Sunday, January 4, 2015

Opera Plaza Hat Trick

On Christmas Eve, with my gym and workplace closed, I ventured to the Landmark Theaters Opera Plaza Cinemas.  I wasn't sure what I was going to see but I had some time.  I ended up staying back to back to back because I enjoyed the films so much.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night starring Sheila Vand & Arash Marandi; directed by Ana Lily Amirpour; Persian with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website
Citizenfour; documentary; directed by Laura Poitras; (2014) - Official Website
Pioneer starring Aksel Hennie; directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg; Norwegian & English with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was filmed in the Central Valley of  California but set in a unnamed "Bad City" where everyone speaks Persian (but definitely not in Iran).  I have learned Persian could be but is not necessarily the same as Farsi.  AGWHAAN is ostensibly a vampire film but director Ana Lily Amirpour achieves much more in her debut feature.

Very much like a Jim Jarmusch film, AGWHAAN inhabits this world which is familiar but definitely off.  There are only five or six speaking parts in the film.  Arash (Arash Marandi) is a young man who works as a gardener for a wealthy family but looks like a 1950s greaser and has a cherry ride - a 1957 Thunderbird hardtop.  Although he is a handsome young man with a great car, Arash has problems.  Foremost among his problems is that his father is hooked on smack and the local drug dealer/pimp takes Arash's car as payment for what the father owes.  For having a junkie father, Arash is pretty traditional in his interactions with women.  He doesn't believe he should be alone with an unmarried woman such as his employer's lingerie wearing daughter.

He crosses path with a burqa wearing woman who seems to wander the neighborhood.  Amirpour makes the burqa pretty ominous.  That character (Sheila Vand) is never named but eventually is established as a vampire but a socially conscious one.  She only attacks the vampires of society such as drug dealers & pimps.  We get glimpses of this young woman's home and she likes to dance to a pretty awesome record collection.

I won't recount the plot except to say the girl & Arash have a halting romance.  The girl wants to have a normal life but there is the matter of her being a vampire.  Arash is never aware of her true nature but suspects her to be a murderer.

What sets AGWHAAN apart?   Amirpour filmed it in black & white which gives it antiseptic feel.  She mixed and matched time periods.  Arash looks like he could have been an extra on West Side Story.  The girl's bedroom has posters which looks like a teenage girl's room circa 1984.  The drug dealer looks like he is dope dealer in NYC in the 1990s.

It also has an awesome soundtrack.  The scene where the girl & Arash don't consummate their relationship is played out with a memorable song.  Sheila Vand brings a vulnerable quality to her vampire.  Mozhan Marnò is incredible as Atti, an aging streetwalker who is the girl's only friend. Atti doesn't have to worry about the vampire because life on the streets has sucked the life out of her already.  Improbably, it takes an encounter with the vampire to reignite the faintest ember in her soul.  It takes one of the vampire's attack to possibly free her from the destructive cycle her life has been caught in up to that point.

AGWHAAN isn't a great film but it has style and that vampire angst in spades.

Citizenfour refers to the alias that Edward Snowden used when initially contacting film director Laura Poitras.  Citizenfour documents the lead-up, actual interviews and aftermath of Snowden's revelations about the NSA's data collection activities.

The heart of the film is the 8 days in Hong Kong when Poitras and two print journalists would trek to Snowden's hotel room and interview him about the NSA's practices.  The tension is palpable as we see Snowden watch CNN and other television news outlets reporting on the information he had just revealed.  Snowden's behavior (which could be described as paranoid) becomes more understandable as the audience witnesses his existence (as he knew it) crumble.  As an aside, one of the most impressive items from the film is that Snowden did not let anyone know his plans including his live-in girlfriend.  She was left to deal with the firestorm of governmental and media responses at their Hawaiian home.  Later, when Snowden is granted asylum in Russia, she moves there to be with him.

With all due respect to Poitras, a film like Citizenfour cannot help but be compelling.  The scope of the US government's programs on spying on its own citizens is breathtaking.  The size of the data collected is mind boggling.  All emails, cell phones calls & texts, internet searches, debit & credit card purchases and the associated meta data is being collected and store by the NSA in case it is needed in the future.  The justification is that if someone is identified as a terrorist suspect today, the government needs this data to go back and trace that suspects actions & associations.

In essence, they collect everything and then query out the data they need.  I find that to be a dubious argument against the 4th Amendment protections but Snowden's revelations indicate this has been going on for quite some time.  I will note that I recall reading a quote by someone saying that privacy in the 21st century is an illusion and that people have given up their privacy rights through signing the EULAs with various internet companies such as Google and Facebook and by carrying the GPS enabled cellphones with them everywhere and documenting their every action on Twitter.

If I had any complaint, it was that some graphics would have been nice to help explain the scope of the NSA's activities.  Despite the high-tech allegations, Citizenfour is a low-tech movie.  Most of the film shows Snowden sitting or laying on his hotel bed in an undershirt and uncombed hair.

Pioneer is a Norwegian film set in the 1980s.  When oil is discovered in the North Sea, Norway decides to lay a pipeline from the offshore rig to the shore.  The only people with expertise in this area are the Americans.  The Norwegians and Americans form a joint venture to lay the pipe.  Brothers Petter (Aksel Hennie) and Knut (André Eriksen) are experienced Norwegian commercial divers.  When Knut is killed during a diving mishap, Petter suspects there is a cover-up.  When people start trying to kill him, he has to fight not just for his life but for his professional reputation and to discover the truth about his brother's death.

The film was a little uneven at times but the scenes on the ocean floor and in the claustrophobic decompression chamber were very effective.  Those ratcheted up the tension more so than the scenes on land.  In addition to being a whodunit thriller, Pioneer is a political thriller as well.  The effect of the oil discovery on Norway's politicians is observed when Petter meets with government officials about his brother's death and the strange hallucinations he has been having.  Both the Norwegian governmental officials and American capitalists come off as sociopaths.

Hennie is impressive as a man who gets in over his head and is barely able to survive.  Stephen Lang as the American ship captain is also memorable as one of many bad guys.  Although I didn't recognize her, Stephanie Sigman makes an appearance as Petter's widowed sister-in-law.  I don't know if she speaks Norwegian but all her dialogue was in Norwegian.  I know Sigman from her role as Eva in the sadly cancelled television series The Bridge.

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