geezer cinema: the zone of interest (jonathan glazer, 2023)

A lot of people find The Zone of Interest to be a powerful, unsettling movie. Five Oscar nominations, including Picture, International Feature, Director, and Adapted Screenplay (as well as Sound, which I think is appropriate). Winner of four awards at Cannes, 43 wins and counting overall. A 91/100 Metascore at Metacritic.

I didn't care for it.

The subject matter is important (banality of evil in Nazi Germany). The approach is intriguing (the commandant at Auschwitz and his family live next door to the camp). The use of sound is brilliant (the family might ignore what's going on over the wall, but we can always hear noises). Clearly, much of the audience is getting something from the movie. But I found the insistence on banality to ultimately be so banal that it was boring. And that might be the point, but it's always hard to portray boring on screen without succumbing to being a boring movie. The Zone of Interest isn't boring, because it's about Auschwitz.

But some of Glazer's decisions are puzzling. On occasion, the picture turns into a kind of negative image ... it looks almost like rotoscoping ... and I guess I'm dense, but I never understood why Glazer did that. Maybe I'm just not on Glazer's wavelength ... I hated his Sexy Beast, and didn't care for Under the Skin. As I once wrote, "I found little to like as I watched Under the Skin, although afterwards, I felt more kindly, blaming myself for not liking it instead of blaming the movie for being bad." The Zone of Interest is not bad, but I'm less ready to blame myself, having now seen three of Glazer's movies and not liking any of them. I've now seen 9 of the 10 Best Picture Oscar nominations, and I liked the other 8 more than I liked The Zone of Interest (to say nothing of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Boy and the Heron, or Godzilla Minus One).


film fatales #190: komeda, komeda... (natasza ziólkowska-kurczuk, 2012)

Documentary made for Polish TV in 2012, about jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda, who composed scores for many films, including several directed by Roman Polanski. Komeda is a worthy subject for a documentary, but this film isn't very captivating. We learn a bit about his life, we learn a bit about his work in jazz, we learn a bit about his composing for film, we learn a bit about Poland at the time ... but we never learn enough about any of those topics to actually illuminate them. Most importantly, we don't hear enough of his film work.


film fatales #184: the innocents (anne fontaine, 2016)

This is the tenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 10 is called "Nun for You Week":

Nuns have enjoyed a rich history in film, from being featured in classics like Black Narcissus and The Sound of Music, through the Nunsploitation era in the 70s, to today as filmmakers are still fascinated by nuns as characters. Nuns are so compelling and can be featured in a wide-range of genres because they represent a fascinating dichotomy between female-empowerment and male authority. Entering a convent could signify a woman wielding her own power over herself and choosing her own path for a life absent of and free from men with other women, but a convent is still run by a man and the Catholic Church is still a deeply patriarchal system. The suppression of sexual desires is also ripe for the power of romance to overcome, for both dramatic and comedic effect, with or without men. Nunsploitation films offer taboo thrills, but also often critique and question the authority of the Catholic Church. However nuns are depicted in cinema they almost always come from the imagination of someone who is not a nun and could never know what it is really like to be one, which has allowed them to take on a mysterious and almost fantastical role that is also a part of the allure.

This week’s challenge is to watch a movie featuring a nun as a main character. Here’s a list from NunMovieFreak to help you out.

I came to The Innocents spoiler-free. I knew there would be nuns, and that's about it. I'm happy to report that it's a very good film, emotionally wrenching, based on fact, perhaps loosely. It takes place in Poland at the end of 1945. A Red Cross doctor is asked to come to a local convent, where she discovers a very pregnant nun during delivery. To say more is to spoil, but the movie is extremely intense at times, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture. I knew none of the participants ... I'm new to director Anne Fontaine, and to the cast, with Lou de Laâge as the doctor and an excellent cast as the nuns (unfair to single anyone out, but Agata Buzek is a standout). The look of the film is expansive at times, claustrophobic at others (the cinematographer is Caroline Champetier).

Fontaine places women at the center of the story, which is obvious but you never know. Most of the men, with one exception, are brutes ... you're glad there aren't more of them. Fontaine is fair to the faith of the nuns ... the doctor is a non-believer, but everyone gets their perspective presented honestly. The Innocents is a film about faith, but it's also about the importance of sisterhood (no pun intended) and community. It's not an easy film to watch, but it's worth the effort.


film fatales #168: europa europa (agnieszka holland, 1990)

The revelations of the plot of Europa Europa will strike you as too convenient. More than once, when the main character Sally is teetering on the edge of being discovered as a Jew amongst Nazis, something happens, like an Allied bombing, that removes those who might accuse him. But these coincidences are allowed, because Europa Europa is a true story, based on the memoirs of the real Solomon Perel.

There are many ways in which writer/director Agnieszka Holland avoids making "just another Holocaust movie". The primary way is through a subdued humor, rarely laugh-out-loud but inevitably contrasted to the way we tend to think of the Holocaust. In a different context, Sally's story does have its funny moments. Part of what makes the movie successful is that Holland never loses sight of the context that always interrupts those moments. And she never collapses into slapstick ... this isn't an outrageous Holocaust comedy, but rather the story of how one boy managed to survive in the most dreadful of situations.

The overall tone does detract, ultimately ... it's an interesting movie that would be more hard-hitting without the humor, or more shocking without the context. But that tone is also what distinguishes Europa Europa from other films. Even as you experience scenes that remind you of movies from the past, you've never seen anything quite like this one. Bonus points for the presence of a young Julie Delpy, dubbed into German.


eo (jerzy skolimowski, 2022)

The "Kuloshov effect" is described on Wikipedia as follows:
Kuleshov edited a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine was alternated with various other shots (a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mosjoukine's face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was "looking at" the bowl of soup, the girl in the coffin, or the woman on the divan, showing an expression of hunger, grief, or desire, respectively. The footage of Mosjoukine was actually the same shot each time.
I thought about Kuloshov while watching EO, a rather picaresque film about the life of a donkey named Eo.
 
In Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote that EO "inarguably qualifies as an animal’s-eye view of all that’s warm and cruel, comical and arbitrary about human nature." He says that "The movie is always subjective," adding "the expressive, open, alert face that we encounter throughout the film feels singular. We get to know this animal, or feel like we do. We start to feel that we understand its emotions". I'd argue that the key phrase here is "feel like we do", for Jerzy Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska artfully convince us that we understand Eo's point of view. It's a slight of hand worthy of a superhero movie, except where those films use CGI to make marvelous things happen, Skolimowski uses Eo like Kuleshov used Mosjoukine. Full of close ups of Eo's eyes, deep and (as presented) meaningful, the film is edited (Agnieszka Glińska is the editor) to maximum effect to make us believe that, just as Superman can fly, Eo communicates to us in some fantastic, nearly indescribable way.
 
But, of course, EO is not seen through the eyes of the donkey, it's seen through the eyes of the film makers. Soulful as Eo's eyes are, his expression is unchanging. Skolimowski convinces us otherwise, and that is key to what makes his movie so affecting to so many people.

There is more to EO than those donkey eyes. The soundtrack is unique ... at times, aided by unusual work by cinematographer Michal Dymek, EO turns almost avant-garde in its presentation. And even if I am skeptical of the way we are supposed to read Eo's thoughts, the events that happen around the donkey are varied, at times funny, at times tragic, and always interesting. I think it's a better movie than its clear inspiration, Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar.


kanal (andrzej wajda, 1957)

This is the seventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 7 is called "Polish Film School Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the Polish Film School movement.

The Polish Film School was an informal group rather than anything specific, that arose in 1956 after changes in Polish politics. Andrzej Wajda was one of the first directors in this group to release films, with Kanal being the second in a trilogy (I have only seen one other, and can't remember it). I don't think it's crucial to know about the trilogy, or even the School, but some context about the period Kanal depicts (September 1944, at the end of the Warsaw Uprising) and the period in which it was made are helpful.

But Kanal stands on its own, in any event. It's vision of heroism might carry special weight for the Polish people, but it resonates for all of us. There are plenty of people in Kanal who try to be heroes. But none of the them succeed, or rather, heroic or not, they fail. Wajda offers a pitiless view of the limits of heroism. As a narrator tells us at the beginning, "These are the tragic heroes: watch them closely in the remaining hours of their lives."

Visually, what is most noteworthy about Kanal comes in the second half of the picture, when the rebels go down into the sewers to escape the Nazis. This isn't the clean sewers through which Harry Lime runs in The Third Man. No, these sewers are full of excrement ... the heroes get progressively filthier. And the claustrophobia is almost unbearable. No one seems to really know exactly where they are going, and if they do emerge from the sewers, Germans are waiting for them.

We care about these tragic heroes; their characters are well-drawn. I found Teresa Izewska particularly noteworthy, perhaps because her blonde hair made the filth more noticeable. For me, though, Kanal is a film without much in the way of hope.


the double life of véronique (krzysztof kieślowski, 1991)

I had seen Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy (Blue, White ,and Red), which came right after Double Life, and I didn't connect with them. I suppose I appreciated them, in that Not for Steven way, but I always felt like I was missing important context. I fear the same thing happened for me with The Double Life of Véronique, which was visually impressive but which I found confusing. Put the blame on me ... this isn't the first time I've been confused at the movies. The title refers to two women, Weronika and Véronique, both played by Irène Jacob, whose connection is never made explicit. I'm sure this is appealing for some viewers, but I wanted something more concrete. Jacob makes it all work, nonetheless (she was also good in Three Colors: Red). While I wanted more narrative clarity, Jacob is powerful in part because of a certain vague quality. Playing two characters is often an easy way to get awards attention, but if anything, Jacob underplays, never explicitly drawing attention to her acting, which is better for that underplaying. Not that you don't notice her ... she is impossibly beautiful (she was 25 when the film was made, and remains beautiful at 55). The best I can say for the Kieślowski films I have seen is that I can see why others like them so much. #403 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


pity (babis makridis, 2018)

This is the twenty-ninth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 29 is called "Greek Weird Wave Week":

From Wikipedia:

"In the 1990s, younger Greek filmmakers began experimenting with iconographic motifs. In spite of, or because of, funding issues created by the financial crisis in the late 2000s, unique Greek films such as Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth (2009), Panos H. Koutras' Strella (2009) and Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg (2010) received international acclaim, constituting what has been called the "Greek Weird Wave".

Dogtooth, Attenberg and Alps are part of what some film critics, including Steve Rose of The Guardian, have termed the "Greek Weird Wave," which involves movies with haunting cinematography, alienated protagonists and absurdist dialogue. Other films mentioned as part of this "wave" include Panos H. Koutras's Strella (2009) and Yannis Economides's Knifer (2010)."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Greek Weird Wave film.

I'd only seen two films from the Greek Weird Wave, both directed by Vorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster and The Favourite), and I wasn't overly impressed. Pity had some interesting moments, mostly grounded in the performance by Giannis Drakopoulos as a lawyer with a young son and a wife in a coma. At first, Drakopoulos barely seems to be acting. He seems to be dealing with his grief by shutting down. When his wife remarkably recovers, instead of feeling better, the lawyer begins to miss the pity he received when she was in the hospital. He's at a loss, more so than when he was without his wife. At first, he lies to others, telling them she is still in a coma, and when that quits working, he resorts to extremes as he realizes he is addicted to grief and pity and sadness.

Pity is often quietly amusing, at least until things get extreme. The latter part of the movie feels a bit disconnected from what has set it up, and the lawyer's actions are unsettling in a way that is uncomfortable for the audience. Which may be the point, but it's not exactly a barrel of laughs watching it. I feel a bit awkward wishing that Pity was something different than intended, but in the end, my reaction to the film is a bit like the lawyer in the first part of the movie.


film fatales #134: high life (claire denis, 2018)

This is the twenty-fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 25 is called "Arthouse Sci-Fi Week":

So you take sci-fi, a genre known for its contemplation of human nature through the use of futurism, and shove it through the filter of thoughtful, less than accessible cinema, and what do you get?

A headscratcher, probably. But a good one.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Arthouse Sci-Fi film from Rob's list.

I didn't look forward to this challenge category, but looking at the Arthouse Sci-Fi list above, I found several movies I liked, including La Jetée, Children of Men, and Melancholia. And I've liked the few Claire Denis films I've seen.

My favorite bit of trivia about this film: "Claire Denis's first English language film after 13 feature films in French. She stated the reason she made it in English was that she simply couldn't imagine people speaking French in space, only either English or Russian."

The first time I read Faulkner's classic The Sound and the Fury, I was completely confused. The novel is written in parts, each of which has a different narrator. The first narrator is mentally disabled. When I began reading, I found that narrative hard to follow, and at first I didn't know about the narrator's disability, nor did I know there would be other narrators as the book progressed. The non-linear stream of consciousness left me befuddled. Once I had finished the book, once I understood the structure and had an idea of what Faulkner was up to, the novel became, if not completely clear, at least more understandable.

In High Life, Denis uses a non-linear structure, but she doesn't tell us she is doing this. We don't get the usual markers of "THREE YEARS EARLIER" or whatever that are so common today. And so I was confused at the beginning, much as I was in The Sound and the Fury. Eventually the structure becomes more clear, and if I watched the movie again, I wouldn't be thrown off by the opening. But it was unsettling, and while there is nothing wrong with that approach, it threw me off and made me wonder how I would get through the entire movie.

Denis takes her time, but once I connected with the flow of the film, I liked what I saw. The almost hallucinatory feel matched what I imagine life would be like on an endless exploration into space. The interactions of the various people on the ship are intriguing, and the open-ended conclusion is satisfactory. High Life isn't quite up to my favorite Denis movies (Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum), but it adds to the 100% list of Claire Denis movies I have seen and liked. Bonus points for casting André 3000. #379 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


cold war (pavel pawlikowski, 2018)

Sometimes an actor commands the screen with such remarkable presence that you can't keep your eyes off of them. If it's a new actor, then you know this will be the performance that makes them a star. Such is the work of Joanna Kulig in Cold War, and indeed she won several awards at festivals for this film. But Kulig had made more than 20 movies before Cold War, including two with Pavel Pawlikowski, one of which, Ida, I had seen (she had a supporting role in that film). She had worked on stage for many years, as well as several television series. She was already in her mid-30s when Cold War was filmed. In other words, her performance here did not come out of nowhere, and it didn't make her name ... she was already known, if not to me.

Still, imagine how great she is to elicit such a response. She plays a singer, Zula, in the film, and right from the start, people are commenting on Zula's unique appeal. Ten minutes in, one character remarks that "she has something", and he's right. Tomasz Kot is very good as well as Wiktor, a pianist who loves Zula. But when both are on the screen, it's Kulig who has our attention.

The film is beautifully shot in black and white, in the Academy ratio of 4:3. It takes place in post-war Europe, when the Cold War emerged, and the look of the film seems right for the time.

Pawlikowski makes good use of music, including one scene that makes Bill Haley seem like the most liberating of rock and rollers:

Cold War is #415 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.