Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review: Joe Swanberg's "Art History"

Art History. 2011. Produced, directed and edited by Joe Swanberg. Written by Joe Swanberg, Josephine Decker, Kent Osborne, Adam Wingard, and Kris Swanberg. Photographed by Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg.

Cast: Josephine Decker (Juliette), Joe Swanberg (Sam), Kent Osborne (Eric), Adam Wingard (Bill), Kris Swanberg (Hillary).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

The filming of a sex scene proves to be no simple process (if indeed it ever is) in Joe Swanberg’s Art History, a complex and unsettling examination of the creative process and the materials involved, both human and mechanical, in the making of art, as well as the psychological pressures that go along with it.  Film director Sam (Swanberg) is shooting a sex scene that presumably occurs during a couple’s one night stand.  The film opens both in medias res and in flagrante delicto, with a very explicit depiction of the characters having sex, with full frontal nudity by both participants.  We immediately know that this is not “real,” as we hear Sam’s off-screen instructions to his actors during the scene.  The film within the film has a very different visual style than the one that surrounds it; the film Sam is making is rough-hewn and handheld, not unlike the real Swanberg’s early films.  Art History itself takes the opposite stylistic tack, shot almost entirely with long, static takes, and much more meticulously framed and composed, with many scenes resembling iris shots, the image in the center surrounded by a ring of darkness.  There are a couple of shots that are strikingly lovely, especially one of a shimmering pool with patterns of sunlight that wouldn’t be out of place in an avant-garde film.

Art History invites us to read it as a self-critique of the film director, or as the title indicates, the creative artist generally, as a sort of vampire who preys on the intimate details of those who are used as the objects of this art.  Swanberg himself says as much in his director’s statement, where he writes: “This film is an apology to anyone I have hurt because of the way I work or because of my own emotional recklessness. As the title suggests, I hope all of these instances are in the past.”  The atmosphere of Art History is hermetic and claustrophobic; the film takes place entirely in the single location of the house where the film within the film is being made.  The only acknowledgement of a world outside the film set is the sound of an airplane that intrudes at one point on the scene. 

Juliette (Josephine Decker) and Eric (Kent Osborne), the actors in the scene, are told by Sam to improvise their dialog, during which they reveal details of their personal relationships during their sex scene.  Sam is mostly unconcerned with the specific details of this dialog, concentrating instead on the technical details of lighting, sound, and the physical actions of his two actors.  The intimacy of the scene bleeds into the “real life” outside the film, as Juliette and Eric explore their real attraction to one another, having actual sex off camera during the shoot.  A simultaneously humorous and disturbing moment occurs when Sam turns his attention from checking footage he has shot to peer in on Juliette and Eric as they have sex.  The film shoot runs into a major complication when it becomes clear that Sam and Juliette seem to have some sort of an off-camera relationship as well, forming an inchoate and somewhat confusing love triangle.  This sex act seems to upset the delicate balance of the shoot, as Sam’s jealousy of Juliette and Eric’s relationship gradually becomes more apparent.

Swanberg has come a long way artistically from earlier films such as Kissing on the Mouth, LOL, and Hannah Takes the Stairs; as interesting as those films were, one still got the sense that Swanberg was working out his stylistics, and that framing and composition were very much secondary concerns.  However, Swanberg right now is in the midst of a creatively fecund and boldly experimental phase of his career, and has been incredibly prolific in the past year.  Swanberg premiered three films at two major festivals within a month of each other this year: Uncle Kent at Sundance, and Art History and Silver Bullets at Berlin.  Another film, Autoerotic (co-directed with Adam Wingard), recently opened in New York, and two more films are set to be released later this year.  Art History so far is the only one of these films I’ve been able to see, but if this is any indication of the quality of his other recent work, I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing the rest of them.

Art History is now playing at the reRun Gastropub Theater through September 29.  For screening times and to purchase tickets, visit reRun’s website. The film is also included as part of film distributor Factory 25’s box set “Joe Swanberg: Collected Films 2011,” a limited-edition subscription in which buyers will receive four films over the course of a year: Silver Bullets, Art History, and the upcoming films The Zone and Privacy Setting.  This release includes bonus materials for each film, including vinyl soundtracks and set photography booklets.  For more information, and to order the set, visit Factory 25’s website.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Anne Sewitsky's "Happy, Happy"

Happy, Happy (Sykt lykkelig). 2010. Directed by Anne Sewitsky. Written by Ragnhild Tronvoll. Produced by Synnove Horsdal. Cinematography by Anna Myking. Edited by Christoffer Heie. Music by Stein Berge Svendsen. Art direction by Camilla Lindbraten. Sound design by Gunn Tove Gronsberg.

Cast: Agnes Kittelsen (Kaja), Joachim Rafaelsen (Eirik), Maibritt Saerens (Elisabeth), Henrik Rafaelsen (Sigve), Oskar Hernæs Brandsø (Theodor), Ram Shihab Ebedy (Noa), Heine Totland (Choral director).

(Note: this review has also been cross-posted on Twitch.)

Anne Sewitsky’s debut feature Happy, Happy, winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a story involving two couples, infidelity, and marital strife coming to the surface after lengthy repression, that goes down smoothly and easily – in fact, far too smoothly and easily, which is the film’s main problem.  Good performances by the four principal actors are subsumed in a scenario that dials the cutesiness and whimsy up to 11, which sits uneasily with material that seems as if it should be more traumatic for the characters.  But again, it all goes down easily – not for nothing was this film chosen as Norway’s foreign film Oscar entry.

Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), a woman who is ever the eternal optimist, despite her rather distant and chilly relationship with husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), with whom she hasn’t made love in a year – the resistance is all on his end.   Another couple, Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), moves into the house across from them.  All of them live in a remote town, a snowy place far from the city.  There doesn’t seem to be much to do in this place, and the main activity in town comes courtesy of the local church; Sigve and Elisabeth were choir singers where they came from, and they join the local choir also.  They play board games soon after they meet, revealing the dynamics of both couples.  Playing “The Couples Game,” especially, causes Kaja to reveal their lack of a sexual relationship to the other couple, and to reveal herself as someone extremely lacking in guile and completely an open book to everyone.  Her neediness and clinging to her husband, as Eirik cruelly tells her one night, is the cause of his recent lack of attraction.  However, there is another reason Eirik has distanced himself from his wife, which becomes evident in due course.  Similarly, Sigve and Elisabeth moved to this remote place because of a troubled aspect of their marriage that has lain beneath the surface of their outwardly placid demeanor, but which is revealed through their interactions with their neighbors.

All of this sounds like the premise of a Bergmanesque study of troubled marriage (a sort of Scenes from Two Marriages), but Sewitsky and her screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll opt for a much lighter tone.  This is an interesting narrative tactic, and a potentially intriguing one; unfortunately, this choice renders the proceedings rather saccharine, especially with the device of a male choir that pops up frequently between scenes with songs commenting on the action, functioning as a gospel-singing Greek chorus.  Another major miscalculation is the subplot involving Sigve and Elisabeth’s adopted Ethiopian son Noa (Ram Shihab Totland), and Kaja and Eirik’s son Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø).  While their scenes seem intended to represent how their parent’s problems are passed down to their children, they too often (especially when they play “master and slave”) come off as gratuitous, unnecessary distractions from the main storyline.

Happy, Happy opened September 16 in New York and Los Angeles. For more information, visit Magnolia Pictures' website.

Friday, September 23, 2011

"Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today" Review: Yim Soon-rye's "Rolling Home with a Bull"

Rolling Home with a Bull (Sowa hamkke yeonaenghaneun beop). 2010. Directed by Yim Soon-rye. Written by Park Kyoung-hee, based on the novel "How to Travel with a Cow" by Kim Do-yeon. Produced by Yang Dong-myung. Cinematography by Park Yeong-jun. Edited by Park Kyoung-sook. Music by Roh Young-sim. Production design by Kim Jong-woo. Art direction by Kim Min-jeong. Sound by Seo Young-june.

Cast: Kim Yeong-pil (Choi Sun-ho), Kong Hyo-jin (Lee Hyun-soo), Mek Bo (Han-soo/Peter), Jeon Guk-hwan (Sun-ho's father), Lee Yeong-yi (Sun-ho's mother), Mun Chang-gil (old Buddhist man), Jo Seung-yeon (boy monk's father), Weon Poong-yeon (cow auctioneer), Ahn Do-gyu (boy monk), Jo Moon-eui (policeman), Jeong Weon-jo (Min-gyu), Park Hye-jin (Sun-ho's aunt).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on New Korean Cinema.)

A humorous, lyrical, and philosophical wonder, Yim Soon-rye’s Rolling Home with a Bull is her best film to date, a superior addition to her already impressive body of work.  Essentially a Buddhist parable, its free-flowing peripatetic nature, following the path of a lovelorn, failed poet who seeks to escape his home and his own past, is filled with warmth and humanity, its import growing deeper with multiple viewings.  The film at first unfolds in a deceptively realistic mode, but then dreams and allegorical visions gradually take over the narrative, pulling the viewer ever so subtly into the rich fabric of its atmosphere, and making the audience a shotgun rider on the spiritual journey taken by its protagonist.

Sun-ho (Kim Yeong-pil), in the opening scenes, has had just about all he can take with the backbreaking work on his family farm, deep in the countryside of Kangwon Province.  His ears ring with the harsh tones of his bickering parents – his irascible, cantankerous father (Jeon Guk-hwan), and long-suffering mother (Lee Yeong-yi) – all day long as they plow the fields with their trusty work bull.  Sun-ho’s father harshly criticizes his son’s impractical and fruitless pursuit of poetry and his habit of coming home late drunk every night.  His mother hectors him to get married, and to follow the example of other village men who have taken Southeast Asian women as wives; in her mind, the clock is rapidly ticking, as Sun-ho is now nearly forty.  (Much of the film’s humor derives from the verbal dueling of Sun-ho’s parents, the father frequently calling his wife a “hag”; this brings to mind the real-life elderly couple of the Korean documentary Old Partner (Lee Chung-ryoul, 2008), which functioned as a paean to bucolic life.)  Finally, Sun-ho’s frustration with his parents and his own feelings of personal failure drive him to taking a pickup truck and the family’s bull out on the road, with the aim to sell the bull and use the money to go traveling.  The remainder of the film takes the form of a road movie, a familiar staple of Korean cinema, as Sun-ho is forced on a long trip because he can find no buyers for the bull.

The Buddhist content becomes ever more apparent as the story progresses; besides the bull itself, which we are told has great symbolic value in Buddhism, other recurring figures appear: a kindly old monk (Moon Chang-gil) and his “Ohmygod Temple”; a father (Jo Seung-yeon) and young son (Ahn Do-gyu) who beg to ride Sun-ho’s bull in order to gain enlightenment; and, in a late scene, the miraculous blooming of a lotus flower.  But the most important recurring figure in Sun-ho’s life is the sudden reappearance of his estranged former lover Hyun-soo (Kong Hyo-jin), who informs him of the death of her husband, who also was Sun-ho’s best friend.  Hyun-soo’s choice to marry this friend over Sun-ho, we soon learn, is the cause of his retreat from his former city life in Seoul and a deep resentment that has rendered him unable to pursue any other relationships with women.  These characters, and others, serve to guide and instruct Sun-ho on the path he must take to heal his pain and reveal a purpose to his restless wandering.

This is all guided by the unerringly masterful hand of Yim Soon-rye, aided by Park Kyoung-hee’s beautifully written screenplay, based on Kim Do-yeon’s novel How to Travel with a Cow (the film’s Korean title is How to Travel with a Bull), Park Yeong-jun's richly textured cinematography (the Red One digital images nicely capture the beauty of Korea’s countryside), and a well-placed Peter, Paul and Mary folk tune.  As usual, Yim elicits great performances, which in this case go well beyond their allegorical function; Kim Yeong-pil and Kong Hyo-jin are especially great in the drinking scenes that most immediately recall Hong Sang-soo in the way their personal histories spill out as easily as the many bottles of soju they consume.  And last but not least, the titular bull is a compelling, sympathetic character in its own right; while not achieving the sublime depths of Bresson’s Balthazar, it’s at least in the ballpark.

Rolling Home with a Bull screens at the Museum of Modern Art on September 23 at 4:30 as part of the film series “Yeonghwa: Korean FilmToday,” screening September 22 through October 2.  For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit MoMA’s website

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today" Review: Shin Su-won's "Passerby #3 (Rainbow)"

Passerby #3 (Rainbow). 2009. Written and directed by Shin Su-won. Produced by Shin Su-won and Kim Mi-jung. Cinematography by Han Tai-yong. Edited by Lee Hyun-mee. Music by Moon Sung-nam. Art direction by Kang Ji-hyun. Sound by Lee Taek-hee.

Cast: Park Hyun-young (Kim Ji-wan), Beack So-myung (Si-young), Yi Me-youn (Producer Choi), Kim Jae-rok (Sang-woo), Cho Hyun-sook (Hyun-joo), Yang Jong-hyeon (Ahn Chang-nam), Park Ji-weon, Song Nam-hyeon, Noh Yu-nan (Rainbow band members).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on New Korean Cinema.)

The trials and tribulations of being a film director, an oft-told tale in movies, gets a unique and lightly surreal spin in Shin Su-won’s Passerby #3 (Rainbow), which can be best described as the slightly milder cousin of Barton FinkPasserby #3 features an increasingly unhinged protagonist whose attempts at individual creativity are continually ground under the merciless gearwheels of the conventional wisdom of producers and investors, whose ideas of what sells seemingly shift without rhyme or reason.  Ji-wan (Park Hyun-young), after catching the filmmaking bug with her first touch of a camera, impulsively quits her day job, going all in to pursue her dream.  Cut to: five years later, with a bratty, demanding teenage son (Si-young, played by Beack So-myung), an increasingly impatient husband (Sung-woo, played by Kim Jae-rok), 15 drafts of her script “House of the Sun,” visions of imaginary ants everywhere, and constant producer rejections, Ji-wan has yet to make her debut.  Producer Choi (Yi Me-youn), an old friend of Ji-wan’s, provides her with a last lease on professional life by hiring Ji-wan at her company; but alas, the vicious cycle of script changes, rejections and enforced commercial mainstreaming begins anew. 

Inspired by the sight of a rainbow in a puddle that may or may not be a mirage, Ji-wan pursues a new idea, a music-themed film called “Rainbow,” which greatly excites her, but unfortunately meets resistance yet again from Choi and the investors.  Choi, taking her cue from her bosses, harshly criticizes Ji-wan’s “psychotic” fantasy-laden script and her “shitty imagination,” giving her the rather insulting gift of the book “How to Write a Script,” so that Ji-wan can come up with an alternate idea.  Choi soon relents, forced to try to work with Ji-wan’s original “Rainbow” script when a rival production company launches a project similar to the one Ji-wan is currently writing.  Unfortunately, Ji-wan’s travails with Choi eventually lead to the bitter conclusion that there are really no friends in the movie business.

Just as Ji-wan is bullied in the pursuit of her art, her son Si-young is bullied in the pursuit of his, by an upperclassman at school who taunts and intimidates him as they practice together in the school rock band, and swipes the new guitar Si-young’s mother bought him.  This paralleling of two creative people whose attempts to fully express their talents are thwarted by intimidating forces is but one example of the depth and sensitivity of characterization that vividly breathes life into what could have been an irredeemably clichéd scenario.

Passerby #3 (Rainbow), Shin’s debut feature, which won best Korean film at the Jeonju International Film Festival and best Asian-Middle Eastern film at the Tokyo International Film Festival (both in 2010), is at least partly autobiographical.  Similarly to her film’s protagonist, Shin quit her teaching job in 2002 to enter film school and pursue filmmaking while raising two children.  Again, like her main character, Shin had also been preparing a music-themed film before making this one, and indeed, many musical elements remain in her story.  However, Shin insists that the events occurring in her film are heavily fictionalized.  Nevertheless, based on the portrait Shin paints of the Korean film industry here, one could be forgiven for concluding that it must be a miracle that any personal, non-derivative films manage to be made in Korea at all.  Passerby #3, of course, is itself proof positive that such films are indeed being made, and are by no means rare.  The performances in the film are, for the most part, just as multifaceted as its narrative.  Park Hyun-young is especially memorable as the spineless sad sack who eventually finds the courage to be more than a bit player in her own drama, while Yi Me-youn, as the producer, reveals deeper layers that complicate her role as the villainous killer of creativity she initially seems to be.  The only character here that feels miscalculated is that of Ji-wan’s son Si-young.  As played by Beack So-myung, Si-young comes off as such an obnoxious jerk, and is so merciless in his verbal take-downs of his mother, that it’s difficult to feel sympathy for his artistic struggles.  Still, this only slightly mars what is otherwise an affecting, impressive introduction to an interesting new director well-worth watching.

Passerby #3 (Rainbow) screens at the Museum of Modern Art on September 22 at 4:30 and September 25 at 4:30 as part of "Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today," a small but impressive snapshot of recent Korean cinema.  A joint presentation of MoMA and the Korea Society, the series runs from September 22 through October 2.  For more information on this and other films in the series, and to purchase tickets, visit MOMA's website.