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Los Angeles Film Festival 2013: Crystal Fairy, The Women and the Passenger, Workers, & I.D.

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Los Angeles Film Festival 2013: Crystal Fairy, The Women and the Passenger, Workers, & I.D.

Though writer-director Sebastiàn Silva’s Crystal Fairy chronicles a Chilean desert road trip punctuated by psychoactive drug use and discursive digression, the film is not Fear and Loathing in the Atacama. Instead, it’s a clear-eyed look at the fragility of tentative friendships and a clash of personalities, cultures, and desires. It’s also wincingly funny: Michael Cera’s Jamie, channeling a bit of Odelay-era Beck, sets the tone with deflecting braggadocio about reading The Doors of Perception and “really getting into phenomenology” while failing to cook late-night rice for bored transvestite prostitutes. His obsession to head north with his Chilean compatriots (played by Silva’s three brothers) and to ingest mescaline from San Pedro cacti, a prospect built up to mythic proportions in his head, drives the film. However, the plan gets complicated when he ends up inviting another American, the uninhibited “free spirit” Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman), along for the trip.

Silva skillfully builds the film from long stretches of improvisation and flowing banter, though his perpetually restless delirium tremens camera is shakier than any film lacking gunshots ought to be. The organic qualities of handheld work best here in the quiet, intimate instances, when you can sense the camera operator in the room and palpably feel their heartbeat and their breathing at the edges of the frame, inching into the group and the conversation like they’re along for the ride. But the sustained deployment of the technique takes on aspects of a bad trip (in both senses of the word) as we see the paranoid whipping palpitations of a camera straining to find—or unable to hold onto—what’s worth observing.

That paranoia might hew close to Cera’s character and his mescaline fixation, but the film is strongest when it actively distances itself from him, such as a moment of hilarious dissonance between the ominous orchestral crash that announces Crystal Fairy’s hopping along the expedition and Jamie’s deader-than-deadpan reaction to it. Cera holds the film together, but the Silvas and their unforced, unharried performances—all their reactions, bullshitting and brotherly rapport—bounce off him well.

Hoffman swings to the other side of the spectrum in terms of portraying the titular character, but she deftly handles Crystal’s central conceit: the way that her seeming lack of self-awareness is a totally self-conscious display. She elevates the role from a simple hippie caricature by rendering legible the whiplash of her emotional arc. Both Americans are objects of ridicule here, but the film tempers its bite by suggesting that what the pair might find in their Chilean journey isn’t some life-changing, mind-blowing experience, but some measure of understanding and redemption.

* * *

The Women and the PassengerWe find another transient slice of Chilean life in The Women and the Passenger. Following the maid staff of a “love hotel” where rooms are rented by the hour, the documentary unpacks the rhythm of the maids’ workday routines and gives voice to their philosophical musings on love and sex. Directors Valentina MacPherson and Patricia Correa don’t overstay their welcome with the material, which clocks in at less than an hour. But they find ample room to let tiny details breathe, like declarations of love etched in graffiti on the interstices of wall tiles, or the mundane exchanges between the hotel patrons (the “Passengers” of the title) and the maids as they settle room charges and order room service.

The film is attentive to the labor that maintains the artifice of these spaces. The archly manufactured themes of the rooms, like the “African mask” room and the “Red Riding Hood” room (one suspects that perhaps the “Utility Room” lies right around the corner) speak to the way that hotels like this one are constructed like sites of ritual and performance. The clientele that pass through those doors might be suffused with erotic longing and an overabundance of pathos, as in their depictions in Blue Valentine and Enter the Void; yet these rooms are like any other, with toilets that need scrubbing and sheets that need changing and stripper poles that need wiping down.

The film excels at viewing these spaces through a different set of eyes. The worm’s-eye hidden cameras in the halls catch glimpses of headless patrons and arms extending out of doorways, and such a perspective feels rather voyeuristic, but when we step into the empty rooms, their flatness and the way the maids tidy them up evoke the quality of resetting a stage set, as in a scene where one maid sanitizes an acrobatic-looking apparatus she describes as “the chair of love,” all the while narrating the process. This investigation of the hotel space is tied back to the maids and their own attentiveness to their surroundings. They carry themselves like they’ve seen and heard it all, and with the thin walls and echoing hallways producing a cacophony of moans and grunts, the maids probably have. They’re affable and at ease speaking at length in front of the camera. Of course, they have their opinions about the clientele, both the couples seeking thrills or privacy, and the others coming from what’s euphemistically referred to as “the environment.”

But more enthralling are the maids’ monologues about their own romantic histories, each with their own acutely crystallized moments of heartbreak and longing. It’s the kind of disclosure that requires a presence behind the camera with the thoughtfulness to sense those moments and the patience to let them unfold. One of the maids remarks that “Sex is like art”; this documentary makes visible the otherwise invisible labor that, at least in this tucked-away place, helps to facilitate that art.

WorkersOn that note of attentiveness to invisible labor: Workers, the first narrative feature from Salvadoran/Mexican writer-director José Luis Valle, is a remarkable debut with delicately composed visuals and subtle emotional restraint. We follow two loosely connected characters: Lidia (Susana Salazar), a long-suffering maid to a sickly Tijuana grande dame and her prized and pampered dog, and Rafael (Jesus Padilla), an impassive factory janitor on the cusp of retirement. Both their stories unfold slowly, in tiny details and the depiction of processes; we get to know these characters before each experiences a shock to their routines and expectations, and even then the changes aren’t so much explosive as they are a slow wave of crushing disappointments and absurdity.

The film’s greatest asset is its precise control of duration, of showing the time it takes to do things and to the expansiveness of long takes and wide shots which capture the full scope of chores and labor. There are shades of Jeanne Dielman to be found here, especially in the film’s depictions of Lidia and Rafael cooking and cleaning. The importance of duration is also captured in a standout scene: In a long unbroken take of a stretch of urban sidewalk, as we watch Rafael from a distance, he disappears into a building with intentions we can only dimly surmise. He remains inside as the rhythm of the street continues with the movement of people and cars; we might expect a payoff but cannot be certain of one. The control shown by the director in such a scene is impressive, but what’s perhaps more impressive is the lack of bravado in the moment. It’s not showcasing a stylistic flourish, but just adding one piece to a larger mosaic.

That precise control over duration carries over to the way that we transition from one story to another, and to the way that time passes from scene to scene. At times it feels like we’ve spent so much time with Lidia that it’s almost a shock to return to Rafael and realize that absolutely no time has passed; at other moments we’re lulled by the sameness of surroundings and routines before being blindsided by the fact that days or weeks have passed. Again, these subtle disorientations and instabilities don’t come across as self-conscious gimmickry, but as such a natural-seeming way of conveying the fabric of these characters’ existences, of keying us into how their lives are structured around routine and repetition. For such workers, there’s a way in which each day feels exactly the same as the last—until a day when it doesn’t.

The slow burn of the film is complemented by the anchoring performances of Salazar and Padilla; in a detailed and languorous film like this, every detail of a performance—every pause, every breath—becomes an object of scrutiny, and in this case, the two leads deliver. They might not give us much on the surface, but there’s a compelling depth to these characters that make them eminently watchable, and there are hints of grace and humor even in dour surroundings. They might not ever talk to each other, but there’s a way in which their lives and stories are in conversation with each other; we’re engaging with these two stories not as a diptych, but as a cohesive whole.

* * *

I.D.Kamal K.M. conjures a grimmer, more frenzied image of what it means to live and work at the margins of society in his debut feature I.D. Set in Mumbai, it’s in the neorealist mold of films that wend their way through layers of urban space and follow the circulation of money and people through that space, of journeys that begin when the underpinning of a person’s precarious existence suddenly collapses.

In this case the collapse is a literal one: A day laborer falls unconscious in the apartment of Charu (Geetanjali Thapa) while he’s painting her wall, and Charu’s comfortable middle-class life is thrown into disarray as she finds herself responsible for a man whose name she doesn’t even know. The film maps her descent from the quasi-imperial gaze of her high-rise tower to the perpetually bustling Mumbai streets, through the labyrinthine halls of hospitals and police stations, and out to the endless slums of the city. She struggles to discover this man’s identity, where he came from, and most importantly, if there’s anyone out there who would care if he died.

Amid the flurry of transitory and pointedly naturalistic types (the neighbor, the bureaucrat, the lumpenproles), Charu is our surrogate and our navigator. It’s not a showy role, but Thapa convincingly channels the radical discomfiture that accompanies the breakdown of everyday routines and barriers that help normalize the hierarchies of society. She also effects the transition toward a real human concern and responsibility for the man once those barriers come down, even if that concern is tempered by Charu’s own foibles and her reluctance to step outside her insular bubble. Without being didactic about it, the film suggests that the problems she encounters—the financial tolls of health care, the cogs of ineffectual bureaucracy, and the plight of the masses of working poor—might have their own specific Mumbai texture while being universal and global problems.

Kamal K.M. ties that character arc and the realist exploration of Mumbai to a kind of digital disintegration as Charu pushes toward the margins of the city. While she’s flitting about in taxis or getting lost in catacomb-like alleys, she’s rarely without her iPhone in hand. It’s far from product placement though: The phone marks her. It’s a solid reminder of the way she’s above all the people around her, even when she’s on their level. The phone possesses a totemic significance as she passes it (and the photograph on its screen) around to slum dwellers in a desperate quest to identify the anonymous man, because we know that the tiny block they hold in their hands is worth more than any of them could make in a year. In the city scenes that dominate the latter half of the movie, there’s an increasing reliance on unobtrusive button-hole camera angles that undoubtedly stem from the exigencies of filming on the streets and in the middle of crowds—but those furtive shots also remind us that the masses of people we’re seeing are most likely not actors, and the closest we’ll ever get to them is through a screen.

The Los Angeles Film Festival runs from June 16 – 26.

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Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasn’t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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