Rob Harmon’s recommendations 11/19/13


Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksBARBARA (dir. Christian Petzold, 2012)

The impressive new German political thriller BARBARA depicts life in the former German Democratic Republic (or East Germany), but, whereas most films paint a picture of the Soviet Bloc countries in terms of black-and-white, director Christian Petzold wisely chooses to focus on the bleak and dehumanizing ephemera of everyday life—such as busted wall sockets and a strictly-monitored bathing schedule—and the pure dug-in determination of its inhabitants to survive. This is a landscape—seemingly sparse and quiet—populated by survivors, spiritually wounded and maimed though they may be; where the West is such a capricious wonderland far, far away that two hushed women can stare transfixedly at the pages of a garish, smuggled-in jewelry catalogue; and where even villains—especially villains—have human sides: this society may be air-tight but it is far from airless, permitting some room to breathe.

The story takes place in 1980, a year in which much of the GDR was transfixed upon the Olympic Summer Games in Moscow. Dr. Barbara Wolff (veteran actress Nina Hoss) arrives in the provinces to take up a post at a small pediatric hospital. As it turns out this humble position is a far cry from the fast-track career in medicine that she was once charting in Berlin: Barbara has been officially “relocated” due to the fact that she has requested an exit visa from the GDR, a fall from grace which most in this society of few secrets instantly recognizes and pounces upon. She is sullen and remote, spurning the companionship of her colleagues, particularly the sincere and love-sick Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), which right away earns her the reputation of a cold, big city snob to go on top of her apparent political crimes. Yet it soon becomes clear that Barbara has a secret connection to the West and one which she aims to exploit, this in spite of the watchful eyes of her neighbors and the local Stasi agent’s (Rainer Bock) withering attention, resulting in humiliating searches of her flat and her person at seemingly any time, day or night.

Though Barbara is increasingly drawn into the provincial life of the hospital around her and better learns to see the world from André’s humanistic viewpoint she still retains her ultimate desire to escape to the West… doesn’t she?

Barbara tells the story of the GDR in an intimate, restrained fashion, focusing on the life of the title character and her relationships with those around her, especially the lovelorn André and a hard-luck young patient named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) for whom she forms a strong and  endearing maternal attachment. The performances in the film are understated and powerful, with particular praise going to the gutsy Hoss in the title role. The cinematography, editing, and production design are all first-rate and refreshingly side-step the typical clichés of depicting life under a totalitarian regime in broad strokes and severe gestures, focusing instead on the human-scale sadness of a society divided against itself.

Petzold, who previously gained attention for his drama YELLA (2007) (also starring Hoss), won the Silver Bear as Best Director for Barbara at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, heralding perhaps a breakthrough for him, as well as his willowy star, Hoss. Barbara succeeds as a meditation on the life-draining paranoia and amnesia inherent to life under such cruel circumstances, but also ultimately reveals the strength which can unexpectedly come in dark times.

For an alternate but equally-moving take on this same subject matter be sure to see (if you have not already) the widely-heralded 2006 GDR-set drama/thriller THE LIVES OF OTHERS.

Hank’s (and Rob Harmon’s) recommendations 10/01/13

hank_paperHANK’S PICKS 10/01/13:

THIS IS THE END — In many of the massively popular films (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, KNOCKED UP, SUPERBAD, 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, 21 JUMP STREET, to name a few) of Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson, everything outside of their dope-imbibing, self-centered, immature lives can go to hell, and that’s exactly—literally—what happens in this funny parody of both horror films and the celebrity life style.

With the entire cast of young recently “made” actors (including Emily Watson and Rihanna) playing themselves at a huge party at James Franco’s architecturally overstated house, Rogan and Robinson take a walk down the block for cigarettes and suddenly witness the Apocalypse arrive.

Amid the ravaged, burning ruins of LA, the six friends wind up taking refuge in Franco’s house, rationing water and foie gras, fighting demons and, above all, testing their “off screen” sybaritic friendships among hilariously dire adversity. Even Mrs. Video, who doesn’t like horror films or lame comedies, found this film funny and entertaining.

Oddly, it reminded me of an otherwise totally dissimilar movie, THE TRIP, wherein Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, also playing themselves in a supposedly true off-screen friendship, make a tour of Britain’s Lake District to review high end B & B food for The Observer. This very funny and picturesque movie (though not, perhaps, as picturesque as LA in ruins) winds up being, through a battle of competing comedic riffs and impersonations, a parody of the stand up comedic life style.

Is Reality TV now taking over the movie theater? If so, it’s better than anything on the small tube.

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’S PICKS 10/01/13

LE QUATTRO VOLTE (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010)

It is no secret that as American moviegoers we heavily rely on a film’s plot in deciding its overall worth. There are two sins which outweigh all others in regards to film: a plot which is confusing, contains holes, or does not add up, and one which meanders or does not seem to go anywhere quickly—one which is, in other words, boring.

Unfortunately, for many American moviegoers the latter charge of “boring” is usually the death knell of a film, allowing for the marginalization of much of what might be called art house fare, and meaning that our mainstream commercial cinema is increasingly fast-paced, trivial, specious, and muscular: seemingly amped-up on steroids and out-of-control. The cultural stigmatization of “boring” movies means that many never give a chance to films which test their patience and the poetic boundaries of the medium, dismissing them out of hand.  Boredom at the movies, in other words, is the pits—nay, it is downright un-American!—and most would avoid it like the plague.

Yet, there is a style and vein of modern cinema which requires a greater attention span on the part of the viewer. Just think of the films of Ozu, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Bergman, and Dreyer, or, more recently, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, Kelly Reichardt, Bella Tarr, and Claire Denis. Through long, lingering takes and a slow and steady editing pace, these films challenge the viewer in order to reveal something more about the human condition—either beautiful or ugly—and, perhaps ultimately, something of a spiritual or ephemeral nature. Though the “cinema of patience” appears too artsy and out-of-reach for many moviegoers there are handsome dividends to be found here, and arguably some of the greatest adventures in film. (Although I will equally argue the importance of genre filmmaking, as will become apparent as we get further into October and I begin to write more on a subject near and dear to my heart: the much-maligned horror film!)

(which translates to “The Four Times”) is a gauzy and poetic evocation of the cycles of death and life which permeate a remote mountain village in the Calabria region of Italy and its immediate environs. An old man, a goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda), makes his living off of the land. He becomes sick and then dies, but his death is far from the end of the film but a beginning, of sorts, as the camera continues to follow the streams of life, not just for human beings, but for all that is around us… even in the air we breathe and under our feet.

Frammartino has the kind of unerring and unflinching eye necessary to pull this kind of material off. The cinematography, editing, and sound design are all first-rate. The film’s greatest set piece is an 8-minute wonder of a shot wherein we witness the entropy and fall-out from the goat herder’s death: as a Passion Play—complete with Roman soldiers and a Cross-bearing Jesus—marches through the town’s streets the man’s loyal herding dog yaps at passersby, ultimately and unwittingly setting off a chain of events which results in the liberation of the bleating goat herd from their pen—free, at last, to roam the streets unmolested. This amazing shot patiently pans back-and-forth to document the action, its viewpoint both placid and remote as it observes these strange goings-on from a distance high above. A similar quietness permeates many other shots in the film, such as the erecting of an enormous tree in the town’s square for a festival, seen from an immense distance, with rooftops in the foreground and mountains in the back, as though to provide a proper scale for the significance (or insignificance) of human events in nature.

At 88 minutes the movie chugs along but never races to the finish, its ending as calm and effortless as its beginning and middle, and as satisfying.

SAMSARA (dir. Ron Fricke, 2011)

Samsara is the latest effort from director Ron Fricke and his writing collaborator and producer Mark Magidson, the team responsible for 1992’s hypnotic BARAKA, a rhythmically-edited exploration of patterns of life across the planet and a film positively suffused with the textures of Buddhist philosophy. Samsara follows in the stylistic footsteps of its predecessor but may be filled with even more of a sense of wonder and dread, more of the desire to gaze at the world around us and to be overwhelmed.

Though ostensibly a documentary of the National Geographic or IMAX variety Samsara has just as much in common with the avant-garde “urban symphonies” of the 1920’s, such as Walter Ruttmann’s BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929)—silent pictures which were made at a heady moment in the development of the medium, when editing practices were being pushed to the extreme.

Editing rhythms are all-important in Samsara, with no scientific claptrap or voice-over by an overpaid Oscar-winning actor to hamper the flow, the camera merely set up in such a way as to record the action. Though “recording” here hardly does credit to the lush cinematography, by Fricke himself, which was done in 70mm before being transferred to digital, resulting in a remarkably crisp and clear image. The music by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci is appropriately somber and cyclical, helping to drive the action forward even as it forms a fitting counterpoint to the images on screen.

There is no linear story here, as one would traditionally define it, with images and sounds simply washing over the viewer, and themes and storylines slowly and methodically emerging from the well-edited-chaos. The subjects, as with Baraka, are varied and rich, and perhaps even more so than the earlier film: female Balinese dancers, the great pyramids at Giza, Buddhist temples in the Myanmar landscape, a firearms company and a prison in the Philippines, the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a favela in São Paulo, a martial arts academy in China, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and numerous factories and cityscapes the world over, just to name a few.

Few films can claim to have the scope of life itself and really mean it; Samsara is one such movie. If its sights and sounds can occasionally create sensations of unease or dizziness in the viewer, at other times it can elicit feelings of a very human type: recognition. Samsara is like a mirror.

(The Other) Hank’s Recommendations 04/23/13

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebBest Video’s other Hank—Hank Hoffman—here with this week’s recommendation. Hank Paper will return with a new recommendation next week.

Film Movement is a distributor of critically acclaimed independent and foreign films—we have dozens of their titles avilable to rent at Best Video. Their selections are, in a sense, curated, chosen for the quality of the storytelling, the persuasiveness of the acting, the commitment to personal vision.

KAREN CRIES ON THE BUS hails from Colombia, directed by Gabriel Rojas Vera. But unlike so many films from or about contemporary Colombia, it is not a shoot-em-up about narco-traffickers or guerrillas. Rather, it tells the story of Karen, a Colombian woman who leaves her unfulfilling marriage of ten years to the distant and emotionally abusive—albeit financially successful—Mario. With no jobs, no apparent friends,  little money and the disapproval of her mother, she makes her way out into Bogotá, renting a room in a rundown flophouse.

Karen is played by Angela Carrizosa with a naturalness that is wholly believable. Her growth into self-sufficiency is spurred in part by her tentative friendship with Patricia,  an outgoing beautician who also has a room at the boardinghouse. Feminism is a subtext, of course, but Rojas Vera doesn’t overplay that theme.

The strengths of Karen Cries on the Bus are the strengths of the Film Movement offerings overall: telling human scale stories in such a way as to richly accommodate grander visions. Check out the Film Movement titles in our New Foreign and various country sections. Almost every one is a gem.

View the trailer for Karen Cries on the Bus: