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Foxcatcher

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 26, 2014 at 10:25 PM Comments comments (0)


FOXCATCHER  ***1/2
Bennett Miller
2014



IDEA:  John du Pont, heir to one of the US's largest fortunes, invites Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz and the entire American team to come train on his expansive estate, where things head toward inexorable tragedy.

BLURB:  The real life story of an Olympic wrestler and his relationship with a sociopathic multimillionaire becomes the grounds for a dissection of the curdled American ethos in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. Though perhaps somewhat dubious in its ascribing of determinants to a person who was likely mentally ill, as well as in its construing of these true events as a broader cultural statement, Miller’s film is never so conclusive as to read as disingenuous. Instead, he takes a critical look at a truly bizarre and shocking true story and mines it for all its (possible, probable) sociological and psychological implications, leaving the dazed viewer with just enough information to try to make sense of it all. Loyalty to facts or not, what is clear is this: Foxcatcher is quietly mesmerizing, a perpetually simmering portrait of souls lost and corroded on their way to perceived greatness that doesn’t have a hair out of place. With its sensationally able cast – Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, among them channeling a spectrum of distressed physical states – it puts into place a roiling fabric of power relations that point up a cultural condition predicated on exploitation, violence, and delusion. Miller and ace DP Greig Fraser train an unblinking, almost anthropological eye on masculinity, alternately wounded and inflamed, and the milieu that sublimates aggressive impulses into capitalism and privilege. It may be lots of speculation pertaining to ultimately inscrutable events, but that it seems so unnervingly plausible testifies to Foxcatcher's bruising emotional veracity.

Dear White People

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 14, 2014 at 6:15 PM Comments comments (0)



DEAR WHITE PEOPLE  ***1/2

Justin Simien

2014



IDEA:  The lives of four black students at a predominantly white Ivy League school come under the fire of prejudice, identity politics, and institutional racism as the administration's randomized housing act threatens to dissolve the school's only black residence.


BLURB:  For a topic still as incendiary as race relations in America, bringing it up at all is often enough to ignite a fire. It’s a double-edged sword: talk about the issue too much, and you’re exacerbating its presence; don’t talk about it enough, and you risk losing sight of it or denying the problem altogether. Thankfully, Justin Simien’s Dear White People is here to take the perilous walk along the blade, and it (mostly) does so with formidable and intrepid aplomb. Dialectical in a way too rarely seen in today’s cinema, Simien’s film is charged, prudent ideological filmmaking, daring to tackle pressing real world social issues in a way that accounts for all of their facets without pretending they’re actually reconcilable. The approach is highly effective, confrontational but not didactic: tracking multiple, often contradictory 21st century black perspectives, he manages to create a multilayered portrait of young black identities that never feels as if it’s picking sides or chastising. These characters represent the spectrum, and Simien allows them all to be seen and heard in equal measure. Even better, he creates a space for them that’s warm, witty, and equipped with wonderfully preemptive strikes against anyone who dares submit that centuries of entrenched racism have somehow vanished in Obama’s America. At the very least, Dear White People promulgates a sage discourse that ensures such inanity isn’t easily let off the hook.

Whiplash

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 5, 2014 at 8:25 PM Comments comments (0)



WHIPLASH  ***

Damien Chazelle

2014


 

IDEA:  An aspring jazz drummer comes to a prestigious music conservatory, where he is subjected to the cruel, authoritarian mentorship of his ruthless instructor.


BLURB:  Rarely has giving blood, sweat and tears to your art been depicted as literally as in Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s blistering, somatically exhausting portrait of unrelenting artistic pursuit. Through Sharone Meir’s dread-soaked cinematography and Tom Cross’s frenzied editing, the mastery of music becomes not only beautiful but potentially deadly, the act of drumming a visceral display of masculine violence that requires as much in the way of precision and elegance as in animal fury. In the combustible relationship between J.K. Simmons’ virulent instructor and Miles Teller’s increasingly fevered protégé, written and performed with great complexity, Chazelle finds a highly unnerving representation of the artist as sadomasochist, driving himself toward destruction while justifying internal and external abuse as necessary motivators. The dynamic is deliciously multifaceted, never settling for an easy mentor/mentee dialectic but shifting, in increasingly disturbing ways, the negotiation of power and dominance between the two and the dangerously symbiotic exchange of influences that reinforces the beliefs of both. Unfortunately, Chazelle often loses his thread of logic – the world he’s set up is rather ill-defined, both realistic and heightened, often veering into outlandishness – but any depiction of all-consuming artistic obsession that dares venture into territory this dark and provocative is one that can get away with spiraling out of control every now and then.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 30, 2014 at 9:05 PM Comments comments (0)



BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)  ***1/2

Alejandro González Iñárritu

2014


 

IDEA:  Riggan Thomson, a fading movie star made famous for his Birdman superhero films but unable to move beyond them, mounts a big Broadway play in the hopes of winning back his relevance.


BLURB:  Films about show business have always been among Hollywood’s specialties, dual celebrations and invectives of an insular, narcissistic culture made by and largely for people from within that very culture. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) carries on the tradition, mobilizing distinctly 21st century idioms to show what happens when that world of illusion and delusion enters into the realm of the hyperreal. Though in many ways a recitation of the backstage drama recipe with additional razzle dazzle, Birdman rises above the fray through its astonishing formal daring, a conceit that, far from mere showboating (although it is that, too), is the film’s raison d’être. González Iñárritu and Lubezki’s flabbergasting work is more than a neat trick; the camera’s uninterrupted simulation of verisimilitude and artifice is the discombobulating point, serving to push all of Birdman’s nested realities onto the same heady plane. Toying liberally with diegesis and audience perception/recognition, we are forced into a nebulous universe of endlessly mirroring quotations and associations as life and art, authenticity and performance, become absolutely enmeshed. Many films have had fun with the meta-textuality afforded cinema, but Birdman, in its deliberate navel-gazing and hypertrophic self-awareness, takes it all just a hair further. This is cinema as ouroboros, as simulacrum, referential of everything and yet nothing but itself.

CIFF 2014: Wrapping Up

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 24, 2014 at 6:10 PM Comments comments (0)





So, that's it. The 50th Chicago International Film Festival has come to a close, and it was a mighty good one, if I may say so myself. Out of the twenty or so movies I saw (I regret it couldn't have been more), many of them are sure to stay with me for years to come, (most) because they had something about them that stood out as exemplary. Even movies I had somewhat mixed feelings about - Speed Walking, for instance - had elements that left a distinct impression. I wasn't able to write blurbs for all of the movies I screened, so I will post the outstanding films here with some brief comments, in general order of preference. (Longer review blurbs can be found elsewhere on the site.)


Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz) ***1/2

A justifiably incensed look at the hidebound Israeli legal system and its refusal to recognize the individuality of women, Gett is like a barely concealed scream, a courtroom drama that doubles as polemical chamber piece. Never leaving the confines of the courthouse, its depiction of its embattled lead character's struggle with the relentlessly patriarchal religious court is appropriately exhausting, but also plangently moving. There may be few performances this year better than Ronit Elkabetz's, who channels, with acute, aching gravity, both extraordinary dignity and the utterly consuming frustration of being victim to lawful injustice.

Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson) ***

A 2013 Icelandic release, Benedikt Erlingsson's delightfully odd and majestic dark comedy is a fable of frustrated sexuality, communal disunity, human folly, and the spiritual connections between man, horse, and land that illustrate our most primal urges. Crystalline cinematography and beautiful animals. Often startling and gruesome, but beguilingly balanced out by its droll, jovial tone.

In Order of Disappearance (Hans Petter Moland) ***

A prickly, mordant, increasingly clever genre exercise buoyed by slick Nordic humor. Like a cross between the Coen brothers and Sidney Lumet, with ample gangster posturing and reams of absurdist, self-aware dialogue. Rather disappointing visually, and the characters rarely register as more than cartoons, but it's a blast, with one highly effective narrative device.



Futuro Beach (Karim Aïnouz) **1/2

Undercooked in the narrative department and limp in emotion, but often evocatively moody and atmospheric. Good use of the elements - in particular water - as resonant motifs.

The Third One (Rodrigo Guerrero) **1/2

A movie that gets better as it goes, beginning fairly tediously but blossoming by the end into a disarming and very sweet portrait of acceptance and belonging. Sexually charged and explicit, but never without serving its compassionate message.

A Girl at My Door (July Jung) **1/2

Two fiercely moving performances from Bae Doona and Kim Sae-ron anchor this heavy-handed but affecting drama. Gauche handling of plot and social commentary. Human and relatable all the same.


Paris of the North (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson) **1/2

Perfectly pleasant, wry character drama, also minor and not particularly memorable. Still, fine utilization of yawning Icelandic landscape with exuberant pop soundtrack.

Beloved Sisters (Dominik Graf) **

Sweeping historical drama without much sweep, focused on a real-life ménage à trois that's far less interesting than the film thinks and disappointingly separated from its volatile historical context. Performances strong from two leading ladies, but Stetter miscast and directorial devices awkward.

Red Rose (Sepidah Farsi) **

Politically conscious and even, in the end, pleasingly adventurous in form and content, but it fails to come together through its stilted performances.

Low Down (Jeff Preiss) **

Fanning and Close powerful. Hawkes okay. Hazy, era-specific cinematography great. Script and direction diffuse. A musical biopic with the right mood but lacking severely in energy and biographic detail.



No Thank You (Samuli Valkama) **

Basically romance novel-level stuff, with some periodic insights into marriage and aging and a couple of well-earned laughs. Mostly banal.

Zurich (Frederik Steiner) *

Gratuitously manipulative and maudlin. Liv Lisa Fries committed and convincing, but movie around her alternately soggy, mendacious, and visually and thematically impaired.

CIFF 2014: Concrete Night

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 21, 2014 at 11:05 AM Comments comments (0)



CONCRETE NIGHT  ***

Pirjo Honkasalo

2014

 

 

IDEA:  The highly impressionable teenage Simo spends a night on the town with his noxious criminal brother. Still inchoate and finding his identity, he is influenced by the experience in ways that threaten to propel his mind into chaos.


BLURB:  When does the queasy nihilism of a film’s characters become the queasy nihilism of the film itself? Such is (one) question implicitly posed by Concrete Night, a magnificent visual accomplishment that is also psychologically and morally muddled. Though its rejection of any standard narrative realism is made clear through its rich expressionistic images, the film still falls suspect to inconsistent logic, character motivations and actions often feeling contrived, unconvincing, or both. This is also largely what makes Honkasalo’s heavy, almost oppressive misanthropy hard to decipher: noir-influenced or not, there’s the creeping sense that, in her gorgeously aestheticized gloom, she has actually bought into the story’s fatalism and is espousing it as much as revealing it. Such reservations are not to be taken lightly, but in many respects they also belie the raw power of the film, which is derived from a visceral fugue of dreamlike images, sensuous, shadowy black and white tableau that marvelously submerge us in a precarious mental state. As a piece of storytelling it may be problematic, but as a purely sensory experience it is everything the visual medium of cinema should be and more.




CIFF 2014: Foreign Body

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 20, 2014 at 10:35 AM Comments comments (0)



FOREIGN BODY  *1/2

Krzysztof Zanussi

2014



BLURB:  The Italian Angelo loves the novice Polish nun Kasia, but when he is hired by a successful new company, he becomes dangerously caught up in the corporate capitalistic mind games of his ruthless boss, Kris.


IDEA:  When confronted with a film as stilted and ham-handed as Foreign Body, there are two options to consider. 1. Its director is a total novice, accounting for the amateurish acting, flat staging, and clumsy handling of narrative or, 2. The director is actually a veteran in his twilight years, who has amassed a prolific body of work but whose sharpness and dexterity have considerably dulled with age. Though it’s generally not wise to make assumptions pertaining to seniority and adeptness (or lack thereof), it’s hard to imagine this isn’t a case of the latter. For whatever insight or keenness of vision Zanussi may have once had, none of it is in evidence in this inane soap opera masquerading as social critique. From the blunt, schematic binaries of the script (past versus present, religion versus capitalism) to the canned music cues, tin-eared dialogue, and distinct lack of visual identity, the film is a slipshod affair only occasionally sparked to life by the stray incisive moment. To be fair, there are nuances to some of Zanussi’s ideas: spirituality isn’t simply painted as the halcyon antidote to the ills of modern capitalism, and while his vision of corporate vice is often laughably simple-minded, he still makes allowances for human gradation within it. But the ideas deserve better than being trapped in this soapy mess.

CIFF 2014: Speed Walking

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 18, 2014 at 10:00 PM Comments comments (0)



SPEED WALKING  **1/2

Niels Arden Oplev

2014


IDEA:  After the sudden death of his mother, 14-year-old Martin must fend for himself when he is thrust out into the wild, unpredictable world of sex and attraction.


BLURB:  Speed Walking is an odd bird, a potpourri of moods and ideas jostling uncertainly for the same space. There are ebullient, “My Sharona”-scored late night motorcycle rides, and then there is mournful family drama; there are moments seemingly befitting a sex romp, and then there are ones that prompt Freudian analysis; jocularity sits uncomfortably atop melancholy, while warm, dulcet appeals to the emotions are disrupted by streaks of caustic weirdness. If Oplev’s film wasn’t about a boy’s chaotic, cockeyed coming of age, the wonky plotting and bizarrely inconsistent patchwork of tones might seem haphazard. But it is about that, so its discursiveness, if not by design, at least seems somewhat fitting. At its best, it turns that quality into an astute correlative to its young protagonist’s whirlwind existence. At other times, it’s just frustrating. Thankfully, Villads Bøye, with his angelic gold locks and soft blue eyes, anchors the film in nearly every frame, ensuring that its most digressive moments never wander too far out of his tenderly curious purview. In a movie with more threads than it knows what to do with, it is the relationship between him and his best friend – a sensitive and beautiful depiction of early adolescent sexual exploration and possibly burgeoning gay love – that proves its reliable bedrock.

CIFF 2014: Something Must Break

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 15, 2014 at 10:30 PM Comments comments (0)



SOMETHING MUST BREAK  ***

Ester Martin Bergsmark

2014



IDEA:  The gender ambiguous Sebastian falls head-over-heels for Andreas. A relationship begins. But Andreas identifies as straight, and as Sebastian increasingly embraces his female identity, a rift is created that forces both individuals on their own paths of self-discovery.


BLURB:  Occasionally spotty direction and gauche metaphors can’t suppress the infectious spirit of Something Must Break, an absorbing and energetic love story and a deeply compassionate portrait of young people coming to terms with their ambiguous sexual and gender identities. With its unpolished, handheld camerawork and low-key lighting, one might be tempted at first to dismiss the film as just another gritty and overly affected slice of modern day realism, but before long it reveals its blazing heart, bringing together its two fervent protagonists and igniting a cathartic and candid dialogue. The chemistry between actors Saga Becker and Iggy Malmborg is phenomenal: their characters’ romance can melt a room, and so can the tensions that arise, inevitably, when their uncertain self-concepts begin chafing. Directed by Ester Martin Bergsmark, a transgendered woman herself, the film feels intimately and sensitively attuned to the struggles of trying to love when you’re not even sure of who you are or who you should be loving. Still evidently finding her own way as a director, Something Must Break is rough around the edges, but it’s also a vital representation of queer identity, and a refreshingly hopeful one.

CIFF 2014: Refugiado

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 14, 2014 at 2:15 PM Comments comments (0)



REFUGIADO  ***

Diego Lerman

2014

 

 

IDEA:  A woman flees her abusive husband with her young son in tow. Never far from his psychological grip, they travel perilously through the Buenos Aires nights seeking refuge - and a new life.


BLURB:  Making up in emotional texture and visual acuity what it lacks in scope or complexity, Refugiado is slender but hugely affecting, a story of abuse and domestic upheaval that deftly avoids crassness at every turn. This is in large part due to director Diego Lerman and his savvy crafts team, who elegantly conjure feverish immediacy without making it feel false or exploitative, and who display both sensitivity and sharp visual logic when limning the dual emotional and geographical journeys of our mother and son protagonists. It is a keen representation of a child’s burgeoning awareness of his unstable domestic circumstances that, finally, gives the film its plangent power. Credit here goes to both Sebastián Molinaro, who, with his round, unassuming face and mop of brown curls, moves and behaves like a real seven-year-old boy, and to DP Wojciech Staron, who subtly and beautifully shoots large portions of the film from his eye level, aligning us equally well with his childish diversions and his simmering unrest. Small and assured, Lerman’s film may be a tad attenuated, but it’s also unusually, even evocatively, artful.


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About the Author


Jonathan Leithold-Patt is a 23-year-old film student at Columbia College Chicago. Besides watching lots and lots of films and writing about them, he is an avid painter.

Contact at cinematiclife@yahoo.com.

Devoted to the Movies

Selected Reviews

A Prophet

A Separation

An Education

The American Soldier

Amour

The Apu Trilogy

Badlands

The Battle of Algiers

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Birth

Black Swan

Brave

Broadway Danny Rose

Broken Flowers

Les Carabiniers

Caché

Certified Copy

The Children Are Watching Us

Chungking Express

Claire's Knee

The Class

Close-Up

Cloud Atlas

C.R.A.Z.Y.

The Cremator

Deconstructing Harry

Dersu Uzala

The Descendants

Django Unchained

Drive

The Earrings of Madame de...

Exit Through the Gift Shop

The Exterminating Angel

Fata Morgana

The Fighter

Frances Ha

Fury

The General

Holy Motors

Hugo

The Hurt Locker

I Was Born, But...

The Ides of March

In a Year with 13 Moons

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

La Jetée

Juliet of the Spirits

Kes

The Kids Are All Right

The Lady Eve

Late Spring

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Little Fugitive

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The Long Day Closes

Louisiana Story

Mamma Roma

Man with a Movie Camera

Martha Marcy May Marlene

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Melancholia

Miller's Crossing

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle d'Amérique

My Life as a Dog

Naked

Nebraska

The Night of the Hunter

Ninotchka

Oliver Twist

Once Upon a Time in the West

Paisan

Persona

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Il Posto

The Purple Rose of Cairo

Ratcatcher

The Red Balloon

The Right Stuff

Sátántangó

Seven Chances

Shame

Sister

The Social Network

Solaris

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring

The Straight Story

Take Shelter

Ten

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

El Topo

Toy Story 3

The Tree of Life

Tropical Malady

Trouble in Paradise

Ugetsu

Under the Skin

Viridiana

Walkabout

What Did the Lady Forget?

Where is the Friend's Home?

The White Ribbon

Zazie dans le Métro