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If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle: A Review

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In Florin Serban’s If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, a charismatic, well-behaved teen inmate at a rural reformatory becomes a tightly wound bag of nerves when he receives troubling news from the broken-home front. Despite its carceral trappings, Serban’s film, driven by George Pistereanu’s raw, nervy lead performance, adheres to few prison house–film clichés. Winner of the Grand Prix Silver Bear and Alfred Bauer Prizes at last year’s Berlinale, Whistle is a sobering gut punch of Romanian realism, the kind of visceral, hard-knock drama that Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet aspired to be. Though the film lacks the complex, conscientious moral dimension of that French opus, and falters when its protagonist’s sudden, self-negating act of rebellion nearly sends the entire carriage off the rails, Serban’s stoic single-character focus has a riveting, almost hypnotic fascination all its own.

At a minimum-security work camp staffed by truncheon-wielding guards, delinquent Silviu (Pistereanu) cavorts with his pals, kissing one inmate on his shaven head and gamely tossing bales of hay while another serenades him with a song about burning down the jail. Called to an unexpected visit from his younger brother (Marian Bratu), Silviu learns that the mother who abandoned them years ago (Clara Voda) has returned and wants to take the boy with her to Italy. With paternal firmness, he makes his brother promise to stay put until he’s freed in two weeks. When his mother appears at the facility herself to argue her case (one of the film’s tensest real-time dramatic scenes), he unleashes his fury at her selfishness, then tries to negotiate an early release with the warden (Mihai Constantin). At this point, Pistereanu’s face becomes an unreadable mask of hard blinks and steely, onyx-eyed stares, suggesting coiled danger and unresolved wounds. Although the precise reasons for Silviu’s cage-rattling desperation aren’t immediately apparent (we only know he’s raised his brother alone, and that mom toted him around in between lovers, eventually leaving him on the streets), Serban sets up another conflict by introducing Ana (Ada Condeescu), a student interning as an in-house counselor who catches Silviu’s attention.

Of all the recent dramas that constitute the nominal “wave” of films by post-Ceauşescu generation filmmakers,Whistle, from a play by Andreea Valean, most resembles Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, another film that prized white-knuckle tension from a situational dilemma about bodily imprisonment (the need for an illegal abortion). In that film, set in the Eighties, the authoritarian state was invisible yet omnipresent, a bogeyman that indirectly suffocated individual will and self-determination under the threat of harsh penalties, and even death. In Serban’s Romania (circa April 2009), the state is embodied quite literally (guards, a prison) and is not entirely indifferent to human needs (hence, an avuncular warden), but has morphed into a gormless and ineffective bureaucracy. Whistle is resolutely present-day in its concerns, a social portrait of those whose limited choices are the result of neglect or penury, both symptoms of a bad economic hangover. Though the desire for escape figures prominently in the film’s adrenalized final half hour, the emphasis is more on rebellion for its own sake, an instinctual fuck-you to a feeble reform system that promises neither renewed opportunity nor the cessation of suffering for juvenile offenders.

Any number of dramas could be singled out for inclusion in the jailhouse-film hall of fame, since the genre cuts cleanly across the commercial/art-house divide, from A Man Escaped to The Shawshank Redemption, serving any number of ethical, political, and philosophical purposes. The majority of them tend to emphasize human resilience and inner reformation. Most share an antiauthoritarian gene as well (does anyone sympathize with the institution or the screws?), and put the idea of “freedom” into play, usually in the form of escape, whether actual or psychological. Co-written with Catalin Mitulescu (How I Celebrated the End of the World), Serban’s film succeeds in its unromanticized depiction of Romania’s youth correctional system, the rhythms of the yard and showers captured in quasi-documentary detail by DP Marius Panduru (Police, Adjective) with the participation of actual inmates Serban vetted and trained for two months. But it’s Silviu’s story that draws us into that world with an intensity worthy of its bottlenecked protagonist, even if it mislays some of its authenticity and dramatic balance when it veers into hostage-crisis mode. In a sense, his decision to kidnap Ana, a fetish object who represents a normative life he cannot live, or believes has been denied him by circumstance or fate or bad parenting or just shitty luck, is an act of pure defiance. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Cross-published at Reverse Shot.


Written by eyemaster

March 2, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”: A Review

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For the epigraph of his now-canonical Simulations, the late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard cited a curiously modern aphorism from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.” The line was apocryphal, of course. Yet legions of academics have quoted it in research papers and at conferences, never questioning the authority of their source, and missing entirely the point of the thinker’s deadpan prank. To a certain mindset, it hardly matters whether the attribution is fabricated. After all, simulations have a truth of their own.

I can think of no better way to introduce Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy—a bittersweet romance as concerned with the philosophy of perception as it is with love, marriage, beauty, and antiquity—than to think of it as a cunningly staged dramatic commentary on the art of fakery. Film manufactures the real, even in documentary, where framing, editing, sound, and the performative self-awareness of nonactors can complicate the notion that we are witnessing a sequence of “captured,” authentically true moments. The opaque dividing line between fiction and documentary is a theme that has interested the Iranian director since his 1990 landmark Close-up, a re-enactment of an actual incident in which a movie-mad bookbinder fooled a wealthy Tehran family into thinking he was the acclaimed filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, starring the real people playing themselves. Further creative redefinitions of the documentary form and cinematic truth inflect the narratives of Through the Olive Trees (crew members playing themselves; nonactors reprising prior roles) andThe Wind Will Carry Us, which wryly questioned the position of the filmmaker himself as a master manipulator. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by eyemaster

November 16, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Die Die, My Darling: A Review of Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me

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Observers of Michael Winterbottom’s hyperactive career have always struggled with the question of authorship, wondering whether the tireless British director, an almost frustratingly nimble change-up artist seemingly comfortable in every genre, has a verifiable artistic signature, or if it even matters. His sleek new Southwestern retro-noir The Killer Inside Me, an arrestingly acted, often sensationally disorienting, mostly bang-on adaptation of Jim Thompson’s chilly 1952 pulp novel about a small-town lawman with incomprehensibly psychopathic impulses, raises more of these pesky auteurist questions than it answers. Working from a script by John Curran, Winterbottom hews closely to the book’s first-person narrative, drawing us into the Manichaean mind of a deranged young West Texas sheriff with unapologetically dogmatic faith in the power of Thompson’s words, dialogue, and personal vision. Abandoning the freewheeling ingenuity of his previous period adaptations (Jude, The Claim, Tristram Shandy), as well as the frenetic pacing of docu-realistic dramas like In This World or A Mighty Heart, Winterbottom’s latest effort, though enthralling on the whole, sometimes feels too literal for its own good. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by eyemaster

November 16, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Marco Bellocchio’s “Vincere”: A Review

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Marco Bellocchio sets history a-twirl in the opening minutes of his Cannes-buzzed melodrama Vincere, cutting between set-ups in Trent 1907 and Milan 1914 and back again, tripping the wire on linear narrative with rapid-fire bursts of under-contextualized, nonsynchronous events. We are somewhere in time. A young Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), then-editor of Avanti!, addresses a meeting of union representatives by challenging God to strike him dead. He gives the nonexistent deity five minutes to prove he exists. We get far less. Cut. Mussolini evades capture by embracing and passionately kissing a beautiful woman in the street. His blood stains her hand. Cut. Mussolini grinds away at his adoring lover, his ferocious, bulging eyes fixed at a distance far beyond the bedroom. Cut. Black flags unfurl from balcony windows. Cut. War is brewing. Flyers are distributed. Cut to archive. Soldiers march, warplanes roar overhead. Proto-fascist slogans blazon the screen in white scream type. Cut. Cut. Cut.

It’s a whiplash-inducing, noisily theatrical entrance for Il Duce, the full-throttle barrage of images emphasized by Carlo Cavelli’s fittingly bombastic orchestral score. History is thus spread into a thin paste, all the better for Bellocchio to smear it with broad strokes of impasto impressionism. Although Vincere tracks Mussolini’s rise to power, first as a rabble-rousing unionist and newspaper editor who declares that “war will turn the wheel of history with blood,” then as a decorated WWI combat hero, patron of Futurist art, and splenetic Fascist Party demagogue, the true subject of Bellocchio’s heavy-handed, downbeat melodrama is the beatific young woman glimpsed in each of those grandly staged sequences.

Click here to read the rest of my review at Reverse Shot.

Written by eyemaster

March 25, 2010 at 12:26 am

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Review: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

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As willfully weird as his B-movie-grade update on Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant was grotesquely overwrought, Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done spins a matricidal true-crime yarn into an absurdist fable whose tropes and themes, like the motivations of its killer protagonist, remain obscure. Such was the consensus, anyway, when the film debuted in competition at Venice and then screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it met with a lukewarm, appropriately puzzled response. Oddly enough, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a far inferior film in every respect (even if its outlandishly narcissistic, no-holds-barred performance by Nicolas Cage outshines Michael Shannon’s labile San Diego weirdo by several solar degrees of crazed charisma), came through the festival gauntlet anointed with critical laurels. But Herzog’s latest, an esoterically funny Cali-freak-out crime procedural executive produced by David Lynch, will likely not fare as well, despite the nod from Venice honcho Marco Mueller—except, perhaps, in the hindsight of career-retrospective curation.

Click here to read the rest of my review at Reverse Shot.

Written by eyemaster

December 17, 2009 at 6:03 pm

NYFF 2009: Ne change rien

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Ne change rien: Jeanne Balibar

No mere documentary, Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s enthralling Ne change rien is a cinematic offering laid at the feet of its bewitching singer-star, Jeanne Balibar. She’s glimpsed at music rehearsals, live club performances, and in studio sessions, meticulously honing vocal phrases and adjusting tempo with exactly the same attention to precision that Costa brings to his own rigorously arranged compositions. The lithe, luminous actress has a robust career in France, where she’s appeared in films by Jacques Rivette (Va savoir) and Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life…) as well as numerous theater productions. She also moonlights as a chanteuse (or perhaps it’s the other way around), fronting a crackerjack quartet whose whirring loops and effects-driven guitar textures create a coolly luxuriant cushion for her throaty songs of tortured love. An ardent cinephile, Costa has cited Godard’s One Plus One as an inspiration for his approach here, which eschews voiceover and interviews in favor of moody, atmospheric detail and abundant use of long takes. But he also applies the distinctive, low-light visual style he developed for In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, a tack that aligns this sultry music doc as much with the mise-en-scène of classic cinema (Von Sternberg, Nick Ray) and T Magazine–style fashion portraiture as it does with Straub-Huillet (a salient touchstone for the auteurist director) or ultrahip band-in-the-studio genre artistry. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by eyemaster

October 18, 2009 at 9:18 pm

NYFF ’09: 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup

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Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellitto: Jacques Rivette's 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup

Reviewing Gang of Four for Cahiers du cinéma in 1989, the late philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote that Jacques Rivette’s project is “a cinema that opposes its theatricality to that of theater, its reality to that of the world, which has become unreal.” That’s as succinct a formulation of the great director’s body of work as we are likely to get, and one that applies just as well to his latest drama, a whimsical eulogy of sorts to the New Wave icon’s treasured theme of life-as-performance. Modestly scaled and terse by Rivettian standards at 84 minutes, 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup is a playfully oblique, often melancholy study in love, mortality, and the mysteries of grief. Yet compressed within the bantam framework of the film—which concerns people inhabiting a world all their own, a family of clowns and aerialists—is a banquet of ideas about cinema and life, the truth of art and the sorrows of imagination.

Read the rest of my review at Reverse Shot.