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Film Reviews

Film Review: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Screen Dream

by Andres Solar

What cinephile can possibly resist a bonafide, direct-from-Cannes sensation? In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Guizhou-ren writer/director Bi Gan’s 2018 Un Certain Regard selection, no one is excepted from devastating yearning and the hopeful, haunting dreams it spurs.

Luo Hongwu is a stoic, 40ish, former casino manager returning to Kaili, China (his and Bi’s own hometown) for his father’s funeral. After 20 years grinding in the gambling world abroad, he finds himself longing for the life and people he loved in his youth. More specifically and most intensely, Luo pines for Wan Qiwen, his lost love of many summers ago.

He starts in on an ad hoc investigation to find out where Qiwen might be today, and along the way we learn that he’s a somewhat hardened person, willing even to brandish a gun as an exclamation point. So Bi balances Luo’s rough-hewn personality with the titular “journey into night” where the protagonist will face his deep desires and vast vulnerabilities.

Enter the celebrated 59-minute, multi-scene, long take—perhaps cinema’s most accurate ever visual depiction of a dream. As Bi now pumps hydrogen into the film’s mysterious wings, it becomes both a thrilling display of startling realism and a swirling montage that feels like it’s emerged from your very own REM sleep.

Ultimately, even though there do exist probably a dozen other movies (not a whole lot in the panoply of cinema) that deal with dreams on a more emotional or impressionistic plane, this sequence is satisfying and richly rewarding. Bi seems to invite you to the fun with a title card that asks you to “join the protagonist” in putting on 3D glasses at the same time Luo does, in a scene where he goes to a movie. Though a technical marvel of virtuosic cinematography and lithe, adroit directing, it always feels—more than anything else—like a genuine product of Bi’s imagination and vision for the story.

Among cineastes and academics, much will be said about Bi Gan’s long take for a long time to come, and rightly so. Which is why I’m okay with saying little more about Long Day’s Journey Into Night than It is a masterful achievement by miraculous talents. And the whole trip is an awfully good time.

4 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Gabriel & the Mountain

by Andres Solar

The story Brazilian filmmaker Fellipe Barbosa wants to tell is an excellent one. But it’s one better suited to verbal storytelling—at a bar, a memorial service, or even a lecture hall. A feature film is much too big a medium for it.

It’s the true story of the director’s friend, Gabriel Buchmann, to whom the film is dedicated in the opening title card. Barbosa tells of his college-freshman-age pal who embarked on a year-long adventure to “see the world” with more than a fair share of brio and hubris in tow. As the film depicts in its first scene, the trip doesn’t end well. Much of Gabriel and the Mountain is what you might expect from a director who is too close emotionally to his subject.

At the outset, Gabriel is presented as a Christ-like figure. The children of the Kenyan village where he is staying run towards him, smiling and wanting to touch him. They cheer the mzungu (White person). He pays his local hosts and travels “sustainably” as a “non-tourist” (his own words). Someone truly immersed (also his word) in a culture wouldn’t feel the need to boast about it. At dinner, asked by a daughter of his host to sing a song from his homeland, Gabriel does, and then, ever so “thoughtfully,” he asks the child to sing a song, too. These moments are saccharine and they feel bogus and forced.

Barbosa’s intermittent honesty about his late friend’s foibles is the most refreshing thing in the film. When the director is in that mode, the bittersweet stumbles of Gabriel are unflagging. As an expression of the writer-director’s anger at his compatriot, the sequences where the man behaves foolishly are admirable. Yet, Barbosa’s manipulative efforts to get the audience to love his friend like he does—especially noticeable in the first act—while sweet and certainly understandable, do not make for good cinema. Tonally, then, the film is scattershot.

João Pedro Zappa (Gabriel), a moderately experienced television and movie actor, struggles with the tone throughout, except in the climactic final scene where the dramatic notes are fairly obvious. It’s telling that these are the most emotionally effective and subtly powerful minutes.

But Barbosa, who previously directed one narrative feature and one documentary—and here delivers something in between the two—flatly hangs Zappa out to dry in about a dozen scenes. The film plunges into “comically bad” territory, mostly during sequences where Gabriel interacts with locals. Though, last year, Gabriel and the Mountain won the France 4 Visionary Award at Cannes, I could almost hear the notoriously tough audiences there heartily booing these awful scenes.

And, again, any ridicule must be tempered out of respect for a young director and his young friend. The youthful exuberance of both filmmaker and subject can be forgiven, while also noting that Barbosa is almost 40, not 20.

The director’s production strategy was a clever one, though it lacked imagination. He simply retraced the last 70 days of Gabriel’s trek through eastern Africa, documentary-style, adding a handful of actors to the cast of African non-actors who play themselves. The physical settings lent themselves to some beautiful, sometimes breathtaking, cinematography, but artistically the pictures are little more than what you’d see in any well-shot documentary on the region.

Experiencing Gabriel and the Mountain is an exercise in ambivalence. What cannot be circumvented, though, are the privileged places from which its story comes. How many mature adults, never mind recent high school graduates like Gabriel, can afford to take a year-long trip around the world? What’s more, he—and to some extent the film itself—shows the typical obnoxious behavior of the privileged and immature Westerner.

The film asks that we suffer a fool, which is to share in Barbosa’s own suffering. In the end, because of the filmmaker’s honesty and because of Gabriel’s heightening humanity, all is forgiven in this peculiar—if complex, fascinating, and marginally lovely—tribute.

3 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Godard Mon Amour (Le Redoubtable)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

Celebrated contemporary French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist [2011]) has delivered his “valentine” to the godfather of the French New Wave in Godard Mon Amour. While it might have come genuinely from the heart, as a work of cinema, its pulse is weak.

A film always says something about its creator, and one gets the sense that Hazanavicius’ story is also being told. Like Jean-Luc Godard, he lives the life of a French filmmaker and he’s married to a younger, beautiful actress (Bérénice Bejo, who starred in The Artist and appears here in a supporting role). The fragility of the artist (no pun intended) works as the film’s main theme.

I can see where making Godard Mon Amour could serve as a form of therapy for Hazanavicius, perhaps exorcising any of the demons that his titular director calls cliché: jealousy; the balance of individualism and attachment in relationships; the fear of becoming irrelevant, etc.

But the screenwriter/director assigned himself too many tasks to attend to. There are the biographical, historical, and political angles. There are the drama of Godard’s self-doubt and the comedy of his fumbling rebellion. The complex relationship with his wife. Every one of these aspects spread too thin.

Godard was prone to homages early in his career, so it make sense that Hazanavicius would want to pay homage to Godard but, especially in the third act, they are simply too many. Perhaps he felt it a playful approach, but I think “toying” is a better word for it. For a moderately accomplished—and certainly talented—director, getting to the low point of simply toying with his own film is unbecoming and feels almost banal.

Here again the multiple layers of irony in this film reveal themselves. Has Hazanavicius made a film of the sort Godard despises? In a slyly comic, real-life twist, Godard himself, hearing of the project in development, said that this was a “stupid, stupid idea.” Hazanavicius and the U.S. distributor sportingly made a poster with Godard’s proclamation in giant red letters.

However, the mere possibility that the elder might be right must have weighed on the younger director. Bravo to him, though, for daring to open the can of worms he must have known the telling of this story (based on an autobiography by Godard’s late former wife Anne Wiazemsky) would be. And, again, perhaps he felt he must do it for his own well-being.

One also gets the feeling much of Hazanavicius’ clever language gets lost in translation. Even with my limited, beginner’s, high school French, I could tell the translator took liberties every so often, summarizing a dialogue rather than trying to match any poetry in the original verbiage. At one point, the Godard homage involves the characters speaking to each other as subtitles of what each person is actually thinking flash where standard subtitles do. Well, the U.S. release being in French with English subtitles results in this particular scene having two sets of subtitles running at the same time. A bit of a mess.

At its funniest, Godard Mon Amour plays a lot like a good Woody Allen movie. One where Woody Allen plays himself, basically: the bespectacled, clumsy, neurotic filmmaker and his star-crossed love affair. Allen’s Bananas (1971) comes to mind, with its satire of Marxist politics and the clownish, clueless outsider who so dearly wants to be part of the revolution.

At its best, we glimpse Wiazemsky’s heartbreak as she realizes her husband is becoming another person at the expense of their marriage. Their quarrels ring true, especially due to Stacy Martin’s intelligent, subtly intense portrayal of Godard’s young wife. Louis Garrel, as Godard, also succeeds in his comedic turns, while perhaps a little less so in the serious sequences. He must contend with a script that repeats itself regarding the beloved filmmaker’s frustrations with, well, just about everything.

The film also repeats itself in depicting Godard’s boorish behavior. Here’s where Garrel’s Godard becomes tiresome not just for Anne, but for the viewer. Most disappointing is seeing Hazanavicius repeating his own, previously successful shots. In The Artist’s climactic, thrilling moment Peppy (Bejo) and George (Jean Dujardin) complete a ravishing dance number, both look directly in to the camera, and *spoiler alert* you can hear the actors breathing for the first time. It’s sheer brilliance, and the director makes it feel easy. On the contrary, as he struggles through Godard Mon Amour, he takes several actors’ asides to no avail, comedic or otherwise.

Michel Hazanavicius set a high bar for himself when he (along with Bejo and Dujardin) charmed our socks off with his ode to Hollywood and silent film. For his efforts, he went home with an Oscar (and Bérénice) one night in 2012. The talent is most certainly still there. He needs only to find the right story and to rediscover the free spirit that informed his masterpiece, and he’ll be ready to charm all over again.

3 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: The Workshop (L’atelier)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

In The Workshop, lauded French filmmaker Laurent Cantet (2008’s Palme d’Or winner The Class) delivers a remarkable artwork that delicately explores the developing mind of a high school boy and the machinations of teenagedom that hammer daily at his soul. From his writing workshop teacher, his family, and especially from his peers and the internet, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) receives metaphorical blows of varying power, intent on sculpting him into something of their liking.

From the outset, it’s clear that the workshop of Miss Olivia Dejazet (played beautifully by Marina Foïs) presents a microcosm of French society in the 21st Century. The more traditionally European characters Antoine, Benjamin (Florian Beaujean), and Dejazet herself act as the primary instigators. Whether consciously or not, they quickly take the reins, leaving the others in often defensive postures. The two Muslim children, a boy and a girl, along with a French boy of African origin, find themselves increasingly fending off Antoine, the most aggressive of the bunch. Though not a complete zealot—indeed Cantet seems to argue that a person in their teens can hardly be a complete anything—Antoine does stumble into provocative racial affronts.

But The Workshop doesn’t so much “tackle” complex issues (We love our war and football terminology in the United States, don’t we?) as much as it simply sets them out for the viewer’s perusal. The movie is set in summer, and Cantet’s languid pace serves the setting while also giving the moviegoer time to really think about the proceedings, the characters, and most especially the characters’ motivations. The euphemistic “national identity problem,” for instance, forces itself on children and adults alike, and each must find a satisfactory position, even if only to get through the day without a fistfight.

Thoroughly multi-layered, the Antoine character fascinates, and the young actor Lucci’s insightful performance deserves all the praise it has received and more. The middle-aged novelist and workshop teacher Dejazet exudes a subdued neurosis that her students nevertheless pick up on. In an after-class scene where the kids walk together to the bus stop, they express contempt of their instructor which ranks no less than vicious. And yet, at workshop the next day, most are respectful, even admiring of their guide. Here, the power of peer dynamics plays out.

Again, Antoine is the exception. In and out of class, he enjoys verbally tangling with his ostensibly sensible teacher. The teen, who works out and talks about joining the army, is nearly always a personification of tension. The friction between Miss Dejazet and her student is ever present. Their tussling also attains a measure of sexual chemistry, though it’s not clear whether the instructor is complicit or simply trying to steer the troubled boy in the right direction, as she professes.

As symbols for the general mindset of older teens, Cantet subtly, effectively uses swimming and cliff diving—Antoine’s preferred recreations. The deep blue waters of La Ciotat in southern France represent all of life itself, which a young person sees stretched out before them. The diving is relief from the yearning to be through with schooling and to, at long last, dive into living as an adult.

Cinematographer Pierre Milon’s (Foxfire [2012]) camera is mostly handheld and loose, and if it looks a beat behind the action at times, well, so too are we adults when trying to keep up with our children. Like the students in the writing workshop, Cantet and Milon consider past and present in their storytelling, and the handheld camera emphasizes immediacy and the present tense. The film’s freshness and even its timeliness are bolstered by Milon’s casual yet savvy style.

All these layers, masterfully assembled by the writer-director, produce a portrait of a teenage boy struggling against myriad forces tearing at him. In any case, he feels pushed and pulled, and he repeatedly voices his disdain for it. “I don’t need any help,” he insists. Here, in a French film of all places, is the detailed and sensitive look we so dearly need in the United States in order to understand the phenomenon of the masculinity-threatened, boy mass murderer. The “school shooters.” (We became comfortable long ago with the euphemism for them.)

The ultra-violent, “first-person shooter” video games. The loudmouth extremist on YouTube aiming his bullhorn at children vulnerable if for no other reason than the jarring effects of raging hormones. The absent parents. The teasing peers. The guns. The caring teacher. This is a day in the life of Antoine, and we would do well to look and listen closely to him. He could be the Parkland, Florida killer. He could grow up to be the Las Vegas mass murderer.

It’s a credit to Cantet’s narrative integrity that this thrilling, pressure cooker of a film doesn’t need much bombast to make its points. In carefully constructing this story and thoughtfully placing boundaries, he shares a fuller, richer examination of the personal issues behind the explosive headlines of our day. In so doing, Laurent Cantet shoots for the moon in his own measured way.

4 of 5 stars

In French with English subtitles.

An Official Selection of  Festival de Cannes 2017’s Un Certain Regard, The Workshop opens in Miami exclusively at the Tower Theater on Friday, April 6th, 2018. For more information, visit: https://towertheatermiami.com/coming-soon/the-workshop-latelier