Monday, September 20, 2021

A Film Culled from the Sea

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021) - Morrison THE VILLAGE DETECTIVE still Avant-garde filmmaker and artist Bill Morrison, known for his use of decaying, found films and collaborating with innovative contemporary musicians, produced some of the most unique movie/live theater going experiences (Decasia, Miner's Hymns, Dawson City: Frozen Time) over the last few decades. Using plenty of archival materials and found footage, just like with Dawson City, he concocts an intriguing film history lesson while showcasing the hypnotic, decaying celluloid images with The Village Detective: A Song Cycle. The difference here is that the old Soviet film, The Village Detective, was not dug up from the frozen tundra in Yukon Territory but netted from depth of the icy North Sea.

In 2016, an Icelandic lobster trawler hauled in a film canister along with various crustaceans at the bottom of the North Sea. It ended up in the hands of the archivists and film scholars at the Finnish Film Institute. It was the late visionary Icelandic musician and friend of Morrison, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who worked with the director in Miner's Hymns, mentioned the news to him, who took an immediate interest. It contained 4 rolls of seawater brined, muddy, degrading film prints. Many assumed that they contain a very old film. But it turns out to be a 1969 Russian film, The Village Detective, starring Mikhail Zharov as Columbo like detective, in a provincial Russian town, on the case of a missing accordion.

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle submerges itself into an intriguing film history and does its own diligent history detective work. Morrison, along with producer/film scholar Maria Vinogradova, set out their own investigation, giving context to the movie reels found at the bottom of the sea. Like good detectives, they peel away layers of mud and dirt and debris the time has accumulated and connect the dots- the images on the film, its actors, the political climate, film archiving practices (or lack there of), while highlighting the beauty of the physicality of film print as an art object.

Taking advantage of Gosfilmofond, the state run Russian film archive and with the help of their archivists, the film devotes itself going through Russian film history by way of Mikhail Zharov's six-decades spanning career. Zharov, whose immense popularity in Russia was equal to that of Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable at his prime, played many boisterous roles and often sang with an accordion in his hands in many of his films. He was a renowned stage actor and starred in many state propaganda films. But with the country’s antisemitism in the 40s and 50s took a toll on the actor who was married to a Jewish woman from a prominent Jewish family. Even though any charges were dissolved after Stalin’s death, he would get type-casted in the 50s and 60s as he aged.

Going back and forth with old Russian archival footage, many of Zharov's film clips, interviews and the actual footage of The Village Detective found in the sea, set in original accordion soundtrack by David Lang (Requiem for a Dream, The Great Beauty, Wildlife, Youth), Morrison creates a cohesive, entertaining yarn.

Still, all the beauty is in the footage culled from the sea. Damaged and decayed in multitudes of ways, intentionally slowed down and without a dialog track, the audience can savor each passing frames- obscured by scratches, blotches, indecipherable patterns and ghost images that natural elements and time inflicted on the celluloid. With the historical and philosophical context provided by Morrison and co., the film's haunting beauty is amplified greatly.

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle is a celebration of cinema that reflects life and art and its resilience to the test of time both metaphorically and physically.

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle opens in theaters on 9/22 at IFC Center in NYC. Please visit Kino Lorber website for details.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Sobering Reflection on Being American

Blue Bayou (2021) - Chon BLUE BAYOU (2021) Justin Chon writes, directs and stars in a timely, humanistic drama, set in the backwaters of Louisiana, Blue Bayou. It highlights many adoptees facing deportation due to the lack of a strong infrastructure in the nation's adoption system and the recent anti-Asian fervor.

According to advocates of the immigration rights groups' statistics, estimated 25,000 to 45,000 legal adoptees between 1945-1998 may lack US Citizenship. Worse, during recent past few years, many number of these legally adopted Americans were either deported or facing deportation when they had a brush with the law, to countries where their biological parents gave them up when they were babies.

Blue Bayou starts with Antonio (Chon), with a new baby on the way with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander), trying to get a second job. His felony record and heavily tattooed exterior don't help the matter too much. It is revealing that he is repeatedly asked where he's from, even though his Baton Rouge dialect is impeccable. Unfortunately, it is an everyday occurrence that we Asian Americans face everyday, even from well-meaning, supposedly educated, liberal people. Antonio politely deflects, “I see why you’d ask that question…”

Antonio, working at a tattoo parlor, is trying to do right by Kathy and his stepdaughter, Jesse (Sydney Kowalske), a button-nosed smarty-pants whom he shares great bonds with. Antonio's circle of friends include his former motorcycle gang buddies, an ICE agent who frequents the tattoo parlor and Parker (Linh Dan Pham, Indochine), a Vietnamese American woman he just met at the hospital.

Things escalate when Jesse's father, Ace (Mark O'Brien), a cop and his racist partner instigate Antonio into returning jabs and arrest him. Antonio is soon handed over to the ICE custody. Even with the help of sympathetic immigration lawyer (Vondie Curtis Hall), with his criminal record, Antonio's chance at the set court 'merit' hearing is diminishing. Even though he was adopted at age 3 and lived his whole life in Louisiana, because of the loopholes in adoption system and anti Asian fervor of late, he is facing deportation to a country where he has absolutely no connections.

In order to come up with the lawyer's fee, Antonio falls into his old habits with his gang, stealing motorcycles. He also struggles with abandonment issues, both his biological Korean mother who still haunts his dreams and his adaptive parents who abused him.

Chon, best known for his role as Eric in Twilight Saga, has a simmering charisma and authenticity, playing a simple man trying to go straight while down on his luck. His uncluttered, energetic directing style and great handling emotional complexities and nuances are also commendable. Also notable is the conscious casting of non-American actors for the roles: Vikander, a Swedish actress who lends her talents playing a down and out Southern girl who would fight till the end for her man, O'Brien, a Canadian actor, is also excellent playing a Louisiana cop who later realizes that what constitutes a family is nothing but biological and Pham, a French actress whose tender portrayal of a woman dying of cancer, who shares affinity with Antonio as a person of color living in the US. This casting is emblematic in showing what a great patchwork America really is.

Shot in 16mm, verité style, lush Louisiana setting and numerous magic hours scenes, Chon and his frequent collaborator DP Ante Cheng (shot two previous Chon's films: Gook and Ms. Purple), along with Matthew Chuang, create intimate portrayal in the American South in Blue Bayou.

As the tearful third act plays out Chon succeeds in shedding light on the inhumane practices of American immigration system and giving audiences plenty to mull over what it means to be an American.

Blue Bayou opens in theaters on 9/17. For more info, please visit Focus Features website.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

War Trauma in a Box

Reflection (2021) - vasyanovych Screen Shot 2021-09-13 at 10.36.22 AM Call it a silver lining in the midst of unrelenting global pandemic, that we are blessed with not one but two Valentyn Vasyanovych's films this year. Atlantis, after winning Orizzonti (Best Film) at Berlinale 2019 and being included in the late edition of New Directors/New Films in 2020, the film saw a brief streaming release through New York's Metrograph early this year. With his new film Reflection, having a world Premiere at Venice just now, we get to witness the major new voice in the world cinema emerging. Mark my word: Vasyanovych is a real deal. He will be regarded as a new master with the release of his each new film in the future. His almost surrealist formalist approach to filmmaking is akin to the works of Swedish master Roy Andersson sans humor combined with the gravitas and emotional punch of Andrey Zvyagintsev. Reflection, a sort of companion piece to Atlantis, is a truly impactful and impressive filmmaking.

Just like Atlantis, Reflection is only composed of wide, static long takes - the camera only moves when necessary with no cutaways or coverage. There are about 27 shots all together in its two-hour running time. We do not see close ups of actors faces, unless they come closer to the camera. The depth and isolation of its characters, without many words uttered, are all told visually.

The film starts with an absurd scene: Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi), a surgeon, is meeting up with his ex-wife Olha (Nadiya Levchenko) and their teenage daughter Polina (Nika Myslytska) and Olha's new beau, Andriy (Andriy Rymaruk of Atlantis), a soldier, in what seems to be a large industrial indoor playpen. But Polina is suiting up in white HAZMAT suit before disappearing behind the giant glass window. It turns out that playpen is a large indoor paintball court. The teenagers in groups are shooting paintballs at each other while parents outside watch them while talking about the war in Donbas, the south-eastern Ukraine, as the glass window is slowly but surely adorned with bubblegum colored paintball shots. The year is 2014, at the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

The next scene is Serhiy in the hospital operating table tending to the badly wounded soldier coming from the front line. But it is too late. He bled out.

The film is divided in two: the war and its aftermath. Serhiy voluntarily joins the war effort, then being captured and tortured by Russian troops. Since he is a surgeon, deemed by Russians to be useful, he is spared and given an assisting role in checking and determining if the tortured Ukraine captives are dying or not. There he encounters Andriy, who is almost dead after a power drill torture session.

The power lies in its long takes and imposing compositions. Vasyanovych possesses an impressive eye for architecture and symmetry, In Atlantis, it was industrial wasteland and outdoor scenes that were the main draw. In Reflection, its oppressive, bunker like industrial indoor spaces the director/cinematographer utilizes for creating dread - whether it's the hospital operating table, torture chamber, portable furnace Russians use to cremate their victims and a pigeon crashing into a high-rise apartment window.

The first half, showing horror of war is relentlessly bleak and dark. The second half concerns Serhiy, thoroughly traumatized by the war experience, trying to get a grip on life where everything is pretty normal. Andriy is regarded as missing in action where no one can find his body; guilt stricken Serhiy has to deal with Olha and Polina. Polina, being a teenager and affected by Andriy's absence, become distant and withdrawn while Serhiy tries to overcompensate it with gifts and horseback riding lessons.

If Atlantis was dealing with fictional scenario of the future ecological devastation and human toll from the prolonged war, Reflection using gray landscapes and claustrophobic interiors, delves into the psychological damage of on-going conflict and threat from the neighboring ominous superpower. Sly metaphors, like dead pigeon, makeshift pyre, ravenous stray dogs are all present. But as with Atlantis, there is a glimmer of hope in Reflection. This time, it's not the love between a man and a woman, but that of father and daughter. Known to use non-actors in his films, Vasyanovych uses his own daughter to play Polina. She in turn, gives a great performance in long takes, engaging in religious and spiritual discussion with Lutskyi who plays her father. Her innocence shines through in a dreadful industrial, monochrome winter Ukraine landscape. Daring in its cinematic language, and unflinching in its presentation of the present, Reflection makes you impossible to ignore the state of the on-going conflict in that part of the world.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Artful, Spiritual Anthropological Survey from Ethiopia

Faya Dayi (2021) - Beshir

Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 8.42.41 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 8.54.16 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 8.57.57 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.01.51 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.04.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.06.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.22.25 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.23.08 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.23.31 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.48.38 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 10.04.39 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 10.17.00 AM Could an anthropological study of the effects of khat, a flowering plant that has euphoric property when chewed, in Hararar, the walled city in Ethiopia, also be a stunning art film? Mexican-Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir proves that it can, with Faya Dayi, her mesmeric, immersive patchwork, shot mostly in silvery black & white. In here, every one of its hazy frame is a work of art. The film is visualized version of the phrase of a mystical sage or a lofty philosopher - Life is nothing but a waking dream. 

Along with dreamy images and scattered narrations, Beshir languidly builds upon the creation myth of khat, which involves the quest for Maoul Hayat, the water of eternal life. It seems every adult chews khat in Ethiopia, to get away, to escape harsh reality. For the younger generations though, for their future, they dream of fleeing to Europe, to Middle East, to other countries, even if it means risking their lives in an often perilous and costly journey and enduring lifetime of solitude and homesickness in a foreign land. 

There is a loose narrative, which concerns a young boy named Mohammad. He is a thin thread connecting the filmmaker's intergenerational observations. Mohammad is first seen with an older boy who fled the dreadful khat dominated life (to Egypt) only to come back to take care of his mother. For Mohammad, living with an abusive khat addicted father and missing his mother who fled to Saudi Arabia for better life, Hararar doesn't hold a future for him.

We see the full picture of the local economy based on khat, from its harvest to processing to distribution to consumption. And it's a long grueling process all done manually. It’s the industry’s berth, employing vast section of the country’s labor market that is truly astounding.

We are introduced to many of Hararar's inhabitants - there are women pining for lost love, a young man thrown into the khat industry because of the family tragedy that has befallen, the local sheiks with their prayer beads and scriptures, young naked children playing in ever receding ankle deep river. There's also a talk of street demonstrations and political prisoners among Oromo people, an oppressed ethnic minority trying to get by under the hostile Ethiopian regime. 

Beauty is in the shadows and silhouettes. It's in billowing curtains and in smoke of the ceremonial incense, in a group of black birds perched precariously on the tree branches on a windy night, in the water ripples, in the blackness of a woman's hijab against the white wall, in sleeping stray dogs, in cheap strobing lights on Mohammed's face, even in newly harvested shiny khat leaves. 

Khat as the myth goes, was a compensatory prize from god, for the journeyman who missed out on Maoul Hayat, to forget his sorrows. 

Dry anthropological documentaries are dime a dozen. Bashir in her debut film, with immersive and stunning visuals, achieves something extraordinary here. Faya Dayi transcends its filmic categories and achieves a deeply spiritual and contemplative viewing experience.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Man in the Mirror

Candyman (2021) - DaCosta Candyman Nia DaCosta's Candyman pays a great deal of tribute to Bernard Rose's 1992 cult classic and builds upon it for the BLM era with much more agency. She and co-writer/producer Jordan Peele acknowledge the progresses the African Americans have made in the US over decades but also remind us that we still live in a white society and it is important not to forget the past.

The original Candyman was based on a short story by Clive Barker, taking place in East London housing projects. It was brilliantly transposed to Cabrini Green, a real urban housing project in Chicago and based on real-life urban legend mixed with America's racial history. As a horror film, Candyman’s violence and carnage were brutal and gruesome that only Barker could dream of. Some of the film's detractors pointed out that its gothic interracial love story only amplified the stereotypical black male and blond white female trope. But it was the 90s and the class/racial inequalities were addressed only in a skindeep level.

The new Candyman starts with an affluent couple Brianna (Teyonah Parris) and Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Marteen II) in Chicago. They just moved in to a luxury glass skyscraper apartment in downtown. Brianna is an ambitious social climber in the art scene and Anthony, a promising artist. But Anthony is in a rut, unable to get an inspiration for a new piece and the deadline for upcoming group exhibition is approaching. By chance, he hears about Cabrini Green, a projects complex that his luxury building and many others around it have gentrified out of its existence. Then he hears about the legend of Candyman. He is also stung by a bee on his hand while taking pictures in the remnants of Cabrini Green. And the wound is not healing but spreading throughout the half of his body.

Anthony's new art - a bathroom mirror and gruesome paintings inside it with the instructions to summon Candyman, doesn't make a splash at first. But curiosity of white audience in a dare keeps body count rise and so does his viability in the art market.

Writing is sharp and current. One can detect Peele's clever Gen X cultural references throughout. Dacosta and Peele do things right in first introducing Candyman as a creepy man in a yellow jacket with a hook as a hand who gave away candies with razorblades inside them in the 70s, not the original Candyman played by charismatic Tony Todd, suggesting that Candyman is actually Candymen throughout America's ugly racial history, going back before the emancipation. And the film suggests the brutalization and demonization of Black males, from Emmett Till to George Floyd and beyond continues to this day. It was also very telling that the film starts with the logos of the company reversed, like in the mirror. What Anthony is seeing in the mirror is not an affluent and successful African American male today, but a man with his hands cut off with a hook shoved in its place, stung and burned alive centuries ago.

Candyman is a great film and emblemizes the saying that there is no black horror because black history is already a horror.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Japan Cuts 2021 Hybrid Edition Preview

After last year's all online edition, Japan Cuts, North America's largest showcase for new Japanese films, has chosen to go for a combination of online and in-person screenings (at Japan Society, NYC) for their 15th edition, taking place 8/20 - 9/2. The festival is divided in Feature Slate, Next Generation, Classics, Documentary Focus, Experimental Spotlight, Shorts Showcase, Narrative Shorts and Experimental Shorts, totaling 38 films.

The 15th Edition of Japan Cuts kicks off with the U.S. Premiere of Matsumoto Soushi's charming Sci-fi and samurai tinged celebration of cinema, It's a Summer Film! For centerpiece presentation, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Venice Film Festival winner, Wife of a Spy. Other highlights are an in-person screening of the late Obayashi Nobuhiko's 3 hour swan song Labyrinth of Cinema, 2K restored version of the cult classic, Hiruko the Goblin and Miike Takashi's The Great Yokai War: Guardians.

Without further a do, here are 5 films I was able to sample:

It's a Summer Film! It's a Summer Film It's a bubbly love letter to cinema with gaggle of high school girls. It stars Japanese idol singer Ito Marika (former Nogizaka 46 member) as a high schooler, Barefoot, who is obsessed with chanbara films and a Katsu Shintaro (Zatoichi) enthusiast. She is in a school film club but disillusioned by the films they produce - directed by and starring her rival popular girl Karin and her entourage. Barefoot decides to make her own samurai film to counter Karin's saccharine rom-com at the year end screening. With her best friends - Kendo champ Blue Hawaii and sci-fi nerd Kickboard and a rag-tag film crew, Barefoot embarks on a harrowing journey of indie filmmaking.

Even though she prefers brusk hero than a pretty boy type, Barefoot can't stop falling for her main actor Rintaro, a handsome time-traveling stranger she chose as her main actor in her film titled, "Samurai Spring." You see, in the future, there is no such thing as movie theaters, movies are only 5 seconds long and the traditional notion of cinema is non-existing. She needs to save the future of cinema! It's a Summer Film! is a cute, airy comedy geared towards Stranger Things crowd.

Wife of a Spy *Centerpiece Film Wife of a Spy Satoko (Aoi Yu), an unassuming young housewife of a wealthy merchant suspects that her husband is involved in something dangerous. The year is 1940. The place is Kobe. And Japan is slowly hurtling toward authoritarian nightmare before the World War II. Kurosawa Kiyoshi directs this period thriller off the script written by Yamaguchi Ryusuke and his writing partner Nohara Tadashi (Happy Hour, Asako I & II) .

Wife of a Spy involves atrocities committed by the occupying Japanese army in Manchuria, experimenting biological weapons on civilian population. It's a very straight forward wartime intrigue with a stellar performance by Aoi as an innocent woman who has her blind devotion to her husband tested and gets embroiled in an international espionage. The film might not feel like a usual KK film, but a solid one nonetheless.

Wonderful Paradise Wonderful Paradise Moving is never easy and letting go even more difficult. It's a moving day for the Sasayas from their large opulent house, because dad had some gambling debts and bad investments. While packing and being nostalgic about mementos strewn about the house, disaffected Akane, the daughter of the family, unwittingly tweets that there will be a party in the empty house with their address. So starts Yamamoto Masaki's madcap comedy Wonderful Paradise. There will be several dead bodies, a gay wedding, a funeral, The Thing inspired coffee bean monster, moving statues with laser beam shooting eyes, strippers, a choreographed dance number, traditional singing, ghosts, synchronized sex scenes, rebirths, a kid turning into a tree branch, a makeshift drug lab, a yakuza gambling den.... By the end of it, Sasayas learned something about life and themselves and finally let things go. Life is one big party.

Mari and Mari Mari and Mari Mari and Mari plays out like a Murakami Haruki novel. Norio (Maehara Kou) is a mild mannered 30-something working at a small casting agency. He is very much in love with Mari (Nao), his long time live-in girlfriend. Their almost nauseating lovey-dovey behavior is an easy target for both ridicule and envy of his co-workers. They even have a corny song of their own that they hum to each other. Then one day, Mari disappears and replaced by childlike girl (Amano Hana), also named Mari. This new Mari doesn't remember where she came from. She is just materialized in his apartment. Norio looks for his old Mari everywhere to no avail. He demands the new Mari to leave but she always returns.

In a very subtle manner, when it comes down to it, director Yamanishi Tatsuya seems to suggest that it's not a particular person but rather the idea of a person in a certain mould that you fall in love with.

As the new Mari sticks around, Norio begins to accept her as his girlfriend. They sing the same song, make fun of each other's silly habits. It's an intriguing film by first time director writer Yamanishi.

The Blue Danube The Blue Danube Ikeda Akira's droll anti-war film The Blue Danube starts with Tsuyuki (Maehara Kou) waking up at the sound of a marching band. As he reports to the army barracks for 9 to 5 shifts, wasting his life away shooting at invisible enemies across the river without a question like a clockwork. "Do as you are told without question" rules this town and everyone follows its rigid army style way of living. No one remembers how long the town has been at war with its neighboring town and the reason for the conflict. They just assume that the town across the river is horrible and its people are savages.

Things change after the new young recruit soldier starts questioning the ongoing conflict. Meantime, Tsuyuki is transferred to join the marching band after its trumpeter suddenly dies.

With intentionally stilted acting and droll delivery of the actors, repetitions and absurd deadpan humor, Ikeda pokes fun of Kafkaesque bureaucracy combined with blind trust in inept authorities and fear tactics instilled in people's mind in the war time. The Blue Danube highlights the meaninglessness of war.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Inability to Change Minds

The Viewing Booth (2020) - Alexandrowicz Screen Shot 2021-08-10 at 8.25.09 AM 
Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's documentary Viewing Booth tells the harsh reality and ultimate failure of so-called activist filmmaking in the belief that images can change minds of those who matter the most. And it's sobering realization.

Alexandrowicz invited 7 American University students for his 'viewing booth' sessions: a studio room with monitors showing 40 published online video clips of the Occupied Territories in Palestine - a half of them from B'Tzelem - a Human Rights organization based in Israel and the other half from pro/conservative Isreali groups (such as videos put out by IDF). The subjects are asked to freely play any clips they choose to watch- they can pause at any moment and rewatch them and provide live commentaries while watching them. He films these sessions and the subjects' reactions and their comments. Enter Maia Levy, a pro-Israeli student from American Jewish household. The film turns out Alexandrowicz focusing on her because it's people like her that the filmmaker wants to reach with his films, not anti-occupation crowd or activist types (not preaching to the choir, so to speak). It's her predisposition of seeing the images - the real footages shot by Palestinian citizens in the Occupied Territories which can be seen by anyone online, that interests him.

Maia is an inquisitive young woman who thinks of herself as objective observer of the conflict, a Jew living in America. But watching those short clips of unedited footage of everyday horrors in the Occupied Territories - an announced nightly raid of masked, heavily armed Israeli soldiers going into Palestinian household, waking up sleeping children and photographing them and its aftermath - children breaking down in fear, or a settler harassing Palestine women and children in cages, calling them unspeakable names, or Israeli teens throwing rocks at a Palestinian woman videotaping them and soldiers just standing by in the background, not responding to the cries for help, etc, although she sympathizes with the oppressed, she is quick to find many faults in what she is presented with: without proper contexts, these clips are manipulative or worse yet, staged to make Israel look bad. Because of her upbringing or background of whatever, she is predisposed to question what she sees and distrust whatever is deemed by anti-Israel.

It is also telling that Maia says that she is influenced by TV shows like Netflix's Fauda and reality shows that everything is already fabricated and you can't always trust these 'real' footage's authenticity. Is she telling the truth or is it a justification for her predisposed condition? but in equal footing, she also doesn't like what IDF puts out - Palestinian kids coming up to Israeli soldiers and hugging them and the soldiers giving them food. She thinks that's corny and detrimental to portraying Israel as being good.

The filmmaker asks her again to come in after 6 months of their first session. Because obviously she is the emblem of the target audience and why he is in the profession in the first place - to change their belief system with his films. She is educated, smart, curious enough to seek out those clips by B'Tzelem even though many of them will be uncomfortable and depressing to watch. It's very much like some of my so-called liberal minded friends watching Fox News to see 'what the other side is like, so I will know how to defend myself'.

Alexandrowicz thinks these things aloud to understand clearly where the divide lies - particularly for me as an outside observer, seeing these clips immediately makes me think, "wow, this is their everyday reality," rather than "this looks staged." Obviously, those activists films, documentaries like 5 Broken Cameras by Guy Davidi & Emad Burnat isn't going to change my mind because I'm already with the anti-occupation crowd. But The Viewing Booth concludes with the sobering realization that there is a limit to what images, let alone films, can change someone's engrained belief system, even if it's not fictional film but filmed reality. The intermediary of the mere 'lens' between Maia and the reality already puts a divide that she will not cross. The Viewing Booth is a sobering film that bruises the ego of any self-congratulatory, circle jerky liberal documentarians who genuinely think they can change the world. Sorry, you can't reach the ones who matter the most.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Master Puppet and Barnacles

Annette (2021) - Carax annette It is hard for me to write this review of Annette, a new film from Leos Carax, because he is the director of my favorite film of all time - Les amants du Pont-Neuf. I've been following Carax's tumultuous filmmaking career and was very glad that he came roaring back with much praised Holy Motors, a vibrant vignettes he made over a long period of time (because of lack of financing) with his muse Denis Lavant (as his alter ego Alex). The expectations were high after the success of Holy Motors. The boy genius seemed to be back. Annette, a big budgeted musical, co-written and arranged by musical group Sparks, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, is quite possibly the worst thing I've seen this year, if not in any years. It's not because of its ludicrous premise - a singing baby of the title namesake is played by a CG puppet or Driver's overacting, it's because doesn't contain an ounce of Carax's often bold and brilliant signature cinematic moments that take your breath away.

Carax begin Annette with self-reference, just like in Holy Motors. He is the creator, starting his project in the beginning either on stage or in a control booth of an audio studio. His daughter, Nastya, a doppelganger for her mom, Katherina Golubeva, stands by his side, looking on in the cast, singing. The first song "So May We Start," spills out of the studio as the actors continue to sing on what seems to be the Santa Monica Blvd. Annette tells a relationship between a cynical standup comic Henry McHenry (Driver) and an opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard). They soon have a daughter Annette, played mostly by what seems to be baby made out of wood with wooden joint and disproportionately large head, like in Manga drawings. While Ann's career is going well, Henry's dark humor and aggressive antics are getting no fans anymore. He is getting jealous of his famous wife and neglecting his daddy duties. All the while, the tabloid press is hounding the family's every move.

In order to save their marriage, the couple takes a boat trip in the sea with baby Annette in tow. During a storm, in a fit of rage, Henry throws Ann overboard. Alone and washed out, Henry has to make an income for baby Annette. He notices that Annette sings to a certain tune. Now he has an idea for touring with a singing baby with the help of the orchestra conductor (Simon Helberg), who was secretly in love with Ann. Ludicrous. I know.

It was fun to do a guesswork in Holy Motors as how much of it is self referential - Carax's tumultous relationship with Juliette Binoche and monumental failure of Pont-Neuf, because his life was so grand, and operatic and most of all, so romantic. The fundamental flaw of Annette, in my opinion, is it's not based on a lovestory but everything else - career, professional jealousy, parenthood, tabloids and financial security which by comparison, seem ugly and opposite of fantasy and in turn, cinema. No matter how much or loud they sing "We Love Each Other So Much," in Annette, all we see is them falling out of love, not in love.

Love is gone. Cynicism has taken over, therefore, nothing is believable and nothing matters. Everything else is a joke. Once that rare filmmaker who could capture being in love like no other became a cynic and the magic is gone. Driver is no Lavant. He is an ogre of a cynical kind. He belongs in a comedy. Cotillard with her barnacle shoulders, belongs to "Something to Tide You Over" episode in Creepshow.

I did like the on deck of the boat during sea storm scene where buckets of waters are thrown over the actors in rear projection storm. But that can't save Annette from its turgid, uninspiring premise. The spark is gone.

Monday, July 26, 2021

High Life

High Sierra (1941) - Walsh *35mm at Film ForumHigh Sierra

Infamous bank robber Roy Earl (Humphrey Bogart) just got pardoned by the Governor. It was Big Mac, a crime boss in the West Coast who pulled some strings for his release to do another big stake heist in a fancy hotel up in the Sierra mountains. On his way up to a mountain lodge to meet the heist team, Earl helps out a farmer family who has a car trouble. There he is smittened by the farmer's granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie). When he gets to the lodge, he is embroiled in a lovers spat already in progress among two hot blooded young men- Red and Doc, and sassy Marie (Ida Lupino). Brats! Earl doesn't want to have any of it, tries to keep his distance and be professional. But Marie, seeing this tough wise guy smacking people around, develops feelings for him.

There are a couple of elements in High Sierra that are cringey - Earl hitting on 20 year old crippled Velma. And Algernon, a black caretaker of the lodge the heist team stays at, is a lazy, cross eyed Stepin Fetchit style racial stereotype.

What distinguishes High Sierra among other hard boiled noir is its spectacular setting. As Earl gets caught in the ever increasing trap that he dug himself in, High Sierra reaches its frenzy with high speed car chase up the rugged, picturesque Sierra mountains. It's raw and unsettling. He runs into the mountain, in his gangster suit with a rifle in his hand and we expect some Rambo: First Blood shit. But it's noir, not some white men action fantasy. Things will end very bad.

Bogey is Bogey, making a cold blooded killer seem cool and ordinary and making us root for him. Lupino is also great as sympathetic mole who doesn't have anyone in the world and clinging to Earl even though she knows the future is doomed.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

First Look 2020/21 at MoMI

After taking a Covid hiatus last year, MoMI (Museum of Moving Image)'s annual new film showcase First Look is back! Celebrating tenth year, First Look takes a peak at innovative new international cinema.

Opening Night is the NY premiere of Claire Simon’s The Grocer’s Son, the Mayor, the Village, and the World… and Closing Night is the NY premiere of Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo.

First Look 20/21 presents 22 features and more than two dozen mid-length and short works from around the world, plus its signature “Working on It” sessions, which focus on the creative process. The festival runs from July 22nd through August 1st.

A special kick-off event for First Look 20/21 takes place at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn on July 19, with a screening of October Country featuring the world premiere of a live score by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, co-presented with Rooftop Films.

The program comprises both documentary and narrative works, and live performances, with work hailing from countries including Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Georgia, Germany, India, Israel, Iran, Italy, Madagascar, Niger, Poland, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States. More than half of the films are directed by women.

Please click on MoMI website for tickets and more info.

Below are what I was able to sample:

The Grocer's Son, the Mayor, the Village and the World... - Claire Simon *Opening Night Film grocers-son Filmmaker Jean-Marie Barbe has a vision for his hometown, Lussas, a rural farming community in Ardeché region of southern France. He wants to build a publicly funded independent film complex and a website dedicated exclusively to documentary filmmaking. It will be called Documentary Village of Lussas. It will be the source of attraction for jobs for the younger generation and local economy. Claire Simon of a direct cinema tradition, documents the trials and tribulations of people in Lussas - including Barbe, his team, the mayor, and local farmers taking a huge leap of faith.

Simon draws the parallels between farming - as a local farmer describes it as a huge gamble every year, where everything has to go right, that those produces people take for granted are nothing but a miracle, and Barbe's endeavor which might or might not bear any fruit. That everyone passionate in what they are doing is looking at things for the long term - for future generations. The Grocer's Son, the Mayor, the Village and the World... is an intimate and absorbing documentary with a lot of heart.

Ridge - John Skoog Ridge Taking place in Swedish farmland, Ridge examines loneliness and isolation of some immigrant farmhands and rural youth, not through dialog but controlled, wide screen visuals. The story goes that a couple of strayed cows became wild after spending some time in the ridge before they were found and brought back. The film's formalist approach - camera always slowly tracking and dollying in, gives you the ominous feeling that every move is watched, either from above or eye level and its subjects looking back suggests mutual consent.

Mingling our unprecedented technology era where everyone is isolated in his own sphere of smartphones, Ridge seems to suggest to take a trip to ever shrinking nature and enjoy the wilderness while we can.

Transnistra - Anna Eborn Transnistra Between Moldova and Ukraine, a long strip along the Dniester river, sits unrecognized breakaway state of Transnistria, where people seem to be carrying on the Soviet tradition and lifestyle. Anna Eborn, a Swedish born filmmaker follows a group of 16 year olds, consists of 5 horny boys and one girl, Tanya, from the hot days of summer to blistering winter in the rural setting as they swim in the lake, hang out in brick and mortar abandoned army barracks and tend to farm animals.

The 16mm shot documentary is intimate portrayal of friendship and love among the restless youth. Their fits of jealousy, envy, hate, euphoria as well as their hopes and dreams are all captured in sun-kissed imagery. It's a small pond story that is completely relatable and universal. Their fugu state of teen years where nothing is stable reflecting its status of their country is an apt one.

Some Kind of Intimacy - Toby Bull Intimacy As we grow older, it is inevitable to experience the death of our loved ones more and more. There might be differences in how we grieve, but the pain, and the heartache remain the same. And it is sometimes difficult to talk about how you feel. Toby Bull achieves some kind of intimacy or the fraternity of orphanhood in less than 6 minutes with his wonderful short film Some Kind of Intimacy. Through a simple phone conversation, while observing a flock of sheep trampling his parents grave in the rain, we get to contemplate our fleeting existence within the context of nature. Humor helps to dull the pain, so does shared collective melancholy.

Il mio corpo - Michele Pannetta Il Mio Corpo Sun drenched Sicily is both home for Oscar and Stanley - Oscar and his brother Roberto collects scrap metals on the side of the road under the watchful eye of their sometimes abusive father. Stanley, an African refugee, after getting a 2-year visa, stayed in Sicily and trying to eke out a living doing menial work for a local priest while helping his fellow refugee friend get his visa.

We see their daily routine simultaneously, slowly revealing what their lives are like. Il mio corpo is not unlike Gianfranco Rossi's Fire at Sea, another documentary that deals with the state of refugee crisis in the southern European country close to the African continent. But the film is much more subtle and poetic. We feel for these youngsters as they struggle in their own way, licking the bottom of the barrel in the late stages of global capitalism. Their brief, wordless encounters at the end gives hope that there's unspoken fraternity and cooperation in humanity in an ugly world.

Zinder - Aicha Macky Zinder Zinder is a city in Niger. It's known for violent youth gangs and delinquents. Director Aicha Macky is from there. And she gets an unprecedented access to the inhabitants of Kara Kara, the city's most dangerous slum. She interviews former members of palais, the youth gangs, and examine how poverty and unemployment perpetuate the unending macho culture. It starts with a jarring swastika adorned flag with 'Hitler' written on it: it's the flag of the bodybuilder's club calling themselves Hitler. They think Hitler is the name of an invincible warrior in America. Siniya Boy, the leader of the club, a former palais, is trying to build a security firm filled with fellow former gang members and friends who are currently in jail. Second chance in Kara Kara is hard to come by and the people of the slum are trying to help each other.

There is Bawo, a former gang member who is a pedicab driver. He confesses he had done some very bad things when he was young. NGO changed his outlook on things and now he is trying to help people in the city's red light district. Then there is Ramesses, a gas smuggler who overcame the stigma of being a hermaphrodite, trying to survive in Kara Kara just like everyone else.

Macky captures all these incredible stories in a seldom seen part of the world. It shows the survival and resilience of the human spirit. One of the most eye opening documentary I've seen in a while.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Searcher

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain (2021) - Neville roadrunner Anthony Bourdain's death 3 years ago, by an apparent suicide, shocked many lives he touched around the world and left his fans asking why. Why would a well loved and respected celebrity chef, award-winning author, TV journeyman kill himself so suddenly? Documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Won't You be My Neighbor) attempts to give us some insights with Roadrunner, a comprehensive documentary that includes many interviews from Bourdain's family, friends and colleagues.

As I became a New Yorker in the late 90s, I witnessed Anthony Bourdain's rise to fame: a head chef of now closed Midtown East French bistro Les Halles (my late father-in-law’s favorite restaurant) to a best selling author to an acclaimed cable TV show host. He embodied that quintessential New York cool - edgy, charismatic, foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking and cultured. It was his effortlessly cool persona that a lot of us wanted to emulate. Reading his Kitchen Confidential, a close-up account of behind the scenes activities in New York's restaurant industry, written in breathlessly sardonic humor and frankness, taught me a thing or two to live by- such as, never order seafood on Mondays, never order your steak well-done and so on. We witnessed his evolution over the years as not only a mere chef and travel guide, but a cultural and political ambassador with great empathy and appreciation for different cultures and people, through his subsequent cable shows - A Cook's Tour on Food Network, No Reservations on Travel Channel and Parts Unknown on CNN. He instinctively understood food as a universal language and a great conversation starter.

Bourdain, being on TV for almost 20 years, traveling became his day-to-day life and the TV crew his family. It's the wealth of footage, both what's in his shows and what's left out, Neville uses to the fullest, to paint an overarching picture of a complicated man. The film chronicles from his early days: at the Culinary Institute of America, Les Halles, talk show appearances after Kitchen Confidential’s success, a life long partnership with a TV producer couple (Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins, both of whom interviewed extensively) who produced his shows, to his many relationships over the years and his shifting worldview. Multiple directors and crewmembers he worked with over the years have many stories to tell. So does many of his famous chef friends - David Chang, Éric Ripert and David Choe among them.

Despite his cocky persona on screen, Bourdain respected and embraced different culture and its people. He knew how to read the room and not come across as arrogant American abroad. There were many memorable Bourdain episodes that are some of the best that TV can offer. The episode in Beirut, in Vietnam with President Barak Obama, in Sichuan with a renouned French chef Éric Ripert, in Hong Kong with WKW cinematograher Chris Doyle are some of my favorites. It was his straightforward approach that won many of his idols friendship- Éric Ripert, musicians John Lurie and Iggy Pop. And they talk about their encounter and friendship. His love for cinema was on display as he referenced many of his favorite films in the show- notably, Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Wong Kar-Wai films.

There was a shift in tone in his shows after being in the middle of regional conflict in Beirut in 2006; he and his crew got marrooned in a hotel room and watched the bombings in horror. The document of their experience and reaction was nominated for an Emmy. His show became something more than about food for foodies. His worldview became more embittered as the result of that experience. Later on in his CNN days, he got to explore more in troubled destinations and the implications of him going there that pushed the bounderies of what food travel show could achieve.

As the documentary goes along, the narrative emerges: a boy who never got over his romantic notion of life and a man continually searching for something different. Bourdain was married to his high school sweetheart Nancy Pukoski for twenty years. Then he had a daughter with his second wife Ottavia Busia (right after Beirut episode).

But constant traveling put a strain on his newfound family life. Then closer to his end, he fell madly in love with a volatile actress Asia Argento who later was embroiled in #MeToo movement and had to face her own very public scandal. As a self-acknowledged former drug addict, he exchanged traveling to exotic and dangerous places as its substitute for drugs. But when he's been to every corner of the globe and not finding what he was looking for, he needed another substitute. He may have found his fix, in dark and damaged Argento. The documentary paints the picture of a disillusioned man who couldn't reconcile the romantic notion of life and harsh, ugly realities.

In telling interviews, where many of them break down in tears, it seems Bourdain was in a dark place in his later days. He apparently told David Chang that he would never be a good dad. Chang, fighting back the tears, admits that Bourdain was obviously projecting, but the words from his friend hurt him nonetheless.

Always stoic and private Ripert, who found Bourdain's body when they were doing an episode in France, is understandably tightlipped about the circumstances and what Bourdain told him beforehand.

There were people who are instinctively attracted to darkness. The heart of darkness might have been always with Bourdain. His sudden suicide put a spotlight on mental health and the importance of suicide prevention.

Bourdain touched many lives around the globe. His legacy is reflected in so many people who mourned his death- not only fans and friends, but many low wage restaurant workers he championed as the real heroes, many small restaurant start-ups owned by people of color in the States.

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Boudain attempts to give us some much needed closures. And it succeeds in some ways. But the wounds his death left in us who loved him will not heal any time soon.

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Boudain opens in theaters Friday 7/16. Please visit Focus Features' website for more info.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Straight Talker

Malcolm X (1992) - Lee *35mm screening at MoMA 7/2/21 Malcolm X Revisiting after its initial release, I can safely say that Spike Lee's Malcolm X towers over other American biopics in its scale and artistry. The only other American epic biopic that comes close in its greatness is Warren Beatty's Reds. Watching Malcolm X, you can really feel that Lee really gave his all. And Denzel Washington's embodyment of the reformed preacher of Islam has no equal in terms of acting. Tracing from his childhood in Nebraska and tragic death of his father and his mother's ill fate to a small time hustler and a pimp to finding god in prison and becoming one of the most controversial political figures in American history, Malcolm X is a true epic and American story that resonates today as much as the film's release almost thirty years ago.

Malcolm X was a straight shooter. He had an uncanny ability to speak clearly about inequality stemming from 400 years of "White Devilery". The Nation of Islam gave him the paths to self-respect - and he preached it to fellow black brothers and sisters. He spoke the truth without mincing his words. This made him many enemies. As his notoriety grew, he was made enemies of the Nation of Islam itself.

The power of X's speeches delievered with such finesse by Washington is the main draw here. His firey Black Nationalist rhetoric might have been too harsh in criticizing the powers that be, but you can't ignore the stings of truth in his words- there is no one scarier than a principled man.

Another highlight is Malcolm X's pilgrimage to Mecca sequences. Visually sumptuous and emotionally impactful, X's spiritual journey and awakening of international brotherhood is captured beautifully and culminates to the interior of Great Mosque in Mecca where Malcolm sits and prays.

Lee's team's craftmanship is at their best here- shot transitions are extremely inventive and Ernest Dickerson's accompanying cinematography and tonal changes as the film goes along - from glitzy, dreamy look in the beginning to more somber and controlled after X found god, has never been better since or previously in any other Lee films. Terence Blanchard's score is subdued and doesn't try to fight with the visuals. Along with Washington's monumental performance, supporting characters, from Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz, Al Freeman Jr as Elijah Mohammad, Albert Hall as Baines to Delroy Lindo as Archie are all fantastic.

You don't feel its 3 hour running time. Malcolm X is a solid narrative film that captures your attention, I think, ESPECIALLY today in the BLM era. I didn't remember this. But the film starts with the infamous video of Rodney King beating which led to the LA Riots the same year as the film's release. It is truly sad that after 30 years, nothing much has changed and systematic racism is still very much predominent discourse in America. Malcolm X should be a required viewing for everyone, along with Raoul Peck's HBO mini series Exterminate All the Brutes in understanding systematic racism in this country.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Socio-politi-cultural Layers and Beyond

Krabi, 2562 (2019) - Rivers, Suwichakornpong Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 10.55.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 10.59.18 AM Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 11.01.17 AM Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 11.02.08 AM Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 11.03.36 AM The filmmakers Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong met at the Thailand Bienniale and decided to work together on a project: specifically on Krabi, a touristy Southwestern town. And no Doubt, the collaboration between two of the most adventurous contemporary filmmakers produces a multi-layered and intoxicating work that is a part travelogue, part ethnological study, part Antonioni-esque mystery, part contemplation on artificiality of cinema and part Spatial-temporal musing on human existence.

Krabi concerns a nameless woman (Siraphan Wattanajinda), tall and slender with the central Thai dialect who comes in to the touristy beach town. She looks like she is in 'pictures'. She is location scouting for a movie, or she is doing market research, or she is tracing steps to her parents honeymoon where she is conceived.(?) She hires a local tour guide who also dubs as a film crew for a commercial shoot. The mystery woman visits the famous fertility shrine located on the beach, takes a kayak ride into one of the numerous dark water caves along the shoreline, then visits a shuttered movie theater, now a home of hundreds of flying starlings and warn out B-movie posters. Then she disappears. The interviews with the tour guide and the movie theater manager and various others confirm this incident.

Collision and blurred line between the artificial and the real - the actors playing their parts mixed in with the locals, cinema as both business and nostalgia, neanderthals both reanacted and parodied, first world and third world, the symbiotic relationship of tourists and locals in popular tourist destination are all presented, in layers upon layers and they are delicious. Rivers and Suwichakornpong are less interested who is exploiting who, but the delicate dance that is human existence between real and imagined world both in physical and spiritual sense. Injected are the hint of Thailand's militant history, as the woman rides with gaggle of school children in the back of the truck in city proper with the sound of military marching, reminiscent of her masterpiece By the Time It Gets Dark, grounding the film from more surreal elements usually associated with Rivers work. Krabi, 2562 is one of the most exciting cinematic endeavor I've encountered in recent memory.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Performative Lives

Fauna (2020) - Pereda Fauna Fauna, Nicolás Pereda's new film, starts with a couple, Paco (Francisco Berreiro) and Luisa (Luisa Pardo) arguing in the car on the way to Luisa's parents's house. It's an arid rural area with no wi-fi reception. When they finally arrive at their destination and soon finds Gabino (Gabino Rodriguez), Luisa's brother, also marooned because their parents are not home. Paco takes off to get a cigarette and this sets up one of the most awkward meet and greet of a boyfriend & parents of all time. And it's not a good start for Paco who has to endure many awkward, long stretched moments with Luisa's family.

Paco is a bit actor from the TV series Narcos. And he has to 'act out' a scene from the show again and again by Luisa's dad's request. And in the middle of Fauna, Pereda shifts the narrative to concentrate on narrative within the narrative, enacting a pulpy book Gabino was reading. Pereda toys with the stereotypical roles in these scenarios from countless narco shows that dominate and perpetuate Mexican roles, mixing with reality in rural towns where local mine owners perpetuate violence on its citizens on a regular bases. There's telling scene where anxious Luisa wakes up her mom (Pereda regular Teresa Sánchez) to recite the lines with her for an audition, highlighting the difference between acting and lived in experience. Clocking in short 71 minutes, Fauna is another delicious experiment on identity and performance from Pereda.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Police Violence in the Yellow Vest and BLM Era

The Monopoly of violence (2020) - Dufresne Monopoly on Violence The Monopoly of Violence is showing as part of Big Screen Summer: NYFF58 Redux at Film at Lincoln Center. The series is sort of making up for the lost times- because of Covid shutdown, the New York Film Festival held only virtual screenings last Fall. The redux includes many of festival titles, including this film. It is currently playing at the Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.

In the middle of the new, very timely French documentary The Monopoly of Violence, directed by David Dufresne, academics talk about the power shift or equilibrium of the playing field between the French National Police and the protesters with the proliferation of representation with the smart phone videos and social media. The documentary footage is mostly assembled from smart phone footages from protesters.

Violent protests in the streets in France are not new. The modern France, born out of a revolution, general strikes and student protests, which shuts down the country for months, have been regarded as normal occurrences. After all, France is an exemplary Western democracy where everyone can freely express himself or herself. Or is it?

The Monopoly on Violence takes a hard look at the police violence captured on camera during gilets jaunes (The Yellow Vest) movement - a nationwide populist movement which started as protesting the rise of fuel costs, high cost of living and Macron government's tax reforms which is seen as favoring the very rich, which started in 2018.

Does maintaining public order in a republic equals use of violence? This is the heart of the question of the film. Against the smartphone-captured videos projected on a giant screen, French academics, politicians, philosophers, protesters and police offer their reactions to the images that are playing out. "The State claims monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force," said Max Weber, an influential German Socioligist in 1919. But what happens if the legality of the power exercised by police becomes illegitimate with abuse, captured by ever-present smart phones? Yes there should be context to the images, and yes there are violence perpetuated by protesters as well. But there's an undeniable truth in a footage where young people are cornered and bludgeoned with clubs by police. A lot of protesters lost eyes, limbs and even their lives.

Many of the interviewees wear eye patches and glasses obscuring their eyes shot out by tear gas canisters or rubber bullets. They see the images of themselves being struck, bleeding profusely and talk about it. Their family members or friends talking about them being hurt on camera makes them emotional. Yellow Vest, born out of frustrations against economic inequality, doesn't have that romantic notion of the May 68'. The systematic violence and brutality is all about instilling fear and power play, more than anything else. Some of them admit that damaging property, holding out that broken corporate logo gives you a sense of power (by wounding its pride), however fleeting.

Finger pointing, as we've seen on mainstream media and heard from rightwing pundits about BLM protests here, towards protesters as if they are the sole perpetrators of these violence, as one of the academics points out, is misleading, as there are three types of violence which are all entwined:

1. Institutional violence (State violence), 2. Revolutionary/reactionary violence (protests) and 3. Repressive violence (police). You can't only point out the violence perpetuated by protesters because it means you are not recognizing the other two.

The Monopoly of Violence ends with the analysis of Macron and Putin meeting where Putin jabs on Western democracy by pointing out all the riots in the streets of Paris. Macron angrily retorts that only in democracy people can protest in the streets. So we have only two choices? Either we live in Minority Report style police state of Russia or China where they curtail protests preemtively, or state violence prone, chaotic, capitalist Western style democracy?

As we witnessed in BLM movement and its urging for the police reform and community policing, for the sake of the younger generation, one would hope another way is possible. I think the film is an exemplary in reflecting these thoughts after one of the most violent and prolonged civil unrests in France's modern history. And I hope we can learn from that.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Throwback to the Golden Age of the New Hollywood

Uncut Gems (2019) - Safdie Uncut Gems I gotta admit, now I am in full Safdie Bros. team. It took me this long to see Uncut Gems but I am convinced that the Safdies will save American cinema. A total throwback to the good old days of New Hollywood, where gritty Nooo York movies ruled, Uncut Gems tells the few days of NY jewelry dealer Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). He is in deep shit since he owes money all over town via gambling problem. He has uncut opal rock the size of your fist coming in from the Ethiopean jew connection. He is expecting a big payday unless the goons get to him first.

Tension filled, constantly moving camera and close ups resemble early Michael Mann and Sydney Lumet with films such as The Thief and Dog Day Afternoon (lensed here by Darius Khondji). Sandler is marvelous as da playa whose wheeling and dealing digs deeper into his grave by the minute, so are the supporting players that includes Lakieth Stanfield, Judd Hirsh, Eric Bogosian, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett and Weeknd.

Uncut Gems is real gem of a movie. Yes it is stressful and at the same time wickedly funny. Definitely one of the best American films I've seen recently.

Monday, June 21, 2021


Raw (2016) - Ducournau Screen Shot 2021-06-21 at 7.09.07 PM Screen Shot 2021-06-21 at 8.07.47 PM Screen Shot 2021-06-21 at 7.10.07 PM Screen Shot 2021-06-21 at 7.10.34 PM Screen Shot 2021-06-21 at 8.09.00 PM Julia Ducournau's the rite of passage through cannibalism movie, Raw, is an icky and messy business. But with Garance Marillier's dedicated, feral performance as virginal Justine who has to find herself through series of trials, Ducournau makes her mark with her debut film that is unlike anything else. Sure it's not flawless, and the ending is a little bit conventional than I had hoped, but the ferocity and raw energy of the film is really something else.

Justine gets dropped off to a veterinary college by her dotting parents. Her older sister who is already attending the college is supposed to guide through her freshman years. Right away Justine is thrown into a over-the-top hazing rituals by class 'elders' (including her sister), starting by eating a raw kidney of a rabbit - Justine is a vegetarian, or at least she thought. Move over UPenn, this college happens to be a hardest party school ever! You really don't want to take your cats to a graduate of this college.

It's all bodily fluids and raging hormons everywhere. Justine discovers that she likes human flesh while getting a botched bikini wax from her sister - I don't wanna give anything away, but the scene's hilarious and terrifying at the same time.

Mixing not so subtle metaphors of cannibal and carnal, Ducournau charges ahead like a juggernaut, one gross incidents after another with the similar energy that is usually reserved for macho directors (Gaspar Nöe comes to mind). It's a remarkable achievement and I can't wait to watch her new film Titane.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Whole Wide World

Short Vacation (2020) - Kwon, Seo Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.40.30 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.46.21 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.55.31 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.02.55 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.13.42 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.26.55 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.31.05 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.38.55 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.52.24 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 7.29.10 AM How do you capture the end of the world on a photograph - is the question that hangs over the heads of four middle school freshman girls in Short Vacation. It's the school's photography club and that is the summer break assignment. The teacher gives them disposable cameras, the ones that you have to crank up to advance to take each picture: the ones with no exposure control so everything comes out super grainy. "When I was young, we didn't have phones to take pictures," he explains.

Siyeon, a transfer student, just joined the club of three girls - Songhee, Yeonwoo and Sojung. The club's name is "Shine", because of the principal's bald head, they speculate.

They can't phathom the idea of the end of the world or how to capture it. Siyeon has an idea- Shinchang is a place at the end of the 1 train line. They should go there and take pictures. In their little minds, it's the end of the line, the semi-official boundary of the world they know. Beyond that is unknown. This sets out the road movie, Short Vacation: a movie full of wonders and possibilities. It's a rare glimps of what it's like to be 14 years old, feeling for the first time that the world is large and vast.

As the girls, playing themselves, endlessly chatter during the entire trip- getting lost in the rural area, finding an abandoned station, getting separated then finding each other again, losing a phone, phone batteries running out, being marooned and spending the night in an empty community center for old folks in heavy summer rain, we get to witness each girl's personality developing and their possible lifelong friendship forming. The film in its short running time, 114 minutes, captures so much natural greatness. It also makes us feel very nostalgic about the childhood, its endless possibilities and portentials and a sense of wonder. One of the best films I've seen this year.