Amy (2015): Discovering Anew

Amy tells a tragic tale, in what amounts to an enthralling documentary that does an exceptional job in humanizing the artist. It’s a challenge, because of the disconnect between the public persona and the human being, ever-widening when a musician, actor or any other individual with a modicum of fame goes “global”. Personally, I rarely thought of Amy Winehouse, as I had heard little of her music and related more to the tabloid facts that swamped the internet. So the movie’s effect on me was powerful in revealing a passionate artist who lost her way between the lights and flashes.

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Her story is relayed to us through a number of homemade clips and films, shot by friends or acquaintances. It takes the viewer to her earlier days as an artist, where the entourage is not an entourage in its hyped sense, but just a circle of friends. From there, the seemingly small steps towards worldwide fame are contorted and unreadable. Because the film is a composition of private videos, it creates a familiar and intimate experience and tears down the sense of artificiality often inherent to biopics which jump between the now and the then. It becomes impossible not to get involved emotionally and empathize without feeling as if you’re being manipulated to do so.

The film is powerful because it knows how to construct and frame all the public fragments that made up Amy Winehouse from within, so to say – by transcending from her personal experiences. Sure, there’s a touch of the banal in the story, a been there, seen that kind of feeling. But it is this banality that actually makes for a powerful tragedy, the mesh of strange personal networks, personal quirks and public politics that shaped Amy’s life and fate. Once you go beyond the narrative, it’s unlikely not to be touched by how hard it all hit the bubbly girl from London.

My main critique to the film is that, similar to his work on Senna, the director puts Amy on a pedestal: she appears trapped by her social circles, the people trying to control her, her own addiction, but it looks mostly inflicted upon her than anything else. This deterministic approach, while surely pertinent and enhancing the sense of tragic, undermines the idea that Winehouse was a powerful artist, something that comes across through her music. The paradox is part of the core artistic choices made by Kapadia, a token from how much intimacy is imbued in the documentary.

As such, it is wise to look at Amy as something else than an exercise in exploring the downwards spiral of addiction. It does her right as a musician and duly criticizes the destructive power of parts of the media that catalyzed all her insecurities, her troubled family life and her relationships. It brings her closer to her fans and the audience, and provides ample food for thought about how sweet and sour and short life can be.

****

Originally published on imdb.

Bacalaureat (2016): Defying Compromise

Films rarely put forward leading characters that they then choose to vehemently punish throughout. But this is Mungiu, who has already proved more than adept at creating authentic and ruthless portrayals of society and in Bacalaureat (English title: Graduation) he scrapes at the edges of our souls. His tale of generational change is predicated on the dismantling of a profoundly patriarchal state of being. To this purpose, he crafts a story of remarkable complexity and depth, which cuts across so many layers, that taking them apart would be counterproductive.

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In short: Eliza is sexually assaulted one day before her ‘bacalaureat’, the final set of high-school exams students sit in Romania. She had been awarded a conditional scholarship at a university in the UK, but her impairment, both mental and physical, poses a threat to her getting the grades she needs. Cue in the father, Romeo, a local doctor, whose life is about to encounter quite the upheaval in his desire to ensure Eliza fulfills his own botched ‘destiny’ of leaving the country. Things take a turn for the complicated as he is more or less inadvertently offered an opportunity to guarantee the results his daughter needs. The circuit of corruption is as informal as it is intricate – a friend of a friend situation, one hand washes the other kind of thing. And beyond all this mess, Romeo also has to keep up the facade of his marriage, while dating a single mother, Sandra, who happens to be a teacher at Eliza’s high-school.

What makes Bacalaureat instantly and distinctively good is the attention to detail, which breeds both familiarity and authenticity. But unlike Mungiu’s previous major success, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the grimness does not stem from the subject matter, or the dry (non-)stylization of the story, but from how intertwined the many strands of this one case prove to be. Shadowing the father along it is painful because his shortcomings are obvious from afar. But it is his demise that is so important to ensure a new generation comes along which will set itself apart from the current one. He is tragic, because not only can he not escape his destiny, but he doesn’t recognize his role in propagating that which he abhors. Romeo’s willingness to compromise in order to ensure his daughter’s chance of being the change he desires is part of the hereditary disease plaguing any such social construction.

Taking a wider view, it isn’t coincidental that every moral- institutional junction is safeguarded by a man – a doctor, a police officer, a former mayoral figure, a school commissioner, a prosecutor. Contrasting this are the female characters, the strength of Eliza, the stoicism of Sandra, the wisdom of Romeo’s wife, Magda. It’s a battle of utilitarian and deontological ethics, posing the question of whether moral pragmatism can be moral at all. There is little doubt where Mungiu sides, as the male ‘keywardens’ are at least one of: cynical, unfeeling, self-serving, hypocritical. Masculine instincts are both highlighted (‘it wasn’t a rape, it was just a sexual assault!’) and criticized. Even as it seems that a pair of male characters come along that are understanding and humane, there is a strong pinch of self-interest that dictates terms, which is why they are punished with a fine ironic touch by the director.

For all that happens, there are two scenes which summarize the journey we are on. Firstly, when ‘someone’ (life?) throws a stone at the apartment Romeo’s family is living in, thereby breaking a window, he rushes out confidently, as if finding the culprit were a matter of when, rather than if. Then, towards the end of the film, as Romeo’s life unravels by the virtue of his poor choices, he decides to venture after the assumed perpetrator of the assault on his daughter; now, however, he loses the trail instantly, finds himself wandering confused in the shadows of apartment buildings, jumping at every unexpected noise coming his way. The grip, the control over how society is run, ever loosening.

If anything, I would criticize Mungiu for being overly and overtly moralistic. There are several moments where characters are used as props to portray said moral perspectives, scenes which feel artificial and pedagogically pedantic. Also, the bureaucratic coldness conveyed by almost all officials (one moment dictating an official statement concerning Eliza’s rape, the next discussing trivialities) feels uninspiring by now – there is a sense that themes are contained within a national frame, that our sole focus is alleviating the burdens of the past, more than the challenges of the present. And although this is hinted at during the film, the matter of exam fraud was as rooted as it is illustrated here about ten years ago, when I myself was finishing high-school. Hence, it feels against the times in a way, but then this can also be viewed as the last vestiges of an era, Romeo’s solution being retrograde especially in such a light.

Bickering aside, creating such a complex and highly integrated story that feels true to itself almost all the way is quite splendid indeed. It’s not an easy ride for viewers, who will suffer the pain of compromise, of systemic contortion against the individual – ultimately, Romeo has good intentions, the world just seems to require of him to do what he does, to right a wrong with a wrong. Yet, it remains the individual that decides, which is why the ‘bacalaureat’ is such an important stepping stone for change and for maturity. Mungiu’s film is a comment on the precipice we are finding ourselves on now, where we see the change more clearly, are even enacting it, but it is the follow-up that will define us as a people, as a generation. Funnily enough, he proves to be an optimist.

L.E. And he also own the distinguished Cannes prize in 2016 for best director.

*****

The Family Fang (2015): Sibling Togetherness

After ‘Bad Words’, Bateman the director appears to be heading in the right direction and takes on a more ambitious, layered project. This film deals not only with a dysfunctional family, a concept that has fascinated American cinema ever since American Beauty (1999), but also with the relation between art and life. Thematically, the family ensemble has been portrayed more incisively in the recent past (The Squid and the Whale (2005), to name just one example with a similar character ratio), but the manner in which relationships are blurred and redefined here gives Fang a captivating spin.
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We are presented with two seemingly wayward, middle-aged siblings who, it turns out, grew up in a tradition of ‘intempestive art’. Alongside their eccentric parents, they enacted hoaxes of different scales in front of onlookers who were not in on the game – all with the aim of eliciting life out of the an otherwise mundane, controlled existence. As an accident reunites the family, which had drifted apart in the mean time, tensions persist, culminating when the parents disappear and the obvious question is asked: is this just another hoax?

The story works primarily because Kidman (Annie) and Bateman (Baxter), child A and child B, as their parents called them, convey an understanding that does not require explanations. It’s the kind of sibling relationship that draws from so many shared experiences, joys and traumas that it defines a common frame of existence which time has difficulty in erasing. Similarly, we as an audience draw the faith required to suspend our disbelief from the energy the two control when on screen together. The questions pertaining to the philosophy of art, its authenticity and veracity, are interesting to ponder, but they only provide the backdrop to what Annie and Baxter have going on. The point of convergence between the two themes is that of control – its purpose in art, its purpose in relationship building.

This is fascinating, as control is so inherent to anything that happens in the early years within a family: the setting of constraints to the socially unrestrained spirit of childhood. It does not have to be coercive, but it is a matter of natural imprinting that occurs along the way, whether overtly or not. As adults, the struggle becomes to establish what we can (and should) control and what we need to let run freely. The mantra their father had instilled in Annie and Baxter emphasized the idea that by staying centered, one can let the surrounding chaos sweep over and past you. A lot of the time it’s easier said than done. We also see that different people need different things in order to express themselves – a given, sure, but finely synthesized in Annie’s qualms as an actor and Baxter’s writer’s block.

Where the story does fall a bit short is in the resolution. In a way, it’s predictable and boring, but it’s also inevitable. Inevitability is usually a good thing to have in an ending, especially in one dealing with the nature of art. Still, a stronger build up and a more resolute finale would have turned Family Fang into a really memorable piece of work. As it stands, it overemphasizes the idea that unrestrained (performance) art comes at a hidden cost both to those involved and to those affected by it. That it becomes hard to keep art and life contained. And, surely, that the price for this is too high.

Nonetheless, my newly found penchant for movies about siblings really let me enjoy this story. Perhaps just a bit more than I should have, but that’s thanks to how authentic Annie and Baxter feel and the depth they lend to the experience. Also, Carter Burwell, one of my favourite composers, contributes with a sweet theme, really letting you sink into the intimate melancholy and nostalgia of it all.

****

Cinema Pathé Tuschinski, Amsterdam

The naive film lover in me proved, as it so frequently does, an ignoramus. Having stayed away from French speaking countries in the last decade and remembering so little of previous visits, I knew nothing of Pathé’s vertical integration. Hell, that’s an ugly word – Pathé’s heritage. Sure, it took me a trip to a non-French speaking country to realize it, but that’s how things usually hit you – when they’re paradoxically unexpected.

So yes, Pathé is not only a producer/distributor of films; it also owns “a great number” of cinemas in parts of the world, as Wikipedia puts it. Moreover, it is the second oldest film company (after Gaumont, who they have a joint venture with nowadays) and the inventor of the newsreel you would see before the beginning of a movie, all the way back in 1908.

The Tuschinski cinema looks accordingly. Commissioned by Abraham Icek Tuschinski and opened in 1921, I was struck by its particular style and revealing opulence. Wikipedia puts it as a mixture between Art Deco, Art Nouveau and the Amsterdam School and neutrally claims “it is considered to be one of the most beautiful cinemas in the world” (no reference!). Perhaps I will do wiki a favour and reinforce that claim by the end of this, so that one day, when I’m an authority on interior design, the universe will be in balance again.

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Leaving the streets of Amsterdam to step into the entrance hall, the feeling was not far removed from the ballroom scene in The Shining (1980) – a tall man with a crackling Dutch accent stood behind the ticket counter and had he said the tickets were on the house, I’d have probably run off to find a secure hiding place, probably in the porn theater next door. Alas, he did not, but the cinema does have a tinge of horror to its story, as Tuschinski himself, of Polish-Jewish decent, was deported to Auschwitz after the Nazi invasion of Rotterdam and died in the camp in 1942.

The movie for the day was churned out through a process of elimination and it turned out to be Demolition (2015). Critics might not have loved it, but my thinking was that Jake Gyllenhaal can do no bad. Trying to beat the rush, I bought my ticket around midday, but my fears proved unsubstantiated. On returning to buy some popcorn and coke, there were no queues at all, with few minutes before the start of the film. Both, sadly, disappointed – the (salted) popcorn and the coke, I mean. The former was stale, while for the latter I was forced to select a regular Coke, although a big poster showcased my new preference, Life. Is this a good place to #firstworldproblems?

Moving right along: I was tucked away in Screen 3, past the red tape, through the foreboding doors and down the right corridor, all the way to the end. Seating around 100 people, with a small, but sufficient screen size, it was mostly empty on a Wednesday evening at 7 pm.  It was the low level of the seats and the unusual positioning of the cup holders (in front, rather than to the side) that made the affair in any way distinctive for me. Other than that, it could have been any screen, anywhere else – although I’m quite certain the experience in the main theater would have been something else entirely.

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As for the movie itself, the critics were half-right. From the overwrought narration to the self-indulgent dialogue, it became apparent that Bryan Sipe, the screenwriter, was not an established author. That is not to say that the concept of Demolition is baseless, as the story of a man rebuilding his life feels intimate enough at times to make you care, but there are just too many bits and pieces that don’t come together well. And yes, there’s good old Jake, money in the bank, pulling through it like a boss, with Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper keeping him company in a decent ensemble. (**)

Two days later, during my final stroll through the city, I happened to pass by Tuschinski again. This time around, the barriers were placed outside, while fashionably dressed twentysomethings were sipping champagne and making conversation in the foyer. The ‘secondary’ entrance could be used for some of the later screenings, including the enticing Midnight Special (2016). Pacing up and down the road in contemplation over whether I should indulge or not, my glance was caught by a girl, waiting expectantly past the barriers. She smiled and I smiled back.

That was all the special I could take for one midnight. And as for the wiki reference, it will have to wait until I sip San Pellegrino at the Tuschinski.

Freakonomics (2010): Lukewarm at Best

I’ll admit from the off that I was skeptical regarding this documentary ever since I first heard it was in production. Having read the book, I felt that what made it enjoyable could not really be transposed onto film. Economics, being such a science of numbers, even in its freakonomic form, does not really lend itself to being narrated to death.
freakGoing beyond this limitation, I reckon the film could have still been better, had it found a unity of tone. Unfortunately, as several different teams were involved with making each of the four chapters, the final experience is heavily fragmented and unlike the book, which kept its pacing throughout, the film is all over the place.

The first part looks at whether there is some sort of correlation between a person’s first name and the path one happens upon in life. A potentially amusing segment, it proves to be in search of a comic sense it never arrives at and the examples taken from the book appear wholly unrealistic and not fully integrated.

The second part is quite dark and brings forth a sort of investigation into the Sumo world and allegations of match-rigging. Contextualized in the sacrosanct culture that defines the sport, this exploration of truth, justice and fair-play toys around with big words and complex issues, its reach ultimately exceeding its grasp.

The third part references dear old Romania and our beloved dictator’s policy of ruling abortions illegal – a subject matter dealt with artistically in the well-known 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. I’m not quite sure the parallel proves a point, because it tries to show how the opposite policy, legalizing abortion in the US following Roe v Wade, caused a sudden, steep reduction in crime in the early nineties. Ironically enough, the generation Ceausescu forcibly birthed, so to say, caused his downfall. Yet, I think this segment points out an interesting observation, even if one could get distracted by the overly dramatic narration.

The last part is an on-film experiment about trying to find an incentive to make kids get better grades in high-school by offering financial rewards. Unfortunately, the set-up lacks any authentic feel and implicitly does not help support the case that the authors tried to convey in the book.

So overall it would seem that almost all segments have at least one fundamental issue that they don’t tackle very well. At times the film livens due to the interesting nature of the facts being presented, but on the whole it’s still shy of a successful venture. Even while reading the book I felt that the novelty seeped out of it before I had reached its end and this feeling was only exacerbated here.

I don’t think this is the place to debate the correctness of the research Levitt and Dubner have done or their conclusions, because the film certainly does not offer a strong basis to work on. The book has a scientific feel to it, conferring at least a sense of objectivity and, more importantly, finding the levity to show that it does not assume to offer absolute answers. The documentary, on the other hand, loses sight of this and never manages to find its proper balance.

**

Originally posted on imdb.