Friday, May 27, 2016

Riding with the Ghost

Journey to the Shore (2015) - Kurosawa
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There is no shortage of similarities in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's new film Journey to the Shore with Kore-eda's 1995 quiet masterpiece, Maborosi. Both films deal with the loss, grief, impermanence of life and letting go. Both films star Tadanobu Asano as the husband who passed on. It is good to note that the books the two films are based on came out around the same time in the 1990s too. It might be my age but I've been thinking about the subject myself a lot lately. Once the thought of death hits you, from then on, you just live under the shadow of its inevitability. Sometimes it keeps me up at night. I don't know how people who are innately more precocious and neurotic than me deal with the fact. Anyway, back to the film:

Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu), a piano teacher and a wife whose husband has been presumed dead in the sea, leads a quiet existence in Tokyo. One day, her dead husband, Yusuke (Asano) appears in her living room, wearing shoes (Japanese take off their shoes indoors usually). He says it was a long journey to come back. His corpse was eaten by the crabs, so that's why there was no trace of him left, he says it matter of factly. She is delighted but also afraid that she will lose him again. Always on her toes, hoping that his semi-permanent reappearance is not just recurring dreams. He suggests they leave town, so he can show her many beautiful places he'd passed through during his home journey.

So begins Mizuki's journey to letting go: Yusuke left great impressions on many people he encountered the last three years in the Japanese countryside. Some of them are already dead like Yusuke - he says, again, very matter of factly, "He's like me," meaning the dead, or "She's like you, the living," and so on. So what does Mizuki learn? That human life is complicated? that nobody know anybody, not that well? That you still make differences in other people's lives even though you are dead? That you can have sex with a ghost? With somewhat conventional TV orchestral music, Kurosawa seems to be well aware of the film's Lifetime channel-like melodramatic nature. But as he demonstrated in Tokyo Sonata, he has a great eye for indoor spaces and framing, shadows and light and playing with supernatural/surreal elements that he has cultivated over many years in genre filmmaking. In this subtle, muted gentle chamber piece, he shows that yearning, grieving and fear of letting go are only a few degrees off from horror of loneliness in his genre films. Journey is not as lyrical nor as poetic as Maborosi, nor has a succinct narrative. But the film features many beautiful moments and fine tuned performances by two leads to make it quite memorable.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Behind the Great Museum

Das Große Museum (2014) - Holzhausen
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Das Große Museum shows the painstaking preparation of Vienna's the Kunsthistorisches Museum's special exhibition of Hapsburg's treasures, named Kunstkammer in 2013. They did a total renovations inside this huge, multi-building museum complex from wall papers, floor, electric wiring to new modern chandeliers. We see there are hundreds of people involved in running one of the greatest museums in the world - archivists, restorers, accountants, construction workers, marketing people and so on. We are invited to their budget meetings- where one learns that Bruegel room has its own budget supported by Getty. We get the tour of thousands and thousands of ancient artifacts and paintings carefully handled by handlers and sweaty restorers- carefully removing dust and various insects eating away at old paintings, doing touch ups on a ceiling frescoes, counting all the pearls on an imperial crown and such. It's a fascinating watch. I remember spending a whole afternoon just in the Bruegel room alone. The place was massive and I didn't have enough time to see it all. :cry:

Spritual Music

The World According to John Coltrane (1990) - Palmer, Byron
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Focusing on his middle period with his original quartet (Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass), the World According to JC is still a satisfying doc for music alone. There are some uninterrupted long takes of My Favorite Things and some others. But it also shows his interests in music from different culture that shaped his later, post-Miles Quintet innovative period - India, Africa and shows interests in spiritual side of music. There's no info on his personal life except for his religious North Carolinian upbringing to Navy band player. The hodgepodge interviews are informative but pretty bare boned. But I'm not complaining. The music is glorious. As I am waiting for Sam Pollard's A Love Supreme: A Portrait of John Coltrane in 4 Parts to finish up, this will do for now.

They Look Like People - Well Done Buddy-Cohorrormedy

They Look Like People (2015) - Blackshear
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Don't let the Williamsburg hipster setting scare you. Perry Blackshear's economically executed buddy-cohorrormedy is an exemplary minimalist filmmaking at its best. The director knows exactly what he's got - no money, a great character driven, self contained script, fantastic actors. The film doesn't try to be anything other than a little paranoia thriller and it works superbly.

The film sets up its eerie mood in the beginning with Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews), looking at his fiancee in bed at night. We can't see her face because the shadows and how her face is positioned. This prolonged shot is extremely unsettling. Wyatt gets phone calls telling him that the world is going to be taken over by monsters, that he needs to prepare, that he can't trust his friends or family because they may be infected. He sets out to the city to meet his childhood best friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel), an office worker in an advertising agency whose overtly outward personality and fit physique hides his former nerdy loser self. Christian insists Wyatt staying on until whenever. Wyatt, still schizo, still getting phone calls in the middle of the night, starts to prepare for the worst in Christian's basement with knives, axes, duct tapes, ropes, sulfuric acid...

Everything seems normal for a while - Christian has sort of a date with Mara (Magaret Ying Drake), a cute co-worker at the office whose attraction he's buffing off at the moment because of his too self-confident personality he put on for himself. This date turns out to be spending all night in an emergency room because a friend of Mara (who was supposed to be Wyatt's date) slipped on ice and has a mild concussion.

So how does these two storylines - a schizo trying to prepare the end of the world and a former loser trying to overcompensate go together? Marvelously. With natural dialog and performances, They Look Like People slowly builds up its tension into a thrilling conclusion. And it even somehow ends up very touching. They Look Like People is now available on Netflix. Please check it out.

Monday, May 23, 2016

All That Desert Allows

Queen of the Desert (2015) - Herzog
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Seeking freedom and solitude is the driving force that attracted Gertrude Bell, a learned English woman from a well to do family who became largely responsible for divving up the Middle East. Bell could easily be made as the first proto-feminist of her kind way before Dora the Explorer. Oddly enough, despite it being a Werner Herzog film, Queen of the Desert is a weepy melodrama most of the time, dangerously treading Douglas Sirk territory. Surely, there are some stunning vistas of the desert and camels and ancient citadels made of mud and underground rivers and salt crusted earth and all that too in true Herzogian fashion. Not enough though. It plays out more like Love Affairs of Gertrude Bell, starring Nicole Kidman.

Bell (played by Kidman, radiantly photographed), an amateur archeologist whose short affair with Cadogan (James Franco), a gentle, lower ranking diplomat at the British embassy in Bagdad and his love fueled suicide leaves her men/love weary and makes her devote herself deeper into the desert, despite objections from British army men. She builds up a reputation as a foreigner who understands the intricate political/cultural landscapes in the desert, fully taking advantages of being a white woman in a male dominant world. She stacks up admirers, including many tribal leaders, T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), then a young archeologist, and Major Doughty-Wiley (Damian Lewis), a married army man stationed in Damascus. A romance blooms between Bell and the Major and she starts writing correspondences with him, fully knowing he won't leave his unhappy marriage, and so on.

Queen of the Desert is a perfectly respectable, largely entertaining film. James Franco's I'm a puppy about to die performance nor a Bambi outside the window didn't bother me too much. I'm just disappointed that it is a very un-Herzogian film. We are obviously not expecting some dry treatise on a historical figure nor a high melodrama from him. Kidman's very coquettish and alluring despite her age, but doesn't really have the balls to play a determined, strong willed woman (Charlize Theron might have been a better choice). And it's missing that audacity, that search for ecstatic truth the director is usually known for.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Kaili Blues, The Most Impressive Debut in Years

Kaili Blues (2015) - Bi
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A country doctor's search for his nephew becomes an unforgettable existential road trip in Kaili Blues, directed by a 26-year old Chinese filmmaker, Bi Gan. It's an ambitious, mesmerizing film that you'd never think it is the work of a first time director. I don’t think I’ll be seeing another film as audacious and beautiful as this one anytime soon.

Chen (Chen Yongzhong) lives and works as an assistant doctor in Kaili, a sub-tropical region of southeast China. Through Chen’s sporadic conversation with the elderly woman doctor and with his irresponsible half-brother, Crazy Face, we gather Chen's past: he was in jail for taking the rap for his boss. His sickly wife died while he was incarcerated. Crazy Face resents the fact that their mother left Chen her house to continue housing the doctor's clinic to this day.

Crazy Face's young son, Weiwei, neglected and locked up most of the time at home while he's out gambling, is in danger of being sold off, according to townsfolk. It's usually under Chen's care Weiwei eats properly and goes to school. One day, Chen finds Weiwei missing and discovers that Crazy Face has dumped him at his old boss's house who lives in nearby Zhenyuan, because he is fleeing Kaili in order to evade debtors and won't take the boy with him. The old doctor happens to have an old fling living in Zhenyuan, of whom she hasn’t seen since the days of the Cultural Revolution, and wants Chen to find him and deliver a shirt and a mix-tape she made for him, too. So begins Chen's dreamlike journey, where past, present and future are all mixed in with lush greenery and sinewy river system in picturesque Southern China.

The 40 minute no-cut, wide angle traveling shot on a moped in the middle of the film is a legend in the making – it is a pure bravura filmmaking at its most playful and a feast for your senses. Wang Tianxing's fluid camera work is just as much a star in Kaili Blues. Even though all the scenes are exquisitely framed and every slow pan shot beautifully and meticulously composed, the technical aspect doesn't overshadow the overall lucid, mysterious, fantastic tone of the film. The camera freely moves from one conversation to another, often mingling with Chen's beautiful poetry (the director's own, I'm told) voiceover.

I think of Kaili Blues as school of fish. All the small characters and stories and their connections are illusive, fluid and gone in a flash, but when caught, every one of those fishes are unique, shiny, slippery individual jewels. The only way to catch them is with a net and your hands in the water. This very loose and thin net, full of holes and tears, that Bi uses is made of seemingly unrelated recurring motifs -- Weiwei's hand drawn clocks, an old photograph of the old doctor's lover, motor bikes, a disco ball, a childish pop song -- and Bi deliberately doesn't catch them all. What's left is a palpable, lasting sensation of fish swimming and touching your hands as they get away from your grasp.

I don’t want to pull ageism here but Kaili Blues doesn’t feel like a debut film of a 20 something director. If I had to compare it to the works of another filmmaker, I guess the film most resembles the films of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao Hsien, particularly Goodbye South, Goodbye but with added lyricism and dreamlike quality. Infinitely wise and breathtakingly beautiful, Kaili Blues is definitely one of the very best films I've seen so far this year.

Kaili Blues has an exclusive one week engagement at New York's Metrograph, starting on May 20.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Anarchy in the UK

High-Rise (2015) - Wheatley
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JG Ballard's High-Rise was published in 1970s. This was the time of London Garbage Strike, the rise of punk movement, the rise of Thatcher and conservatism and the Winter of Discontent. In this parable, he saw our materialistic society contained in a 40 story concrete high-rise building. This complete biosphere is equipped with a supermarket, swimming pools, gym, a rooftop garden and a ground parking space that stretches as far as eye can see in this imagined, still barren and developing London suburb. He painted an ugly, disturbing picture of how quickly this microcosm of our society devolved into anarchy with greed and desire for power. Just like his other novels that took place in a materialistic, soulless machine age, High-Rise was a far-fetched, all out satire. With that, Ben Wheatley, a talented British director of such films as Kill List and Sightseers, takes on this darkly satirical material and wastes no time in plunging it into total chaos. The material is highly relevant to the late stages of capitalistic society we are living in.

This highly stylized film sees a physiologist/prof Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) in the center, who just moved in to a much prized high-rise, on the respectable 25th floor. He is an embodiment of upper-middle class, whose meek demeanor and antipathy suits the supposedly anonymous apartment living perfectly. Impeccably dressed and stoic, Laing tries to keep to himself. Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a foxy single-mom neighbor from a floor above, takes a liking to him and introduces to the upper-upper class of the food chain of the high-rise which revolves around Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect of the high-rise and its sister buildings sprouting up nearby, who with his snobby young wife occupies the penthouse with a private lift. His entourage includes a well-known TV announcer, Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), a gynecologist Pangborne (James Purefoy, in his best British twit) and his bodyguard (Dan Renton Skinner). Laing quickly realizes himself that he is not the top one percent and is put in his place. Then there is hard partying TV cameraman Wilder (Luke Evans in his best performance) who lives on the first floor with his very pregnant wife (Elizatbeth Moss) and two young kids. He represents the working class, whose determination to taste the high-life and Royal's gang trying to suppress him are the two main drives for the narrative.

Things devolves quickly into anarchy (the film starts with Laing in disheveled clothes and prickly beard looking like a Robinson Crusoe in an urban decay eating dog food out of a can surrounded by mountains of black garbage bags and debris and the next scene is 3 months earlier). Wilder, incensed by his kids and other children from the lower floors (only lower floor residents seem to have kids) rejected by entering the pool, located on 30th floor for making too much noise, he commandiers all the kids to go up through the stairs (elevators are constantly out of service) and break into a private pool party held by upper floor residents. The tension between upper and lower residents grows with rumors of checkout girl (from the lower floor) at the supermarket being fondled by upper floor residents in the elevator. Things gets violent with retaliations on their pets, and violent raid gangs are formed on both sides and women get assaulted. Strangely, even though garbage shoots get jammed, water stops running, electricity fails, all expensive cars down below get smashed by falling liquor bottles, people are reluctant to leave the building. A police patrol car stops by because of the state of the parking lot and the destroyed lobby seen through the garbage blocked, spray paint covered glass doors. Royal happens to be at the lobby, looking for his wife. He tells officers that everything is fine. Laing stops going to work all together. Everybody is into playing the parts of this addictive game, called social hierarchy in the capitalistic society.

High-Rise's pacing is so breathless that if you haven't read the book, you might find yourself being lost quickly. Why do they devolve so quickly into chaos? What's the reason for all the resentment? Wheatley and collaborator Amy Jump explain too much and too little. There are a lot of character omissions and some of the choices are too explanatory, leaving little rooms for mystery as in the book. Wilder's ascension to the top floor, that symbolic physical trip is the driving force of the book, not meeting Royal the architect as in the movie. I'd like to have seen that actual journey.

There are a lot to like in High-Rise. The look of the film: all textured concrete but chintzy furnishing of the 70s gives the world much sleazier feel than the usual retro-futuristic, cold, antiseptic world that we see too often in films. Even though it doesn't go far into cannibalism as in the book, it's a fun, entertaining film.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Gloaming

Sunset Song (2015) - Davies
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A sweeping tale of changing times in Scotland in the early 20th century, Terence Davies's new film Sunset Song centers around a farm girl Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) in the fictional rural town of Kinraddie near Aberdeen.

Chris is a thoroughly modern woman in-the-making, but held back by a still very much conservative, religious, patriarchal society and her love of the land. She is an educated girl who wants to become a teacher, an honest and noble profession, but her circumstances hold her back from achieving that goal.

Her mother, even though worn out by childbearing -- six kids and counting -- and by her overbearing husband (Peter Mullan at his most brutish), still insists that there's more to life than books and studies. But after finding out that she is pregnant again in her middle age, she has a mental breakdown and takes her own life along with the newborn twins.

After much abuse from pa, Chris's mild mannered, loving older brother, Will, also bails on her gets married and moves to Argentina. Pa reluctantly sends away Chris's two younger siblings to live with the relatives, leaving only Chris to take care of the house and the farm. It becomes unbearable when pa has a stroke and becomes bedridden, leaving Chris to endure all the hardship alone.

Things takes on a brighter side after pa's death. With a little money she inherited and the farm, she marries a charming neighbor farmer named Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) and bears a son. Everything seems hopeful and bright, but World War I comes rolling in and Ewan gets conscripted.

Never into the idea of leaving home and fighting the war, the couple is very opposed to the idea at first, but everyone around them in their nationalistic fervor -- the church and macho men -- keeps egging Ewan to go. After seeing the horrors of war, Ewan is a changed man and becomes abusive toward Chris. Their relationship gets strained beyond repairable and he takes off for another tour without saying goodbye.

It is easy to see why many regard Davies as the greatest living British filmmaker. Impeccably crafted, shot in glorious 70mm, Sunset Song is a stunning achievement. We've seen sweeping crane shots through swaying wheat fields before on screen in Terrence Malick films and his countless imitators, but not like this.

There is certain authenticity in images of Davies films that communicates beyond mere lyricism and beauty. It's in the pacing; Davies is not interested in prolonged nature porn. The compositions are perfect and they lasts no more than 30 seconds before they fade into the next shot.

Nature is worshipped but in a different way than American Westerns. Constantly raining and wind-swept, the Scottish countryside doesn't have that mythic, ethereal quality, but it's more lived-in, its edges dulled by years of cultivation and contant presence of livestock. Still, on the big screen, Sunset Song is a truly cinematic experience, even more visually ravishing than his autobiographical, Liverpool set masterpiece Long Day Closes.

It's in the casting, too; Deyn, a British model whose tall stature and fine, graceful features, truly belong to the era. Always in the center of the screen, erect and defiant, yet vulnerable, seeing our heroine in the autumn field evokes a lot of different emotions. Equally painterly are the interior scenes; shot on 4K digital, Davies and his director of photography Michael McDonough favor naturally dark rooms with warmth coming from fireplace and sunlight coming through the window.

Just like many of his other films, Sunset Song is a tragedy of a woman caught in the changing times. Adapted from the revered Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song is a lamentation on time passing, the loss of a way of life, and a love song to its inhabitants' attachment to the land. Davies captures the essense of the book beautifully. I just wish I had a good ear for languages to enjoy the film more. See the film on the big screen! It's glorious!


Sunset Song plays as part of the Terence Davies Retrospective at Museum of Moving Image May 7-22 and opens theatrically at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema on May 13.

Interview: Terence Davies on poetry, art, actresses and more

Terence Davies, regarded as one of the greatest living British directors, doesn't make films too often. So when he does, it's a monumental event every time. With his long delayed passion project Sunset Song finally coming out in theaters this weekend and A Quiet Passion, his new film about American poet Emily Dickinson already in the can, the 70 year-old British director suddenly finds himself more prolific than ever (he's done only 9 features in 4 decades of filmmaking).

He is in town for his complete retrospective at Museum of Moving Image, 5/7 - 5/22, and I got a chance to sit down with him for an interview.

It was quite intimidating meeting the master filmmaker in person, but his unguarded, warm disposition put me at ease. It wasn't long before Davies, in his Liverpudlian accent, enthusiastically, breathlessly, explained his craft to me. It was a truly spellbinding experience.

*Fair bit of warning here: this interview contains loads of spoilers for Sunset Song.

You have Sunset Song and A Quiet Passion coming out back to back! To whom do we owe thanks?

Yes, not by design but a sheer accident. (laughs) It comes down to money as it always does. We didn’t have enough money to shoot Sunset Song. It was a very difficult shoot because of not having enough money and the post production dragged on for a long time, again because of the money. In the mean time I’d already written the Emily Dickson Film, A Quiet Passion. And we ended up having shot that. And by the time we were finishing shooting, that, by sheer accident, happened. It never happened like that to me before.

It’s great. We didn’t have to wait 8 years for another Terence Davies film to come out! Haven’t seen Quiet Passion yet but am very excited.

I just love Emily Dickenson’s poetry. I think she is the greatest 19th century American poet. Although the very first thing I’ve ever read, I was 9 or 10, was The Song of Hiawatha, It has a great stretches in that octosyllabic rhyme. You can’t ever forget it. But thank god now who reads The Courtship of Miles Standish anymore? I’ve never responded Longfellow’s poetry but I think Dickinson was a true genius and was well before her time. And the great poems are truly, truly great. It’s so succinct, i mean it’s distilled down to the bare essence. That’s why it’s so powerful.

The dying needs but little, dear-
A glass of water’s all,
A flower’s unobtrusive face
To punctuate the wall,
A fan perhaps, a friend’s regret,
No color in the rainbow
Perceive when you are gone.


(grabs his chest) Just heartbreaking.

Bravo! I really wish I have a better ear for language. Sunset Song takes place in Scotland and the film’s based on a revered Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Did you have to do a lot of preparation to get the language right? How was the adaptation process?

Not so much…whenever you do an adaptation of a novel or a play, you try to get an essence of it. While remain true to the source, something has to change. There are things you can do in a film that you can’t do in a novel and vice versa. but if you listen to the material, the content dictates form, never the other way around. I mean, it will tell you. The worst thing is when you get back into the editing room and there are two particular scenes you love and and they got to go. That’s really heart breaking, but the material’s telling you that it’s too much and you have to listen to that.

And sometimes you get the essence of what something is without literally doing what was in the book. I mean at the end of Sunset Song, the whole of Kinraddie come to these standing stones and the preacher preaches about forgiveness. The wind was so strong, the standing stones we had were going like this (swaying his hands). It was awful.

So what is it in the ending that is about forgiveness? Well, let’s make it domestic. We’ve already seen Kinraddie people: there was a thrashing dinner and there was her wedding, we didn’t see them any other time. so let’s make it domestic. And there it’s a poetic license: when the sun comes up, it comes up at the same time, it doesn’t come up separately. And to do that we make up something strange - light enters the room and it’s strange and that’s when we hear him come back. He says, I’ve come home and that captures the essence.

And she goes up to the stones and the sky and the piper and her voice over and that’s how it ends in the book. But it’s the getting there by a different route and you are restricted by what you shot. It looked awful. It was just grey and flat. So you have to something. What does the subtextual meaning of those closing pages? And you think, well I think this will do it. Just as you putting things that are not there - like the scene where she holds his clothes. that’s not in the book.

That was a beautiful scene.

The whole Kinraddie going to church. That's also not in the book. It just says the town goes to church and you hear the sermon which is awful - it's about two and a half pages long and its full of xenophobia and hatred. What would be wonderful I thought, was the whole of Kinraddie arrive, in this gorgeous light. Someone said, well they would not walk through the crops and I said I don’t care. They are going to walk through the crops. So they arrive in this golden light of god. And then, after that, going to the church wanting the grace of god, and the preacher tells to go and kill one another.

Right.


That’s what’s horrific. And I’ve known about that song, All in the April Evening, since I was about 17. That’s when I started to listen to classical music. There was a thing on the radio called your hundred best tunes, the best known classical music, you know, Peer Gynt and Lachmann and all that. And then I heard this and that was an amateur choir from Glasgow, which was founded by a Glasgow Region Undertaker and the singing was just amazing. I’ve never forgot it and when I started the adaptation, I was going to put it somewhere. Because it was really important for me.

Shooting outdoors and a lot of farm animals. Was it hard for you?

It was very very difficult. It comes back to us not having enough money. We all took the risk. There were times when I said, “Can we afford this" and and the answer was "No we can’t, we have to cut it from the script”. I’ve never done that in 14 years and I’d never ever want to do it again. Because it can really seriously damage the film- you are cutting things that perhaps are needed but once in the cutting room, you can’t go back to New Zealand for it. No, we can’t even go back to Scotland to redo things. So that was the great strain.

You went to New Zealand to shoot it?

Yes, for the summer sequences. Because you can’t rely on Scotland’s weather. It rains all the time so we had to go to New Zealand to shoot that. The seasons are characters and if it’s just too grey and flat, there is nothing interesting about that.

But it was a very hard shoot. But everyone pulled together. I couldn’t have done it without not just the crew and not just the actors but financiers and the bond company- they were so supportive, I can’t tell you. It was quite wonderful. But it did take a lot out of me. I thought, "I am not gonna work like this ever again!"

All the exterior scenes are shot on film but all the interiors are shot on digital. Do you have any opinions on all these changing technology and how you make and see the film?

There used to be film then. Film still had an edge. It’s one of the things you have to take care of- you choose the right stock and you do the test and you say yes, it should look like that. But all the interiors are inspired by a Danish painter called Hammershøi who was active in the late 19 and early 20th century. His paintings were like Vermeer but with a smudged northern lights. They are of empty rooms with the doors open and if there was as subject in them, they were usually women back to the view and are exquisite. Obviously not the same class as Vermeer, my favorite painter but they have that Vermeerlike quality - the stillness, the ghosts of those people who used to be in those rooms. Exterior was just the way it was. Sometimes we got lucky and got that gloaming light. But it was pure luck.

But when we came to do Emily Dickinson, the digital replaced the film. It’s just as good. In fact, it’s getting better.

So you are fine with that.

It’s just good. And what they can do now is breathtaking. It’s just marvelous. I think it’s as important as coming of sound really. On a practical level, when you mark the dissolve on a film, it will take you most of the day. It takes two days for it to come back from the laboratories and with this (digital), you can do it in an instant.

Right.


The drawback of that is it can rob you of thinking time. And you got to say no, I want to think about this for two days. You got to wait.

Right right.


Just like anything in your films, the casting is always Impeccable. You’ve worked with some great actresses in the past, Gina Rowlands, Gillian Anderson and Rachel Weisz. Agyness Deyn did an amazing job as Chris Guthrie, the protagonist of the film, but she is kind of unknown, isn’t she? Do you have a preference in with whom you want to work with? How did you get to cast her?

No. I always cast people who I think are right for the part. I don’t care if they are big names or not. I’m not interested in that. And I don’t know anything about popular culture or anything about models. It was our casting agents who found her and she was the first person (at the audition) Monday morning. And she gave the most wonderful audition and I said to my producer that we found her.

You can tell, I get the feeling that she is right for the part. It’s got to be felt. I always know. It’s like when you are shooting and you feel that you gonna get (what you want) this time. The thing is I don’t want them to act. If it doesn’t work, we can try it again, because it’s digital and it’s cheap. But really it’s usually first couple of takes that’s what ends up on the screen. In A Quiet Passion, most of them I got in less than 4 takes. For the rape scene and marriage scene (in Sunset Song) we did it once. I didn’t even plan on doing another take. I told her I can’t possibly put you through that again.

Other times, like the execution scene, these are all young lads from Luxembourg, because all the interiors and war scenes are shot in there. Someone said, “They can’t act.” and I said, “Look, just put them in costumes, frame it and we’ll just watch them.” and of course people don’t stand still. They shift the gun around. That’s what you do when you don’t do anything but stand still. And that’s what makes the scene. In fact we shot that scene in 48 frames per second. It’s slightly slower and what you get is like a ballet performance. It has to be - both balletic and horrible.

The tension and sadness in that scene is unbelievable but I didn’t even notice that it was slowed down.

The train goes by in the background somewhat slowly.

Oh yeah!

You’ve done series of films that feature tragic female protagonists. Has it been a conscious decision on your part?

No, I’m just attracted to the story. But you mustn’t forget that when I was growing up in the 50s the big commercial hits were all about women. Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, they were all huge successes. So I grew up with the idea of women being the main protagonists. Then a TV came along and that’s where I relearned all Joan Crowford films for instance. And The Letter from Unknown Woman, The Heirless, those are huge riches when they were finally shown on television. And they were all about women. By sheer accident!

It was funny that I found a youtube clip of you introducing 2001: Space Odyssey in some TV program, explaining things very technically.

(Davies laughs)

Because however visually accomplished your films are, I don’t ever think of you as a technical director.

It’s because I work with people who are artists on their own right, they can help me the correct lenses in front of the camera. Because I can ever remember what I’m looking at when I look down on the lens. I write as I see it. And for pure practical reasons, because we haven’t got much money, you can say, this and this days we’ll be tracking, on this day we’ll need a crane and that day we will need 25 extras. Because you’ve got to husband your resources. Since we don’t have vast resources, so you’ve got to know what you are doing technically.

I guess A Quiet Passion is your second American film, set in Massachussettes.

We shot very little in America. Because of the lack of money, we shot most of it in Belgium. (laughs) And a lot of Belgian actors do very good american accent it turns out. So they rebuilt the exact replica of the Dickinson house with two separate floors. It's quite extraordinary. But we shot in America for 3 days or something. We just couldn’t afford it. The whole production was just pure joy. There wasn’t a single problem from beginning to end. Absolutely wonderful. Especially after sunset song which was a murder. Everything went right for A Quiet Passion. It was an absolute bliss. I should never complain again. (laughs)

I am very much looking forward to it. I hope it comes out soon.

Oh me too.

How was Cinthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson?

she was extraordinary. It is the most extraordinary performance. She is Emily Dickinson! She really is! There is this one shot where she turns around and it’s emily Dickinson. And Jennifer Earle, who plays her sister who is just radiant. When they have a rouse, you gotta watch out. They are family and they support each other to the hilt but when they fall out, they really fall out. And they really go for each other. They were quite wonderful. But that performance is the most extraordinary I’ve ever seen.

We did a lot of guide tracks of her reciting poems. After movie was shot and we were in the editing room, she asked me if she needs to recite the poems again. I said that’s not necessary. The way she reads them… The first time I discovered Emily Dickinson was Claire Bloom reading Because I could not stop for death. She read it with this air of amusement, as if this was happening to someone else. It was devastating. It was just…WHAT MADE YOU THINK OF DOING IT LIKE THAT?

So what’s next for you since you became so prolific all of sudden?

Well one is already written. It’s called Mother of Sorrows. It’s based on an American novel by Richard McCann. That’s probably gonna happen next year. And at the moment I am writing a film about Siegfried Sassoon. I was asked to do it.

You have a lot on your plate. And hopefully money will come along?

Now, I’m all for that!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Memories you'd want to take to your grave with

Long Day Closes (1992) - Davies
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Davies's deeply personal, fragmentary recalling of his childhood growing up in post-war Britain has all his long-standing preoccupations - loving mother, going to the picture show, religion, the view of the world through the window and burgeoning homosexuality. Laced with show tunes and movie dialog from the 50s against grimy, rainy Liverpool backdrop, Long Day Closes shows Bud Davies, an introverted young boy from a working class family, living with his older siblings (and their mates) and widowed mother, turning to his imagination to escape from bullying, guilt and spartan school surroundings.

But unlike his Distant Voices, Still Lives, there is no villain (brutish father played by Pete Postlethwaite) in this. With no visible narrative, Davies's laments are distinctly impressionistic and extremely warm. Skipping all the philosophizing narration of the usual autobiographical films, Davies instead shows these beautiful, sorrowful, happy moments with amazingly accomplished visual style. I mean I'm not a big fan of dolly moves in films but hot damn! He knows how to use them and does so gracefully. Long Day Closes is one of the best films depicting childhood I've seen. These are the memories you want to take to your grave. It's a beautiful, cinematic experience that is full of warmth and hope.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ebbs and Flows: Gabriel Mascaro Interview

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I had a chance to get a phone interview with Mascaro to discuss his first retrospective anywhere and his new film, Neon Bull.

Brazilian visual artist and filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro’s new narrative feature, Neon Bull, is garnering much critical acclaim. On the occasion of the theatrical release of the film in New York, Film Society of Lincoln Center revisits the works of one of international cinema’s most exciting new auteurs in Gabriel Mascaro: Ebbs and Flows, a five-film retrospective, starting 4/15.

Living and working in Recifé, the cultural capital of Pernambuco, a once neglected northeast region of Brazil, Mascaro established himself as an artist delving into photography, installations, documentaries and digital animation, commenting on ever so changing political, cultural, geographic landscapes. His astute observation on the lives of margins of society using non-actors in their working environs bore layered, fascinating, impossible to categorize films.

Neon Bull is the culmination of all of Mascaro’s preoccupations and his practices as an artist. It stars hunky Brazilian TV star Juliano Cazarré as a Vaqueiro (cowboy) who dreams of being a fashion designer. Gorgeously lensed by Diego Garcia (Cemetery of Splendour) and naturally acted by non professional and professional actors alike, the film observes human body at its most natural state – at work place and subverts it in the social, cultural, political context. It’s a multi-layered, sensual, deeply complex film.

Q: Congratulations on your retrospective, Gabriel Mascaro: Ebbs and Flows at the Film Society at the Lincoln Center here in New York.

A: Thank you very much. It’s the first time that my work has been shown all together. It’s a very interesting moment for me to see them all in one setting like that. I like the title Ebbs and Flows. For me it was a short (A Onda Trás o Vento Leva) that didn’t really work. It’s a happy choice of a title because I can reflect on my own work.

Q: Your discipline as a visual artist is not limited to a feature filmmaking. You’ve done shorts, documentaries, computer animation and installation work. Now you’ve done two feature length films back to back, what is it about a feature length narrative that are different than your other work? What is it that you are exploring in a narrative feature?

A: It’s a difficult question. I don’t really know exactly. But for me it’s a natural evolution. I came to make narrative features after getting into discussions about negotiating images in making documentaries. For me, documentaries are like auto-fictions…I don’t know how to translate this, but it’s the real people telling fictional stories about themselves, like a self-made fiction. In a way I wanted to deepen that experience.

Working with experienced actors in Neon Bull was a very different experience. It was a challenge because I’ve never really worked with experienced actors before. There was a change in my approach. But interestingly, one of my favorite moments was when Cacá (Aline Santana, an 8-year old who’s never acted before) became quiet in the film. The silent moments were the time when she was actually discovering herself and building her character. It was a magical moment in directing because she’s not an experienced actress. I told Aline to only speak when it’s necessary and assured her that there is no hurry, that filming can wait. That she should speak only if she believed in what she was saying, that she should take a deep breath and speak when only necessary. So it’s a film where characters only speak when they want to, when they have a desire to speak.

Q: On that note, I was wondering about your writing process. Did you have a tightly written script for both August Winds and Neon Bull? Or is your filmmaking more of an organic process where improvisation is necessary?

A: It’s an interesting question. I do work with a structured screenplay- the traditional one with dialog. But what’s different is the process of preparation with the actors.

In case of Neon Bull, the actors all read the script and they spent two months of preparation where they didn’t use the script anymore. They were working more on the dynamic of interactions. They did exercises with the dialog from the script but they weren’t rehearsing the dialog.

Before shooting the scenes in Neon Bull, I’d read out loud the dialog to the actors. And they would try to recover the structure of the script but they would still use the dynamic that they had developed during those two month of preparation. It brought them to a special place because these mixture of two approaches.

Q: That’s very interesting. How did Juliano Cazarré (who plays the main character, Iremar) take the script when he first read it?

I think Juliano was very intrigued and happy because the script gave him the opportunity to change the image that people have of him and the role they usually associate with him - strong, tough, macho type. And with this character, he shows his sweet and sensitive side.

He was worried about the sex scene, because he realized that it was a very strong scene. But he was very nervous and insecure about doing it. It was a challenge. But they figured it out.

The process for preparing the roles was that of a…gradual deduction: shedding the typical element of their supposed characters. They were entering it and giving themselves slowly to the process.

Q: There are a lot of interesting contradictions in Neon Bull. Iremar is a big handsome cowboy but he wants to be a fashion designer and two girls - Galega and Geise are a tough truck driver and an armed security guard. Was this sexual politics something you were interested in exploring?

I think the film is about the process of transformation, transforming bodies. Economically the transformation is very accelerated in Brazil. To project these bodies to the landscape without the typical gender roles and to contextualize them in the cowboy universe was something I was interested in.

It’s not just about inverting gender roles, its about bodies that are working in different scale - the opposites of pleasure and violence, sensibility and anger, it’s all about all these things together. It’s not about masculine woman and feminine man but we are talking about more abstract categories.

Q: What’s also interesting is that Housemaids, August Winds and Neon Bull all feature working people doing manual labor. Can you elaborate on that aspect of your films?

A: It’s a great question. No one asked me that before. I do research on bodies that are contextualized in the world of work. So in some ways, my work is a gesture in trying to explore the common subject. I guess the larger meaning in my work is to try to find extraordinary experiences in ordinary work.

Their occupation, their work that I show in these films often shows impersonalized faces and movements in repetition. So these films are subversion of the work itself. For example in August Winds, they have sex in the coconut cart during their break where they work and in Neon Bull, he makes fashion out of fallen tails of the bulls. So in a way it’s imagining the work in a more personal way. I am trying to elaborate the intervals of this kind of work with an eruption of the body in a more abstract sense as well- a warm and affectionate form of a body in impersonal places.

Q: Can you tell me about Pernambuco, the northeast region of Brazil in context to your films?

A: The region is often associated with poverty and hunger and people wanting to escape. I spent my whole life there and never left nor I wanted to. So I tried to build my work there. With the characters in my films, I try to discuss how to redefine this place. They are there in the northeast and they don’t want to leave.

The way these characters are written, they are not the ones you feel sorry for. They might have simple lives but they are strong people and they are not naive. Though in some ways, Neon Bull deals with the economic transformation that is happening in the region and it shows a lot of challenges that people are facing there, but I think a lot of it is universal - like gentrification, industrialization, large scale construction everywhere.

Q: What is your assessment of the recent surge in Brazilian cinema? I’ve seen some really interesting films produced in recent years. Adirley Queirós’ White Out, Black In and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds, just give you couple of examples…

A: We are speaking of very special moment in Brazilian cinema. Many filmmakers who are working are more interested in developing a new language of film. They don’t have the pressure of the market so much. They are modest budget films but they all have one thing in common - they are all supported by the government funds. So they are able to elaborate their language of film without making any concessions.

The filmmakers you mentioned, Adirley Queirós and Kleber Mendonça Filho are doing very interesting films. Filho also has a new film out called Aquarius, and it will be a special and important film for Brazilian filmmaking.


**Special thanks to Austin Kennedy at FSLC for arranging the interview and Micheal Gibbons for translation

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Art of the Real 2016 Preview

Art of the Real, a film series showcasing nonfiction work from around the world, remains and continues to be the most essential film event for serious and adventurous cinephiles. Once again, curated by venerable Dennis Lim and Racheal Rakes, FSLC is presenting the most impressive lineup yet: new works from Roberto Minervini, Ben Rivers, José Luis Guerin and Thom Andersen among others. Tirelessly testing the boundaries of cinema, art and reality, these films assure me that cinema still is an artistic medium with much more to explore for a long time to come.

This year, they are also highlighting American avant-garde giant Bruce Baillie's films, organized by Garbiñe Ortega. The selection of Baillie's films in this year's Art of the Real pays homage to his body of work, and drecognizes his legacy as an artist as well as his outstanding work as a distributor and promoter of avant-garde filmmakers.

Previewing these amazing array of films ahead of the series year after year reminds me the reason why I am still putting up with living in New York. It's all worth it.

Art of the Real 2016 runs 4/8 - 4/21 at FSLC. Please check their website for schedule and tickets.

THE OTHER SIDE - Roberto Minervini **Opening Night Film
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Roberto Minervini's new film after his Texas Trilogy finds itself a little to the west this time, in rural Louisiana, where unemployment is high and poverty rampant. Mark, a man with a criminal record ekes out a living doing menial jobs and selling homemade drugs to pole dancers at strip clubs. Most of the time he is high on drugs and alcohol with his girlfriend Lisa in his trailer.

The Other Side is a remarkably frank document about people living on the fringes of society. Minervini, an Italian expat, got the complete access to the lives of Mark and Lisa and their extended family and friends, baring it all, in American deep south- with this fact alone, the film is a remarkable achievement.

It's a deeply immersive experience and not unlike Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room. It's more impactful because the film takes place in America, especially when film devolves into dark territory with white militias with their assault weapons, shooting up Obama effigies and talking about imminent revolution, "when the n***a president declares Martial Law and take down your doors and trample on our constitution" in the latter part of the film.

Minervini observes all without once interfering or involving himself in any way, with real empathy, showing that all these people have left to hold on to is family and love. It's a strong, disturbing, beautiful film that deserves respect.

ACADEMY OF MUSES - José Luis Guérin
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Rafaele Pinto, an enegetic middle aged Italian Philology professor at Univ. of Barcelona teaches a course on 'how to be a muse' in a class largely dominated by female students. His theses, that music and poetry can reach the dead that words have power, draw a passionate debates among students and create heated conversations that spill out of classroom to cafes and parked cars. Culling from Dante's writings that a muse 'should be an active force in the lives of her subject, not a passive object of adoration', he inadvertently pushes his student to take charge in their love lives.

Pinto is played by Prof. Pinto and the flurry of female students who later come into focus as the film goes along, are played by actual students. Once again, blurring the lines between fiction and documentary art and real life, Guérin concocts a film that is intellectually, emotionally rigorous, at the same time, deliciously playful.

Pinto's aging wife is doubtful about his project and worries with the way things are going that he soon might be involving himself with female students. Indeed, the power of words sinks in to many students' minds and they become enamored with Pinto. He in turn start dating students as if he's one of Woody Allen's alter-ego. He explains to his wife's deaf ears that it's part of his experiments.

The course work takes Emanuela (Emanuela Forgetta), a fiery Italian Brunette, to Sardinia with Pinto. There, intoxicated by the beautiful surroundings and pastoral life, she finds falling for a rugged shepherd. Pinto, part jealous and part studious, protests and tells her to think with a cool head. "You have to be his muse, not the other way around."

Mireia (Mireia Iniesta), a blonde Spaniard who confesses to him about her online relationship (which is completely based upon exchange of words) that left her heart-broken. Pinto tells her that even though she is suffering, in a sense, she made him a 'poet'. Then he takes her to Napoli, where he was born, to contemplate on his own mortality.

Shot simply by Guérin himself, the film implies matter of factly the complex relationships of people by shooting through various windows.

Academy of Muses is an intellectually, emotionally and stylistically satisfying viewing experience and by far the most invigorating cinematic exercise I've seen this year.

IL SOLENGO - Alessio Rigo de Righi, Matteo Zoppis
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This Rashomon style tale of a village recluse of mythic proportions is told by grumpy old residents of the rural Italy. Mario de Macetta, otherwise known as Il Solengo - a lone boar, kept his distance from everyone and lived a hermit life in a cave for the last 60 years.

This is a typical talking heads documentary that is anything but typical - it's even refreshing in its strict old-fashioned, formal approach. It unobtrusively comments and contrasts on the old Italy versus the new- all the residents who were portrayed are old men and the setting is unencumbered by any sign of technology.

We don't see the subject until the very end, but that doesn't play out like a coy device for suspense. The film has its own rhythm and its slow pace reflects the environments and its residents. Would be a great film to be paired with Sacro GRA, another great Italian documentary in recent years shot in the rural peripheries of Rome.

A MAGICAL SUBSTANCE FLOWS INTO ME - Jumana Manna
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Artist Jumana Manna travels through Palestine and Israel, looking for ethnic music collected by Robert Lachmann, a German-Jewish musicologist in 1935 in his radio program, "Oriental Music". He invited many musicians from Palestinian territories all over and recorded their songs. But he drew only hostilities and criticisms from both sides. Reciting through his writings and music recordings, Manna charts intoxicating investigation through time and space both cultural and political.

What strikes me first is incredible diversity of the region: the patchwork of all the ethnic groups and their music is vast - there are Kurdish Jews, Morocans, Beduins, Copts, Samaritans and many many more. Manna sets up shops in an informal settings- mostly in her subject's kitchen, them preparing food or coffee, and the music starts flowing and it's magical.

DEAD SLOW AHEAD - Mauro Herce
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The comparison with Julien Castraing-Taylor & Verena Paravel's Leviathan is unavoidable. Shot entirely on a freight cargo ship, Fair Lady, as it makes its way to the vast ocean from somewhere in European continent, Mauro Herce records with stately, ultra clean high-def images of the giant ship from various angles.

What's impressive is its sound design along with eerie, Angelo Badalamenti-an soundtrack - mingling of giant machine hums, sonar beeps, engine room, the weather and roiling waves. The crew mostly comprised of Southeast Asians, spend their time doing karaoke and calling their families.

Things take a drastic turn as the ship taking in water in treacherous ocean, the desperate radio communication is overheard, "Entire river is coming through the keel," "The water is reaching the storage tanks," "Sir, this is a disaster!"

Cut to the sequence of red water - the palette is mostly green and red in the gigantic wheat storage area, and the workers shoveling grain in a relatively tiny buckets and throwing tons of grain overboard.

A ship as a metaphor for wayward, aimless capitalism lost at sea is dully noted in Dead Slow Ahead but not as obviously stated as in Godard's Film Socialisme. Still, it's rigorous formalism and amazing sound design are something to take note.

Poet on a Business Trip - Ju Anqi
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In 2002, director Ju Anqi and his friend, poet Shu went on a road trip and spent 40 days in the westernmost Chinese province of Xinjiang, hitchhiking and visiting various prostitutes along the way. The exhausting trip made the director and his actor/subject go separate ways and the footage was shelved for 12 years. It's a good thing that Ju picked up the movie again and edited it now. Like a good wine, it's better aged.

Shot in full frame low quality video, the color had been degraded, so Ju decided to present it grainy black and white. The result is an at times idiosyncratic, funny, sad, poignant road movie full of local characters and interactions and 16 poems.

With an absurd premise- that a poet sending himself on a business trip to a remote place, Poet works not only as a existential travelogue but an intimate time capsule of Uighur people, a Turkish speaking, muslim ethnic minority some 12 years ago. As Shu hitches a ride and share cheap hostel beds with these friendly people, there is no hint of ethnic struggle that's been turning violent over the years.

There are a lot to love in Poet on a Business trip: a sheep herder and Shu exchange their mutual admiration for each other's life, "I guess we both want what we don't have. That we are all the same everywhere," the sheep herder remarks. A karaoke night with a prostitute turns confessional, revealing loneliness and yearning for that special someone to settle down with. As the constant traveling takes toll on Shu's health and mood, the trip gets a little lonelier with its colorless scenery accentuating its emptiness.

What starts out as an idiosyncratic, goofy road trip, Poet on a Business Trip gains its poignancy over time, resulting in beautiful melancholia.

I am an Animal and That's OK.

Neon Bull (2015) - Mascaro
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It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that now, the pulse of the contemporary cinema could be found in Latin America. With relative political and economic stability (I use the term loosely here) after the economic crisis in the early 2000s, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil have been producing some of the most exciting new talents in recent years.

In the case of Brazilian cinema, after the initial success of the favela movies in the international market- such as Central Station, City of God and Elite Squad which still owed themselves heavily to the tradition of Cinema Novo, a new generation of filmmakers emerged, severing the ties with the past and cultivating a different kind of art house cinema with the support of government’s cultural agencies. If this morning’s news of inclusion of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s new film Aquarius in competition at Cannes Film Festival this year, I’d say the future of Brazilian cinema is only getting brighter.

Brazilian filmmaker/visual artist Gabriel Mascaro is one of the happy recipients of such support from a pro-culture government. Mascaro’s hometown, Recifé, in the northeastern region of Pernambuco became a hub for burgeoning independent filmmakers as a result of government allotting money, finally, not only to the more developed, and commerce oriented southern region – Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo but also elsewhere in the country.

Mascaro, with his documentary background, demonstrates his anthropologist tendencies and lends sharp insights into often invisible cultural, societal, sexual boundaries of rapidly changing Brazilian society.

His latest, Neon Bull, is his second narrative feature after critically acclaimed narrative debut, August Winds. The film defies easy categorization as with the former. Exquisitely lensed by Diego Garcia (Cemetery of Splendor), Neon Bull transports us to yet another marginal segment in Brazilian society in Panambuco, northeast region of Brazil. The title comes from Brazilian rodeo (vaquejada)- it involves two cowboys on their horses sandwiching the bull from both sides and taking it down by yanking their tails. Sometimes the show goes on at night and they put iridescent paint over the bulls, hence Boi Neon (Neon Bull). The film follows one such traveling vaquejada trope.

The narrative pull is a little more consistent here than in August Winds. But as in his other films, the director's interest is elsewhere. While keeping a distance, the director zeroes in on a specific societal spectrum, stripping it down to a base level.

The slight, episodic narrative tells a story of Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), a hunky vaqueiro (cowboy) and his immediate surroundings. Iremar works for a vaquejada, which makes him to lead a nomadic existence- sleeping in a hammock and making use of outdoor showers and outhouses. His makeshift family consists of a young cattle truck driver Galega (Maeve Jinkings) and her preteen daughter Cacá (Alyne Santana) and with two other ranch hands.

Getting bulls ready for the rodeo is a filthy job and vaqueiros are constantly covered in dust and cow dungs. But unlike his looming physique and the rough sport he deals with day in and day out. He has different aspirations: he wants to be a fashion designer.

When he is not dusting bull's tails or shoveling cow shit, he is hunched over his tiny sewing table, working away the nights or drawing designs over naked bodies in fellow cowhand's porn magazines. Using Galega as his model (she works as an exotic dancer in his outfit with a horse mask over her head), Iremar horns his skills and dreams of getting a professional sewing machine.

Neon Bull is a culmination of all of Mascaro’s preoccupations and cinematic skills. It might be a deceptively simple film about a marginalized society at first glance, but the film's much more complex in both theme and form. Not only he plays with the notion of machismo in cowboy and Brazilian culture in general, he also applies same matter-of-fact life observations in nature documentary to his human characters. Animal and human sexuality and bodily needs are depicted with no frills (Cazarré's sculpted body is often shown full-frontal). The film features some of the most sensual, uninterrupted long sex scenes (involving a very pregnant woman, no less) depicted in recent film history.

Mascaro is fascinated with a human body and it’s often idealized and naked (both in August Winds and Neon Bull). He throws it into rapidly changing surroundings – culturally, politically and geographically, to contrast and conform and subvert what’s seen in the frame.

He thrives in authenticity that he cultivated in his documentary days and makes full use of it in this 'ordinary people with their small dreams' narrative. He gets spectacularly naturalistic performances out from his cast - most of his actors are non-actors playing characters pretty close to themselves. Cazarré, a big TV soap star, under Masaro’s direction, disappears into the role of lowly cowboy.

Neon Bull is heady, sensual, political, layered trip to the heart of Brazil done masterfully and one can only hope that the director continues on his experiment with the narrative form of filmmaking.


After appearing at ND/NF, Neon Bull gets a theatrical run on 4/8 at FSLC. Mascaro's retrospective Gabriel Mascaro: Ebbs and Flows runs 4/15-4/21 as well. Please visit FSLC website.

Joachim Trier's Louder than Bombs is a beautifully written gem of a film

Louder than Bombs (2015) - Trier
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I can't stress enough that watching Joachim Trier's films is like reading really good books. That he might be the most literary (not in a superficial sense) film director working today. With each new films, Trier and his writing partner Eskil Vogt, show what mature, gifted writers they are. Their English language debut, Louder than Bombs, is a finely tuned chamber piece about grief and family dynamics. It is a great American film that brings out nuanced, beautifully drawn, rich characters just under two hours running time and would give Jonathan Franzen a run for his money. The title comes from the Smiths' album which was the US only released compilation, taken from Elizabeth Smart's prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It's an apt title to illustrate the state of internal grief felt by the characters. The film's so beautifully written and acted, I can't find one false note.

The Reed family is grieving the death of the family matriarch, a strong willed war photographer, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert). Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is a gentle high school teacher who had been always supportive of Isabelle and took care of their two sons while she's away in the war zones. Josh the elder son (Jesse Eisenberg), who just became a father himself, has his mother's traits - smart, driven, but has an air of a boy who grew up too fast. Then there is Conrad the younger son (Devin Druid), an unresponsive, always plugged in high schooler. Even though she's gone for two years, Isabelle is always present through numerous flashbacks, dreams and even has her own narrations. Things get a little complicated when Isabelle's colleague and former lover Richard (David Strathairn) is about to publish his article on her in New York Times and mention her suicide, a fact Gene never told Conrad about. As Josh comes home to take charge of Isabelle's photos in her untouched studio, it slowly becomes clear that the visit is an excuse for him to get away from his nagging wife and the new born. The three men have to deal with their grief in their own way.

As Trier and vogt explored before in Reprise, Bombs deals with the consequences of being a talented, driven person. Many fail to balance work and relationship. For Isabelle, her work was like an addiction, no matter how much she kidded herself with the notion of family life. Not that she was an uncaring mother, but she was unhappy, feeling that she wasn't needed every time she came home and at the same time felt guilty for being selfish. Gene, who gave up his acting career to take care of their sons, never found his place in the world and doesn't really know how to connect with his growing/grownup sons who worshiped their mom and in turn resented him. Although Josh would never admit to anyone, he regrets having to grow up too fast and made rash decisions undoubtedly because of his mom's death. Conrad daydreams and makes up scenarios how his mom really died and lives in his head most of the time.

Acting is superb throughout: Byrne exudes warmth and patience in an anti-patriarchal character that is rarely seen in American films. Added to his arrogant, intelligent kid he always plays, Eisenberg brings vulnerability in a basically a not showy supporting role. But it's Druid who is truly phenomenal as a weird kid who is much more mature than he seems. And of course, Huppert, again, makes her presence felt, even with limited screen time, playing enigmatic, complicated woman.

Despite its heavy subject matter Bombs contains many humorous moments involving Conrad's crush on one of the school's popular girls while Josh matter of factly discouraging him that it would never work out ('been there done that' defeatist nerd talk) and Gene trying to connect with Conrad through a role playing video game with resulting in hilarity. And just like in his two previous films, Trier uses fast moving montage sequences that signify meaningful moments in characters' lives (over Conrad's confessional essay) that are truly beautiful and touching. Dense yet lively, touching but not corny, mature and intelligent without being showy, Louder than Bombs is a rare gift of a movie. So good!

Joachim Trier Talks about Louder Than Bombs and His Dream Cast

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With only three feature films under his belt, Norwegian helmer Joachim Trier is quickly establishing himself as a world class filmmaker with his thoughtful, wise and emotionally resonating films. With his English language debut, Louder than Bombs, about a family dealing with the death of a matriach, releasing state side this weekend, I had a chance to catch up with him. Fiercely intelligent and extremely generous, Trier talked great length about working with his amazing ensemble cast.

This is your first English language film. What were some of the challenges you faced?

I went to film school in London (National Film and TV School) and because we grew up in Norway watching American movies with subtitles and with American voices, rather than overdubbed dialog in country like Germany, we had a real advantage to listen to the language and learn it that way. I spent in 7 years in England and I have a lot of friends in America, spent a lot of time in New York, so as Eskil (Eskil Vogt, co-writer).

But I would say it was different because Eskil and I were little more insecure. We were worried that we weren’t getting the right wording or phrasing. So we stayed open with people, like consultants and actors - we asked them to help us to correct things and they helped us change little things. At the end of the day, most of the people found that the dialog was good. The thing is dialog is more dynamic than it is just about words, and because I’m not precious about dialog, If the actors wanted to change words here and there, like they do even Norway, it's was fine with me.

But what was more challenging almost was the idea of getting the attitudes and culture right since we fitted this story into present day America. We ended up doing a High School life movie. I know that life from John Hughes movies. But we went High Schools for real and did some anthropological research so we get authenticity. I really hope we nailed it. We really spent time on it.

I think it was great.

The thing is, whenever I watch your film, I feel like I’m reading a really good book. And I mean it as a compliment. I’m definitely not saying that your films aren’t cinematic, but it’s so well written and characters so beautifully drawn. I know that you don’t want your films to be pigeonholed but I’d say you make the most literary films even more so than Woody Allen does.

For me, the word literary has two sides to it. I am a film fan. And because the film history is so young, one could strive to think ‘what is purely cinematic?’ ‘what’s so unique about this art form?’ These are the essence of how we start out the process. It sounds maybe weird but Eskil and I often say, 'it would be more filmic, if…' and then we try to find a way to do something that has to do with form, or visuality or what we call gestalt - you know, something is shown not told.

But the interesting thing about the inspiration in literature is not the story for us, it’s the freedom of the novel as a form. So the novel as a literary form as I’m sure you are aware, is not that old either. If you look back to the French naturalists in the 1860s, the idea that there have been so many stages since then, of the novel being interpreted- the poetic, the formalist, the naturalist… there are so many. So the idea of form at the essence of storytelling is what I’m often intrigued by. For example there are a lot of those chapters that is more like a diary and you see a scene from two perspectives. To me that is filmic, but it’s going off of just straight storytelling, like the best novels often do. It’s the potential of storytelling in novels I am interested in.

Another example is the visual potential in films of Terrence Malick or…Barry Lindon or in Good Fellas for instance, where a lot of narration is done, so you get a lot of the plot out of the way so images can be more filmic. you know what I mean? You can actually say that often times plot enslaves the image to tell a plot, which is not necessarily always so filmic. That’s actually something that literature also struggles with. The idea of plot is that it has to function.

My films are not plot driven. They are character, emotionally, thematically driven. So I’m having the same challenge as a lot of people in literature to find ways to let more tactile and philosophical moments mean something and emotionally engaging. This is quite complex and I don’t know If my answers are even clear. I hope it makes sense.

It does make sense.

It’s something that I ponder upon. But when you say literary cinema, I choose to take it as compliment because the same was said about filmmakers like Alain Renais or Truffaut, the people that I have been inspired by.

The film has an amazing cast. I know that we don’t have too much time but can you tell me a little about working with these actors? You have Isabelle Huppert, one of the greatest actress of our time, Gabriel Byrne whom I always thought a great actor who never gets a good role, then of course, Jesse Eisenberg and young newcomer Devin Druid…

Oh please! I’d love to talk about each of them if the time allows!

Isabelle got in touch with me after Oslo, August 31st. She liked it and she wanted to meet me and we started talking and…I think she is one of the greatest actor of all cinematic history. I think she’s one of the top people…she IS cinema history: working with her I feel one step closer to understanding why. She is a big risk taker. She is one of the bravest actress I’ve ever met. And she never goes safe. She always tries new things - you will get variations on a scene continually, which is… yeah she never goes for the safe choice or sloppy choice. She’s incredibly bold and brave.

As a side bar, I love shooting with a 50mm lens and I was talking to my cinematographer Jakob Ihre one day and she goes, “Oh, you guys, Chabrol always loved shooting with 50mm…” And it dawned on us that she’s worked with some of the cinema’s greatest directors. She knows modern film history and that she really IS film history!

Then we have, Gabriel Byrne. I agree with you who is a great actor. He is so humble, yet so precise. He always said to me, “You know I’m not really an actor. I never went to school in that way and I just do it and, I don’t know…” He is very very humble but if you get him in front of the camera, He’s always interesting. And he is a thinking man. He could be silent and observing and you go, what’s he thinking? That’s a great gift for an actor. He also takes a carer's responsibility. He is a very natural father in this family because he is a very kind and gentle in real life.

One thing I loved about his character is that he is not a typical patriarchal father you see. You don’t see that in American films often.

You see, men can also be carers. It is very important and I’m glad you bringing it up because for this film, I think many men would stay away from this role. I think there is slight prejudice. Yes we can discuss the very important issue of letting women play many different roles. In real life women play many more roles in society. I am a feminist and I believe it that absolutely. Very important. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight, at the same time, for men to be allowed to play different roles as well. We are all struggling existentially with being restricted, continually, in having to live up to expectations which don’t make us feel that we are allowing ourselves to be more than we could, you know, or be what we can be.

Gene’s story is not about patriarchy, playing the role of the authoritarian father. It’s about playing the role many mothers have played, as the carer, the one that ultimately is the pivot of the family. And he is the only one for the children to be present at the same time being pushed away, because of this idealized mother is no longer around. So that’s very much Gabriel.

Let’s touch on some of the other actors as well.

Sure.

Jesse (Eisenberg) is remarkable. He comes from comedic tradition and he is very very funny. But he’s great with structure. He understands every beat of the scene and he is so well prepared. I don’t give notes between takes. I might try to insinuate emotions or directions or try to make this discovery in the actors. But with him, you can actually be very specific. You can say, “with that line, you can do this.” Like 5 or 6 points in a long take and he’s go, “got it.” He’s the only actor that I worked with whom you can give instructions like that. He's like a waiter taking an order around the table of twelve. (laughs)

He has a great capacity to remember these things and he likes to show off a little bit. He is a virtuoso in his way of doing things. But what I’m also happy about, is that regardless of his incredible skills, he is also allowing in this film to be emotional and…

Vulnerable.

That’s the word. I knew that that was very important for the role. It took a little bit of work for us to find the tone but I’m ultimately so happy that he opened up to doing more vulnerable work and I really appreciated working with him. He is a great guy.

Then there is this last role. We were nervous about finding a young kid who has to work with these great actors. Where are we going to find this 15 year old kid? And I was so happy that Laura Rosenthal, a great casting director brought Devin Druid to our attention. He is really really good. I can recommend him highly enough to other directors. I’m not just saying this as a director being nice. I’d love to work with him again. I’m so intrigued by how emotionally available he is. Because he is so young, I imagine people will think that it’s just luck. “Oh, he’s just spontaneous but he can’t be a great crafty actor because he's so young." His instincts for preparing and knowing how to use the knowledge that he’s given to make it playable is remarkable.

I’ll tell you, sometimes he’d be in an emotional zone and he discovered already in that young age what actors take years to discover- how to sustain that emotional state. You can shoot a scene with him like that all day. It can very hard and painful if it’s an emotional scene. People run dry quick. He was able to reengage with his own technique that I don’t really know how, in an emotional state that is sustainable for a long time. And at the end of the day he goes, "Oh I need to sleep now," (laughs) and comes back in and does something else. Devin is a very intuitive guy but there is more preparation in what he does.

If you'd allow me, I’d love to mention few other people as well, because this is an ensemble.

By all means.

I never get enough time to talk about Amy Ryan, David Strathairn and Rachel Brosnahan. I wanted to make an ensemble film. Like Lumet or Coppola, all these great American directors did so many of these great ensemble films. But I never imagined I’d get people like this in smaller roles.

Amy Ryan is amazing. She’s one of the best actresses in the world. My editor (Olivier Bugge Coutté), whenever the rushes came in with the scene with her, he was like, "Who is she? Everything is good with her!"

David Strathairn is remarkable. I mean he is one of the greats.

Yes.

He is almost too cool. He is such a smart and generous guy. and there seems to be so much interesting and exciting stuff going on in his life so I don’t think he is chasing around all the available parts. He is very picky in choosing roles which I completely respect. So I felt honored that he actually came on set. I dig him. He’s like, oh I’ll drive to the set myself. He is very unpretentious. I love him.

Rachel Brosnahan, you know her from House of Cards. She is this new talent and what’s so great about her is she has natural grace in the way she appears in front of the camera. But there is no vanity with her. She came in and she does couple of scenes where she is exposing emotions where a lot of actresses would perhaps try to beautify it. But she creates beauty through just being real. She has a great instinct and knack for naturalism and I really respect that in her. In her generation of actresses, there are so many who is just choosing to be a pretty girl. She has that natural grace, she doesn’t need to, you know.

So Devin Druid and Rachel Brosnahan are the two young actors we will see more of in the near future?

Yeah I’d love that. It makes me happy to see that there are real great actors coming up in the next generation. It just makes me feel excited. That’s something that led me in the first place to make films in America, the actors.

There is a certain melancholy in your films. Even though there are many funny moments in LOUDER THAN BOMBS, There is certain sadness. I want to talk about the theme of death in your films.

Yeah. Louder than Bombs deals with, I guess, eroticism in death, a lot. We are also dealing with young mind, a 15-year old, who is going through adolescence and he is being infatuated with a girl for the first time, at the same time he is grieving his mother. So there is this sex and death thing going on. (laughs)

Also those eternal themes,I care about those things. To be personal for a second, I think I was quite concerned while I was very young. I was obsessed with memory and mortality. I was very worried about the short time we have on earth. I am an atheist, so I believe this is it. This time is all I got. I don’t believe in afterlife, at least not with this conscience. So that's a pretty tough premise. Much of our culture is in denial of that. At the same time, it gives us a purpose for action and to do things and can also be a trigger for creation even.

So my film reflects my existential curiosity. I don't want to be perceived as pretentious, I think it’s unanimous human quandary and I care about stories that deal with how we construct or accept ourselves through perception of memory and how we know that it’s not infinite and how that affects out relationships. In this film specifically - 3 years ago, a husband and two sons the mother of the family. That affects how each of them engage, with the women - the new women, new partners in their lives. What aftereffects does that have in the erotic and the ability to build a relationships. That's what we are asking in this film. And that has melancholic implications.

So what’s next for you?

I haven’t announced my next film yet because we are not one hundred percent sure yet. So I’m not talking about it so much at the moment. But what I can say on the record is that I am writing and hope to shoot it this fall in Norway. A quick one we’re working on- am working with Eskil at the moment: back in the room with my old friend. And we are coming up with some new things and we hope to get to make it and I think we will. So hopefully we will be talking soon again with something else. It’s in Norwegian this time but hopefully it will be in English again after that.

Louder than Bombs opens on Friday, April 8 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. National roll outs will follow.