Thursday, August 21, 2014

As someone who was impressed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's last feature film, Amer (they also collaborated on the O is for Orgasm segment of the horror anthology The ABCs of Death last year), I was deeply disappointed by the comparative aimlessness of their follow-up, The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears.

Continuing to pay homage the Italian giallo horror films of the 1970s, The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears seems more like an exercise in Theatre of Cruelty than anything else. It's an almost self-consciously avant-garde work, relying on split screen, sped up imagery, and frequent repetition to create its atmosphere of madness. But what they achieve here seems to push the boundaries of surrealism into dadaism. In other words, pure meaninglessness.

What I love so much about surrealism is that it seeks to recreate the feeling of being in a dream, where logic no longer applies and anything is possible. Dada was anti-art, anti, well, pretty much everything. It purposefully defied all interpretation because life, according to the dadaists, was meaningless.

In Amer, the surrealism served to suggest the horror of a young woman's discovery of her own sexuality. In The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears, the goal is similar, but far more disjointed. The film centers around a man's frantic search for his missing wife. As in Amer, plot matters very little in the face of symbolic imagery and atmosphere, but here Cattet and Forzani seem intent on punishing the audience, something very much akin to infamous playwright Antonin Artaud's theories on Theatre of Cruelty. Artaud sought to jar the audience, to rub their faces in the ugliness of humanity, often using loud noises, flashing lights, and naked bodies writing on a stage showcasing horrific acts. He even wrote the 1928 silent short film, The Seashell and the Clergyman, a film that clearly served as an inspiration for many of this film's avant-garde tropes.

But therein lies the biggest problem with The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears - it's almost too beholden to its own inspirations. In Amer, Cattet and Forzani used the almost nonsensical style of Italian giallo filmmakers such as Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava to tell a unique and disturbing tale of psychosexual awakening. Here, all of that seems to get lost in a mishmash of styles that never add up.  It's almost as if they are trying too hard. You could say the same for some of the avant-garde affectations of The Seashell and the Clergyman, but in 1928 Germaine Dulac was still exploring and pushing the bounds of cinema. The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears, on the other hand, seems trapped in its own style, more concerned with its stylistic elements than its perfunctory lip-service to psychological depth. Whereas Amer felt effortless, this feels ponderous; an aimless doodle where film school affectations are mistaken for actual depth, a modern day piece of avant-garde standing in the shadow of masters.

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS | Directed by Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani | Stars Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedena, Joe Koener | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens August 29 in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.
Ari Folman is primarily a director of animated films (as he demonstrated in the wonderful, Oscar nominated animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir), and it shows in his latest effort, The Congress, a live action/animated science fiction hybrid based on Stanislaw Lem's novel, "The Futurological Congress."

The live action segments of The Congress, mostly bookended at the beginning and end of the film, feel a bit drab and uninspired. But what a jaw dropping beauty those animated parts are, so much so that by the time we return to the real world in the film's finale, their blandness is jarring, suddenly making sense in a very carefully designed world borne out of Folman's vivid imagination.

At its core is a performance by Robin Wright that can only be described as fearless. Rarely do actors or actresses allow themselves to be so emotionally naked onscreen, but in playing a version of herself, a former starlet turned actress of a certain age who is no longer Hollywood's "it-girl," Wright turns in a raw, self reflective performance that is nothing short of exhilarating.

In The Congress, Wright is an actress facing irrelevance in a world that no longer seems interested in her talents. Her manager, Al (Harvey Keitel), is negotiating her final contract with movie studio Miramount, whose president, Jeff (Danny Huston), is planning to scan the faces of every actor into a giant database that will render actors obsolete. In essence, movies will no longer feature flesh and blood people, but digital approximations capable of doing anything the studio demands, never aging, never fading, always young and always exactly the same. The actors must sign a contract to never again perform in any capacity, in order to preserve the cinematic illusion of agelessness. The actor's likeness will forever belong to the studio.

Flash forward 20 years. Wright has taken the buyout, and is traveling to make an appearance at the Futurological Congress, a gathering held in an all animated zone, where hallucinogenic drugs take people to an alternate reality where everything is animated. There, the Congress plans to announce the release of the drug on the mainstream market, where anyone can escape into the animated zone and be anything or anyone they want. Identity is a thing of the past in a world where reality no longer has any meaning. Lost and alone amidst a sea of animated oddities, Wright must reunite find her children, even if it means escaping into reality and losing her only love.

It's a sprawling narrative, but its often scattershot nature is the point. Nothing makes sense anymore, not in this new animated world. And just when you think this thing is about to fly off the psychedelic rails, Folman pulls it all back in, grounding it in real human emotion. That's what's really so fascinating about The Congress; Folman has created a fantastical world like nothing we've ever seen before, where people can be anyone from Marilyn Monroe to Cleopatra, or something completely out of their own dreams (or nightmares), but it's never anything less than completely emotionally engaging. The final impact of this thing is tremendous, blindsiding us with its surprising resonance.

There are moments of such beauty in The Congress that it's almost breathtaking. It's also a bold and incisive satire of our current moviegoing culture. One need only look at this year's highest grossing film, Transformers: Age of Extinction, to see what Folman is skewering here - a world where CGI robots are the stars and the humans are perfunctory at best. Who needs real human emotions anymore when you can do anything with a computer? In The Congress, Folman argues the opposite - those human emotions are what bind us all together. They are essential to our very beings. They are us. And no computer can ever replicate that, no matter how much studios may want to cut corners or churn out yet another soulless blockbuster. This is an extraordinary film, a unique film, the kind of film that reminds us of the true power of science fiction to comment on our society. But it's also a film of very delicate beauty, from Folman's startling imagery to Max Richter's heartbreaking score - The Congress stands as a refreshing reminder of the singular power of cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE CONGRESS | Directed by Ari Folman | Stars Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, John Hamm | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

From The Dispatch:
This is pure fun from start to finish, a joyous, outrageously entertaining summer blockbuster that delivers everything anyone could really want out of a comic book movie. It's thrilling, it's funny, it's moving, it's the whole package. It's easily the best comic book movie since "The Avengers," but "Guardians" may have even done it one better. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

There is something indescribably beautiful about Mitra Farahani's documentary about famed Iranian artist, Bahman Mohassess.

Mohassess may not be a household name, especially for those in the United States or those outside the artistic community, but his reputation as the "Persian Picasso" and somewhat mysterious nature have made him an almost larger than life figure, an enigma of epic proportions, a kind of Iranian J.D. Salinger with a paintbrush.

For years he seemed lost to time, having fled Iran after the controversial nature of his work and his own homosexuality became a liability after the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. What pieces of his aren't weren't destroyed by Iranian authorities became prized by collectors, with nothing new released for many years. That is until Farahani tracked him down to Italy, where he had been living a quiet life in a small apartment, away from a world that no longer interested him.

Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Mohassess, it turns out, had destroyed more of his own work than even the Iranian authorities, disgusted with the world around him  and its ever increasing cruelty and hypocrisy. Farahani befriends Mohassess, and through her we discover a truly fascinating man with a  unique worldview. A gay man himself, Mohassess rejects the gay rights movement and same sex marriage, claiming that they took away from the forbidden mystique that had once people like him and Leonardo Da Vinci apart. It's that strange blend of self aggrandizement and humility that make him such a singular figure. Mohassess takes us on a tour of his work throughout the years, most of which exist now only in photographs, each one revealing more about the artist and the world in which it was created.

We never really leave the confines of his tiny apartment, and even he admits that might make for a boring, if truthful, film. But Fifi Howls From Happiness is anything but. Named for Mahassess' most favorite of his paintings, the film is an engaging and deeply moving exploration an artist's last days, one who is taking stock of a life while preparing to paint one final masterpiece. Mohassess is an intriguing and caustic figure, instantly beguiling and mysterious, who exults great influence over all those around him, including the film being made about him.

Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Farahani directs with a kind of lyrical grace, turning that little Roman apartment into an artistic treasure trove. But at it's core, Fifi Howls From Happiness is a great tragedy, mourning for the loss of hundreds of works of art that can never be replaced. Even Mohassess, faced with painting one last work, seems daunted by the task of returning to his easel, dwarfed by an unreachable persona he himself created that now belongs to the ages. It is telling that Farahani chose to end her film with Mozart's "Requiem" long before Mohassess passed away in 2010 before filming was completed. The film serves as an elegiac tribute not only to Mohassess' work, but to all art, being destroyed and replaced by something new, shiny, and ultimately vapid.

To further illustrate this point, Farahani uses clips from Luchino Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard, a film about the fading upper crust of Italy. In the film, Burt Lancaster's Prince Salina says "We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep." Bahman Mohassess was a giant, a strange and wholly original man who is known by far too few. That is the great tragedy of Fifi Howls With Happiness - can there ever be room again for filet mignon in a completely fast food culture? Yet Farahani finds both joy and despair within those walls, reintroducing a great man to w world that still may not understand. This an extraordinarily singular work about an extraordinary man, both elegiac and rapturous; a film befitting a true leopard.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS | Directed by Mitra Farahani | Not Rated | In Farsi w/English subtitles Opens Friday, August 8, at the Lincoln Plaza in NYC.