NYFF 2020: Gunda and Time

‘Gunda’ is a pig, and the star of a documentary executive produced by Joaquin Phoenix.

This year’s New York Film Festival is taking place at drive-ins throughout the city and at Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema. Tickets for the virtual screenings are available Nation-wide. Here are a few reviews of what I’ve been watching:

Director: Garrett Bradley
“If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” Easier said than done. Fox Rich has been trying to get her husband Robert released from prison for twenty years. He’s in prison for robbing a bank, a crime in which Fox was accomplice but served a much shorter sentence. Robert’s sentence is sixty years. Let’s set aside the fact that robbing a bank is essentially a victimless crime as long as nobody gets shot and killed. Robert committed the crime, but what Time asks of us is to consider the repercussions of a sentence of sixty years. Director Garrett Bradley documents Fox as she goes about her life; going to work, taking care of her kids, and making phone calls to attorneys, judges and other officials, hoping this will finally be the day Robert gets released. She’s done this every day of her life for twenty years. How long is twenty years? The movie is packed with homemade videos shot by Fox and her kids throughout the years. The absence is felt. The life of this family has been defined by incarceration. Time has established a whole different relationship to them – it moves slower as they wait, it moves faster as another year goes by and there’s no release, but it always moves relentlessly, unstoppable, indifferent. By asking me to consider life in Fox’s position, Time became one of the most emotionally overwhelming experiences I’ve had with a movie… and that was only 90 minutes.
Time will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Oct. 9

Director: Viktor Kossakovsky
I went on my friend Lou’s podcast to talk about Spielberg’s A. I. the other day, and our conversation brought us to the topic of Anthropocentrism – the belief that humans are the most important creatures int he universe – and how that affected our views of the film when we first encountered it as dumb teenagers. Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda tries as effectively as any movie I have seen to dismantle our human bias and present the world as experienced by a different kind of creature. This is a documentary that follows a series of farm animals, including a group of cows, a one-legged chicken, and most importantly a sow named Gunda and her piglets as they go about their lives. The film is made up of long takes, shot at the scale and from the perspective of the animals and features absolutely no narration. We’re just there, encountering the world from the vantage point of these creatures, seeing what they do, and projecting our own human bias onto them. This approach, paired up with the involvement of Executive Producer Joaquin Phoenix suggests Vegan propaganda, which is kind of a fair assessment, but also beside the point. I have long struggled with documentaries that claim they are depicting any kind of objective truth because the filmmaker has tried to make his presence feel invisible when the truth is every documentarian is selecting, shaping and restructuring footage according to their own agenda. This is not a criticism, but an acknowledgement of how filmmaking works. What makes this movie great is that the silent, observational style is not an affectation, but part of an essential gamble to present its argument from the perspective of its subjects. Gunda appeals to our Anthropocentric selves not by showing us cute piglets (though the piglets are incredibly cute), but by revealing a surprising level of emotional complexity to animal life. I don’t want to spoil anything, but near the end of the movie Gunda – the leading lady of this picture – breaks the “fourth wall” in a moment as powerful as anything I’ve seen a human do on screen.
Gunda is distributed by Neon, no release date is available at the moment.

2 Great Comedies: Real Life and Monsieur Verdoux

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Albert Brooks reinvents cameras (and comedy) in ‘Real Life.’

These reviews were originally posted in my Letterboxd account, and have been edited for this post.

Real Life (1979)
Director: Albert Brooks
In the running for funniest movie ever made. Albert Brooks plays “Albert Brooks,” a Hollywood celebrity who wants to make a movie in which he follows a typically ordinary American family for one year, capturing the simple profundity of everyday life. Of course, this being a mockumentary, all pretense of serious social experiment quickly dissolves into the sensational dramatism that we would now call “reality television.” It’s not exactly that Real Life predicts so many things that would define the landscape of American pop culture in the years since it came out, but rather that Brooks and his collaborators had already observed and considered everything that was inadequate, problematic, and alluring about this “reality television.” It’s not surprising Roger Ebert gave this one star, not quite knowing what to make of such a forward-looking movie – one that looked like nothing made in ’79, but that feels like the kernel for all comedy since. The movie is deeply observant about the futility of trying to capture reality with a camera, turning the debates about ethical representation that are usually reserved for documentary theorists and Jean-Luc Godard into a source of endless cringe. For all of its virtues as a satire of media past and future, the movie shines brightest by being so fucking funny.
Available to stream on Criterion Channel

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Director: Charles Chaplin
By this point Chaplin had gone from the most famous man in the world to a deeply controversial figure – he was at the center of a paternity scandal, which might have been provoked by the FBI wanting to soil Hollywood’s most famous socialist sympathizer. Thus, Monsieur Verdoux was Chaplin’s first true flop – an even more direct critique of capitalism than any of his previous movies (all of which are concerned with poverty and are deeply critical of the capitalist status quo.) This was also Chaplin’s first movie after World War II – Neil Bahadur wisely points out how we learn about Verdoux’s first victim by seeing dark smoke coming out of a furnace. Chaplin plays a man who, after losing his job due to the financial crisis, goes into the “business” of marrying and killing wealthy widows. In a shockingly chilling moment, we see Chaplin make that typical Little Tramp gesture where he puts one leg over his knee and smiles pretending nothing is going on, only the thing he’s covering is the fact that he’s about to drown a woman in a lake. Here we have Chaplin finally playing someone other than the Little Tramp, someone who has succeeded at playing in the Capitalist machine, and he is a literal serial killer. You can’t get much more blunt than that. And yet, the movie is deeply poignant about the dehumanization that occurs when everything is seen through the prism of money, of survival, of business. It’s not necessarily the darkest of Chaplin’s movies – even the movies with happy endings show horrible inhumanity – but it’s definitely the most bitter. It’s also an absolute must-see that belongs in the pantheon of Chaplin’s masterpieces.
Available to stream on Criterion Channel

Criterion Project: Animation Celebration

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Fish sing an existential song in Nicki Lindroth von Bahr’s The Burden.

This week’s Criterion Project finds Rachel and I delving into the Criterion Channel’s Animation Celebration – a collection of both classic and contemporary animated shorts. It proved to be a particularly inspired group of shorts, including abstract jazz, tap-dancing mice, a chair that moves by itself, and an astronomic adventure that belongs among the trippiest things I’ve ever seen. We also give recommendations for other animated shorts we love. Give it a listen below, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Short Review Round-Up (I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, A Hidden Life)

Jessie Buckley plays the “young woman” in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

These reviews were originally posted in my Letterboxd account, and have been edited for this post.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Strange feeling when such an unusual and idiosyncratic movie leaves so little impression on you. Charlie Kaufman has explored straight men’s idealization and projection of their female partners plenty of times, but now the story is told from the perspective of the woman. The “young woman” played by Jessie Buckley changes names, clothes, and fields of study throughout the film, making us wonder how much of a person she is, and how much she (and by extension us) are nothing if not our surroundings. She is driving into the farmland to meet her boyfriend’s parents. Once she gets there, the movie confirms itself a mind-bending, unsettling mix of Get Out and mother! Toni Collette and David Thewlis have a lot of fun playing the deranged parents, but despite plenty of extra-textual references to art, literature, and philosophy, Kaufman’s critiques seem less specific and resonant than usual.

I’m thinking of a small but indicative moment in which a mysterious janitor sits down in front of a television to watch a cookie-cutter romantic comedy. The superficially romantic movie-within-the-movie not only contrasts with our protagonist’s frail relationship, but with the audacious formal antagonism of Kaufman’s filmmaking. The punchline – as it were – of the scene is the revelation that the movie was directed by… Robert Zemeckis? This is perhaps the most puzzling element in Kaufman’s surreal box. Zemeckis has spent the past two decades of his career making strange, and often misbegotten, technical experiments with exorbitant budgets. I can’t think of the last time he made anything close to the rom-com presented here. The only explanation I can come up with is that Kaufman sees a dire cinematic environment in which formerly A-list directors like Zemeckis are forced into making television-ready pablum. But what does that have to do with anything? I guess you can ask that of a movie whose fans are already decrying negative reactions from people who cannot “solve’ Kaufman’s puzzle. I am not quite sure what to make of such an antagonistic experience if there’s no puzzle to solve. Still, I suspect I would have loved the movie had it been 45 minute shorter.
Available to stream on Netflix.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
A delightful ‘one crazy night’ teen comedy about four girls trying to get tickets to see The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Not to make comparisons that don’t give the movie its due, but this one is obviously embedded to American Graffiti, which came out only five years earlier, but feels like it was made in a completely different era. The earlier movie takes the painful part of nostalgia to heart. As melancholic as it is fun to watch, it becomes a quintessential New Hollywood object. I Wanna Hold Your Hand, meanwhile, is an anachronistic object that looks at the past but belongs in the future. This is Robert Zemeckis’s first movie, and it shows all the ways in which he would change Hollywood movies. The movie came out in 1978, but feels like something made in the late eighties. It is slick, it is fluffy, and it moves with perfect, unstoppable precision. The low-key nostalgia of the early seventies is transformed into something that doesn’t look back in regret but in excitement. The past can be relived and recreated on screen as many times as you want: Pop culture is forever. Zemeckis would expand on these ideas in Back to the Future, and then take them to truly evil extremes in Forrest Gump. But damn, I had never processed how much this man defined the way American movies have operated from the eighties until now.

A Hidden Life (2019)
Director: Terrence Malick
The first hour really got to me. The central dilemma – a conscientious objector refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler and suffers the consequences – is presented in transcendental, universally understandable terms. The scene in which the painter talks about churchgoers (“they like to believe if they had lived back then, they wouldn’t have killed [Jesus]”) and the backdrop of the simultaneously majestic and oh-so-Germanic Alps puts the tension between the natural world and human selfishness in perspective. But there are more than two hours of movie left, and the movie doesn’t really find another gear. Preferring universality over specifics, the movie feels theoretical and overdetermined. There are elements at the edges that suggest a bigger world and variety of perspectives, but the movie is focused on this one man’s journey. There is something a little disquieting about a movie that focuses on an individual moral sacrifice in the context of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The movie feels like a fairy tale, or a Christian parable, painted in broad strokes. I’m not sure if such a view of history should be accepted.
Available to stream on HBOmax.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Animation Edition

Mark B. from The Animation Commendation has been a reader of this blog for a long time, so it was a great pleasure when he asked me to be a contestant on his “Animation Edition” of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I am both satisfied and frustrated with my performance on the show. I did very well, but ultimately flew too close to the sun. You can find out the details in the above video. Special thanks to my Criterion Project co-host Rachel Wagner, without whom I would have never guessed one of the questions.

Criterion Project: Cronos

Federico Luppi gains an insatiable thirst for blood in Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos.

Over at The Criterion ProjectRachel and I are joined by Rosa from Latinx Lens to discuss Guillermo Del Toro’s feature debut Cronos – a story about frailty and mortality clearly inspired by the Universal horror movies of the 1930s, but then again, what Guillermo Del Toro movie isn’t? Rosa is the co-host of the podcast Latinx Lens, a great show dedicated to latinx representation in film and tv, so she was a no-brainer for an episode about one of the most popular Mexican directors working today.

Give the episode a listen below, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Short Review Round-Up (Oldboy, A King in New York, and Vera Drake)

A hammer is the weapon of choice in Oldboy’s famous hallway scene.

These reviews were originally posted in my Letterboxd account, and have been edited for this post.

Oldboy (2003)
Director: Park Chan-wook
As a high school-aged boy in the late 2000s, I should have loved Oldboy which was violent, sophisticated, and came pre-approved by every teenage boy’s favorite director, Quentin Tarantino. But I didn’t understand it – literally. Now, I don’t want to overestimate my 15 year-old self, who was definitely capable of watching and totally missing the point of a movie as blunt as this one, but I do wanna make clear that I watched this in a bootleg DVD and I have a sneaking suspicion that the subtitles weren’t of the best quality. Rewatching the movie for the first time more than a decade later, I understand everything that happens in it (even the themes!), but I remain unmoved. Back then, I was perturbed by the dark sadism of the movie. Now, I find the whole thing off-puttingly immature. In its allusions to opera and Greek tragedy, Park Chan-wook presents a story about the destructive and unsatisfying nature of vengeance… or does he? I don’t want to come off as too much of a moralist, but the movie seems enamored with the coolness of its own anti-hero, who is a bumbling fool at the beginning of the movie but emerges from his 15 year entrapment as a silent killing machine. Add to that the appallingly reductive female characters (hypnotism is not a convincing justification) and you have a movie that is too shallow to be enjoyed as an art film and too unpleasant to be enjoyed as a B-Movie. I’m glad the movie was as big a hit as it was, though, because Park’s later work is much better.

A King in New York (1957)
Director: Charlie Chaplin
This is the movie Roberto Rossellini called “the film of a free man.” With this comment, I gather, Rossellini is describing the fact that at 68 years old, disgraced, exiled, and still rich, Chaplin could do whatever he wanted in his movie and not care what people will say or think. This was meant as a complement, I believe, but it’s easy to see why this is regarded as one of the most uneven Chaplin movies. It isn’t perfect, which only becomes a problem when your filmography is full of perfect vehicles made up of some of the most iconic, impeccably timed, and perfectly choreographed sequences in cinematic history. Chaplin plays King Shadov, who after a revolution, escapes his country for New York, where he learns about all the problems with contemporary America such as loud music, widescreen movies, and McCarthyism. Seeing old crank Chaplin complain about perfectly white-bread jazz for being too loud has its own bizarre charm. The scene in which he recites Shakespeare comes off as nothing but vanity. And while the movie’s explicit critique of McCarthyism isn’t the most revolutionary, it was an impossibly ballsy move in 1957 (the movie wasn’t released in America until 1972) and, in my opinion, quite effective. There is no denying the most memorable scenes in this shaggy movie are the ones between Chaplin and the young boy (played by his own son Michael) whose parents are tried for communism. Near the end, the King consoles the weeping boy saying that this hysteria will one day pass before boarding a plane back to Europe. It’s a seemingly naive conclusion that, like much of Chaplin’s cinema, reveals a darker truth. The King can escape on a jet plane, the kid is stuck weeping in the land of the free. So, you know, the film of a free man.

Vera Drake (2004)
Director: Mike Leigh
I was floored. Imelda Staunton plays a caring little woman who is always trying to help – her family, her friends, her neighbors – and who also “helps young women” by inducing miscarriages. It’s 1950s London and abortions are illegal, so you can imagine that things don’t stay rosy for too long. Amongst many other qualities, Vera Drake is a deeply scary movie in the way it captures the dreadful moment in which Vera realizes that she’s been caught by the police. We understand this woman, and we know why she does the things that she does, not only does she live by principles that are completely humane and consistent to herself, but she has done nothing wrong. We, of course, can see that there is a difference between what is right and what is legal. It was illegal to hide Jews in your cellar during Nazi times, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong. The movie is not only great at articulating the political and humanitarian argument in favor of legalizing abortion, but it is an incredibly effective piece of emotional filmmaking. I could imagine myself in Vera’s position, being criminalized for helping others, and I was absolutely overwhelmed. The waiting, the bureaucracy, the confusion, and the slow realization that things won’t go back to normal. 

It’s all masterfully done by British humanist Mike Leigh, whose method of slowly developing scripts through acting exercises and improvisations allow him to find fascinating details, wrinkles, and perspectives in even the smaller characters. There’s plenty to take in in this movie, but I am particularly fixated on the moment in which Eddie Marsan – playing Vera’s would-be son-in-law – offers a sort of Christmas toast. In a way, the situation is deeply pathetic, with one of the most socially awkward characters in the movie trying and failing to make things a little less uncomfortable by claiming he is having a good time. But it’s also deeply moving. Marsan’s veteran, who has experienced traumatic loss during the war, either knows the horror that must be going on inside Vera’s mind and tries to make things better by offering her a bit of humanity, or he truly means what he says and he has never had a better Christmas, in which case he is offering a sincere thank you to the woman who changed his life. I believe it’s a little bit of both.