Frameland closes out the year with our annual celebration of films that we feel deserve more praise, attention and/or viewers than they’ve received. A list of films by more than one gender, from Asia, America, The Middle East and Europe, featuring simple pleasures while exploring serious issues. Frameland will return in the new year, after a short break of two weeks.
What seems just an ordinary evening in Antwerp, becomes a humorous journey through a surrealistic world. In his debut Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out, the Belgian director Bert Scholiers follows BFF’s Charlie and Hannah during their night out. It starts at a boring party at home and ends in the middle of the city centre of Antwerp, where buildings talk to each other. What happens in between is the result of eating an “innocent” piece of candy.
Soon after, the girls get separated and they both en up in a bizarre, unrealistic world where pineapples fly around, people get blown up. These girls go from one strange situation to the next, without a dull moment in the film. However, Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out is more than a journey through the wicked world of two young women. Sholiers’ creation is full of beautiful references to film history, from black-and-white early cinema to Italian giallo-horror films of the 1960s/1970s and from German expressionism to experimental and daring films of the 1960s.
Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out is funny and stylistically adventurous, but contains also a lot of serious talk. Scholiers wanted to make a dialogue heavy film and so Charlie and Hannah talk a lot. It goes from small talk to more profound philosophical conversations. Is it easy to be a single twenty-something with no specific future plans who is chased by troublesome ex-boyfriend? No, it isn’t. But is life fun? Hell yeah, it is!
As we were justifiably losing our minds about Paul Schrader’s return to making films anyone could stand to sit through, some of us were burning up with curiosity. Just what was this other film in his late canon, bluntly if mysteriously entitled Dark? Think back to 2014 (if you can still remember a time before the hideousness of right now) when Schrader, Nicolas Cage and dearly, dearly missed Anton Yelchin took pictures in matching t-shirts expressing their ire that a movie called Dying of the Light was taken out of their hands and re-edited by a studio. Well, Schrader decided to take it back. He culled together a director’s cut from the HD footage that made it onto disc, and his own unmastered footage left on the cutting room floor and made his ideal version of that movie. It speaks to Dark‘s weight and strange power that I can’t remember much about Dying of the Light and it’s the spine of this new movie. Schrader, when fully in control, is a dying star of creative energy: destructive and mesmerizing and spectacular. Dark‘s textural depravity and mind-bending assault on form and convention make a fine compliment for a story of a man whose mind is eroding. This film is only available if you know where to pirate it, which is fitting for a film we’re not supposed to see. But see it you should if you can.
✏️ Scout Tafoya
I saw this film at the Leiden International Film Festival, where I’ve seen most of Alex Ross Perry’s films. After seeing Golden Exits there last year, which I found a bit disappointing, I doubted whether to go see this one. I’m glad I did, for Her Smell has already become my favourite film of his. The story itself is one we’ve heard and seen many times before: a rocker on a path to self-destruction, succumbing to swift success and the drugs that come with it. In this case the rocker is the lead singer of an all-female punk rock band, played with great intensity by Elisabeth Moss. The movie consists of long, drawn out scenes in which it’s sometimes difficult to focus your attention, because of the constant chaos and noise that fills the surroundings. The world backstage is one of sensory overload and from the get go, Perry doesn’t give the audience a moment to catch their breath, until suddenly he does. After about an hour and a half the film comes to a halt. We’ve seen Perry dissect the unpleasantness of human beings before, but in Her Smell he pairs it with a surprisingly touching, compassionate second half.
Lebanese Director Ziad Doueri previously impressed me with the beautiful Lila Says (2004) and with The Insult he managed to make a very emotional and nuanced film again. Tony, a Lebanese Christian finds himself insulting the Palestinian labourer Yasser, who is doing construction work on his balcony. Tony’s wife is expecting, and he doesn’t want workers around her. His insult quickly escalates, resulting in physical violence, and eventually becomes a court case that gathers national attention. The conflict obviously deals with much more than just the insult, being about the social tension between Christians and Palestinians. As so often, this type of drama often reveals the existence of a much more layered and strong emotional history of both protagonists. Both sides can be understood and respected, and Doueri doesn’t ask his viewers to choose sides. Rather, he does the opposite by continuing to give more and more insight into the background and motivations of the protagonists. Towards the end, The Insult does become a bit over-dramatized but is nonetheless a compelling and intense film with excellent performances.
In a vaguely dystopian future, the reconstruction of a murder is staged in a sports hall as part of a police investigation. The events play out in one ultra-long shot, in such a way that issues like chronology, continuity and perspective lose their conventional roles, to highly fascinating effect. The Iranian writer-director Shahram Mokri isn’t the only filmmaker openly inspired by the likes of M.C. Escher (Lee Kwang-kuk, in Korea, would be another), but he’s surely the one who’s taking this inspiration the furthest in cinematic terms. He’s been producing variations on the ‘impossible object’ as film in short and long features since at least 2005, so you could say he keeps ploughing the same furrow. But the results remain impressive: not only is Invasion a masterpiece of mise-en-scene, it also invites contemplation on the ontology of the moving image as deep as you’d like. Much of the subtext will be lost on non-Iranian viewers: Mokri says he got the idea for the re-enactment from a local tradition of religious performance, and the role of the single woman in a gym full of men will likely mean more in the film’s home country than elsewhere. But the achievement as cinematic spectacle is easy enough to appreciate for anyone with open eyes.
✏️ Paul Caspers
2018 has been a banner year for filmmaker Pa. Ranjith. Not only did he produce Pariyerum Perumal, which was featured in our favourite cinematic moments article, he directed the excellent Kaala starring Rajinikanth aka Super Star, perhaps the greatest star of Tamil cinema. Kaala is a stylish marriage of the interests and tendencies of Pa. Ranjith and Rajinikanth, presenting popular commercial cinema with spectacular fight and dance scenes, layered by subversive sociopolitical commentary.
Both films deal with the issue of caste and the position of the Dalit in Indian society, though in Kaala it’s never mentioned directly. Rather, the story of a gangster (named Kaala) ruling over a Mumbai slum going up against a Brahmin minister who wants to seize his people’s land and evict them all, shows these societal divisions in a more subtle way. When the minister, obviously based on current prime minister Modi, visits Kaala to try to reason with him, he refuses to drink their water. When his party loses an election due to the neighbourhood voting the way Kaala tells them to, he says “Dirt and filth has defeated me today.” The subtext is clear.
At the same time Kaala also works as a retelling of the Ramayana, casting our hero Kaala as the demon Raavanan and the villainous politician as the divine Rama, a subversion of ancient mythical and religious tropes that has its roots in South Indian versions of the Ramayana, placing it in the context of the caste system and North-South power relations.
Much of Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird is familiar. A slice-of-life story of teen romance and coming-of-age, mixed with vividly contrasting and whimsical flights of fancy (in this case realized as imaginings of the storybook of the title). What makes it special is Yamada’s specificity in the minor details of characterization and interaction. The way one girl in love is obsessed not just with the object of her affection’s hair, but with the way her pony-tail bobs as she walks to school, oblivious of her own beauty. The expressive power of a slight shift in the eyes, or a movement of the head, these things aren’t unheard of in live-action film, but they’re rare, and even more so in animation, where even the best movies succumb to the desire for spectacle over detail, usually culminating in the end with the abandonment of emotional reality in favour of a chase sequence. The climax of Liz and the Blue Bird comes not with fantasy, or with a mad rush against time, or the conquering of a metaphorical (but animated on-screen as all-too actual) demons, but with the gradual and quiet accumulation of confidence, of self-understanding. Its high point is not chaotic cacophony of images, abstract and/or action-oriented (as in some of the year’s other best animated films, Mirai or Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse), or a triumphant appearance on a grand stage (as in the spiritually similar Linda Linda Linda), but simply a girl playing the oboe (not just with skill, but with feeling) in a high school classroom, her only audience her peers in the orchestra.
✏️ Sean Gilman
At the moment of the premiere of Ma’ Rosa in The Netherlands, early 2018, Rodrigo Duterte had already a year and a half been president of the Philippines. A year and a half in which his war on drugs resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects. Ma’ Rosa has already been filmed before Duterte’s presidency, but covers the tension on society of a lawless and corrupt government superbly. During an endless night on a police station, a family of which the parents are small-time drugs dealers, try to avoid prosecution, but have little means to meet the wishes of the corrupt officers. Notwithstanding the serious subject matter, the film is not without some ironic touches and absurd moments. The core of the film are the members of the family themselves. In these direst of moments, their ties prove stronger than they seemed at the beginning of the film. Although it is not so easy to sympathise with these characters, their quest for a restart will let few unmoved.
✏️ Rik Niks
There’s something sickly sweet about Brady Corbet’s second feature that, while not completely successful, is always fascinating. Vox Lux is part satire, part melodrama, part deadpan comedy, and totally cynical, examining the risks that come with embracing one’s trauma. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but why should it be? Like the main character says, “They wanted a show. I gave them a show.”
The film even wears its pretensions on its sleeve, opening with a title card that says “Genesis” while Willem Dafoe’s winking (yet affecting) voice speaks like Behind the Music as narrated by God. Then without blinking, Corbet plunges into a school shooting full of allusions to Columbine in one of 2018’s most harrowing scenes. But while Vox Lux is heavy on its anger, it’s oddly funny in the most roundabout of ways, namely in how it examines our need for “mindless” entertainment as a way of coping with unfathomable sadness. It’s intimate and detached all the same, and like a Bob Fosse film caked in Refn-esque Eurotrash, it juggles timeliness and retrospection while melding madness into something perverse, addictive, and entertaining.
One of the main complaints about the film thus far is Natalie Portman’s performance. I, however, found her impossible to turn away from as a damaged woman trying to thrash her way out of her life as an archetype. Another issue for some is its voice; some have complained that Corbet lacks one, but Vox Lux isn’t about that. It’s about texture, and it’s film is oh so glassy. It isn’t perfect, but it’s unique in how it looks at trauma—in how it wears rhinestones like bandages to cover up its very real pain.
✏️ Matt Cipolla