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.