Intros & Outros

FESTIVAL #10 WRAP-UP/RANKINGS

imagesBy Daniel Barnes and Mike Dub

DANIEL: As I’ve stated many times, the real purpose of these festivals is to fill in some of my more glaring cinematic blind spots. In my festival intro, I mentioned that “I came a little bit late to the Dardenne brothers party,” and up until a few years ago, I had only seen one of their films (The Child, still my favorite). Dub, after watching and reviewing the first three films by Belgian siblings Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, I would say that we’ve fully arrived at the Dardenne brothers party, and I gotta say…it’s not a particularly swinging affair. The “refreshments” are just week-old waffles, warm beers, and a bowl of loose prescription medication. Everyone refuses to take off their jackets, and the only music they have here is a cassette tape of some dude practicing the drums.  There are scooter chases in the living room, carpentry lessons in the kitchen, and most of the partygoers are playing a game called “God Hates You,” which seems to involve crawling into a corner and weeping until you fall asleep. But that’s the milieu of the Dardenne brothers – they create brutally realistic and pitilessly austere portraits of life on the economic margins, but with a vaguely Catholic mercy that makes the struggles of their characters feel both mundane and mythic.  Their harsh visual style – realistic lighting, long takes, handheld camera, etc. – probably stems in part from their background as documentarians.  How do you think that documentary experience manifested itself in their 1999 film Rosetta?

DUB: First of all, I would like to add that their party is also fucking freezing all the time – a barren, icy, never-ending winter of discontent.  Terrible party, indeed.  Yes, you can certainly see the influence of their documentary background, but they use the pseudo-documentary approach in a very specific and effective way, particularly in Rosetta (and to a slightly lesser degree, in The Son).  They have taken the hallmarks of documentary and fashioned a style that is very deliberate, calculated, and above all, artistic.  In Rosetta, stylistic austerity runs hand in hand with an artful dedication to exploring their heroine: there is barely a frame in which the title character is not visible, often at the (intentional) expense of narrative clarity.  It is the most rigorous of the films we watched, and the most difficult (particularly for someone like myself, who is easily motion-sickened), but it is also the most ambitious and the most rewarding.

images La Promesse and Rosetta were made back-to-back, and they feature main characters who are extremely different and yet occupy the same space: they are around the same age, they are both desperately poor, they both engage in huge moral decisions, they both lack one parent, and the parent they do have is substandard to say the least.  But they are also polar opposites: Igor is waffling, unsure, a well-trained soldier for his exploitative father.  Rosetta is furious, aggressive, and almost always acts with a clear and overwhelming sense of purpose.  Yet, they are equally naive, and equally unequipped to deal with their problems.  Dan, having seen all three films now, how do you see La Promesse fitting in with the others?

DANIEL: La Promesse feels like an early work, and you can sense that they’re trying stuff out that will pay greater dividends in Rosetta.  But it also shows them to be masters of building a tightly wound, ticking-clock story out of what seems like raw chaos.  The relationship between Jeremie Renier’s junior slumlord-in-training and an African immigrant in peril didn’t seem fully developed (or plausible) to me, and the film has much more success drawing out the complex relationship between Renier and his scumbag father played by Olivier Gourmet.  Speaking of Gourmet, one of the great delights of these festivals is the unexpected discovery.  Having already seen a few Dardenne brothers films going into the festival, I fully anticipated appreciating their raw but slyly constructed visual style, their noose-tight narratives, and their masterful touch in building offscreen sound and space.  But I had no idea that I would come out of this festival singing the praises of Gourmet, and comparing him to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti in my review of The Son. Gourmet has appeared in all of the seven features from the Dardenne brothers, but The Son is his only true starring role.  Dub, why do you think that the Dardenne brothers keep returning to Gourmet, and what do you think that he specifically contributes to The Son?

index2DUB:  In all three films, what Gourmet provides most abundantly is an anchor of seasoned professionalism.  Particularly in Rosetta and La Promesse, he is an extremely grounded force inside the chaos of handheld camera and young, unpolished actors.  This is not to say that the other actors are bad by any means, but Gourmet has an extremely rare gift of being both abjectly prosaic and entirely magnetic.

The Son may be the most “minor” of the three Dardenne films we watched, but the Dardenne brothers seem to know that it’s not as complex as their other movies, and they pull out every stylistic trick in order to create a stark and interesting character study.  The most impressive aesthetic component to The Son, though, is Gourmet’s brilliant lead performance.  He has built such an impressive partnership with the Dardenne brothers that he can create drama by the way he dries his hands in a bathroom, or by just sitting in a car and thinking.  Likewise, the Dardennes create the framework for his performance to flourish.  Having seen four of their films (these three and The Kid with a Bike), it seems that Gourmet and the Dardenne Brothers comprise one of the great unsung auteur-actor relationships in modern cinema.

imagesDANIEL: Well, it appears that most of the party guests have collapsed on the floor under the weight of their socioeconomic problems, only summoning strength enough to look back at us one last time, their tear-swelled eyes making a pleading call for empathy and assistance, so I think that’s our cue to skedaddle.  Stuff as many of these expired Xanax in your pockets as possible, and let’s rank and grade the movies and get the hell out of this urban cesspool known as Belgium.

DANIEL’S RANKS/GRADES:

1) Rosetta (A-)

2) La Promesse (B)

3) The Son (B)

DUB’S RANKS/GRADES:

1) Rosetta (A-)

2) La Promesse (B+)

3) The Son (B+)

Check out Daniel’s updated Dardenne Brothers Power Rankings HERE.

For our July festival, we’re veering south from Belgium to Turkey, where we will be watching and reviewing three films by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, yet another Palme d’Or-winning director.  That festival kicks off in 2 or 3 weeks, so check back here for dates and details.

ESFS Festival #10 Preview – Dawn of the Dardenne Brothers

dardenne-brothersBy Daniel Barnes

I came a little bit late to the Dardenne Brothers party (by the way, this party has the worst refreshments ever – it’s just Diet Mountain Dew and a bowl of loose prescription medication). Their most recent release Two Days, One Night was one of my top 20 films of 2014, while star Marion Cotillard made my SFFCC Best Actress ballot, and I have already seen and loved their 2005 Palme d’Or winner The Child and 2011’s sublime The Kid with the Bike. However, more than half of their feature filmography remains in a glaring blind spot for me, one that I intend to fill in with this festival.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and his younger brother Luc started as prolific documentary filmmakers in the 1970s, but rose to prominence on the international cinema scene in 1996 with La Promesse (their first two narrative features, made in 1987 and 1992, have been all but wiped off the map, so La Promesse is often mistakenly credited as their debut film). Continuing in the documentary tradition, the Belgian-born Dardenne brothers eschew Steadicams and non-diegetic music in favor of handheld cameras, natural lighting, long shots, denim jackets, and unprofessional actors (Cotillard was their first “star” performance), and yet within that strenuous verisimilitude, they give a Biblical sort of weight to their characters’ moral dilemmas.

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The Dardenne brothers focus on people who live on the fringes of society, people easily lured or forced into lives of crime or subservience. They paint a brutal portrait of poverty in their films,  especially of the huge taxes that capitalism levies on the human soul. Cinematographer Alain Marcoen shot every one of their films, and editor Marie-Hélène Dozo worked on all but The Kid with the Bike, while actor Jérémie Renier has served as an on-again, off-again muse, appearing in four of their seven narrative features, starting as a teenager in La Promesse.

Mike Dub will kick off the festival on Wednesday with a review of La Promesse, and I will follow with reviews of Rosetta (on Monday, June 22) and The Son (on Friday, June 26), before we regroup on Monday, June 29, to recap the festival and rank the movies. If time allows, I’m also hoping to watch and review Lorna’s Silence, which seems to be the least regarded entry in their filmography. Grab a waffle and a warm beer and hop on your scooters for a handheld tracking shot through the mean streets of Belgium all month long, right here on E Street Film Society.

Festival #9 Wrap-Up/Awards

imagesBy Daniel Barnes and Mike Dub

DANIEL: First of all, Dub, I want to thank you for honoring my “no flats” policy for this festival wrap-up – I feel like the Palme d’Or calls for a little old-school glamour.  As I wrote in my review of When Father Was Away on Business, the Palme d’Or award is similar to the Oscar in that it has attained a phony prestige over the years, and the winners tend to have a whiff of “importance.”  Cannes juries favor small-scale human dramas over genre pictures, and the films that win usually take place against a sprawling cultural canvas or a significant sociopolitical moment (side note: on the surface, at least, the 2015 Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, about Sri Lankan immigrants living in the Paris suburbs, fits this template).

“A sprawling cultural canvas” is actually a pretty apt summation of Paris, Texas, German director Wim Wenders’ romantic and slightly askew notion of the lonely American West of 1984.  One of the things that struck me the most in Paris, Texas was the idea of the road as a lifeline – Travis (a haunted Harry Dean Stanton) starts in the desert with no memories and no voice, but his senses come back the more that he connects with the highway.  It’s like a blood vein, and even an escape into the hills of the L.A. suburbs comes with a view of the artery, and the incessant sound of its roaring heart. What did you think of this outsider’s vision of Americana?

images3DUB:

Well, I agree that it was slightly askew, in Wenders’ sometimes-brilliant (the German doctor in Mexico) and sometimes-not (Aurore Clement’s distractingly bad English) style of European playfulness.  But Wenders is a very good filmmaker, and in Paris, Texas, he creates a wonderful visual framework for both distinguishing himself from and building upon his favorite westerns – The Searchers is the reference point that immediately comes to mind.  However, it’s also tough for Wenders to successfully stretch his reverence for American sentimentality.  The first half hour of the movie is brilliant and mesmerizing, but once the father-son reunion forms the center of the film, it becomes much less vital.  Like its main character, the further from the desert the film gets, the more conventional it becomes (save for the scenes in the peep show, which you mentioned in your review), and the more it turns into something that has a road laid out for it.

indexPerhaps that’s why I liked Ballad of Narayama so much.  Although it was based on a novel that had already been filmed, Imamura’s version feels more like an attack than an homage, wrought with ugly depictions of sex, family, society, and tradition.  I have not seen the first version, but I know that about half of what we see in Imamura’s version could not have been shown in any film in 1958.  The Cannes crowd, in addition to enjoying “sprawling cultural canvasses,” also loves to feel validated by films that borrow from and build on the history of cinema.  How do you feel Narayama compares with the other films from our festival?

DANIEL: I think that Narayama is most similar to the other two films in the festival in that it examines a very specific time and place, entering an often overlooked culture while keeping the focus on its basic human drama.  As you mentioned in your review, the framework of Narayama is not so far off from indigestible Hollywood treacle like Stepmom or My Life – a woman heroically prepares her extended family for life after her impending death – but the details of the pre-industrial, highly superstitious mountain village in which she exists give the story depth and flavor.  Aside from a few dated 1980’s camera tricks, The Ballad of Narayama makes us feel as though we’ve been deposited into an extinct world that we never knew existed.  If there is an outlier in this bunch, I think that it’s When Father Was Away On Business, which is the most explicitly topical film of the three films in our festival.  Although it’s set in Sarajevo 1950, the film’s depiction of ordinary life in a dehumanizing totalitarian regime was highly relevant to audiences of 1985…what, if anything, do you think that is has to say to us now?

imagesDUB: If there is one theme that both the Cannes jury and the Academy Awards love to love, it’s movies that depict life under tyranny.  The same year that When Father Was Away won the Palme d’Or, it was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, losing out to The Official Story, another semi-biographical period piece about life under a terrible dictatorship.  You can understand why juries are so quick to reward relevant political works – if we were to ever lose faith in the cinema’s power to shape our culture, then the art form itself would function as little more than, as Gene Siskel’s wife once remarked, “an excuse to eat candy in the dark.”  There is a bit of symbiosis to films like When Father Was Away and the awards they receive.  They validate each other.

That being said, there is no question that of the three films we watched for this festival, When Father Was Away was the least stylistically interesting.  It is practically void of a visual personality, and relies on the somewhat grating narration of a six year old child to bring the audience up to speed.  Personally, it has always been a turn-off for me when we see important historical events through the fuzzy and ignorant perspectives of children.  Still, the content is interesting enough to avoid succumbing to truly nauseating crap like Life Is Beautiful, which was such a charmer in 1998 that it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and, of course, Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

DANIEL’S RANKS/GRADES:

1) Paris, Texas (B+)

2) The Ballad of Narayama (B+)

3) When Father Was Away on Business (B)

DUB’S RANKS/GRADES:

1) The Ballad of Narayama (A-)

2) Paris, Texas (B+)

3) When Father Was Away on Business (B)

JURY PRIZES:

*The glorious Palme d’Or goes to… The Ballad of Narayama.

*The so-so Grand Prix goes to… Paris, Texas.

*The shameful Un Certain Regard goes to… When Father Was Away on Business.

For our June festival, we’ll be staying on the Palme d’Or theme by covering three films bythe Belgian sibling team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, two-time winners of the Cannes top prize.  Over the course of three weeks, we will be watching and reviewing their first 3 feature films – La Promesse (currently available on Hulu Plus), 1999 Palme d’Or winner Rosetta, and The Son.  If you would like to receive updates on upcoming festivals, follow us on Facebook, and follow Daniel Barnes on Twitter.

Fin…or is it?

ESFS Festival #9 Intro – “Palme d’Or Winners of the Early 1980s”

imagesBy Daniel Barnes

I have a Cannes ritual.

I always wake up early the morning after I arrive, so that I can load up on the continental breakfast at the Holiday Inn. My pockets stuffed with pancakes, I step outside into the morning wind, cutting behind the Chateau Pierre and the Bistro d’Bonjour, and making my way towards the Croisette. The opening night screening doesn’t start for hours, so I dawdle along the boulevard, admiring the gorgeous white-sand beaches and the world-class laser tag pits.  Famished and tired, I hail a horse-drawn chariot to ferry me down the Rue de Baguette, past the Monument de Tom Bosley, to my beloved Chez Beret. In a shaky French accent, I place my usual order – a café au lait, mushroom pudding, Sour Patch Kids, and a bucket of loose change. I notice that the midday sun has dipped below the canopy of sugar pines, so I catch a gondola back to the hotel, conversing with the skipper about escargot and Marie Antoinette and…uh, the Eiffel Tower and…uh…

review_NARAYAMAOK, you’ve got me. Unlike the great Roger Ebert, who vividly described his many Cannes experiences in the book Two Weeks in the Midday Sun, I’ve never been to Cannes, I’ve never covered the festival, and I wouldn’t know a Croisette from a Croissan’wich. The only Cannes ritual I’ll be practicing this year will be chowing down on my liver while reading posts and Tweets from critics and cinephiles who are covering the festival for real.

Until I can sucker some deep-pocketed media outlet into subsidizing my trip, curating this ESFS Festival gives me a chance to create my own Cannes experience, which is why scheduled it to run May 13-24, concurrently with the 68th annual gathering in the south of France. It also allows me to explore three world cinema auteurs that I’m relatively unfamiliar with, all of them from different countries. Now that this blog is returning to the monthly festival format, I’m going to use these festivals to fill in some of my auteur blind spots, and almost all of which are non-American directors.  As luck would have it, two of the directors in this festival – Shohei Imamura and Emir Kusturica – are part of a select group of filmmakers that have won the Palme d’Or twice, so hopefully their films will help us to understand the kinds of movies that are valued by Cannes juries.

imagesSo why the early 1980s? No real reason, mostly just a way to put an artificial boundary around the festival. And yet I do hold a certain fascination with the time period. I was born in 1976, but my awareness of a pop culture beyond Indiana Jones and Star Wars didn’t kick in until after Thriller, so the late 1970s/early 1980s was undiscovered country for me for a long time. Discovering early 1980s masterpieces like Blow Out and American Gigolo was instrumental in my post-adolescent development as a cinephile. It still seems like a mysterious time in my imagination, and my knowledge of the era’s world cinema is even more shadowy, a massive blind spot that we begin to chip away at this week.

index We republished Mike Dub’s September 2014 review of Kurosawa’s 1980 Palme d’Or co-winner Kagemusha on Monday as a sort of appetizer.  Dub officially kicks off the festival on Friday with a review of Japanese director Shohei Imamura’s harsh historical drama The Ballad of Narayama. Daniel Barnes reviews German director Wim Wenders’ American-set Paris, Texas on Monday, May 18, and closes the festival on Friday, May 22, with a review of Serbian director Emir Kusturica’s When Father Was Away on Business.

On Tuesday, May 26, Dan and Dub will recap the festival and hand out their own awards, ranking the three films in order of glorious Palme d’Or, so-so Grand Prix, and shameful Un Certain Regard.

Join us for two weeks out of the midday sun, right here on E Street Film Society.

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Film #1: The Ballad of Narayama (1983; Dir.: Shohei Imamura) [review by Mike Dub on Friday, May 15]

Film #2: Paris, Texas (1984; Dir.: Wim Wenders) [review by Daniel Barnes on Monday, May 18]

Film #3: When Father Was Away on Business (1985; Dir.: Emir Kusturica) [review by Daniel Barnes on Friday, May 22]

Dan and Dub’s Festival Wrap-Up: Tuesday, May 26

ESFS Festival #7 Wrap-Up – “Romanian New Wave”

12.08.bucharestBy Mike Dub and Daniel Barnes

MD: Going into the festival, I was aware that Romanian New Wave was known for its very austere visual style. However, one of the very nice surprises of the festival has been that, even though each film commits to an aesthetic based on revealing life in its most “authentic” form – long takes, extremely lengthy scenes, a dedication to revealing life in almost real-time – all three films are compelling cinema. Even more fascinating, each film uses the same basic aesthetic rubric to create unique atmospheres: 12:08 East of Bucharest urges us into the agony of a real-time broadcast comedy of errors, underlying the unreliability of cultural memory; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days uses long takes to build tension and immerse us into an atmosphere of communist-era paranoia; and Tuesday, After Christmas folds us into the intimate details of lives in turmoil.

DB: If the films in this festival are any indication, that visual austerity you talked about is an extension of a larger cultural repression in Romania.  Ceausescu’s regime was marked by violent oppression and economic turmoil, and it was propped up by a brutal secret police force known as the Securitate.  Almost all of the main characters in these three films lived through the fear and reprisal of the Ceausescu era, where they learned to become terrified of their own honest feelings and expressions. In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (my favorite film of the festival, although on strictly “Romanian New Wave” terms, I still prefer the bleakly humane comedy of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), we are forced to directly contemplate the effects of this repression, as a comparatively bourgeois college student attempts to procure an illegal abortion for her roommate.  But in even in the absence of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing dictator, that repression persists as an internal force.  We see it in the prolonged avoidance of conversation and confession in Tuesday, After Christmas, and in the false, vodka-soaked recollections of revolution in 12:08 East of Bucharest.

4months3weeksand2daysMD: Because these films are so rich and layered, it is difficult to give credit everywhere it is deserved. One of the things neither of us talked about very much is the wealth of on-screen talent in these three films. They are filled with terrific performances, ranging from Teodor Corban’s dopey and all-too-important television journalist Jderescu in Bucharest, to Mirela Oprisor, who captivates as the wronged Adriana in Tuesday, a performance that shoulders the weight of the film in the final act. But the two best performances occur in 4 Months, which I agree is the best film in the festival. Vlad Ivanov devours his role as a nefarious abortionist, who, as Daniel pointed out in his review, exemplifies “the banality of evil wrapped in a members-only jacket.” And lead actress Anamaria Marinca as Otilia, the persistently capable young woman caught in a web of conflicting loyalties and personal sacrifice, gives a striking and powerful performance of a woman who is outwardly calm but remains always on the brink of total collapse.

DB: And don’t forget Laura Vasiliu, who is wonderful as Gabita, the meek girl getting the abortion.  Gabita initially seems helpless, and you can understand Otilia’s urge to protect her, but Vasiliu slowly reveals thin layers of deception and guile in the character.  4 Months also features the amazing Luminita Gheorghiu in a small but brilliant turn as the woman whose birthday Otilia leaves the hotel to attend.  Gheorghiu has appeared in pretty much every “Romanian New Wave” film that has seen a stateside release – The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Beyond the Hills, Child’s Pose (reviewed here back in March), and even 12:08 East of Bucharest.  She did not make an appearance in Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas, so maybe it’s no surprise that it was the one film in the festival that failed to work for me.  I could not even describe Muntean’s direction as “visually austere,” because that would imply the presence of a guiding aesthetic – Muntean just plops the camera at a random middle distance and lets it roll.  In the other two films in the festival, you can feel stylistic expression pushing against the visual repression: the suddenly emphatic camera moves that match an emotional outburst in 4 Months, or the way that 12:08 East of Bucharest almost inches first into farce, and then into pathos.  But the intrusively bland Tuesday, After Christmas is the nearly once-in-a-lifetime occasion where I actually would have preferred to see a stage production of the material instead of the film.

imagesAnd that concludes the festival!  Time to kick back on the couch, crack open a bottle of Tuborg, rest our feet on this Ottoman suzerain, and rank and grade all the films we watched in the festival.  Noroc!

DUB’S RANKS/GRADES:

1) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (A-)

2) 12:08 East of Bucharest (B+)

3) Tuesday, After Christmas (B+)

DANIEL’S RANKS/GRADES:

1) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (B+)

2) 12:08 East of Bucharest (B)

3) Tuesday, After Christmas (C+)

Festival #8 Intro – Kurosawa in Color

ran_6Few directors of the last century have possessed as refined and self-aware a sense of visual impact as Akira Kurosawa, so his switch from making black and white films to color could not possibly be a mere aesthetic whim. Kurosawa’s turn to color symbolized the beginning of the final phase of his career, a tumultuous period less characterized by genre hopping and compact storytelling than by epic scopes and bold visual palettes.

indexThe 1964 film Red Beard was the last movie that Kurosawa shot in black and white, and it was also the last film he made with longtime lead actor Toshiro Mifune (similar to the way that Scorsese hasn’t worked with De Niro in nearly two decades). Red Beard culminated the “Golden Age” of Kurosawa, a period theoretically starting with Rashomon in 1950, and running through such black and white classics as Ikiru, The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and High and Low. Each of these films built upon the domestic box office success and critical approbation of its predecessors, to the point that Kurosawa must have been nearly paralyzed with fear and anxiety at the idea of topping himself.

1308944729-dodeskedenPerhaps trying to escape the island-bound media bubble of Japan, Kurosawa followed Red Beard with a couple of brief but unfruitful Hollywood flirtations. He was slated to direct an American production of Runaway Train, the existential (and pretty entertaining) actioner eventually made in 1985 with Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca de Mornay, and Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. Kurosawa also wasted several years developing the Japanese portion of the Pearl Harbor movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, only to get shit-canned a few weeks into production. Both of these projects were to be his color debut.

Kurosawa finally made his color debut in 1970 with Dodes’ka-Den, a film that was made very quickly with a newly formed production company, although they disbanded when the movie sank at the box office and flopped with Japanese critics.  Dodes’ka-Den  is a very bleak film that corresponds to the bleakest period in Kurosawa’s life – in 1971, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slicing his wrists and neck. Made for the Russians, his 1975 followup Dersu Uzala was a minor critical success that was fairly ignored in Kurosawa’s home country.

imagesFortunately for his reputation, Kurosawa was “rediscovered” by Western audiences with the assistance of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who helped to produce the historical epics Kagemusha and Ran. Coming at the end of his career, and with the star director associations, those two films cemented his reputation as a master of the panoramic image, and they are a big reason that people generally associate Kurosawa with his battle epics rather than with his crime films or his psychological dramas.

In this festival, we will review 3 of Kurosawa’s color films:

*Film #1: Dodes’ka-Den (1970) – review by Daniel Barnes on Monday, September 8

*Film #2: Dersu Uzala (1975) – review by Mike Dub on Wednesday, September 10

*Film #3: Kagemusha (1980) – review by Daniel Barnes on Monday, September 15