The Past (2013, Asghar Farhadi)

Quite excellent. A twisty secrets-and-lies family drama without any of the twists feeling contrived, and with none of the characters feeling less than sympathetic.

Marie (Berenice Bejo, star of The Artist) gets her separated husband Ahmad back to Paris for a divorce so she can marry Samir (Tahar Rahim, star of A Prophet). Marie’s two daughters and Samir’s son are moody because of family upheaval. But it turns out teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet, a young Piaf in La Vie en Rose) is also moody because she might be partly responsible for Samir’s current wife being in a coma. Samir’s employee at the dry cleaners (Sabrina Ouazani of a couple Kechiche movies) may also be partly responsible, but some details surrounding her near-suicide remain unknowable at the end.

Beaten out by Blue is the Warmest Color at Cannes, The Great Beauty at the Globes, and something called Me, Myself and Mum at the Cesars. Cinema Scope called it muddled, tedious and inept. “Farhadi’s direction is actually somewhat more serviceable than his writing, if you have a taste for television-style two-shots and bland compositions,” ouch.

Natan (2013, Paul Duane & David Cairns)

Not as relentlessly Decasian as the trailer suggests, actually settles down into a normal storytelling groove of interview material for a good while, but punctuated by Natan’s papier-mache-headed stand-in, a few effects shots of a wall of posters, and that voiceover by The Film Itself. These are all evocative additions – the poster gallery returns re-postered before and after the nazi invasion, and some of the scant footage of Natan himself, at his trial, has him repeatedly covering his head with a newspaper. This is already more thoughtful stylistic presentation than most documentaries get, then the voiceover and bookending Melies stories put it over the top.

Plus the story is killer, one of those subjects that researchers dream of – a chance to correct the wrongs of history. Bernard Natan isn’t set up as a saint, but at the very least an important figure in history, a founder of French cinema who deserved a better end and reputation than he got. The directors even scored an interview with the academic who brought the unfounded rumors and nazi-era smears into the modern age, a villain of the picture though he doesn’t seem to realize it.

R100 (2013, Hitoshi Matsumoto)

Girl gets her makeup just right, returns to dinner table with nervous dude, kicks him in the head. Outside she tosses him down the stairs then reveals herself as a dominatrix superhero.

Then this happens (mouseover to see this):

Takafumi (Nao Omori, title star of Ichi the Killer), it turns out, has joined a club in which he’ll get attacked by dominatrices at random times and places. But the girls start showing up in situations that threaten his family and work life.

The title appears 40 minutes in. Then a spy warns Takafumi to quit the club before it’s too late.

A voice-throwing girl humiliates our guy in the hospital room of his comatose wife. Then the title again. And now a bored film crew discusses the intent of their hundred-year-old director, pictured as a bearded dude in a screening room.

Takafumi fails to get sympathy from the police. The girls get his young son involved, tie them both up. After one girl falls down his stairs and dies, he immediately gets a threatening phone call accusing him of murder. So he’s on the run from ninja dominatrices, the spy from before (“we’re an agency that fights anti-social elements”) is helping, and I’m figuring it’s gonna end somewhat like The Game (it doesn’t).

Takafumi is armed, starts shooting dominatrices – “in the end, masochist turns to sadist.” Meanwhile the CEO (wrestler Lindsay Hayward, one of the tallest women in the world) arrives at the women’s swimming-pool lair, cursing and screaming in English. Total war ensues.


Ends with a flashback montage of the entire movie, Takafuni pregnant posing for a photo shoot, and the hundred-year-old director getting his kicks (mouseover for kicks).

My copy was very brown.

The Miners’ Hymns (2011, Bill Morrison)

Slow-motion stock footage and photographs of miners and their mines, with slow-motion color helicopter shots of their present-day locations, accompanied by slow-motion music. The movie doesn’t tell a conventional story, allowing you to apply your own knowledge and bias to the visuals. In my case what came to mind was Harlan County USA, Ace in the Hole and every Freakwater song (plus some Mekons/Freakons, Johnny Miner). Anyway, nothing hopeful or positive. The helicopter shots seem to back this up, showing these sites erased by history, covered up with parking lots, shopping centers and housing developments, unmourned. But it ends on a happy note, a massive parade of Durham-area miners marching into a cathedral.

Since each is under an hour, you could easily double-feature this with Coal Money, or maybe more appropriately, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind.

John Dies at the End (2012, Don Coscarelli)

Feels like it’s trying too hard to be a cult hit, and the pacing is often weird, with our somnambulist hero Dave always moving and speaking slower than you’d expect, and its universe and logic seem simultaneously under- and over-developed (maybe since it’s an incomplete adaptation of the source comic), but overall a damned fun flick, unlike anything else out there, and a welcome return to weird-movie-making for Coscarelli ten years after Bubba Ho-Tep.

Attempts at plot summary would be ridiculous, but here are some people and things.

Tall Man as dark-eyed priest:

Basement meat monster summoned by Obscure Object snake girl, destroyed by Dr. Marconi phone call:

Paul Giamatti as viewer-surrogate reporter:

Good weapon:

Glynn Turman as evidence-destroying, hero-threatening rogue cop:

Church of Dave & John: clothing and masks optional

Dave nearly falls into pit of Korrok before monster is destroyed by humanity-saving suicide-bomber dog:

Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)

I guess it’s about two people with traumatic pasts who try to track down where their lives went wrong – but as I could tell from the trailer, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about. One thing I wasn’t expecting: it opens with Swanberg/Wingard regular Amy Seimetz being kidnapped and force-fed a mind-control worm by a patient abductor who takes her home and gets her to sign over all her home equity, which he cashes and disappears.

In her shabby new life working at a signage shop, Amy is relentlessly courted by divorced ex-junkie Shane (our writer/director/etc) who tries to help her come to terms with her life. He has his own identity problems – she tells him stories and he fashions them into his own memories and tries to re-tell them to her. During the mutual-paranoid-freakout scene in a bathtub the movie started to remind me of Bug.

Elsewhere in the world, a pig farmer is somehow involved with the worm-brainwashed abductees and possibly the harvesting of new mind-control worms. Also he seems to be a sound recordist. Amy pieces together enough details to discover his farm and kill him, upon which they find documents on all the other kidnappees, and invite them all to the pig farm.

And I haven’t even mentioned these guys:

The above is a silly description of an entrancing movie.
This was a long time coming after Carruth’s great Primer.
Co-edited by David Lowery, whose Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made waves the same year.

Cinema Scope has an excellent interview with Carruth:

From a writing perspective, I don’t want these people to wake up and have a normal resolution. That’s impossible for me because that means that I understand all of this and have a morality lesson to explain to the audience. And I don’t. All I have is an exploration. So the characters can resolve their story in their own way, but that doesn’t stop the exploration for me.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese)

Leo starts out a naive stockbroker under the wing of weirdo drunk Matthew McConaughey (having a big year), eventually starts his own business (with a terrific Jonah Hill) using hard-sell techniques to trade junk stocks to rich people, until finally his nonstop cheating, drug-taking, money-laundering (Jean Dujardin is wonderful as a Swiss banker) and FBI agent Kyle Chandler (of Zero Dark and Super 8) take him down. Internet says Leo, Jonah and Matthew spent a few years in prison each (The movie sadly doesn’t portray Leo’s prison friendship with Tommy Chong), but Leo’s out selling his sales techniques at seminars, still a controversial mofo.

Written by Terence Winter, creator of Boardwalk Empire, who says: “You are being sold the Jordan Belfort story by Jordan Belfort, and he is a very unreliable narrator.”

G. Kenny: “There is a certain irony that Scorsese’s particular critique of capital is such an expensive one, and don’t believe for a minute that he is not unaware of it. We all, or most of us, do what we can with the resources made available to us. ”

MZ Seitz:

“Wolf” starts with a Fellini-like party on the floor of Belfort’s firm, then freeze-frames on Belfort tossing a dwarf at a huge velcro target, literally and figuratively abusing the Little Guy. The traders get away with their abuse because most people don’t see themselves as little guys, but as little guys who might some day become the big guy doing the tossing. “Socialism never took root in America,” John Steinbeck wrote, “because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

R. Brody on the final shot:

Scorsese’s camera rises over their heads to scan the yearning, vacant faces of the aspirants in the rows behind them. It’s a moment with a terrifying, Olympian blend of compassion, disdain, and anguish; it shows a fatal lack of imagination combined with a desperate range of unfulfilled desires. The shot shows not just an audience, but the audience: Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves, charges us with compensating for our lack of imagination and fatal ambition through contact with the wiles of a master manipulator. Just as the fictionalized Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is presented at the seminar by a host (who, in a diabolical cameo, is played by the real-life Belfort), so we, the movie audience, have been introduced to Belfort by another enthusiastic impresario, namely Martin Scorsese, who knows perfectly well that he is giving us something that we want, something that we need, and something that taps into dreams and ambitions that are both central to life and completely suspect.

I wasn’t completely crazy about it, but gotta agree with Ben Wheatley, who says:

I saw Wolf Of Wall Street, and that was a fantastic experience, just going, “God, this is a proper film.”

American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell)

Total acting showcase, starring two oscar winners and three multiple-nominees. So who do you get for the sixth-billed slot? Louis C.K., hell yes!

Scammer Christian Bale attracts scammer Amy Adams, who both attract the attention of overeager federal agent Bradley Cooper, who wants to go big with the scams and nab charismatic mayor Jeremy Renner. Also Bale is married to Jennifer Lawrence, who seems to have been pried into the movie. Also Robert DeNiro plays a scary gangster, and the scammers screw over the agent (and, reluctantly, the mayor) at the end.

To The Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick)

A very Malickian movie, with fields of grain and far more voiceover than dialogue. Absolutely full of camera movement, all of it motivated by place or action, and brilliant associative editing. Maybe a few too many shots with the sun right behind the foreground person’s head (this happens in most of the shots), but a beautiful, breathtaking movie to watch – and to hear, with appropriately big music by Hanan Townshend (returning from Tree of Life).

As for what actually happens in the movie, I’ll need to watch (happily) some more times, or refer to film writers and/or philosophers. Ben Affleck is our central/absent hero, with hardly any lines, as the film takes the POV of the women with him. First Olga Kurylenko (of a recent James Bond movie) comes from France to Oklahoma with her daughter, leaves again when Ben won’t marry her. Rachel McAdams (of a recent Woody Allen movie) takes up with Ben, but this doesn’t last long, and Olga returns without her daughter, marries and later divorces the stoic Ben. Meanwhile Javier Bardem (of a recent James Bond movie and a recent Woody Allen movie) is a local doubting minister who knows all three primary characters but doesn’t play a central role in their story, spending more time among the poorer citizens. The great DP Emmanuel Lubezki (nominated this year for Gravity instead of this) rightly described it all as abstract – and as usual, rumors abound of major actors and storylines that didn’t survive into the final edit (they’re not in the DVD extras either).

Not as straightforwardly religious (or as straightforwardly anything) as I’d heard, and possibly even less narrative than Tree of Life. Malick increasingly makes all other films seem unaccomplished and inadequate. Looking for articles I’m surprised at how many critics hated the movie, are tired of Malick’s techniques, say the characters and story are over-familiar. These critics have no love in their hearts.

M. Koresky:

He was once a myth, and many seem to have preferred him that way—with hallowed artists, absence is easier to confront than presence. He’s now a constant in our film culture, a searching, grasping, wrestling artist. … he seems to be discovering the world anew right along with Marina; this is a searching, selfless filmmaker, imagining the point of view of a good-hearted, soulful, and terribly solitary woman. In this way, To the Wonder is like the more elegiac second half of The New World — everything following Q’orianka Kilcher’s marriage to the laconic yet loving husband played by Christian Bale — stretched to feature length, a fish-out-of-water tale that finds beauty and harmony in disruption and estrangement.