The Berkeley Beacon

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Naked Cinema

A series of summer film reviews.

Power Lost in Incomprehensible Silence: El Velador

There are moments in El Velador (The Night Watchman)—the eerie, brooding new documentary by Natalia Almada— that are genuinely gripping. Those moments, however, make up less than four minutes of the exhausting, wordless hour and ten minute runtime.

Stumbling onto those moments – the moments where the filmmaker deftly thrusts the viewer into the unforgiving no man’s land that has become Culiacan, Mexico – is as rare and exhilarating a feeling as wandering into a grove of healthy four-leaf clovers in the middle of the Himalayas. It’s not a thing that happens very often, or that you should expect to happen, but when it does, it’s baffling. Which is a shame, because the film tries to explore a situation that is ripe for compelling drama – the shocking escalation of Mexico’s drug cartel conflicts into all out warfare. The film tells the story of the rise in drug-related crime in Mexico by following the daily routines of the workers of “El Jardin”, a notorious Mexican cemetery (named in the film a narco-cemetery) that is known for being populated almost entirely by the graves and cathedral-like mausoleums of drug lords.

At her best, Ms. Almada paints an uncompromising portrait of the scarred and socially numb psyche of Mexico’s working class men and women who water, cut, sculpt, and maintain the cemetery. They are perpetually digging, as the street that leads to their workplace is never free of cadaver-filled hearses. A grim picture, one that quietly addresses the glaring economic inequity that separates the workers of the cemetery from the syndicate families who shovel out money in order to lay their children to rest in tombs so lavish they rival churches.

The workers are silent - they know who these people are, and what they have done. The film’s most powerful moment is a transition from the workers sitting in their quarters to a wide perspective of the town of Culiacan – the lights of the town burn without disruption, but every few seconds the unmistakable pops and flares of gunfire blink across the skyline. The workers chuckle and gossip, discussing the death of one of Mexico’s principal drug lords the way teenagers might discuss the arrest of a Hollywood starlet. This is the film at its best, and had it maintained that tone, what a film it would have been. Instead, it drifts away into the perilous territory of wordless documentary filmmaking – a dangerous place where, unless navigated with a practiced hand, images intended to inform and shock fall unimpressively flat. And this is precisely what happens: instead of harnessing the inherent power of documentary filmmaking as a vehicle for exposing governmental negligence and wrongdoing, El Velador lingers where it shouldn’t, and skips too quickly over what matters.

To this extent, Ms. Almada loses sight of what compels and grips – the examination of the effects of the cartel wars on the collective psychological make-up of Mexico’s civilians - and falls back on a simplistic narrative device – the following of the daily routines of the workers. While the imagery of the workers designing and building the monstrous tombs of drug lords is fascinating, it can only hold one’s attention for so long. Eventually, images of men and women silently watering lawns stops being interesting. And, unfortunately, those are the sequences that dominate the film. There is something to be said for a film that functions as a visual poem about the casualties of a war, and that screams for strides to be taken against the rampant bloodshed that is a casual factor of daily life in north-western Mexico. However, El Velador doesn’t live up to that ideal. It doesn’t scream, it stays silent. 

Dredd and violence

Spectacular visuals, a straightforward storyline, and relentless gore, Dredd, to the discomfort of some, is surely to soak viewers in the claustrophobic setting while giving them a dose full of adrenaline.

Set in a distant future, Mega-City One is a crime-ridden wasteland where a new drug called Slo-Mo is taking a hold of the population. Judge Dredd, impersonated by Karl Urban, is one of many law enforcers that act as judge, jury, and executioner to rid Mega-City One of injustice. On an ordinary day, Dredd is given the task to make an assessment on a rookie, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) to check if she is fit to join the ranks of Judges. Anderson failed the exam for admittance into law enforcement, but she bears a quality unlike any other; she is a psychic, and a powerful one at that, something that will come in handy for both herself and Dredd during the course of the film. These two Judges respond to a call from dispatch that directs them to a 200-story “mega-structure,” which is home to Ma-Ma (Lena Heady), the leader of production and distribution for the popular drug Slo-Mo.

Being a comic book adaptation, Dredd is a lot more faithful to its origins than its predecessor, Judge Dredd (1995) starring Sylvester Stallone, of which the author of the comic book, John Wagner, said “the story had nothing to do with Judge Dredd, and Judge Dredd wasn’t really Judge Dredd.” In contrast with his previous statement on Judge Dredd, Wagner said that “the characters and storyline in Dredd are pure Dredd.” Comic book fans will not be disappointed, the film is superb in its dark self-satirical dialogue and its nonstop violence from beginning to end. As Dredd fiercely kicks his opponent through the window, he closes the scene by simply saying “Yeah.” Talking in a stylized voice close to that of Christian Bale’s Batman, Dredd is not simply a character, but a visual myth. Throughout the course of the film we never catch even the smallest glimpse of his face, covered by a massive helmet, except for his ever-present commandeering mouth. Dredd is probably the most straightforward movie of the year, diving headfirst into the action, there are no love interests, no flashbacks, nothing other than the “here and now” of the movie.

Visually, shots are well placed, interesting, and slow-motion is widely used in stunning 3D. Director Pete Travis, having previously worked on Vantage Point and Endgame, films the movie at a fast pace, with varying shots that makes us forget that the great majority of ninety minutes have happened in a single building. However, it is cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle BSC, who takes the movie home by making violence aesthetically beautiful. Slow-motion is effectively used to follow a bullet that slowly pierces a man’s cheek and exits through his jaw, splashing the screen with a vibrant red accompanied by background colors. Cinematography is so bright and colorful that one would think the setting is beautiful when, in reality, it is just a gigantic block of concrete.

Dredd, to the surprise of those who are not into foreign action films, has, in fact, a story with structure that is almost identical to that of an Indonesian film, The Raid: Redemption (2011), which also takes place in one building as a group of elite cops are trapped in the headquarters of the mafia. Whether Dredd was intentionally or unintentionally portrayed as The Raid, this does not make Dredd weaker, but instead it acquires a trend-setting function for action films to come, and with the advancement of CGI, greater violence can be portrayed, making an epic action film apprehensible.

Trouble With the Curve hits a home run

Clint Eastwood and Robert Lorenz team up once more, leaving their more cynical tone to welcome an uplifting tone in sports-drama. Productions by Eastwood have been critically successful, and Trouble With The Curve is not going to be an exception, if only because of the American tradition that baseball is.

Clint Eastwood plays Gus, a scout for the Atlanta Braves who is on the brink of forced retirement as he accepts the challenge of finding a new prospect in North Carolina. What seems to be a typical sports film, soon turns into something more when his daughter Mickey, played by Amy Adams, decides to be of some help, meeting with a not-so-friendly response on Gus’ part, still she is insistent on accompanying him. As the unstable father-daughter relationship progresses to reveal secrets of their past, Johnny (Justin Timberlake) makes an appearance, being an old friend of Gus, takes an amorous interest in Mickey.

A successful performance by Eastwood, playing a retiring baseball scout, reminiscent of his previous roles in films like Gran Torino (2008), features a kind of antihero in that he is really not that likeable. Gus is not charismatic, he is not a good father, nor is he a positive person. He is an antihero because he has a cynicism about himself that wounds his own person and those around him. This is typical of the late Clint Eastwood, finding solace in his own hostility and use of profanity, Gus, like Walt in Gran Torino (also played by Eastwood), has a secondary function of providing dark comic relief in the viewers. Dark humor can be found in the irony of an 80-year-old with a strong attitude, as Mickey is ignoring the insistence of a flirtatious man at a bar, Gus immediately grabs a hold of him, punching him repeatedly. When Gus is separated from the man, he yells “Get outta here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you!” In his hands is a menacing broken bottle of beer.

Direction and cinematography is unimpressive. At thinking of a Clint Eastwood production, imaginings of dark lighting and a gritty tone were not unrealistic before watching a trailer for Trouble With The Curve, but it turns out to be exactly the opposite. Trouble With The Curve is an uplifting drama with a divulged message between humanity and technology, while telling the story of a father-daughter relationship in rough times. Interestingly enough, director Robert Lorenz does have interesting point-of-view shots that display the half-blurry vision of which Gus is suffering from. With age against him, Gus turns out to be better than a computer at telling the efficiency of a player, where his competition relies simply on statistics. An all-too-common characteristic of an all-too-complex character. Gus insists on watching players’ eyes as they are about to hit a home run, or hear the sound of the bat as they hit a curve ball, which is what saves him from forced retirement. Although Trouble With The Curve has a strong acting and a decent direction, the film is short from being a home run.

The partnership between Clint Eastwood and Robert Lorenz has proved to be fruitful in the past years. Lorenz was associated with Eastwood in productions such as Mystic River, Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Million Dollar Baby; all received Oscar nominations. Trouble With The Curve, in contrast with their past collaborations, turned out to be a film in the Hollywood style with a happy ending. This is not to say that the film fails because of its ending, but their style has been further developed in films that have a gritty outlook towards about humanity. This film is lost in its simplicity, fulfilling the audience’s expectations, which is satisfying, but does not incite further thinking. It will most probably be a box office success in the United States, because of the baseball theme, and because of its Hollywood structure, and although the performances are great, especially that of Clint Eastwood, the film is not.

Swim with Nemo in one extra dimension

For the past 12 years, Disney and Pixar have been making movie magic. Together, they’ve been the mastermind moviemakers behind such childhood classics as The Incredibles; Toy Story 1, 2 and 3; Up; and Monsters, Inc. Now, one of their greatest collaborations, Finding Nemo, returns to theaters in breathtaking 3D. Put simply, it is a masterpiece—one that stands even better today than it did upon its premiere 10 years ago.

We all know the story: Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) is a neurotic, manic, overprotective clownfish, father to Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould). The reason he’s so high strung? When Nemo was still a little fish egg, a barracuda ate his mother and his hundreds of siblings, so perhaps Marlin’s approach to parenting isn’t so out of line. But such ceaseless doting soon stirs resentment between him and Nemo.

Mind you, though this could be a play-by-play of any noteworthy familial drama of the past 20 years, we’re talking about a family film starring a cast of fish and other sea life. Oh, the magic of Pixar.

Marlin’s worries soon push Nemo to blatantly disobey him. While on a school fieldtrip, he ignores Marlin’s orders and ventures into the open sea to touch a boat’s underbelly. “He touched the butt,” a schoolboy squid memorably quips. No harm no foul. But then, to everyone’s horror, Nemo is scooped up and bagged by curious scuba diver. For the rest of the film, Marlin pursues his son across the globe, eventually making his way to the diver’s dentistry office in Sydney, Australia.

Along the way, he meets some memorable friends who’ve cemented themselves as some of Disney’s most beloved characters. We’ve got Marlin’s foremost partner-in-crime, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres). She’s a regal blue tang who suffers from short term memory loss—let the hilarity ensue. Then there’s Bruce and his cohort of fish-friendly sharks; Crush (voiced by writer/director Andrew Stanton), the surfer-dude sea turtle who points the fish to Sydney; and the list goes on.

There’s a character in this 2012 rendition, however, that wasn’t such a presence in the 2002 take. Through the wizardry of 3D technology, the seascape setting takes on a life all its own. The audience is taken from their buttery upholstered seats and plopped in the bustle of Nemo’s coral community. Not since Avatar has 3D so seamlessly transported its patrons into another world. In an industry where this technology is often overused as needless fluff and cheap thrills, Nemo reminds us that there are times when it can blow you away. This is how it’s done.

Of course, Marlin and Nemo’s trials are all tied into a prim and proper Disney bow by the film’s close, but for all its sentimentality, Finding Nemo delves into themes often glazed over in children’s entertainment. As an achingly real and touching account of familial bonds and lasting friendships, it is as much catered to adults as it is their inner child. Quite simply, it’s as good as movies get.

Love Is All You Need

Unexpectedly powerful, Gf*Bf is a film about friendship and family that surely pushes the envelope. Three friends live through the democratization and fictional liberalization of Taiwan, reaching its ideological climax with its views on youth and maturity.

Girlfriend Boyfriend is not about rebellion and young love. Its chronological range spans from 1995 to 2012, recounting the modern history of Taiwan as a country that was under Martial Law, followed by the climate of a country where such a Law has been lifted. Witnessing the events that lead to the democratization of Taiwan, the viewer follows Mabel, Liam, and Aaron; three inseparable friends emotionally involved with each other. Starting from innocence and foolishness as repressed teenagers in the middle of rebellion and student protests, Mabel wants to be with Liam, but Liam implicitly likes Aaron, and Aaron explicitly wants to be with Mabel. Eventually, Mabel accepts Aaron’s proposal to be his girlfriend, and Liam must accept the fact that Aaron is not gay.

As time goes by, the characters find themselves in a stage of their lives dominated by their freedom and expression, however that freedom is only transparent. Aaron is married, and Mabel is his “other woman;” they’re both outside social morality, even more so when Mabel finds out she’s pregnant, and it’s Aaron’s baby. Liam finds himself alone, never having found true love, satisfied by holding a sexual relationship with a married man, who is still in the closet. Everyone ends up being in an emotional hole and until maturity strikes, loss is met. They must figure out what to do with their situations in order to make something out of their lives.

Placing a special visual emphasis on homosexuality as an expression of love and freedom in an essentially repressed society, Director Ya-Che Yang depicts Taiwanese gay society. A huge party with people running around, drinking and smoking, wearing everything from nothing to tuxedoes, all celebrate the marriage of two men. In reality, fantasies of gay marriage go beyond Taiwanese social approval. However, the film is not about opposite-sex or same-sex relationships, but more about human relationships. The result is a kind of ‘unidealized’ love, since none of the characters get what they want, but are forced to exert love to those who need it.

The film’s narrative is well-handled, for its form is synced with the vision of the characters in a given point in time. One of the most memorable scenes features an interesting montage of voice-over given by Aaron speaking of freedom in Taiwan, while Liam is having a romantic encounter with a policeman who ends up beating him for being gay.

Boyfriend Girlfriend is a film that reaffirms the potential of international cinema, opening up a space to the consideration of Taiwanese film in the American public. It takes a common theme and makes it original, while offering a foreign perspective on subjects that are all too familiar in the United States like political freedom and homosexuality.

Boyfriend Girlfriend will come out on August 3rd on select theatres throughout North America. Be sure to drop by the AMC Loews Boston Common if you live in the Boston area. 

Sex Turned Senseless

Drama. A See-Saw Films production for Film4 and U.K. Film Council. Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan. Produced by Iain Canning and Emile Sherman.

Diving headfirst into the deep emptiness of a man’s thirst for pleasure, British director Steve McQueen leaves no stone unturned in his contemplation of sexual addiction. 

A quiet film in terms of its dialogue, Shame stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a New Yorker with an obsessively ordered life that is tailored to satisfy his sexual needs, which also enslave him, until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly arrives to his apartment for an indefinite stay. Following the bodily theme that McQueen introduced in 2008 with Hunger, his debut, Shame, released in 2011, deals with the far surpassed limits that a soul can impose on a man.

In an interview with film journalist Kevin Maher, McQueen specified that his direction is mainly made up of improvisation, taking shots that “feel right” as opposed to planning them. Shame is not a conventional visual spectacle, the picture is mostly devoid of any feeling, however, the framing of the character is visually directed to expose Brandon’s solitude and isolation from emotions. Emotionally unstable as Sissy is having sex with Brandon’s boss, he sits in his apartment on the far left side of the screen, in a corner, as he is sentimentally cornered, not knowing how to respond to the situation.

Almost every shot of Brandon is off-center. In the few instances where he is pursuing a woman out of interest, instead of compulsion, Brandon is visually separated. Whether if its on the subway, or in a restaurant, a linear separation between the male and female characters is established by the setting; a tube or a window frame are both respective elements of solitary composition. At placing an object that is physically between characters, the director comments on Brandon’s isolation. McQueen must have really good feelings when it comes to direction, for he displays excellence in his craft.

Fassbender does an incredible job impersonating a man who is completely materialistic and devoid of any sensation. Carey Mulligan, on the other hand, successfully opposes Fassbender’s character at having a persona that has too many feelings. Brandon gets tired of her drama as she questions how he does not find it sad that she is always the one that has to reach out. These performances bring range to the emotional journey that McQueen obliges us to take. This desynchronized relationship between the two is the effect of an untold harsh past. Shame is a film that deals with the present, it is wise that we not know about the past of the main characters. In this case, the present involves sex addiction, which is treated very much like drug dependency, and although sex is the principal theme of the movie, it is all but sexy; as a matter of fact, the viewer will, in many instances, feel repulsed by the sexual acts that Fassbender’s character gets involved in.

These aspects of repulsion are seen in one of the last scenes of the film, where Brandon is involved in a threesome with two random women in a disheveled apartment. A disturbingly long shot of Fassbender’s face is taken as he reaches orgasm with an unidentified woman, but gestures and facial expressions are difficult to distinguish. Some are indicative of pain and others of pleasure, seemingly drawing the fine line between pleasure and compulsion, where the latter takes away the first.

Being a character-driven film, Shame is an exploration of emotions, or the lack of them, comparable to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. The audience is allowed to delve into Brandon’s mind by means of his silence, getting frighteningly close to his perception. All that, of course, is held until the breakdown of the film, where the rawness of emotional conceit is truly exposed. Shame is an overwhelming experience that details the nausea of an incomplete man. The NC-17 rating was officially given due to sexual explicitness, however to place oneself into the deep angst that it requires to understand Brandon, is a task that should only be given to strict adults. It could be considered among the best films of the year, however it only applies to those who have a strong stomach and are willing to be emotionally miserable and naked for the duration of the film, for uncomfortable situations will arise with unappealing nakedness, as opposed to nudity, and a loss of general incitement.

1024px jackie kennedy by toni frissell  1957

Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston

Documentary. Tribeca Film presents a Vainglorious Pictures Production. Directed by Whitney Sudler-Smith. Written by Whitney Sudler-Smith and Anne Goursaud. Produced by Whitney Sudler-Smith, Anne Goursaud, Adam Bardach, Tim Maloney, Nicholas Simon.

“The 70’s belonged to Halston,” or so it says on the designer’s plaque in the Fashion Walk of Fame. In the documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, debuting director Whitney Sudler-Smith sets out to paint an intimate portrait of the iconic Roy Halston, one of America’s most recognized fashion designers, famous for creating Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat which she wore at her husband’s presidential inauguration. Through a series of amateur interviews with various celebrities from then and now, and a collection of astounding secondary footage, survivors from the 70’s like singers Billy Joel and Nile Rodgers, and models Anjelica Huston and Pat Cleveland, describe the ambit of Halston’s decade. Drifting from intelligent questions to pointless conversation, Sudler-Smith successfully captures a variety of anecdotes and testimonies that help us understand Halston as a person, sometimes, and as a personality, most of the time.

Halston was among America’s top contenders in 1973 at a fashion show now known as the “Battle of Versailles,” where his work was compared to that of Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, and Hubert de Givenchy. It was at the Palace of Versailles that he received a standing ovation from the French, granting a newfound respect to American fashion designers.

The documentary, being great in its content but lacking a successful execution, comprises some big interviews with people like Liza Minnelli, whose insight is mostly personal as she talks about her best friend while giving an occasional praise to his apparent genius. Fashion writers like Jim Moore of GQ, Amy Fine Collins of Vanity Fair, and Cathy Horyn of The New York Times offer their insight as the viewer learns about Halston’s work. André Leon Talley is among the biggest names to appear on screen, giving his take on Halston’s “American simplicity,” which is predominantly minimalistic. However the former Vogue editor-at-large is rudely interrupted by Sudler-Smith as the director’s cellphone rings in the middle of the interview, distracting both the interviewee and the audience from the subject at hand. The film does, however, display Halston’s genius as it dives into dialogue with Ralph Rucci, Stephen Burrows, Naeem Khan, Diane von Furstenberg, and other famous designers and stylists.

Through his journey, Sudler-Smith drags interviews to unnecessary and unentertaining extents, giving them a sense of validity in their conversational nature; his inexperience is clear and his goals are ambiguous. Still, the director’s slips and falls are not enough to overshadow the valuable content that is treated. Ultrasuede is a stark portrayal of the rise and fall of an era. It succeeds in representing the 70’s through Halston, and befittingly defines him as an artist and a visionary. This film is great for those who are interested in fashion, but perhaps the case is not the same for those interested in film.

Although the film’s direction is infantile in its sophistication and progression, the documentary exceeds in its technical quality. Archival footage and photographs are treated gracefully as editor John Paul Horstmann guides pictures through zoom-ins and -outs, separating items of clothing from the background, giving them a 3D-esque quality. Its retro electronic soundtrack is also a great complement to the representation of 70’s style and glamour.

Ultrasuede is a film that documents the climate of the 70’s, an era of glamour, fame, and drugs. It is a representation of New York, and Studio 54, as a place of impending doom and disaster, where dandyism was the only thing with enough substance to permeate the air, where anyone who mattered was beautiful; and where the era, like fashion, was all too ephemeral. It features a wonderful exploration of Halston by a not-so-wonderful explorer.