Thursday, January 28, 2016

Son of Saul Review (2016)

Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ Holocaust film “Son of Saul” hit me hard. After my screening I walked out of the auditorium feeling emotionally depleted. On the bus ride back to my house I sat quietly in a daze. At home it took me a few hours of watching “The Simpsons” to get back to my normal self. I can’t think of the last time a movie affected me like that. I can’t remember the last time a movie left me feeling physically nauseous. Nearly three weeks later, the film is still ingrained in my mind. “Son of Saul” is an overwhelming (in the best way possible), immersive and all around unforgettable experience.

The picture doesn’t give you a chance to settle in and get ready. I generally take notes while watching so I’m usually able to pull myself away from a movie. During “Son of Saul” I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. After unsuccessfully trying to take notes I closed my notebook and set it aside. Right from the start Nemes drops us right into the middle of the action, practically mid sentence and keeps on moving. The characters all know one another and have been occupying this cinematic space for quite some time. Meanwhile the audience is disoriented; we don’t know where we are, or even when we are. We’re outsiders dropped into this chaotic, terrifying environment.

 Eventually we’re able to decipher a visible narrative pattern. The film revolves Auschwitz prisoner Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners who were forced to help with the disposal of gas chamber victims. “Son of Saul” uses the traditional 1.33.1 aspect ratio and is shot only in close ups. With the exception of a sequence near the end, the film is told from the point of view of Auslander—we experience things only when he does. This visual scheme creates a sensation of intense claustrophobia in the viewer; we spend most of the movie trapped in cramped, windowless, dimly lit spaces of death. The experience is suffocating and uncomfortable at times. We watch as Auslander leads a group of nude, frightened, confused prisoners into a death chamber. We watch as he is forced to clean the place up afterwards-- scrubbing blood off the floor and stacking corpses. It’s during one of these “routine” tasks that Auslander discovers the corpse of his son (or at least what he believes to be his son) and he spends the rest of the movie trying to give him a proper burial.

That’s pretty much it as far as plot’s concerned but we don’t need anything else. The stripped down nature of the narrative is refreshing. At this point, Holocaust films have become their own subgenre. By focusing on a member of the Sonderkommando, “Son of Saul” finds its own unique entry point into the subgenre. The Sonderkommando occupy a peculiar middle ground between prisoner and oppressor; they’re forced to lead their own people to death but at the same time their own execution is right around the corner. The weight of Auslander’s seemingly simple quest is immense: he’s trying to retain some semblance of his humanity in a place that’s devoid of it. You may find yourself feeling frustrated by Auslander’s actions, you may wonder why he’s going to such great lengths to bury his son but the film ultimately asks you to empathize with him. Put yourself in his shoes and ask how you would respond if you were in his situation, if you were in the thick of so much death? Rohrig is phenomenal; giving a powerfully understated performance that relies on subtle bodily gestures and reactions (most of the time, the camera stays firmly planted on his anguished face) rather than extended monologues or “big” actor-y moments.

We see a lot of graphic, unspeakable images that are presented in a blunt, yet non-exploitive, non-showing way. There’s no instrumental score to heighten the drama and emotion on screen. Nemes knows to let these raw images speak for themselves. Because of the film’s highly subjective perspective it doesn’t linger too long on individual moments of suffering. It’s always on the move. Auslander has become so immune and desensitized to this horrible reality that he doesn’t feel the need to stop and take it in anymore. From a purely technical standpoint, “Son of Saul” is a meticulously crafted piece of brilliance. The film is composed of lengthy, activity filled single take sequences. The huge amount of rehearsal and planning they must have done is staggering to think about. However, while you’re watching you’re not thinking about its style—you’re letting this visceral, emotionally resonant experience wash over and pull you along.

I recently listed “Son of Saul” as the fifth best movie of2015, which may have been a little generous. This is not a knock against the film but movies I consider the “best” are ones that I love and can’t wait to watch again. “Son of Saul” is a movie that I don’t look forward to watching again. But any piece of art that can inspire such an intense physical reaction in me is incredibly effective and one that shouldn’t be forgotten. We go to movies to be entertained, sometimes to escape. But we also go to movies to feel uncomfortable, to be pushed out of our comfort zones and see things that we may not want to see. “Son of Saul” is one of those movies.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mojave Review (2015)

William Monahan’s (the Oscar winning screenwriter of "The Departed") bizarre thriller “Mojave” revolves around a disillusioned artist named Thomas, (Garrett Hedlund) who leaves his cushy Hollywood home and lifestyle to go find himself in the Mojave Desert. I’m not kidding about that. In a video interview with Thomas he says: “When you get what you want, what do you want?” His solution? “You go to the desert to find out what you want.” We never find out why you’re supposed to go to the desert to find out what you want and quite frankly I don’t think Monahan knows either. Maybe he just wanted an excuse to shoot in the desert? Maybe he thought that line of dialogue sounded really cool but didn’t know what it actually meant underneath?

Anyhow, Thomas is out in the desert guzzling Vodka like it’s water, not exactly a wise decision. Has even been to the desert before? Does he not know its extremely hot and there’s little moisture? One night a mysterious stranger named Jim (Oscar Isaac-- doing a voice that sounds like a cross between young Clint Eastwood and old Nick Nolte) walks into his camp and begins rambling about Jesus and “Moby Dick” in pseudo philosophic sentences.  To keep from boring you with more details I’ll just say that things don’t go well during their meeting and before long Jim stalks Thomas through the desert, which leads to Thomas killing an innocent person. Eventually, Thomas returns to L.A to try and resume his normal life but Jim continues to follow him.

“Mojave” is a fairly simple and straightforward cat-and-mouse style thriller. There isn’t anything wrong with simplicity, however the picture is missing a core. As a character, Thomas is kind of a blank slate—an apathetic, mopey schlub. Hedlund looks like tired and bored in the role, half the time he squints his eyes as if he can barely keep them open. We don't get a sense of who Thomas was before his trip to the desert, nor do we come to understand why he’s feeling so disillusioned (and clearly suicidal) in the first place. There’s no development in the character. Meanwhile Jim is simply a creepy drifter guy who’s jealous and resentful towards Thomas’ wealth and fame. Jim is so determined in following Thomas and acts as though he has some grand clever scheme in taking Thomas down and yet a lot of the time he is ill prepared and comes off stupid. Two major confrontation sequences, one at a bar and another in a trailer back in the desert, fizzle out due to Jim’s ineptitude.

In other words Jim is a lame antagonist. And so, because our two primarily characters are so dull and one note, their rivalry (and in essence, the central force of the movie) is also dull. On top of that, the stakes aren’t very high. When Jim comes to L.A to track down Thomas there’s not much of a threat. Thomas has a wife and kid but it’s revealed early on that they’re in England, meaning they aren’t in any immediate danger. When Jim strikes up a creepy conversation with Thomas’ sometimes girlfriend Milly, (Louise Bourgoin) it has no effect because up to this point the audience has no sense of their relationship before the desert and there’s no follow up. Milly is never in any danger again. For the most part, the picture meanders along on autopilot, never becoming as tense and compelling as it should be. Other secondary characters show up for a few scenes apiece, hardly making an impact. Mark Wahlberg (basically playing Mark Wahlberg) is a fast-talking, irresponsible movie producer and Walton Goggins is Thomas’ agent, who’s wide eyed and talks like a creep for some reason. Pretty much all of the actors in “Mojave” have some kind of eccentric affectation, perhaps to try and mask the hollowness of their characters.

In the end “Mojave” is an intriguing but ultimately pointless endeavor. It has a mythical, almost otherworldly quality to it but all that turns out to be window-dressing. The picture wants to be twisty and profound but is actually meandering and hollow.