Sunday, November 12, 2017

PARADISE: HOPE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014.



Austrian director Ulrich Seidl completes his downer of a film trilogy with Paradise: Hope, the most youthful story of the three Paradise movies, though no less downbeat for its age or the better tomorrows falsely promised in its title.

Melanie Lenz stars in Paradise: Hope as Melanie, an adolescent girl whose mother has sent her to a diet camp for the summer to lose some weight. (Mom has gone to Kenya, as seen in Paradise: Love; her aunt is the main character in Paradise: Faith [review]). Melanie joins the a dormitory of girls, all of whom are as unmotivated to be there as she is. The camp is a kind of prison, where food and activity are regulated. Phone time is limited, and days are spent learning about nutrition and performing often humiliating exercises. You know that old ditty "if you're happy and you know it clap your hands"? At diet camp, it's "clap your fat." Thighs, belly, bum.


Looking to get out of exercising, Melanie goes to the facility doctor (Joseph Lorenz) feigning a stomachache. He is clearly skeptical of this ailment, but he examines the girl anyway, making playful, possibly flirtatious, use of his stethoscope. Melanie is smitten, and she returns to see him regularly. In their private sessions, he seems to like her, too; in public, he rebukes her. Theirs is an unhealthy relationship no matter how you cut it, signifying a hopeful future as out of reach as Melanie's intended weight loss.

Seidl portrays the diet camp with the same dry brushstrokes as he used in the preceding films, but the dispassionate rendering makes the setting seem surreal and almost satirical. The grinding routine only succeeds in making the kids feel bad about themselves, and in the absence of food, they become obsessed with sex and other mischief. Underlying all their talk about the grooming habits of the opposite sex and past dalliances, however, is the same basic yearning: each child really just longs to be loved and made to feel safe. Even at her most reckless, Melanie is looking to attract affection and attention. In his way, the doctor provides these things, even if we never are exactly clear on his motives.


Lenz and her young castmates perform with a natural comfort. Much of what Seidl captures comes across as genuine horseplay, as if his troupe is merely living out the summer camp scenario he created for them. This makes the emotional danger in Paradise: Hope feel even more crucial, even if some of it is a bit cartoony. (At a bar, Melanie is victimized by two greased-up juvenile delinquents lifted out of a 1950s exploitation movie.) This realism also makes it all the more deflating when the film draws no conclusions for its young protagonist. She is just as alone and helpless in the end as she was in the beginning, only now more hurt and disappointed. In terms of ironic stingers, Paradise: Hope is the bleakest.



Saturday, November 11, 2017

PARADISE: FAITH - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014.


Ulrich Seidl's Paradise trilogy is a series of films connected thematically by the three different theological tenets that give them their name, as well as by the story aspect of each film being about different sisters in the same family. Their easiest comparison is to Kieslowski's Trois Coleurs [review], but Paradise has even less crossover elements than that masterwork.

Paradise: Faith is ostensibly the second part of the series, though they really can be watched in any order. (True confessions, I have yet to see Paradise: Love, the initial release.) Faith stars Maria Hofstätter as Anna, a middle-aged woman who has devoted her free time to bringing Catholicism back to Austria. Her chosen mode of witnessing is traveling door-to-door with a statue of the Virgin Mary and trying to convert the sinners she finds, blessing them with holy water dispensed from a spray bottle. She's terrible at the job. What she lacks in empathy she makes up for in self-righteousness. Some of the scenes of her testimony are painful to watch. A hoarder who accepts her help has difficulty kneeling, but she insists he position himself in just the right way. A drunk woman toys with her, and Anna's stubbornness nearly pushes her to violence.


By that point, we have the sense that these reactions may be just fine with Anna. She intends to suffer for her belief. When she fails, she repents through self-flagellation and a chain-link girdle. Each obstacle is just a test from Jesus.

The biggest test comes when Anna's estranged husband returns without warning. Nabil (Nabil Saleh) is an Egyptian Muslim and also a paraplegic. He is baffled and angered by his wife's conversion to Christianity, and though we never know for sure why he left, we do see him be both physically and verbally abusive. Perhaps it's his cruelty that has made Anna tone-deaf to the suffering of others. She believes God crippled Nabil to help him. His time in the wheelchair hasn't inspired personal reflection, however; not unless it's an act of faith to spend a lot of time thinking about sex. (If so, guess who has ten typing fingers and is going to Heaven? This guy!)

It's certainly to Seidl's credit that he gives no lip service to either religion in Paradise: Faith. One is not pitted against the other, and really, viewers might hazard a guess that the auteur has little regard for religion in general. What is more interesting to him is how both Anna and Nabil use their faith to cover their own shortcomings. As the old Bible verse suggests, one usually points out the splinter in another's eye while denying the massive plank in their own.


Paradise: Faith lacks an editorial point of view. Rather, the director holds his camera back, keeping his distance, letting the scenes run their natural length without unnecessary cuts. This makes the more difficult scenes even more uncomfortable. The viewer gets no chance to look away, and can't gauge when the moment will finally break. The resulting squirm factor can be excruciating.

Adding to this is the realism of the locales and, more importantly, the performances. Neither Hofstätter nor Saleh appear to ever really be acting. None of the cast looks like actors. Thus, the usual telltale signs of playing to the camera are absent, leaving only the individuals. It's one step shy of documentary. We are the omniscient observer, the God in which these people should have faith, if you will.

Seidl's drama can be tough work. Its lack of conventional plot requires that one pay absolute attention, even as the filmmaker's refusal to sugarcoat or add any adornment at all might compel you to turn away. Accept that Paradise: Faith is heading somewhere, though, and you'll be surprised by how much the film has moved you in the end. Most likely it'll be closer to depression, because uplifting it ain't. Misery is sometimes it's own reward, if not a couple hours of company.


Friday, November 3, 2017

THE COLOR WHEEL - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

This short review was originally written for The Oregonian in 2014.


Taking their cue from Affleck and Damon, actors Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman wrote 2011's The Color Wheel as a starring vehicle for themselves.

Alas, Matt and Ben they are not. Perry plays Colin, an uptight writer, and Altman is his sister, JR, a flighty actress. The pair undertakes a road trip to retrieve her stuff from her ex's place.

The siblings bicker and whine the whole way, only to bond at a horrible party with former friends. It helps to have people worse than you around, apparently.

Shot in black-and-white and lacking polished performances, "The Color Wheel" hearkens back to indie faves like Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise [review] and Kevin Smith's Clerks.

Unlike those films, The Color Wheel turns up more annoyance than laughter.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

THE WHIP AND THE BODY - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written in 2013 for DVDTalk.com.


Maria Bava's 1963 ghost story The Whip and the Body is a gothic romance with a kinky twist.

Hammer Horror-man Christopher Lee stars as Kurt Menliff, the outcast son of a wealthy family who returns to his father's Victorian castle upon learning that his little brother (Tony Kendall) has married Kurt's one-time betrothed, Nevenka (Daliah Lavi, Lord Jim [review], Casino Royale [review]). Kurt is intent on regaining his birthright, as well as reasserting his dominance over his former lover. Nevenka, as Kurt demonstrates, has always had "a little violence in her," and is thus aroused by the snap of his whip.

Things take a spooky turn when Kurt is murdered, killed with a dagger that has past history for the family. The Menliffs are a complicated clan, and when more strange happenings and murders occur once Kurt is buried, there is some question of whether the killer is his ghost (as Nevenka contends) or one of the many other suspects in the castle. Katia (Ida Galli), for instance, has reason to hate Nevenka: she was originally due to marry the younger Menliff before Kurt's banishment threw a spanner in the works.

The Whip and the Body is a solid tale of haunting, though Bava is more concerned with the creep factor in the bodice-ripping love triangle than he is jump scares, gore, or your basic bump-in-the-night material. This makes for a rather satisfying chiller, where the twists and turns are reliant on whose delusion and/or explanation you choose to believe. Unsurprisingly, Lee pulls off the required menace as the vengeful specter, and Lavi is a all kinds of gorgeous as the breathless damsel in distress. Add to the mix Ubaldo Terzano's colorful photography and Carlo Rustichelli's evocative period music, and The Whip and the Body is a tantalizing costume drama about doomed love.



BLACK SUNDAY - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written in 2012 for DVDTalk.com.


This is my first exposure to the work of Mario Bava, but based on Black Sunday, I need to start seeking out his other films right quick. The Italian horror master's 1960 debut is stylish and spooky, a little bit sexy and a little bit scary, the right combination for a ghouls and witches story.

Black Sunday opens in the late 17th Century, as the Vajda family burns one of their own, alongside her lover, for being a minion of Satan. It's a gruesome death. A metal demon's mask is nailed to their faces before they are burned, so that anyone who looks upon their corpses will know why they have died. Unsurprisingly, the devilish lovers drop a devilish curse on the Vajda family for this indignity. No matter how long it takes, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and Javuto (Ivo Garrani) will have their revenge.


Jump ahead 200 years, and the traveling Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant Andre (John Richardson) urge their coachmen to hurry them to their destination. Despite his warnings that the way they have chosen for him will take them through treacherous and mysterious territory, they take that path anyway. The coach throws a wheel just outside a rundown cathedral. While they wait for the driver to fix their ride, the two learned men explore the ruins, discovering it is actually a mausoleum, and uncovering the witch's grave. When a bat attacks Kruvajan, he accidentally breaks the seal on her casket, unwittingly unleashing the curse. People will soon start dying in increasingly macabre manners.


The Princess' ancestors still live in their family home. This includes her doppelganger, the dark and lovely Katia. Barbara Steele, with her large eyes and sharp features, has a face made for ghost stories, and her performance as both the innocent girl and the avenging spirit works both sides of the equation perfectly. The dual role has the interesting effect of making it so we never trust Katia, while we also have a strange sympathy for Asa. After all, regardless of what the witch was dabbling in, the root of her evildoings was love. Javuto, devoted even beyond the grave, has traversed the years to protect her from any that might prevent her resurrection. And, of course, there are sparks between Katia and Andre. It's no surprise that his affection will prove more powerful than crucifixes and spells, and it's fitting that in the climax, not only does he wrestle with Javuto over a pit of despair (both literal and metaphorical), but he must decide which Barbara Steele is the one who stole his heart. (Random Thought: Since we're talking romance and fate, I am surprised that Javuto and Andre weren't doubles, as well; it'd have been neat to see the stiff-backed Richardson playing an evil twin.)

Black Sunday, which is alternately known as The Mask of Satan, was loosely based on a story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Bava uses these classical origins to build a foundation of respectability, only to crack it open and show the lurid drama that lays just underneath. Though arguably tame by today's standards, the way the director works around the restrictions of the era actually makes those details--the dripping blood, the heaving breasts--all the more salacious. As any horror fan can tell you, suggestion is almost always more effective than direct expression, the unseen is scarier than the seen, what is hinted at more unnerving than what is explicit. Bava and Ubaldo Terzano share director-of-photography credit, and their black-and-white images are gorgeously staged. Dark and stormy skies allow for creeping shadows, and an unknowable emptiness lurks around every corner. Evil could be hiding anywhere.



Sunday, October 22, 2017

PERSONAL SHOPPER - #899


If you still have doubts as to how good an actress Kristen Stewart is, just watch her emote in reaction to smart phone text conversations in Personal Shopper. Exchanging personal messages with an unknown individual, she both interacts with the phone and her environment, searching those around her for the potential correspondent. Panic, intrigue, fear, engagement, daring--she runs through these various emotions, delivering her side of a silent conversation--the only dialogue appearing on a small screen--through expression and gesture. It’s an intriguing performance, bringing to life a gripping directorial device, one that focuses the audience with the same intensity Stewart brings to the rest of the film.


“Focus” is a good word actually. As Maureen, Stewart’s focus is unwavering. Watch her as she tries on the clothes from her boss’ closet, rushing the mundane task of dressing, adding an urgency, this is something she’s not supposed to be doing. It’s a private moment enacted for the moviegoing public, but with zero regard for the camera. She’s forgotten she’s being watched, even if we have not, even if we remember that the person on the other side of the phone may actually be observing her somehow. It’s all about the action and ritual of getting dressed. This kind of energy is essential to Personal Shopper succeeding. Writer/director Olivia Assayas, who previously directed Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria [review], hangs everything on his lead. She is in every scene, only off camera in rare instances. This is her movie to win or lose--and Kristen Stewart totally wins.

It’s hard to describe what kind of movie Personal Shopper is. It’s actually many things, free of being tied to one genre. Its most prominent trait is probably suspense. This is a suspenseful drama with supernatural twists and elements of crime. It’s a story of identity. It’s erotic. While there are multiple plots--Maureen’s two jobs, a spiritual medium and the titular shopping gig; the hunt for the ghost of her dead brother; the back-and-forth with the texter; the mystery that rivets us in the final portion of the picture--Assayas doesn’t put any one aspect in the driver’s seat. Rather, he invisibly toggles between each piece, properly treating them as a single whole the way a great novelist might. Strange, unexplainable things happen to Maureen, but they are as matter-of-fact and normal as her everyday life. It’s an impressive illusion. Personal Shopper never fails to feel real.


There are two central questions being asked throughout Personal Shopper. First, who does Maureen want to be? Second, are the outside forces she encounters benevolent or malevolent? The latter applies not just to the unseen (and sometimes seen) ghosts, but to everyone in her life. Is Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), the socialite Maureen works for, considering Maureen’s interests at all? Is the designer who wants to see Maureen in her client’s clothes looking to screw her over? What is the invisible figure on the other side of the phone really after?


Assayas works with rhymes and parallels to create both tension and possibility. Maureen’s discovery of the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, for instance, provides Maureen with an example of a concrete application for her connection to the afterlife. Klint claimed her abstract paintings were commissioned by wandering spirits--facts we learn from a documentary embedded in Personal Shopper, one of two movies inside the movie (the other is the re-enactment of a séance, which you should pay attention to, it gives you a few tools for interpreting things later). Klint is said to have rejected her artistic training and a normal creative path to go in this other direction, prefiguring the emergence of abstract painting and risking ridicule. Likewise, Maureen has seemingly given up part of her own identity to earn a paycheck. Necessity trumps desire. The job itself is assuming another identity. A personal shopper makes decisions for her client, chooses the clothes she wears, yet never really steps into her shoes, neither literally nor figuratively. Arguably, these acquisitions for Kyra are more tangible than the pursuit of apparitions. Note how when Maureen selects the items she’ll take from the shops, she holds them in her hands, tests their strength, be they jewels, belts, or what have you. These are things she can grasp, even if she must surrender them.


Yet, the job isn’t everything, Maureen is already a double. She had a twin brother, and both were born with a congenital heart defect that cost him his life when he was only 27 (that most portentous of ages). Maureen could also die from it, and the affliction is yet another presence that hangs over her. Will it assert itself or let her be? But it’s the lost brother, Lewis, that holds her back more than their shared bad heart. Maureen remains in Paris waiting for her departed sibling to fulfill a promise and send her a message from beyond the grave, releasing her from their bond, granting his blessing that she move on.

Except maybe that’s not the lesson she needs to hear. Or more specifically, maybe she shouldn’t be waiting for that validation. Most of her encounters, be it the odd conversation with Kyra’s lover or the awkward chat with the new boyfriend of Lewis’ ex, the message seems to be that Maureen needs to act for herself, to stop waiting for others to give her the go-ahead. The person texting her wants to know if she wants to be someone else, and she thinks she does, but one might glean from Personal Shopper’s cryptic ending that what Maureen really needs to be is herself. She needs to realize that when she’s choosing the clothes for Kyra, she’s choosing the ones she does because they are what she really wants to wear.


Assayas handles all the different elements of Personal Shopper with a clarity that transcends any of the narrative’s internal confusions. He and cinematographer York le Saux (Carlos [review]) shoot every different environment and situation with the same sense of normalcy. The images are beautiful, yet lacking in ostentation. Even the special effects shots in the haunted sequences are simply integrated, never overtaking the moment, presented at a scale equal to Maureen’s. Amazingly, those scenes are still spooky, just as some of the later set-ups create a palpable anxiety. The realism of the crime scene in the final quarter is unnerving, immediately putting us in the moment. Likewise, an arty choice in a climactic scene not only gives us further reason to potentially believe the ghostly aspects of the script, but also turns our expectation on its head rather than telegraph a coming turn.

Personal Shopper is moody and weird, and it’s best viewed with an open mind and total attention. You won’t know where it’s going from moment to moment, but that’s a good thing. Once all those moments are put together, it’s one of the most satisfying new movies in recent years--and one that rewards multiple viewings. The film’s mysteries have plenty more to offer than is evident on first glance, all of which play out and are revealed on Kristen Stewart’s face. Don’t stop watching her, because she’s watching everything else, purchasing these experiences for our benefit.



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

JUNE NIGHT - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally appeared on DVDTalk.com as part of the Ingrid Bergman in Sweden set released in 2011.


June Night was the last film Ingrid Bergman made in her native Sweden before moving to Hollywood. This 1940 Per Lindberg picture is pretty straight soap opera, with Bergman playing a girl named Kerstin, who, in the movie's first scene, is shot by her boyfriend (Gunnar Sjöberg) when she tries to walk out on him. A trial and small-town scandal follows, and so Kerstin changes her name and moves to Stockholm to start over. She swears off her wanton ways, but this new leaf will be tested when she catches the eye of a handsome doctor (Olof Widgren) and also runs across the nosy reporter (Hasse Ekman) that sensationalized her story and dubbed her "the wounded swan." Both men become obsessed with her, and both are dating galpals of Kerstin's--the nurse (Marianne Löfgren) that helped her when she got to Stockholm and one of Kerstin's roommates (Marianne Aminoff). All these affairs come to a head the night the shooter comes to visit and the many romantic lines intersect.


June Night is a little slow. The script, written by Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius from a novel by Tora Nordström-Bonnier, relies heavily on coincidences and never delves very far into its characters. Unfortunately, this is especially true for Kerstin, who gets less introspection and development than the side characters; Bergman's charisma and screen presence are all that fuel the portrayal, and the actress brings a gravitas to the role that wouldn't otherwise be there. I suppose Lindberg and Hyltén-Cavallius could be striving to make Kerstin an unknowable and mysterious figure, which might lend some explanation to why everyone is so fascinated by her (and why she does so much damage without even trying), but if so, it doesn't really work.