liberation rituals and transformations, and a monistic view of the universe that tells us all is “one.”
Some scholars claim that the Vedic tradition is steeped in mysticism, giving the tradition an aura of otherworldliness and the inexplicable.
Islam and Buddhism have also had many followers in India. And both religious traditions include spiritual paths and codes of moral behavior. Continue reading
If it’s a dark satire like “Dr Strangelove,” or “Catch 22,” or even “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the viewer always gets the feeling in the pit of their stomach that there is something not right with the world, that some impending dark force is going to place the world in a state of implosion.
In these hard-edged satires, that dark force often exists in the possibility that a nuclear holocaust could be started by a bunch of crazies; that our revered institutions could be run by psychopaths; that maybe we all have the potential for evil. Continue reading