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Review: Que Viva México!

4.0

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Que Viva México!

If Leni Riefenstahl was Hitler’s point-person for political propaganda, Sergei Eisenstein was Stalin’s whore. But unlike any of the films Riefensthal produced for the Third Reich, Eisenstein’s films are masterworks of political subversion made for the Russian people but nonetheless critical of the collectivist system under which they were made. Born in 1898 in the Riga region of Russia, Eisenstein cultivated a revolutionary form of film editing through such masterpieces as Strike and Battleship Potemkin that would forever inform the way films are cut. The radical blend of narrative fiction and documentary footage in works like Alexander Nevsky (a film considered the precursor to the modern-day music video) defy classification, as well it should considering that Eisenstein directed each and every one of his propagandistic masterpieces with an unsettling and irrepressible feverishness that make them entirely too difficult to pin down.

Like Luis Buñuel after him, Eisenstein was too anarchistic for the Hollywood studio system to tame. Shortly after making the bourgeois short comedy Romance Sentimentale (which would play nicely on a surrealist double bill with Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or), Eisenstein went to Mexico in 1931 with assistant director Eduard Tisse and producer Grigory Alexandrov to shoot a film about the country’s mythic landscape with the financial help of writer Upton Sinclair, the muck-racking genius behind 1905’s controversial slaughterhouse exposé The Jungle, and his wife Mary Craig. Shooting stopped in 1932 after a series of financial mishaps with most of the work completed, though one of the film’s segments couldn’t be filmed. The Stalinist regime prevented Eisenstein from ever seeing Que viva México! as he had intended it though Sinclair had approved two separate interpretations of the film: 1933’s Thunder Over Mexico and 1939’s Time in the Sun.

Currently, filmmaker and researcher Lutz Becker is working on his own interpretation of Eisenstein’s unfinished masterwork using the film’s original negatives and master prints. But in 1979, producer Alexandrov was allowed to assemble the picture using Eisenstein’s storyboards and outlines to create an approximation of the director’s original vision. No version of the film can ever capture exactly how Eisenstein would have assembled the footage he shot in Mexico from 1931 to 1932, and as such Alexandrov’s interpretation of the director’s Que viva México! (“as Eisenstein conceived it and as we planned it”) becomes rather slippery when analyzed using an auteurist model. (In a way, isn’t any cut of the film considered an anti-auteurist gesture?) But if the film as it exists now can’t tell us for sure how Eisenstein would have shaped the footage, make no mistake: these delirious images that map out a Mexican mythology and social unrest are unquestionably his own creations.

Despite the devastating, elegiac tone of its images, Que viva México! is still every bit as unnerving and aesthetically confrontational as October. And just as the film would inform later works by Orson Welles (It’s All True), Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) and Sergio Leone (A Fistfull of Dollars), many of its images anticipate later works by Eisenstein. (One of the film’s more startling images is that of a Mexican woman looking down at an ancient pyramid, a shot which brings to mind the more famous image of Nikolai Cherkasov’s Czar Ivan IV from the director’s Ivan the Terrible films staring down from his palace window at a line of advancing worshipers.) With Que viva México!, Eisenstein intended to document the mythic struggle of a Mexican people in a perpetual state of unrest, dividing their history into six parts: Prologue, Sandunga, Conquest, Fiesta, Magey, Soldadera (the only episode that wasn’t completed) and Epilogue.

Mexico learned about Mexican history and its people through artists like Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Jose Orozco, and it’s obvious from the start that Eisenstein was enamored with the country. The genius of the film’s Prologue is how Eisenstein successfully evokes an eternal Mexico in suspended cultural animation. The entire episode takes place in the Yucatan, a beautiful region of Mexico seemingly possessed by its stone gods, pagan temples and marvelous pyramids. Here, “time flows slowly” and Eisenstein’s images evoke a certain near-frozen sense of evolution by placing the film’s modern Mexicans beside their ancient stone counterparts. Immediately, the director has set up a fascinating struggle between the past and the present that permeates the rest of the picture and is indicative of what Eisenstein considers both the country’s strength and devastating weakness.

Throughout the film’s Sandunga episode, Eisenstein’s images bring to mind an Eden uncontaminated by Spanish culture. Eisenstein’s text describes life in the province of Tehuantepec as “a slow, semi-vegetative existence,” pointing to a certain pure, symbiotic relationship between man and nature by situating the people of the region before tranquil landscapes inundated with trees and lush vegetation. There’s a strange but serene geometry to this segment (look for the delirious graphic match between a stone necklace and a man sitting on a hammock) that suggests a people untainted by modern influences. The culture here is largely matriarchal and the central narrative concerns a young girl named Concepcion and her attempts to raise a dowry for her future husband Abundio. Even the names of the film’s first couple is largely metaphoric, and though the episode ends in bliss (two parrots engage in love play on a tree branch above the couple’s heads) it hardly anticipates the fall of Eden evoked by the film’s central Magey episode.

Throughout the Conquest and Fiesta episodes, Eisenstein evokes the painful legacy of Cortes’s invasion of Mexico in the 16th century with an elaborate juxtaposition of codes and symbolic struggles. The celebration depicted here is largely in service of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe and though Eisenstein is obviously critical of the Catholic Church, the incredible marriage of sparring symbols throughout the episode recognizes a Mexican collective in spiritual limbo. The monks who came to the region destroyed ancient temples in order to build their churches, converting the so-called heathens of the region to Catholicism. Eisenstein seems to understand why the film’s Mexicans are so hung-up on ironic, ritualized celebrations of their own devastation. Mexico has been unduly influenced by Spain (the Fiesta bullfighting sequence symbolically pits both countries and their respective cultures against each other), but Eisenstein’s strange puppet show continues to contemplate the lingering threat of the people’s ultimately irrepressible past.

In the Magey episode, the peasant Sebastian wages a battle against a colonial landlord (a doppelganger perhaps for Mexican dictator Porfirio Dias) who ravages his wife Maria. This cruel, lyrical battle begins on a rich hacienda and culminates in a delirious confrontation in a barren desert that is home to the phallic Maguey cactus. (The cactus shields the film’s peons from colonialist gunfire and its white juice feeds their stomachs.) Que viva México! plays out as a collection of images that repeatedly pit classic paired rivals against each other: paganism versus Christianity, nature versus culture, virginity versus sexual perversion, night versus day, poor versus rich, and so on. And with the film’s ghoulish Prologue, Eisenstein encodes these various battles in the Day of the Dead sugar masks worn and consumed by Mexican children. He marvels at “man’s triumph over death through mockery of it” but the film’s melancholic tone suggests that Spain may have forever sent Mexico spiraling into a spiritual and cultural limbo from which it has yet to recover.

Cast: Martín Hernández, Félix Balderas, Isabel Villaseñor, Julio Saldívar, David Liceága, Sergei Bondarchuk Director: Sergei Eisenstein Screenwriter: Grigory Alexandrov, Sergei Eisenstein Distributor: International Film Exchange Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1931/1979 Buy: Video

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

2.5

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Buddy
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.

2

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Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Sunset Builds a Mystery in Graceful but Desultory Fashion

László Nemes’s follow-up to Son of Saul simply feels like two films awkwardly affixed to one another.

2

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Sunset
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Mysteries, in film, don’t have to be solved and sometimes shouldn’t be. A mystery plot can be a jumping-off point for more abstract or character-driven concerns, which of course doesn’t excuse the rote and careless incorporation of genre elements into a film. Such is the fatal flaw of László Nemes’s Sunset. Striving to tell a heady, metaphorically rich tale of corruption and cultural cleansing, Nemes loses sight of the basic mechanics of plot and scene work that are necessary for his film to form a coherent, meaningful whole.

Nemes’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Son of Saul takes place in the courtly, stratified society of Hungry in 1913, a land abundant in top hats, lanterns, and horse-drawn carriages. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), young and strong-willed, arrives in Budapest to petition for a job at the famous Leiter hat store once owned by her parents, who perished in the fire that burned the store to the ground. It’s since been rebuilt and restored to its former glory by the gray-bearded, buttoned-up, and over-paternal Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov). Intrigued by Irisz’s pedigree, he offers her a position on the spot. So far so good, but that night, a hysterical man breaks into her room and rants cryptically about a lost brother, Sándor (Marcin Czarnik), who she soon discovers vanished years ago after killing a local nobleman.

And so a mystery plot is kicked into motion. Where is Sándor? Why did he do what he did? What will he do next? And to work through these questions, and to keep us engaged and hopeful of answers, Sunset is entirely dependent on Irisz. Nemes makes her the center of every scene; we only experience what she experiences, and we know the other characters only as she knows them. While cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera is fluid, and will occasionally turn in the direction of her gaze, or tarry a moment, or anticipate her, for the most part it’s content to simply follow Irisz, often in close-up, as she makes her way around Budapest.

There’s grace in the sinuous way that the camera maneuvers through crowds, around carriages, in an out of rooms, up and down stairs, through fields of darkness and shadow. But from a story perspective, our being yoked persistently to Irisz’s side becomes constraining. Nemes allows himself no cutaways, which can make conveying off-screen information a bit of a challenge, as in the few cases where he has to conspicuously resort to having Irisz overhear important information from conversations between bystanders.

This self-imposed limitation to Irisz’s point of view could have been an opportunity for some bravura plotting, but as Sunset develops, there’s little emphasis on fashioning a fiendish mystery. Clues are scattered around, such us our finding out that Sándor once worked for Oszkár, that the nobleman he murdered was an abusive husband, and that Sándor has made threats against the Budapest elite. But there’s a difficult and exacting art to making these scraps of information build on each other, and the film doesn’t care to practice it. Instead of coalescing, the plot is constantly striking off onto tangents: a hidden room that must be uncovered, a murky secret society. Throughout, there’s less a sense of a picture slowly coming into focus than of a penlight jabbing haphazardly on a dark canvas.

Worse, there’s a lack of conviction to Sunset’s middle section, when the film is lengthily but almost grudgingly occupied with developing its genre elements. Irisz is seen running from place to place, encountering various stock situations: She goes to an orphanage to find out more about her brother, only to be stonewalled, and later she pays a visit to a key character at just the precise time that another one happens to show up so that she can witness the pair interact. These are scenes that in another film might have been used to build suspense, or to establish and vivify characters, or even to simply offer up stylish versions of classic situations. Here, the only real function of these scenes is practical: to move Irisz around the map so that she can collect various bits of information relevant to the plot. Surprisingly little would be lost from the film if her findings were simply provided in an intertitle.

In its final third, Sunset opens up, bending toward the surreal. The pace quickens as Irisz tracks down her brother, and a coterie of ominous aristocrats arrive on the scene to menace her. Paradoxically, however, as the film is becoming more interesting on a moment-to-moment basis, it signals with all of this commotion that it has no plans to tidily resolve any of the central mysteries on which it’s been spending so much desultory effort.

Here, Nemes is aiming to transfigure his plot into a commentary on, well, several issues: classicism, sexism, decadence, and the looming world war. There’s no reason this can’t work on a conceptual level, but all those themes are overwhelmed by the quotidian workings of the mystery plot. They’ve been too muted up to this point to suddenly carry the whole weight of the film’s conclusion. In short, Nemes caps a historical mystery with a 30-some-odd-minute blitz of hypnagogic symbolism, and as neither stretch succeeds on its own merits, Susnet simply feels like two films awkwardly affixed to one another.

Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik Director: László Nemes Screenwriter: László Nemes, Matthieu Topiner, Clara Royer Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 144 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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