Womb by Benedek Fliegauf

Womb (film)

A woman’s consuming love forces her to bear the clone of her dead beloved. From his infancy to manhood, she faces the unavoidable complexities of her controversial decision.

There is a dark intensity to Eva Green’s face. I always thought this since Casino Royale, and it’s well utilized in the film. Rebecca is a character who simply cannot let go of her grief and move forward with her life. In some other film, there would be a new man who’s romantically available for her (she’s Eva Green after all) but the film does not even go there. She embodies a unrelenting stagnant pain under a quiet demeanor, and trying to move forward by progressing backwards. The love story takes a while to set up but is truly touching, and feel Rebecca’s loss when Tommy is taken away from her. Oddly that’s two science-fiction films she’s done this year that were pretty good.

Set in a unspecified barren location and minimally populated setting, Womb strongly operates in a fairy tale-like setting. Nature acts as a character in the film. There are numerous wide shots of the ocean with the actors as little specks off looking off into the ocean. The scenery evoked a looming feeling of nature, possibly to imply that nature is bigger than all of us.  Eventually it made me think about how man prehistorically came from the sea.

It’s impressive how Womb immerses the audience into its world. The outside world beyond the town is never shown. It’s a world where cloning exists but we never cut away to some cloning protest in a religious country elsewhere or spend too much time watching a news anchor give Basil Exposition on TV. The workings of the world are shown through scenes within the town where parents discuss whether they should allow their kids to play with clone kids (“copies”, a sort of slur for clone). That’s something really artful about Womb. It slowly gets creepier and creepier as the story progresses, especially when Matt Smith shows up again as the new adult Tommy. There is a scene where the new young Tommy (played by Tristan Christopher) and Rebecca playfully wrestle, Tommy pins down Rebecca and Rebecca just eyes him lovingly in a romantic way. You dread the idea of incest. I found myself really afraid for the new Tommy as the slow-burn tension arises to him finding out the truth. After all, what is the meaning of his existence? He’s her son but treated like her love underneath.

Womb proposes some challenging questions about cloning, but it does not run too far with it. It stays with its story and characters and moves towards its inevitable conclusion. It doesn’t tap out and give up on its own convictions. It does not end up being a piece of anti-cloning “issue-tainment”  and it remains a tale about someone not being able to let go of a loved one.

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Sidewalls by Gustavo Taretto

Sidewall (Medianeras) by Gustavo Taretto

Martín and Mariana are slightly damaged people who live in buildings just opposite one another. Martín, works as a web designer and is a phobic in recovery process. Little by little he manages to step out of the isolation of his one-room apartment and his virtual reality.  Mariana is an architect who just broke up after a long relationship. Her head is a mess, just like the apartment where she takes refuge. Martin and Mariana live in the same street, in opposite buildings, but they never met. They walk through the same places, but they do not notice each other. Both are afraid of the outside world. While they often don’t notice each other, separation might be the very thing that brings them together.

The film opens with a Manhattan-like montage showing the many buildings in Buenos Aires, a monologue from Martín (played by Javier Drolas) describes how architecture is the ultimate human expression and a mirror-accurate reflection of how we are – disorganized, contradictory, chaotic and disconnected. Martín states that his entire life is in his apartment: he works, sleeps, eats, has sex (with himself) and entertains himself there. He blames architects because they have designed the outlines of his life. Modernity has made our homes so comfortable that being outside and interacting with other people now seem daunting.

The characters are quirky but realistic. We are presented with their inner monologues along with animations visualizing their inner thoughts. It is never quirky for the sake of being quirky. Let’s just say if Zoe Deschanel suddenly manifested in this movie, she would have been quietly escorted out by Latino security guards. No seriously, Martín and Mariana’s quirks come from a real damaged place of hurt, heartbreak and a loss of faith in people. Something that felt really real for me was how Mariana likes to lean on a specific spot in her apartment -a wall besides the 5-step walkway up to her bedroom area. It does not look particularly comfortable or anything special, but she leans there and uses it like a place of safety. That hit me on a personal level.

Sidewalls provides a precise portrayal of isolation and loneliness and underneath asks some challenging questions. Why is all this interconnectivity setting us apart? How can someone feel alone on a subway full of people? Is love the answer? It might be the answer, but it’s goddamn hard to find amidst all this interconnectivity. Suffice to say, Martín and Mariana do get to meet potential lovers and it is interesting to see how they play out and how it affects the two protagonists. There are many whimsical moments and I smiled through most of the film. It gets a bit dark at times too. Mariana purchases a mannequin and interacts with it in all sorts of ways and I hoped that her condition wouldn’t worsen into anything darker. For that, I think actress Pilar López de Ayala has the meatier role. After this film, I think I have a new crush.

I liked what the film had to say about urban loneliness. I liked and cared for these characters and wanted to see them together. It’s a nice charming gem of a love story. I would have wanted to see more interaction between the two characters, but maybe that’s a good thing. It left me wanting more.

Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog

Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog

On October, 24 2001, Michael Perry and his friend, Jason Burkett, decided steal a Camaro from the the Montgomery home of Sandra Stotler. Perry entered the house through the garage. Perry shot Sandra Stotler with a shotgun and the two men dumped her body in Montgomery County’s Crater Lake.

The duo then returned to the gated community where Sandra Stotler lived and waited outside the locked gate until the dead woman’s son, Adam Stotler, and his friend, 18-year-old Jeremy Richardson arrived. Perry and Burkett lured the teens to a wooded area and killed Adam Stotler and Richardson. Perry and Burkett, driving the Isuzu Rodeo Adam Stotler had been using, went back to Sandra Stotler’s home and finally stole her Camaro. They kept the Camaro for no longer than 72 hours and were finally apprehended after a gun fight with the police. Perry received a death sentence and Burkett received a life sentence.

Into the Abyss is the new documentary film from Werner Herzog, it focuses on the two convicts and various people affected by the crime. In his documentaries, Herzog always seeks what he calls the “ecstatic truth”, his theory that storytellers should never look away from the truth. It’s not enough that we know that murder exists. You have to look at it face-to-face. Once you do this, you will find a whole well of deeper truth.

That was my experience watching Into the Abyss, on the surface it covers a very depressing subject. At the helm of any  lesser director it would probably be depressing. Instead, it cuts right through and takes you to different places emotionally beyond “hey dude, murder is depressing, so be depressed while you watch this”. It’s emotionally raw, the parts about the victim’s families dealing with the victim’s deaths are powerful stories. We see that it so much more harder to grieve when one’s death was over something so meaningless. Mostly we can say that these deaths are all made from wrong choices. Did these people have a choice? Some seemingly did and some claimed they did not. It would be so much easier to judge and encapsulate how we feel about a person’s actions if we did not look at the whole truth of his predicament.

There is humor at times, but it’s not there to break tension. It comes as part of the ecstatic truth. Herzog greets the father of Jason Burkett, Delbert Burkett, who is also in prison, “How are you?” The sits down and casually snaps a “I’m fine.” Herzog half-scoffs, “How fine (are you really)?” Delbert recounts how he testified for his son in court and pleaded to the judge not to execute Jason. He blames himself for not being there as a father and never gave his son a chance for a good life.

It’s even romantic at times, the wife of Jason Burkett speaks about how she fell in love with her husband and desires to bear his child, despite that they will not be together for 40 years until he makes parole. She holds a sonogram picture of the baby and that was an unnerving moment. As she held up the picture, I wondered if the child is another seed of criminality. That’s what I saw. I think other people will have different interpretations. The film is dense enough for it.

One of the most chilling moments for me was the interview with Fred Allen, the Captain of the Death House Team in Texas, where the prisoners are brought to be executed. He describes the procedure of taking the patient to be lethally injected and his struggle with keeping the job after lethally injecting 125 convicts. A notepad is shown noting the times of the procedure of Michael Perry’s execution: when he arrived, when he was strapped to the bed, when he was injected and when he passed. That struck me still. I did not have an emotion for that.

Herzog does not narrate as he usually does and I think that was a good aesthetic choice. He only conducts the interviews. Herzog’s own views are implied in the film (he is against the idea of capital punishment), but it’s not as loud of a statement as one would experience in a Michael Moore film. It is unlike Cave of Forgotten Dreams where he needed to answer, “Why the hell are we looking at these caves for 2 hours?”  There is no question of why we need to watch this and Werner Herzog takes a step back from telling us his personal views. The viewer is left to decide how they want to judge the actions Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Herzog provides no answers, but asks all the right questions.

Why did these three people die for a car? Why did these two kids kill for a joyride? How does death affect a family? How do you live your life knowing that you will be executed next week? Is there any real purpose to executing Michael Perry? After all, it won’t bring them back. Does anyone, including the state, have any right to take a life? Just because the law says so, does that make it right?

At the end, It left me raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I thought about the absurdity and ironies of life. Into the Abyss reflected the human predicament and how as human beings we think we know everything, but we are not even close to understanding ourselves.

A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something very cinematic about watching the creation of something. In A Dangerous Method, we see the beginnings of psychoanalysis and the intellectual debate about the approach to the mind. Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) treats Sabina Spielrein (played by Kiera Knightley), whom eventually becomes his assistant and one of the first female psychoanalysts. They begin a love affair, that breaks the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship and threatens Jung’s family and career. Adding oil to the fire is the presence of Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), of whom Jung seeks approval from but ultimately their relationship turns turbulent as they differ on views of sexuality and religion.

First of all, I liked the 2 lead performances. Michael Fassbender is great as Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen brings true gravitas to Sigmund Freud, and we experience how Carl Jung is intimidated by his presence. Viggo is our generation’s Robert De Niro. He’s come a long way as an Omish dude sitting at the back of a carriage in Witness. Some actors are good at creating a character internally (i.e. Robert De Niro is always Robert De Niro but is able to create a character)and some actors are good at physicalizing a character (i.e. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka). Viggo Mortensen is both. Any role Viggo is in, he truly transforms into his roles inside-out and always creates a presence to be marveled.

On the issue of Kiera Knightley convulsing and making spastic movements… given that it is a factually-accurate portrayal of mental distress, she’s performing the psychosis as if she were in a theatrical play. She has yet to learn how to use a close-up on film. In my opinion, it’s not her fault. The director should have cut around her or toned her actions down. Watching her face as she does them, it feels very performed. I think less is more in this case and this was somewhat of a miscalculation on Cronenberg’s part. However, Knightley does fares better in the latter half of the movie.

I can see why David Cronenberg was attracted to do this material. There is a mental violence underneath the relationships between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. At times it is about manipulation, most of the time, it is all about power. The main problem is the mental violence is not violent enough. That may be because these are true events with real-life historical figures. You end up with a dramatic replay of historical events. There is no prominent theme underneath that does not say anything about life that you can take away from.

Is it worth seeing for the performances? Not really. It would also require an interest in the foundations of psychoanalysis (which I do have an interest in) as well. But even with that, that’s still pushing it because there is nothing more beneath it’s surface to offer. In the end, I’m glad I saw it but A Dangerous Method is a bit unremarkable.

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Life is full of choices. Every choice you make leads you onto a different set of choices. You never can possibly know what the best version of your life can be. That’s scary, after all, how do you make your life a worthy one?

A family is broken. A father and mother bring their son Nemo to a train station. Nemo is presented with a choice: should he board the train with his mother or stay with his father? Nemo ponders on this. The film proceeds to play out all the possibilities, showing twelve different lives of Nemo’s life spawning from this one choice.

The film functions on dream logic. We move from the physical into the imaginary, the metaphysical and dream states. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Yet the most noteworthy accomplishment is that each transition  is completely intelligible. Director Jaco Van Dormael constructs an inner logic for the audience. As the story progresses and branches out into new stories, we completely know where we are at and it all makes perfect sense. This all makes me realize one thing. This story could not have been told in another medium other than film. It incorporates every bit of film language possible: crosscutting, time transitions, spatial transitions, camera focal length etc.. Even a goddamn crane shot had a legitimate narrative reason for being there. And damn, that impresses me.

It’s not overly cerebral either. Nemo’s potential paths are centered around three women: Anna (played by Diane Kruger), Nemo’s potential one true love, Elise (played by Sarah Polley), a woman that Nemo loves but does not reciprocate and  Jean (played by Linh Dan Pham), as a woman who loves him but Nemo does not care for (this one really broke my heart). Much of the film is an examination of love and happiness. There’s a scene where the teenage Nemo rejects Anna’s invitation to swim with her on the beach. Anna leaves and we see them later as adults bumping into each other in a train station awkwardly years later. Nemo then ponders why he rejected her that day. And the film proceeds to play the alternate scenario, where he tells Anna the truth: Nemo does not know how to swim and did not know what to tell her.

I am a Jared Leto fan (I like his band 30 Seconds to Mars as well). Sometimes it’s possible to like an actor for his choices and he is certainly that case. It’s admirable that he takes smaller roles in art film projects that he respects rather than milk his looks to be famous (which he can totally do). He was great in Requiem For A Dream and Chapter 27 and also the most heartfelt part in Alexander and Lord of War. This is a challenging role and he takes it head on. He plays a convincing 117 year old man and it is fun to watch him play Nemo in the various versions.

Other noteworthy performances are Sarah Polley, who in one version is suffering chronic depression from an unhappy marriage, which she played very dimensionally. Watching her made me think how easily one-note the role could have been. Also Toby Regbo and Juno Temple as the teenage versions of Nemo and Anna falling in love was very endearing and they really sell the innocent sweetness of first love.

One bit I take issue with was the use of “Where is my Mind?” by The Pixies, which is eternally attributed to Fight Club, a film in which Jared Leto is in. There could been other songs to put in that scene. However that’s a minor complaint at best.

This film was released in 2010 and I saw it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Though in my opinion, this film is not talked about enough and definitely needs to be seen by more people. Mr. Nobody took me away. It broke my heart, touched me and made me ponder about life’s ironies. By the end I left the theater reflecting on my life and how I should live it.

I recommend everybody see it.