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‘Angkor Awakens’ Finds Cambodia Examining Its Past

The Khmer Rouge’s mass murders were rare for a genocide in this respect: the killers and the victims shared an ethnicity, the murders a brutal move in the political game that developed after the country took desperate measures to protect itself from the Vietnam War raging along and inside its border. From 1975 to 1979 power- hungry ideologues emptied Cambodia’s cities, eager to turn citizens into peasants and the country into an ownerless dreamworld, devoid of intellectuals and expertise. The effort was doomed, but the attempt to carry it out led to the killing of some 2.2 million, many of whom turned against each other in an attempt to survive. Director Robert H. Lieberman’s documentary Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia is a superbly balanced picture of Cambodia then and now, a nation in a sort of stupor of post traumatic stress syndrome, denial and survivor’s’ guilt.

Lieberman is also a novelist, and his storytelling skills are evident as he pieces together input from historians, survivors and their children and grandchildren, and even the country’s current strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen. It’s a grim portrait of a society still picking up the pieces of its self-immolation. But the young people, from school age to young adults, are privy to the goings-on in the wider world, in part through social media, and expect more. They want to know what happened and they want to understand, but they seem to believe that it’s a different world. Thanks to them, it may be.

Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia
Directed by Robert H. Lieberman
Ithaca Filmworks
Opens May 5, Landmark Sunshine

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Rhine Finds: New Discoveries From Kino! 2017

Last year’s Toni Erdmann may have been popularly known as “that three-hour German comedy,” but Maren Ade’s film was also in keeping with the Berlin School movement: starkly naturalistic, detached in manner, focused on capturing behavior rather than explaining it. We can’t pigeonhole all of German cinema in this way, of course, as Kino! reminds us in its fourth year of surveying the European nation’s cinema. Among this year’s offerings: a biopic of proto-expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker that was a major arthouse hit in Germany; an interactive film experiment courtesy of The People vs. Fritz Bauer director Lars Kraume; and a documentary about Germany’s use of renewable energy.

Still, some of the 2017 edition’s most striking finds hew closely to that Berlin School aesthetic. The oddest is Wild, Nicolette Krebitz’s study of a woman, Ania (Lilith Stangenberg), who develops a romantic obsession with a wolf. This profoundly strange preoccupation speaks to a deeper yearning: a desire on the part of this office drone to tap in to some inner animalistic desires. Krebitz’s film is nothing if not committed to examining Ania’s neuroses, and she’s aided by a similarly uncompromising lead actress brave in her refusal to make the character even easily comprehensible. Ania remains psychologically unfathomable up to the film’s final image, one that disquietingly merges psychosis and liberation into one ambiguous smile.

A similar elusiveness marks Karsten (Sebastian Hülk), the put-upon main character of All of a Sudden. On one level, Turkish writer-director Asli Özge’s German-language debut is a quasi-procedural in which Karsten tries to figure out just who that mysterious woman was he was about to extramaritally hook up with before she died in his apartment. But it’s as a character study that Özge’s film tantalizes most. Karsten is a deeply unsympathetic protagonist: a spoiled rich kid with coddling parents whose comfortable life gets thrown into a tizzy. Özge, however, isn’t interested in either condemning this character or completely empathizing with him. Instead, as Karsten deals with the ensuing estrangement of his wife, Laura (Julia Jentsch), and friends, and faces a demotion at work, Özge constantly toys with our sympathies toward this protagonist — until a final act fully brings to the fore a fearsomely ruthless side of him that, in hindsight, was always simmering beneath the serene surfaces of his life.

Michael Koch’s Marija offers a more conventionally heroic yet no less complicated main character (Margarita Breitkreiz), a Ukrainian immigrant trying to make a better life for herself in Dortmund, Germany. The opening behind-the-shoulder shot is lifted straight out of the Dardenne brothers’ playbook, and the rest of the film sticks to the Belgian sibling duo’s familiar naturalistic template. But the constantly scheming Marija turns out to be such a fascinating figure that any stylistic derivativeness matters little in the end. In a sense, Marija could be seen as a variation on Christine Reade, the antihero of Amy Seimetz’s TV series The Girlfriend Experience. Like Christine, Marija is emotionally inscrutable: One never knows how much of what she outwardly expresses is authentic and how much is playacting to achieve a desired result. That unknowability, though, and Koch’s refusal to judge her for it, is precisely what makes Marija such a consistently gripping character portrait, inspiring and unsettling in equal measure.

Kino! 2017
Through April 6, Landmark Sunshine

 

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Josh Kornbluth Failed to Pay Taxes for Seven Years, but at Least He Got a Good Monologue and Movie Out of It

Monologuist Josh Kornbluth doesn’t seem like a fuck-up, but his stage shows pivot on extended life failures presented as his innate character. Love & Taxes is based on his stage monologue about the consequences of failing to file his tax returns for a seven-year period; his protracted fiduciary penance coincides with meeting and falling in love with a woman named Sara (Sarah Overman).

The film, directed by his brother Jacob Kornbluth, intercuts the stage show with comic reenactments of his experiences dealing with lawyers, the IRS and his charming, anxious girlfriend. As a writer, Kornbluth is vivid, funny and skilled at conveying characters, qualities he actually matches in performance. His flair with his voice manifests in two tax attorneys; one is Bob, a kindly old corporate lawyer for whom Josh works as a legal secretary. Onstage, Josh celebrates Bob’s expressive deployment of corporate taxation language, which includes “reverse double-dummy maneuvers” and “collapsible corporation rulings.”

The second lawyer is Mo, a clipped, methodical personal tax attorney. She launches Josh on his voyage of bureaucratic redemption by psychoanalyzing him. Failure to file, she tells him, isn’t a tax problem — it’s a tax symptom. And sure enough, his earliest memory of taxes is his dad throwing away his 1040 form and taking Josh out for ice cream instead. As Josh digs out of his financial hole, he also confronts his father’s influence and his own similar irresponsible tendencies.

Unfortunately, Sara is the most underdeveloped of the film’s characters. Sweetly eccentric early in the film, she becomes flatly hectoring and unsympathetic during the third act. Overman is great, but Sara is unfinished business, the one missed opportunity in an otherwise smart memoir.

Love & Taxes
Directed by Jacob Kornbluth
Abramorama
Opens March 3, Landmark Sunshine

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Ignore the Title. ‘My Life as a Zucchini’ Is an Uncommonly Courageous Kids’ Film About the Cycle of Abuse

Whether it’s harder to be a child or a parent depends on which side of the divide you’re on, but Claude Barras’s stop-motion My Life as a Zucchini allies with the children, particularly those with horrible people as parents.

Having been abandoned by his skirt-chasing father, a young boy nicknamed Zucchini (Gaspard Schlatter) accidentally causes the death of his alcoholic mother (Natacha Koutchoumov) while defending himself from her latest drunken rage.

Kindly policeman Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz) places him into a foster home, where Zucchini eventually befriends bullying roommate Simon (Paulin Jaccoud) and begins a burgeoning romance with fellow newcomer Camille (Sixtine Murat), all while discovering that he’s not alone in bearing scars both literal and figurative from birth parents. Though never sentimental, the picture is hopeful about breaking the cycle of violence; as tragic as his circumstances are, Zucchini realizes that had his mother lived, he might have also grown into an adult who guzzles beer and takes out his anger on children.

Adapted from a French y.a. novel whose title translates as Autobiography of a Zucchini, the even glibber My Life as a Zucchini is an unfortunate title for a movie that braves such dark emotional territory. Then again, The 400 Blows is no great shakes, either.

My Life as a Zucchini
Directed by Claude Barras
GKIDS
Opens February 24, Landmark Sunshine

 

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Rhapsody in Jersey: Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’

Walking out of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson last May at Cannes, I felt like it was the closest the director had come to making an artistic manifesto. Having seen it again, I’m even more convinced. Jarmusch first arrived in New York back in the 1970s with dreams of becoming a poet, and although he quickly gave that up for music and filmmaking, poetry has remained a touchstone for him: Christopher Marlowe appeared as a character in his last film, Only Lovers Left Alive, and the hero of his Zen western, Dead Man, was named William Blake.

Paterson is the purest distillation yet of his aesthetic. The title refers to the town in New Jersey as well as the character: Adam Driver plays a man named Paterson, who lives in Paterson. (It also refers to William Carlos Williams’s masterpiece Paterson, an epic poem about splendor in the everyday.) Paterson goes through his daily routine: waking up, talking to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), driving a bus, walking his dog. The language of real life drifts in and out of his world. He hears men talking about women, kids talking about revolution and coffee, a rapper practicing his rhymes, a co-worker complaining about his family. He carves his poems, slowly, patiently, out of all that mundane material. “We keep plenty of matches in our house,” he writes. “Recently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip, though we used to prefer Diamond Brand.” Then he goes on to fixate on the match’s shape and megaphone-like logo. That may not sound like much, but Paterson keeps coaxing the words until he lands on the image of one of those matches “lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love for the first time.”

This poetry sounds… not unlike a film by Jim Jarmusch, steadily building meaning and beauty out of simplicity and routine. Jarmusch’s movies usually have tangible narrative arcs — even if they’re loose and subdued — but Paterson is resolutely undramatic, following a week in this man’s life with minimal changes in his day-to-day. And yet, with each step, the film gains depth. Small variations in routine start to feel monumental, and the briefest encounter can seem like a sign of something great.

But while Paterson channels his experiences into his poems, Laura is an artist of a different sort, always searching for new outlets for her creativity: learning an instrument, redecorating the house, designing an outfit, baking cupcakes. For her, expression is freedom, and she feels free to try any- and everything; for Paterson, we suspect, creation involves stripping away, honing and sharpening. And while the film’s attention is given over to Paterson himself — I have several colleagues who feel that Jarmusch’s narrative shortchanges Laura — her competing energy suggests that these two, in their own way, complete each other.

Driver’s defining quality heretofore has been his intensity, so he might not have seemed the right choice for a part like this. But he grows into it beautifully: Paterson is a big lug who drives a big bus, and the actor is able to convey thought without ever seeming self-absorbed. Paterson might be composing poems in his mind, but he’s also aware of his world; he lives in the moment, absorbing the bits and pieces around him and shaping them into something new.

But there’s an edge to him, too: You can see how, in another context and setting, this gentle soul could be tough. (Like Driver himself, Paterson is a veteran, and at one point he has to quickly disarm an armed man; he does so efficiently.) Maybe that’s the secret to the character and the film’s centeredness — Paterson’s calmness seems more pronounced because we have this slight, queasy sense that it could tip over. There are many moments that, in other films, could presage the beginning of something more dramatic: a shouting match; an automotive failure; a random, puzzling encounter or two. But the film keeps its even keel. So maybe there are two sides to Jarmusch’s manifesto: Finding joy and beauty in the everyday is not just an aesthetic priority, he seems to suggest, but an existential imperative for the uneasy soul.

Paterson
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street
Opens December 28, Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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Almodóvar’s ‘Julieta’ Is a Vital and Heartbreaking Return to Form

Both a film noir and a candy-colored confection, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta is one of the most absorbing films he’s made in years. It’s also, perhaps, one of the saddest: Its bright hues and vivid textures offset a deep, unshakable melancholy. Based on a trio of Alice Munro short stories, Julieta follows the title character (played in middle age by Emma Suárez) as she discovers that her long-lost daughter, Antía, now an adult, may have resurfaced. Delving back into her own painful past in order to understand how things went wrong between her and her child, Julieta relates to us how, as a young woman (now played by Adriana Ugarte), she met Antía’s fisherman father, Xoan (Daniel Grao), and wound up in an odd marriage born of grief, betrayal, passion, and resentment.

As so often happens with Almodóvar, the story edges toward both the bizarre and the inevitable — destiny pulls these people along, but it also throws them some curveballs — so perhaps it’s best not to give too much away here. What’s important is that Julieta finds herself constantly, over the course of her life, assuming guilt and responsibility for the others around her: for her two-timing husband, for her retired father, even for a stranger she meets one night on a train who winds up having a seismic effect on her life. Later, when she’s a parent, her tendency to blame herself for everything manifests itself in other ways.

Here and elsewhere, Almodóvar’s playful style often hides his more Olympian perspective. In Julieta, characters’ experiences are doubled and mirrored, and the director’s elaborate and pointed patterns — of both the visual and narrative kind — give off the sense that everything’s supposed to fit together as part of some grand plan. When we first see the middle-aged Julieta, she’s dressed head to toe in bright red; when we first see her younger self, she’s decked out all in bright blue.

And so the film is a steady cataloging of how blue became red, of how one woman transformed into the other and absorbed the hurt of the world — how she became a walking wound. (The striking switch from the younger to the older actress actually comes right in the middle of a scene, and it’s beautifully, heartbreakingly well-done.) But while Almodóvar may move his characters around like a god (or at least a moralist), his attention to detail and his fondness for unexpected bits of tenderness give these people shape and dimension and keep the narrative from becoming schematic.

Julieta has an open relationship with genre. Alberto Iglesias’s sublime score surges with noirish menace while the story itself — filled with sudden disappearances, betrayal, clues from the past — keeps threatening to turn into a crime thriller. (Almodóvar probably understands better than any other contemporary filmmaker the intersection of classic film noir and the so-called women’s picture.) That it never goes full genre is perhaps irrelevant. The brooding suspense reflects the protagonist’s sense of inchoate guilt: She always suspects that she’s done something wrong, but she’s never quite sure what.

Guilt infects the women around Julieta as well. The men in this tale often leave emotional devastation in their wake, and it’s up to the women to assume responsibility; they judge themselves for the corrosive, sometimes fatal decisions their husbands, fathers, and boyfriends wind up making. But as in many Almodóvar films, characters are capable of unity and common ground. His women find strength in one another, and the film resists easy resolutions. Julieta may move like an answer, but it’s not afraid to end as a question.

Julieta
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Sony Pictures Classics
Landmark Sunshine

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Natalie Portman Thrills in Pablo Larrain’s Impeccable Biopic

In the pantheon of American first ladies, Jacqueline Kennedy was no Eleanor Roosevelt. She didn’t push for policy, didn’t relinquish her pillbox hat to walk among the needy, didn’t travel to foreign countries as an ambassador, and certainly didn’t advise her husband on matters of war. Jackie Kennedy’s role was one most obviously of domesticity, tending to the children — two of whom died as babies — and decorating the White House with handpicked antiques authentic to its history. But in director Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, a searing, almost scary thrill ride through the psyche of one very determined woman, serves as a reminder that JFK’s visage owns the half dollar because Jackie owned Americans’ hearts.

In the opening moments, a journalist (Billy Crudup) drills Jackie (Natalie Portman) with pointed questions about the day her husband was assassinated on a sunny afternoon in Dallas. She teases him with a heartfelt, harrowing account — a shard of skull on her lap; the sweet questioning look on that famous face as he slouched down in the car; her wish that she could have blocked him with her own body — before telling him with a stone face, cigarette dangling from her mouth, that it’s all off the record. The verbal tennis match between these two is somehow both jocular and jarring, jump cuts transporting them in a blink from the couch to the porch (and back again) of Jackie’s sterile but palatial lakeside home. The journalist quickly comes to understand that Jackie will essentially be the one writing her own magazine profile.

The journalist’s interview is an artful excuse to flash back to scenes like an eerily faithful re-creation of the 1962 CBS White House tour Jackie gave, which Larraín imagines as a tense experience for her, filled with anxiety that she’d muck it up by stumbling on her descriptions of antiques or by not smiling enough. Here, it’s almost impossible to separate Portman from the woman she embodies, as every single utterance has Jackie-perfect diction. She walks with Jackie’s graceful gait, her arms unmoving and both a few inches away from her body, with that same mechanical and practiced quality as the former first lady.

Portman has had a small succession of parts that have allowed her expand beyond stereotypical female roles, but this portrayal, which never gives in to the Lady Macbeth insanity that it could have, is the pinnacle of her performances. Jackie’s oscillations from stoicism, to hysterics, to dutiful wife, to thoughtful art lover, and then to grieving widow and back again, are seamless and heartbreaking. And Noah Oppenheim’s script is rife with the kind of dialogue an actress would sell her soul for: witty, provocative, layered, and meaningful beyond the scope of this story.

Throughout the film, Larraín utilizes that jump-cut technique, creating a dreamlike structure that interweaves impressions and memories. He either skips the mundane or imbues it with gravity, like a scene depicting the night before Jackie is to vacate the White House; she plays house, gliding around her elegant living quarters in a daze, pouring martinis, chain-smoking cigarettes, slipping into her couture gowns, carrying a silver tray of drinks to a regal dining table. She sits alone, listening to a record player blasting the jovial theme from Camelot, while Secret Service agents look on from afar. The camera stays close to her; there is no doubt this is Jackie’s story alone — not her husband’s.

The tone of Jackie is difficult to pin down but is one of the most inventive I’ve ever seen in a biopic. Larraín’s employed film composer wunderkind Mica Levi — whose score for Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi horror thriller Under the Skin was at once bewitching and unnerving, with strings shuddering in tremolo all over the place — to add an overwhelming sense of dread. Orchestrations are performed by U.K. collective Orchestrate, and the result is an unsettlingly gorgeous and deceptively simplistic score, like a waltz or a dirge in a haunted medieval castle, moving slowly back and forth from major to minor keys — everything about this film is about the highs and lows, peaks and valleys.

It’s almost easy to overlook the craftsmanship on these immaculately replicated Chanel numbers Jackie dons, but their invisibility in the story is a testament to their perfection; not one element of the costuming and production design stands apart, but all together re-create the time, place and people.

After watching the film, I developed a newfound appreciation for the woman who kept herself together for the good of America, when everything was falling apart. And I felt the hole in my heart, knowing that the White House shaped by her aesthetic will now be inhabited by a cheapjack vulgarian. Larraín, whose most well known work is probably 2012’s No (Chile’s entry for the Academy Awards), dives heart first into this story. Every scene is visceral. Every note played tells a story, culminating in the reenactment of America’s most moving and spectacular memorial: JFK’s eight-block-long funeral procession. Jackie is a sharp, haunting portrayal of a woman whose grief was so grand it required a parade. If she could march through the streets with her children to protest her husband’s violent death, we can march peacefully against hate. Jackie’s given us one big lesson: Optics matter.

Jackie
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Fox Searchlight
Opens December 2, Landmark Sunshine and AMC-Loews Lincoln Square 13

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‘Blood on the Mountain’ Digs Deep Into the Tragic History of West Virginia Coal Mining

If you want to spend an hour and a half watching people who are royally screwed, look no further than the new documentary Blood on the Mountain. Directors Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman make the case that there hasn’t been a state that’s gotten the shaft (pardon the pun) more than the Mountain State.

You’ll more than likely agree as you see how the coal industry has hollowed West Virginia into a shell. Their movie chronicles the 150 years’ worth of disaster Big Coal has wreaked on the land: explosions, floods that washed communities away, accidents resulting in permanent damage or death, black lung, corrupt government officials, corrupt companies, loss of pensions when companies folded, and on and on, right up to Charleston’s recent, Flint-style situation in which a chemical company contaminated its drinking water.

Through archival footage and interviews with experts, historians and many locals, this doc chronicles the long, tumultuous history between West Virginians and the coal industry, one that eventually kicked the state’s citizens to the curb — but only after leveling mountaintops.

While those outside West Virginia may be inclined to ask why people still live there, more understanding people will realize that, as much as Big Coal basically gutted the place, it’s still their home. As consistently depressing as this movie is, it thankfully shows you that before you dismiss the denizens of an entire region as poor white trash, you should listen to their story.

Blood on the Mountain
Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman
Abramorama
Opens November 18, Landmark Sunshine

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Courageous Doc ‘Disturbing the Peace’ Finds Israelis and Palestinian Reach Across the Border

In the sub-subgenre of documentaries about Palestinians and Israelis meeting to discuss the future, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are nearly always the ones crossing borders into Jewish or American or sometimes German spaces. But Disturbing the Peace opens with Israeli men crossing Qalandia Checkpoint, past signs warning them that “The Entrance for Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden [and] Dangerous to Your Lives,” and heading for Ramallah.

Directors Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young reverse the usual act of border-crossing, and they do not differentiate between Arabic and Hebrew, allowing their subjects to switch between the two and subtitling both in English, signaling that the film is a space for listening, for trying to understand.

Those subjects do a lot of talking. They are mostly members of Combatants for Peace, an organization that brings together former members of the Israeli Defense Forces and former Palestinian resistance fighters, many of whom participated in the First Intifada and served time in Israeli prisons. The Combatants gather in circles on the floor to tell their stories and imagine new political structures, to share meals and make art in the grass. Two women, one Palestinian and one Israeli, get into a heated argument about resettlement and the particulars of a two-state solution. In a radical moment, they talk face-to-face.

The greatest moment of unity comes during a peaceful demonstration in both the West Bank and Israel. With armed Israeli guards in between, protesters gather on both sides of the fence, demanding two states, demanding freedom. They call and chant from across the barbed wire, waving banners and huge papier-mâché sculptures. The soldiers, one of the protesters reflects, look most of all like prisoners.

Disturbing the Peace
Directed by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young
Abramorama
Opens November 11, Landmark Sunshine

 

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‘The Eagle Huntress’ Is So Charming a Girls-Can-Do-Anything Doc It Could Have Been a YA Novel

It’s hard to watch The Eagle Huntress without being charmed by Aisholpan, the documentary’s confident 13-year-old protagonist. In the mountainous region of Mongolia, which feels vast and untouched by time, Aisholpan dreams of following in the footsteps of her father by training an eagle for hunting, becoming what is known as a bürkitshi.

Aisholpan, with her round face and pigtails, is an unlikely candidate for this mythic role, which exists exclusively in her Eurasian homeland — centuries of previous eagle hunters have all been men. Thanks to an admirably self-assured attitude and a nurturing father who doesn’t buy into the sexist myths surrounding eagle hunting (“she shows extraordinary strength regardless of her gender,” he says), the girl realizes her dream.

If the story weren’t true, it would have to be written as a young-adult novel. Sometimes the film pushes this point: There’s intermittent voiceover by Daisy Ridley, of Star Wars reboot girl-power fame, and the original Sia song that plays over the end credits consists mainly of the lyric “you can do anything.”

Shots of Aisholpan training in the hunt and forming a bond with her eagle are expressions of female empowerment (or at least one specific female’s empowerment in one specific place) that speak for themselves. In one of the most poignant images, Aisholpan, having just fed her eagle, paints her nails with lavender polish while the bottle sits next to bloody animal entrails. Girlishness and guts coexist peacefully. The film lends itself to grand pronouncements about feminism or animal rights or some combination of the two, but at heart this is an engaging story about a girl and her eagle.

The Eagle Huntress
Directed by Otto Bell
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens November 2, Landmark Sunshine Cinema