About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Film Review: Rester Vertical (2016) by Alain Guiraudie 4/5

     Gender roles, specifically masculinity as a social construct, within relationships are flipped on their head in Alain Guiraudie's latest film, Rester Vertical [AKA Staying Vertical] (2016). It's a film of bleak comicality that blends perceptions of the real world with surrealism. The trajectory of this film is unforeseeable from its outset, and by the end of the film the journey that has unfolded on screen continuously outdoes the events that came before it. I saw this film at its US premiere at the 54th New York Film Festival, and Alain Guiraudie mentioned during the Q&A following the film (which was conducted by Dennis Lim) that the word "Guiraudian" has yet to have been applied to his work (whereas "Hitchcockian" has), so I will attempt to outline the qualities of the director's work in correlation to this film and that which preceded it, Stranger By The Lake (2013), to highlight his singular authorship.
     Defying logic while shaping a logic of its own, Rester Vertical opens with a phantom ride as the camera glides across a narrow rocky road on a yet-unseen car. It's unsettling, and yet it's entirely natural. A young man, Yoan (Basil Meilleurat), is standing alongside the road with an elderly man sitting on the opposite side. Excessively loud rock music plays from inside the old man's house, and its muffled sounds can be heard on the street. The car stops, and our protagonist, Léo (Damien Bonnard), exits the car to talk to Yoan. Young and handsome with long hair, Léo asks if Yoan would like to be in a film because he has a great look. It seems innocent, but Yoan's body language and response suggests that he feels that he is being coerced into sex. That may not have been the case at first, but Léo becomes obsessed with Yoan, and attempts to see him again with little luck. These failed attempts initiate an idiosyncratic rapport between Léo and the elderly man, Marcel (Christian Bouillette) – a hilariously racist and homophobic man who sits around listening to rock music that he claims is Pink Floyd (when, in actuality, it isn't).
     While Léo's pursuit for Yoan is in full swing, he starts a relationship with the daughter of a shepherd, Marie (India Hair), that escalates into a sexual relationship with commitment almost instantly. Léo has dinner with her father that evening, and then has sex with Marie again in her bedroom. 
     This brings us to one of Guiraudie's strongest attributes as a filmmaker – his honest on screen portrayal of sex. Depicting sex on screen is innately provocative, but Guiraudie presents it as matter of fact whilst focusing on the source of pleasure: genitals. On three separate occasions, Guiraudie presents the female anatomy in a head-on composition reminiscent of Gustave Courbet's oil painting L'Origine du monde (1866). It's all at once sensual and natural, and the audience is asked to look at the body as both an intimate device and more broadly as something worth seeing and discussing in cinema within a non-prurient context. 
     Beyond that, Alain Guiraidie is a mathematical filmmaker in his presentation of content and results. We see the female anatomy in one scene, and then we see the act of sex, followed by an actual birth – L'Origine du monde, indeed! X + Y = baby boy. Just like that, 9 months of the narrative vanish. There is no pregnancy sequence, and there are only context clues as to what Léo and Marie's life has been like during that unseen pregnancy. As in Dali and Buñuel's Un chien Andalou (1929), time and its passing is irrelevant, and things change and others do not for reasons that are unexplainable. Almost every film has cause and effect relationships from scene to scene, and Rester Vertical accentuates causes and effects to the point of absurdity. 
     Léo is a screenwriter (potentially the director of his own work as well), and he's struggling to write his newest screenplay while he's receiving money to live off from his producer who trusts that Léo is making progress. Realistically, there's nothing to show for the money the producer is giving to Léo every month, so he chooses to hunt down Léo, on a canoe going down an Amazonian-like river shouting, "I just want my screenplay," like Robert Duvall trying to reclaim his surfboard in Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). It's a cause and effect that could not be imagined prior to it happening (we hadn't even seen the producer on screen up until this point).
     Contributing to the surrealistic quality of the film's narrative is the fluid sexuality exhibited by every central male character in the film. Homosexuality was the progressive punchline at the conclusion of Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), but here it's an ongoing gag that puts standards of masculinity to task. All of the sexual advances come from straight men directed at other straight men, and almost all of them are accepted (and if they're not accepted by one character, that character will accept the offer from another man later on). That which is on the surface is not indicative of what the body will desire or willingly give, which plays into Guiraudie's natural portrayal of the human body. 
     Following one of the finest films made this decade so far, Stranger By The Lake, Alain Guiraudie has the difficult task of continuing to grow while solidifying his Guiraudian touch that so many of us became aware of after that film's success. With Rester Vertical, he excels by going in the opposite direction spatially and tonally. Where Stranger By The Lake was set against a single lake, Rester Vertical finds itself going from the prairies of France to cityscapes and jungle-like terrain. In Stranger By The Lake, there's a hilariously awkward voyeuristic character who wanders around watching all of the couples have sex in the woods while nonchalantly pleasuring himself, and Rester Vertical is a film entirely comprised of moments like that. 
     Though Rester Vertical is not perfect, it's a fun, idiosyncratic piece of filmmaking that demonstrates that Guiraudie has a lot to offer. Symbolic and totally within the real at times, the visual metaphors give this surrealistic film a transcendental quality – something that is spiritual in its melancholy and hilarious in its tragedies. A pure Guiraudian experience, Rester Vertical's narrative develops in ways that are quite unlike anything that one could predict, and it will be a pleasure to revisit this film to further examine how it arrives where it eventually does and to laugh in the face of death and tremble at the sight of coming to existence.

IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5231812/?ref_=ttawd_awd_tt
My rating: 4/5

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Film Review: American Honey (2016) by Andrea Arnold 3/5

     Andrea Arnold's new film, American Honey (2016), is a journey across the American South. The characters portrayed on screen are like real people that one could see just about anywhere in the nation, but particularly in the South. Unprivileged white youth aimlessly go along with the motions of what is easy. There are no dreams, and there definitely isn't an "American dream" to be had by these young adults... Perhaps there could be dreams, and they certainly have their own desires for happiness, but this vision of America and its young adults relishes in the have-nots and the complexity of their seemingly simple lives. The routine of life on the road is not attractive, but it's comfortable for them, and Andrea Arnold hopes that we'll be content observing the protagonists' own contentment with what they've made of themselves.
     Eighteen and aimless, Star (Sasha Lane) is introduced deep in a dumpster with a seven-year-old girl as they peruse for food. Tossing a thawing chicken down to a three-year-old boy outside of the dumpster, they then make their way to the side of the street to hitch a ride home. No one stops to give them a ride, but a fateful meeting of eyes provides hope for something more. In the passenger seat of a large white van, Jake (Shia Leboeuf) makes eye contact with Star as the van pulls into a supermarket parking lot. Choosing to cross the street with the two white children she's with, Star is pursuing an interest in Jake while taking the first step to separating herself from the little kids she's with. It's an odd sensation, as she enters the supermarket and Rihanna begins playing diegetically over the store intercom radio as she finds Jake – is she going to abandon the kids? It doesn't matter that the kids don't look like Star (as she's mixed and has dreadlocks), but we feel her own desire to escape. "We found love in a hopeless place," sings Rihanna as Jake begins dancing on top of the cashier counter to impress Star. This moment is indicative of the style for much of the film ahead – music playing from speakers and car radios with characters dancing or singing along with the music.
     Following Jake, upon being escorted from the supermarket by security, Star is offered a job selling magazines across the country that would pay at least $300 a day, but she'd have to leave for Kansas City tomorrow if she wants in. The playful sexual tension between them is electric, but we're relieved that she doesn't immediately accept the offer as that would require abandoning the kids at the supermarket. 
     Back home, we see more of what she'll be running away from. A drunken partner, who happens to be the father of the kids she was dumpster diving with, would be the primary thing to escape. Though it's selfish of her to ditch the kids with their birth mom who doesn't want them, that's exactly what Star does – and yet, Star is eighteen and doesn't need to be caring for kids that aren't her own, so we (as an audience) forgive her as she makes her way to the hotel to find Jake. 
     Few films capture the monotony of life on the road as well as American Honey does. Naturally, monotony isn't necessarily a positive trait, and it generally isn't here. The film's length allows for the sequences on the road to become repetitive (which is fitting, as road trips are repetitive), but it's as a result of very little character development taking place in these sequences. The characters are truly passive, which clashes with what most road movies strive to overcome: the passivity of sitting while traveling in a car. Still, it's reflective of their wayward disposition. Jake, for example, knows the character and cadence of privilege, but it's merely an act for him as he uses faux aspirations to attend college to gain sympathy from those who do have privilege so that they'll purchase magazines from him. The ease at which Jake exhibits his lack of honesty is alarming to Star – as she's more likely to tell the truth when asked (as when she reveals nonchalantly that her mom died from a meth overdose). Shia Leboeuf's performance as Jake in these moments is the saving grace of this film, as his charm and on screen presence is galvanizing, but that charm clashes with Star's honesty and integrity that is contradicted by her own spontaneity.
     Complimenting Star's honesty and spontaneity is cinematographer Robbie Ryan's camera work, which is handheld and in the 4:3 Academy ratio. The camera follows the action and movements of characters on screen with a shallow focus that draws attention to the immediate subjects in frame. In which by using the 4:3 aspect ratio, the film aesthetically recalls the look of handcams rather than traditional cinema before the proliferation of widescreen cinema. However, one of 4:3's advantages is that it can accentuate vertical compositions, as opposed to widescreen which emphasizes horizontal landscapes. The sky, and characters juxtaposed against it, is a significant element of the look of the film, as it frees them from their immediate environment and allows for the sky to literally be the limit for their potential, if they choose to push themselves.
     On the surface, a film about young American adults partying and acting out may elicit comparisons to Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers (2013), but it is the films' dissimilarities that make for a more interesting and accurate case study. The protagonists of Spring Breakers come from a nice college, are of privilege, and Selena Gomez' character even attends church. American Honey finds characters coming from the opposite end of the spectrum – a film comprised of young people who have little to live for, but they certainly wouldn't accept that idea (and the film certainly thinks they are people of value – which they are, but the narrative celebrates the path they've taken... which is no better than the party lifestyle the girls in Spring Breakers adopt). Beyond that, the scenes featuring Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine singing Britney Spears' songs are at least fun – especially compared to the endless slew of songs the van full of young adults in American Honey sing along to. Realistically, American Honey is more akin to Korine's directorial debut, Gummo (1997), but that's too far down the socio-economic ladder to be taken seriously.
     Though American Honey is not without its flaws, it has some enjoyable moments, powerful scenes, and features Shia Leboeuf in one of his best roles since Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (2013). The film's excessive running time is its biggest detracting factor, but even the length of American Honey seems natural to what is being portrayed. It's a road film, and the road is as aimless as the personal journey of the film's protagonist, Star, and her magazine-selling peers. That there's no redemption or exit route for these characters is problematic, but this is their life, and Andrea Arnold accepts that life doesn't always turn out beautifully – a truth that is hard to swallow.

IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3721936/
My rating: 3/5

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Film Review: La mort de Louis XIV (2016) by Albert Serra 4.5/5

     Deep vermillion décor, the ticking of the clock, and the flickering of candlelight define the space in which Albert Serra's La mort de Louis XIV [AKA The Death of Louis XIV] (2016) is set. This location is integral to the film, as it embodies everywhere that our protagonist cannot go. Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as Louis XIV, who can no longer walk due to severe leg pain that remains undiagnosed until much later in the film. These are the final days in the life of the King of France, and they're presented with an honesty that is a product of the film's resistance to a plot. La mort de Louis XIV is not a film about sympathy, or even empathy, but rather a film about the formalities of a natural death in the most formal of settings.
     The film opens with a black screen as the sound of nature fades in. Jean-Pierre Léaud's name appears on screen, and we can see through the text of his name the flowers of the garden in the first scene. Through the window of the text, we see a glimpse of something greater, and that speaks to the nature of Albert Serra's film as a whole. This is the only scene in which the perspective of the film is outdoors, as the King's health begins to quickly deteriorate. Pushed in a wheelchair through the garden, Louis XIV is grand in his old age. The brown, curly hair of his wig goes past his shoulders, and the setting sun compliments the artificial youth on display.
     Following this introduction, King Louis XIV is now bedridden, and will remain almost exclusively in a reclined position for the remainder of the film. Still, he is rarely alone – as his personal valet and other servants care for him as his condition worsens. La mort de Louis XIV is a death procedural, and since the film takes place in 1715, it's death the old-fashioned way. Even kings suffer and wallow in misery as they await the end.
     There are no soliloquies, dialogues concerning the finality of death, or anything that is specifically designed to draw out an emotional response, and yet Jean-Pierre Léaud's mere presence on screen is endearing. Even at the age of 71 (when this film was shot), his youthful charm has not escaped him, and yet we observe the final remnants of the King's charm fade away over the course of the film. Balancing the theatricality of a leader who wants to be heard with the subtlety of a man who knows that death is upon him, Léaud's performance brings him from grunting and wailing in pain for the sake of attention, to staring into the camera in silence with almost every muscle in his face trembling out of fear fear, bitterness, and anger all at once. 
     Albert Serra's eye for composition and knack for pacing that he exhibited in his previous film, Story of My Death (2013), is on full display here. Static compositions heighten Louis XIV's own immobility, and the duration of each shot expresses a painterly quality. Truly composed, every shot is vital to the narrative and defines the mise-en-scène – many of which feature servants entering and exiting the frame whilst Louis XIV remains stationary. Alluding to Mantegna's painting Lamentation of Christ (1480), Serra's camera looks from Louis XIV's bare feet with a deep focus so that his face can be seen as well. Gangrene, in its early stages, leaves a black mark resembling a hole in his foot, like that of the holes in Christ's feet after the crucifixion.
     Integral to the aesthetic of La mort de Louis XIV is the previously mentioned deep focus, which allows for every detail within the frame to actively be important to the milieu of royalty. For such a confined setting, it would be easy for Serra to choose to focus on the people alone, but the setting is a character in itself. The space Louis XIV inhabits is all he has to focus upon while he's not resting, so we're fully aware of the details within the room, as we would be when looking at the details in a painting by Diego Velázquez. Beyond the details of the location, the ability to have people in the foreground in focus while people in the background are as well further unites the shared space. Once the spots of gangrene are discovered, visits from priests and doctors become more frequent, and the Rembrandt-like staging of these physicians is cohesive with the previously established aesthetic of this well-crafted film. 
     It is easy for one to imagine Jean-Pierre Léaud as the flirtatious Antoine Doinel in Truffaut's Bed and Board (1970) or the playful young man in Rivette's Out 1, Noli me tangere (1971), but that's part of what makes La mort de Louis XIV so successful as a film. The absence of that joy Léaud exuded as a young man is palpable, and yet familiarity with his previous work is not necessary to feel that we're seeing the King in his worst state (as that is readily accessible on the screen). It's the moments when Léaud's youthful wonder briefly resurfaces that the King becomes more than just a dying leader, but a genuine person who isn't too great for simple pleasures – like man's best friend: dogs. As meticulously designed as this intimate film is, Albert Serra manages to depict death as a natural part of life – devoid of cinematic melodrama, yet with room for theatricality associated with the formalities of royalty. These royal formalities are often enacted as routine, but death is the universal routine that Serra brings to the foreground, resulting in an elegant film with far more value than just another period piece.

My rating: 4.5/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5129510/?ref_=rvi_tt