Friday, January 31, 2020

Sundance ’20: La Llorona

In horror movies, if you hear the sound of weeping, it probably means you did something bad. There is also a good chance you’ll soon be the one doing the crying. According to legend and lore, the vengeful weeping spirit of La Llorona lures children to her death, after having done the same to her children in real life. She is sometimes associated La Malinche, Cortes’s indigenous mistress, who was betrayed by the conquistador. The legend gets reworked in a similar spirit for a contemporary Guatemalan context in Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, which screens again today at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

After decades of impunity, the old General is finally being prosecuted for his role in the mass murder of the indigenous people during the dirty Civil War. However, he still has the protection of powerful people. That outrageous the unwashed masses, who are loudly protesting in great numbers outside his stately home. All the help have abandoned ship, except Valeriana, the trusted family servant, who could very well be the General’s illegitimate daughter. She sends for new domestics, but only the quiet Alma answers the call.

Her arrival coincides with the start of the General’s erratic behavior. He starts sleep-walking and complaining her hears a woman sobbing. Even more awkwardly, the pretty Alma reawakens his old predatory Weinstein-esque impulses, even though he probably lacks the strength and virility to fully act on them. Still, it makes it harder for his massively in-denial wife to ignore the obvious. On the other hand, his daughter Natalia, a respected medical doctor, is already suspicious her former lover (and the father of the General’s cherished granddaughter) is among the disappeared.

Bustamante manages to straddle the horror and art cinema genres rather agilely throughout La Llorona, even though the didactic score-settling detracts from its effectiveness as either. Arguably, what Latin America really needs right now are more moderate democrats, but the film is not likely to de-radicalize anyone. Regardless, Bustamante earns credit for crafting the milieu of corrupt decay and the foreboding vibe.

Maria Mercedes Coroy is silent but seductively eerie as Alma. Even though we can guess the general shape of her secrets right from the start, she is still an intriguingly mysterious presence. Yet, Sabrina De La Hoz probably gives the subtlest, most complex performance of the film as Natalia, its most interesting character. As the General and his enabling wife, Julio Diaz and Margarita Kenefic definitely take a more scenery-chewing approach, but that is arguably more appropriate for the horror genre.

La Llorona is pretty creepy, thanks in large measure to Nicolas Wang’s evocative cinematography and the design team’s darkly lush settings and trappings. It is not shy about wagging its finger at the audience, but there are still plenty of moody scares. Recommended with mild reservations, La Llorona screens again today (1/31), as part of this year’s Sundance.

The Penny Black (2020) Slamdance 2020

THE PENNY BLACK is a film that has bothered me since I saw it a few days ago. It bothered me so much that I sat on reviewing it until I could really sort out what I think of the film.

The film is the story of Will Smith who got to know a Russian man named Roman when they would both go outside to smoke. One day Roman tells Will he is going away for a couple of weeks. Would it be okay if he left something valuable with him until he came back. Will says sure and ends up with a collection of stamps, potentially worth millions in his possession. Not long after that Will tells director Joe Saunders about it and he begins filming. Then Roman disappears, Will gets spooked and isn’t sure what to do and he begins to try and run down Roman.. It a quest that last several years and goes in unexpected ways.

For the most of its running time THE PENNY BLACK is compelling norish tale with potential links to the Russian mafia, an Arizona murder and robbery and other twists. There are all these intriguing threads of speculation of what might be happening that keep us watching straight on to the end. There are so many dangerous possibilities that we have to see what happens. There is even a mid-tale twist where we begin to wonder about Will because of what happens and his past (his father was conman). We are invested from almost the outset, and we stay invested until almost the end credits…

…and that is the problem, there is a point very close to the end when the grip of the film is released when we realize that how it’s going to end is not going to live up to all the speculation in previous 90 minutes. It’s so bad that when it ended I said “really?” very loudly out loud. Obviously if that’s the way it went, that is the way it has to go and I can’t argue that...

…but at the same time without a big definite payoff the whole thing seems like a long con. While I had moments where I wondered if some of the turns were manufactured, when the ending arrived I was left to ponder if any of the film was true. Some of it probably is or maybe all of it. I wasn’t sure and in the wrong sort of way I didn’t care. Don’t get me wrong it is a hell of a ride- but there is no real pay off it just kind of ends, with the implications about the missing stamps feeling awfully contrived.

I honestly don’t know what to say- it’s a hell of ride that made me feel like I was following PT Barnum’s signs to see the Egress.

A Thousand Cuts (2020) Sundance 2020

A THOUSAND CUTS is a portrait of the current political and social situation in the Philippines through the trials and tribulations of journalist Maria Ressa and the organization she works for Rappler, the leading investigative news site in the country. Wanting to do more than tow the party line for demagogue Rodrigo Duterte, they have ended up in a never ending battle to report the high crimes against humanity that the the government's war on drugs  are committing.

I am going to be brief in regard to A THOUSAND CUTS. My brevity is not because there is anything wrong with it, but rather because the film is over stuffed with information regarding what is going on in the Philippines. Frankly I need to see this film another time or two to catch everything that is being thrown at us and to process it. There is a great deal to ponder here and I am not going to toss off a long review pretending that I have fully digested it.

Kudos to director Ramona S. Diaz who has turned in yet another excellent film. Refusing to tell the story simply she instead drops us into the middle of the battle for the soul of a nation.  While she primarily is tracking Maria Ressa's story we also get to see General Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa the strong man who is holding public executions of addicts, Mocha Uson the pop star turned social media influencer for the dictator and numerous journalists who are struggling to cover the madness. Diaz is covering all the bases and by the time the film ends we feel like we have had a ten course meal.

This is both a heartbreaking and hopeful tale. It is heartbreaking in that we witness a country going slowly insane as respect for life and basic human dignity begin to ebb away under the control of a man who simply wants to remain and power by playing to human baseness. He really couldn't care less about stories such as the woman who had to crawl down an alley to get to he son who was killed by police violence. At the same time it is hopeful in that it is a tale that shows us that there are some good people in the world, like Ressa, who refuse to go down the dark path.

(I don't want to state the obvious echoes to the current American leadership, but I do have to mention that there is a sequence early on in the film where Maria Ressa explains the divide in how her country gets its news and how that split the country- which exactly parallels the split in the US groups.)

A THOUSAND CUTS is a great film.   It is a film you must see if you care about humanity and human rights. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sundance ’20: Possessor

Tasya Vos works for the corporate equivalent of brain controlling parasites, like the exotic “zombie ant” fungus. She’s the fungus, or in this case, an assassin who commits hits while controlling the body of an unwitting host. She is a lethal legend among the limited numbers aware of her company’s true specialty, but her next assignment will involve unexpected complications in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

The process is pretty simple—and sinister. Through some kind of cyber-punky procedure, Vos’s consciousness is inserted into the abducted host. She establishes a pattern of suspicious behavior over a few days, before killing her target. Then she blows the host’s brains out just as her handlers extract her. We can see pretty clearly from the opening hit how the process is supposed to work. It is also pretty easy to see Vos is increasingly troubled by lingering memories and flashbacks, even though she manages to conceal it from her employer, Girder.

She really should have more down time between possessions, but she agrees to do a priority rush job with little rest. Her next target will be John Parse, the CEO of a data-mining firm, who happens to be played by Sean Bean, which does not auger well for his potential survivability. The host will be his daughter’s low-life boyfriend, her former drug dealer, Colin. He doesn’t seem like much, but he manages to wrestle control of his body back from Vos, at least temporarily, after much damage has been done.

Cronenberg, a chip off the old block, balances scenes of intense violence with trippy surreal passages in a sleekly stylish package. Fans of his father should also eat this up with a big spoon. However, it should be duly noted there is a previous precedent for the body-jumping assassin: Jesse Atlas’s short film Let Them Die Like Lovers, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, so nobody should say it is completely unknown. To be sure, Cronenberg comes up with plenty of his own twists. Nobody is implying anything, just acknowledging Atlas.

Andrea Riseborough (again with multiple films at Sundance) is quietly weird and subtly mental as Vos. Instead of going up-and-over-the-top, she takes in down and inward. Christopher Abbott is appropriately sweaty and beady-eyed as the schizophrenic Colin. Of course, Bean is cool chewing the scenery as the arrogant Parse, but the surprise treat is Jennifer Jason Leigh playing Girder as a steely villain as well as an understanding boss.

Reality gets fractured and blood flows in this film, so prepare for a nutty ride. However, it is definitely impressive genre filmmaking. Anyone attracted to extreme sf and action cinema should be drawn to it like a moth to flame. Highly recommended for cult movie fans, Possessor screens again today (1/30) and tomorrow night (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Lillian (2019) Slamdance 2020

Playing like a mix between Agnes Varda’s VAGABOND and the under appreciated KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER, LILLIAN is the story of a young Russian woman who finds herself stranded in New York she decides to go home by walking back to Moscow.(It is based on an incident that happened in the 1920's)

Absolutely beautiful to look at film is a portrait of the backwaters of America as Lillian travels across the country getting by whatever means she can manage either by making friends, stealing clothes and food, sleeping in cars or abandoned houses. It is a largely solitary existence that mixes beauty with desperation. It is an almost wordless journey

To be honest I honestly don’t know what to make of this film. As I said at the top this film reminds me of several other films. While there is absolutely nothing really wrong with it, especially if you take it on its own terms, ultimately I was left feeling as though I had wasted a couple hours of my time because I don’t know what I am supposed to get out of this film. Where Varda’s film raised issues of self-sufficiency, a woman’s place in society and life in general, and where KUMIKO showed us the folly of obsession, LILLIAN simply doesn’t seem to have a point, or one that requires two plus hours of screen time. Yes, the film has things to say about America and how outsiders perceive it but at the same time I’m not sure it adds up to very much.

A beautiful film but nothing more.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sundance ’20: Bad Hair

It is 1989, when you could still see music videos on television. Musical tastes are changing, but Anna Bludso has a keen sense of trends. She should be a producer or an on-air presenter for her African-American-targeted cable channel, but her follicle issues hold her back. Image is key in the superficial music industry, so she will change hers drastically. The immediate results will be dramatically positive for her career, but deadly for her co-workers in Justin Simien’s Bad Hair, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

As a child, Bludso’s older sister damaged her hair with a toxic treatment. Her scalp still bears the scars and so does her self-image. It has made her meek and submissive in office situations. Despite her talent for trend-watching, she is still an assistant at Culture, the music network about to be rebranded “Cult,” by the new white corporate president and Zora, the glamorous former super-model he has appointed as the new network director. Bludso manages to score some points in an initial meeting, but her scraggly hair just won’t cut it, so she splurges for a killer weave from the “in” stylist.

Suddenly, Bludso looks the part and then some. Her new hair hurts a little but it is worth it—at least until it starts showing an appetite for blood. Many of its victims sort of have it coming, in the EC Comics tradition, but Bludso might be in long-term danger herself.

Killer tresses—they are not just for K-horror anymore. Yet, Simien deserves some credit for taking the time to fully establish his characters and their office politics before getting down to the gory business. The late 1980’s fashion, décor, and overall vibe are also perfectly rendered, but don’t worry genre fans, there is still plenty of disgusting body horror in store for you.

Elle Lorraine hits all the right notes in a star-making lead performance, from office doormat to upstart diva and finally reaching full genre freak-out. Vanessa Williams is also delightfully vampy as Zora. Frankly, it is also a little crazy to see Blair Underwood playing Bludso’s gray-haired father, a professor of folklore, but he makes it work.

Simien nicely balances humor and horror, before spectacularly unleashing the climatic bedlam. Similarly, his sly depiction of the late-1980s music scene manages to be satirical, but in a way that also inspires nostalgia (the transparent Janet Jackson analog is a good example). Recommended with surprising enthusiasm for fans of body (or make the hair) horror and the 80’s pop culture it sends-up, Bad Hair screens again this Friday (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.