Sunday, January 27, 2013

Caesar Must Die

Art and Lifers                                 
by Mark Dispenza

Life imitating art imitating life is at the heart of Caesar Must Die, a feature documentary from Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio (Kaos). 

Intrigued by reports of a staging of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at a maximum security prison in Rome, the Taviani brothers decided to bring their cameras and follow the six months of rehearsals leading up to the play's premiere performance.  The result is a stimulating view of the power of art to promote introspection and inspire its participants to loftier ideals. 

The film opens to the final scenes of the play's premiere performance before a live audience of friends, family and supporters invited to the prison auditorium for the occasion.  The triumph of their accomplishment is reflected on the faces of the performers as they are rewarded by a standing ovation. 

And then they are returned one-by-one to their cells, the home where they will live for all or most of their lives, for these are hard men, imprisoned for "life meaning life" or lengthy sentences of 25 years or more for crimes ranging from drug trafficking to murder.  Some are members of Italy's notorious Camorra criminal syndicate or other mafia organizations. 

Giovanni Arcuri (Cesare) and Francesco Carusone (fortune teller)

One of the most chilling aspects for me was the capacity of these men to charm the unwary and win their confidence.  They are natural actors and undoubtedly, that ability supported and enabled their prior criminal livelihoods.  Their charisma served as camouflage that masked their horrific intent from the victims until the trap was sprung, and there was no longer an escape.  It was frighteningly easy to cheer them on and root for their success.  Perhaps it's in our nature to believe in the good intentions of our fellow human beings.  We are willing to overlook their shortcomings and expect the result we want. 

These men were opportunists in life and rarely considered the long-term consequences of their actions on both themselves and others, but the rehearsals made it obvious that the actors work of inhabiting their roles forced them to look deeper and explore the motivations of their characters, and in so doing, learn about themselves. 

Salvatore Striano (Bruto) and Giovanni Arcuri

There are captured moments during rehearsal when a scene brought out emotions that tied the context of a line to something from the inmates' own lives.  At one point Bruto breaks down and is unable to continue,  as he speaks words that bring a memory of his past life flooding back to the present.  Cesare and one of the play's plotters almost come to blows when the inmate's lines hit too close to home, and Cesare becomes angered at what he sees as the inmate's real-life betrayal.  

Maurilio Giaffreda (Ottavio)

Shakespeare wrote about the tragedy of human lives and the consequence of their choices, and while he chose high-profile subjects for his characters, the lessons were easily transferrable to those who sat in the audience.  It is the source of the power of his work, and the reason it continues to resonate centuries beyond his passing.

The power of art to transform is brought home when Cassio is returned to his cell following the ovation at the premiere.  He is lost in deep thought and feels obvious regret when he says, "Ever since I discovered art, this cell has truly become a prison." 

Caesar Must Die was Italy's submission to the Oscars in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, but alas, did not make the final cut. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Rust and Bone

A Time to Fight, A Time to Love       
by Mark Dispenza

Two people reeling from disasters, economic and physical, find their way in the arms of each other in Rust and Bone.

The French language feature reunites filmmaker Jacques Audiard and screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, who are best known for their collaboration on the 2010 Oscar-nominated foreign language film, A Prophet.  They adapted Rust and Bone from a story by Craig Davidson, an up-and-coming young writer whose stories often dwell in the dark world of fighters and drug addicts.  Like Davidson's writing, Audiard's film is a raw and unapologetic look at humanity in crisis.

Matthias Schoenaerts with Armand Verdure

Ali, played by Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead), is broke and emotionally destitute when he leaves his drug-dealing wife in Belgium, headed with his young son, Sam, to his sister's house in the south of France to find some sense of stability and family.  Ali's prospects are slim, with little education and no skills beyond his training as a prizefighter.  His sudden arrival presents complications for his sister and her husband, who are going through their own economic travails.

A chance encounter at the night club where Ali works as a bouncer introduces him to Stephanie, played by France's Oscar-winning superstar, Marion Cotillard (La vie en Rose).  Their worlds could hardly be any more different.  Stephanie trains killer whales and performs in a show at the local marine park.  While it's obvious that she has some emotional issues of her own, they pale in comparison to the future that's in store for her.

In the middle of a show, one of the whales gets overly rambunctious and causes an accident that leads to the loss of both of Stephanie's legs below the knees.  She is devastated and sees her life as over.  Alone and emotionally despondent, she is driven to reach out to someone, and that person is Ali.

The two meet again for the first time since their encounter at the night club.  Unlike others who are obviously uncomfortable with Stephanie's disfigurement, Ali hardly seems to notice and treats her like his other girlfriends.  He pushes her to live normally, even to the point of carrying her into the ocean so she can swim again.

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts

But Ali is also a man-child.  He lives for each day with no consideration for the future and behaves as he feels in the moment, whether appropriate or not.  His attitude keeps him trapped inside his gritty, struggling existence.  One feels for little Sam, who must find his way in the care, or sometimes not, of a father little more mature than he is.

Stephanie wants more from Ali than to be one of his girlfriends.  She wants his full and undivided love.  One of Ali's missteps brings his emotional struggles with Sam, Stephanie and his sister to crisis, ultimately leading to a climatic event that will force him to make the choice he's been avoiding, and hopefully to becoming a responsible man to Stephanie and father to Sam.

Audiard's film is physically raw, but not in a crass or revolting way.  The scenes of Ali's fights and Stephanie's struggle to adapt to her new physical limitations have a quality that combines the terrible beauty of their trials with an emotional journey from tragedy to triumph.  One of the most beautiful and allegorical scenes in the film is a bloody fight that Ali is losing until he sees Stephanie, struggling with a cane to walk to him on her new prosthetic legs.

Rust and Bone resonates emotionally with critics and festival-goers with whom I've discussed it, and it appears on a number of their favorites lists for the year  The story has a quality that encapsulates the outward struggles of our times with a human-scale response that reminds us that despite our limitations, it's love that unites us and will lead us to triumph in the end.  Rust and Bone is one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences of the year.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Subtext in Subtitles

Our Favorite Foreign Films of 2012    

There are a lot of gems to be discovered in the cinema of other countries, and those of us who routinely seek  out the visions of others, unfazed by subtitles, experience a wealth of soulful artistry that likely won't be recaptured in the Hollywood remake.

Now that video streaming has come into vogue, perhaps more people will be able to visit the imaginary worlds of foreign auteurs, without the need to exert tremendous effort to see them in limited screenings or at the few film festivals, like Palm Springs, that go out of the way to assemble the best of world cinema in a single location.

For those who want to share in the wonder, the contributors of Indie Film Guru have once again assembled our lists of top five favorites from the past year.

Mark's List

1. A Royal Affair (Denmark) - Something's rotten for the people of Denmark, and the progressive new queen and her husband's physician want to do something about it.  Standing in their way is her mentally ill husband, the king, and a powerful coalition of privileged gentry who benefit from the way things are.  If we paid more attention to history, would we keep fighting these battles?  Probably.  After all, we're only human.

2. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (UK) - The magic of thinking big is at the heart of one of the most entertaining films of the year. Although its early release date may have put it out-of-mind for most awards this year, the Golden Globes recognized the film in three major categories. The past few years left a lot of us in a rut. This story resonates with a message about the importance of believing in our dreams and having the courage to realize them.  

3. Holy Motors (France) - A chaotic film that is one of the most inspired works of artistic vision to hit cinema in a very long time, Holy Motors defied me to hate its convoluted storyline and almost excessive attention to cinematic inside jokes.  I couldn't.  Director Leos Carax has painted a mesmerizing canvas around Denis Levant that delivers an unsurpassed showcase for a very talented actor.  The  visual contrast and social commentary that permeates every frame heightened my enjoyment of the film.  

4. The Impossible (Spain) - Made by a Spanish director, written by Spanish writers and based on a true story about a Spanish family caught up in the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the filmmakers chose to make this as an international film starring an international cast, with dialogue largely in English.  Like the family at the center of the drama, this story will cause you to reconsider your life priorities and relationships.  Cringe-inducing, realistic disaster effects and a standout performance by young actor, Tom Holland, made it worth my while.  

5. Amour (Austria) - This film has garnered an unsurpassed cache of awards and nominations this year.  Its depiction of an elderly couple at the end of their lives is captured in a masterful blending of art and realism, and the lead actors deliver two of the best minimalist acting performances of the year.  To director Michael Haneke's credit, the story doesn't manipulate us with overtly sentimental gimmickry.  It doesn't need to.  

Zac's List

1. Holy Motors (France) – Hands down this was my favorite of the year.  Left off many Top 10 lists and ignored by the Academy, this film will stand the test of time with fellow cineastes for years to come. It was a letdown that Denis Lavant was ignored by all major awards. Not only is it the best performance of the year, it could easily be one of the best performances ever put to film. It has stuck with me for over a month since my first viewing, and I can’t wait to watch it again.

2. Amour (Austria) – There is a reason the Academy nominated this film from helmer Michael Henke in multiple categories, including best foreign language film and best picture.  This hasn't been accomplished by any film in over a decade. It's a depressing story, as I stated in my review a few weeks back, but the performances by two of France’s finest actors are to be cherished, especially by Emmanuelle Riva, who also landed a best actress nomination from the Academy.

3. Bullhead (Belgium) – Nominated for best foreign language film last year, this film ends up on my list now because it didn’t receive a theatrical run in the USA until this year. A dark and seedy film that covers the underground beef hormone trade, the real story is that of the lead, played by Matthias Schoenaerts (who has another wonderful performance opposite Marion Cotillard in this year’s Rust and Bone). It is a twisted character study of a man dealing with a traumatic event that happened early in his childhood and forever changed him.

4. The Raid: Redemption (Indonesia) – A modern day twist on the Die Hard-style contained thriller, it almost feels like a video game, but it is so much more than that. As the good guys battle against an endless barrage of bad guys, each level of the drug den becomes more complex and the battles more challenging, leading to one of the best-choreographed fists fights of the last couple of years. This film is already getting the Hollywood remake treatment, where hopefully they’ll give a little more depth to the characters, but that isn't a complaint against the film.  It still works.

5. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (USA/ Japan) – This is a beautifully shot documentary that will whet the appetite of the viewer with the exquisite care and perfection of  its subject, Jiro Ono. He has one of the most sought-after sushi restaurants in all of Japan, where a night of pre-selected sushi will set the connoisseur back almost $400 USD.  The film also covers the story of his two sons, who have to live in the shadow of one of the greatest sushi chefs to ever live, waiting for him to retire and maybe one day live up to the expectations set before them. This is a film about perfection and stepping out of the shadows - a subject matter that goes deeper than fish.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

2012: No End in Sight

A Look Back at Our Favorite Indies

The year 2012 not only failed to end with the prophesied apocalypse, but now we get to relive it continuously on the small screen with three months of endless, and endlessly televised, award shows. As with most awards, the results will be based on true mastery of the medium, the politics of the awarding institution and the publicity savvy of the film's representatives.

But no matter what the pundits say, some things remain true. First, all of the nominees will by most measures be deserving of the top award. As it's often said, "it's truly an honor to be nominated."

Second, some truly deserving films will be overlooked. That's where politics and publicity have the most impact.

Third and foremost, it doesn't really matter which films come out on top. Ultimately the best films are those that speak to you. It always comes down to the story and how it's executed, and what it means to you.

With that in mind, and take it for what it's worth, here are our contributors' lists of their top five favorite American independent films of 2012...


1. Moonrise Kingdom - This is my favorite in a growing list of fun, quirky, humorous and touching stories from filmmaker Wes Anderson. A topnotch cast, Anderson's superbly engaging method of visual storytelling, and a period storyline that brought back memories of youth, gave me the most fun I had at the movies all year. Although adult themes run throughout the story, Anderson grabbed me with his take on the imagination of youthful innocence in conflict with growing awareness of a scary adult world.

2. The Master - I admit that this is a movie for actors and eggheads, the former for some of the best casting of the year and Joaquin Phoenix's award-worthy performance, and the latter for one of the best films ever made that addresses that age-old human question, "what is the purpose of my existence?" The story was a truly ambitious undertaking, and I believe that filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson achieved something nearly impossible. Many viewers left the film scratching their heads and complaining that they didn't understand it. I believe I did get it, and all I can say is "wow!"

3. Silver Linings Playbook - We look back with horror and revulsion to the way people with physical disabilities were hidden away and forgotten in times long past. I believe that future generations will look back on our time with equal revulsion to the way we mindlessly drug, ignore and imprison the mentally ill. This is a funny and relentlessly entertaining romantic comedy, with a heavyweight back story that flies below the radar. Laugh it up, feel good and recognize the reality.

4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Filmmaker Stephen Chbosky effectively adapts his own coming-of-age novel in a film that captures both the exhilarating highs and the devastating emotional lows of the teen years. This is a story where laughs derive from the recognition of difficult truths, and not from the sexual thrills and cheap bathroom humor of most films in this genre. Chbosky proves that there is still much material to be mined in the daily struggles of ordinary young people. The best is yet to come.

5. Beasts of the Southern Wild - Okay, I admit to rooting for the Louisiana home team, and that this is not the best-crafted movie of the year by any stretch, but there's a reason the film continues to show up on a lot of best-of-the-year lists. It always comes down to a good story, and Benh Zeitlan's magical blending of fantasy and gritty reality give us a compelling tale of humanity in the most challenging of circumstances. These are real people, including the non-actors who played the leads.


1. The Cabin in the Woods - A horror movie tops my list on a site supporting the best in indie film? You betcha. Writer/director Drew Goddard (along with co-writer Joss Whedon) provided one of the most joyous and wonderful film-going experiences this year. Once this story of college-aged co-eds hits its stride, the film unfolds perfectly with a nod and a wink to the viewer, while playing with and against typical horror conventions and stereotypes. The film is more of a comedy, but the over-the-top and beyond, bloody third act should quench the thirst of most horror fans.

2. Silver Linings Playbook - When Pat (Bradley Cooper) moves back with his parents, he's committed to getting his life on track after a short stint in the mental hospital. After he meets recently widowed Tiffany (in an award-worthy performance by Jennifer Lawrence), the two use each other as a coping mechanism. Robert De Niro returns to the screen in a powerful role as Pat's father. The care and craft of David O. Russell's script never panders to those with mental disabilities and has one of the most uplifting and crowd-pleasing finales.

3. Compliance - I reviewed this under-the-radar movie earlier this year during its limited theatrical run. To be fair, the film will polarize audiences with the stupidity and choices of some of the characters, but it is inspired by real accounts from across the United States. That makes it all the more chilling. After limited support from the distributor, Ann Dowd recently sent out screeners to Oscar voters in hopes of landing a much-deserved nomination for her role as the fast food restaurant manager who complies with authority without question.

4. Cloud Atlas - Some might not consider this an indie, as it had a big ad campaign and was released by the main arm of Warner Bros, but this film from Tim Tykwer and the Wachowskis was independently financed and produced to the tune of one-hundred million dollars. It has to be one of the most ambitious indie films to date, tackling a novel with multiple storylines and timelines that all intersect flawlessly. While many viewers have been turned off and confused by the constant intercutting between all the storylines, as opposed to the more linear structure of the novel, the film captures how little moments can affect the world for generations to come.

5. Ruby Sparks - After making a splash back in 2006 with their indie darling, Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris mark their return as a directing duo. The titular character, Ruby, has some of the most manic swings of any young starlet on-screen this year. To go from the pixie dream girl to her creator's worst nightmare in a flash, Zoe Kazan created a character with multiple layers and flaws. The relationship, played by real-life lovers Kazan and Paul Dano, is pitch-perfect. Many creative minds would love to control their future and destiny, but as Dano's character quickly finds, that power could end up being one's worst nightmare.