Monday, November 24, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 37 Final Report - "Blind" and "Clouds of Sils Maria" offer an intriguing qualitative contrast for the last day of the festival


As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I have been relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports and individual reviews. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link.

The final day of the festival offered an interesting study in qualitative inverts for me. I found Eskil Vogt’s Blind, the first film of the day, to be only somewhat engaging in the moment, and yet it is such an intellectually rich film, with such an interesting and carefully considered perspective, that it stuck with me through the next screening, and all the way onto now, where it is still cycling through in my head. The things that make it a little icy and distant in the moment are also the things that make it fascinating and rewarding. Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, on the other hand, is a film I largely enjoyed while watching, due to some terrific performances and captivating visuals, yet it is on the whole an uninteresting and unmemorable film, so overwritten, pretentious, and structurally undisciplined that it shuts the viewer out at every turn. It has the air of inviting, stimulating cinema about it, but is ultimately a hollow, unmemorable experience.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

SDFF 37 Review: The Zellner Brothers craft a singular, fascinating yarn in "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter"



As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I have been relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports and individual reviews. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link.

Films are strange things. The ‘object’ is merely a series of images projected through light, and yet, once a film is first shown to an audience, it has the potential to take on a life so much larger than its simple base form. The phenomenological distance between what a film ‘is’ and the effect a film ‘has’ is at once fascinating and baffling to me, and the more I study the medium, the more complex, confusing, and amazing it becomes. A film can leave us with an impossibly vast array of emotional and intellectual reactions, ranging from sheer indifference to fiery passion. We can be transfixed by the imagery, transported by the setting, and enraptured by the story, all to extents so extreme that reality and fantasy can begin to blur. We can literally fall in love with characters, devoting large swaths of time to watching and rewatching an on-screen figure’s exploits, or following them through subsequent films. A movie and all its component parts can uplift us on a bad day, bring us down on a good day, and broaden our horizons more than should be possible by simply sitting in a darkened room and looking at a screen. For what a film actually ‘is,’ the sway movies can hold over our lives is extraordinary. There is something beautiful about that, a wonder inherent in the power of cinema that drives many of us to devote our lives to studying it. Yet cinema’s power is so immense and unknowable that there is also something equally frightening about it, a terror that comes from the possibility of losing oneself in the fantasy. In this way, perhaps cinema is inherently sublime, existing at an intoxicating intersection between the wondrous and the terrifying, the immediate and the unknowable, where the only response upon arriving is to follow the sensation further, no matter where it might lead.

David and Nathan Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is about a character lost within this intersection – and, by extension, about all of us who derive pleasure from surrendering to the allure of cinema. The film’s title character, Kumiko, is a 29-year-old office worker in Tokyo, as dissatisfied with life and detached from her surroundings as it is possible to be. As played by Rinko Kikuchi in one of the most fully-realized performances of 2014, Kumiko looks physically uncomfortable merely existing in the world, her frustrated antipathy for nearly everything around her simmering just beneath the surface at all times. Coiled, introverted, and seemingly incapable of making eye contact with another human being, Kumiko looks as if she just wants to shed her skin and flee, leaving all parts of herself and her setting behind. The only time she seems content to exist on this earth, let alone feel comfortable, is when she is alone in her apartment at night, sitting right up close to the TV and watching an old, battered VHS tape of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo. 

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

SDFF 37 Review: Marion Cotillard gives a powerhouse performance in the Dardenne Brothers’ compelling “Two Days, One Night”



As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I have been relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports and individual reviews. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night is built around one of the most strikingly compelling pieces of moral ambiguity I have ever seen portrayed on film. Sandra Bya (Marion Cotillard), a married mother of two, learns on a Friday afternoon that she is to be laid off from the solar panel factory where she works. Her boss has decided that he can either keep employing Sandra, or give her coworkers a 1,000 euro bonus; at first, the majority of her coworkers are in favor of the bonus. But this is a job Sandra cannot afford to lose – she has only just brought her family back to the brink of financial stability, and faces a return to government subsistence if this paycheck evaporates – and so she appeals to her boss to change his mind. Instead, he agrees to hold a more formal vote on Monday morning, this time with a secret ballot, where her coworkers shall choose between keeping Sandra on the staff or gaining a substantial addition to their paychecks.

What would you do? At first blush, the answer seems obvious – it would be terrible to vote against another person’s employment, to willingly banish a colleague to poverty and desperation just to improve the quality of one’s own earnings. But over the eponymous two days Sandra spends going from coworker to coworker, imploring each of them individually to think of her situation and vote in favor of her job, any and all moral certitude grows less and less concrete. What if that bonus could keep you from working two jobs, or could pay for your child’s education? What if your job is already at such a low level that this bonus could be the difference between making end’s meet and constantly coming up short? If the vote were between your financial security and that of a coworker, would you be capable of being that compassionate? Could you?

There is something almost structuralist about the way Two Days, One Night is laid out. Sandra visits each coworker in turn, presenting each of them with the same scenario and request, and the film’s drama comes as much from observing the similarities and differences of each meeting as it does worrying over the outcome of Sandra’s quest. Some of her colleagues are kind and empathetic, but admit they must vote against her for personal need. Others are cold and uncaring, thinking only of their own situation and looking down upon Sandra for even asking. One is outwardly combative. Some, of course, are wholly sympathetic, and support Sandra’s cause wholeheartedly, including one man who bursts into tears after hearing her request, having been wracked with guilt after voting against her in the first poll. Watching this inherently repetitious story play out could so easily have been the height of tedium. Instead, it is riveting, a masterfully crafted and powerfully performed study into the ambiguity of what constitutes human decency, and what happens when the complications of reality intersect with emotion and morality.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: "Big Hero 6" makes something special out of a conventional superhero tale


Note: As I'm getting to Big Hero 6 rather late, and I assume most readers have had already had a chance to see it, this review contains mild spoilers.

Big Hero 6 is a pretty wonderful exercise in turning narrative familiarity into something genuinely special. On a story level, Big Hero 6 is hardly reinventing the wheel, mixing a lot of basic family film tropes – an orphaned protagonist, Hiro Hanada, experiences yet another loss in his life, and in the process of grieving makes friends and finds a new passion – with a superhero movie 101 structure, where, like Spider-Man or Batman, Hiro is driven at first by righteous fury, the search for justice against his brother Tadashi’s killer leading him and his friends to find their higher, superheroic calling. On a basic storytelling level, there is nothing fresh or challenging to be had here, and while that has frustrated me in a lot of recent Disney projects – Frozen is as classical (and, frankly, dull) as Hollywood animation comes, whatever lightweight nods to modernity it makes (before swiftly abandoning) – a project like Big Hero 6 is an exciting reminder that when true creative passion is involved, the way a story is told matters so much more than the story itself. This is honest, imaginative filmmaking from top to bottom, filled to burst with vibrant characters, unique artwork, and a gentle, goodhearted sense of spectacle that is as refreshing as it is invigorating. Most importantly, Big Hero 6 is the rare family film to have a genuine emotional core; its tale of moving on from loss may be nothing new, but the film is so ripe with pathos, insight, and believable inner-turmoil that it ultimately packs a pretty major wallop – and has a damn entertaining time doing so.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

SDFF37 Review: Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Look of Silence" is a devastating, transcendent piece of documentary filmmaking



As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I have been relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports. I’m doing something a little different today. Since I only saw one film on Sunday, and it was awful – the Italian film Human Capital, which was about as tedious a movie as I have ever forced myself to sit through – I’m going to forego any discussion of it, and tackle the one film I haven’t talked about this weekend – Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, which I saw Saturday night – in its own full review. The film certainly deserves the attention. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link. 

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing has already taken on near-legendary status in the realms of documentary filmmaking, its bold and original approach to exploring the 1965 anti-communist massacres in Indonesia, through deep interaction with the killers themselves, forcefully grabbing the attention of critics and scholars alike – myself included. The film made my Top 10 list last year, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake everything the film had to say about the nature of evil and the ways people who have done terrible things repress and displace guilt. It’s a real documentary masterpiece.

And The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s direct follow-up to The Act of Killing, is even better.

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Starz Denver Film Festival 37 Report #2 – "Tu Dors Nicole," "Mr. Kaplan," and a special screening of “Do the Right Thing" offer another compelling lineup



As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I will be relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports, which will compile my thoughts on multiple films within single articles. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link. 

This was another terrific day at the festival, with two fantastic new movies I am positively elated to have seen, one retrospective screening that brought a beloved classic into sharper cinematic focus, and one movie that…wasn’t very interesting at all. But it at least kept me warm during today’s awful weather, so there’s always that. 

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 37 Report #1 – “1001 Grams,” “The Tribe,” & “The Midnight Swim” make for a great first day



As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I will be relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports, which will compile my thoughts on multiple films within single articles. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link.  

While the 2014 edition of the Starz Denver Film Festival technically began on Wednesday nights, Friday was my first day at the festival, and it was a really wonderful afternoon and evening of filmgoing. While one of the films I saw today was underwhelming, the other two were positively splendid – one of them is an absolute lock for my year-end top 10 list. Quality of the films aside, though, the atmosphere of the festival is so warm and inviting, and there are so many nice surprises along the way – meeting new people, surprise appearances from filmmakers, etc. – that I suspect I would have enjoyed myself immensely even if the films had failed to impress as strongly as they did.

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