A lot of the people who lived through the 60s are almost unanimous in their belief that the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was one of the most important days of their lifetimes… why?  It’s certainly a human tragedy but people die every day and often in much larger numbers.  Was it a matter of all the great things Kennedy promised being compromised by his death?  Maybe, but Lyndon Johnson didn’t really do too bad a job of carrying on Kennedy’s legacy on civil rights, cold warfare, and putting men on the moon and the argument that Kennedy wouldn’t have gotten us mired in Vietnam is… debatable.  From a sheer policy perspective the murder of his brother may well have been the more impactful turning point.  No, the legacy of that assassination and its impact on a generation is a lot more complicated and deeply psychological in nature and had a lot to do with just how good Kennedy made people feel both as a leader and as a person.  It wasn’t so much that he had policies that were universally loved (quite the opposite, there were definitely people who hated him) but something about him just made people feel good about their country and about the times they lived in.  He felt like someone who just did things right, he was young, handsome, had proven to be courageous during the war, and perhaps most notably he had a seemingly perfect family… and the fact that all of this may have been a bit of a charade is almost incidental.  It’s an interesting little web of national iconography to untangle and the new film Jackie, while essentially a “biopic” is really all about getting to the bottom of where the truth lies in all of this.

The film begins about a week after the assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) invites famed journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) to allow him an exclusive (and heavily edited and micromanaged) interview for Life Magazine, the interview that would famously cement the “Camelot” interpretation of the Kennedy years.  This interview acts as a framing story for the rest of the movie, which recreates some of her most famous moments like the making of the 1962 “Tour of the Whitehouse” special but mainly focuses on the days immediately after the assassination where she needs to both grieve her husband’s death and reckon with the meaning of it all while also planning the extravagant state funeral and occasionally clashing with titans like Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant).  These events do not get played strictly in chronological order and there’s even a sort of framing story within a framing story as we frequently cut to a discussion she has with a priest (John Hurt).

Jackie was directed by a guy named Pablo Larraín who is probably best known for his 2013 film No, which looked at a similarly impactful if much more upbeat turning point in the history of his native Chile.  That film employed an interesting technique where it seamlessly integrated a lot of archival footage into his scripted film and he’s clearly interested in the way that images can implant themselves into a national consciousness.  He does something similar with this new film by using famous Kennedy era footage ranging from the “Tour of the Whitehouse” special to the Zapruder Film.  It’s a little different from No, which was actually shot in its entirety on camera equipment that resembled the video quality of 80s news broadcasts so that this all blended together while the majority of Jackie was shot on Super-16 and clearly differs from the archival footage and the scenes shot to resemble said archival footage.  The goal seems to be to take these images that are burned into the public consciousness and give them context, to show the human side of the iconography.

I hesitate to even spend too much time talking about Natalie Portman’s performance in the movie as I do fear that this one element has come to dominate discussions of the film to the detriment of everything else, but it is indeed stunning.  On the shallow basis of imitation she does indeed manage to capture the looks and voice of Mrs. Kennedy but what’s even more impressive are the many aspects of the character she needs to convey.  During the shooting of the “Tour of the Whitehouse” sections we see her as she was as a first lady, which is to say someone who was playing up her shallower traits and putting on the persona of the perfect housewife.  During the reenactments of her tumultuous post-assassination period we see her in the depths of grief and managing to conjure a dutiful dignity as she fights to make sure she’s heard over the powerful voices of people like Robert Kennedy.  During the conversation with Father McSorley we see her at her most candid and most introspective; leaving little doubt that there’s more to her than the “socialite” she was seen to be by the public.  Finally, during the interview framing story we see her at her sharpest and most canny even if that isn’t always entirely apparent to the interviewer.

That interview section is, in fact, the most important part of the film even if it wouldn’t seem to be initially because it’s where the film’s central themes of legacy and myth-making comes most to the forefront.   The man interviewing Jackie is a seasoned journalist who was in China reporting on the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, and yet Jackie is still able to get him to write a story that he would later call “misreading of history” through sheer force of personality.  The movie certainly has no illusions about the fact that the Kennedys were less perfect than they appeared and Jackie goes into that during her conversation with the priest, but the movie also doesn’t entirely dismiss the Camelot version of those years as a cynical lie either.  John F. Kennedy might not have been a perfect husband but it’s clear that he did mean a lot to Jackie and she did quite genuinely believe him to be a great man even if that greatness didn’t necessarily manifest itself in exactly the way that the American people thought it did.  In other words Jackie would admit that the American Camelot was indeed a myth when looked at as the kind of literal truth that a journalist like Theodore Harold White would ordinarily demand (the “truth of accountants” as Werner Herzog would put it), but that in a more poetic way there was a truth to it both in her own heart and in the hearts of the American people and when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.  The fact that she was using a literal legend in her analogy would seem to betray that it was this kind of truth she was shooting for.

Simply as a movie Jackie may have a bit of a hard time finding its audience.  It’s not the simple nostalgic biopic that a lot of people are going to walk in expecting, which may be off-putting to people looking for something a little warmer and less challenging.  At the same time its technique may prove to not be quite as openly iconoclastic and novel as the kind of fare critics really yearn to champion and that could leave it as something of a Jan Brady this awards season but that is perhaps a mistake because it is in fact a very smart and in its own sneaky way very relevant film.  I mentioned earlier that I used to find it a little odd that a whole generation were so invested in Kennedy and considered his death such a major event.  The key phrase there is “used to.”  In 2008 our generation got its own Camelot in the form of Barak Obama, a president who like Kennedy might not go down in history as having an ideal resume of accomplishments but who makes up for it by simply being the kind of leader we want as a people.  While he was in office it was easy to think “everything’s going to be alright” and while everything he stood for didn’t end in bloody tragedy, the fact that he’s being replaced by a crass vulgarian who revels in uncertainty is a similar shock and a trauma that may well stick with my generation for decades to come.  That Trump was able to do this by creating a series of counter-factual “truths” is of course a bitter irony and one that gives me pause when I think about praising the myth-making presented in Jackie.  There is, however, a difference between spinning a story that makes people feel good about their country and themselves and spinning lies that divide people and exploit toxic fears.  If anything the next four years are likely to make us mourn all the more for “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”

The Handmaiden(10/20/2016)

There are some directors who build long lasting careers by continually topping themselves or at least keeping a pretty consistent turnout over many years, but then there are also a lot of directors who find themselves haunted by an early success and need to work like hell to reach that level again.  Orson Welles is possibly the greatest example of that given that no matter how great his films were it was basically impossible to ever top Citizen Kane.  A more recent example is probably Quentin Tarantino, who certainly made a number of great films that any other filmmaker would be jealous of, but for however good Jackie Brown or the Kill Bill movies were the simple fact was that they didn’t feel like the revolution that Pulp Fiction was and it was only with his recent successes with period pieces like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained that he really stepped out of the shadows of that landmark achievement.  In many ways the Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook has been in a similar situation.  I don’t know that his breakout film Oldboy is exactly a landmark or anything but it’s a damn good twisty little thriller that sits well alongside films like Fight Club and Memento in the pantheon of cool twisty 2000s movies and it did a lot to bring the recent wave of cool Korean movies to the west.  Since then Chan-wook has remained relevant and made a number of pretty cool little movies like Thirst and Lady Vengeance that have certainly had compelling elements but they’ve all been a bit thornier than his breakout and have had odd tonal shifts that never quite worked for me.  My disillusionment probably reached its peak with his first (and so far only) English language work Stoker.  That film has its fans and as usual with his work there were some interesting elements but for me it didn’t really work at all.  However, I’ve continued to follow his career and it seems like my patience has finally been rewarded with Chan-wook’s very promising latest work The Handmaiden.

The Handmaiden is based on a contemporary novel set in Victorian England called “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters.  For the adaptation the action has been moved to South Korea during the 1930s Japanese occupation and begins from the point of view of a young woman named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who grew up on the streets and knows quite a bit about pickpocketing, forgery, and various other rackets.  One day she’s approached by a fellow con artist / friend of the family (Ha Jung-woo) who has a scheme to pose as a Japanese count named Fujiwara to win the hand of a shut-in Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who has been living her entire life in a mansion in Korea with her strange and slightly domineering uncle (Cho Jin-woong) and then have her committed to a Japanese insane asylum so he can keep her fortune.  In order to do this he employs Sook-hee to be Hideko’s handmaiden and help push her towards him when he arrives at the manor but this plan starts to go awry as Sook-hee’s sympathies start to change and she begins to sympathize with Hideko and even begins to form a Sapphic attraction towards her.

The film is set in an old estate that was built in both the British and Japanese style one should not be misled into believing that Park Chan-wook has compromised his often twisted sensibilities just because of the Masterpiece Theater trappings on the surface.  The movie is not shy in regards to sex and while there isn’t a ton of violence there is one scene that would be right at home in the vengeance trilogy.  The characters in the movie generally speak in unpretentious dialog rather than the formal wording you expect in this sort of thing, in part because two of the main characters are lower class conmen rather than true blue bloods, in in general the movie just moves along rather than bloviating about class and manners.  The fact that the film is set during the era of Japanese occupation is definitely important, but I’m still sort of unpacking why.  The film rarely ever shows actual Japanese soldiers or the more overt atrocities that happened during this era but it’s no coincidence that the film is set during this time and Chan-wook seems to be making some sort of statement about a more insidious cultural imperialism that was also going on during this era.

All three primary characters in the film are bi-lingual and conversations can go from being in Korean to being in Japanese quickly, sometimes within the same sentence (Magnolia Pictures has helpfully subtitled the two languages in different colors to mark this) and you get some sense that the Korean characters are in some ways sort of jealous of the Japanese characters, or at least of their power and wealth, while the Japanese are themselves seemingly trying to emulate the British.  One could perhaps intuit some sort of metaphor between the Koreans who are forced to conceal their own cultural pride and the women characters who are forced both into the closest and away from greater freedom by a patriarchal society.  However, I’m no expert on this moment in Korean history so I’m pretty sure that there’s something there that I’m not fully comprehending on the first watch.  You do not, however, need to be looking too deeply at the themes to enjoy The Handmaiden as it works just fine as a twisty little con artist movie with a great structure and interesting characters mixed in with some of that perverse Park Chan-wook flavor to spice things up.  There’s little doubt in my mind that this is Chan-wook’s best movie since Oldboy and I might even prefer it to that movie.

Our Little Sister(9/17/2016)

Japan, what happened to you?  During the 50s and 60s Japan seemed like an international force on a par with France and Italy in the world of fine cinema but everything just seemed to go to hell in the 70s.  As far as I can tell this was mostly due to television taking a bigger toll on cinema in their home market than it did elsewhere but they’ve really fallen behind other nations, especially if you’re talking about the kind of non-genre arthouse fare that wins Oscars and respect.  One of their great hopes is a writer/director named Hirokazu Koreeda, a filmmaker who’s been around for about twenty years but has risen to greater prominence abroad in the last five or ten years.  Koreeda (whose name is sometimes spelled Kore-eda, I’m not sure which is correct) is known for making small scale intimate dramas, often about families.  In this sense he could be compared to the second most famous of all Japanese directors, Yasujirō Ozu, but Koreeda has a bit more of a sentimental streak and obviously doesn’t have the same signature formal style.  I haven’t seen a lot of Koreeda’s movies at this point, pretty much just his last movie Like Father, Like Son which certainly had its moments but which never quite worked for me, but I’ve been meaning to catch up with more and his latest movie Our Little Sister seemed like a good place to start.

The film is set in modern day Kamakura (a small coastal city known as something of a vacation destination) and revolves around three sisters in their 20s whose father left the family when they were younger and ran off with another woman.  Their mother has also been out of their lives for a while but they seem to have landed on their feet and have good jobs.  All three of them still live together in a family home (I’m not sure how unusual that is or isn’t in Japan, but this mostly seems to be by choice) and generally get along with each other.  They hit a turning point of sorts though when they learn that their father, who had long since moved to a remote town in the North of Japan, has passed away leaving their fourteen year old half-sister without a blood related parent as her mother is also out of the picture.  The sisters meet this teenager for the first time at the father’s funeral and extend an offer to have her stay with them in Kamakura for a while and she opts to take them up on this offer.

Describing the appeal of this movie is not always easy, in part because Koreeada makes a lot of what he does seem quietly effortless.  In many ways it shouldn’t work.  It’s a movie with very little conflict and no traditional three act arc, and yet it still works through the almost voyeuristic thrill of looking in on the lives of a handful of ordinary yet interesting and likable characters who are very well drawn and believable.  This isn’t a revolutionary concept exactly.  Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a similar movie that comes to mine and Richard Linklater has been known to do similar things in his own chilled out way, but it is still something that’s relatively rare to see and rare to see done this well.  Our four main characters each have distinct and believable personalities between the mature and driven eldest sister who is perhaps a bit addicted to being needed, the slightly wilder younger sister, or the middle child who is… well, the middle child.  Then there’s the much younger half-sister who initially seems to just be a simple good kid, and who is a good kid, but who occasionally reveals a sadness beneath the tough façade.

Through all this Koreeda’s direction is careful and confident but also unobtrusive and unpretentious.  It’s easy for these sort of observational movies to get a little too obsessed with realism and authenticity to the point where they become a little hard to watch but Koreeda is not above using the traditional language of dramatic filmmaking and doesn’t get carried away with filling his movie with mumbled dialogue or other such silliness.  It’s all a pretty tricky balancing act and I think Koreeda mostly pulls it off, though I do think this is a movie that you need to be in just the right mood to enjoy.  Seeing it in a theater probably helps with that, I can definitely picture someone watching it on DVD, pausing it a bunch of times, and missing some of the interesting nuances of the performances and seeing the movie as kind of pointless.  I don’t want to oversell the movie too much as I do think there are definitely movies out there that have pulled off this sort of trick better, but at the same time I do think this is worth considering and makes me want to look a little deeper into Koreeada’s career.  Above all I like the movie for how gosh darn pleasant the whole thing is and that’s a rarity in the world of well made artistic world cinema like this.

Embrace of the Serpent(4/2/2016)

One of the (mostly) undisputed entrants into the cannon of English literature is Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.”  To call this book heavy would be an understatement given that it takes a deep dive into both the psychology of its protagonist and by extension that of the western world given its unflinching look at the legacy of Western exploitation in Africa.  For a while I viewed it as one of the most powerful critiques of colonialism ever written despite its flawed depictions of actual Africans until I studied it in college and realized that it wasn’t a critique of colonialism so much as conquest and that it mostly stood to legitimate the more “benevolent” form of colonialism perpetrated by Conrad’s native Britain.  Either way, “Heart of Darkness” casts a long shadow and pretty much any book or movie that depicts a river journey into a jungle while dealing with the downsides of Western colonialism is probably going to have some relation to that book.  Enter Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which is certainly not an adaptation of “Heart of Darkness” but is almost certainly in dialogue with it and takes a decidedly more 21st century look at its themes and brings a couple other ideas of its own to the table.

Embrace of the Serpent is set in the Columbian Amazon and intercuts between two separate but connected stories set in 1909 and 1940 respectively.  The first deals with a German ethnologist named Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) who is traveling with a local named Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) whose tribe has been slowly taking on western ways.  The two encounter an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), among the last of his tribe, who reluctantly agrees to lead them to a rare plant called the yakuna that has strange hallucinogenic properties but could also cure Theo of an illness that he’s contracted.  Thirty years later this same shaman (now played by Antonio Bolívar) also agrees to lead an American botanist named Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) to this same flower, retracing the steps of that previous journey and seeing the further degradation that colonialism has wrought on the native communities.

Both Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes are real historical figures, but to the best of my knowledge Karamakate is a fictional character and this film is by and large a fictional story, albeit one that’s rooted in the actual realities of what was going on in this area at the time.  It quickly becomes clear that the rubber-barons have done a number on the local population and that other more seemingly well intentioned white people like missionaries seem to do just as much harm without realizing what they’re doing.  Having said that, I don’t want to give the impression that this film is just a parade of imperialist horrors because there’s a lot more going on as well.  For one thing, it’s an interesting look at these two white guys who were by all accounts a couple of the “good guys” to come out of interactions between natives and Europeans but nonetheless have plenty to learn and who occasionally aren’t sure what the best way to help the Amazonians without being patronizing and aren’t quite sure how much to embrace their teachings.  The real protagonist of the movie though is Karamakate, who is the common bond between the two storylines and who is fascinatingly different in both time periods and who struggles with how to react to all the awful changes around him.

Director Ciro Guerra has opted to film Embrace of the Serpent in black and white which proved to be a canny choice for a number of reasons.  Partly I think this was a smart way to impart the period the film is set in, something that would have been slightly obscured otherwise given the absence of cars and western hairstyles and other usual signifiers of setting.  More importantly I think Guerra was trying to suck out some of the beauty from the rainforest scenery, which is necessary because this isn’t supposed to be some kind of exotic travelogue for the audience to vicariously enjoy.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t some really breathtaking bits of landscape here because they’re totally are, but the way they’re photographed makes the area seem less like they belong in a colander and more like they belong in a history book.  In addition to filming in monochrome Guerra makes a number of other canny choices like choosing the perfect visual language to transition between the two timelines and his excellent attention to period detail in the scenes that do have manmade structures.

The two elements that really sets the movie aside from the likes of The Mission and even Aguirre, the Wrath of God are its spiritual and psychedelic elements, which are probably the two things that I probably found the hardest to get a grasp of on an initial viewing.  Central to the film is a hallucinogenic drug which would seem to be the Amazonian equivalent of peyote.  Karamakate and his people believe the visions imparted by this substance to be visions sent by the gods or something and the movie kind of goes along with this.  It’s always a challenge for secular-minded liberals like myself us to question the validity of indigenous religions in much the way we’d question major western religions given how often these people were persecuted for these beliefs and this has led to a lot of New Age hooey over the years, but this movie does a pretty good job of staying just on the right side of all of that and does a good job of addressing the honest minded skepticism of the two westerners.  Honestly though I’m still probably going to struggle a bit with that element of the film and if someone asked me to explain the film’s ending and a few other sections I’m not necessarily going to be able to give a satisfying answer, but to some extent I think that’s intentional: there are some things that most modern westerners just aren’t going to be able to understand and that’s okay.

Some of the film’s dialogue could maybe be punched up just a little and while all the performances are serviceable I can’t say they were standouts.  Despite that the film more than makes up for that both in ambition and sheer originality.  Embrace of the Serpent is exactly the kind of movie we’re all looking for out of modern cinema: something with just the right mix of technical ambition, insights into the human condition, and political ideas that are intelligent without being didactic.  It isn’t every day that a film comes along that feels this dissimilar from all the other ongoing trends in cinema while being this confident and assured in what it’s doing.  It hits that perfect sweet spot where a movie is artistic and unique while still giving its audience plenty to grasp onto and allowing for a certain degree of entertainment value along the way.