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Manaki Brothers Film Festival 2015: Pepi i Muto, Macbeth, Land and Shade, & More

Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is most compelling when advancing its familiar plot through associative editing.

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Manaki Brothers Film Festival 2015: Pepi & Muto, Macbeth, Land and Shade, & More
Photo: The Weinstein Company

The most rapturous applause at the 37th Manaki Brothers International Cinematographers’ Film Festival in Bitola, Macedonia was for Pepi i Muto, a 15-minute short film by Macedonian director Georgi M. Unkovski. Forced into an early retirement, veteran Skopje-based detective Pepi (Pepi Mircevski) is burdened with showing his younger replacement, Muto (Sasko Kocev), the ropes. Muto, however, is exasperatingly clumsy. If he isn’t stapling paperwork to his own finger, he’s throwing up at the routine sight of a dead body. Pushed to the brim of patience by both his bumbling replacement and callous boss, Pepi throws in the towel, aggrieved by his predicament. When Muto persuades his mentor back into action, however, the two are brought together by a comically violent accident: Muto, apprehending a suspect, falls flat onto a somehow upward-pointing knife. The older cop allows his dormant sympathy to kick in, and after Muto’s brief convalescence in hospital, the duo starts up its own two-man detective agency.

Though not particularly inspired, Pepi i Muto elicited infectious laughter from the local audience, which was largely composed of students and undergraduates, for whom admission to festival screenings is free. The near-capacity crowd made proceedings seem especially lively, given that until this point they had barely bothered to show up for screenings at all. Named after pioneering brothers Yanaki and Milton Manaki, recognized as the Balkans’ first cameramen in the 1900s, the festival emphasizes cinematography as its overriding programming criterion. The festival catalogue, as well as each pre-film introduction, notes a film’s DP alongside its director. This is a welcome and novel curatorial approach, and so it’s a pity that for the first half of its 10-day run, the festival struggled to fill the sizeable main hall of Bitola’s cultural center. This is a serious festival, in a fine city. The importance of a year-round outreach initiative, as well as an effective local marketing strategy, is tantamount to the festival’s continued regional development (those who made it all the way through each screening were mostly professional delegates).

The healthy turnout for Pepi i Muto—and the feature that followed it, Denis Villeneuve’s pulsating thriller Sicario—built on the previous evening’s footfall, which saw locals filing into the previously vacant theater for Macbeth, the second feature by Australian director Justin Kurzel. That a second-time director should be entrusted with adapting such an epic rendering of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy is curious but for the fact that his debut, The Snowtown Murders, placed him in good stead to engineer compelling storytelling from persistently grim material. The earlier film was an intensely cheerless work based on the real-life Australian serial killer John Bunting, who murdered 12 people in the 1990s. Macbeth is also a mostly dour affair, opening with a battle sequence punctuated with slow-motion images of swords piercing flesh, and of daggers slicing necks. The film’s dramatic pivot, in which the title character (Michael Fassbender) stabs a sleeping King of Scotland (David Thewlis) to death, is a spectacle of free-flowing crimson.

Kurzel’s Macbeth is most compelling when advancing its familiar plot through associative editing, mixing tenses so that we see deaths occurring while the orders for them to be carried out are first being uttered. The film barely has time to settle, employing editorial techniques that Terrence Malick popularized with The Thin Red Line and The New World, and employed so enthrallingly in big-budget blockbusters by Christopher Nolan. It lends proceedings a real oomph, assisting the sense of inevitability that befouls our doomed protagonist. Fassbender, arguably never better, steers the role into a gladiatorial exhibition, finding himself at the center of a nightmarishly menacing pomp, and emerging from a pool of freshwater the morning after he commits his first murder like some topless heartthrob too convinced of the camera’s ability to render him immortal.

If Fassbender is the film’s star, however, Paddy Considine is its thespian. As Macbeth’s loyal servant Banquo, Britain’s most underappreciated actor provides a much more subdued performance, effortlessly out-acting Fassbender in the few scenes he appears, bearded and brooding like a best pal who knows, deep down, that something in the world is desperately amiss. Adding to the poisoned atmosphere, Kurzel pummels his cast with another wall-to-wall score by brother Jed Kurzel, who again provides a richly pulsating soundtrack that helps to entrap and punish the characters in the ongoing, mud-sodden horror. Adam Arkapaw’s accomplished cinematography (chilly blues one minute, fiery browns the next), meanwhile, highlights the wintry, ironically becalming beauty of northeast England’s Northumberland coastline.

In contrast, The Postman’s White Nights, by 78-year-old Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky, is a much quieter affair. This modest work, which took the Silver Lion in Venice last year, is a documentary-like portrait of a village community by Lake Kenozero, south of Archangelsk in northern Russia, at the center of which is Aleksey (Aleksey Tryaptsyn), a humble postman who must travel to and from the mainland by boat. Though most of the villagers await their pension payouts to throw immediately away on vodka (all the better for losing themselves to the swirling comforts of misremembrance), Aleksey has been teetotal for two years, owing to having lost too many pals in drunken boating accidents. He also has new teeth, which glow anomalously white against his sun-dried facial crags.

Shot by Aleksandr Simonov, cinematographer of several masterpieces by Konchalovsky’s deceased compatriot Aleksey Balabanov, the film is a low-key comedy of quotidian detail, of ordinary folk surviving long past the point at which they’ve been forgotten. A nearby space station is a reminder of an abandoned soviet history. But this is no dreary affair: Konchalovsky, having evidently spent enough time with his non-professional cast to acquire their unfailing commitment to the work, gleans refreshing warmth from his characters’ collective ennui. Though blessed by its charismatic, avuncular, blue-eyed protagonist, this is also an ensemble effort, a wholly welcome sketch of (sometimes reluctant) togetherness prevailing—if only just—in a world governed by ruthless neoliberalism.

Similar themes emerge—eventually—in Land and Shade, the feature debut by Colombian writer-director César Augusto Acevedo, and the Camera d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes. After a 17-year absence, Alfonso (Haimer Leal) returns to his family home in rural Colombia to find the perimeter almost entirely surrounded by sugarcane fields. Gerardo (Edison Raigosa), Alfonso’s adult son, is chronically sick from having worked on the neighboring plantation, and spends his days in bed. Gerardo’s wife (Marleyda Soto) and mother (Hilda Ruiz), who stayed at home for the years Alfonso was away, have been left to work the fields.

Here, the domestic and the social interact, are ineluctably entwined, as big business encroaches upon a family unit—the very thing it has traditionally promoted as its chief bastion. Though on first glance the film is just another uneventful addition to the oversaturated arthouse-festival circuit, its attention to wider currents, even if outlined in shorthand rather than an all-encompassing panorama, is key. Non-unionized, the two women work the sugarcane fields for a pittance. Cash-strapped, the family takes measures to minimize the effects that air pollution, emanating from local sugarcane burn-offs, has on Gerardo—for whom proper healthcare is apparently unavailable.

When Alfonso opens a window one afternoon to enjoy lunch with his grandson, Manuel (José Felipe Cardenas), the latter forces him to close it. No pollution, at any cost, must enter the house. And the first cost is daylight: Mateo Guzmán, also working on his first feature here, shoots the interior scenes with low but precise lighting, the would-be warm palette resulting from perilous rather than cheerful flames—an impending hazard beyond the family threshold. Through its images alone, Acevedo’s fine first effort is a cumulatively impressive, if overall muted, take on one murky dwelling crippled by the raging, top-down hostilities of capitalism.

The Manaki Brothers International Cinematographers’ Film Festival runs from September 18—27.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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