Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Girl with Three Names

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, USA, Sean Durkin)

Sean Durkin’s remarkable debut feature manages to mix beauty with a disturbing and haunting undertone. The style ensures that a viewer is never completely comfortable with the material even when things look normal. In fact, the film plays with the concept of normality as it invites viewers to drop their guard. The first few minutes of the film appear quite welcoming as the camera shows a peaceful paradise like countryside where men and women are leisurely at work. We then observe the men having their dinner while the women patiently wait outside the room for their turn to eat. This segregation of men and women at dinner does not appear to be sinister but instead seems to be a customary ritual in this paradise. We get a hint that things are not what they seem a few moments later when young Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) secretly tries to leave paradise. Martha walks quietly and clearly appears to be resisting the urge to bolt away from the house. Her body language indicates her nervousness but she tries to maintain a calm exterior. She increases her pace when she enters the forest just as a male voice calls out her name. The male eventually catches up with Martha at a nearby diner where the two appear to act normal. Yet, one can detect a hint of cold terror underneath. This invisible tension then haunts every single frame of the film from thereon and only manages to disappear for a few seconds near the end before reappearing just in time for the final fade to black.

The cold tension evokes the work of Michael Haneke yet Martha Marcy May Marlene manages to stay one step away from morphing into a full fledged Haneke feature. The many scenes of normality attempt to lull the viewer to believe that happiness is around the corner yet the film’s tone tries to psychologically prepare the viewer to anticipate violence. Interestingly, the film also splices the present with plenty of flashbacks to further blur matters as the violence is always shown in the past. So when the film switches to the present, one expects that the pattern of past violent acts will find their way into the present. Yet, no violence takes place in the present causing those past memories to unhinge Martha and making it impossible for her to relax in her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted’s (Hugh Dancy) spacious vacation home. Martha’s inability to cope frustrates Lucy and Ted who cannot understand why Martha is acting the way she is. Martha does not discuss her past at the cult where she spent two years after she ran away from home nor does she speak about the sexual abuse inflicted on her by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) as part of her initiation ritual at the cult.

The film’s title comes from the three identities that Martha has -- Martha is her birth name, Marcy May is her mother’s name which Patrick rechristened her with and Marlene is the name that every single woman uses to answer the phone at the cult home. The names represent the confusing identities that Martha has to live with at each step of her life. On one hand, she is trying to return to her pre-cult life but she can never escape her cult identity nor can she erase her “Marlene” tag which signifies a surrender of her individuality as part of the full fledged cult membership. By getting each woman to answer the phone with a single name, Patrick has erased individuality. He is the authority and everybody is supposed to live by his rules and speak his words. Martha tries to channel Patrick’s words constantly which leads to conflicts with Lucy and Ted. Ted is especially angered when Martha ignores his advice by calling herself a “teacher and a leader”, a title bestowed onto Martha by Patrick. These words further annoy Ted as he is no mood to be lectured by someone he considers to be an irresponsible woman. It is these conflicts that alienate Martha from her family. Martha grapples for help and in a moment of desperation makes the mistake of phoning the cult home. Even though Martha does not identify herself, the damage is done and Martha will never be able to go through life again without constantly looking over her shoulder. The open-ended nature of the film ensures that Martha will continue to struggle with her past and her identity for a lot longer but one hopes that she can return to her true home one day.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Greek Cinema

Recent Greek Cinema by way of Lanthimos & Tsangari

Three different Greek films by Giorgos Lanthimos & Athina Rachel Tsangari but linked together by control, communication and human behavior:

Dogtooth (2009, Greece, Giorgos Lanthimos)
ATTENBERG (2010, Greece, Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Alps (2011, Greece, Giorgos Lanthimos)

Control & Communication

In Dogtooth the father is the clear head of the family.

He presides over every family decision including his family’s entertainment and even who his son can sleep with -- the father brings a woman to the house so that his son can have scheduled sexual intercourse. The lines of communication are just one way and the parent-child relationship is a closed one where the children are not free to have an open honest conversation. The children are also shut off in the house with no option to go out into the world.

The lines of communication are more open in ATTENBERG where the daughter is free to ask her father about sexual questions, such as if the father imagines his daughter naked.
The daughter also has freedom to roam the streets with her friend and wander about town on her own.

Alps also features a girl having freedom to come home and go out as she pleases. The daughter has a decent relationship with her father but there are some things she cannot ask. In a conversation with her father, the daughter equates herself with her mother and right in the next instance, puts her hand in between her father’s legs, only to be duly slapped in return.
The daughter imagines herself to be like her mother so figures she has the right to reach for her father’s parts. However, she could have simply asked her father a question like the daughter does in ATTENBERG but Alps does not feature complete open and honest communication. There is still a level of control that is exerted over all the characters and a line of authority that is clearly visible. The authority may no longer be present in the house but it exists in the workplace.

Human Behavior

Dogtooth is a twisted human case study of the butterfly effect as the film shows how a single element introduced in a tightly controlled environment can cause ripples of change powerful enough to turn things on their head. Examination of the human behavior also manages to illustrate that rigidly controlled parenting will harm children’s development and prevent children from growing into fully functional adults. The young adults in Dogtooth have only aged in terms of their bodily growth but they have the mental maturity of young kids as shown by their inquisitive questioning and experimentation with sex and violence.

The title of ATTENBERG is inspired by David Attenborough’s BBC nature series about animal behavior and the film naturally features ample dosage of animal sounds. However, the animal instincts parallel the human behavior shown by the characters in the film with regards to how the characters mate, seek partners, entertain themselves and carry out well choreographed dance rituals.

In Alps, characters seek to console those who have lost a loved one by taking on the persona of the character’s lost relative. The film shows that all humans share a certain bond when it comes to loss and eventually healing.

Essentially, all three films can be classified as coming of age tales with a difference. While most coming of age films show characters attaining maturity in their mid teens, the three Greek films contain characters who come of age as young adults. The delayed maturity has more to do with the characters isolation and the way they are raised by their fathers -- there is a mother shown in Dogtooth but she comes across as quiet and subdued while a mother is absent in the other films.

What of Greece?

There are no direct political references in any of the films yet some depictions can be inferred. Dogtooth is clearly a reference about authoritative rule and a closed off society. The characters live in a house surrounded by large walls which shuts off the outside world.
This could represent a Greece prior to its entry into the larger economic and financial European union.

ATTENBERG appears to be during a time when Greece either has joined or is on the verge of financially joining the European union. The film takes place in an isolated small town devoid of jobs. However, there is an optimistic tone in the air which would signal towards a hopeful future.

Alps appears to take place in a time when Greece is comfortable with the rest of the world. Characters constantly sprinkle American pop references in their conversations, especially regards to Hollywood films, while another character talks about Switzerland and the Alps mountains. Nothing in the film suggests isolation and boundaries but presents a nation which is at harmonious union with Europe and the World as a whole.

Grappling for familiarity

Dogtooth is certainly unique but one can recognize touches of Lars von Trier and Ulrich Seidl with regards to the absurd and human behavior. The story goes from dark humour to shock in an instant with its depiction of family abuse and incest. The film is certainly hard to like but it is equally difficult to ignore this work because there is plenty to chew in the film.

ATTENBERG is warm, tender and certainly more accessible than Dogtooth even though ATTENBERG starts off with a kiss between two women and features a lot of talk about sex.

Alps is certainly more accessible than Lanthimos’ previous film but it is still a bit cold when compared to ATTENBERG. Alps minimizes the strangeness that would have put people off Dogtooth and features more deadpan/dark humor. In this regard, Alps is similar in look and feel to The Death of Mister Lazarescu. However, the humor in The Death of Mister Lazarescu is smartly integrated in the film without drawing attention to itself. Whereas Alps is trying too hard to garner laughs. Certain scenarios and dialogues have no purpose in the film and only seem to exist to sell the absurd humor style.


Lanthimos and Tsangari would want their films to be treated differently but the common themes related to parental control, communication and behavior link the films. Plus, the two directors have tiny imprints in the others work. Lanthimos is a producer and actor in ATTENBERG while Tsangari has a producer tag on both Lanthimos’ features.

Here is a subjective ranking of the films:


I would have rated Alps higher had I not seen some of the new Romanian films by Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu. These Romanian films show how to properly depict a mix of deadpan and dark humor while Alps just seems to be trying to force its material through a template that is not suited for the characters. Also, arriving at Alps after having navigated Dogtooth and ATTENBERG feels like a letdown. Had my Greek journey started with Alps, then I could have found it far more engaging.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Ides of March

The Ides of March (2011, USA, George Clooney)

"The punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is to live under the government of worse men." -- Plato

Once upon a time, a good man wanted to run in politics. He believed he could make a difference because he possessed intelligent ideas, great values and virtues. But once he entered politics, he found out how things truly worked. At first his fingers got dirty but slowly his soul and brain started getting coated with stains of mud. And before a year was over, he was throughly transformed into the very dirty person he had promised to free the country from.

It is an age old story applicable to every politician in every country around the world. The names and details change but the idea remains the same -- that power corrupts, directly or indirectly. Sometimes a politician feels they are still on the side of good even though they are cutting deals with those who break the law. Eventually, all those one time compromises, handshakes and promises erode away any remaining morality/credibility the politician may once have had.

The Ides of March depicts this well known story of how ideals and promises are crushed under the political reality machine. In this regard, the film is not showing anything new but what is refreshing is the focal point of the story. The film does not focus on governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) who is vying for a Democratic presidential ticket but instead fixes its attention on his young press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) and shows that ditching of ideals can start at a very early age. Meyers is flying high after his intelligence and hard work have put him on the road towards an apparent better future. However, all of that changes when he receives a phone call from the rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), for a quick meeting. Meyers accepts the meeting request because he fails to think a few steps ahead like Duffy. When Meyers finally realizes that he was just a pawn in a political chess match, he starts scrambling to save his career. First, he opts for revenge but when that leads to nothing, he resorts to blackmail. In both cases, he uses a potential scandal that he accidentally uncovers to turn things around for himself.

The film shows the transformation of Meyers from an idealistic person into a cold calculative person, perfectly conveyed by the film’s final moments when the camera stays fixed on Meyers’ emotionless face. One can also see the genesis of Morris via Meyers. Morris is shown to be an intelligent person who talks a lot about honesty and integrity. However, as the film shows, his integrity can still be negotiated with. One can easily imagine that a long time ago Morris started out as idealistic as Meyers but Morris probably ditched a few of his ideals for a slice of power. Morris still retained a sense of good values but he is willing to rinse those values occasionally with some grayish shades in order to move ahead.

The fact that The Ides of March focuses on people around a potential presidential candidate is a smart choice. As history has often shown, a president or a party head is just the front man (or woman) with little decision making power. It is often the people working in the shadows that shape the policies and decisions the president/party head speaks about in public. In the film, Morris finds himself in a situation where he loses his ability to exert any power thereby allowing himself to be tugged by another. The film’s title, which refers to the date of Julius Caesar’s assassination, is also highly appropriate. There is no assassination in The Ides of March but there is a death which is caused by betrayal, something which also played a part in Caesar’s slaying. In fact, almost every character in the film, including Morris, Meyers, Zara, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and even the journalist Ida (Marisa Tomei), are betrayed to some extent by those around them. Loyalty and trust are stabbed occasionally with no hint of remorse.

The sound and lighting are used to great effect in The Ides of March as are the close-ups. The camera focuses directly on a character and lingers there for a few extra seconds to give an idea of their thoughts while there is silence in the frame when needed. The film also leaves a little bit of doubt regarding not only the scandal but also the death in the movie. This doubt may seem like a loophole in the plot but it also leaves room to show that there is someone else, outside of the frame, that is pulling the shots thereby making every character in the film, from Meyers to Morris, just a pawn in the bigger picture. There are some excellent performances in the film, most notably by Ryan Gosling who is easily one of the best American actors working in the industry today. His great performance in Blue Valentine was ignored but he truly deserves a nod for 2011 after giving two top-notch performances in Drive along with The Ides of March.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Invisible Cinema

The following words stand out from Anthony Lane's article for the New Yorker:

There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice—preferably an exhaustive menu of it—pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion.

As Justine’s mother says of marriage, and as the movie tries to say of mortal life, so we should say of cinema: “Enjoy it while it lasts.”

His words may be applicable to those who live in New York City but they hold very little relevance outside New York. The truth is that for people living in North American cities aside from New York and to some extent LA or Toronto, home is the only logical option to watch foreign films. There are no choices for people in majority of North American cities to catch Melancholia or even The Turin Horse in their local cinema. I can confidently vouch for the latter because no Bela Tarr film has ever played in my city. As for Melancholia, it might eventually get here but it won't be until the summer of 2012, more than a year after its Cannes premier. Is that considered a valid choice? Not really especially if the film is going to be available officially in Europe via DVD or by digital pay options much earlier than that.

Talking about the pure experience of cinema is not relevant for people whose weekly cinematic choices are Spider Man 1: the 10th remake, Shrek 7, Transformers 5 or Harry Potter, the diaper years. If these are the only theatrical options that I have each week, then I rather not visit a cinema hall.

Thankfully, there are great films being made around the world every year even though access to such films is getting more and more restricted via traditional theatrical means. Even rental DVD is getting hard as local independent DVD stores across Canada are vanishing at a fast rate. Before anyone else blames Netflix, they need to have a look at the dismal selection of films available on Netflix Canada. As for digital/pay-for-view options, they mostly carry the same Hollywood titles that play in every Canadian multiplex. However, the foreign films are out there. The onus is now on each cinephile to look hard to find those precious films lurking in some region free DVD zone or via other digital means.

Here are just a few worthy films from the last few years that I was lucky enough to see via the film festival circuit. For the most part, these films are still invisible to the rest of the world. That is a shame because they demand to be seen:

Manuel di Ribera (2010, Chile, Pablo Carrera/Christopher Murray)

This visually stunning film is a fascinating mix of Lisandro Alonso and Bela Tarr yet is completely original. The lonely journeys of Manuel, conducted with the aid of boats, has touches of Alonso (from both Los Muertos & Liverpool) while the mostly grayish/dark environment and the drunken locals' distrust of Manuel feels similar to Tarr's The Outsider and Satantango. Also, the film brilliantly plays with the concept of reality by having two almost similar scenes of an event incorporated into the film -- one real and one imagined. The audience is left to figure out what the reality is.

The Intern (2010, Argentina, Clara Picasso)

Clara Picasso's sublime film cleverly uses a Buenos Aires hotel setting as a springboard to examine wider issues, such as male-female power games and the thin boundary that exists between private and public life. Not a single minute is wasted in the film's brisk 64 minutes. Almost at each 20 minute segment, the viewer has to track back to the previous segment to get a clue as to mystery or relationship tussle taking place on screen. The end result is an engaging film.

R (2010, Denmark, Tobias Lindholm/Michael Noer)

The tag 'dark film' is easily thrown around but in the case of R, the tag is entirely justified. The film makes the wonderful Un prophète look like a feel good happy film. Besides being completely savage, R is intelligent and that is demonstrated by a clever perspective shift two-thirds into the film which shows the similar hierarchies of two rival gangs.

Hunting & Zn (2010, Holland, Sander Burger)

This powerful Dutch film shows how a complicated relationship can be strained when lies and a pregnancy enters the equation. Like Maren Ade's brilliant Everyone Else, this film is bold enough to look at the nasty side that exists in all relationships and thereby causes the audience to get deeply involved with the film. As a warning, pregnant women or couples expecting a child might want to brace themselves for an emotionally challenging film.

Breathless (2009, South Korea, Yang Ik-June)

This debut feature by Yang Ik-June packs quite a punch and as per the title leaves one breathless. There are many movies which claim to be anti-violence but instead end up glorifying violence because the consequences of violence is never fully explored. On the other hand, Breathless clearly depicts the danger of a violent life, whether that life is in a household or in a gang. There is a consequence to every violent action and Yang Ik-June’s film has a purpose for every scene of violence and abuse.

The Happiest Girl in the World (2009, Romania co-production, Radu Jude)

Winning a free car is supposed to usher in new freedom for Delia Fratila. All she has to do is act in a 35 second car commercial and drive away with her new car. But things don’t turn out to be that simple. Her parents want to exchange the car for money to finance a better future and the commercial shoot turns out to be an artistic and physical challenge. Funny and engaging. Another vintage film from Romania.

Katalin Varga (2009, Romania co-production, Peter Strickland)

Devastating cinema! After Katalin is kicked out of her home along with her son, she undertakes a journey. The music points to a dark past and even a darker future. Indeed, there is some darkness for Katalin Varga is a revenge tale. But it is unlike any other revenge movie. In fact, it carves out its own rules for vengeance. That means no dramatic dialogues but instead we are treated to beautiful images and haunting music which conveys the hovering tension in the air.

Call If You Need Me (2009, Malaysia, James Lee)

A visually sharp film that combines the sensibilities of diverse film-makers such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Quentin Tarantino while still retaining a unique Malaysian flavour. Hou Hsiao-Hsien elevated a gangster film to an art form with Goodbye South Goodbye and James Lee does a very job in carrying on that tradition. Call if you Need me is about gangsters and kidnappings but there isn’t a single gun or drop of blood to be found on screen. All the violence is kept out of the frame and we are instead shown events that precede or succeed a violent act. The lack of violence allows audience to focus on the characters and their day to day lives, including their love interests and their choice of food and drugs.

Rough Cut (2008, Korea, Hun Jang)

Rough Cut has taken some aspects of the extraordinary Korean film Dirty Carnival and gone in a different direction with good effect. Dirty Carnival showed how gangsters complained about movies not having authentic fight scenes and in order to correct things, a local gangster (Byeong-du) helped his old college friend (Min-ho) to make an authentic gangster film by giving pointers to the actors and fight instructors. In Rough Cut, a once popular action star asks a local gangster to play a villain in his movies so that the actor can save his career. The gangster, who always dreamed of being an actor himself, agrees provided that all the fight scenes in the film are real and not staged. The end result is a no holds barred on screen contest where even the film’s director has no idea if the end result would hold true to his original script.

Wonderful Town (2007, Thailand, Aditya Assarat)

Wonderful Town is a tender love story between a Bangkok architect Ton, who comes to the southern Thai town Pakua Pak to work on a new beach resort, and Na, the owner of the hotel that Ton stays in. Everything in the film exists in harmony, be it the haunted house, the construction of the new resort, the empty hotel, the isolated beach or even a road-side garage. The town is empty, almost a ghost town, where everyone knows each other. Yet this loneliness never feels oppressive but just a natural cycle of life.

Kill the Referee (2009, Belgium, Y.Hinant/E.Cardot/L.Delphine)

This Belgium soccer documentary does not have any narration or title cards to guide the audience but instead dives right into the action. Like the Zidane film, this documentary gives a completely different perspective to what one experiences when watching a soccer game. One gets to see the game from an on-field angle, but instead of a player's point of view, we see the game from a referee's angle.

This film is essential viewing for anyone who has ever seen a soccer game. And since the film is artistically shot and edited, it offers non-soccer fans plenty to chew on as well. The games shown in the film are from Euro 2008 and if a person is familiar with some of the players, then that enhances the experience. This film does an excellent job in showing us the human side of the refs and also some of the egos that operate in the game.

Steam of Life (2010, Finland, Joonas Berghäll/Mika Hotakainen)

A beautifully shot contemplative film that places the viewer in an awkward position of a voyeur observing Finnish men pour their heart out while sitting in a variety of saunas. The film remarkably shows that any enclosed space can be transformed into a sauna, even a phone booth, and the calming effect of the steam is essential to allow men to tackle life's daily burdens.

Woman without a Piano (2009, Spain, Javier Rebollo)

A sublime film that uses a low key treatment in depicting a single night's events. The camera quietly follows Carmen around and the events that unfold around her are hilarious and sad at the same time. The film is set in Madrid and in some alleys we see situations which Pedro Almovodar uses in his films but Woman without a Piano is an art film through and through, with a pinch of comedy.

Note: I have mentioned these films previously but I still get puzzled looks when I talk about these films to people. Since I have no power over these film's distribution, all I can do is repeat my words.

Saturday, November 05, 2011


End of the World with a cough and a handshake

Contagion (2011, USA/UAE, Steven Soderbergh)

Day 2: A woman coughs on one side of the world and the planet starts moving towards a quick end.

In reality, the end of the world started on the night of Day 1 after the woman passed on her contracted virus to others in an invisible indirect manner when others touched any objects the woman held in her hands. Her cough on Day 2 is the first visible sign that something is wrong. However, there is not much time for anyone to be saved once they get the disease because the virus moves rapidly through the body causing instant death. Naturally, global panic results as more people start dying around the world.

As with most mass epidemic diseases, a few work hard to find a cure, some try to help as many people as possible, others spend their time spinning conspiracy theories or causing more panic while a few look to make money for themselves. In this regard, the movie gives an adequate time slice to an entire array of characters so as to paint a complete picture of what unfolds when a mass epidemic results. So there are characters who are shown to collect samples and analyze the virus, others try to grow the virus so a cure/anti-body can be found, government/health officials debate how to handle public safety, pharmaceutical companies try to sell vaccines, journalists cover the story while common folk are concerned for their loved ones and do whatever they can to save their families/friends.

Contagion shows that most humans are driven by fear or greed, regardless of their job title, so in a sense the film is short on selfless heroes. A single rebel doctor who grows the virus is probably the only hero in the film but the planet could have been truly saved if every human citizen had a hand sanitizer. Of course, if a hand sanitizer was readily available, then there would have been no spread of the virus on Day 1. The absence of a hand sanitizer to save the day means door knobs and hand railings in Contagion are made to look as dangerous as dark hallways do in horror/slasher films.

The film moves at a healthy pace, crisscrossing across various international cities, and keeps the viewer engaged by following a different character in each segment. Contagion shows that a good film can still be made within a predictable template that depicts expected behavior from most characters. However, the true power of Contagion is reserved for the film’s final segment which depicts how the disease came to be spread on Day 1. There are some clues given for the disease’s origin before the final segment that would allow people to piece things together. Still, the final segment is chillingly effective and manages to tie the whole film together nicely.