Tuesday, April 1, 2014

More Spring Cleaning

I saw a number of non-festival films in the first quarter which were interesting and worthwhile if not spectacular.

The Great Passage starring Ryûhei Matsuda; directed by Yûya Ishii; Japanese with subtitles; (2013)
Two Lives starring Juliane Köhler & Liv Ullmann; directed by Georg Maas & Judith Kaufmann; German & Norwegian with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
24 Exposures starring Adam Wingard, Caroline White, Simon Barrett & Sophia Takal; directed by Joe Swanberg; (2013)
7 Boxes starring Celso Franco; directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schembori; Spanish with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Gloria starring Paulina García; directed by Sebastián Lelio; Spanish with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Generation War Part 1 starring Volker Bruch, Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler, Miriam Stein & Ludwig Trepte; directed by Philipp Kadelbach; German & Polish with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook
Generation War Part 2 starring Volker Bruch, Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler, Miriam Stein & Ludwig Trepte; directed by Philipp Kadelbach; German & Polish with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook
The Grand Budapest Hotel starring Ralph Fiennes; directed by Wes Anderson; (2014) - Official Website

I saw The Great Passage & Two Lives at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in January as part of their annual For Your Consideration series in which they screen film submitted for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar category.   The Great Passage later screened at the 2014 CAAMFest in March.

I saw 24 Exposures and 7 Boxes at the Little Roxie.  I saw 24 Exposures on the first day in February and 7 Boxes on the last day in February.

I saw Gloria at the Magick Lantern in Pt. Richmond in March.

I saw both Generation War films on successive afternoons in March at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas.

I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel in late March at the Stonestown Cinema.


Let's start with Gloria since I ventured all the way to Pt. Richmond to see it.  Is Pt. Richmond a separate municipality than Richmond?  It was my first time in Pt. Richmond which has a quaint, downtown area where the Magick Lanten is located.

I first heard of the Magick Lantern about a year ago.  I had been meaning to go but am rarely in that area.  Looking at transit options from Richmond BART, I decided that driving would be the best option.  That limits my opportunities to visit as I rarely drive across the bay.  In addition, the Magick Lantern only has six regularly scheduled screenings per week (Thursday through Sunday).

A few months ago, I read that the Magick Lantern is struggling one year after opening.  Although I'm hoping for its success, I thought it better that I make it a priority to get over there to see it in case it doesn't survive.  Owner Ross Woodbury states in the article "Right now (the theater) is being run as a charity...The films I show are really, really good, but they’re generally not as well known. There’s x-number of people who come every week, and I’m delighted with them and love them. But there just aren’t enough of them."

For the past few months (maybe longer), the Lantern has been screening San Francisco Noir films on Thursday nights at 7:30 PM.  Admission is free.  On Thursday, The Midnight Story (1957) with Tony Curtis is screening.  The Rocket is screening five times from Friday night through Sunday afternoon.  Admission is $7 (cash only).

What are my impressions about the theater?  As the news article states, it's hidden, on the left hand side of a hallway.  If I recall correctly, there was a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk advertising the theater.  From the street, it's easiest to find by looking for the prominent Starbucks signage next to it.  As I entered the theater, the first thing I noticed was an impressive collection of cinema related books on large bookshelves to the left of the entrance.  I believe the back of the bookshelves form the back wall of the auditorium and they don't quite reach the ceiling.  After purchasing my ticket, I perused the books as well as some VHS tapes and DVDs.  I'm not sure if the items were for sale.

The screening room consists of four or five rows of theater seats; perhaps 10 seats across.  In front of the first row of seats are some beanbags on the floor which were being used by some of the audience.  On the evening I went, an entire row of seats were taped off because they weren't securely fastened to the floor.  Turkish or Afghan rugs were hung on the walls as makeshift soundproofing.  The projection is strictly DVD/Blue Ray.  There is no space for a 35 mm projector (either platter or changeover).  I went to a 7:30 screening on a Saturday night and there were approximately 20 people in the house.

Gloria is set in Santiago, Chile.  Pauline Garcia portrays the titular character, a divorcée in her late 50s.  Benignly neglected by her grown children and bored by her life, Gloria explores the singles scene which the synopsis tell us is quite vibrant for senior citizens.  She meets Rudolfo (Sergio Hernández), a retired naval officer.  Their relationship quickly progresses but Gloria has her doubts.  Rudolfo claims to be divorced but his ex-wife seems unusually dependent on him.  He also disappears from a family dinner where she introduces him to her children (and ex-husband).

The relationship continues to deteriorate and although Rudolfo marital status is never confirmed, Gloria appears to believe he is still married.  Her final, dramatic break from him signals her rebirth which is visually punctuated by her dancing at a disco to the Spanish language version of Gloria (the Laura Branigan song; not the Van Morrison one).

Kudos to Garcia for her performance which features nude sex scenes.  She is in nearly every scene and continues to show a buoyant attitude that belies the realities of her life.  Not necessarily sad, she is definitely on the downside of a life that has had its share of setbacks.  However, it is Hernández as Rudolfo who powers the film.  Whatever complaints Gloria may have about the way her life turned out, Rudolfo would seem to have more.  His grown daughters have no income of their own and are entirely dependent on their father both financially and emotionally.  Rudolfo seems unwilling to change the clearly dysfunctional dynamics within his family.  Unwilling to commit to Gloria and unwilling to cut his children loose, Rudolfo wants to have it both ways and Gloria is having none of it.

The transformation in the film is not so much with Gloria but rather the audience's perception of her.


I became aware of Generation War at the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival.  At MVFF, it was screened as one film with a running time of 4 hours, 30 minutes.  I wanted to see it but the screening I was interested in was At Rush so I went for a bird in the hand instead.  Interestingly, I cannot recall which film I saw instead of Generation War.  The film was broken into two parts for its US release.

Generation War follows five young Germans from 1941 to 1945.   Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) is an officer in the Wehrmacht and has already seen combat when the film begins.   Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) is Wilhelm's younger brother.  He has not served in the military before and in contrast to his brother, he sees no honor in warfare.  Charlotte (Miriam Stein) is naive and secretly in love with Wilhelm.  She volunteers as nurse and is stationed on the Eastern Front, not far from where the brother are stationed.   Katharina Schüttler is Greta, an ambitious singer who has an affair with an SS officer in order to advance her career and save her Jewish boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte).  Unbeknownst to Greta, the SS officer double crosses her and arrest Viktor.  He escapes his fate at a concentration camp and falls in with Polish resistance fighters.

Originally a German television miniseries, Generation War as epic reach which sometimes exceeds its grasp.  The five actors are in one scene together.  After that, they appear apart in pairs, trios or even quartets.  For me, the plot lines concerning Wilhelm and Friedhelm were the most compelling.  Wilhelm begins the film as patriotic and duty bound.  As Wilhelm is weighed down with his responsibilities as a platoon commander, he begins to realize the inhumanity of war and in particular, the brand of war the Nazi fought.  Meanwhile, his younger brother Friedhelm, who serves in his platoon, slowly loses his sense of morality as the atrocity he watch have an opposite effect on him than his brother.  The attitudes of the two brothers slowly come together and then diverge as they end at extreme opposites.  Wilhelm becomes a deserter, is captured and forced into a penal battalion where his unit is given the most dangerous missions.  Friedhelm becomes foolhardy in combat before eventually falling in with some fervent Hitler Youth defending against the Soviets during the final weeks of WWII.

Charlotte grows up fast in the field hospital she works at.  Seeing death on a regular basis and even turning Jewish staff members, she becomes a capable nurse before failing to evacuate and being captured by the Soviets.  She escapes rape and possibly death, courtesy of the Jewish woman she turned in (who is now an officer in the Soviet Army).

Greta becomes more ambitious as the war progresses.  She lives in luxury as her SS benefactor paves the way for her success.  However, when she threatens to expose their affair to his wife, he sends her on a tour of the Eastern Front where she reunites with Charlotte and the brothers.  Assuming the convoy will wait for a big star like her, she is left without transport back to Berlin and must make her own way.  When she finally returns, she takes revenge on the SS officer by exposing their relationship to his wife for which she is immediately sent to prison where she remains for the rest of the war.

Finally, there is Viktor.  I'm not sure how many Jews were left in Berlin in 1941 and hindsight may be 20/20 but it seem ridiculous for him and his parents to stick around Germany and I doubt he would have greeted his Aryan friends on the street of 1941 Berlin with "Shalom!"  His transformation from nice Jewish boy to resistance fighter seems most extreme.  He is continuously forced to hide his Jewish background from the partisans as they are as rabidly antisemitic as the Nazis.

I won't reveal who survives the war and who doesn't.  Each of them face and escape death at least once.  The film was a little melodramatic and contrived.  It definitely felt like a TV miniseries.  It also treated the five Germans as complicit victims of the Nazi regime.  It's a balanced portrayal but each of them can claim victimization by the Nazi regime which four of them openly serve.  Viktor of course, is the odd man out.  At most, he was a little too passive when his girlfriend starts screwing an SS officer to gain his travel papers.

By the way, that SS officer (Mark Waschke) is one of the best roles in the film.  Pure villain, he abuses his power as an SS officer and rather than face his comeuppance, he burns his uniform at the end of the war, assumes a new identity, escapes de-Nazification efforts and lands a job working for the American occupation forces.

Decidedly middlebrow and filled with false or at least, faux insights about the German people of WWII, Generation War has a fervent energy which propels it for most of its 4.5 hours.  It's hard to make a boring film about Nazis and WWII.


I've become a bit of a Joe Swanberg fan since the Roxie held a retrospective of his work last year.  I was anxious to see his almost latest film, 24 Exposures, at the Roxie.  Swanberg premiered another film at this year's Sundance Film Festival in January.

Interestingly, the Roxie's website did not prominently mention that 24 Exposures was directed by Swanberg.  The copy mentioned "Vaseline-lensed sense and sexability of an early ‘90s Zalman King production..."  That doesn't sound like Swanberg whose films don't shy away from sexuality but strives for realism with mumblecore dialogue and recognizable situations.

24 Exposures is about a photographer who shoots models in mock death scenes (think crime scene photos) with an eye towards the erotic aspects of dead, topless women.  He and his girlfriend also likes to engage in ménage à trois with some of the models.  In parallel, a suicidal police detective is investigating a series of murders where the victim are dead, topless women.

Adam Wingard is Billy, the photographer and Simon Barrett is Michael, the cop.  Alex, Billy's girlfriend, is portrayed by Caroline White and indie film queen Sophia Takal is one of the models who looks impressive in a pair of red stretch pants.

Much of the dialogue, particularly Michael's, seems awkwardly delivered and artificial.  I can't believe Swanberg was unaware of that.  Swanberg must be commenting on the genre or perhaps the audience's expectation of his films.  In the end, Swanberg plays an book agent who critiques Michael's memoirs of the murders.  Swanberg ticks off a number of shortcomings in the draft which could easily apply to the film which then leads the audience to think the film is an adaption of the faux memoir which the book agent is rejecting.  It's a little too meta for me.

24 Exposures isn't a horrible film but of the half dozen or so Swanberg directed films I've seen in the past year, it is my least favorite.


7 Boxes is a Paraguayan film; perhaps the first Paraguayan film I've seen.  I see so many films, I can't keep track the country of origin.

Celso Franco is Victor, a 17 year old boy who dreams of being famous and on television.  To achieve these dreams, he needs a cell phone.  I'm not sure why he needs a cell phone to achieve stardom.  Anyway, he gets a job to move 7 boxes several blocks in Asunción.  He has to deal with stolen cell phones, criminals, cops, a girl and the unknown contents of the boxes.

7 Boxes has thrills and some black humor.  It's one of those films where multiple plot threads come together and then apart as the story progresses.  It's clever and entertaining but didn't leave much of a lasting impression.


The Great Passage was Japan's submission for the Best Foreign Language film at this year's Oscars.  It did not make the list of final nominations.

Ryûhei Matsuda is Mitsuya Majime, a book publishing company employee.  The film begins in the 1980s when Majime is a struggling salesman.  He is quickly recruited by the editors on a project to publish a new edition of a dictionary.  Despite being a thankless and likely money-losing proposition, Majime, a linguistics major, quickly shines in his role as researcher and ultimately editor of the dictionary.

The film spans about 20 years during the which the dictionary is compiled and goes through several edits.  During this time, Majime meets a woman, gets married, assumes more responsibility on the project and ultimately shepherds it to completion.

A little too sentimental for my tastes, The Great Passage is far from the best Japanese film I've seen in the past few years.  At nearly 2 hours and 15 minutes, I thought 30 minutes of editing could have made the film a better product.  It couldn't have been all bad because I can remember two scenes 3 months later.  First, define "left" without using the word "right."  How do you define your left hand without referencing the right hand?  Second, define "love."

Two Lives was Germany's submission for the Best Foreign Language film and it didn't receive a nomination either.  The film is set in the early 1990s as the Berlin Wall falls.  We see a woman (Juliane Kohler) using disguises and false papers to sneak into East Germany.  We later learn the woman is Katrine Myrdal, a Norwegian housewife and new grandmother.  Her husband is a submarine captain in the Norwegian navy, her daughter is a college student who has decided to have a child out of wedlock and her mother is Liv Ullmann.  Katrine was taken by the Nazis as a baby for her Aryan features, raised in East Germany after the war, became a Stasi spy and escaped to Norway as a young woman.  There is more to the story than that but I'll omit the major surprise element.

Evocative of a John le Carré novel, Two Lives recalls the end of the Cold War made personal by viewing the emotional toll Katrine has paid after having lived her life as an undercover agent.  The story is a engaging although the multiple deceits and frequent flashbacks make the film more difficult to follow.  I can only image that, like Generation WarTwo Lives resonated more with German audiences where the specter of post-WWII politics, reunification and familiarity with Stasi activities are more keenly felt than in the US.


With each film Wes Anderson releases, I enjoy his work a little less.  That trend continues with The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I can't say I disliked the film but his filmmaking style is wearing thin for me.  Whimsical, fantastical elements, deadpan deliveries - they are all there in Budapest and the visual composition and plot are meticulously planned.  It's a well made film but I guess I'm fatigued by the Anderson Touch.  His style has become equally or more important than his substance.  I'm sure Anderson's fans will disagree and gobble up Budapest but I just didn't feel it this time.   I should go back and watch The Royal Tennebaums (my favorite Anderson film) to see if my enjoyment of it has cooled.

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