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Quick Look Back: La cienaga (2001)

by A.R. Solar

Writer-director Lucrecia Martel (Zama, 2017, Argentina) didn’t ever attempt to answer the why about anything in her auspicious feature debut, most especially not its characters’ man vs. nature conflicts. Instead, in La cienaga, she seems genuinely uninterested in explanations of any kind. Relationships among family members – when they can be identified as such – are nebulous and lack archetypal social boundaries, including sexual ones.

A true absurdist artwork that’s message is clearer through what Martel subtracted – the “why” and the relationship boundaries. The focus naturally shifts to the strange ways in which the characters interact. In this way, La Cienaga acts as a sort of anthropological survey, but mostly outside the context of the people’s motives. The settings include characters’ homes, public nightclubs, and the natural outdoors; nothing really out of the ordinary. But Martel’s perspective makes these almost clinical.

As in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end (1967), momentum flows from the central characters, bending and twisting through rivers and creeks of action, though not technically plot. The result is a purposely chaotic, yet sensitively observed work which boldly and incisively questions the interpersonal dynamics of the status quo.

the international CRITIQUE rating: ★★★★★

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Film Reviews

Film Review: En El Séptimo Día (On The Seventh Day)

"Flowers are born in the desert today; Which is stained by our tears, by our blood; Our pain, our sweat; This cold that burns is freezing my cry." -Zenen Zeferino Huervo, from his song "Flores en el desierto."

BY ANDRES SOLAR

Realist writer-director Jim McKay (Everyday People [2004]) delivers a delicious dish of a film in En El Séptimo Día (On The Seventh Day). The U.S.-based filmmaker with deep roots in the American South brings his community sensibilities to a charming, penetrating, and simple story set in present-day Brooklyn, New York.

José (Fernando Cardona) is a Mexican-American man in his twenties who came to the United States, it appears, not more than a decade ago. A bicycle deliveryman for a popular restaurant, he lives in a small apartment with several compatriots from the Mexican mountain town of Puebla.

Top of their agendas is keeping jobs to pay the bills, improve their lives, and perhaps bring a loved one or two up to the “promised land.” McKay makes it crystal clear that, to that end, they work their asses off six days a week. On the proverbial, titular seventh day, they don their Puebla jerseys and set off to Sunset Park for spirited contests in the world’s most popular sport: futból.

That En El Séptimo Día credits no production designer or art director hints at the type of film artist Jim McKay is. His narrative work is often described as having a “documentary feel,” and to a small degree that’s true here.

The director and his cinematographer Charles Libin (Remote Control [2013]) have made sure, though, that this film is a pleasure to look at. Beautifully composed shots of Brooklyn streets fade in often and provide contrast to the more purposeful angles in and around the restaurant kitchen and views of the city’s less picturesque locales. One gorgeous wide angle in particular—at dusk from the top of a hill, depicting a twinkling Manhattan skyline in the distance—will leave anyone with an appreciation for photography shaking their head in awe.

The writer-director began his career in the Athens, Georgia art and music scene that gave us visual artists including Jem Cohen (Museum Hours [2013]) and Jim Herbert, as well as The B-52’s and R.E.M.

Combined, Cohen and Herbert directed 15 videos for what would become the rock-n-roll cash cow R.E.M., led by Michael Stipe, their visual-arts-loving singer. For his part, McKay directed the concert documentary Tourfilm: R.E.M. (1990) and the music videos “Half A World Away” (1991) and “Every Day Is Yours To Win” (2011).

The band didn’t mind spreading its wealth and also made videos with future feature directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris and Spike Jonze, among others. Its emphasis on  preserving its small-town character, a tradition of strong community participation, and the incredible talent per capita continue to make Athens a fascinating and supportive breeding ground for the arts.

In keeping with McKay’s experience in, and vision of, integrated community, he respectfully subtitled both the Spanish and English dialogue here, thus creating something rare: a bilingual film that non-Spanish-speakers and non-English-speakers can experience together. The superior writing and natural dialogue are bolstered by faithful translations.

En El Séptimo Día doesn’t shy away from commenting on the plight of immigrants in the U.S. in the 21st Century. In fact, it does so in an unusually subdued way that’s thus more subversive. The movie makes you feel the verve with which these men have taken to their adopted country, rat-race and all. But it also bracingly burrows into the business machinations and personal workplace dynamics ever at play across our nation. The ones that, if we’re not careful, turn us into 60-hours-per-week, workaday zombies; the real “walking dead”!

But McKay accomplishes this, masterfully, in an observational style that evokes calm atmospheres and mellow moods. A soccer match at Sunset Park sounds and feels like a pleasant, leisurely Sunday evening. Cutaways to non-actors in the periphery, from a little boy enjoying his paper cup of ice cream to elderly men gesturing casual disapproval of their preferred team’s play, show simply lovely moments in time.

The director indicates no interest in intensity of characters, of conflicts, or of plot. Instead, he opens his lens to a flow of relaxed, placid realism that’s no less impressive. This, combined with the aesthetically pleasing photography, might give rise to the question of whether this work is more idealistic than realistic. It’s a fair question, though a fairly cynical one.

McKay’s Mexican-American perspective on a diverse Brooklyn neighborhood isn’t idyllic. Instead, he shows us a picture of supportive cooperation among Americans of a hundred demographic categories. What we see is entirely feasible, and therefore realistic. If En El Séptimo Día betrays optimism in its creator, we can hardly fault him for that.

5 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Ready Player One

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

If you love 80s pop culture references, then buckle up for Ready Player One, an adventure through not only iconic video games, but through films and music that made Generation X. It’s a trip back to the mall arcade, even though a sock full of quarters isn’t required for this virtual realiTye adventure. So sit back, relax and enjoy Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of Ready Player One based on Ernest Cline’s sci-fi novel of the same name.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is our hero, and you get to experience the virtual realiTye trip through his eyes. You become Wade Watts, you are Player One in his journey. He is you. An average teenager in search of adventure, treasures, but most of all acceptance.

In the not so distance future, 2045 to be exact, Wade’s realiTye is far from perfect and being a teenager is hard enough; but living with your aunt and her boyfriend in the slums of Ohio takes realiTye to level zero in any game. How do you escape, when you can’t power up and you’re playing on your last life with the only quarter you have? Simple. You reach in and grab your virtual realiTye goggles and head to The Oasis.

The Oasis is a virtual realiTye world created by a fictional tech scientist, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance). After his death, James’ last gift to humaniTye is the one last adventure game with the ultimate prize–complete control of The Oasis. Halliday created what is known as “Anorak’s Quest,” and the game requires players known as Gunters (egg hunters) to find three keys that will give you access to an Easter egg and win the game. You follow Watts through his own adventure, and get to experience it in first-person perspective. As you move through the film you get a real sense of what it’s like inside The Oasis.

Sheridan’s Wade Watts is perfect—nerdy, smart, and shy. Tye gives a performance that embodies all of these characteristics, making them believable and likable to the viewer. His interaction with Olivia Cooke (who plays his love interest Samantha), known as Atr3mis in the game, takes the story to the next level, as every hero has to have a princess to save. Except in this case, the princess helps our hero discover his true strengths, through courage, resilience, and wits. Their chemistry works, both as avatars in The Oasis and in the real world.

As a Gunter, Wade (known as Parzival in the game) searches for much more than just the items required in the quest. You see, Ready Player One is an Easter egg itself, and this movie pulls your childhood memories right out into the open as you watch the adventure unfold.  Parzival— together with his friends Art3mis, Aech, Sho, and Diato—takes on an adventure that will have you laughing, clapping, and rooting for our hero and his friends all the way to the end.

I highly recommend this movie for the entire family. The book comes alive on the screen, and it pulls you into that thrilling world of virtual realiTye via master Spielberg’s first-person camera angles. You are right there as Parzival races through a Tron racetrack. You feel the hair on the back of your neck stand as he and the gang enter into Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining and Aech is clueless as to what’s in room 237. This is two hours and 19 minutes of complete entertainment and I challenge you to head to the theater and see how many Easter eggs you can spot.

5 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Phantom Thread

BY ANDRES SOLAR

US-based writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest period piece—set in 1950s London—offers the filmgoer so much that I have to rate it among the most generous movies I’ve ever seen. Phantom Thread is about an artist, his quirks, and his neediness, yes, but it’s also about a whole lot more.

On the surface, a successful and phenomenally fastidious fashion designer/dressmaker in London wakes up to find his soon-to-be-former love relationship has become shapeless and threadbare. His business manager/sister/co-cynic “Cyril” (Lesley Manville, a powerhouse) suggests he take a day off in the country, wherein he meets a waitress of considerable clumsy charm.

The auteur Anderson adopts a measure of the main character’s perfectionism, and all these proceedings look exquisite. His trademark, carefully considered camera movements, in these opulent settings, exhilarate on their own. Add to that the deeply inspired, richly layered story; lively, often hilarious characters; and Jonny Greenwood’s lavish, jazz-and-classical-inflected score, and Phantom Thread becomes a ravishing model of haute couture cinema. Especially in the opening sequences, the old-Hollywood feel permeates. The fabric of this instant classic is shot through with filaments from The Lady Eve (1941) and Roman Holiday (1953).

Though Anderson has expressed his admiration for certain “90-minute romantic comedies” (see his homage to them in Punch-Drunk Love [2002]), Phantom Thread is not exactly that. For starters, it’s not one second too long at 130 minutes. The laughs come unexpectedly and steadily, though effortlessly. The writer fashions art out of dialogue, and here his punk rock ethic contrasts well with the formal, olde-style English verbiage of Hitchcock, say. From your seat in the house, you’ll notice the laughter emerges in pockets and sprinklings, refreshingly, instead of in the unanimous roars of ordinary comedy fare.

As much as Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly astounds in his masterful performance, the venerable actor is also the consummate team player. The fruits of his openness to what his fellow actors are doing and to the purpose and effect of each scene are palatable on the screen—deliciously so. The chemical reactions between his “Reynolds Woodcock” (Anderson credits Day-Lewis’ and his sense of humor for the character’s name) and love-interest “Alma” cause simmering, smoldering, and surging. Vicky Krieps, an intriguing, magnificent actress from Luxembourg, brings to Alma subtlety, humor, and surprising powers that are crucial for Woodcock’s muse and occasional foil.

The director wisely intuited the importance of their chemistry in fully fleshing out his enthralling tale. He knew the breadth, height, and depth of Day-Lewis’ onscreen presence and his counterpart had to be unflinching. Krieps’ Alma barely blinks at Woodcock’s bluster, and when she does it signals a confident potency of her own.

The results of their emotional dueling are dual: first, a grand, finely tuned examination of power dynamics in romantic relationships; second, a tension necessary to the film’s conflicts and suspense. For his multi-faceted master-craftsmanship, Anderson is rewarded with a hauntingly beautiful film which also works as a love/hate yarn for the ages.

The writer/director has long been at, or close to, the top of the list of American, world-class filmmakers, so one must look at his films as parts of his canon, too. In the more serious aspects of Phantom Thread, Anderson considers the legacies of deceased parents, continuing his long-running exploration of difficult parent-child relationships. His interest in this area is so strong and complex that it has informed every single one of his eight narrative films, and there’s no reason to expect he’ll ever eschew such themes. Parent issues, especially paternal—though in this work he takes a decidedly maternal tack—seem built into his creative life. Anderson’s visiting and revisiting family problems afford his films cores of timeless truth and scenes of devastating passion.

He seems obsessed with—young or adult—children confronting their living-but-absent, dying, and even dead parents to express their deepest-seated emotions—often rage, but sometimes adoration and yearning. It’s as if Anderson himself is seeking an answer through his art and, as his partners in crime, we benefit also, from the films’ effective thought provocations and spine-tingling disturbances.

A New Year’s Eve party scene here recalls not only The Godfather Part II (1974), but Anderson’s own Boogie Nights (1997). The director loves the symbolism of the boisterous countdown and the enthusiasm and romantic idealism of the partygoers. But especially the visceral angst of the forlorn and lonely in the midst of bubbly, magical optimism. Visually thrilling and evoking a lover’s yearning to physically and emotionally find their straying partner, the scene feels like a classic to be enjoyed over and over, and indeed so does the whole of Phantom Thread, in the final analysis. Anderson fans will also be tickled by Day-Lewis briefly channeling William H. Macy’s “Little Bill” in the parallel Boogie Nights New Year’s Eve party scene.

5 of 5 stars

Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.