Thursday, March 26, 2015

As cinematic enigmas go, you would be hard pressed to find one more deliberately obfuscating than Lisandro Alonso's Jauja.

Yet far from hampering one's enjoyment of the film, its seeming impenetrability and its hazy thematic content deepen one's engagement with the work. Part of the beauty of this film lies in its mystery. Alonso doesn't want us to understand what we're watching so much as feel and contemplate it. Jauja is a film that seems to exist outside of time and place. It begins in the 19th century, as a father and daughter join a military caravan searching for the mythical city of Jauja, which, according to South American folklore, is a land of eternal youth and beauty. Like the fabled Fountain of Youth, man have set out in search of Jauja, but none have returned.

Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) is a Danish engineer contracted with the Argentinian military. His 15 year old daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), is the only woman in a barren land full of men, and as such begins to attract attention, both wanted an unwanted. The group's commanding officer ask's Dinesen's permission to court Ingebog, much to Dinesen's disgust. But Ingeborg isn't interest, turning her affections instead toward a young soldier named Angel (Esteban Bigliardi).

Viilbjørk Malling Agger & Esteban Bigliardi in a scene from Lisandro Alonso's JAUJA.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
When Ingeborg and Angel's relationship begins to attract attention and jealousy from his fellow soldiers, they decide to run away together, stealing off quietly in the night. Not prepared to give up his daughter, and afraid for their safety in a wild and dangerous country, Dinesen mounts his horse and rides off into enemy territory in search of the young lovers. There he will face bandits, indians, and ultimately time itself, facing down an enemy man has fought against since the beginning of the world.

Jauja almost feels like some sort of Argentinian art-house reimagining of John Ford's The Searchers, with Mortensen on a kind of metaphysical quest to reclaim his daughter that ultimately becomes something much more. But what exactly is it? That question remains, sometimes frustratingly, up for interpretation. Jauja remains stubbornly confounding right to its haunting conclusion. It exists in a realm where time no longer has any meaning, and Alonso glides through time with a keen eye for atmosphere but absolutely no regard for conventional storytelling techniques. To look for a typical story here is to miss the point. Alonso was inspired by the death of a close friend, and he seems to almost get lost inside the haze of folklore and myth, as Dinesen wanders through the wilderness in a strange riff on the classic Western. He becomes enamored with the timelessness of folklore and legend, yet the film never seems to lose itself, even as we become disoriented, or even intoxicated, by its unusual beauty. A haunting existential work, often perplexing, always fascinating, Jauja is a dazzling experiment that never fully reveals itself, always hiding its meanings and ideas behind long takes and metaphors, but the result is undeniably mesmerizing, and Mortensen is tremendous in the lead role. It allows us to lose ourselves on the path the path to Utopia. We may not know how we got there in the end, but the one thing we know for sure is that the journey was more than worth it.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

JAUJA | Directed by Lisandro Alonso | Stars Viggo Mortensen, Viilbjørk Malling Agger, Esteban Bigliardi | Not Rated  | In Spanish & Danish with English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Propaganda has always been one of the most important weapons of war. Never was that more true than during the Cold War between the United States and Russia, which was almost exclusively fought by propaganda, as the two countries constantly tried to one up each other with symbolic, non-violent victories like some sort of international dick measuring contest.

Gabe Polsky's new documentary, Red Army, focuses on one of the centerpieces of the Soviet Union's propaganda machine - the Red Army hockey team. One of the apples of Stalin's eye the Red Army team dominated world hockey for years. Yet as the USSR began to decline, so too did the Red Army, affecting their team members in life changing ways.

Red Army details the team's trips abroad, how they were watched over by Soviet agents and allowed to see and experience the West in ways most Soviet citizens never could.

Left to right: Alex Kasatanov, Viktor Tikhonov, Vladislav Tretiak, Igor Larionov, Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov 
Courtesy of Slava Fetisov/Sony Pictures Classics
It's certainly an interesting topic for a documentary, watching these hockey players go from propaganda pawns to, in some cases, Russian politicians and political opposition to the Communist regime, is the stuff of great drama. Yet Red Army never really manages to find that drama. It feels strangely thrown together and disorganized, as if its interviews weren't prepared to be filmed. His subjects are often answering phone calls or texts, while crew members set up the shot as Polsky is asking questions. His use of dramatic zooms and music cues lends more goofiness than gravity, swooping in on the subjects' faces during tense moments in ways that seem like a documentary parody. Its tonal shifts undercut its narrative momentum, leaving it feeling scattershot and kind of sloppy. This just doesn't feel like a professionally shot documentary.

Which is a shame, because there's certainly a strong film somewhere in here. The hockey players themselves are an undeniably fascinating lot. Their no-nonsense incredulity at some of Polsky's questions indicate that they don't really have time for this silliness. You can see how they would have made formidable opponents on the ice. Unfortunately, I just didn't find the resulting film all that engaging. I don't think Polsky dug deep enough, or managed to get behind the stoic veneers of his subjects. This is Polsky's first feature documentary, and it feels somewhat undisciplined, like the work of an amateur filmmaker. With cleaner editing and a tighter focus, Red Army might have been something special. Instead, it takes a strong subject and renders it toothless and forgettable.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

RED ARMY | Directed by Gabe Polsky | Not Rated | In Russian with English subtitles | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, March 20, at the Ballantyne in Charlotte, NC.

Monday, March 16, 2015

From The Dispatch:
It's hard to fault Brown, because clearly there is a lot of talent at work here, but "The Last Five Years" truly belongs on a stage, not a screen. It's hard to recommend a film that is just such a pale imitation of its source material. And despite the appealing presence of Kendrick and Jordan, for a more rewarding experience, you'd be much better served by seeking out a local stage company performing the show instead. 
Click here to read my full review.