Samsara (Oscilloscope Labs)
Directed by Ron Fricke; Written by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson
Having not paid too much attention to the press screening invite for Ron Fricke’s Samsara, I sat down to watch it knowing nothing about it or its predecessor Baraka, which became a combination cinephile and stoner midnight movie classic when released 20 years ago. Somehow I missed it when it was released, but as Samsara began, I thought, “How is this movie going to keep me awake and interested?” At first, the movie didn’t seem to have any sort of narrative and was just a lot of beautifully-shot images set to a gorgeous world music score provided by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance) and Marcello De Francisci.
By a half hour into it, I started to realize I was not only watching something unlike anything I’d ever seen before, but also been given an opportunity to see many things I never in my life would have ever had a chance to see, not in any format, let alone shot in glorious 70mm. Director Ron Fricke and his producing/partner Mark Magidson, who spent five years visiting 25 countries to capture the 99 minutes of footage, certainly seem to be fascinated with assembly line production or deconstruction, as is the case with factory workers de-assembling chickens. The entire film combines what may seem relatively mundane with the fantastic, which might include portraits of extraordinary people they met on their journeys as well as large landscapes shot using Fricke’s inimitable time-lapse photography first used in Koyaanisqatsi (which I had seen). Then there’s the bird’s eye view of the madness that is Mecca with literally millions of worshippers during Ramadan frantically circling the Kaaba, something that very few people, let alone non-Muslims, will ever have a chance to see.
The way they mix these moving images with music from different regions creates a stirring experience, also juxtaposing images to create more depth, such as interplaying people having plastic surgery with the manufacturing of doll heads, from there to sex dolls and onto Asian brothel where numbered women in bikinis dance and gyrate. Then you start cross-cutting between Asian inmates dancing in sync to techno music and North Korean soldiers marching in parade and you create something eerie for their own reasons, but one of the more thought-provoking images may be that of a man being buried in a coffin shaped like a shotgun.
Granted, Samsara won’t be for everyone, but it’s a hypnotic and haunting experience that really pulls you in as you watch. By the time we’re back to what seemed at first like fairly innocuous images from Southeast Asia, you feel as if you’ve experienced something quite enlightening and life-changing. I know that I’ll be trying to see this again on the big screen if only to figure out how all these images are able to have such an emotional effect on me; this is not a movie meant to watch on Blu-ray on a TV screen.
Sleepwalk With Me (IFC Films)
Directed by Mike Birbiglia: Written by Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish
Starring Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane, Cristin Milioti, Aya Cash
So many first-time filmmakers bring their indie comedies to the Sundance Film Festival that we feel we know exactly what to expect from them and there isn’t much room for originality, which is why it’s nice when something like Mike Birbiglia’s debut comes along that defies our expectations. Granted, I wasn’t even remotely familiar with Birbiglia’s prior work which involves a number of Comedy Central specials, TV movies and an off-Broadway one-man show on which Sleepwalk with Me is based, but the influences of Woody Allen are evident from the very moment Birbiglia’s character Matt starts talking directly to the audience in the opening scene, a running plot device that actually works better than one might expect since he’s able to make fun of that idea as he tells the story since like us “He’s from the future.”
Then again, “Annie Hall” is a great place to start when making a comedy about relationships and Birbiglia’s Matt has been in one with Lauren Ambrose’s Abbie for 8 years and when his younger sister Janet gets engaged, it becomes clearer that maybe it’s time he and Abbie took the next step. Matt also has always wanted to be a stand-up comic, but instead he’s settled for being a bartender at a comedy club and as his issues with Abbie come up, his career starts to take off. At the same time, he has a sleep disorder where he reenacts his own nightmareshence the titlewhich just adds further to his anxieties.
The film does a good job capturing what it’s like to be a stand-up comic on the road, having to drive hundreds of miles between venues, many of them being crappy gigs, just to earn a living and keep growing as a comic. Birbiglia’s a generally likeable guy and he has a great supporting cast including the likes of Carol Kane and James Rebhorn as his parents and great character actors like Kristen Schaal and David Wain pop in for brief scenes as well.
“Sleepwalk with Me” has such an incredibly tight and clever script, it’s almost surprising that Birbiglia has three co-writers on the film, but the results work, creating a movie that’s funny and sweet even after it starts getting darker once Matt’s sleepwalking starts to get out of control.
Birbiglia is a fresh new comic voice in the world of indie film and it will be interesting to see where he goes from this clever movie, as he’s definitely made us a fan.
Teddy Bear (Film Movement)
Directed by Mads Matthiesen; Written by Mads Matthiesen and Martin Pieter Zandvliet
Starring Kim Kold, Elsebeth Steentoft, Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard, Allan Mogensen, David Winters
The amount of creative filmmaking talent coming out of Denmark and the rest of the Scandinavia these days is palpable and here is the first feature from a filmmaker who uses cinema verité techniques to tell a simple story based around an unconventional main character.
We meet Dennis, a huge muscle-bound body builder played by real-life bodybuilder Kim Kold, as he’s having an awkward dinner date with a pretty blonde who doesn’t seem very interested in him. He returns home to his aging mother who is clearly overbearing towards her grown-up son. Dennis is 38 years old and he’s ready to settle down, but he just hasn’t had much luck with women. He attends a wedding party for his uncle who seems to have found happiness with a Thai woman, and he decides to go to a place recommended by his uncle where single out-of-town men are set-up with pretty women.
Dennis is a gentle giant, not at all as brash or assertive as you might presume from someone whose career is showing off their body for trophies, and it’s surprising that he never stands up to his mother more often. Instead he lies to her about going to Thailand. Once there, Dennis is clearly a fish out of water, and while this setting certainly offers many opportunities to tap into the seedier sides of the city, Dennis’ quiet innocence keeps it from ever getting too icky even as he’s surrounded by young Asian women throwing themselves at him.
Frustrated with his experiences in Thailand, Dennis finds a gym where he can work out and after going out to dinner with a group from the gym, he hits it off with the gym’s widowed owner. From there, we see him trying to bond with her and eventually coming back to Denmark where he has to tell his mother that he found someone. That doesn’t go well and it goes even worse when he lies to her again about bringing his new girlfriend home.
Director Mads Matthiesen uses simple filmmaking techniques similar to some of his Danish peers like Susan Bier and Lone Scherfig, but he has two diverse locations to work with that really enhance the film’s visuals, particularly shooting in Thailand where he has these amazing beachfronts and a teeming city in which to place his characters.
There are many layers to Teddy Bear often found within a single silent look by one of the characters, but Dennis is such an unconventional character it’s not hard to be drawn into his world. Once you’re invested, it’s heartbreaking when he hits one hurdle after another in trying to find love, but it gets you to root for things to turn out well as it offers a great deal of optimism for all of us.
Teddy Bear opens at the Film Forum in New York City on Wednesday, August 22.
Look for the rest of this week’s Box Office Preview later this week.