The Ultimate Trip [LA FLOR]

“But in that case, the entire magical, mysterious world in which I move would be shattered in a moment. And that’s not possible.”
– Colin, Out 1

“And who is this kind of Sultan who appears to have devoted his life to them?”
– Gatto, La Flor

At first glance, La Flor, Mariano Llinás’ magnum opus created in collaboration with the actresses Pilar Gamboa, Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes, and Valeria Correa, lacks the unity —structurally, tonally — that typifies so many of the greatest films of all time. An unashamed anthology film in every way aside from its conception by a single director, it spans no less than six genres/modes of filmmaking across its six episodes; counting the seven fifteen-minute intermissions and a luxurious forty-minute end-credit sequence, it runs 868 minutes (over 14 and a half hours), and takes as its very aim the exploration and co-opting of these disparate forms. Each part has its own flavor — a mummy B-movie, a musical “with a touch of mystery,” a spy movie (which itself spans multiple genres across five hours), an unclassifiable hybrid that piles something like four metafictions upon one another, a reimagining of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, and a obscured visualization of an apocryphal text about 19th-century women held captive by Native Americans, respectively – starring the four actresses in all but the fifth episode in wildly varying roles. As might be expected, the process of making this film took ten years, shot episode-by-episode and piecemeal amid other films and across multiple continents. As part of the concept, the first four episodes tell stories that have no endings, the fifth tells a complete story fashioned from a famously unfinished film, and the sixth has an ending but no beginning.

Understandably, a project like this has never been made before, and in many ways it stands alone amongst other films; even something as sprawling as Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour Out 1, one of the films most commonly invoked in connection with this work — which in many (but not all) ways feels like its true spiritual successor — was shot in just six weeks. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a less outwardly focused all-timer: Out 1, for all its extended theatrical rehearsals and narrative digressions, emanates an overwhelming dread and fear in post-’68 Paris; the famously bifurcated shoot of Mulholland Dr. only enhanced the strange seductive pull of that dream factory known as Hollywood. So what makes La Flor the overwhelming, all-encompassing, electrifying masterpiece that it is?

Of course, one must start with the experience — I saw it in the largely de rigeur formulation of three parts, over the weekend that comprised the Locarno in Los Angeles 2019 festival — as with most films past a certain runtime. In a sense, La Flor both initially precludes but eventually invites a sense of complete and total discovery: the genres are laid out in Llinás’s introduction at the start of the film, giving the viewer a general road-map of the destination, complete with the diagram that gives the film its name. However, as with many of the best, most fascinating films, the journey is considerably stranger than initial appearances would suggest. Part of this is due to the slightly outmoded or schlocky nature of the first three genres in the film, especially in the context of world arthouse cinema, which consequently leads to a certain adjustment in expectations regarding rhythm — this is a far cry from slow cinema in every way except temporal duration — and how narratively “conventional” Llinás’s film might end up actually being. As might be expected, however, Llinás’s sensibility, while deeply committed to the intentions of genre in a way that proves vital for the film’s mastery, is too protean to play it all entirely like the films of each genre’s heyday, something which only becomes clearer in the later episodes: the Lewtonian mummy movie is inflected with a Cat People-esque subplot, the mystery mentioned in connection with the musical turns out to be a scientific cabal obsessed with using scorpion venom as a possible elixir for eternal youth, and so on. This approach, of course, is in keeping with Llinás’s previous film from 2008, the great four-hour Historias extraordinarias, which used its starting narratives as a jumping-off point to delve into a whole wealth of perspectives and stories.

What sets La Flor apart, however, is its recognition of the infinite possibilities that come with what might appear to be the rigid framework of genre. For all the invention of Historias extraordinarias — whose general sensibility is reprised multiple times throughout this film, most notably in the second half of episode 4 — it was bound more-or-less to the “real world,” and its concerns were strictly with the recognizable. No such compulsion is present here, and unexpected divergences arise, not just in the macro premise but in the micro: the sudden emergence of a character to the forefront of a narrative, a transformation of a certain group of characters that takes place with little prior warning. More importantly, this conception of a film world as something that is designed to be disrupted accomplishes the rare feat of pairing two distinctly contrasting things — continually upending the viewer’s conception of the world even as they recognize it is a world in which such things can (and logically should happen) — which are both fully thrilling in their own right, but produce an even greater frisson when placed in concert.

It might be useful to invoke Out 1 once more here. While Rivette’s film, certainly has more of an explicitly political bent built into the characters’ (mostly) unspoken reckoning with the current sociopolitical state, it shares that same fundamental mode of exploration. Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Colin and Juliet Berto’s Frédérique are perhaps the most visible instigators, and their investigative presence is echoed at various points in La Flor, most notably with Casterman in episode 3 and Gatto in episode 4. But to suggest that the other characters involved aren’t attempting a similar form of exploration would be inaccurate; in many ways such exploration is the attempt to make sense of their world, whether in an intellectual, artistic, or other such pursuit. Thus, the extended theatrical exercises explore both in a literal sense for the viewer, testing — pleasurably for some including myself, negatively for many others — the bounds of duration and observation, and in a more ideological sense, with each motion conjuring its own strange reflection and inflection.

As it is for one masterpiece, so it is for the other. The creative relationship that eventually created La Flor stemmed from Llinás attending a play in 2006 put on by Gamboa, Carricajo, Paredes, and Correa as part of their theater troupe Piel de Lava (which is still operating today). Inspired by the quintet’s shared love for fiction in almost primoridial form, Llinás’s intention was, according to his Cinema Scope interview with Jordan Cronk, to “make pictures with them a genre in itself. So that’s when I had the idea to make one picture that would be all the pictures — every picture.”

Despite these origins, La Flor conspicuously eschews the overtly theatrical moments of Out 1 — which, among other things, is driven by a bevy of similarly transcendent performances, although they stem from multiple traditions including cinema (Léaud) and theater and involve a larger, more consistently characterized cast — or the Shakespeare-riffing oeuvre of Llinás’s compatriot Matías Piñeiro, who (along with nearly every figure in Argentine cinema) helped out on the film and whose films have featured Paredes and Carricajo. Instead, Llinás’s concerns appear to remain consistently cinematic; though certain other artistic traditions are invoked like the music industry in episode 2, and he himself describes a strong affinity with painting, such influences are inherently associated with the artifice that the cinematic apparatus provides.

This extends to Llinás’s visual schema, which favors extreme close-ups in shallow focus, frequently abstracting the background, both items and faces, into a textured blur. This approach, which remains more-or-less constant for at least the first three episodes, and opens up only slightly in the rest of the film, was adopted in large part due to the limited budget, offering the potential for suggesting things like killer cats, explosions, and the like. But it also feels truly indicative of the sense of exploration involved in the film; the rack focus is the most obvious element, holding on a solitary face in the very immediate foreground for an unconventionally long time before shifting to the background to allow the viewer, previously waiting in anticipation, to see the reaction. At every single juncture, the viewer is invited in to participate in this strange and long endeavor, to piece together both the moment-and-moment interplay and the larger connections that La Flor weaves.

This expansive view translates to the film, which both pushes boundaries and consciously returns to past “outdated” forms, exploring both the concrete past and ephemeral future of cinema. That the central actresses had little cinematic experience (Llinás: “most of them had not even shot one picture. So we had to make their career. This picture would be their career. You’ve seen their lives, and through these images you now understand their process.”) only furthers this sense of a past (invoked in the long-standing collaboration the actresses had) and future (the episodes that these women and Llinás will continue to make, and which the viewer knows are to come) existing simultaneously.

Even the actual text of the film bears this out: in episode 3, each of the four women’s characters gets her own “origin” story. Though they all end up as spies, their narratives leading up to the point when the viewer first meets them differ drastically in both narrative and generic treatment: Gamboa’s is a traditional spy plot, complete with double and triple-agents; Correa’s is a South American revolutionary legend; Paredes’ is one of doomed, unspoken attraction between two assassins, and incidentally one of the best love stories I’ve ever seen; and Carricajo’s is an arduous mole hunt through Siberia. Each of them is brought to embody the force of these genres, and in placing them as part of the same group synthesizes them into a heterogenous blend; as with the episodes, the individual stories fascinate and move, but their impact is exponential when placed together. One of the many unspoken arguments brought forth by La Flor, and one of the most moving, is that each of these modes, whether it be a B-movie or a remake of one of the most iconic films by one of the greatest directors, has its place and should be recognized for its genuine worth in the cinema.

For this reason, though it is certainly possible to do so, it seems unwise to watch any of these in total isolation. Their cumulative impact operates on an emotional level, whether it comes in the levity of the first scene in episode 4, where the actresses (playing a version of themselves) openly bemoan the French dialogue they had to speak in the previous episode (both in La Flor and in La Araña, the film within the film) or in the genuine appreciation of Llinás’s personal appearances, as he thanks the audience for their patience in watching his film. Perhaps most open-hearted of all is the final passage of episode 4, where the four actresses appear by themselves amid nature. Scored to the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, it is no simple portraiture: each of them are obscured in some way, whether it be by their distance from the camera, their facing away from it, or the foliage in the way. It is, like many of the greatest moments in the film, revealing, mysterious, slightly embarrassing, and transcendent all at once. This, perhaps, is the greatest achievement of La Flor: a 14-hour film that lacks any trace of insincerity, pompousness, or bloat, instead emerging in every single moment as a monument to a vision and to four immensely talented actresses. May it last forever.

Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang)

break

One important, vital aspect of my heritage that took me far too long to understand was the role of the Taiwanese dialect, specifically Taiwanese Hokkien. For many years, my parents spoke to each other semi-frequently in a language that sounded similar to the Mandarin that I knew, but which was generally unintelligible to me. I must confess that I still know very few words of Hokkien, but more important to me is the context in which my parents used it. Whether they intended it as such or not, I always felt as if they were keeping some form of secret from me, discussing things in front of my sister and me that we couldn’t understand, whether we wanted to or not.

Taipei Story, Edward Yang’s second masterful feature, doesn’t traffic in this level of a language barrier, but its use of language is no less revealing. In its portrayal of two estranged partners – Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien) and Chin (Tsai Chin) – living in a rapidly modernizing Taipei, the film switches frequently and consistently between Hokkien and Mandarin Chinese. Without perhaps no exceptions, the conversations that only involve Lung, whether it be with childhood friends or elderly acquaintances, utilize Hokkien, while all conversations involving Chin – except those, crucially, with her parents – use Mandarin.

Though it is never stated outright in the film, my general impression of the role of Mandarin in Taiwan is that of the language of modernity – notably, Hokkien was banned in schools until roughly around the time this film was made. Accordingly, the business world of Chin and the deadbeat society of Lung are carried out in entirely different manners of speaking.

Yang is wise to never make Taipei Story a simple story of the struggle between the memories of the past, which Lung is never able to shake off, and the promises of the future. The conflict is complicated by both parties: Lung constantly tries to move to the United States, in a way not dissimilar to that of my own father, while Chin falls in with the youthful biker gangs that her younger sister hangs out with. Both members of the couple, to put it plainly, strive to capture and retain something of their youth while still prospering in the modern capitalist society of the mid-’80s.

In Yang’s vision of Taipei, this seems to be little more than a fantasy, as one has to choose between one or the other. But of course, this is never approached in a didactic or obvious manner, allowing for, as the film puts it, fleeting moments of hope to linger. That the film is maybe the most tragic of the Yangs I’ve seen is a testament to this sense of latent fatalism, of people too caught in the past, whether they realize it or not.

Through these inextricably entwined journeys, Yang shoots with his particular combination of intimacy and distance that never fails to surprise and move me. A shot from the other side of a mammoth office building, two perfectly rhymed tracking shots, numerous gazes down onto the busy streets of Taipei, all coalescing perfectly with the immaculately posed figures quietly discussing troubles in an apartment, or on a playground, or at a bar.

Those figures move inexorably towards their ends – one trading the world of physical architecture for the digital architecture of big data, the other beaten in a final attempt to prove his own sense of self-worth over the generation already overtaking him – but they do so with an inordinate sense of care on the part of Yang. Not one interaction, one small gesture ultimately feels out of place, and what resonates is the forlorn face of Lung, the implacability of Chin, each equally conveying an overwhelming sadness.

Certain Tendencies [REAR WINDOW]

blinded

It is perhaps no accident that the one apartment glimpsed more than once that is not explored by the roving eyes of Jeffries (and, of course, the viewer) is the one of what appears to be a loving and relatively normal family. Implicitly, the audience can grasp that what attracts the voyeur is brokenness in all its forms, whether it be creative rut, the fading luster of a new marriage, a hunger for something more in life, or simply the damn heat of summer in Greenwich Village. And from those elemental building blocks, those concerns which when combined form a microcosm of society at large, Hitchcock weaves something truly indelible, something which might even be perfect.

Rear Window may even surpass its legendary status purely based on how much it contains beyond the justly famous murder mystery plot. This is patently obvious from the objects of focus throughout; the case of Lars Thornwald isn’t even spotlighted until around the end of the first third, and Hitchcock places equal emphasis until then on the action happening inside the apartment as he does on the voyeurism – though, of course, the latter informs the former to no small extent. Lisa and Stella especially are incredibly thought-through characters, neither falling into a set stereotype but instead emerging as credible sources of both repartee and a tenderness that Jeffries struggles to reciprocate, turning instead to the outside world.

And it is indeed a world, populated with people who overcome the lack of audible dialogue to inhabit a general sense of longing and not-so-private conflict. The degree to which Hitchcock establishes each object of attention is such that when the silence is broken, and the camera leaves the confines of the apartment for the first time, it feels like the natural course of action. The viewer’s sympathies lie with the grieving couple not only because of their loss but because they feel like more than just objects.

It goes without saying that the outside goings-on reflect the inner turmoil of Jeffries to no small extent. More than anything, it is in the patterns and routines that he observes and his own pattern that he is forced to adopt due to both external influences (his confining cast) and his own obsession. Miss Torso dances and entertains men, the newlywed husband smokes forlornly out the window, the couple struggle to weather the elements, and all the while Jeffries can do nothing but watch. No wonder he fixates on the murder, a break in the monotony that, by proxy, affects the whole complex.

The Lost City of Z

jungle

Originally intended for Seattle Screen Scene.

The Lost City of Z has landed in the cinephile community with the kind of impact typically reserved for the most lauded or debated of auteurs. In some sense, this is expected: its director, James Gray, has steadily accrued a small but intensely dedicated following for his character-driven crime dramas and plain dramas like We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008), and his breakout The Lost City of Z (2013). Each of these films, as described in interviews with the writer-director, is almost self-consciously a throwback to a more classical Hollywood model of filmmaking–complete with a strict adherence to shooting on 35mm–but they are all distinctly American. All of his past films have taken place in immigrant communities in the US, and are inherently tied to some sense of overwhelming longing.

Gray’s latest film continues this sense of “classicism” (a dangerous but somewhat fitting term to use in relation to Gray), though the setting is changed to two locations: London and the uncharted jungles of the Amazon. The film follows the story of adventurer and soldier Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunman), structuring the film around his three expeditions to the Amazon over a period of two decades in the early twentieth century, as he attempted to discover a legendary lost civilization deep within the jungle. Crucially, however, The Lost City of Z is not a film that concerns itself solely with the act of depicting the explorations or distilling it to a descent into madness a la Herzog or Apocalypse Now. Gray’s path, like Fawcett’s, is far more knotted.

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I Am Not Your Negro

protest

Especially at this moment of social crisis, it seems a moot point to dismiss relevancy as an insignificant part of any film’s power, something that goes double for a documentary about a subject of this sort. For my own part, I saw I Am Not Your Negro in the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at an arthouse theater. The audience was appropriately lively, and I would easily concede that I was swept up in the emotions of the crowd. But I Am Not Your Negro is no mere piece of rabble-rousing agitprop, nor is it heedlessly provocative for the sake of “sending a message.” It is relentlessly sober, contemplative, yet simmering with all too deserving anger, as Raoul Peck dives with incisiveness into a uniquely American kind of of injustice through one of the nation’s most singular minds.

It should be emphasized here that there is a harmony between subject and filmmaker that I have very rarely seen. Peck and James Baldwin are both shown to be equal parts celar-minded and wily, making points with wit that never masks an almost deadly seriousness. For Baldwin, this manifests itself largely in his archival interviews (which are contrapuntal to Jackson’s voiceover, of which much will be discussed later), and for Peck, this is shown in his sense of montage. It is sometimes almost hilariously literal (displaying footage of Mars while Baldwin describes the dissociation of whites from blacks) and sometimes breathtakingly damning, as he lets various scenes from media play in full and employs just the appropriate amount of current-day footage without letting it become distractiong.

But, arguably, I Am Not Your Negro‘s most valuable asset is Samuel L. Jackson’s revelatory voiceover performance of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, which forms the backbone of the documentary and was supposed to be a personal retelling of the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Jackson is extraordinarily, heartbreakingly subdued here, his trademark fire and brimstone compressed into a voice just barely recognizable. It is subdued, but it broils with repressed anger to a degree that every quiver, every pause conveys a bottomless pit of sorrow and emotion. Peck wisely alternates between this proposal of a book and the more energetic archival footage, and in doing so creates a cohesive and often troubling whole.

It is entirely false to say that Peck is didactic in his filmmaking or arguments, and only rarely does it feel as if he is “just” making his point to the audience. His form of rhetoric is couched in categorical terms (there are various parts named like “Heroes”), and it slowly builds throughout the film as the evidence mounts and Baldwin’s (and Peck’s) views are explicated further and further. There are the bravura scenes, such as an extended excerpt from Baldwin’s appearance on the Dick Cavett show where he rightfully excoriates a foolish professor who claims that Baldwin has a similar experience to him. But there are also the more damning and castigatory (and usually the weaker) scenes, like one that explicitly condemns Gary Cooper and Doris Day for being the emblems of comfortable white society.

But it is entirely to I Am Not Your Negro‘s benefit that Peck stops short of laying out a clear-cut message, as he recognizes the issues at hand are far more complex and important than befits a sound bite. Baldwin himself says “the history of America is the history of the Negro in America. And it’s not a pretty picture,” and the film makes the case in astonishingly powerful and almost unanimously persuasive terms. It draws no quarter in its insight, in its anger, and its genuine call for change.

O.J.: Made in America

****1/2 (Tour-de-force)

O.J.: Made in America is not a call to revolution. It is not a smear campaign or an overt attack on the LAPD or any other group; instead it is a deeply analytical, deeply felt portrait of one man in the United States, but that is all that Ezra Edelman needs to create this Rorschach test of a film. It is a tragedy, an elegy, and a document of the most exacting and inclusive scope. Perhaps it is unwise to define a film in such lofty terms, but O.J.: Made in America demands it by virtue of its vital length and its monumental subject matter.

The documentary’s success is all the more surprising because it arises from the ESPN 30 for 30 unit, which exclusively deals in sports documentaries. This is not to denigrate the series as a whole (I’ve seen few, if any of the other documentaries) but to illustrate the improbability of the film’s scope. O.J. Simpson, crucially, isn’t treated as a simple entry point for the movie’s larger observations on L.A. or even the entire nation; he is given equal weight as a larger-than-life figure, and Edelman presents the sometimes unbelievable events of his improbable life with the same soberness as the boiling racial tensions of the “real world”.

This dichotomy between Simpson’s life, as his football stardom propelled him to nationwide fame and his private life spiraled, and the continual struggle of the black community in Los Angeles is perhaps the true subject of the documentary. Edelman balances the two narratives with a keen sense of balance in both runtime and content. Moving back and forth just before the viewer registers just how much time has been spent on each part, the documentary fits an almost equivalent amount of information—and, even more importantly, context—in each corresponding section. In the first three parts, where the divide is much clearer, the intersection of O.J. and L.A. is rare (most notably in the bravura 1968 section, which juxtaposes the glory of O.J.’s Heisman year and corresponding media appearances with the anger and numerous assassinations outside the USC bubble), but by the time of his trial in the closing minutes of the third part, the line is erased.

The trial is undoubtedly the most publicized and exciting part of the documentary, and the documentary delves deeply into the multiple corrosive influences and mistakes that led to the infamous verdict. But O.J.: Made in America‘s status as a look into the two subjects is made even more clear in the surrounding timespans. From the impossibly important events, such as the Watts or Rodney King riots, to the almost irrelevant, like O.J.’s movie career or his wildly successful (and illuminating) representation of Hertz car rentals, Edelman incorporates them all, teasing out the inherent racial tensions and compromises that seemed to engulf practically everything that O.J. and L.A. did over nearly half a century. The documentary never feels static or removed from the present day for many reasons, but one less evident one is the use of new non-interview footage. Often taking the form of gliding helicopter shots over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or of L.A. in general, they are used to link the stories of Simpson and Los Angeles together with no small amount of fluidity.

Without a narrator, the meat of O.J.: Made in America is the archival footage and interview that give the documentary life, and an overwhelming amount has assembled in service of a very clear thesis: to show how O.J., in some ways, is Los Angeles, embodying all of its contradictions and tensions between while covering it with a smiling facade. No aspect of O.J.’s life, and probably few of the most important events in Los Angeles, are left out, and it seems as if almost every key player (and many people on the periphery) have been convinced into appearing on camera. Footage from O.J.’s football career all the way to his current incarceration in Nevada—audaciously placed at the very beginning to throw away any illusions about his ultimate fate—is included, and not dissimilar to other narrative films it lends an added sense of poignancy to see Simpson age over the years as he walked further and further away from the light. Edelman follows him everywhere, even going down the rabbit hole of his wild living in Miami after the trial, and creates a truly human portrait of this at times mythical man, capturing his genuinely good qualities and laying them beside his irredeemable flaws, especially the extensive abuse that would lead up to the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown. The lively talking heads aid this sense of humanity, giving multiple perspectives on both O.J. and Los Angeles, and Edelman purposefully chooses not to censor any of them, leading to often conflicting and even outright racist remarks (on occasion, the editing almost creates a verbal sparring match between two interviewees).

All of this is to say that O.J.: Made in America is not a revolution in terms of its craft, a quality almost undeniably for the better. By adopting this sober, straightforward approach, Edelman focuses on the most important aspect, the information, and uses it to highlight the flaws of American society as a whole. Only O.J., who was able to effectively move between black and white culture and won his trial in large part because of his exclusive status, could work as such a galvanizing conduit. And in this method of exposé, O.J.: Made in America is its own sort of revolution, incisive but never dogmatic.

Moonlight

***1/2 (Excellent)

The only true constant in Moonlight is its look. It is an odd sort of luminescence, bringing out the vibrancy of the subject while turning everything not in the immediate foreground into a impressionistic haze of blurred colors. The effect is definitely one of immediacy, but crucially, it is immediacy that belongs to all time periods: apart from some signposts in the form of cars, cell phones, and music, the setting of the film, Miami, doesn’t seem to change all that much. The background of run-down homes, barred windows, and an moonlit beach stay the same, while the people and their changes are highlighted in stunning detail.

The movie’s visual style mirrors Barry Jenkins’ approach towards his main character, Chiron. The story of Chiron’s growth during three decades in Miami, Moonlight functions less like a biography and more like a series of snapshots. Each section, denoted by the name Chiron goes by in each section (Little, Chiron, and Black, respectively), is set over a few consecutive days, and the events are at once the most consequential and yet seem like transitions to different stages of Chiron’s life. They are formative moments, in a sense, and they come together over the course of the film to gather a quiet, cumulative force that dazes the viewer, making them feel as lost yet as at home as Chiron does.

For the most part, Moonlight follows the two influences that come to define Chiron: his parent figures, particularly his junkie mother Paula (a by turns manipulative and broken Naomie Harris) and drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, overwhelmingly compassionate), and his burgeoning identity as a gay black man. More than often, these are inextricably entwined. In the first scene, young Chiron, called Little in this segment (an almost mute yet expressive Alex Hibbert), runs past Juan while being chased by bullies. After this initial coincidence, the film’s moments arise out of unexpected developments in relationships already well established, as Chiron grows and learns more about the people around him.

But through other people, he learns about himself too. Though the moments that ultimately have the most impact on Chiron’s existence come invariably at the end of each chapter, the ones that affect him more on an emotional level come more towards the middle. For Little, there are many but none more inexplicably serene as when Juan teaches him to swim, holding him in an almost baptismal pose in the ocean. For Chiron as a teenager (a belligerent and remarkably self-contained Ashton Sanders) it is an encounter on the beach with Kevin, his lifelong friend, the sexual nature of which plays out entirely through hands moving through the sand. For Black (Trevante Rhodes, hulking but astonishingly sensitive), it is an extended conversation at the diner where Kevin (André Holland, immensely caring) now cooks, the two not having seen each other since the previous chapter. These moments are never announced, never spotlighted. But it is precisely because of this that they have such power; in contrast to other scenes (mostly involving Paula and a gang of bullies) that seem at times a bit overdetermined, harrowing as they are in the moment, these moments of serenity are as unadorned as they would be in life.

And it is this sense of life that makes Moonlight so dazzling. Though it has as much to say about masculinity as it does gay identity—Black, a drug dealer in Atlanta (before he goes back to visit Kevin in Miami) is almost a mirror image of his father figure Juan, complete with a grill—it is at heart the story of a boy who learns to become a man. But Jenkins never lets it fall into clichés, with his sketch-like approach, his luminous depiction of Miami, and most importantly of all, his grounding in Chiron. Despite, or perhaps because of, his representation of Chiron in three actors and three time periods, Moonlight is truly emotional and universal while remaining profoundly coded in the black experience. The final two shots both provide a conclusion and a continuation; at heart, we are all children in the waves of time.

The Heart of the World

****1/2 (Tour-de-force)

“The Heart of the World” is at once quite simple and inordinately complex, stymieing most sensible attempts to dissect it. A story laid out in broad terms but filled with the grand tradition that proceeds it, it is a behemoth of small stature. Guy Maddin dares to use just six minutes to not only lay out the cinematic condition, but to wrap it in a tale of love, revenge, and sacrifice that becomes universal.

At its core, “The Heart of the World” is fashioned after propaganda films, and thus its most important goal is to induce feeling. In the traditional propaganda films it is most inspired by, these are patriotic feelings, but Maddin manages to enlarge and deepen them, retaining the pride while adding a clear emotional core in the three individuals that never distracts from the world-altering consequences. The narrative is both simple and ludicrous enough to work—a love triangle that reaches its fever pitch just as the end of the world (via a literal heart attack) arrives, only to be interrupted by a capitalist—and Maddin recognizes and adapts to how narratively restricting six minutes is. But he also finds time to insert the beautifully bizarre: a phallic embalming machine, strange laboratories, an actor who tries to become Christ.

Of course, “The Heart of the World”‘s most stellar aspect is Maddin’s crazed visual sense, unleashing a barrage of close-ups that collapses cross-cutting in on itself. It is never incoherent, which only adds to the disorientation of the already strange images. And yet, this effect causes the viewer to have the most curious emotion: pride. Whether it be caused primarily by the formal mastery, the soaring and hyperkinetic score, or just the Soviet-inspired images, this sense of pride is among the most awe-inspiring feelings I’ve had watching a film; it appeals to the cinephile with its final exultation of “Kino”, but it also appeals to a primal thrill, an elemental fascination with the kind of purity of expression that Maddin uses here. “The Heart of the World” is a short for all humanity, beautiful, crazed, and breathless.

The Shallows

**** (Great)

Jaume Collet-Serra operates in an entirely different style in his latest triumph, The Shallows. While his past movies largely worked either in horror or action, and situated themselves to either confined locations or maze-like cities, this film is in a sort of middle-ground, a thriller taking place entirely on a secret beach in Mexico. The setting does a significant amount to illustrate the underlying qualities that distinguish the movie so much: just big enough to allow for the Macgyver-esque tricks that Nancy must pull to survive the ordeal she faces, but secluded enough to ensure she is almost solely on her own, all mixed in with the at turns gorgeous and menacing ocean waves that her foe swims through.

More than a little bit of the genius that propels The Shallows must be accredited to Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay, which is thoroughly and fully no-frills and constructs the simple premise with care. After an partially extraneous in medias res prologue, the first act is almost fully idyllic, slowly putting the pieces into place while indulging in genuine pleasure. Some time is spent on the journey to the beach, and Collet-Serra expends equal focus on backstory—with some wonderful digital projections of iPhone pictures—and simple banter between Nancy and her driver Carlos, while the forest glides by the windows. And even more time is spent on Nancy after she arrives and surfs, including a scenic three-screen video-chat that furnishes the rest of the backstory in an economical, if not necessarily vital, manner. It is inaccurate to say that Collet-Serra is trying to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, as there are more than a few fake-outs; moreso that he establishes an almost dreamlike mood that extends to much of the movie after the attack. Even the surfing montage set to an electronic song is cut-up and eventually abandoned, favoring the moments when Nancy goes beneath the water, treating them as near ethereal.

Of course, it is in the water, where Nancy feels at home, that she is attacked, though only after she approaches a rotting whale carcass. The scene’s progression is presented in the terms that define the rest of the film. The whale is a roiling mass of blood and blubber that sends Nancy into a panic as she tries to get away, only to be pulled beneath the waves. No part of the actual attack is shown onscreen, instead presented in one prolonged shot of Nancy underwater as blood slowly tinges the water.

The rest of The Shallows is pure thriller, as Collet-Serra finally slips into his most comfortable mode. Despite the open water, and in some ways because of it, Nancy is confined to a rock that becomes an island during low tide, adding an additional time constraint to her already despairing situation. Blake Lively also seems to become even stronger in this spare setting; she delivers the exposition in an easy-going manner, which only makes her urgency even more striking. Whether it be improvising stitches with earrings or judging the amount of time she has while the shark is circling, Lively captures even the moments when she is laying on the rock in despair seem of utmost importance.

And it is these moments that Collet-Serra is interested in the most as well. Much of the film is spent in what could be considered a sort of downtime, the inevitable space between the thrilling moments when Lively must venture into the more open water and face the shark, stinging coral, and in one entirely unexpected, luminous scene, a mass of jellyfish. There are no shortage of close-ups, especially on Nancy’s face that registers weariness, fear, and pain in unmistakable detail, but there are also startling overhead shots and wide-spanning vistas that never fail to capture the looming presence just below the surface. The economical nature of the players and things involved is of utmost importance, as the various human presences (including surfers she had met before and a distant ship) all make little difference until the end, and a seagull (hiliariously named Steven Seagull) provides for a consistent companion and a silent source of strength for Nancy.

Everything ultimately serves a purpose in this airtight film, but it never feels preordained, flowing as smoothly as the waves, and Collet-Serra rarely lets the film get out of hand as Nancy moves to the buoy that serves as the venue for the final encounter. It feels earned, not just because of the ideas introduced in the exposition or the astonishing Go-Pro message Nancy recorded before she moves, but because of the physicality of the film, how visceral each attack feels (regardless of whether it lands or not). And the final scene, another surfing scene set to Sia, is earned as well, for both Nancy and the viewer, who have both gone through a truly awe-inspiring thrill ride through life and death.

De Palma

***1/2 (Excellent)

Brian De Palma is perhaps best known for his extravagant visual sensibilities—his split-diopters, his long takes, his split screens—so much so that his remarkable acuity for the emotions vital to his films is usually neglected. So it is perhaps wise that Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow chose to go with a straight-forward, unadorned style for their documentary on the legendary director, De Palma in order to put the spotlight on the subject rather than the director.

Formed from many interviews over a period of several years, De Palma reveals its first two tricks from the beginning. First, Baumbach’s and Paltrow’s voices are never heard, and for most of the documentary De Palma seems not responding to any specific question, simply recounting his experience on every single film over his almost fifty year career. Whether this increases a sense of connection with De Palma is hard to gauge, especially since the three directors are all friends, but it provides a greater sense of directness, in line with De Palma’s often confrontational oeuvre. The second trick is in the actual filming of the interviews. De Palma’s appearance doesn’t seem to change at all, continually wearing the same blue outfit and sitting in the exact framing used for the rest of the shots; the viewer could reasonably conclude that it was all shot in one afternoon and edited later. Through this, the filmmakers seem to be putting the emphasis on the films of De Palma and how he progressed through them rather than on the man himself, reinforced by the one break with this style at the end, where De Palma walks on the streets of New York, almost passing the torch as he nears the end of his career (however long it may continue after this documentary).

The choice of archival footage and photographs that for the most part takes precedence over the new footage is surprisingly eclectic. Beginning with the opening of Vertigo, one of De Palma’s earliest and most lasting influences, the documentary largely uses a mix of footage from the director’s films and various behind-the-scenes photographs, though some more intriguing footage, such as the Hitchcock or the original ending of Snake Eyes, is included. The most memorable images are shown (“Say hello to my little friend”, the prom, the climax of Blow Out) but they’re never shown in isolation, as De Palma frequently talks about the difficulties surrounding them rather than letting them sit as totems.

This, perhaps, is the most important function of De Palma. It is not necessarily a work of demythologizing, but it is a tribute and a view from the other side, a chance for De Palma to speak his thoughts freely on the controversial legacy, in terms of both the ardent defenders and vociferous detractors, that his work has created. He is candid about his failures and pleased with his successes, and the viewer never gets the sense that he is being insincere or trying to hide any dissatisfaction. De Palma is the view of a legendary director, but more importantly, it is a view of his work, all twenty-nine films to date in a neat chronological order, through perhaps the most important lens of all.