Sebastian Silva and Michael Cera Make Magic in 2013

It’s hard enough to imagine producing and filming one movie in a year as an independent filmmaker, but two? Somehow, Sebastian Silva managed to accomplish that in 2013 with his two widely different films Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and Magic Magic. The two films have similarities in that they both are based in Chile – Silva’s country of origin, both star Michael Cera, and both focus on different anxieties of travel and growing up. However theme and tone between the two could not be more polar.

I’ll begin with Magic Magic as I watched this one first. I’ve recently developed a huge girl crush on Juno Temple, as I think she’s an immensely talented if yet still underrated actress on the rise. So while creeping her ouvre I came along this film. And while the rating was low, the cinematography from the trailer alone was enough to entice me into giving it a shot.

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I found the colour composition and symbolism in this film to be extremely beautiful, and possibly the best quality of this film altogether. The film follows Alicia’s first time travels to Chile to visit her cousin. She finds herself at odds however, by loneliness, an inability to connect with the new people she’s meeting and a increasing detachment from reality. At the same time, can you blame her? Cera does an amazing job at being a creepy weirdo in this film. A role I haven’t seen him play before without some kind of comedic undertones. This is just plain creepy. Would you want to be friends with this dude?

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I feel as if the film’s failure commerically came not from a lack of plot or any other significant short-coming on the filmmaker’s part, but rather the classic mis-marketing curse. The film’s trailer displays this as one of those “is she crazy or is there some sadistic cult happening?” thriller-mystery-dichotomy movies. It is anything but. In fact the film is pretty straightforward in it’s approach to Alicia’s mental state: she is not well. But character’s such as Cera’s Brink are not helping the situation, certainly. If you’ve ever known anyone with a delicate mental state, or even just traveled yourself and felt… culture shock, or complete detachment from your surroundings this film will possibly move you.  It also ends on a fairly ambiguous note depending on how you wish to interpret it, which I could see as a sore spot for the more conventional cinema lovers. I, however, revel in a film which is challenging, and especially films in which I may hate the ending. They force you to really think about why the conclusions upset you.

The second film, actually made first (in fact, Magic Magic was being funded while this movie was still filming, Cera also apparently learned Spanish on set), Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus a much more light-hearted and fun move. I had a debate recently with a friend who had also seen the film, and absolutely hated Cera’s character, Jamie, in that they felt he was misplaced. I could see this point of view, I, on the other hand, loved him in this role as well as in Magic Magic in that he seems to be breaking out of his regular awkward shy guy character-archetypes. It seems natural however that viewers will either love him or hate him.

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As mentioned the film follow’s Jamie as he travels through Chile. At a party he meets the overtly hippy American girl who introduces herself as Crystal Fairy. He drunkenly decides to invite this girl along on the road-trip he has planned with his buddies he’s met in Chile: A trip to find and consume the magical cactus peyote. The film quickly becomes a battle of personalities between Jamie and Crystal – One is a wound up impatient dude, the other a laid back “spiritual” girl. I actually found both character’s to be highly unbearable in their own ways: and I think this was the point of the film. Neither of them are “right” and neither of them are “wrong” but they learn how to love and accept one another, thanks in part to the peyote, of course.

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My favourite part of the film is when they finally consume the magical drug. And if anyone has ever done any psychedelics before will be able to relate to the events that unfold: a total breakdown of normal thinking, becoming totally vulnerable, being entertained by the smallest and seemingly most wonderful things, a breakdown in simple cognition, and, naturally, a strong desire to get naked. The film is a wonderful story in which the two character’s learn to appreciate and understand one another when they let go of an overbearing facade, and actually let their vulnerability show, to which they are ultimately both shown love and support.

I found this film to be less striking visually, as well as less shocking, but thematically more approachable and enjoyable. In the end it’s almost a take on the classic road-trip movie, as they’re not the same people who started on the trip to begin with.

Now my only query, or perhaps concern with Silva’s two films is that as a Chilean director, other than locale, the films have essentially nothing to do with Chile. The Chilean characters that are interspersed throughout both films often come off as flat and static. Not a whole lot of culture is engaged with. This doesn’t seem purposeful so much as negligent, as these actors are unable to come out of the shadow of the Hollywood counterpoints. Even Catalina Moreno, in Magic Magic, a very well recognized actress comes off as little more than a background bitch.

Either way, I see Silva as a very promising director. Not perfect, but I am excited to see what else he has to say about our generation, and what other films he wishes to pursue. Because so far based on these two films, he’s willing to take on some pretty interesting topics (travel, insanity, drugs, identity, etc) with surprising restrain and maturity.

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In review: Mama

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So I went and saw Mama directed by Andres Mucshietti, the newest production by Guillermo Del Toro. Based on the other films I’ve seen in this kind of relationship, for example The Orphanage or Julia’s Eyes I was expecting creepy creepy creepy! And yes that’s what I got.

However, that being said, I also didn’t expect this film to be so cheesy in parts. The audience was laughing in multiple scenes. As was I. My friend who I saw it with even pointed out that there were several parts where he fully expected “Thriller” to come on and for the actors to break out into Michael Jackson dancing. That would actually make a great rule to the whole drinking game thing I love to do in horror movies, so add that to the general list of rules for this particular film.

The film has no gore, so to speak, and lots of creepy “ahhhh!” moments, which I am happy about as, although I love gore, we all know its not particularly frightening.

I also appreciated the fact that this film didn’t strive for a 100% happy ending, but I wont say anything other than that as that would give away too many spoilers.

My only problem with this film is that there was no REAL mystery. We see the “ghost” straight off the bat, so we basically know her deal before it even begins. There’s no contest that this is a ghost we are dealing with. The whole exploration and delving into old files, that are obligatory, with any horror movie seems forced and unnecessary. The entire back-story was forced and definitely nothing new. And to be real for a moment the ghosts “portal” into our world looked like a bloody vagina on the wall. Not scary, just funny.

To be honest, the trailer for this film was more terrifying than the film itself.

In conclusion, while this film brought some good spooks it was still dealing with an old genre, a tired one that has been played out now. I think it’s time for something fresh and new, outside of children and ghosts. I don’t know what that is, but when I see it we’ll all know from a stellar review. Although it may be a while yet as it seems we are still dealing with the 3D craze and old genres. 2o12 was a seriously disappointing year for horror, if this is a glimpse of things to come in 2013, then I’m not hopeful. Oh well, if we all play by my drinking games it will be a drunk year at the very least.

Taste of Cherry and the Lacanian Real

Brace yourself, this is not a post about a horror movie! Egads! Instead this is about a lovely little Iranian film called Taste of Cherry (1997) by Abbas Kiarostami. This film falls into the category of poetry, meaning also that not everyone will have the patience for the slow pace and straight-line plot.

The film follows an Iranian man as he attempts to find someone who will bury him under a tree after he decides commits suicide. While seemingly straightforward, this is not a task as easily accomplished as he wishes. No one wants to help him, and no one wants to take part in his plans despite a handsome cash reward.

The key cinematic device used throughout is forced perspective. The camera is stationary and many of the same shots are repeated continuously throughout. Almost all of the action in the film takes place in a moving car as it traverses the isolated hillside roads. The stationary camera does not allow for fluidity in motion, rather we cannot look away implying a correspondence with our protagonist, in that he can no longer see the beauty of life.

To go back to film theory, this is a perfect example of French Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s Real, Imaginative and Symbolic. A quick overview:

  • 1) Symbolic – A shared set of symbols, in which communication is impossible without. In our everyday lives we live in the symbolic. This includes language, culture, religion, art etc.
  • 2) Imaginary – Private, incommunicable, fantasy, dreams, desire. These are elements that are unique to oneself. To communicate the Imaginary we must use the Symbolic which in turn kills the Imaginary. “Crazy” people are in the Imaginary in that the Symbolic fails them.
  • 3) Real – The external powers over which we have no control. i.e. Death and pain. We cannot bear the real, the symbolic and the imaginary protect us from the real. Our own bodies are in the real.

So now that we’re all caught up, we can apply these theories to the film. We are following a man who is tired, exhausted of the Symbolic, and in which the Imaginary can no longer provide comfort. He is a man driving towards the Real. Death is symbolized (lower capital) in the dirt he wants to bury him and the dirt he keeps visiting in the various construction sites he drives past. To him the dirt is the ultimate Real. He has such trouble finding someone to bury him in that they are not ready for the Real, and will not help him in his journey.

When our protagonist finally finds someone willing to bury him, this is the moment of hesitation. He says, do not just bury me, anymore, but asks the man to really check that he is dead. If he lives, then he wants to live. However, the final scene of the film does not allow us any real answers. In a self-reflexive ending, the film-maker takes us out of the Symbolic realm of the film and shows us the actual mechanisms of film itself – the director, the cameraman, the actors, etc. We do not know the ultimate fate of the protagonist, we simply know the car drives away and life goes on – it could be with the protagonist or not. The filmmaker himself denies the audience access to the Real as well.

A self-reflexive, realist film, Taste of Cherry forces us to analyze the world around us, and asks us to appreciate the little things in life, and to take joy in anything and everything. A sunset, a breeze, a cup of tea, or the taste of cherries.

Acousmatic Sound & Julia’s Eyes

Acousmatic sound: A sound seen on screen without knowing or seeing the source of origin. And while this seems like I’m describing a soundtrack, it is more intended for diegetic purposes. The Acousmatic is often used in horror movies and thrillers, as not seeing the villain but knowing of its presence is often infinitely more terrifying than seeing the miscreant. A good example of what I mean is in the M. Knight Shyamalan movie Signs in which the movie is actually quite terrifying right up until the point when we actually see the Aliens “face to face”. In fact, the movie then becomes quite lame.

That being said, acousmatic sound is a very powerful tool. The final “reveal” of the acousmatise is used to heighten suspense and drama. The classic film example is from Fritz Lang’s M in which the child murderer is an acousmatic: heard but not seen. His face is consistently shrouded by shadows, cleverly hidden behind camera framing and deliberately obscrued. The only real presence given is the tune he whistles. In fact, the murderer is caught due to a clue provided by a blind man – he cannot see him but knew his whistle which ultimately gives him away. Of course if we didn’t see the murderer at all this would be a highly unsatifying film, but when we do see him, he’s just the creepy bastard you would expect him to be:

Image(the first instance we see the killer: this is when the acousmatise is de-acousmatized. Thanks for the terminology Michael Chion) 

In the more recent film, Julia’s Eyes (2010) directed by Guillem Morales, acousmatic sound is artfully used in regards to the hellion. Before our protagonist, Julia, goes blind due to a degenerative disease, we can “see” the psycho stalker although he is ignored (because he is so painfully normal looking). When Julia goes blind **Spoilers** it becomes obvious that her care worker is the same man, although we are in doubt because we are denied access to seeing his face. Throughout the film the man remains acousmatized, because Julia looks like this:

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This is one of my favorite things a film-maker can do. The self-reflexivity is quite alluring and reminds me just of how powerful film can be. Acousmatic sound allows a film-maker to play with expectations as well as filmic sensations. That being said, this isn’t exactly a great movie. It has its moments, but this particular technical aspect of the film was intriguing. If you want an example of acousmatic sound watch M instead!

Throwback: Kubrick and Tarkovsky

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A controversial statement to open: Andrey Tarkovskiy is the European Stanley Kubrick.

A couple months ago, a Russian film festival ran through town and classics were rehashed. Starting from the textbook Battleship Potempkin to the more obscure works of Sergei M. Eisenstien, it seems all bases were covered (in a historical approach).

I decided to take in a few films I had seen clips of in various film classes. Yes I was stoked to see the original Solaris (seeing as how Steven Soderbergh’s interpretation found me feeling bored more than enthralled), but what I was really looking forward to was The Sacrifice.

An intensely personal film, it veers wildly between reality and lucidity. It examines a family hanging on by a thread and united by guilt and exhaustion. As a highly intellectual and philosophical film it follows an equally intelligent protagonist as he makes the ultimate sacrifice for his family, his love and his sanity.

The reason I wish to compare Kubrick and Tarkovsky, however, has nothing to do with subject matter, and all to do with cinematography, framing and a specific shot: The long shot. Both directors have excelled in this cinematic feat with extremely famous scenes taken in but one long shot. For Kubrick think about the famous trike and dead sisters scene in The Shining, or pretty much any scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. For Tarkovsky we can look at one of the opening shots in The Sacrifice: It’s seriously over 10 minutes and one continual shot which slowly pans and moves direction. The way the shot is framed is particularly genius:

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The action and focus is slightly off center, forcing our eyes dart around the frame. Credit where credit it due: I know much of this is due in part to the magnificent cinematographer but the rolling shots are seriously divine. Tedious, but  unarguably impressive. And of course props to the actor who is able to memorize such lengthy monologues.

A further point of intersection between the two directors? Solaris is widely considered to be the Russian version of 2001: A Space Oddesy. If 2001 ate a philosophy textbook it would be around the same ballpark, but obviously still mirrors anxieties over space travel. I found this film to be profoundly disturbing. particularly the scene in which we watch, un-blinking, as our protagonist’s wife die from drinking anti-freeze only to very painfully come back to life again, because shes not actually real, so she can’t actually die, you see.

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But Solaris is again connected by thoughtful and delicate long shots: lengthy monologues, meticulous scenes of nature, lingering views of emotion, they’re all here.

Final words? These directors both take their time. They’re in no rush (Obviously, with such tombs as Barry Lyndon or Solaris which range into the 3 hour mark), and take their time with their work. This is reflected in the long-shots, which only a dedicated director or connoisseur of art will attempt to create. Because in a world in a rush, not everyone has the patience for such sensitivity.

Absentia: Between the Paranormal and the Rational

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I stumbled across this film while looking at a rather obscure compilation of best horror movies of 2011. If ever there was a sensitive horror movie made, this is it. The plot revolves around sister’s Callie and Trisha who begin to investigate the vast number of disappearances within their community centering around the tunnel which connects their home to a park on the other side. The seemingly harmless piece of urban construction holds a much more sinister history, and is even connected to the disappearance of Trisha’s Husband who vanished 7 years prior.

Each character is complex and well developed. No relationship seems forced and every aspect of the character’s interactions with one another seems genuine. Callie is a born-again Christian who still dabbles in old habits. Trisha is a pregnant widower involved in a relationship with the detective assigned to her husband’s case. David, the husband, first appears as a frightening ghost and later as an empty husk of what was once a man. Even the detective who wants to be rational, who wants to explain everything never truly seems as convinced as his straight go-to partner.

As I said, this is a rather sensitive film, more likely to make you feel empathetic than horrified. Although that is not to say there aren’t some great jump out of your seat moments, mostly including the missing husband in apparitions. If you have a fear of Silver Fish, this is the horror movie for you. If you have a fear of dark places, or even if you don’t you will after watching this film. Walk through a tunnel again and try not to feel spooked!

The greatest aspect of the film for me was not so much the open ending, the filmmaker makes it fairly obvious as to the fate of the characters, but the divide between those that believe in what is really happening in the tunnel and those who can explain every aspect with logic and rationality. A beautiful mirroring effect happens at the beginning and end of the film as the characters attempt to rationalize the irrational. What Absentia offers is a sensitive and thoughtful insight into the human psyche, into human emotion and you will truly feel for the characters in the film.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Attempted Myths and Unexpected Political Messages

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With the summer being jam-packed with work, adventures and getting out of town, I haven’t exactly been on my game when it comes to movies. Rather I’m still catching up on my intimidating book pile (my goal, finish 10 books by the end of summer. I’m at 6).

So when I got a chance to see filmmakers collective, Court 13’s Beasts of the Southern Wild I was thrilled. The film is full of strange mythos, tears and joy. However in some regards I feel the film was more ambitious than it could handle, and in other regards more opportunist than it needed to be.

The film follows Hushpuppy the strong willed daughter of tough loving dad Wink. The two live in the “Bathtub” a squalid but charming town where friendship and community are strong. When the world beings to fall apart, both physically and metaphorically, Hushpuppy goes on a search for her long lost mother.

So, quite simply, what worked:

  • Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, oh man did they ever strike out with this girl. She was utterly fantastic. We all know how hard it is to cast children in films or television (KILL CARL – Walking Dead), but this lovely young girl seemed articulate and chock-full of emotional vigor.
  • The Bathtub as an isolated destination. When we are subjected to the bathtub and not the “Real World” we are somewhat transported to a place of make believe. We ignore the living conditions, the borderline child abuse, and the fact that everyone probably would have died of food poisoning. But when we leave… well more on that below.
  • The environmental message. The melting of the ice-caps and the re-birth of the ancient pig-monsters. When faced with the catastrophe of killing the world, living in the bathtub seems like a paradise.
  • The emotional growth of Hushpuppy as her father is dying and when he finally kicks the bucket. This was a truly emotional scene. An expected scene, but nonetheless heartbreaking.
  • The traveling lighthouse and the floating bar where fishermen go for women, this all fit in with the unique landscape that the Bathtub provided.
  • Finally, the fact that many of the actors, including Hushpuppie’s father was amateur and local. And fantastic!

What didn’t work:

  • The leaving of the Bathtub. There is a short scene where the Bathtub is evacuated and the residents go to a holding hospital. Suddenly everything you found charming about the Bathtub before seems horrible, and these people? Insane and unbearable. I don’t think this was the intention of the film and I honestly don’t feel as if the scene was in any way necessary. It could easy be omitted from the film and strengthened the mythical aspect the director, Benh Zeitlin, was going for. When you leave the bathtub everything just fell apart.
  • Mythical strengthening. It needed more of it. I get what Zeitlin was trying to do, but honestly it fell flat in certain moments. Although I enjoyed the moment when the beasts and Hushpuppy meet face to face it feels more rushed and tacked on than anything else.
  • And my personal experience in the theatre: The two women sitting next to me who were laughing at everything… it’s not actually a comedy… sure some parts are funny as in “aw, it’s cute what little kids say” but laughing at everything? Inappropriate!

So as you can see, most of it worked for me. But these faux’s were honestly distracting to the entire narrative than anything else. The film was about resiliency and resistance, but without those fully backing the narrative it’s hard to truly loose yourself in it from start to finish.

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Ultimately the entire film circles around this beautiful line, and all the action follows in swing:

The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.

A very enjoyable film, and unique in its ambitions. At the very least an exciting new film collective to look out for has emerged shining brightly and optimistically! I look forward to their ambitions in the future.