Sunday, November 23, 2014

Getting on the Bus

The We and The I (2012) - Gondry
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Michel Gondry did a 2 year workshop with teenagers from the Bronx for The We and The I, a one-day-in-the-life-of-real-innercity-teens on screen. It's a unique social experiment that is rarely seen in American cinema. Kids talk like themselves, loud and obnoxious, oblivious to their surroundings. No one in the film is made-up, snapshot-ready pretty. And all of it takes place inside a public bus.

It's the last day of the school before the summer recess, and about 30 High School kids gets on the MTA bus to go home. They bully people out of their seat, gossip incessantly, furiously texting into their blackberries, exchange funny youtube videos, make guest lists for parties, flirt and fight. There is a hierarchy even in seating arrangement inside the bus. Asshole bullies all the way in the back, then cluster of other cliques scattered through out. There are gay kids, popular girls, artistic kids who always draw in their sketchbooks, musicians and so on. As they intermingle with each other, playing unending musical chairs, the ever mobile camera jumps from one chat to another. This overlapping cacophony of interactions are like old Altman movies but given that it's a confined, noisy space, you don't really get to grasp everything they say. There are some Gondry moments but he keeps his visual gags to a minimum (for comic relief), only accompanying only small portions of kid's recounting their many stories and anecdotes.

Things become a little more coherent as kids get off (or kicked out) at their destinations or middle of the road. The rhythm kind of settles and the meat of the story emerges: Teresa and Michael, once a couple but not anymore, she not attending school at the moment and he the part of asshole/bully clique. Without sentimentalizing, Gondry observes their insecurities and misunderstandings and finds gems in the rough. Much more real than Laurent Cantet's The Class, partly because the absence adults save for the no non-sense, tough as a nail bus driver, The We and The I is a one of a kind, beautiful observation that's all about kids.

Scary Movie Well Done

Babadook (2014) - Kent
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Babadook takes a well-worn premise, i.e.: monster under the bed/in the closet, and makes a superbly effective scary film. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mom working at a retirement house, raising a troublesome 6 year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The death of Dad in a car crash 6 years ago really affected them both and Amelia is really struggling to make ends meet. Sam's fear of monsters and the thought of his mom's mortality makes him being extremely paranoid and result in increasingly violent behavior. He finds a scary children's storybook named Babadook which contains horrible drawings of Amelia commiting murders. Only he can sense this Babadook at night but soon enough, the monster haunts Amelia and scares her stiff.

What makes Babadook way above average horror is first and foremost in writing, among other things: Jennifer Kent's script is psychologically apt and plausible, therefore doesn't have to rely on CGI or easy scare to fill up the gaps in the plot. The second is superb acting. Both Davis and young Wiseman are not only perfectly cast but amazing in their roles as troubled, paranoid nuclear family. The third is the absence of overwhelming score. I mean, I can't remember any recent horror that don't rely on music to create tension? Babadook makes a case for 'less is better'. Too bad this didn't come out in Halloween.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Existential Road Trip

Jauja (2014) - Alonso
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Loved it! Director/writer Lisandro Alonso along with co-writer Fabian Casas's take on western genre doesn't catch (small) fire until mid-point and turns The Searchers storyline into something that resembles more of a Conrad/Herzogian, existential road trip. Static long takes and 4:3 aspect ratio with round edges betray its supposed genre and picturesque landscapes. Nevertheless, Jauja is a gorgeous, seductive trip. Alonso's formalist, minimalist approach can be challenging but it's a worthwhile trip as it morphs into something much more adventurous and rewarding. There is hardly any music in its 1 hr 50 min running time and no close-ups. Viggo Mortensen's great as skulking Danish captain (of engineering team?), lost in the new, unforgiving surroundings. Stooped and lean and anxious, he wears the burden of all European men on his weathered face. The missing daughter is a macguffin of the story then resurfaces again as something else. Is this unreachable destination, the earthly paradise called Jauja, all but a dream of a 15 year old European girl? Daring in its style and structure, Jauja is everything I look for in cinema right now.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Delicious Twist

Seventh Code (2013) - Kurosawa
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I don't care if it is an hour long promotional material of some Japanese popstar. It's KK's take on the espionage thriller genre and it's delicious. A frail looking girl, Akiko (Atsuko Maeda), with a huge luggage cart with little wheels is stalking Matsunaga (Ryuhei Suzuki), in the streets of Vladivostok. He is a major dreamboat and according to her, he snubbed her after picking her up and buying lunch back in Tokyo. After being dumped on the side of the road in a burlap sack, she gets friendly with a Japanese restaurant owner with a chip on his shoulder. From there, things progress in a very different direction. Absorbing and unpredictable, it's one of those films better not knowing anything going in.

Monday, November 17, 2014

More Human than Human

Strayed (2003) - Techiné
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At first, this WWII drama progresses exactly the way it is supposed to be - a young pretty mother (Emmanuelle Béart) fleeing the war with her two children hooking up with a good looking, resourceful young man (Gaspard Ulliel) shacked up in a large abandoned mansion and playing family. A typical war time soap opera. Oooh la la. But Andre Techiné is a true master observer of subtle human emotions. People do unexpected things. Their actions defy their supposed roles. The intricacy of attractions between the two are much more complex than just primal or even logical. Strayed subtly, beautifully treads all these preconceived notions and have these beautiful feelings, desires and mutual understandings play out. Béart and Ulliel are superb in this.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Devil Worshipping

To the Devil, a Daughter (1976) - Sykes
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Devil's offspring is born. Oh baby!
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It's Nastassja Kinski's turn to inHABIT the nunnery
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The baby needs to crawl back to the womb for some reason
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Mr. Widmark is too old for this s**t!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Killer of Dreams

Labyrinth of Dreams (1997) - Ishii
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I am a big fan of Sogo Ishii's serial killer mood piece Angel Dust. I've always regarded Ishii as a standout amongst 90s Japanese pop auteurs not only for his visual elegance but for the innovative use of sound. And I've been long to see Labyrinth of Dreams. Soft black & white photography reminiscent of old newspaper clippings, Ishii's period piece, the film is a seductive, hypnotic experience.

There is a rumor going around bus conductors that there is a serial killer who seduces women and discard them when he gets bored with them. One such victim is recently departed Tsuyako who's been suspecting her fiancé bus driver Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano) to be that killer. Tsuyako's been telling all her thoughts in her letter to her best friend, another young bus conductor Tomiko (Rena Komine). Niitaka reemerges at Tomiko's bus company as a newly hired driver. With his good looks and mild manner, all the girls are swooned naturally. At first, Tomiko's determined to capture him and avenge her friend's death, but can't help falling for mysterious Niitaka.

Its Hitchcockian theme of suspicion and obsession and its moebius strip structure give way to lush, dreamy cinematography with sporadic, atmospheric score, Labyrinth is a perfect quiet mood piece on rainy saturday afternoon. I particularly love Ishii's used of pregnant silences and delicate shallow depth photography. Really gorgeous.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Great Art Needs Suffering

The Public Woman (1984) - Zulawski
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Ethel (Valerie Kaprisky) does a nude modeling for money. But when she goes in for an audition for a film adaptation production of Dostoesky's Possessed, and catches the eye of Kessling (Francis Huster), the charismatic director/star of the project, everything changes. But soon Kessling realizes that Ethel is not much of an actress. She lacks life experience to portray everything that he wants in the role. His megalomaniacal demands from his cast and crew don't help either. Their tumultuous onset/off set romance also suffers. While being laid off from the project, Ethel starts romancing with a poor Czech immigrant, Milan (Lambert Wilson), whose actress wife might have been murdered by Kessling in some insidious political maneuvering. Milan gets manipulated to kill an archbishop (in order to save his wife) and being pursued by the secret whatever. So in real life, Ethel starts playing the role of Milan's wife.

As usual, Zulawski creates another manic, emotionally charged, over the top melodrama where he pushes his heroine to the brink of insanity. Baby faced Kaprisky bares it all as an actress whose 'acting' bleeds in to reality and vice versa. Huster's amazing as the mad genius and Lambert Wilson's intensity betrays his wispy, melancholic features. The film's energetic, 'revolution is in the air' mood is created by Sacha Vierny's fast moving, virtuosic cinematography.

Zulawski seems to suggest that truly great art (and therefore life) needs suffering. All the hell Ethel goes through, she becomes a better actress at the end. There is no succinct distinction between art and life in his films. We all have roles to play on this stage we call life. It's messy, tragic and full of intrigue. The Public Woman is another dense, heady film. I can't help but admire Zulawski's bravura filmmaking.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sea of Life

Balaou (2007) - Tocha
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I've been thinking about death a lot lately. And since I don't believe in afterlife, it hurts me to think that I'll lose everything I love eventually and die. But we all do and that's part of life. We deal with our grieving in a personal way. Gonçalo Tocha lost his mom and wanted to get away from earth, he jumps on the opportunity to sail the sea with his family friends, Florence and Baru, an older couple on their sailboat. While on land, Tocha records his large extended family, asking about his mother. Then he zones in on tight lipped, 91 year old great aunt who has basically given up and waiting to die. She doesn't have anything nice to say about life anymore, "91 years is way too much," she says.

Florence and Baru has been sailing since 1985. They quit their jobs and took to the sea ever since. The news on land doesn't interest them anymore, not because they are selfish but it's always too busy, too noisy, too many wars, dead bodies, more of the same all the time. Florence doesn't say much. Baru occasionally spits out some sailor wisdom - "only thing you know for certain is a departure date, everything else is unforeseeable", "have to have a goal that you will land somewhere", and so on. For 8 days, with the couple and their white cat for a company, Tocha sails, while being seasick most of the time. The sea is rough. Gonçalo doesn't really know why he is on Balaou. Is he continuing the agony that her mother felt during her last days? Seeing the land after 8 terrible days making him appreciate life more, at least a little while? Infinitely wise without trying too hard, Balaou turns personal grieving process into a gentle reminder that death is part of life.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Allegorical Algeria

Bloody Beans (2013) - Mari
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I've been wanting to see this one ever since I missed it at Art of the Real this spring. There are no English subs for it but I decided to go for it and I'm glad I did. The general chatter (in about half of the film) of these Algerian kids is pretty much inconsequential. Something about them being tired of eating red beans all the time. The draw is in the gorgeous cinematography and controlled chaos of these almost feral kids being playful, a la Lord of the Flies without murderous intentions.

Narimane Mari is not too subtle about the allegorical nature of the project - a woman beating white man wears a pig mask and kids throws stones at him shouting Dégagé! (clear off!) and Viva Algeria! The kids decide to raid a French military barrack because they've heard there are chocolates and other delicacies. They end up with taking a French soldier hostage. In one stunning scene after another in a span of one day (morning- night- dawn), Bloody Beans is an amazingly visceral experience: the camera is always there in the middle of the kids capturing all their activities. It's beautiful, especially the night time shots, lit by only a flashlight, accompanied by pounding electronic music and great sound design.

Trailer / BLOODY BEANS / Directed by Narimane Mari from DocAlliance Films on Vimeo.