Holy Lands (2019)

Holy Lands (2019)

Holy Lands is an odd, occasionally successful film about the dialogue between family, friendships, and faith. Taking place simultaneously in Nazareth and New York, the film traverses countries and faiths to try to find the heart of what unites a family. Harry Rosemerck (James Caan) is a lapsed Jew who moves to Nazareth to start a pig farm, largely as an act of defiance against Judaism itself. He particularly enrages Moshe (Tom Hollander), a local rabbi, with whom he develops a conflict-laden relationship. Harry is estranged from his son, David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a successful New York playwright, with whom he can only communicate via letter. His daughter, Annabelle (Efrat Dor), is a photographer who can barely support herself, migrating between Israel and New York to see both her parents. Meanwhile, Harry’s ex-wife, Monica (Rosanna Arquette), finds herself at a crossroads when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. The film tries to combine these disparate familial narratives, each of them shaped and influencing the other, as it interrogates the meanings behind faith, love for family, and the development of some unlikely friendships.

When Holy Lands succeeds, it’s a moving, humorous film; when it fails, it’s difficult to follow or to invest in. The result is a curious, imbalanced narrative that would have been better for one or two fewer plot strands. Yet each of the strands also feels essential to an understanding of the others, and it would be hard to claim that you could lose any character or actor and maintain the same meaning. Most entertaining is the contentious and charming relationship between Caan’s irascible Harry and Hollander’s equally immovable Moshe. As the pair circle each other and spar over matters of practicality and faith, Holy Lands finds its most comfortable footing. There’s a sense that director Amanda Sthers knows that this is the story to be told, and that the others, as interesting as they are in places, are really ancillary to it.

However, Rosanna Arquette’s equally intense performance should not be lost. As Monica comes to accept her approaching death and attempts to reconnect with both her children, who love her but also find her difficult to handle, Arquette gives one of her finest, most nuanced performances. She’s multitudinous and sympathetic but also impossible, and her adoration of her family and equal inability to connect to them bears the soul of Holy Lands. But her narrative feels too independent in itself, and Holy Lands isn’t quite able to integrate her story with that of her children or her ex-husband.

Amanda Sthers writes and directs from her own novel, which explains Holy Lands’ sense of the personal combined with its undoubted messiness. The film is in need of restructuring and development, with an eye to creating a more stable narrative that allows for rising and falling action. An hour and forty minutes simply does not have the fluidity that a three hundred page novel does, and the result is an imbalanced work that never quite hits the right notes. Sthers appears to want to tell a story about generational conflict and separation, but also about the interaction between faith and culture, but also about a Jewish man trying to raise and sell pigs in Israel. The result is that none of the stories receive the attention that they warrant, even though buried within each are some fantastic characters and emotional beats.

Holy Lands is not a bad film by any stretch, and at times it even aspires to greatness. But it misses its mark too often and loses coherency in attempting to move between the stories, integrate them together, and succeed in doing justice to all the characters. The film just doesn’t quite work, yet it is also an admirable attempt, and reveals a director and writer that bears watching.

Holy Lands officially releases on June 21.

Bull (2019)

Bull (2019)

Despite calls for gender equity across the board, the Cannes Film Festival has once again largely failed to address the disparity between the number of male and female directors with films appearing both in competition and out. But there are a few, thankfully, and one of them is Annie Silverstein’s feature film debut Bull, appearing in the Un Certain Regard section. The film chronicles the friendship between a troubled adolescent girl and her bull-riding next door neighbor.

Bull opens with Kris (Amber Havard), a teenager in a rundown Houston subdivision. Living with her grandmother while her mother serves time, Kris spends her days playing with her younger sister and trying to fit in with other kids. This leads her to break into her neighbor Abe’s (Rob Morgan) house one night, while Abe is off working the rodeo. Kris and her friends trash the place, releasing Abe’s chickens, drinking his booze, and consuming his painkillers. The next morning, Abe catches Kris sleeping on his backyard sofa. Rather than having her arrested and sent to juvie, Abe agrees to let Kris try to make amends by cleaning his house and repairing the chicken coop. The two soon develop an uneasy, contentious friendship as Abe introduces Kris to bull-riding and a small community of African American riders, providing her with an outlet for her undirected fury and a chance to break free of the world that confines her.

Bull has a great deal in common with The Rider, which interrogated the existential masculinity of rodeo riders, and The Wrestler, which focused on the ambivalent masculine experience of hurting oneself in pursuit of a profession. Bull takes place within a liminal community and deftly handles the numbness of poverty without making it either overly sentimental or overly violent The film filters itself through the communal experiences of a teenage white girl and an African American man.. Kris has all of the usual experiences of anger and listlessness that come with being an adolescent, but those are further developed through her poverty and her culture. Abe’s job is to distract the bulls following a bucking, and he’s injured on a regular basis, stomped, knocked over, and even gored. In his spare time, he teaches young men how to bull-ride, effectively training another generation of men like him. Both he and Kris find a kind of a solace in bull-riding, and in each other, as they deal with the unnamed and undirected anger that swirls around them.

This is, of course, a film about taciturn, apparently emotionless characters who find a kinship – if not quite love – with one another. Kris makes all the mistakes of being teenager but as she becomes more involved with “bad” kids and drug dealers, the danger of her position is apparent. She has no one to look after her or to guide her except for Abe, himself an aging bull-rider who can no longer get out of the way fast enough to be useful in the ring. The bull of the title is both the raison d’etre of the pair and a (somewhat muted) metaphor for their own behavior. As Abe describes to Kris how to stop a bull in his tracks, the combination of exhilaration and danger that inherent in a sport like bull-riding emphasizes the fundamental lack of emotion, or joy, in both their lives. Bull does an excellent job of showing just how such a dangerous, damaging sport can be so attractive to a particular type of person, and what things like it offer to those who have little other way out of their respective poverty.

Bull’s weakness is really in the recognizable nature of its narrative, but Silverstein evades turning the story into a cliché or a repetition of earlier films that delve into the lives of impoverished people in the South and West. It sets itself apart in the strength of its characterizations, done remarkably with minimal dialogue or discussion even between its main characters. Havard is a fascinating young actress making her debut here, with a haunted way of looking and speaking that indicates depth protected by a barrier to avoid pain. Rob Morgan, who appeared recently in Dee Rees’s Mudbound, matches her without overwhelming her as a man compelled to ride even as it endangers his life.

Bull has the potential to be this year’s The Rider, but it does it a disservice to simply compare the two films. Far from being a carbon copy, it is another multifaceted cinematic examination of characters that are often pushed to the peripheries or treated with pity. It’s a fantastic narrative feature debut for Silverstein, and more than worthy of Un Certain Regard.

Mapplethorpe (Tribeca 2018)

Mapplethorpe (2018)

Director Ondi Timoner’s new biopic turns the camera on Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist who revolutionized art photography in the 1970s and 80s, raising controversy with his images of hardcore BDSM juxtaposed against tender portraits of calla-lillies and celebrity portraits. Mapplethorpe looks at the life of the artist from his relationship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), his time at the Hotel Chelsea, fascination with gay BDSM, and the permutations of his art until his death at the age of 42. Through his images and relationships with friends, lovers, family, and ultimately to the art itself, Mapplethorpe attempts to elucidate a contradictory, contentious subject.

Matt Smith’s performance as the central character is Mapplethorpe’s greatest strength. He embodies the conflicts that the film lays out. He’s charming and funny, vicious and unkind, loving to his subjects and exploitative of them in the same breath. He toes the line between exploitation and appreciation, such that it seems he does not fully understand his behavior. As he ages and becomes ill, he delves deeper in the light and dark, becoming more demanding of those around him and crueler in his behavior. Smith’s physical investment in the role is almost Expressionist, recalling Conrad Veidt’s total embodiment of his parts. Mapplethorpe blends with his own images, pressed between the light and the dark, the violent and the tender. The film’s often spectacular cinematography lends itself to this portrayal, as the colorful vibrancy of New York in 1969 gives way to black and white palettes of the 1980s that finally wash out the central character, turning him into a walking specter. Smith forces us to acknowledge the brilliance of the artist and the gentleness of his touch while at the same time seeing his cruelty and self-interest. And the film doesn’t excuse Mapplethorpe’s behavior – it simply seeks to represent it.

But for a film about so revolutionary a subject, Mapplethorpe remains oddly chaste in its onscreen depiction of male nudity, homosexuality, and BDSM. While it doesn’t shy away from showing Mapplethorpe’s image, in effective intercuts of the actual photographs, it coyly cuts away from sex scenes, avoids filming Matt Smith (or almost anyone) in full body shots, and reduces Mapplethorpe’s friends and lovers in the BDSM community to barely realized characters. Surely these men were more than just images, either to Mapplethorpe himself or in their own right. Surely they had personalities, thoughts, experiences of their own. In the middle of the film, a friend tells Mapplethorpe, “They must really trust you,” but we never see how he earned that trust, how his friendships developed, or how he staged these images in the first place. The film’s unwillingness to truly engage with Mapplethorpe’s subjects, and thus avoiding dealing with its own subject, makes it feel slight – the people photographed become just images, body parts, and we never see them as full characters.

In fact, the entirety of Mapplethorpe is slight, avoiding too much investigation of who Mapplethorpe is or what his art meant, either to himself or to the wider culture. His relationship with Patti Smith flames out, and she almost immediately becomes a nonentity, a person solely there to drive him from one aspect of his art to the next. There are little indications of the artist’s psyche—he relates the conflict and symbiosis between his Roman Catholic upbringing and his homosexuality and interest in bondage, and more than once remarks that his art must be viewed as a totality, hardcore images as well as the more “palatable” flowers and portraits. The juxtaposition of his portraits of celebrities and still-lifes of flowers with hardcore images, his interest in photography “as an artist” that never extends to learning how to develop the photographs himself, the very light and dark of his images…all of them provide interesting fodder for an exploration of a deeply conflicted artist producing deeply conflicted art, yet the film never follows through on any of them, instead leaving the deeper themes at the peripheries, content more to delve into one man’s suffering than to examine his work. While I don’t think we needed an explanation of Mapplethorpe as a person or an artist—those are always pat and ineffectual, even in the best biopics—there needed to be greater exploration of what he meant as an artist, what his art meant to the developing scene of the 70s and 80s, what furor he caused. We are told he was revolutionary, but we never shown why.

In some ways, Mapplethorpe is as much a contradiction as the man himself, a film that wants to investigate both art and artist, and yet can’t quite come to terms with either. There is so much hanging at the peripheries, begging to be examined, that one wishes the camera would shift focus just a little, to look at those people, themes, desires, fears that made Mapplethorpe what he was. Maybe it’s impossible to truly reveal the artist through a different medium than the one he employed, maybe the art must simply speak for itself. But it would’ve been nice to see this film try.

Mapplethorpe is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Tribeca 2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

Love, Simon has brought the teenage rom-com into the 21st Century, finally giving us a funny and heartfelt story about the difficulties of coming out (and falling in love). The Miseducation of Cameron Post is Love, Simon’s more serious sister film, a coming-of-age drama about teens sent to a camp to undergo conversion therapy. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and is now making its New York debut at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) as her aunt ships her off to God’s Promise, after she’s caught having sex with another girl on prom night. Cameron meets a host of other teenagers, there to “recover” from their same sex attractions through the dubious therapies of Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.), himself a supposed success story of his sister’s methods. But Cameron is resistant and begins to develop a set of friendships within the camp, particularly with Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), who help her learn to perform her therapy without letting it truly affect her.

The film strikes a surprising degree of nuance and sympathy for all the characters—the misguided adults included—highlighting the sense of confusion and anger as the teenagers try tto change their own sexualities. Flashbacks and dreams show Cameron’s romance with her friend Chloe, as well as the reasons her fellow campers have been sent away to “get better.” Without focusing too heavily on the suffering of the embattled teens, the film delves into the evangelical mentality of “fixing” homosexuality with a combination of faith-based teaching and misapplied psychology. Cameron is encouraged to figure out what in her past “made her gay,” and thus purge herself of her same-sex attraction. The film exposes not just the wrong-headedness and damage caused by such a blending of badly applied scripture and twisted therapies, but also the degree to which the people using those therapies truly believe that they are helping. Reverend Rick has also been forced to alter and repress himself, his cheery smile concealing a pain that he cannot fully repress. Each of the teens handles the therapy in their own way, some coming whole-heartedly to the belief that they are broken and in need of God’s love, while others (like Cameron and her friends) come to recognize that there is nothing wrong with them to begin with. Coursing through the film is the uncertainty—that maybe something is wrong—as each therapy session and Bible verse is twisted to imbue in them a sense that they are sinning simply by existing,

Although the focus is ultimately on Cameron and her experience, the film encircles her with a host of other characters, each of them played with intimate nuance. There are boys rejected by their fathers for being too “feminine,” and girls desperate to fulfill their parents’ notions of femininity. The intensity of teenage desire is multiplied among teenagers who are constantly being told that they’re wrong, confused, damaged, sick; that they cannot be loved by God and be gay, or even be anything other than a very narrow understanding of what “correct” gender looks like. And the film doesn’t so much fault religion as it faults the abuse of religion—in a particularly powerful scene, a boy passionately quotes a Bible verse as he begs to be loved for his “weakness” in loving men. Director Desiree Akhaven proves herself a deft touch in this film, which allows for the explicit expression of sexuality (there are more than a few love scenes) without turning them into a mere titillation for the audience. These are teenagers just awakening to their sexualities, both aware of what they want and frightened of what it means. The insidiousness of evangelical teachings permeates everything, yet the film doesn’t dwell in darkness or suffering. It is, in its own way, about purification, about final acceptance of who and what we are, despite what we’re told to the contrary. The teenagers can’t leave God’s Promise, even when they want to—their parents or families might decline to take them back if they’re not sufficiently “cured.” And if they are changed, then they must live their lives denying themselves and who they truly are.

I won’t go into spoilers, but it’s worth noting that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not about the suffering of LGBTQ teens. There’s a humor—sometimes an uncomfortable one—that runs throughout and helps to keep the narrative from dropping too far into the darkness. The strength of friendship, the searching for identity in a world that contains only narrow definitions of it, expands the story, giving it heart and understanding and even sympathy for the adults imposing their warped fears on teenagers who actually do know better. But the true heroes are still the teenagers, especially Cameron herself, who tries to survive without denying who and what she is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post will have its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22.

The Stolen Heart (1933)

The Stolen Heart (1933)Most film buffs know Lotte Reiniger as the pioneer of silhouette animation and the creator of the first feature-length animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a combination of One Thousand and One Nights stories that predated Walt Disney’s Snow White by over a decade. Reiniger was the creator of more than forty films using silhouette animation, a technique initially borrowed from the Chinese shadow puppet tradition that utilizes paper dolls to form silhouettes, then animated and photographed frame by frame. Reiniger is one of the frontrunners of stop-motion animation.

While Prince Achmed is certainly her most famous and ambitious work, Reiniger also made a number of shorter films, including The Stolen Heart, a 1933 short about a town populated by lovers of music who lose their instruments to an old demon. The thematics of the story involve the triumph of joyful music over evil, as the demon is eventually conquered not by anger, but by joy.

Films like The Stolen Heart make a passionate argument for Reiniger’s place in the pantheon of animation greats, a symbol of the power of female directors. There is no dialogue, and Reiniger’s storytelling depends on the combination of the visual and the use of music and song. The film comes off as an anti-fascist parable, reinforced by depiction of the demon as a gigantic old man, looming over the tiny village and robbing the people of their joy. But joy in itself is stronger than oppression and it is the action of the instruments themselves that liberates the people – the music echoes across the landscape, awakening the villagers from despair and eventually crushing the oppressive shadow. Reiniger’s silhouettes meld and transform, and give the impression of witnessing real life through a curtain, warmth and love radiating even as sorrow nearly cows the people.

Reiniger tends to come off as a footnote in animation history, partially because of her gender, and partially because silhouette animation is now largely a lost cinematic art. But it is hard  to watch The Stolen Heart and fail to be moved by it. Reiniger is an artist, a director of the highest caliber, and anyone who fails to seek out her work has done a disservice to themselves and to the history of cinema.

Outrage (1950)

Outrage (1950)

Between 1949 and 1953, actress/writer/director/producer/general badass Ida Lupino directed five feature films, making her the most prolific female director of her era. She was only the second woman to join the DGA, and she learned to direct during one of her extensive suspensions from Warner Brothers, where she wandered the backlots and watched directors at work. She was vocal about the need for more female directors, for directors to take on more taboo and out of the way subjects. And, like so many of her fellow female stars, she was far smarter and more talented than she was probably ever given credit for.

Outrage was her third film as a director, and in it we can see most clearly the development of the talent that she would hone to perfection with The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist. And like those films, Lupino takes on a deeply taboo subject with an unforgiving clarity of vision that transcends the film’s somewhat pat third act.

Outrage deals with rape and sexual assault with explicit attention (for the era) and a degree of sympathy that’s as refreshing as it is surprising. The film focalizes itself not through the pain suffered by those surrounding the victim, not through the search for the attacker or the machinations of the family, but through the victim almost exclusively. Lupino makes use of multiple POV shots to drive home the audience’s sympathy with the violated woman, her sense of fear and shame and undirected anger, and how she finds a way to cope with the trauma of her assault.

Ann Walton (Mala Powers) is a young woman working as a bookkeeper, with a boyfriend who becomes her fiance (Robert Owens), a loving family, and a normal, middle-class future. As she leaves work late one night, she’s followed and then attacked by the man who works the concession stand near her workplace, and who we see early on hitting on her with no response. Ann runs and then blacks out before the attack; she can’t recall the face of the man, remembering only the scar on his neck. Her sense of shame around her family, her fiance, and her fellow workers eventually drives her out of town, fleeing to the countryside where she finds a kind of solace with the help of Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews). But her assault continues to haunt her, even as she tries to repress it, and her terror soon takes a darker turn.

Outrage has so many interesting elements that it’s difficult to pick up on a single one. Lupino treats the subject with sympathy, but also photographs it as a film noir. When Ann flees from her hometown, she does so with the air of a criminal – she hides her face when her disappearance is talked about on the radio, and begins to act guilty when she’s introduced to a local sheriff. She changes her name, and declines to talk about where she came from or why she left. All of this is part of the recognizable tropes of film noir – the man or woman on the run. But Ann is the victim, not the criminal; her shame was something that was forced upon her. The film takes pains to avoid placing any blame on Ann for her assault. She hardly knows the man who attacks her; her greatest crime is turning him down, and even then it’s a rejection that carries very little weight. Like many women, Ann is catcalled and whistled at and she generally ignores it or takes it in stride as a simple fact of being female. Up to her assault, Ann is treated as an average woman, without any particular neuroses or anxieties; the sort of woman about to marry a long-time boyfriend, with a family that loves her and a good job that she enjoys. She is, in other words, a normal girl for the 1950s.

This act of rendering a victimized woman completely sympathetic, avoiding even the shadow of blame attached to her, drives several points home. The terror of the assault is that it really can happen to anyone; Ann’s greatest error is an understandable fear that slowly morphs into panic, which in turn makes her make bad decisions and errors as she runs. In Lupino’s work, victimized women are not “asking for it;” they are not “fallen women,” they do not “lead men on.” They are normal, average women victimized not just by a single man, but by the expectations and taboos of the culture surrounding them.

The film’s strongest and most terrifying scene is the lead up to the assault, as Ann’s eventual rapist pursues her through an empty urban landscape. Ann’s walk through the empty streets and industrial yards is at first relaxed; it’s quite obvious that she has done this often, and she’s comfortable in her surroundings. As her attacker pursues her, occasionally whistling or calling out, her panic develops. She’s clearly aware that she’s alone, isolated, and under threat. Lupino’s camera draws away from her into overhead shots combined with medium close-ups, emphasizing her isolation. Belatedly, Ann begins to do what most women are instructed to do in such situations – she heads for a cab, that quickly pulls away from her, and then begins banging on windows, calling for help. But no help comes. Ann finally resorts to hiding from her would-be attacker, but fails at the last to escape him. This combination of panic and an attempt at clear-headedness is believable – as any woman who has ever been followed by a man will tell you – and reminds us that most women who don’t actually fight their rapists are not actually consenting. Ann is terrified, she runs, she finally blacks out to defend her mind from the attack. It’s heart-breaking partially because the story is all too familiar.

As the film goes on, Lupino develops the terror that men can be for women, including ones that technically “mean no harm.” Ann’s fiance Jim at one point chases and grabs her, trying to convince her that they should run away and get married barely a week after her assault. Late in the third act, another man attempts to kiss Ann, despite her repeated denials. Ann’s horror at men and the prospect of being married, is part of her trauma, and the film doesn’t blame her for it. The men that she’s able to connect to following her assault are the ones like Bruce, who do not obviously view her as sexual, and who do not attempt to touch or coerce her.

Outrage’s greatest weakness is in providing a kind of solution to Ann’s trauma via Bruce, a reverend and a former Army chaplain who attempts to break through Ann’s reticence with a recounting of his own traumatic experience. The film relies on a pat combination of psychological and religious salvation that jars a bit with the earlier, noir-ish tone. In this, however, Outrage shows its generation more than anything. There are really only two solutions for Ann in the 1950s – salvation, or condemnation, and there was every possibility that the film would err on the more recognizable side of the “fallen woman” trope and plunge Ann into a life of vice or prostitution. But Lupino does have a defter hand than that. If the film somewhat shirks in its otherwise clear depiction of rape culture in the final act – including a decidedly post-war explanation of the attacker’s warped psychology – I think it can be forgiven.

Outrage is very much a film of its time, but it renders a sympathetic, complex understanding of the aftermath of rape, told through a woman’s eyes and with a woman’s camera. While Lupino would make technically better films, she probably never made a more significant one.

Blood Sisters (Short) (Final Girls Berlin 2018)

Also showing in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block is Blood Sisters, a humorous entry from director Caitlin Koller that entertains, even if it doesn’t completely stick the ending. Two young women spend an evening doing what all young women do: watching movies, drinking vodka, and performing blood rituals. The pair cut each other’s hands and chant incantations to become “blood sisters,” but soon find that things have gone wrong when they won’t stop bleeding.

The humor is strong here, as the two girls debate going to the doctor and attempt to fix things themselves. The punctuation of horror with laughs works well, for the most part, and undercuts the scares without totally relaxing the tension. The final few minutes, however, don’t really pay off, as the girls come up with an idea to stop the bleeding. It feels like the film needs to be five minutes longer to develop their reasoning, rather than jumping from one event to the next without a clear connection. At the same time, though, it’s a well-made short, with good performances from the two women, and a sharp script. It just needs to be a bit longer.

Blood Sisters will show in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block of Final Girls Berlin on February 2.