Absence and Presence: The Florida Project

The Florida Project (2017). USA. Directed by Sean Baker. With Brooklynn Price, Williem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, and Valerie Cotto.


Orlando, Florida, USA is an odd place.  There is the high density of consumer driven splendor of Disney World and its custom resorts, and yet that same opulence and entertainment proves lacking outside those curated arenas.  Of the non corporate spaces and sites, they are bleached mercilessly by the sun and feel unusually at rest.  This past year, I witnessed this ambiance first hand in late March/early April in the saccharine of Disney and the lackluster infrastructure support elsewhere for the common person.  Even the movement of people found mostly in cars highlights a barrier.  Attempts at walking along the sidewalks customary for urban dwellers feels atypical here and points to a presumed scarcity of resources to procure a vehicle by the perambulator.  A lived-in sense of community is not fully formed because of the dislocation and disenfranchised working class.  In a city filled with numerous Disney knock-off stores on the outskirts and swath of Uber and Lyft taxi drivers whose backstories conveyed dissatisfaction with being trapped in Orlando compared to their former US town or city, this is not a city of burgeoning, new ideas.  They are all re-purposed.

In this brightly colored, jingle malaise, we find The Florida Project (2017) directed by Sean Baker.  Baker followed up the independent award winning Tangerine (2015) with this slice of Orlando life.  A cheap hotel fittingly named the Magic Kingdom keeps the main actions weighted to these rooms, corridors, neighboring stores, nearby helicopter pads, and fields.  Running through all of these frames is youngster Moonee, portrayed by Brooklynn Price.   She dashes here and there with such speed and objective as if not to let life catch up to her or her wayward mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).  Moonee is the defacto leader of the ragtag kids whose parents or guardians cannot afford childcare or find safer options while working or finding employment during the summer months.  These summer months mean the kids do not have the structure, funded meals, and supervision of school.  The hotel is $38/night and attracts clients that have poor credit and tend to survive week by week.  To avoid the perception of slum housing, the manager Bobby (veteran actor Williem Dafoe) helps the guests check out for one day, stores their items elsewhere and then returns them to their room.  Another literal facade is the newly applied purple paint on the Magic Kingdom hotel to hide momentarily the identity and use of the building.

The pacing of the film allows for harmless boredom in the kids’ wanderings and pursuits to become more problematic.  Days stretch languidly for the adults too in their rooms watching inane television in the near dark while the sun hangs high.  Entertainment and joy are so much more subdued than what is promised by the nightly Disney fireworks at the park of whose colors dance on the hotel.  While Bobby does have gleeful exchanges with the wild kids and obstinate guests, Bobby cannot be enough of a positive force to stop the inevitable social ills about him.

The repetition of the days begins to alter gradually until there is no redemption for Halley.  Suggesting that a few poor earlier decisions irreparably stymied Halley from participating in decent employment, and the audience does not have the full backstory which made this story more ubiquitous.  In banal scenes, Baker wisely starts to illuminate how much complication and despair is outside the camera’s focus.  The audience does not need to witness the compromises made to know what is happening.  In the poetic absence of interactions of a child taking a bath, off-screen desperate measures are being undertaken and the consequences ensue.

For a willful spirit like Moonee, her pain and instability seem unfair.  Bobby acts a stand-in for the audience in the efforts made to mentor, advise, and help, but remains unable to prevent the immediate outcome and disturbances.  This uneasiness lingers after the film and demonstrates Baker’s proficiency as a storyteller.

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Picnic: Floundered Youth

Picnic (1955). USA. Directed by Joshua Logan. With William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Betty Field, and Susan Strasberg.

Kansas born playwright William Inge penned several notable plays about Middle America that became critical Broadway successes and cinematic box office draws during the 1950s and early 1960s.  The oft remembered adaptation is Kazan‘s Splendor in the Grass (1961) with Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.  Based on his biography, one could mention Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) with Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth, or Bus Stop (1956) with Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray.  For the subject of this post, I will be reviewing Picnic (1955) and relating themes of pressured youth and weaponry of sexual allure.

Suspending disbelief of William Holden‘s true middle age of 37, audiences met 25 year old Hal Carter riding the rails as a hobo stopping at Nickerson, Kansas. Hal’s objective is to secure a job using his college friendship with Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) who happens to be the son of a wealthy grain tycoon.  Hal has the glory days of college sports to call upon with Benson’s industrious father to ennoble a sense of belonging based on masculine success.  It is enough to open possibilities of working in Benson’s wheat plant, but lacking in propelling Hal into an office role over a day labor’s spot.  Alan, no matter his topical generosity, will not cede too much of his inheritance and class cache to elevate Hal.  Moreover, Alan stifles his range of goodwill when Hal mentions the unparalleled Madge, Alan’s Apollonian girlfriend, before Alan had introduced the two.  The knowingness of Madge by Hal blindsides and unsettles Alan.  Abstractly, Alan can wistfully imagine and covet Hal’s female rendezvous; however, “his” Madge must not be defiled or intercepted.  Madge signifies a best-of-beauty which Alan knows his father’s admires the top candidate in any field.  Madge is no longer a person, but a trophy to ingratiate acceptance from his father.

On the female front, the Owen’s boarding house has a lodger Miss Rosemary Sydney whose presence unleashes a profound fear in the matriarch Flo Owens.  Flo must ensure that her gorgeous daughter Madge not lose her opportunity with the wealthy suitor.  The unfounded belief Flo holds is that should Alan and Madge not marry, Madge will wither away as a desperate spinster like Rosemary.  Alas, the unwed teacher Rosemary is not the only older female without a male example in Flo’s circle.  With woeful bias, Flo neglects Madge’s other internal qualities to harp upon her beauty unabashedly adorning her in fine frocks.  The mother and daughter conversation proceeds awkwardly as Flo investigates what Madge has physically shared with Alan.  Despite Madge’s discomfort, Flo pushes her daughter to be open with doing more like a sad pimp.  Madge carries for Flo the lost promise of her own life.  While Flo’s second daughter Millie is associated with her husband’s abandonment time period, and as a consequence, bookish and college bound Millie is overlooked.  Millie does feel the pang of not being as desirable as her sister, yet fails to realize this might save her from the same fate as most women in the town.

Alluded to near the start, when Hal and Madge inhabit the camera screen together, the sexual energy is electric and bursting.  Madge holds Hal’s stare with equal curiosity and openness which is absent in her dealings with Alan with whom she attempts to escape his pawing hands.  The adults may be dressing the stage for Madge to be crowned Miss Neewollah at the picnic cuing a proposal from Alan, but Madge’s heart is not following the melody.

Of particular note, the character of Miss Rosemary Sydney is a quiet tragedy even as she forces her latest beau Howard to substantiate her honor through marriage.  Nostalgic and mentally miles away from her date Howard, Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) gazes upon the blazing sunset and poetically speaks to the sun’s attempt to ‘set the world on fire to keep the night from coming on.’  Rosemary is fighting against ageism with the few kernels of  youthful vigor and dignity left.  Howard fails to understand her meaning being content with a warm bodied companion on the bleacher seats.  Rosemary brims with regret and hurt, and instead recounts boisterously tales of dalliances with younger beaus.  Madge’s beauty and attention drives Rosemary to outrage and outlandish behavior with Hal at the picnic.  Her acting is intense and filled with cornered rage that can feel out of place until the viewer considers the sorrow carried by these women, Flo, Rosemary, and the neighbor Miss Potts.  The men bluster and fail leaving a wake of women to endure with scraps of pride until death.

Sexual power and attraction exuded by Hal overwhelms Flo’s mission and fabricated norms in the Kansas town.  The joy of pleasure and connection is wretched away from the lovers just as Splendor in the Grass‘s (1961) Wilma (Natalie Wood) and Bud’s (Warren Beatty) romantic love is defeated by meddling adults.  The young generation are not allowed to make mistakes and invariably repeat the same misadventures of their parents as a result.  The misery coexists.

An important edit made to the film not found in the original play is that Madge does not chase Hal to a doomed end, but stays in town facing the taunts and insults of her male peers daily as she continues to work at the five and dime store.  The director Joshua Logan insisted that William Inge modify the conclusion to reduce the depressive factor of the conclusion.  Inge begrudgingly complied.  As remembered by Rosalind Russel, about William Inge’s mother’s boarding house for several female teachers “in his [William Inge] own words: ‘I saw their attempts and, even as a child, I sensed every woman’s failure. I began to sense the sorrow and the emptiness in their lives, and it touched me.’  The women soldier onward even as they are made to feel irrelevant.

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Infighting to Ignore Patriarchal Systems

Raise the Red Lantern (1991). China/HongKong/Taiwan. Directed by Yimou Zhang. With Li Gong, Jingwu Ma, and Saifei He.

Raise the Red Lantern (1991). China/HongKong/Taiwan. Directed by Yimou Zhang. With Li Gong, Jingwu Ma, and Saifei He.

As part of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers, director Zhang Yimou behind Raise the Red Lantern situates the camera lens upon a suffocating compound in a rural area whose characters pressurize every square foot.

To understand potential motivations and influences, one notices the fraught history Zhang Yimou’s family had under communism.  With the reigning government usurped by the Communists rise to power in the 1960s, Zhang’s father lost his position as army major.  As a result, Zhang himself experienced stark conditions in a labor camp then later worked in factory.  The communists targeted education and bourgeois values flaunted by the former ruling class.  The year 1976 brought an end to the Cultural Revolution allowing a return to intellectual pursuits. Soon after, Zhang Yimou enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy.  Filmmakers in China’s Fifth Generation encountered a minuscule audience at home, yet received acclaim in the foreign festival circuit. Grouped with them, Zhang ascended in his career during the 1980s.  Even though Mao’s tyranny had ended, Zhang faced censorship many times for his films.  In fact, his Oscar nominated Raise the Red Lantern (1991) proved out of compliance with China’s guidelines, which banned the film.  Zhang’s plot addresses and unearths many taboo topics China preferred to remain hidden.

The film opens on a tightly frame shot of a young Asian woman reacting to an off-screen voice effectively communicating an end to her enlightened college path.  Songlian (Li Gong) realizes her stepmother with her father’s passing is not invested in keeping her in school.  Cutting quickly to the solution her stepmother has in mind, Songlian suggests being a wife to a wealthy man no matter wives he may already be bound.  The stepmother feigns surprise then silence overwhelms the atmosphere and Songlian.  Without blinking, tears stream heavily down her face.  No whimper or grand hysterics, but a cry with resigned defeat.

In her college attire, Songlian carries her luggage along dirt country roads to a sprawling Chinese courtyard house.  Songlian attempts defiant dignity toward several servants to rebel against her introduction as the fourth wife aka the obvious younger concubine.  Upon entering her house quartered away from the other wives, any semblance of spirit is snuffed out as serving women hurriedly prepare her for the first evening with the Master.  Significantly, the entire film barely offers a decent glimpse of the husband because his nuances are not worthwhile information.  Rather, he represents the patriarchy oppressing women.  For me, I had watched James Ivory’s 4k restoration of Howards End (1992) earlier the same week I had viewed this film.  Both films inhabit a similar time period 1910/1920s with their women restricted, but the degree of subjugation in China was more menacing.  Songlian’s distress the following the wedding night offers one of the last upset moments she outwardly displays.  Instead of dealing with the savagery of her predicament, Songlian is given an opportunity to enact her anger toward the other wives, her competition for the Master’s favor.

Desperately clinging to kindness no matter the source, Songlian formulates her opinions of each wife and servant as either friend or foe.  This approach aligns with survival.  However, first impressions and slights blind Songlian to her true adversaries only complicating any chance to deconstruct the prison she resides.  Betrayal has hefty consequences.  The tentative power the prized wife may hold is pointless whenever the Master asserts his agency.

The courtyard house or sanheyuan demands reverence for rituals.  Whomever of the wives receives a red lantern can expect a visit from the Master that night, and on the following day, select the meal dishes.  Generations of privilege show in the ornate interior decors and well-maintained house.  On a confined walk still within the sanheyuan walls, Songlian discovers a shabby wooden shed atop the roof.  Locked chains prevent Songlian a full assessment, yet enough to observe rotting woman’s shoes by shackles.  Songlian questions a fellow wife about this shed and is blocked from any confidence.  It looms in the audience’s mind.  In the competition, Songlian looses grounding on her fears and presumes if she keeps interactions a game then she has control.  Unfortunately, her contrived reality becomes brutality shattered.

The film nestled into my thoughts as I recalled the beauty of the staging, colors, and quietude in opposition to the sexual slavery, humiliation, and danger.  Initially, I was shocked that this film had reached an audience considering how it skewered China’s societal practices.  Not until I researched the Zhang Yimou and this film, did I learn how politically layered it had been constructed.  I highly recommend Raise the Red Lantern.  It haunts memory and is a treasure for the eyes.

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Carol: A Search for Being Seen

Carol (2015). UK/USA. Directed by Todd Haynes. With Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, and Kyle Chandler.

There can be a preoccupation and false assumptions with any association or suggestion of lesbian related material.  What I have always found fascinating based upon my graduate thesis involved the evolution of the heterosexual male defined term of “a sexually aggressive female” in the mid 19th century France to the contemporary classification within “female homosexuality” (I examined social factors contributing to Courbet’s The Sleepers (1866) and The Origin of the World (1866)).  Even Victorian society struggled to deal with romantic female friendship and expressed great discomfort over the outpouring of passion found in the letters.  Literary wise individuals will ponder on Sarah Waters epic novel The Paying Guests (2014), but this was more the exception than the norm.  Underneath this often male fear is the bewilderment that some women may not require the company of men, and instead, find solace and understanding in a person that may be a fellow female.  While sexual discrimination has not been erased, it has dissipated in contemporary times.  In Carol, viewers feel the incredible tension and suffocation of these characters who want to lead an authentic and touching life, yet are condemned and made powerless in the 1950s.

Rooney Mara as Therese big-faced and eyed reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn acts subtly in her shopgirl role which matches the grace found in Cate Blanchett as Carol.  A brimming sexuality known to Carol, yet unfamiliar to Therese electrifies the first meeting.  On the surface, both Carol and Therese have expected markers of the heterosexual life whether implied by a boyfriend, child or husband.  Experienced Carol draws Therese in and out through slow, calculated, open romantic actions thanks to time shared together.  Since these are the Eisenhower years (mid 1950s), society and particularly men cannot let this type of situation persist without scrutiny and obstacles.  As a result of Carol’s loveless marriage being on fragile ground with her intentions to divorce, her possessive husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) cannot process the perceived blows to his masculinity and seeks to discredit Carol’s character.  Harge has imagined a more elaborate sexual history with women undertaken by Carol than reality and any whiff of female friendship sends him into a frenzy.  In his stalking and predatory way of being, audiences sympathize with Carol’s caged feeling.

The threat element embodied by Harge adds stakes to this budding romance between Therese and Carol.  This romantic tale with thriller aspects is a known pattern of  Patricia Highsmith.  Her novel The Price of Salt (1952) is the basis for Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015).  Highsmith is a film adaption favorite with The Talented Mr. Ripley (film 1999; book 1955) as another example of this narrative style and merely a small selection of many extensions of her original literary content.

What should not be overlooked is the depths explored in the bond shared between Therese and Carol.  Therese may be quieter in displayed energy, but her photographic eye and longing to be seen is readily apparent.  Even though Carol has past experiences to build upon, Therese’s ability to consume not only Carol’s personality yet also her vulnerability challenges any flippant notions Carol may have initially conceived about the relationship.  In this way, Therese’s silence coupled with an open heart can be misconstrued as a weakness, are a strength in fact.  Carol encourages Therese’s artistic ambitions knowing that one’s identity outside of relationships needs to have fertile ground to grow for a person to be not as entrapped.

For as much as nostalgia paints the 1950s in ignorant suburban consumerism, the reality is painstaking to witness.  Observing the lack of legal rights ascribed to women demonstrates how easily the law could be perverted reduce a woman to servitude.  I shall leave the conclusion for audiences, but with any small victory there are countless casualties for these characters.

Nominations for the Academy Awards and Golden Globes of 2016 reinforce any desire to watch this cinematic production.

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A Return to Craft | She Lights Up Well

She Lights Up Well (2014). USA. Directed by Joyce Wu. With Joyce Wu, Tsai Chin, Sean Kleier, and Brian Yang.

Acting anymore is a rich person’s game.  For example, you can note the football Giant’s owners’ kids Rooney and Kate Mara in leading or prominent roles.  While they may have skills, they can also wait out the rejections eating better meals than canned chickpeas or beans day after day.  Actors without the golden carriage must pick-up odd jobs that allow for enough flexibility to abandon if the right audition presents itself.  Not being white adds another layer of fodder to navigate.  Despite the melting pot in America and especially NYC, representations of white people pervade the cinematic, theatrical, and media landscape.  This is the world that Sophie played by Joyce Wu (also the writer & director) finds herself confronting in She Lights Up Well (2014).

There is an insider’s eye to how Wu depicts readings and the charades maintained.  In a quick illuminating scene, Wu hits home the odious burden of student debt, makeshift meals, and the unfortunate sides of having a cheap apartment with limited sound proofing.  Surviving in NYC is a bleak prospect.  It is no surprise that retreating to the parental nest offers a marginal improvement even if ghosts of the past attempt to shame one in the unsettled phase.  Almost immediately from the airport, Grandma portrayed by Tsai Chin (The Joy Luck Club, The Interpreter, Casino Royale among other productions) requests to be dropped off at a community center for Gilbert & Sullivan‘s Mikado rehearsals.  Sophie’s desire to perform clearly was a case of nature and nurture.

Too often, a retreat to suburbia seeks to highlight the integrity found in people in contrast to NYC’s vipers and overall emotional void.  Another easy trope is to have the protagonist find a companion to soften the transition time period then influence her/his goal.  Wu smartly avoids these predictable trappings.  Her commentary in the form of character exchanges reveal the hypocrisy and malfeasance that are part of people anywhere in the quest of either power or desperation to begin anew.  Instead of the heroine building her confidence via didacticism (i.e., The Intern), Sophie crusades for her grandmother’s theater group that ultimately allows her to enact an agency that had been lacking in NYC.  Her own artistry and intelligence find fertile ground in Detroit.

Peeling back the pretense, Sophie, her grandmother, and the other players harness the creativity and enthusiasm for the acting profession that reaffirms Sophie’s passion.  Reclaiming a sense of self also translates to how to tackle the stereotype laden Mikado.

Omitting further plot points to allow for audience enjoyment.

Looking forward to viewing more of Wu’s projects as her voice is refreshing, sharp, and compassionate.

Film is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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Respect for Strong Performances, But Still Crave the Original

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015). USA/UK. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. With Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Michael Sheen.

Few film moments jarred me as much as Terrence Stamp in the role of Sergeant Troy menacing Julie Christie playing Bathsheba in the 1967 rendition of Far From the Madding Crowd.  I approached this latest portrayal with an open mind, yet that same brain kept flashing back to key scenes from the earlier version.  Vinterberg created a beautiful, bucolic countryside and maintained the literary source’s strong characters; however, the rhythm and sensibility strayed from the excellence of John Schlesinger.

For those unfamiliar of the film’s source material, Thomas Hardy‘s novel Far From the Madding Crowd published in 1874 centers upon a young modern, ambitious woman named Bathsheba whose sudden inheritance thrusts her into a powerful position as farmer.  She relishes inserting herself into male dominated spheres while neglecting her emotional awareness with male attention at times.  Critically acclaimed, Hardy’s fourth novel inaugurated his literary success after failed attempts initially with poetry.  It should be noted that Far From the Madding Crowd is not as dreary and pessimistic as Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895).

Regrouping after the screening, I noted that the quiet moments were offset with narrative accelerations.  Vinterberg’s camera would linger on Bathsheba and Farmer Gabriel Oak’s faces to heighten the thoughts unexpressed behind the gazes.  Then resembling a jolt, a plot point would move swiftly along leaving the characters’ necessary slower scenes discordantly and falsely dragging the pacing.  In the 1967 example, Schlesinger had an hour’s worth more time to build the peculiarities of William Boldwood (Peter Finch) and level of devastation wrought by Sergeant Troy.  With Schlesinger, viewers inhabited the interiors and exteriors of the production and the characters in permeating ways.

It is counterproductive to contrast Christie and Mulligan’s beauty barometer because they are both gorgeous, and it reinforces the reductive critique of females.  Rather, I want to expound about why this choice role of Bathsheba is tempting.  Charming, cute, and formidable, Carey Mulligan exudes savvy and autonomy.  Her Bathsheba is pleasant and industrious. Once Julie Christie entered the frame in 1967, everything else blurs.  Mulligan is a dominant presence, but not as bewitching as Christie.  Frankly, Christie is so synonymous with the character that Mulligan’s arresting portrayal cannot be appreciated objectively.  In her career, Mulligan has selected caliber projects such as An Education (2009), Shame (2011), Pride and Prejudice (2005), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).  Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) continues her trend of complicated female characters and screenplays that are generated with great quality.  Gifted and discerning actresses like Carey Mulligan covet the Bathsheba role.  Not many cinematic releases do fulfill the satisfying range found in Far From the Madding Crowd, so I understand how adapting this novel again is worthwhile, but then I also posit could there had been a fresh or new story to bring to life.

Reviewing the male performances, Farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) is delectable to where Bathsheba’s marriage refusal seems partly disappointing.  In the original, Alan Bates playing Farmer Oak is a slower sell to Bathsheba and audiences.  In that way, Bathsheba’s learning curve feels more hard-worn.  In assessing the Sergeant Troys, the brooding sexuality of Terrence Stamp in his prime throws asunder the rationalism professed by Bathsheba.  Tom Sturridge had a hard act to follow, and his horrible treatment of Bathsheba is not as long suffering or psychologically disturbing.   Knowingly, this could have been a consequence of the shorten film length, yet Stamp always had this haunting quality.

While I wish film houses would find more notable material like Far From the Madding Crowd to support, I recommend audiences first view director Schlesinger’s magnificent 3-hour film starring Julie Christie (Schlesinger directed her debut in Darling), Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terrence Stamp.

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Welles: No One-Trick-Pony

The Trial (1962). FR/DE/IT. Directed by Orson Welles. With Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, and Romy Schneider.

The Trial (1962). FR/DE/IT. Directed by Orson Welles. With Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, and Romy Schneider.

What to make of The Trial (1962)?

There is a built-in mistrust in watching Orson Welles’s films when inundated with his early meteoric success as an omen to being cast off by the gods of favor.  It may be recalled that Orson Welles astounded audiences and critics with Citizen Kane (1941) and ventured unto the alien space for radio listeners during The War of the Worlds broadcast.  His popular success shackled his subsequent creative work with incessant comparisons.  Welles strove for complexity and ambiguity in what images and words meant to convey.  This stance is not embraced readily and became doubly disquieting in film adaptation expectations of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.  The surreal literary world that Kafka sharpened is wrought with frustration.  His characters cannot control their lives even as they followed the supposed rules.  Predictably in Kafka works, the anxiety increases as these protagonists become ostracized.  The intersection of Welles and Kakfa requires focus to determine its import.

Reviewing Welles’ The Trial (Le procès) is not a straightforward endeavor as the combined factors of Welles’s style and lack of editing, Kafka’s narrative premise, and Welles’s insertion unto the screen complicate reception.  Immediately in the film, Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is accosted early morning in his private quarters by a series of police gentlemen who fail to enlighten Josef about the merits or cause of this attention.  Josef acts righteous in his irritation and presumed innocence for nearly a day.  The ripple effect of the unknown charges infect his professional work space and inspire worry in his family members.  Anger turns to anxiety as the spiral of confusion and individual powerless increases with every new wrinkle Josef learns about the justice system.  His agency is overshadowed in metaphysical and realistic ways as he maneuvers around looming statutes and shadows.

Welles assembled renowned actors such as Jeanne Moreau (The 400 Blows , La NotteJules and Jim) and Romy Schneider (Ludwig, Sissi: The Young Empress, Boccaccio ‘70) which lends weight to the inclination that entertainment is not the primary aim of this cinematic production.  Bookending the film, Welles recounts Kafka’s parable Before the Law about a beggar man waiting endlessly for a gatekeeper to permission his access to the law which is never delivered.  Lithographs accompany the retelling.  It is an uncomfortable and depressing tale that serves as the backbone to Josef’s labyrinth to learn of the charges, and in tandem, clear his name with or without the bureaucratic representatives.  In Welles’s communication of a brief Kafka tale, he underlines the desperation in the The Trial in a more plausible situation.  The society depicted is muted of music, art, or any signs of culture.  It is a stripped back setting that forbids any distraction from individual plight.

The paralyzing aspects to Josef’s destiny unsettle and do not abate for the two-hour run.  Instinctively, audiences will bemoan the tedium (heard several funny comments at Film Forum), but I could not ignore the nagging sensibility that we were expected to acknowledge the despair and limitations that to lesser degrees imprison our own lives.  I would not regard this film as one to invite laughter, to solve a puzzle, or to be used for background filler.  It is more accurate to state that its theme will resonate in life moments and prolonged tribulations.  I suppose there is an assurance in knowing profound minds opted to highlight this reality which connects us throughout time (side note: film earned award recognition).  Welles mastered Kafka and lest memory fails, F For Fake (1973) was a triumph as well.

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Pendulous Violence

A Most Violent Year (2014). USA. Directed by J. C. Chandor. With Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, and David Oyelowo.

Film titles as with book titles can tempt or dissuade a would-be audience member.   Simply the words within A Most Violent Year directed by J. C. Chandor conjured grotesque images I had years ago from reading reviews about A History of Violence (2005).  Yet, supportive and urging headlines from the likes of Eric Kohn at Indiewire had me reassess my initial hesitation.  When my friend presented film options one evening, I braced myself for A Most Violent Year to be seen and set in NYC.

Unfortunate gender conventions were challenged.  As has been evident, the spate of male anti-hero television (Breaking Bad, True Detective, etc.) has honed the eye and ear for imitators.  Certainly not all anti-heroes used female characters as cardboard cut-outs (i.e., Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad), but the easy narrative construction is to neglect the female voice and presence.  Tropes of men striving for power at the expense of family and decency is not a new trend.  Notably for this piece, The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and Scarface (1983) have done little to elevate this notion.  The woman characters solely exude sexual potency with the risk of betrayal.  Consider Sharon Stone in Casino or Scarface‘s Michelle Pfeiffer in how the memory sketches their image.  They are rarely their own person.  The fault lies in the screenplay and adaptation.  Pfeiffer and Stone have proven their acting ranges in other films.  Perhaps, because A Most Violent Year took another approach, I found myself more attentive to the rhythms among the characters.  Oscar Nominated Zero Dark Thirty‘s Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales is resolutely no one’s doll or decoration.  She manages the accounting books for her husband, Abel Morales (the wonderful Oscar Isaac) at Standard Oil.  The film reveals that her father had owned the business previously, but her husband had taken the reigns ostensibly.  While Abel would like to run a harmonious company in spite of the turmoil, Anna chooses preparation, and when necessary, action.

The couple’s moments together are not spoiled by gratuitous sex scenes that would emphasize her body; instead, their interactions demonstrate two equals not only problem solving, but sharing what pitfalls have arisen.  The partnership has trust.  Anna conveys the weight of various threats to her husband, and he absorbs the feedback.  Abel will act in a manner befitting his character and ethos, but Anna protects him from his own limitations.  Abel is not diminished by his formidable wife either.  His business creativity and survival are enhanced by her participation.  Chandor has rattled the status quo cages.

The main plot of the film revolves about a desired oil port and storage area that would wholly crown one competitor as the most profitable and enduring.  Fulfilling the contract terms causes the tension and forces intersections with many rivals.  Abel Morales’s adherence to his principles are accosted again and again.  Menace rather than outright murder rampages plague the car and door frames.  Violence is rationed and felt more resoundingly in this controlled manner.  New York City in 1981 still had the muted browns and fashionable flare of the 70s, yet a grittiness is seeping.  Political calculation and strange bedfellows hopelessly intertwine.

Before this post becomes a tome, I’ll say A Most Violent Year nourished this cinemaphile in unexpected ways, and I encourage a trip to the theaters.

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Calvary, A Priest Sentenced

Calvary (2014). Ireland. Directed by John Michael McDonagh. With Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, and Aidan Gillen.

The Catholic Church has become an easy target for comedians and politicians due to the number of molested children by protected religious figures.  Exact numbers will not be reviewed or cataloged, but importantly, an anger persists about how justice has not been forthcoming or stringent as the secular law would demand.  Common practice in earlier days had predatory priests transferred and the cycle would repeat.  In director John Michael McDonagh‘s powerful film Calvary, Father James played by the thoughtful and magnetic Brendan Gleeson places the sense of justice in a flawed light.

Stakes are established at the film’s outset.  Father James is listening to a confession behind a privacy screen.  In angry hushed tones, the lay person describes abuses he endured from a priest as a young boy.  An ominous portent is disclosed.  This man forewarns Father James that he intends to kill him on the following Sunday.  He readily acknowledges Father James is not at fault nor has been suspected of any pedophilia, yet believes that “killing an innocent priest makes more of a statement.”  The camera stays fixed on Father James’s face without any zooming or cuts during the whole confession and threat.  The sound of the sliding window door is heard and the screen goes blank.  Immediate associations went to Fred Zinneman‘s western classic High Noon (1952) where retired marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) faces a released convict hellbent on exacting revenge.  Under the false hope that the same town folks that he had protected will help defend him, Will ultimately has to contend with Frank Miller and his gang alone.  However, what made High Noon memorable is the tension and anxiety found as the clock continues to move forward to the prescribed time.  McDonagh uses a different device of earmarking the day as each new morning begins conscious that the audience is intensely bracing themselves for increased worry and possible conflict before the stated meeting at the shoreline.  Heightening the drama is the fact that Father James knows or is fairly certain of which individual in his small parish is looking to annihilate him.  Despite this information, Father James continues to carry out his spiritual duties and help people.

Adding another curveball to the plot is the backstory that Father James had not begun his career as a priest, but turned to it after the premature death of his wife.  A troubled and emotionally fragile daughter (Kelly Reilly) from that union visits her father shortly after the death sentence is pronounced by the unknown (to the audience) man.  It becomes quite evident that no character is without suspicion, and there is also a callback to the crushing economic fall in Ireland that cast majority of the Irish people into dire financial straits while the banks were able to extricate themselves from the astounding debt.

Gleeson as Father James embodies an honest man with vices of his own.  He is somewhat of a religious skeptic even though he looks to comfort those around him as a man of the cloth.  Father James has his own ire that humanizes the man acting as a priest.  It is a refreshing choice to do so.

Turning attention to the scenery, the waves violently splashing against the jetties communicates a relentless force while around the shore there is a spare austerity of life.  Father James may have people attending mass, but they all have their own criticism and disaffection from the Catholic Church.  McDonagh makes this picture more than merely about a murderous meeting and peels back layers rarely considered.  For instance, in analyzing Father James’s open manner and kindness, it begs the question if people are overwhelmed by sins committed to find the true intention of faith and operating in a forgiving way of themselves and others especially.  Stripping away how misguided people use and abuse religion in general, the core teachings had and has valid messages.

Leaving the spoilers out, ambiguity remains about the harm levied upon Father James.  In particular, the final scene blurred a few ideas, and for that, McDonagh deserves praise at this very strong film.  The Academy Awards should come calling for McDonagh and Gleeson.

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Step Aside Eddie Murphy, Guinness Stands Alone

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). UK. Directed by Robert Hamer. With Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, and Alec Guinness.

Black comedy flourished in Britain especially at Ealing Studios located in the suburbs of west London.  There, actors like the esteemed Sir Alec Guinness, David Niven, and the unforgettable Alastair Sim (best Scourge) took part in these films.  Film Forum offers a glimpse into this style as part of their Alec Guinness 100 tribute.  Launching the series is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which Sir Alec Guinness dons multiple costumes to portray 8 different characters including a Lady heir.

Class tensions and misguided family obligations create the framework of how this plot is woven.  The technique of having Louis’s voiceover as confessional narrator illustrates how he managed to find himself awaiting the executioner’s noose.  Turns out this murderous man had an avenging mission.  His words quickly depict his origin story.

Louis (Dennis Price) is the only child to a cast aside highborn woman who chose love through an Italian “operatic” singer over a duty bound marriage.  The black humor reverberates throughout.  For instance, Louis’s father (he plays that character too) perishes as soon as he learns of Louis’s successful birth.  Dramas typically have the mother dying tragically, yet here it is the father in the nearby room.   The D’Ascoyne family holds firm on ostracizing his mother now forced to take a tenant to make ends meet.

Louis fosters a childhood friendship with the offspring of someone of a “profession.”  Seems that his mother can tolerate the notion with this burgeoning working class.  As Louis matures, he humbly performs roles as clerk in various stores, and then loses his mother.  Angered by the refusal by one of the D’Ascoynes to have his mother be eternally laid in the family crypt, Louis channels his ire into concerted killing.  Chance grants him access to one of the many D’Ascoynes that stand to inherit the fortune in a ladies lingerie shop where he works.  Louis is rebuffed by this D’Ascoyne, and rudeness is the lit fuse to commit Louis to his avenging plan.

In an astounding feat and a way to guarantee family physiological similarities, Alec Guinness portrays each D’Ascoyne that Louis must eradicate.  With precision and eery blackheartedness, Louis regularly crosses off D’Ascoyne by D’Ascoyne on his abridged family tree with great verve.  Louis ascends with each new death, and no matter that a few D’Ascoynes display contrition at how his mother was treated or extend kindess, Louis never falters or hesitates.  The murder scenarios are hilarious with a critique that the upper class lack a discerning mind or ability to assess character of someone.  Even while nobility are inherently supposed to possess attributes of high society, they manage to be blind to the lower ranks especially the upwardly mobile.  Manners is enough of an effective mask for proper duping.  Sir Guinness modulates the voice patterns, posture, hair and props to achieve variety of his characters.  His suffragette Lady Agatha was particularly amusing in her penchant for destruction and attracting police attention.

Seemingly triumphant, Louis is about to enjoy his spoils when the wife to a dead cuckolded husband accuses him of murder as her own form of revenge on Louis.  He had dumped Sibella (Joan Greenwood) for a highborn, and it is this same prejudice that limited his mother’s life that ultimately ensnares his freedom.

A playfulness and absurdity keep this macabre story in the realm of amusement.  Film Forum‘s series scheduled Kind Hearts and Coronets for June 13th & 14th, 2014, but I do encourage making time in another way to watch this film.  Alec Guinness 100 provides ample chance (until July 3rd, 2014) to view the talented actor in different roles before Star Wars stored his persona as Obi-Wan Kenobi for the next batch of film-goers.

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