Saturday, February 25, 2017

Belle de jour

BELLE DE JOUR (Luis Buñuel, 1967)

Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) and Pierre (Jean Sorel) have been married for a year and are very much in love, yet she remains frigid toward her doctor husband. In BELLE DE JOUR Séverine holds sex and love as separate things but desperately wants to be intimate with Pierre. She fantasizes about being roughed up and degraded, secrets which she doesn’t dare share with him.

One day a friend tells Séverine about an acquaintance who is turning tricks. The notion repels her as a wealthy and refined woman, yet she is also fascinated by the idea and questions her husband about his familiarity with brothels. Her friend’s lover Henri (Michel Piccoli) mentions where high class women can work as prostitutes, so, unable to shake her curiosity, Séverine pays a visit to Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page). Because Séverine insists on just working afternoons, Madame Anaïs gives her the name Belle de jour.

Although not explicit in depiction, BELLE DE JOUR’s subject matter was surely hot stuff upon its debut fifty years ago. The film retains its erotic properties because director Luis Buñuel and his frequent co-writing partner Jean-Claude Carrière rely on suggestion and mystery to convey Séverine’s fantasies and journey. It’s an acknowledgement that, like the clients with varied preferences and fetishes, what one may find arousing, another may not. So BELLE DE JOUR does not get hung up on what specifically fuels Séverine’s primal urges but rather concerns itself with how those fixations make her feel and act. The sound of carriage bells recurs in her sexual daydreams, but the meaning is entirely inscrutable to anyone but her. As Buñuel was a noted surrealist, the lack of definitive interpretation is part and parcel of his style, but it also suggests that her predilections were set in ways that even Séverine may not understand.

Fantasy and reality are inseparably blurred in BELLE DE JOUR. While some scenes are clearly dreams, it is difficult to say for certain how much occurs in Séverine’s inner life. Perhaps most or all except for the final scene are imagined. Then again, that last scene could be a vision of how she might feel once all of her guilt is laid bare and open communication with her husband is something she can finally engage in. Accordingly, Deneuve withholds telegraphing Séverine’s emotions for others, including the viewers. The pleasure and disgust the character experiences belongs to her. Whether intentional or not, Deneuve’s casting makes for an intriguing comparison with REPULSION, in which her character’s frigidity manifests in a more horrific manner.

Not to wield BELLE DE JOUR as a club, especially because it is considered a masterpiece of world cinema--and thus not a fair fight--but it is informative to view it in relation to something like FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and its sequel. The contemporary films employ representation as provocation, yet the lack of ambiguity is precisely why the most salacious moments seem dispassionate and mechanical. BELLE DE JOUR and the FIFTY SHADES movies are self-serious, but Buñuel’s work is more artful, personal, and intellectualized in a European manner while the FIFTY SHADES films have been reduced to their basest elements and homogenized for mass consumption.

Grade: A

Friday, February 24, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)

After taking care of some loose ends from the first film, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) learns that returning to retirement from being a professional assassin is no easy feat. In JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, he must make good on the favor he was granted to get him out of the killing business in the first place. Italian crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) wants to ascend in the underworld and thus calls in John Wick on the blood oath he made. He’s to kill Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). If he refuses, Santino will see to it that John Wick loses his life. If he succeeds, he will most certainly be hunted by any number of his merciless colleagues until they have delivered his death.

Composed with an eye for fight scenes and incessant gunplay that are coherent, JOHN WICK and its sequel aim to resolve the complaints that today’s action films are mostly a flurry of cuts among jostled cameras. Stuntman and stunt coordinator turned director Chad Stahelski showcases what he specialized in with frames that capture the combat from head to toe and sequences that connect the action rather than making them sensation at the expense of legibility. Stahelski highlights a love for stuntmen in an impressively long and funny tumble down multiple sets of steps. He finds humor when hitmen are firing at one another in a public space but using silencers and trying to shield their weapons to keep from drawing attention and setting off mass panic.

Like its predecessor, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, brings a graphic novel aesthetic to Hong Kong-styled action of the 1990s. Draped in inky black and steel grey, plus the sepia tone for scenes in the assassins’ hotel The Continental, this is a dark, lush world befitting those populating it. Reeves is magnetic as an anti-hero whose ability to kill is beyond ordinary human ability but is as flesh and blood as those he takes out.

While there’s a lot to like about JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, there’s also a tedious quality to it that didn’t let the sequel lift off like the original did for me. The world-building in the first film is relatively minimal, just enough for a taste of how things function where killers find neutral ground at a hotel that accepts payment in large gold coins. Derek Kolstad’s screenplay doubles down on that mythology in the sequel, but it clutters what might have otherwise been a lean, mean hail of bullets and fists.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Cure for Wellness

A CURE FOR WELLNESS (Gore Verbinski, 2016)

When a Wall Street financial services firm’s CEO writes that he will not be returning from the Swiss spa where he is vacationing, rising company star Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is called upon to bring him back. In A CURE FOR WELLNESS Lockhart expects to pop into the sanitarium at the top of the hill, get his boss Pembroke (Harry Groener), and go back to New York City, but the staff are not inclined to make things so easy. The spa’s director Volmer (Jason Isaacs) relents somewhat to demands to talk to Pembroke but requires Lockhart to return later in the day to see him. As Lockhart’s driver is taking him down the hill, they are in an accident. Lockhart wakes up with a broken leg and discovers that he’s been admitted as a patient at the spa.

The facility specializes in hydrotherapy but does not seem like an ordinary wellness center, even if accepting that it operates like one might have a century or more ago. For example, it seems that no one who checks in appears to check out ever. Old movers and shakers in international business without family members make up the clientele except for a girl named Hannah (Mia Goth). This place in the Alps is built on the ruins of a castle supposedly burned down by villagers who were outraged by a purity-obsessed baron who wished to marry his sister.

With a mysterious retreat looming over a village populated by resentful residents, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is rooted in a mix of early literary horror and fairy tales. Director Gore Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli find extravagant beauty amid the psychological terror at a resort that would have been the height of luxury in the middle of the nineteenth century. The pale blue and white interiors could function as soothing surroundings for those on the mend, but they also connote something sinister because of the rigid and blank uniformity. The tanks that patients use for rehabilitation look more like torture devices, although the film’s production design turn them into peculiar but aesthetically pleasing marvels of old technology.

The foundation and look of A CURE FOR WELLNESS are inviting in all their polished insidiousness, but the significant characters fail to make an impression. Although Lockhart suffers from a childhood tragedy and an advanced case of a corrupted corporate soul, he is not as complex as the screenplay’s structure tries to make him out to be. He’s also not particularly quick on the uptake regarding all of the strange goings-on at the sanitarium. Secrets surround Hannah, but she doesn’t know them. What gets revealed about her won’t come as a surprise. Isaacs’ Volmer stands out a little more in putting a calm face on a suspicious character, but his character is mostly surface, even if he isn’t to be trusted.

For a widely released major studio film, A CURE FOR WELLNESS has to be one of the weirder offerings to come down the pike in awhile. The sheer oddity helps to propel it through a nearly two and a half hours that aren’t needed. While Verbinski has a few memorably chilling images up his sleeve, especially one for those sensitive to seeing dentistry practiced, the emotional beats fail to connect. He’s striving to evoke the reactions of Grand Guignol but yields a more tepid response.

Grade: C+

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (Raoul Peck, 2016)

Using the words of the writer James Baldwin, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO looks back on race relations before and during the civil rights era in the United States and draws connections to the way things are today. The film is structured around Baldwin’s abandoned book about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom the author knew.

Baldwin’s eloquent and pointed commentary comes directly from him via archival footage of talk shows and speeches. Baldwin was a teenage preacher, and his performative talents are evident as his presence leaps off the screen when sharing his considered opinions. Here is someone who had been living abroad for a number of years but chose to return and become engaged with the struggle back home. There’s a snap to his point of view because of the passion and intelligence supporting what he has to say.

Baldwin’s words are also delivered through Samuel L. Jackson’s weary voiceover, a stark counterpoint to the “on” personality that comes across in Baldwin’s public appearances. That vocal quality suggests what Baldwin, who died in 1987, might sound like all of these years later when many of the fights he waged are still ongoing, even if the shape of the conflicts have changed. Fifty or sixty years have passed since these divisive issues came to a boil in American civilization. Old images of the outright hostility can be shocking for those of us who have only ever encountered it as history. While progress has been made, Peck’s film underlines the fact that the dream of the 1960s continues to remain elusive in some ways. Jackson’s narration conveys the aggravation and tiredness of the long wait for societal ills to be cured.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is not a film that seeks to reassure, nor should it be. It’s a challenge to those in the majority who consider themselves to be good people yet whose actions, whether actively or passively, don’t back up such a self-conception. The defiance in the title slaps back at the nation’s original sin. It’s up to the recipient to determine if that smack should be taken as an affront or a wake-up call.

Grade: B

Friday, February 10, 2017


LION (Garth Davis, 2016)

Based on a true story, LION tracks a boy from rural India who gets incomprehensibly lost in 1986, is adopted by an Australian couple, and uses technology twenty-five years later to search for his family. Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar as a boy and Dev Patel as a young adult, falls asleep on a train platform while waiting for his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), who has taken off to work during the evening. When Saroo awakens, Guddu is nowhere to be found. He looks for him on a train but gets stuck on one that is not carrying passengers and takes him more than a thousand kilometers away from home.

The five-year-old boy arrives in Kolkata unable to speak the different dominant language in this part of the country. He doesn’t know his mother’s name, and no one can find the town he calls home on a map. For awhile Saroo must survive on his own on the streets, including eluding those looking to take advantage of him. Eventually a stranger takes him to a police station, but with no responses to the notices placed in newspapers, he is put in an orphanage. John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) adopt Saroo, so he is flown to Tasmania to begin a life with a new family. As a young man he feels the urge to find his biological family. With the emotional support of his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) and a landmark image from his memory, Saroo obsessively scans Google Earth to locate where his home is.

The events in LION are primed for the most persistent heartstring-tugging, yet director Garth Davis holds the story at a cool remove. It’s the difference between recognizing a dire situation and feeling it. The Dickensian first half features its share of harrowing moments. Saroo quickly learns that trusting anyone is dangerous, which only serves to keep him on the streets longer. Even when help of a sort is provided, the boy is trading one bad situation for another. His adoptive parents are extraordinarily kind, but moving from one continent to another is also laced with trauma. Davis expects these developments to be moving at face value. Instead LION flirts with a wallow in miserabilism.

In the second half Saroo is a young adult who identifies more with his Australian upbringing than his Indian heritage. His newfound longing seems more like dramatic convenience than something that has been eating at him every day for most of his life. The search itself, while an incredible feat, is not dynamically portrayed. LION gets caught up in the process of Saroo’s story. Here’s how he got lost, here’s how he was saved from bad circumstances, here’s how he tries to answer what has been a mystery for many years. The particulars aren’t uninteresting, but they come at the expense of empathizing with Saroo’s experience.

Saroo struggles at the two stages depicted, yet LION mostly shows him rolling with whatever he faces. Perhaps the person whose life inspired the film was so easily adaptive, but smoothing over his emotional journey robs the material of the power inherent in it. What Saroo endures as a kid is inconceivable, but it’s handled from the point of view of an uninvolved observer than the subject. Although Patel does the most with what he’s given to express the character’s anguish, he’s challenged to find multiple ways to keep striking the same note. What could have been a potent tearjerker in LION ends up resembling a skillful but unmoving recreation of a remarkable tale.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 09, 2017


SPLIT (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)

Being abducted and locked in a cell-like room is terrifying enough for three teenage girls in SPLIT. Even more disturbing is discovering that Kevin (James McAvoy), the man holding them against their will, has multiple personalities. Like anyone would be in the situation, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are at wit’s end. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s more of an acquaintance of than a friend with the other two, appears to have gone into survival mode as she assesses how they might escape.

Their best bet is through Hedwig, Kevin’s child personality. He taunts them with the information that they are there as sacrifices for The Beast, but he’s also naïve enough that he might be fooled into bringing Casey to his room, which he says has a window. On the outside the girls’ best hope is Kevin’s psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She doesn’t know what he’s done, but she has a good relationship with him and senses that there may be a power struggle among Kevin’s personalities that could have caused him to do something terrible.

Although it’s probably unfair, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has a reputation as a filmmaker whose works succeed or fail based on their plot twists. Not that there aren’t surprises in SPLIT, especially the exclamation point of a scene in the end credits, but in this film what you see is what you get. Shyamalan settles into the scenario to reap it for all of the possible terror. His use of close-ups and preference for longer takes than is typical for current Hollywood genre pictures creates a sense of claustrophobia. Cinematographer Michael Giouliakis captures horrific beauty in the musty setting where much of SPLIT takes place. Whether hinted at or depicted, the film’s brutality comes in bursts that conjure the feeling of helplessness.

People dealing with trauma, often poorly, recur in Shyamalan’s films. His characters tend to resist accepting the way things are through a kind of willful blindness. Whether questioning God or a stand-in authority figure, Shyamalan’s protagonists reject reality for a more comfortable but self-harming illusion. What differentiates SPLIT from his other films is that he weaponizes existential anger and confusion. Underneath the thriller elements are a story about coping with abuse and choosing whether mental and physical scars provide a means of protecting oneself or destroying others.

SPLIT’s portrayal of multiple personality disorder is not going to be supported by the DSM-5 or getting a ringing endorsement from the American Psychiatric Association. (It would be fascinating to do a detailed comparison of how the director portrays therapists throughout his filmography.) Still, McAvoy does an excellent job of being convincing and quietly menacing in Kevin’s various personalities. There’s nothing actorly about the performance, yet he crafts distinct individuals in his different guises. Shyamalan and McAvoy collaborate to hit the proper tone with a tricky character who could be laughable. When he’s dressed and acting as Patricia, it’s unsettling to see this guy with a shaved head who believes he is an officious woman. That earnest belief in the moment, regardless of the truth, is why SPLIT disturbs.

Grade: A-