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Articles by

<Nicolas Rapold>

02/25/15 9:31am
photo courtesy of Focus World

Maps to the Stars
Directed by David Cronenberg
Opens February 27

A rigorously sleazy Hollywood ghost story, David Cronenberg’s latest feature is his first to be entirely shot on American soil. Maybe Cronenberg felt he needed to feel the ground beneath his feet for his portrayal of Hollywood as everlasting site of perpetual desecration—from the cash-in remake that Aging Actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) wants to star in as an homage to her career/mother, to the Greek-grade mythology and Jacobean bloodshed of the Weiss family (vile child star Benjie, manipulative estranged sister Agatha, dad the celebrity therapist, and stage mom), to the bodies treated as punching bags or enjoyed for vindictive sexual pleasures. We access Hollywood, in other words, through the poison-pen hyperbole of novelist Bruce Wagner (Dead Stars) and a Canadian auteur channeling spirits through new flesh.

The scatologically candid, kind of whiny Havana is angling for a new role, pulling every favor and sleeve she can to get back in the mix, and her stars cross with the Weisses when she takes on Agatha (Mia Wasikowska, in long black protective gloves like a dark parody of elegance) as a personal assistant. Agatha in turn is pathologically working her way back to her parents and Benjie (now shooting a new film with an upstaging sidekick); she’s returned from some form of recovery center for severe mental disturbances, not to mention burns from arson. Robert Pattinson—maybe a role or two late for this to have quite the same effect as his isolation-chamber turn in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis—plays a limo driver and aspiring actor-screenwriter who is another connection between Havana and Agatha (and is very good at playing the bystander amused by the self-absorbed).

Maps to the Stars has not garnered a broad critical following since its premiere at Cannes last spring, apparently leaving longtime cynics about Hollywood’s Babylon unimpressed. It’s true that the race to depict the entertainment capital’s diseased soul began long ago, and coincidentally many movies tapping into its demonic mystique came from directors working from an outsider status in one form or another: David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, Robert Altman’s The Player, all the way back to Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare and beyond. Cronenberg’s vision of the comeback as haunted revenge tragedy may not be entirely novel, but, as with Cosmopolis, he sustains a queasy mood that slowly permeates the vulnerable physicality of his characters, whilst an undercurrent of dread builds. Ringing out over the proceedings is a clutch of devotional lines, recited and heard repeatedly, an emo prayer before dying.

The helpless tragic momentum and black-mass obscurity of Cronenberg and Wagner’s mythology carry the film through to its promised end, studded with some serviceably twisted barbs. The vaguely dated timelessness of Cronenberg’s sleek look and feel (Twitter plot device notwithstanding) suits that schema, much as it did with Cosmopolis and eXistenZ. And far from being a satirical funhouse mirror to Hollywood’s own funhouse mirror, the filmmaker ends not with horror at destruction, but very nearly a sense of atavistic wonder.

02/11/15 9:00am
photo courtesy of Unison Films

What We Do in the Shadows
Directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Opens February 13 at the Landmark Sunshine

It was already a well-worn literary technique when Bram Stoker used it, presenting Dracula partly as a sheaf of firsthand accounts about a toothy phenomenon stalking Europe, and you might consider the vérité-style new film by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement to be only the latest attempt at true fiction. Tweaking a number of pretenses at realism, recent and not so recent, What We Do in the Shadows is a note-perfect comedy generally in the tag-along, self-absorbed style of a housemate reality show. But starting with that title—with its breathless implication of an investigative scoop—it’s also a parodic look at the absurdity of vampires in a contemporary age, which somehow mixes both lazy flatmates and terrified familiars (i.e., bound servants).

Framed as a product of the New Zealand Documentary Board—cameramen were granted immunity from being, well, eaten—our glimpse at how the undead half lives begins with cuddly, fussy, fuzzily German-accented Viago (Waititi). He takes us on his chipper morning rounds, waking up the others and chattering away in voiceover with the blithely mundane manner of hundreds of (living) TV-doc participants before him: “I just really like having a good time with my friends.” Like grumpy old cats, they squabble but stick together, and span an inhuman stretch of history in their eternal life: Vladislav (Clement) from the Middle Ages, Viago himself a dandy from the 18th century, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and finally Ben Fransham’s Petyr—the name, spoken, could belong to a software technician—who’s a hilariously preverbal example of the Noseferatu model, still in a stone crypt.

Viago et al. are, crucially, not even remotely bitter about how far their existence is from Translyvanian castles and villagers held in terrified thrall (they’re almost a tongue-in-cheek advertisement for the chill gentrification of Wellington, NZ). Broad-shouldered and imperiously mustachioed, Clement brings the goofy stature of characters from Flight of the Conchords; Brugh’s Deacon, obtuse about his familiar’s impatience about earning immortality for doing his shit work, adds an element of prickly unpredictability (though all are prone to hissing hover fights). And in fact, improvisation games are a key touchstone for the imaginative elaborations on vampirical daily life here—the sort of point-of-view exercises in which someone is told to offer a first-person account from an imagined, blinkered perspective.

Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is one more vampire that joins the group and threatens their secrecy by reckless boasts during the long nights out—clubgoing being a key social and nourishing activity. And one other name does in fact belong to a software technician: the hilariously ordinary Stu (Stuart Rutherford), a nervous human bystander who’s along for the ride and helps out with new technology. Clement and Waititi—who honed the film over several years, long after its supposed expiry date with the Twilight all-or-nothing-adolescent-angst empire—succeed through sharp, sometimes off-kilter one-liners rather than the supposedly squirm-inducing pauses of The Office or the broad-as-a-barn target practice of Christopher Guest. And I haven’t even mentioned the werewolves…

01/28/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Timbuktu
Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
Opens January 28
Named after their settings, Abderrahmane Sissako’s last two films each tell a story of a community grappling with a system, limned by a couple’s particular struggle. In Bamako, imperialism was put on trial, in the chaotic courtyard of a family compound, Africa writ small; in Timbuktu, religious fundamentalism is just tightening its brutal, obtuse grip on a desert city that feels more like a village in spirit and size. But while the earlier film was a soulful and wry accounting in the aftermath, Sissako’s new, somewhat more schematic feature is set not in the advanced phase of fanatical rule but in the alarming run-up to outright terror and bloodshed.
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01/14/15 12:32pm
Photo courtesy of Sundance Selects

 

The Duke of Burgundy
Directed by Peter Strickland
Opens January 23

 

Peter Strickland’s third feature, which I saw first at the Toronto film festival, is an initially confounding, and meticulously fashioned, attempt to take a story that 70s sexploitation films might have played for titillation, and make a genuine relationship drama about two people. The opening scenes lay down the rules for a playful master-servant relationship between a lepidopterist and her lover, before trickily letting masks slip here and there first to show that it’s not something on display for the viewer’s enjoyment, and then to flesh out how the dynamics actually work. But The Duke of Burgundy is also a film by the cinephiliac director of the Italo-horror wormhole Berberian Sound Studio, and so the world of these women does not exactly have all the trappings of reality: the couple live on a vined estate in a genteel land where local lectures about moths pack the house (with eerily similar dark beauties) and where a blond, caped traveling saleswoman caters to multiple clients requiring bed apparatuses allowing one partner to sleep in a drawer below the other.

There’s also a streak of wry humor, an awareness of the small absurd ways the couple’s daily routines are still accompanied by quotidian habits that don’t follow a specific script of a servant being punished for failing to do all the washing. But so too is there a poignancy to their relationship, as Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) especially tires of the roles and of Evelyn’s demands, making for a passive-aggressive dance through line readings and expectations. Ultimately, Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn feels a little less up to the task, though Strickland, too, zones out in his manner: moth montages, zooms-into-the-vortex, and kaleidscope effects suggest another turn into fugue states that, unlike Berberian, feel like a let-down.

A was-it-all-just-a-dream conceit glimmers in the film’s bookends (Evelyn perched, like a moth on a log, by a forest stream), not to mention a few odd details (such as the mannequins planted in the audience of a lecture). “Try to have more conviction next time,” Evelyn chides Cynthia after a session in bed, and it’s easy to accuse Strickland of hiding behind his obsessions, but even if he hasn’t re-discovered the sense of danger in his first feature, Katalin Varga, he’s crafted another wry story precisely about obsession.

 

12/30/14 7:32pm
Photos Courtesy of A24

A Most Violent Year
Directed by J.C. Chandor
Opens December 31

J.C. Chandor’s cautionary New York story is set in 1981, a highwater mark in the number of felonies committed in the city and, for the people behind the stats, a terrifying low point, period. A couple of years later, a New York Times brief quotes the NYPD as believing they had finally “turned the corner” on the crime surge, but the prospect of a safer hometown seemed improbable to many residents (whose ranks hit their lowest postwar total as the decade began). You couldn’t know for sure what came next, but part of what distinguishes Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the protagonist of A Most Violent Year, is his tragic optimism and scruples as he attempts to expand his heating oil company while opting out of gangster tactics.

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12/17/14 4:49pm

film_n

Boyhood

In a historic feat of moviemaking, Richard Linklater and his devoted cast fashion a journal of experience out of a decade-plus of chronicles, and ultimately, in its subtly filtered perspectives and ruminations, convey something more than this boy’s life.

 

Citizenfour

An instant paranoia classic, Laura Poitras’s drama of secrets within secrets and of rebellion against government overreach is recognizably linear in the manner of cinema verité yet possessed of a terrific sense of outward expansion and then self-extinguishing tension.

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12/17/14 4:47pm
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Mr. Turner
Directed by Mike Leigh
Opens December 19

Mike Leigh’s film about JMW Turner would be just as magnificent were it not about an artist but simply a man of his time (and not just ahead of it). Which is another way of saying that Timothy Spall’s performance as the self-assured, brusque, deeply Romantic painter creates such a complete personality and physical presence that the notion that he is historically a Great Man is very nearly less impressive than the seamless character artistry transpiring before our eyes. Spall finds the laboriously gallant delivery, the lung-ravaging horks, the weak-chin pursing and walking-stick brandishing, the swagger and the tearful jags, the preternatual clarity of intelligence that defines an artist of truly far-reaching vision.

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12/03/14 7:00am
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros

 

Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Opens December 12

“Then the blue shadows will fall all over town,” runs a line from “Any Day Now,” a pop lament for a lover who’s left for good, and played over the end credits for Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest sui generis, funny-sad feature. As Doc Sportello, P.I., in Inherent Vice Joaquin Phoenix makes his first, mutton-chopped appearance bathed in a dread blue, right when that certain someone (Katherine Waterston) turns up one night with a problem that sends him on a Thomas Pynchon whirligig-wander through connections and conspiracies and suspicions dimly perceived through pot smoke and California glare. While it’s all set on “Gordita Beach, 1970,” at the hyper-chronicled and -mythologized long goodbye to the 60’s and its cultural-political flameouts, the heart of Inherent Vice beats (or palpitates) with Doc’s concern for one Shasta Fay of the heavy lids and rueful pained expression.

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11/05/14 4:00am

National Gallery
Directed by Frederick Wiseman

The first painting shown in the latest entry in Frederick Wiseman’s half-century-young cinematic encyclopedia is the Renaissance altarpiece The Incredulity of St. Thomas. Starring Jesus Christ and a famous doubter for whom seeing wasn’t believing, it’s a sly way of beginning National Gallery, which was shot in London’s renowned art institution but is not a mere celebratory tour of the salubrious effects of museumgoing. Wiseman’s film explores art’s fragility and its beauty, and how the two are inextricably bound, and even more than many of his features (among which Central Park or Zoo or Ballet stand out as kin) it’s constantly presenting and demonstrating new ways of seeing and understanding.

While that whippersnapper Godard may be getting a lot of ink lately as a master of quotations and references, Wiseman remains a preeminent collage artist of the world at large, and the museum’s centuries of masterpieces and extraordinary scholars present untold riches to work with. Fashioned from the work of Da Vinci, Titian, Turner, Holbein, Velazquez—the list goes on—and tours given by guides and scholars, National Gallery is at once a dense, ideal visit and a restless essay on aesthetics, brought alive by the bustling matrix of perspectives that is the viewing public. While plenty of experts are on hand to walk us through terrifically insightful journeys through the paintings, Wiseman’s symphonic film is structurally held together, and made cinematically vibrant, through maybe the most reaction shots ever put together in a feature film—art and thought both put on display.

National Gallery is constantly playing with (and punning on) the notion of perspectives and points of view, on and off the canvas and screen, but Wiseman is also pursuing a more readily apparent line of thinking with an editorial clarity that At Berkeley presaged with its focused examination of the changing place of public institutions in American life. The arguments and analysis within his films have generally been undertaken on an editorial level just beyond casual perception—which his own typically large temporal canvas has helped make possible—but his latest begins explicitly by touring the manifold methods of approaching a painting: as object of beauty, “sacramental channel,” psychological study, one of several possible stories about a subject, even as a kind of marriage proposal (per one Holbein portrait). Wiseman even figures out a fresh way of tracing the vectors of motion and color within a painting through the unlikely technique of a hands-on art appreciation class for the blind.

After about an hour of finding more angles on approaching art than most whole features do, National Gallery withdraws somewhat to look at paintings as material objects and to trace the contours of their context (from budgets to political protests to the very picture frames that hold the art). A mind-bending work of ecphrasis, this is also a curious, even brave, work in acknowledging the limits of cinema in representing what’s before us (though the sensitivity to skin tone is notable). But we also learn the limits to defining any given painting as a stable artwork, through what might be called the hermeneutics of art restoration, by which layers of varnish materialize into the meaning of a shadow.

Wiseman also situates painting as seen through, by, and besides other arts—a Beethoven recital, sculpture, mise-en-abyme poetry, and finally, a pas de deux. And like many of the subjects on view here, National Gallery is itself a virtuoso performance by an old master.

Opens November 5 at Film Forum

10/22/14 4:00am

Citizenfour
Directed by Laura Poitras
Opens October 24

Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour is a drama of secrets, recognizably linear in the manner of cinéma vérité yet possessing a terrific sense of outward expansion and self-extinguishing tension. Its hour-long centerpiece is an ingeniously compressed series of visits with the world’s most famous NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, in a Hong Kong hotel room over several days in summer 2013, undertaken after his initiative in contacting Poitras himself. As Snowden discloses the formerly classified nature of US government surveillance to Poitras and Glenn Greenwald (and later a Guardian journalist), there’s a commingled shock and angst over the extent of the spying, fear about what might happen to Snowden or his confidants in flouting powerful interests, and the moment-to-moment small absurdities of being in some featureless hotel suite with the wall-mounted TV. Poitras carefully sets up Snowden’s reveal, preceded by text chat conversations, in an opening section; then, in front of us, is the unremarkable-looking yet instantly recognizable techie (who’s also given his own “MOVE!” IT-guy moment with Greenwald’s laptop).

Boxes within boxes within boxes: Poitras’s film is an instant, unpleasant paranoia classic, dramatizing—watch the flowchart implode—the exposure of secrets that our government was keeping about the fact that they were stealing the secrets of others (and turning them into their own secrets… thus rendering them no longer private, and secret?). The intimate setting of a messy hotel room underlines the tech-age’s blurring of private and public that is tritely accepted as part of the modern condition, until it also turns out to be a fact of government practice; in his lightly Carolina-accented voice and earnest expression, Snowden looks young for a whistleblower, looking more and more fatigued as the days go on and he learns of the FBI contacting his girlfriend. The room’s TV reports the aftershocks—watched by Snowden—as conversations turn into revelations and, finally, events.

For Poitras, this is another coup with a trusting subject, following the bin Laden associate of The Oath and the Iraqi doctor putting his neck out in My Country, My Country. Yet it’s also one that sympathizes with its subject, rather than adopting a position of curious understanding as with The Oath’s queasy moral portrait; Obama is excerpted proclaiming Snowden as “not a patriot,” but the tone sides with Snowden’s self-conception as a defender of the right to “meaningfullly oppose” power. The hotel room sequence is bookended by vital stage-setting and background information courtesy of re-purposed lectures, through which Poitras is able to pay close attention to rhetoric: one activist quoted draws a fascinating equivalence between formulating rights in terms of “privacy” versus “liberty.”

“It’s not science fiction,” Snowden observes (in a year when Poitras’s strategy of showing bare text chat sessions with pregnant pauses is something that can still crop up in the likes of Transcendence). But even for viewers who may already know from news reports what exactly Snowden made knowable, Citizenfour still unfolds like a surprise, leaving one in a state of uncomfortable suspension.