Sunday, March 4, 2018

Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Loveless" & Armando Iannucci's "The Death of Stalin" at SIFF Cinema: Mar 16 - 29 | Valeska Grisebach's "Western" at Northwest Film Forum: Mar 8 - 11 | Michael Haneke's “Happy End” at Varsity Theater: Mar 2 - 8 | Kiyoshi Kurosawa's “Before We Vanish” at Grand Illusion Cinema: Mar 9 - 15

Some six months after the festival's conclusion, many of the most anticipated and notable films of this past year's Cannes are arriving in the cinema. The festival's seeming abundance of "Sorrow, Strength and Middle-class Woes", continues in the long tradition of "Cannes' Rich History of Capturing Politics, Mores and Film Icons", as the world's most prestigious showcase of the old and the new. Extensive coverage of the totality the festival had to offer can be found on pages dedicated by, Criterion, The Guardian, The New York Times, Sight & Sound, and Film Comment's varied and alternating perspectives offered in Dennis Lim's "Keeping at It", Kent Jones' "A Six-Letter Word", Nicolas Rapold's "Catastrophes on Parade", and Amy Taubin's "The Speed of Light in a Vacuum". In another longstanding tradition with Cannes, opinions diverge notably among the press. In The Guardian's coverage, "Cannes 2017 Awards: Visceral Power Overlooked in Favour of Bourgeois Vanity", Peter Bradshaw saw the festival bestow the fruits of this year's awards on a set of elegant dissections of bourgeois absurdity and vanity. In the process, overlooking the more visceral power of entries seen in, "An Eerie Thriller of Hypnotic, Mysterious Intensity" from Andrei Zvyagintsev, "Joaquin Phoenix Turning Travis Bickle in Brutal Thriller" as directed by Lynne Ramsay, and Sergei Loznitsa's "Brutally Realist Drama Offering Up a Pilgrimage of Suffering". Similar observations can be found from Nick James in Sight & Sound, in which there was little consensus among critics on, "What Should have Won the 2017 Cannes Palme d’Or?". Arguing the divided nature of the awards are the product of the competition being the weakest of recent times, producing a wide open field expressed in the random enthusiasms of Pedro Almodovar’s jury. Yet there was consistency found in the consensus among critics that Lynn Ramsay's kidnap thriller, "You Were Never Really Here", and again regarding Andrey Zvyagintsev’s disintegrating family drama "Loveless".

Much in the way of Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan, or Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, few living filmmakers put as much focus and intentionality into their technical storytelling craft as Andrey Zvyagintsev. Such determination risks the weight of style and form from the application of such methodical rigor, yet rather than the weight such framing oppressing the narrative, in his work the drama is buoyed by the solidity of its mass. Like his "Elena" of 2011, Zvyagintsev's newest concerns itself with issues of generational values, class and privilege in contemporary Russia. What it also shares with that film is its riding a balance between polemic and mystery, tackling earth-bound social issues, but hovering around the film's expanses there is the unease of a deeper spiritual faultline running through the worldly drama. The stratification of a Russia literally living within the ruins of the Soviet era remains the dramatic and visual theme, one of stark spaces and corrupted infrastructures, and given his home's current political climate, his recent stretch of films have earned "Applause in Hollywood but Scorn at Home", as "Andrey Zvyagintsev Navigates a Tricky Terrain". Initially a satire of rudderless Russian modernity, mid-way into it's examination of materialistic self regard, "Loveless" shifts its focus to find deeper "Resonances in a Russian Family Falling Apart". Seemingly overlooked at Cannes, as detailed above by The Guardian and BFI's Sight & Sound,'s Sheila O'Malley weighs in on "Loveless" in their selections for the Academy Awards, "If We Picked the Winners 2018: Best Foreign Language Film".

Having already proved himself a virtuoso of contemporary political evisceration, Armando Iannucci moves out of the modern setting of successes like "Veep" and "The Thick of It", into period satire in his sharply comedic, "The Death of Stalin". Unlike the passive reception of the political facets of Zvyagintsev's filmography, Iannucci's film has met with outright resistance, and theater closures upon it's opening in Russia, the film being widely banned for its comedic and sacrilegious, "Deflation of the Corpse of Despotism". The ceaseless stream of dialog, frantically assembled agenda, and cross and double-cross, are the propulsive machinations found "Amid Chaos, Great Energy" of the film's wrong-footing equilibrium. Delivered through a tightly set arrangement of sharp dialog, slapstick and interjections of impending violence, he sense of fear, and tension of deadly consequence is so deeply embedded in every scene of the film that it distorts reality around it. Stalin era atrocities are the inferred force behind the delirious intrigue and frantic rearrangement of history at the film's pivotal moment. In Iannucci's situational "Slapstick Horror", Khrushchev soon rises to the occasion as one of the canniest of these manipulators, but it is Lavrentiy Beria, the architect of Stalin's NKVD, and the ensuing cultural purges, that emerges of the film's locus. Alongside paranoid set pieces of the filmmaker’s signature comedic dressing-downs, As J.Hoberman says in the pages of Tablet, "The Death of Stalin", has something to offend everyone; "both Slavophiles and Slavophobes alike, The Nation and The National Review, erudite professors and historical ignoramuses, neo-Stalinists and anti-Stalinists of all persuasions".

Garnering recognition as it traversed the world at film festivals in Vienna, New York, and Toronto, the third feature film by Bulgaria's Valeska Grisebach ranked among the most notable works seen in Cannes' late-May French Riviera setting. Eventually finding itself among year-end overviews such as Sight & Sound's Best Films of 2017. More than a oblique reference to the genre with which it shares its title, Vlaeska's "Western" explores the themes of ingrained prejudice and the permeability of borders, offering a provocative and often original take on Hollywood's richly confrontation genre. As a exploration of the western's tropes, it shares a kinship with another great film made by a woman director on the subject of men at work, on a frontier, largely in the absence of women. For those who are looking, associations are there to be made with Claire Denis' masterful "Beau Travail", (a subtle recognition of Denis’s legionnaires is even offered at its midway point). Told with firmly established style points on the conventions of European arthouse cinema; the favoring of passing ambient or situational moments over narrative development, the observational relationship to identity of the protagonist, and a substantive yet open-ended resolution, "Western" increasingly stands apart. All the while as its situational particulars come to feel tangibly well-worn and as familiar in the western format as a John Ford movie. That is, if the Fords and the Peckinpahs of the higher end of the Hollywood standard were attuned to dislocation and discontent in contemporary Europe, and observed with a keen eye for gender and 21st century socio-political frictions. As Jonathan Romney's Film of the Week review details, the workers of Valeska's film share no small affinity with the frontiersmen of the Old West. Some of whom act as though they find themselves in the 19th century, seeing the local people as an indigenous presence to be treated with suspicion, or exploited in the mission of their labor. Thereby establishing the film's central conflict and it's protagonist's stance in relation to nation, and personal nature.

When considering the work of this multiple Palme d’Or winner (sharing the exclusive company of Shohei Imamura, Alf Sjöberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Bille August, Emir Kusturica and the Dardenne Brothers), The Telegraph's assessment of Michael Haneke as an unsparing auteur is reductive, but not far off the mark, "Michael Haneke: Cruel to His Characters and To Us". Yet his recent work has tempered the severity of his critique of violence and entertainment. As a unexpected, and singular, sequel in the director's filmography, "Happy End" could watch as "Another Unhappy Family From Michael Haneke", yet there's more to this tale of privilege, interpersonal estrangement and desensitization in it's continuation of the Laurent family's travails, as last witness in 2012's "Amour". At the time of its release, Film Comment featuring a particularly powerful plumbing of the creative urge, life, history and will to live, with the film's lead Jean-Louis Trintignant, with another interview following in the New York Times, offering "Words of Love From a Severe Director". The two interviews describing not only the rigor that Haneke has become known for, but also a deeper empathy and consideration of the character's tribulations, even of the subject matter itself. Haneke's cinematic worldview has been further enriched by the vein of empathetic humanism seen in the film. As detailed in consensus for the New York Times by Manohla Dargis & A.O. Scott, Catherine Wheatley for Sight & Sound, Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian, James Quandt in the pages of Artforum, and Robert Koehler for Film Comment, "Amour" casts an unflinching, yet not unsympathetic gaze on a subject from which many of us would prefer to avert our eyes and mind. Here for a one week run at The Varsity, wherein "Michael Haneke Hosts a Family Blowout", his newest is another installment in the director's interrogation of the "institutional custom of selfishness". Much in the way of its predecessor, "Happy End is a Welcome Departure for Michael Haneke", expressed through attributes new to Haneke's oeuvre. The two films making for a varied branch in his ongoing quest for humanity amidst the materialistic, banal, and perverse.

The directors who led the Japanese cinema explosion of the 1990s; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Naomi Kawase, and Takashi Miike, are still among the industry's most high profile faces on the international festival circuit. Concurrently, a new generation of filmmakers from Japan are starting to make themselves heard. This past year saw the domestic release of Shunji Iwai's disorienting urban drama, "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle", Ryusuke Hamaguchi's 5-hour domestic tranquility stunner, "Happy Hour", and Koji Fukada taking home the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes for “Harmonium”. In many regards, this "New Wave of Japanese Filmmakers Matches the Old", particularly in the way of Kurosawa's exploration of modern unease. Taking a a more refined turn from his earlier filmography populated by psychological and supernatural horror since 2008's "Tokyo Sonata", winner of the Jury Prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section, Kurosawa has exhibited an aptitude for sublimating his obsession with societal decay into any conceivable genre. The though-line between his earlier explorations of modern horror and these current ventures is a sure-footed aesthetic precision. Longtime cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa deserves credit for the the elegant framings, disconcerting lighting, and air of desolation and disuse found in the production design, the substance of Kurosawa's palpable sense of place.

As a premonition of hard times and a fierce social and familial satire, Kurosawa made the everyday mundanity of domestic life another of his vehicles for "exploring issues of desperation, loneliness and alienation". One in which the protagonist is living a nightmare largely of his own making, equally inescapable as the mesmerism, curses, hauntings of the proceeding body of the director's work.  Appearing at Cannes and taking the Directing prize again in the Un Certain Regard section, his following "Journey to the Shore", returns to the supernatural but in a more sublimated process of it's characters gradually losing their inner cohesion through contact between the living and the dead. In his "Wonders to Behold" coverage from Cannes, Kent Jones' espoused the passage though which as an experience, "so exquisitely tuned and delicately heartbreaking that they seem to have been experienced and remembered rather than seen on a movie screen.". Shifting yet again into a new genre mode, the alien scouts of "Before We Vanish" take from human hosts in the time-honored trope of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", yet their objectives are revealed to be a cultural amassing of information through the harvesting of “conceptions”. Mubi's Cannes' coverage detail this "Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Retro Futurist" work, who's central premise is the extraterrestrial visitors' gleaning of key earthling abstractions such as “self”, “family” and “freedom"; at which point the person loses all knowledge of the concept in question. Rather than taking body and form in an effort to quietly subsume the population of their earthly victims, in the infiltration inquiry of "‘Before We Vanish,’ the Aliens Have a Lot of Questions".