Friday, March 16, 2018

Direct Cinema

Nawet nie wiesz, jak bardzo cie kocham/You Have No Idea How Much I Love You (2016) - Lozinski
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I've seen some excellent documentaries coming out of Poland recently. You Have No Idea How Much I Love You is one of them. The set up is simple: it's a recording of family therapy sessions - mother (Ewa Szymczyk), daughter (Hanna Maciag) and the therapist (Bogdan de Barbaro). With close ups of these three people, sometimes the camera panning, sometimes over the shoulder, are as direct cinema as you can get. It's not their bad complexions we notice, but their eyes, catching the lights as they speak that lend the film's hypnotic power. Lozinski focuses on these three and nothing else and we are held captive audience, holding on to every word spoken.

Even though they grew apart, these two women got together in the hopes of solving their differences - abandonment issue, loneliness both stemming from Ewa's divorce when Hanna was still young. Blames, waterworks, breakthrough. It's truly captivating stuff.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2018 Preview

There are different ways to celebrate the arrival of Spring. But if you are in New York, there is only one way to do it, in style- you go see some great new French films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It's a proud tradition around this neck of the woods.

The 23rd edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema is here with array of films by established filmmakers and first timers alike, including Bruno Dumont (Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc), Mathieu Amalric (Barbara), Raymond Depardon (12 Days), Toni Marshall (Number One), Léonor Serraille (Montparnasse Bienvenüe), Léa Mysius (Ava), just to name a few.

FSLC is partnering again with UniFrance this year, putting emphasis on presenting emerging women directors. To quote Executive Director of UniFrance Isabelle Giordano:

French cinema today is unafraid to delve into the issues at the forefront of our collective consciousness, which is reflected throughout this year’s selection. In particular, we’re extremely proud to showcase a wide variety of women’s stories—films about women’s resilience during times of war, millennial women trying to find their place in the world, the glass ceiling, and even the childhood of a young girl destined to become a legend. As ever, we are thrilled to introduce American audiences to bold newFrench voices, this year including Léa Mysius, Léonor Serraille, Maryam Goormaghtigh, and Marine Francen.
The series runs 3/8 -3/18. For tickets and more info, please visit FSLC website.

Here are the films I was able to sample:

Jeannette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc - Bruno Dumont
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It does makes sense that Bruno Dumont's latest is about Joan of Arc. She personifies the Christian devotion and spirituality, so it comfortably fits in his filmography. It also makes sense that Jeanette is a musical comedy: as he brazenly made it clear since his first foray into comedy with L'il Quinquin and last year's Slack Bay that comedy is just a flip side of a coin- that his austere films (dotted with bizarre surrealist moments) can easily be rip-roaringly funny when they go two millimeter off the path.

Young Jeanne (Lise Leplat Prudhomme, and later played by Jeanne Voisin) is a precocious girl living in Domrémy, north-east France (Dumont's beloved home region). She and her friend have been praying to god to save France from English invaders to no avail. She encounters a twin dancing nuns or, has a religious epiphany of Ste. Marguerite & Catherine, telling her to lead the French army. They conclude their meeting with a choreographed headbanging with Heavy Metal music.

I get what Dumont is trying to do and Jeannette should work in theory. His Bressonian approach, using non-professionals to convey the serious subject such as faith and purity of Joan of Arc is a noble attempt and should be praised. But when you think of Joan of Arc, it's usually the haunting close ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti's face in Dreyer's poetic masterpiece Passion of Joan of Arc that come up to mind. In comparison, Jeanette can come across as a bad high school musical, complete with b-boy moves and falling off a horse for laughs.

Dumont's full framed beautiful composition highlighting the big sky country is there, so as the picturesque, windswept, soft lit sand hills of Brittany. But can it offset the silliness? You will be the judge.

Barbara - Mathieu Amalric *Opening Night Film
Mathieu Amalric's continues to show his impressive directing chops with Barbara, starring his ex, the immensely talented singer and actress, Jeanne Balibar. As the case with his award winning On Tour, Amalric's kaleidoscopic reverie on show business is a Fellini-esque controlled madness. Still, his deep love for performers is always palpable. And it's Balibar front and center here. She plays Brigitte, an actress interpreting the details from the legendary french singer's life, being directed by aimless, but passionate film director Yves (Amalric). As the film moves along, it becomes hard to distinguish Brigitte from Barbara and vice versa.

The title sequence accentuates the importance of Barbara's dictation of each word as she speaks, title appearing in intervals as she pronounces words rhythmically. It's all about mannerisms and gestures and the heavy make-up and her singing style, which Balibar tackles confidently. Added is movie within a movie meta-ness. But it doesn't take away the spotlight from its star.

Born Monique Andrée Serf in a Russian Jewish immigrant household, the singer took her grandmother's name as her stage name and became Barbara. Her melancholic love songs which were all written by her, touched a generation of listeners and helped her to become a national treasure. She also had a very pronounced nose which Brigitte lacks. There is a scene where Brigitte gets her face cast for the nose. In some scenes she wears it and in others she doesn't. Amalric is interested in recreating those details up to a point but leaves it to the flow of the film. He uses archival footage of the real singer in the beginning and back to Brigitte faithfully studying and practicing her every gesture and singing style. But as the film progresses, he cuts rapidly back and forth between Barbara and Brigitte, with added grainy footage of Balibar reenacting Barbara on stage, blurring the line among all three.

Amalric is an astute student of cinema. He is keenly aware of the medium and knows how to benefit from its possibilities but not in a showy way. His aimlessness is also his best asset. The film is rhythmic, fluid and free. One of the year's best.

A Memoir of War - Emmanuel Finkel
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Emmanuel Finkel tackles on semi-autobiographical book by writer & film director Marguerite Duras. And it's an ambitious one. The film starts with Marguerite (Mélanie Thierry) in German occupied Paris at the tip end of WWII. She had found her own journal which is essentially the book the film is based on, but she doesn't recall if it was she who wrote it. She is waiting for her husband Robert's return. He has been in custody for his resistance activities. Robert's prolonged absence has been a disorienting, unraveling experience for her.

We roll back to 1944, just before the scale tipped for the Allied forces. Marguerite was approached by Rabier (Benoit Magmiel, becoming more and more like young Gerard Depardieu), a collaborator, working for the Vichy regime, offering help to find where Robert is. He is a working class bloke who dreams of opening up a bookstore and thus fancies Margueritte because she's a writer. Her circle of friends in the resistance first think it's too dangerous for her, then admit that it might be a good opportunity for her to play Rabier to get important information.

First, fear and intimidation grip her but she plays along as Rabier leads her on to the promise of Robert's well being. It is clear that he wants something in return - ratting on her resistance friends. A dangerous game of cat and mouse play out.

Not unlike Duras scripted Hiroshima mon amour, A Memoir of War concerns the effect of war has on people- the guilt that survivors have to carry around weighs so heavily on them that they lose their sense of self. Marguerite often sees her surroundings in a third person perspective. She also sees herself from a distance as if she is experiencing an out of body experience. Duras doesn't put blames on a collaborator alone. Holocaust happened. As a human being, we all have to wrestle with the fact that it happened. Using shallow depth of field, Finkel makes sure there that there is a distance between people at all times. There is a striking scene of empty Paris just before its liberation where Marguerite rides her bicycle. But she will never be free from that guilt. And it won't stop even if she has Robert back finally.

Thierry is a revelation as Marguerite, a learned, intellectual woman who slowly gets broken emotionally. A Memoir of War is a great film.

12 Days - Raymond Depardon
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The French law requires 12 days of involuntary hospitalization in a psychic ward for anyone deemed danger to him/herself and others. Nearly 92,000 people are placed under psychiatric care each year. After those initial 12 days, a judge makes fateful decisions based on doctor's observations on these cases in the courtroom.

The famed filmmaker/photographer Raymond Depardon gets an access to these court hearings for the first time and gives voices to the voiceless for better or worse. The result is a fascinating documentation of the unseen, underexposed mental problems the modern society faces.

The courtroom cases with 3 camera setups, we witness these hearing sessions to determine if the involuntarily hospitalized persons will continue to be involuntarily hospitalized or not. Many of them are obviously disturbed and suffering from mental disorder- a girl who was repeatedly raped thinks only way to get the bad sexual energy out of her body is to slit her wrist, a man who killed his father 10 years ago longs to go home to his father, etc. Some are comparatively mild encounters with the law- an office worker who brandished a knife in front of her boss and co-workers, a man in a violent outdoor brawl. All of them don't want to be locked up. All they do is medicate. Judges listen, they can be compassionate, but the results are always the same - ruling for involuntary hospitalization beyond 12 initial days. The film is a startling and chilling document of real life unfolding because we see these kind of cases all the time on our streets, in our subway stations and homeless shelters. 12 Days remind you of our complicated, psychologically fragile society where we are not equipped with dealing with the massive flow of mental illness.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight - Nobuhiro Suwa
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Jean-Pierre Léaud plays an aging actor Jean, starring in a movie in southern France. He is having a hard time how to play death. The director (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) insists it being played like him quietly falling asleep. Jean prefers it as an 'encounter', something more impactful, at least on camera.

The project is getting delayed because of his young co-star refuses to come out of her trailer because her heart is broken after an affair with a dancer. "It will pass soon", Jean says. So he has an unintended mini vacation and free to roam around a picturesque, sun drenched town.

He encounters the ghost of his long lost love Juliette (Pauline Etienne) in an abandoned mansion where he once lived. He abandoned her 40 some years ago and she committed suicide by throwing herself in the lake. As he starts to living in that abandoned house, the local kids armed with amateur movie making equipment, barges in and starts following him around.

Along with last year's Death of Louis XIV, Léaud plays a role that deals with aging and mortality. As the face of French New Wave, he is an embodiment of living legend. But he's not really considered as a great actor. At 73, with his leathery, sagging face, he is rather the testament of ravaging flow of time. Nobuhiro Suwa, a Japanese director who's been making films in France, like Albert Serra and Tsai Ming-Liang before him, uses this walking icon for a subtle contemplation on lost love, the joy of cinema and passage of time. Falling somewhere between The Great Beauty and Cinema Paradiso but very very muted in tone, The Lion Sleeps Tonight might be a little too sentimental for some.

Custody - Xavier Legrand
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Xavier Legrand's debut feature Custody is about a domestic violence case that plays out like a thriller. Going for detached, observational documentary style of Dardennes brothers, his mastery in getting an amazingly natural performance out of his talented cast must be commended.

Custody starts out with the custody mediation hearing which lays out the typical situation - abusive husband (Denis Ménochet) who has an upper hand financially gets the joint custody of their 11 year old son (Thomas Gioria) on weekends, even though the kid wrote a statement that dad has been abusive and threatening to his mother (Léa Drucker). Because there is a little evidence of physical abuse.

It's really painful to watch as physically imposing, threatening dad manipulating the kid to get at mom and into their lives again against their wishes. Custody slowly builds up to an explosive conclusion and it's unbearably tense.

It says a lot about the inadequate system in terms of domestic abuse and how things are stacked up against women to prove that abuse can take many different forms.

Montparnasse Bienvenue - Léonor Serraille
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Paula (Laetitia Dosch) just got dumped by her professor boyfriend of 10 years. She makes a scene outside his flat by screaming and banging her head against the door and ends up in a hospital getting stitches on her forehead. With a fluffy cat in tow, homeless, aimless Paula drifts from one place to another, trying to score a place to spend a night while cursing out Paris, the most unfriendly city in the world.

While on the metro, Paula meets exotic Yuki (Léonie Simaga) who mistakes her for her elementary school classmate (it's her Heterochromia iridium - one brown and one green). Yuki invites her to stay at her flat and even gives her a lead for a job - babysitting for a wealthy woman in exchange for a maid's room in the attic. Paula also gets a job at a lingerie shop in a department store after many failed interviews. Naturally chatty, she makes friends everywhere she goes.

At first, Dosch's Paula strikes as a typical 'crazy girlfriend' but after a while, we ease into her quirks and get charmed by her personality. Dosch makes her character endlessly endearing and relatable. First time writer/director Serraille does a great job painting a complicated young woman trying to navigate the world.

'Nothing is that black and white', one of the characters says to her. This resonates throughout the whole film. Montparnasse Bienvenüe is not really about post-college syndrome (think of Francise Ha!)- Paula is 31 but always lies that she is 29 as if that makes a huge difference. But as the film's original title (Jeune Femme - young woman), suggests, it paints a general picture of a modern woman who charges through life with 'fake it till you make it' spirit. Constantly hilarious and immensely watchable, Montparnasse Bienvenüe is a comedy gem.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Film Comment Selects 2018

Curated by its esteemed editors, Film Comment magazine's 18th edition of Film Comment Selects returns to Lincoln Center.

A great mix of old and new cinematic gold, this year's lineup includes Ildikó Enyedi’s Berlinale Golden Bear-winner On Body and Soul; Mrs. Fang, Wang Bing’s unflinching document of an elderly woman in her final days, which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno; the North American premiere of Katharina Wyss’s powerful debut feature Sarah Plays a Werewolf, about a woman who channels her fears into theater; Govinda Van Maele’s fiction feature debut Gutland, featuring Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps; the U.S. premiere of Slovenian director Rok Biček‘s The Family, a compassionate portrait of a young man’s life over the course of 10 years; and experimental artist Bertrand Mandico’s exhilarating, gender-bending Wild Boys.

The series opens with US premiere of Life and Nothing More, a moving docu/fiction hybrid by Antonio Méndez Esparza.

The Series runs Friday, February 23 through Tuesday, February 27. Please visit FSLC's website for tickets and more info.

Here are six films I was able to sample:

Wild Boys/Les garçons sauvages
- Bertrand Mandico
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Five handsome boys from an exclusive boarding school go a little too far with their sexual desire with their literature teacher, reaching a state called 'Tresór,' symbolized by a jewel-crusted skull. As a punishment, they are cast away by a greasy, bearded ship captain (Sam Louwick) with a gigantic tattooed penis. Chained and fed only a fruit that resembles hairy balls, the boys go through a harrowing sea voyage under the ruthless captain. The ship is headed toward a mysterious island where men turn into the fairer sex. The idea is, taking a short trip to the island might make these wild lusty boys a little more even tempered, a little less testosterone filled.

Bertrand Mandico makes a feature debut after many fantastical, colorful, playful shorts with the crazy beautiful The Wild Boys. He flips gender roles, having the roles of the boys played by female actors (Vimala Pons, Pauline Lorillard, Diane Rouxel, Anaël Snoek and Mathilde Warnier) in ties and suspenders with short hair. After they get to the seemingly wild and unkempt island full of weird vegetation that resembles secreting penises and hairy balls (their only means of sustenance), they meet Dr. Séverin(e) (Mandico's muse Elina Löwensohn), a zoologist who became a woman after he landed on the island. One of the boys, Hubert (Rouxel) gets left behind with Séverine and the rest go back to the ship due to the captain's urging. But soon the boys revolt against the captain because they want to go back to the weirdly seductive island. The boat capsizes in the storm, and the boys end back up on the island.

A gaudy, sensual, daring and inventive take on both Goto: Island of Love by Polish master Animator/filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk and Lord of the Flies, The Wild Boys is a lot of fun. It plays out like a prettier, sexier Guy Maddin film. And its pan-sexual theme is not without a dash of humor. The beach fight/orgy scene complete with flying feathers and sand alone is worth the price of admission.

The Family
- Rok Biček
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Rok Biček's non-judgmental, uncompromising Slovenian documentary follows young Matej's troubled life for a decade. It shows that the life is very complicated and not at all black and white.

In a jumbled timeline, we first see the graphic moments of Nia, Matej and his girlfriend Barbara's daughter, being born. They both are teenagers at this point. They move in with Barbara's parents'. It seems Matej has a strong bond with Barbara's dad. But their domestic bliss is very short-lived. We see teary Matej moving out and back into his parents'. It is quite easy to see why Matej seeks his parental love elsewhere- with a mentally challenged brother at home, his parents are not quite the nurturing types- uneducated and lost control over Matej long ago, their communication is limited to slurring words, yells and insults. But it's not like his parents are monsters. Dealing with a teenage son who is glued to his computer screen and completely shut out of his world, his parents deal with issues like any other parents of teenagers in the world.

A session with the with a school councilor reveals this dilemma. The councilor points out to Matej's dad that his son is quite bright, yet his has learning disabilities and has some behavioral issues. Dad tells her that he is doing all he can to help him. And the councilor reminds Matej that his parents 'doing all they can' might seem not enough under their circumstances, but that doesn't mean they don't love him.

As the custody battle over Nia ensues, Matej seeks vasectomy. He doesn't want to get a girl pregnant. And the sensation is not the same with condoms, he explains to the doctor. His application is denied because he's only 23. He gets involved with a 14 year old school girl and gets heavily dependent on her kindly mother.

With titling the film, The Family, Biček deliberately provokes us to examine what it means in the current complicated, messy world we are living in. There are numerous gaps in the timeline and important events in Matej's life we are missing out- his father died, how? What happened to his front teeth? It's that truncated history that gives the film its punch. Life goes on, whether we are watching or not. The film ends with young Matej snarkily asking, looking directly into the camera "Isn't my life interesting?" Yet the film's theme goes way beyond its mere subject.

- Govinda Van Maele
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Starring pre-Phantom Thread Vicky Krieps, Gutland is a solid first feature from Luxembourgian director Govinda Van Maele. It's a slow burner that ultimately doesn't really pay off. It doesn't have a moral lesson or big revelatory ending. But it's all about maintaining that below-the-surface tension all throughout- Van Maele and co. do it very well with the help of effective dream/fantasy sequences and uneasy score.

It tells a story of a brusque German bank robber Jens (Frederick Lau) with a bag full of cash rolling into a rural farming community in Luxembourg. In order to lay low, Jens looks for a job as a farmhand for the harvest season. At first suspicious, the townsfolk warm up to the caveman-like Jens, especially Lucy (Krieps), the daughter of the towns mayor. A town's elder, the pillar of the community takes a liking to him. He warns him ominously of one thing though - do not get involved with any of the wives here.

Jens settles in with Lucy, making his stay semi-permanent, having a tranquil life. All the while, he has to deal with dirty secrets of the village, his own past and the bag full of money he buried in woods nearby. Is Jens a different man now he cut his caveman hair and beard off and plays in the town's orchestra? Is his second chance in life voluntarily asked for or forcibly given?

Gutland is an expertly crafted noir where you can't shake off that ominous feeling from beginning to end.

Life and Nothing More
- Antonio Méndez Esparza *Opening Night Film
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Falling somewhere between Roberto Minervini films and Florida Project, Life and Nothing More, directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza (Aqui y allá), brims with authenticity and empathy. If you were going in cold feet like me, the film is an extremely intimate documentary about a troubled teenager Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) and his overworked, but tough single mom Gina (Regina Williams). But a halfway through, you notice improvable, almost impossible camera placements in public places without being noticed and hear voice overs when they read letters. Then you realize that this isn't a documentary.

First, the focus is on Andrew, a quiet high school kid trying to stay out of trouble and taking care of his little sister while mom is at a diner working. He is bombarded from all sides (community groups and churches) that he needs to be good. Yet he is still a teen, trudging through a rough school and crime ridden neighborhood. With his dad incarcerated, he builds up his anger inside him. Then we shifts focus on to Gina and her budding romance with one of her customers, Robert (Robert Williams). She's done with men and doesn't have time for any bullshit. But very insistent Robert seems like a genuinely nice guy. What Andrew thinks of him is another matter though.

As it develops into a courtroom drama, the film charts a familiar territory - poverty, absent fathers, the inadequate, racist justice system, etc. But perhaps this uninspired story arc is the point - with little choices these characters have under the circumstances, this is how it plays out, just like in real life.

Quietly moving and beautifully portrayed by non-actors, Life and Nothing More is another moving, very human docufiction experiment about marginalized Americana.

*The California Film Institute's CFI releasing will theatrically distribute the two-time Spirit Awards nominee nationally this spring (TBA date). Award-winning filmmaker Antonio Méndez Esparza who is also a Guggenheim Fellow and professor at Florida State University will be in New York this week for the NY premiere screening and also participate in a Film Comment Free Talk on Race and Representation on 2/24.

On Body and Soul - Ildikó Enyedi

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A handicapped, lonely and aging financial director, Endre (Géza Morcsányi) at an industrial slaughterhouse is intrigued by Maria (Alexandra Borbély), a new quality inspector who lacks any social niceties. It happens that they dream the same dream every night - that they are a deer couple, roaming the snowy forests, enjoying each other's company in silence. But even though they share the serendipitous events, unlike a regular romance, they have some big huddles to leap through - Endre has given up his love life a long while ago and Maria suffers from haphephobia for whatever reasons.

Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi (My Twentieth Century) does whimsy right while contemplating all animals as sentient beings. On Body and Soul is a grown-up fairytale (as opposed to grown-up's fairytale). I liked that Enyedi doesn't rely on cuteness of the premise. It's mature and beautifully realized. I hate when a film makes sex as a clutch that solves every problem its characters have. Even though Maria's characterization is shorthanded, I loved the idea of her ethereal being coming down to earth by her elopment with Endre, realizing the love is accepting breadcrumbs on the table.

Sarah Plays a Werewolf - Katharina Wyss

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Sarah Plays a Werewolf paints a complex picture of what being a teenage girl is like. Sarah (Loane Balthasar) is a High School drama student in a picturesque Swiss town. She has a nice, well adjusted family - parents are well educated, cultured intellectuals & siblings are normal. Sarah has a penchant for dramatics - loving tragic figures in plays and opera, telling classmates that her imagined boyfriend is dead and Ben, her older brother who recently moved out to attend college, committed suicide even though he's alive and well. She doesn't have any friends or someone to talk to. It doesn't help that her parents are way too liberal with their parenting, encouraging her freedom in every which way, even condoning the thought of suicide. She and her Georges Batalle reading classmate Alice stage dramatic scene where Sarah plays a victim to Alice's torturer. Everyone, except for the drama teacher (Sabine Timoteo), is nonplussed and soon after Sarah loses Alice to a boy. She tries to make out with some of the boys but that doesn't work out either.

Sarah becomes more and more withdrawn and have schizophrenic episodes, until she attacks one of the student on stage. But her father refuses to medicate her or send her to therapy. "No one understands me," she keeps on saying.

Moody and melancholic, Sarah Plays a Werewolf is a clear eyed examination of being a teenage girl that reminds me of Bresson's films, especially Four Nights and a Dreamer and A Gentle Woman. Loane Balthasar's fearless performance is remarkable.

Mrs. Fang - Wang Bing

Mrs. Fang - Wang Bing

Death, the inevitable. It comes to everyone. It is part of life. We experience it more as we get older. But it never gets any easier. Wang Bing, the master chronicler of the shadowy side of Chinese economic boom, unflinchingly move forward with documenting an elderly woman's process of dying. Think of Mrs. Fang as real life version of Haneke's Amour, only less dignified and less poetic, just like death in real life.

We see Mrs. Fang, a plump, elderly lady silently looking in a dingy room. Six month later, she is skin and bones, unrecognizable, her teeth exposed, dying of Alzheimer's in the bed in a room she once looked in. Her family and friends flood the room looking in her condition. They argue loudly about the cost of her care, the funeral arrangement and her state of mind. As usual, through the series of long takes, we are confronted with a person dying in close up - her eyes staring nowhere, no voice and almost no mobility. People around her don't know about death, less about the Alzheimer's. They speculate endlessly in front of the dying woman.

Just like his other films, Wang depicts the rural, poor community. They are small fishing community. But there is no romanticism portrayed - they go off on their small metal fishing boat, cast the nets which makes buzzing sound, pull them in and come home.

Just who Mrs. Fang was is not Wang's concern to show. What she did, whom she loved is beside the point. The banality of death is. It's difficult to watch. Wang faces it head on. I admire that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Steamy Psychological Thriller Done Right: François Ozon's Double Lover

L'Amant Double/Double Lover (2017) - Ozon
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Based on Joyce Carol Oates' short novel Lives of The Twins, François Ozon concocts yet another sly, sexy psychological thriller starring Marine Vacth and Jérémie Renier. Vacth plays Chloe, a young woman suffering from intense stomach pain. Unable to find the cause of her symptoms, her doctor suggests seeing a therapist. So she becomes a patient of Paul Meyer (Renier), a mild mannered, handsome psychologist. At first, Chloe is skeptical to open herself up to a stranger, but the mutual attraction is palpable. With the help of compassionate Paul, she pours out her soul, appointment after appointment. And soon enough they fall in love. After Paul declares his love for her, they move in together.

While unpacking Paul's belongings, Chloe finds his old passport with a different sir name, Delord. He has a simple explanation - he took in his mother's maiden name when he went into practice, since Paul Meyer sounds better. She drops the subject, but a seed of distrust is planted: 'He knows everything about me. But I know nothing of him.' The stomach pain returns soon after.

On the way home from her museum watchmen job (she was a former model who lost interests after seeing the sleazy side of the industry), Chloe sees Paul or someone who looks exactly like him on the street talking to another woman. Paul denies that it was him, saying it must have been her job related stress. He recommends seeing another therapist for her stomach pain. She finds out that the man who looks just like Paul is his estranged twin brother Louis (also played by Renier), who's also a practicing therapist. Under the false pretense, she starts seeing Louis.

Louis turns out to be the opposite of Paul. He is cold, brutish and calculating. And naturally, Chloe can't help but being sexually attracted to him. Chloe starts wondering why Paul has been hiding the fact that he has a twin brother. And why Louis doesn't want her to tell Paul about their encounters. After experiencing aggressive sexual advances from Louis, Chloe gives in to her desires, and they become lovers.

Like many of his films, Double Lover is an absorbing ride. Carefully crafted with its twists and turns, the narrative pulls you in right from the beginning and never let you go. Visually, Hitchcockian elements are everywhere from the spiral staircases to the wall of mirrors. Vacth, working with Ozon for the second time after Young and Beautiful, shows her great emotional range as a woman who struggles with doubts, jealousy and desire. There is a darker dimension to her than Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby or Chatherine Deneuve in Repulsion. She is definitely not some damsel in distress. Renier, a Belgian actor who's been a Dardenne Bros regular. It's interesting to see the scrawny working class kid from La Promisse, ascending to one of the hottest romantic male leads in French cinema. He shines in a dual role, basically playing the good and the darker side of the same person.

There have been many great psychological, erotic thrillers involving twins both real and imagined - Dead Ringers, Sisters, The Dark Half come to mind when considering Double Lover. But it being an Ozon film, it's all about its protagonist creating a great, compelling narrative. Like Ozon himself, they are master storytellers, who is taking us for a ride. It's a highly seductive film with great many effortlessly sensual sequences.

I find it funny that the film is being released on Valentines Day against another Fifty Shades series. Let me put it simply - French does it better, effortlessly. Steamy and seductive, Double Lover will make an infinitely better choice for a date movie.

Double Lover opens on Valentines day 2/14 nationwide in US.

Love and Its Complications, Truthfully

Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble/We Won't Grow Old Together (1972) - Pialat
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Jean (Jean Yanne) and Catherine (Marlène Jobert) are on the verge of breaking up after 6 years. But it's always been tumultuous between them. Love works in a mysterious ways and they both can't get away from each other no matter how unhappy they both are. I've seen this in relationships and in families before- they've known each other for long enough time that they can be extremely mean to each other. Brutish Jean who works as a cameraman, says very hurtful things to Catherine. But he half expects that she will come back to him and they will get together since they love each other. After such one make up session, Catherine says that she loves him less now. However miserable Jean is, he doesn't see that he is losing her because he is still in love with her. And she being a little more adult of the two, breaks up with him. You fall out of love. Love fades. But it's never gone gone.

As usual, Pialat brings out virtuosic performances from his actors. We Won't Grow Old Together is an unsentimentalized grownup love story that rings true however painful.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Life in 24 Frames

24 Frames (2017) - Kiarostami
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Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's passing in 2016 was very unexpected. Among all the cultural luminaries who passed on recently, personally Kiarostami's death really saddened me the most. His deeply humanistic, genre and form transcending cinema has been truly unique and inspirational to my cinematic education, so his death was a devastating blow. So when I heard the news of 24 Frames, the film he's been working for 3 years, unfinished at the time of his death, is going to be released with the help of his son Ahmad, I was more than eager to see the late master's final work. And it's as usual, infinitely wise and achingly beautiful unlike anything.

Kiarostami's idea for 24 Frames is simple - try to bridge the gap between painting, photograph and moving pictures: we go great length to capture one still moment. That instant is frozen in time forever. But what about before and after that moment? They are usually easily discarded from and forgotten in our memories. Cinema as we know it, can prolong that moment for a little longer, to help us in imagining the narrative, in contextualizing the content within the frame a little more. Comprised of 24 4 1/2 minute static shots, the film most resembles his 2001 film, Five, where he held his camera to 5 static scenes in various length. And it's the same minimalistic approach without human presence (except for two scenes) he applies here.

24 Frames is, in large part, a collaboration of Kiarostami and visual effects artist Ali Kamali. Based on Kiarostami's photographs and videos, Kamali was responsible for digitally creating the multilayered images. Frame 1 is the famous winter landscape painting: The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel. Accompanied by the sound of hounds, wind, footsteps, and people playing on the frozen lake below, we see subtle animated movements - smoke billowing out of chimneys from down below, birds flying across the frame, one of the hounds coming alive and trots and pees on the tree, etc. while certain elements stay frozen, like the hunters themselves and the pheasant flying across the sky. Once again, Kiarostami offers us the chance to contemplate on various things - the power of our imagination, fleeting nature of time, immortality of art...all in one single frame.

Kiarostami's love of nature and landscapes comes to the fore - deer, cows, various birds, dogs, horses, cats, snow, rain, wind, ocean, forest, mountains. Each scene is quiet and static, just held long enough to have something happening within the frame. Windows figure heavily into the film as well- constantly framing the frame. If it's not windows, it is fences or columns. He wrote in 2009 about his photography:

I've often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us unless it's inside a frame.

As he championed shooting from the moving car throughout his films, one scene is dedicated to the snowy landscape outside the car window: a couple of horses run parallel to the moving car, we lose the sight of the horse as it lags behind. The car stops, the automatic window rolls down, the horses reappear. Now we are presented with two horses playing around in the blizzard through the car window. After a while, the car moves on.

Humans are not in the frame most of the times but with the sound of gun fire of hunters in many of these scenes, you can feel their presence. I don't think Kiarostami necessarily makes a nuisance out of humans or a threat to nature, he seems to say that this is the life as is, with us in it. But as always the case with Kiarostami's films, 24 Frames is only deceptively simple- there are a lot more layers than what meets the eye. These animals' behaviors, whether playing, fighting, cheating, waiting or moaning, resemble our behaviors closely. And they provide a lot of humor because of that.

There is a funny frame of a group of Iranian family looking at the Eiffel Tower from a distance, with their backs toward us. At first we don't know if this frame is a photograph or not. The voices from the crowd, then people working by in the foreground follows. It's another intoxicating concoction by the master: mixing the idea of 'the window to Paris' and current climate of immigration in the first world since it's hard to determine where this scene takes place.

The whole film closes with the powerful and one of the most striking images in cinema. Image can't move people is a lie. Accompanied by Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Love Never Dies", the last 'frame' will go down in cinema history as perhaps one of the most iconic and most beautiful imagery in history. It's even more sublime than the last scene of his film Taste of Cherry which ends with Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary". His son Ahmad did an admirable job choosing these 24 out of 30 'frames' or so Kiarostami considered using in the film.

Kiarostami was a true polymath. For those who are familiar with his artistry - his haiku inspired poetry, his minimalist landscape photography as well as his enigmatic films, 24 Frames represents the culmination of all his artistic practices. What make it so sad to me at least, is that there is no finality to the film. It's as if it can go on forever, completely consistent with what he had been doing all his artistic life. Nothing is comparable to his artistry. As Asghar Fahadi told me last year about his death:

This was the bitterest occurrence that happened in the cinema past year, because he was one and only. There was no one like him. There is no one like him. Many people tried to be like him or copy him but because their personalities are different from his, their films didn’t come out the way his films did.

The film is a great testament to his being as an artist and as a person. It's easily the best film I've seen this year so far.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Light It Up

In The Intense Now (2017) - Salles
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Brazilian documentary filmmaker João Moreira Salles looks back at the year 1968 where everything seemed possible. He concentrates on four different events and places - Cultural Revolution in China, the student uprising/general strike across France, Soviet Invasion of Prague and March of the One Hundred Thousands against military regime in Brazil, all in that fateful year. Culling from images of homemade movies, newsreels and documentaries, Salles examines what it's like to take it to the street for something you believe in in that fateful year.

It starts out with the tourist footage in China in 1966. Salles' mother was there, taking in a foreign land where everything was opposite of what she was accustomed to. As many picturesque scenes play out - farmers, children, on-lookers, other tourists in the sunny, happy settings, Mao Zedong's China in the beginning of Cultural Revolution seemed like an idealist utopia (except for incessant insistence on singing of songs praising the Chairman) that gloomy French students only dreamed of in the streets of cities across France in 1968. In his mom's words, the trip to China gave her "ineffable emotion that follows the shock of the unlooked-for encounter." This seeming spontaneity, unfettered enthusiasm are the themes Salles visits again and again when he talks of taking it to the streets.

The May 68 first started as demonstrating students occupying college administration buildings. I do not want to generalize this nation-wide civil unrest or make light of it, but the gist of it was this: their opposition of American Imperialism in Indo-China and traditional social hierarchy with their Marxist, Maoist ideology struck a core with the factory workers, resulting in a largest general strike in France's history. School administrations and police's violent reaction just inflamed the situation even further. Armed with wealth of footage around that time, Salles examines the short-lived unity forged between students and striking workers against the status quo of de Gaulle regime and how quickly it dissipated.

He spends quite a substantial time on Daniel Cohn Bendit, who was one of the key figures in the student movement. Through several interviews and Salles' voice-overs, we get the impression that the decentralized student movement of 68 didn't actually have an end goal. And his road trip to Berlin accompanied by a photographer and funded by a magazine was seen as a sell-out. Even one of the famous slogans on the wall, 'Sous les pavés, la plage'/'under the bricks, a beach' can be read as extremely bourgeois.

But does it matter though when you talk about the spirit of 68? You believed in something so strong you had to take it to the street. These protests weren't without casualty though. Gilles Tautin, an 18 year old High School student died near car factory. The self-immolation of Jan Palach to protest Soviet occupation in Prague put the nation in moaning. Then there was Edson Luís who as shot to death by the police in Brazil.

The footage that stands out is a young woman factory worker interviewed by the news crew outside a car factory. She is crying and refuses to go back. She protests that nothing has changed, that everything is going back to status quo. The factory management made some concessions but the thought of revolution showed a glimpse of a more just world.

As the history that unfolded after that period, we know that Mao might have succeeded in building a cult for himself and solidified his political power with Cultural Revolution, but it also did irreparable damage and brought misery and death to millions of people. de Gaulle regime's grip got stronger and Communist and Socialist party lost support.

The smell of teargas and horse manure in the air, a street protest can be an exhilarating experience. A full-on revolution might not be possible in our heavily capitalist conditioned society, and we put too much emphasis on ends over means, failure over efforts. Neither Salles glorifies the May 68 nor dismisses it as naive. He doesn't spoon-feed the audience. What Salles is showing with his documentary is that a shock to the system, albeit minuscule in the grand scheme of things (May 68' movement didn't even last 6 months), is a necessity to keep the world in check. The legacy of 68 is that it made people 'woke'. Its impact still felt from Occupy Movement to more recent the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements. Anyone who took to the street for one cause or another can deeply relate to In the Intense Now. With the disparity between haves and have-nots is greater than ever, the spirit of 68 is more relevant than ever before.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Self Discovery at Sea

Fidelio, l'odyssée d'Alice (2014) - Borleteau
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Alice (Ariane Labed) is called in from her vacation with her Norwegian boyfriend Felix(Anders Danielson Lie) to replace an engineer who died at sea on Fidelio, a merchant ship. It turns out the captain of the ship is an old classmate at the Naval academy and a former lover Gaël (Melvil Poupaud). The ship consists of half seasoned seamen of French nationals and half devout Christian Filipinos. Alice, only woman on the ship, turns out to be a very capable engineer and has no problem getting along with everyone. Things get complicated when Alice succumbs to desire to hook up with Gaël. She also starts reading the diary the dead man left behind.

Fidelio touches upon the life at sea theme - loneliness, alienation, freedom, etc. The ship in the sea also provides plenty of cinematic moments. Seeing Labed in coveralls with oil smudged face is also a plus. You might think my summary of Fidelio above sounds like melodrama on the high seas, but the film is really not. Without getting too deep into character's backstory, it paints the picture of a woman who is finding out what she wants in life head-on. I loved the physicality of the film both in characters and its surroundings. Alice is very much in love with Felix. He is the anchor that grounds her life. They have intense physical relationship. But would he be there for her every time she docks after each long journey?

Lucie Borleteau balances well btwn bigger themes in seafaring life and nitty gritty details of life on and outside the ship. Alice is not above anyone Hemingway style when she is spending time with her parents and family. She also contends well with centerfold photos that adorns the decks and corridors of the engine room of Fidelio. From a shot of a sea snake caught in the bucket to Filipino crew doing karaoke while Alice looks on behind the round nautical window, Fidelio's full of graceful moments. Loved it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Dangerous yet Seductive NY in the 80s

Call Me (1988) - Mitchell
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Anna (Patricia Charbonneau), a reporter at some New York paper with boring food writer boyfriend living in what's considered as South Williamsburg in still sketchy NY. She starts getting obscene phone calls. It ain't right. She wants to confront the pervert and he suggests a rendez-vous in the Polish Bar, a local dive. A suave, dangerous looking criminal element (young Stephen McHattie) is also there hitting on her. Is he the phone creep? Then she witnesses a murder in the bathroom. Some dirty cop is involved. Anna is convinced that that dangerous but irresistibly charming man is indeed the man on the other line. Also he might be involved in that murder?

With David Sanborn style cheese jazz score and Manhattan skyline over the bridge from the windows and rooftops, Call Me paints that stereotypical New York in the 80s- dangerous yet highly seductive. The plot doesn't make much sense and convoluted. It's twists and turns highly unnecessary. McHattie looks great in bleached blonde hair and dark long overcoat, doing his best Rutger Hauer. Charbonneau, a dark haired Sheena Easton beauty looks great in various 80s outfits. Steve Buscemi and David Strathairn show up as well to round up the cast. It also has one of the hottest phone sex scene ever captured on film. A total nostalgia piece that I always wanted to watch just looking at its VHS cover long long ago. Worth it!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Interview: Ziad Doueiri on The Insult, The world on Fire and the Greatness of Train to Busan

ziad doueiri
Ziad Doueiri, whose Hollywood credentials include being a cameraman for most of Quentin Tarantino's earlier films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown), has made several films in his native Lebanon (West Beirut, The Attack, Lila Says). With his new film The Insult opening stateside, I had a chance to talk with him. We didn't only talk about his terrific new film, but also the chaotic world we live in and his love of Train to Busan.

The Insult opens New York and Los Angeles on 1/12. National roll out would follow. Please visit Cohen Media website for more info.

I had to do a little bit of research on Lebanese history before and after seeing THE INSULT. I find that Lebanon has an incredibly complex history with a very diverse society in religion, ethnicity, the whole make up of the society. Was it then a conscious decision for you to concentrate on the two individuals, despite the whole geopolitical dynamics – the US, Israelis, Iranians and other big political players surrounding Lebanon?

Of course. When you do a film you have to think of your main characters. And you have to build those characters in a way you get attached to them. Now you can build it on a local platform or international platform and you can add whatever conflict you want- it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s the story of those two people.

Now, the Middle East is a very complex place. It is so misunderstood by the world and the Middle Easterns themselves: when you sit down for dinners or parties and you talk with people from Lebanon, for instance, you don’t even have two people agree with each other – there are so many different opinions and everybody gets very passionate about it because it’s such a mix of place. It makes rich? Yeah. It makes profound? Yeah. Also it makes a very volatile place too. The proof? Look what’s going on in the Arab world now. It’s fucked.


So, whenever you have all these things and you make a movie, you have to make it clear to an audience – I’m not making a film for people who are only in Lebanon. I’m making a film for audiences in general. Whether it’s a Lebanese or American film, you have to make a complex film told in a simple way. The best way to tell the complex subject treated in the simple way. The best way to extract the complexities is by telling your story in a simplest form. That’s what I believe. All my films are very simple. They go in deep contextually but the way it’s told, through dialog, through storyline, I believe it must be simple. Because the simplicity it will make the audience understand the spirit of the film better than when it's layered. When you make everything complex – dialog, plot, you might get lost. You should not lose the thread of the story.

Now, from time to time, you can talk about things that you don’t understand as a western audience. For example, when I talked about Bashir Gemayel, most westerners don’t know who he is. Bashir Gemayel is one of the most prominent figure in Lebanese history. He was the founder of the Christian Militia and he became president and he was assassinated in 1982. OK? He is a cult figure in Lebanon. He is also a very controversial figure because half of the people love him and half of the people hate him. When you make a film and talk about Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese audience can totally understand all the nuances and details, but all the others will probably not.

But they will all understand the characters you create. They will understand a character who belongs to the party of this guy. Now you don’t know who Gemayel is but you know the character is a Christian because he belong to the group and he wears a cross. That’s what you need.


Again, you take a complex story and you tell it very simple. That’s what it is. It’s very important. Yes, the Middle East is so difficult to understand. I always try to take a simple way to explain it.

That’s what I wrote down on the margin of my note here. ‘It’s a simple portrayal of a complex society.’

That's right!

Can you tell me what happened with the Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigning in Riyad, Saudi Arabia? It was all over the news.

Yes. You know, it’s very funny I get asked that question and the answer is that nobody knows.

Nobody knows?

Nobody knows, really.

I know it’s been a critical chapter, that month when he was gone for two weeks. And nobody knows exactly what happened. I don’t know.

Is the film based on real life or anything?

Not really. But I’m sure you read an interview or two I gave somewhere. The drainpipe and the water dripping (which started the whole incident) that is based on what happened to me before I wrote the story. That’s what made me think writing the story. That little silly thing got me started. Then I thought, what if we have that story in Beirut, where such a silly, such insignificant incident with absolutely no relevance becomes more complicated? This guy is expecting some kind of apology and the other guy doesn’t give it to him. And then it gets complicated. It goes from the boss, to the judge, to the supreme court to the presidency. Ah, now it’s interesting!

The second question I asked myself with my co-writer (and ex-wife) Joelle Touma, ‘could that happen in the Arab world?’ The answer was yes, it could definitely happen. No one who had seen the film thought, ‘no I don’t buy it.’ It’s like the Rodney King incident in the US – white policemen beating a black motorist created a riot. Remember this?


That’s credible. In America, the issues at stake are race issues. In Lebanon, they are religious issues. You can start a mini civil war based on race. It might get contained but the possibility is there. In France, you can start a war on class issues. It’s part of their heritage. Religion is part of our heritage. That’s why I put Christian and a Muslim. In the Middle East it is complex- it could be religion mixed with political affiliation.

You can’t get away from it if you live there though. Right?

It’s all connected. That’s what the movie is all about. It has all of that mixed in but it’s not too difficult to understand.

It is a human story. The best part of the film that I really liked was when—

When Tony fixes Yasser’s car?


Everybody says it! Everybody loves that scene! Joelle wrote that scene and I have to give her credit. Everybody loves it because it is a scene that reveals a lot about those two characters. It’s a turning point.

I know you’ve been working in Hollywood for a long time. What made you to go back to Lebanon to make films?

I grew up from 1 to 19 in Lebanon. These are formative years. When I was 12, the (Civil) war started. And I remember it. We grew up with it. I saw my parents in it. I saw how my life was and how I lived during it. It marks you for life. That’s it. It stays with you. If I grew up in Island those years, I would probably influenced by everything Iceland, if I grew up in America, I would be influenced by… you know what I am saying. At least for me, I’d always go back to those formative years- it doesn’t mean I will always be in Lebanon and do films in there. But it’s so ingrained in me.

And it’s not just growing up in any other country. The war started when I was 12. That’s a big event. It’s not a car accident. A war, day in and day out, you see things over and over, you see blood and injustice, incredible humanism and incredibly violent human behavior also. As a child growing up, I’m not seeing this TV or reading in a book, you live it. You leave home to go to school and there are checkpoints after checkpoints, there are cousins who got killed, family involved in killings, I mean, it’s big! All these things keep building in your head. You say why I keep going back there, because I have rich history there. I have rich background, rich past. I’ll probably do another movie in Lebanon. Or America which is my second home. I don’t know. You never know.

I’m pretty sure that Beirut has changed a lot over the years. But in the film, it seems so vibrant. Can you talk about the city?

It’s very vibrant and very chaotic. When I think of Beirut, I think of it where you are very welcomed. It’s not a cold place. It’s not a solitary, dark, pessimistic, gloomy place. Despite all its past and problems, it’s anything but. Lebanon has been through a lot of blood and a lot of vicious things. And yet when you go out, I was there last week, you go and sit with your people, they are full of life, seriously. They are very optimistic and love to have fun. It doesn’t mean that there is no dark side but there is also a bright side. Knowing that these people have gone through so much turmoil, but has not lost their passion for life really touches you.

Beirut is a very alive town. I think it could’ve been better have we not had the war. The way we have been in the 60s before the war started- very educated and sophisticated. The war chopped our heads off. You should go and visit.

I’d love to go.

You should go and see. There is such dynamism and also very eccentric. It’s a very eclectic town. You have gay and lesbian communities, all kinds of people and remind you that you are not in America, you are in the Middle East! But you still see things and you go “oh wow, we have that here?” It’s very fancy, very traditional, very western, very conservative, very religious, very secular… it just has everything.

It’s so great even though it’s such a small place.

True, in such a small place.

It’s a very timely movie. That words mean something. That insults cut deep, especially with Trump is relying on his Tweeter as his main communication, saying outrageous things on a daily basis. Did you have that in mind?

Absolutely not. I started writing the film in 2015. And we shot in in 2016, way before Trump came to power. When you say it’s timely, it’s because maybe the world is going through a crsis. It just happened that we made a movie that is on point. You do not predict historical events. You know? You are either ahead of the event or behind. Seriously, it’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s a good coincidence. We didn’t provoke it. You don’t choose those things.

It happens that the film was shown in Spain just when Catalunya was seceding. The day the film was shown, was the announcement of the secession.

Oh my god.

And it became a crisis. When I showed that film there, people came out in tears. And they were saying, “oh my god, we see Spain’s problems in your film!” Because the society was divided just like the Lebanese. And then, the film was shown two weeks ago in Kerala in India. And my actress went to present the film. And when she came back she told me. “Ziad, people went crazy there about the film because the Hindu and Muslim conflict there were reflected on it.”

So the world is going through a huge crisis and the film happens to be there.

So funny because I grew up in South Korea and the whole time I was doing a little bit of research and then watching your films, I could understand where the film was coming from. A small country surrounded by powerful countries and getting invaded left and right. I could really understand the conflict of these characters.

That’s why Korea bought the film. Korea bought The Insult to be released. Lebanese film being released in Korea? It never happened before. They bought the film last month. I was invited to Busan but I couldn’t go because I was working. I was shooting my series. I wanted to go so bad because I own about a hundred Korean films. I’m a big fan of Korean films. The Last Train to Busan was one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Have you seen it? It’s fucking great!

The zombie movie? Yes.

Did you like it?

It’s great.

Just great? It’s more than great! It’s a masterpiece! Joelle who knows that I love Korean films, said, “Go see that movie and take a box of Kleenex with you” I swear. I said, "But it’s a zombie movie," "Just trust me and go". I just fucking broke down and cried in the theater. Things change when you have a kid. I have a daughter. I cried so much! I saw that movie four times! Fucking Korean cinema, excellent!

I didn’t know the history of the Damour massacre. I learned it from your film. But that was the direct retaliation of the massacre before in Beirut where Muslims were killed.

What you are saying is very controversial in Lebanon. A lot of people are saying, "Oh it’s not fair that you are talking about Damour but you are not talking about other massacres that happened before and after". I want to tell you something: If I want to talk about massacres, I will end up with ten hour movie.


Massacres in Middle East are plenty. I can go on all the way back to Jesus Christ. There were nothing but massacres. Yet they are somehow linked- they are all linked! So the story I had to ask myself was ‘what story am I telling?’ The story of Tony Hanna. That’s it. It’s not a story of Safra massacre, Sabra Shatila massacre nor Mountain war massacre. It’s about him. He had to flee from home at age of 6. He saw some things and he has to live with it. That’s the story. So that consequently upset a lot of people. Even couple of days ago, we had a screening in Los Angeles some Palestinian guy went through the roof, screaming, “Why are you talking about this but you didn’t talk about Sabra Shatila?” I said, “Guys, it’s not about Sabra Shatila. The film is about this guy.” But as you see in the Middle East, people are still very attached to their history and we are still at a boiling point. We are still very passionate and everyone wants to tell their stories.

As the character says, “Nobody has monopoly on suffering”

Exactly, that that applies to everyone, not just Palestinians. It applies to Native Americans, it applies to Jews, it applies to Koreans, it applies to…

Very true.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Insult Paints a Well Balanced Picture of a Complex Society

The Insult (1017) - Doueiri
Situated just above Israel and bordering now war torn Syria, Lebanon's history is just as complicated and tumultuous as any other neighboring countries in the Middle East. With its diverse religious, cultural and political make up of Lebanese society came to a head in the long civil war (1975 - 90) and semi-permanent Palestinian refugee camps within Beirut and other cities have been creating lots of tensions between the majority Maronite Christians and growing Muslim population. Ziad Doueiri's new film Insult, takes the subject head on, in a story of a dispute between two men, one Christian and one Palestinian Muslim and projects it on a national level by way of a unfolding riveting courtroom drama.

Tony (Adel Karam) is a hard working car shop owner with a beautiful wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) who is expecting a baby, living in a rapidly changing, busy Beirut neighborhood. Their apartment and his shop are always inundated with hardline Lebanese right-wing Christian political propaganda - that Palestine Muslims are always inciting violence, draining valuable resources, that they are scourge of the country, etc., on TV and the radio. Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is a foreman of a construction project overseeing a high-rise building being built in the neighborhood. He is a Palestinian who's long been living in a refugee camp with a Lebanese wife.

Their lives intersect when wastewater from drainpipe of Tony's apartment balcony drenches Yasser below. Tony curtly rejects Yasser's polite offer (the construction firm he works for is big on community outreach) to fix the pipe and have it up to the city code. When Yasser's men fix the pipe without Tony's consent, Tony breaks the pipe with the hammer, resulting in Yasser calling him names.

Tony complains to the construction company and wants an apology from Yasser. But when Yasser shows up at his garage with his boss to apologize, Tony enrages Yasser by saying. "(Ariel) Sharon was right, you Palestinians need to be wiped out from the face of the earth!" Instead of apologizing, Yasser ends up punching Tony in the chest, sending him to the hospital with two broken ribs. They go to court, but the judge sides with Yasser and dismisses the case. Tony seeks out a high-profile, hotshot lawyer Wajdi (Camille Salameh) who has history with defending National Christian political figures in the past, to have his case be tried in high courts.

Their trial become a national sensation. In the polarized political climate, their case become a flashpoint for daily violence on the street. In the courtroom, their private lives are scrutinized and outside, their lives are being threatened with violence.

Even though The Insult is one of those politically charged film, it never loses the sight of characters. Tony and Yasser's stories stay personal and never fall into the stereotypes who get easily swayed by their surroundings. Unlike other films of this nature, they are not rewarded by their ideology or identity. They don't get supported by other entities other than themselves. Doueiri never wavers from reminding us that Tony and Yasser are ordinary working people living in a country with a very complex history where one can't separate their politics or identity from their ordinary lives.

Perhaps the best scene in the whole film is right after their meeting with high court judge, who suggests Tony to drop the assault charges to avoid the ensuing the media frenzy circus of a trial. At the court house parking lot, they go their separate ways. But Yasser's old car wouldn't start. Tony, already driving away, looks in on his rearview mirror, comes back to fix Yesser's car. Doueiri hits home with the fact that they are decent, working class people despite their prejudices and bigotry.

Being the smallest country in the region and ethnically diverse, Lebanon has been long mired in geo-political power games by powerful neighboring countries (along with the US), the film also puts a spotlight on lesser known facts like the PLO led massacre in Damour, a seaside town where many Christians were killed. It was a retaliation of a massacre of the Muslims in Beirut that happened just before. 'No one has a monopoly on suffering and pain' is the main take away in the film.

The Insult is a timely film in the world of extreme political polarization and where political correctness is viewed as a bad thing, and that every word that we utter still matters, that there are consequences to what we say.

The Insult opens Friday 1/12 in New York and 1/19 in Los Angeles.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

First Look 2018 at MoMI Ushers in the New Year with Boundary Breaking New Cinematic Work

In its seventh year, MoMI's First Look film series, organized by chief curator David Schwartz and associate curator Eric Hynes, introduces bold, formaly inventive, innovative international films to start the new year. And to all the adventurous cinephiles, this is definitely a good way to start 2018.

This year's selections in First Look go beyond the traditional screen presentsuch as Daniel Cockburn's quasi-film lecture All the Mistakes I've Made (Part 2); a new program of Radio Atlas short works comprised soley of audio recordings and projected subtitles; and even a work being produced during the festival, an update of Wim Wenders's documentary Room 666 in which filmmakers talk about the state of the art form.

First Look to open with U.S. premirere of Blake Williams's 3-D film PROTOTYPE, and will include new boundary-breaking work by James Benning, Ken Jacobsm and an exciting array of emergining artists from around the world January 5-15. Please visit MoMI website for more details.

Here are 7 outstanding films I was able to sample:

The Last Days in Shibati - Hendrick Dusollier
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Disappearing urban slums have been documented before - Fountainhas of Lisbon in Pedro Costa's films, Kowloon: The Walled City by a German TV channel in the 80s, and of course, 24 City by great Jia Zhangke among many others. Frenchman Hendrick Dusollier spends a year in the last old district in Chong Qing one of the mega cities situated in the southern China. He films its inhabitants as the neighborhood slowly but surely disappears.

Unlike many other documentaries or dramatizations of a specific place, Dusollier let himself exposed and known to his surroundings. Everyone he meets and treats him as a foreign man with the camera who doesn't understand the language but films everything. His insistence as mostly silent observer wins over some curious inhabitants, namely a barber and his mother whose open, dimly lit shop continues to serve the community under the threat of imminent eviction, Zhou Hong, a neighborhood kid who shows Dussollier around through the labyrinthine dark alleys and Mrs. Xue Lian, an old woman who makes living by picking up bottles and who turns out to have the biggest collections of weird junk in the corner deep in Shibati.

Dussolier comes back to the place and revisit these people, sometimes with an interpreter, sometimes not. He visits them after they were forced to relocate. They understand that he is in Shibati to film what's going to be lost forever. It's this mutual understanding that makes Shibati different from other anthropological documentaries. Dusollier keeps things personal and human.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts - Mouly Suriya
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Sprawling, picturesque vistas of an Indonesian Island lensed in widescreen format as a back drop, Mouly Suriya's Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, is a rape revenge western from a female perspective. Marlina (Marsha Timothy), a widow farmer is visited by Markus (Egi Fedly), who tells her that his gang is on his way to rape her and take all her livestock and reminds her that there is nothing she can do about it. When the rest of the gang get there, she poisons them and decapitates Markus while being raped. With Markus' head, she takes a journey to the police station- first by bus, where she meets Novi, a very pregnant woman and befriends her, then later on a horse. At the police station, she learns that justice won't be forthcoming and has to go back to her house for Novi who was captured hostage by the rest of the gang.

Marlina is quite significant coming from an extremely patriarchal society. Weird mixture of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Thelma and Louise, the film features some beautiful landscapes and local customs - keeping mummies of the loved ones in the house for example and humiliating sexist traditions - cattles for a dowry etc.

Communion - Anna Zamecka
Ola, a 14-year old school girl is the focal point of Anna Zameca's intense documentary on fractured family in Poland. We also get the glimpse of a still deeply religious society. Ola has her hands full taking care of her autistic brother, Nicodem, and drunkard father. The film takes place when Nicodem's communion is approaching. Using the communion as an excuse, Ola tries to reunite her family with their estranged mom, who lives apart and has a baby with another man.

Ola is pretty much a mom to Nicodem, she bathes, clothes, feeds and takes care of his school needs. She is also a strict disciplinarian with her alcoholic dad, calls him to make sure he comes back home from pubs, no TV while baby's sleeping, shuts him off from saying incriminating things to welfare officers. She sweeps, washes, cleans and tends to the wood burning oven, yet she likes to put on a dress and have a good time at school dance.

Zameca captures some astonishing moments of intimacy and authenticity in a tiny, cluttered home. It also puts a spotlight on autism and how many societies are not equipped to deal with it. Nicodem is treated like a normal kid both in school and in the church. He definitely severely affected in his speech, attention, and repeated hand gestures. Yet is that kid who is 'a little strange'. It's also kind of scary to hear moments of clarity when he says things out of the blue. At one point in the bathtub, he repeats "The reality becomes fiction."

It's a family where the child parent roles are reversed in all functionality. She acutely observes that Ola growing up way faster because she has to- yet she is still a child who naively hopes that their family will be together again. Komunia is a heart breaking, beautiful film.

Railway Sleepers - Sompot Chidagosornpongse
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Part love letter to the Thai railway system, part documentary, part experimental, this Apichatpong Weerasethakul produced film moves along from Northern Thailand to South, recording two days and two nights of locomotive travel. First inaugurated by King Rama V in 1890s, Thai railways are revered and regarded as the nation's backbone. We see travelers of all ages and social strata, eating, talking, gazing and sleeping in a confined biosphere, a great microcosm of the world as it were- two recent previous films come to mind as a great example of this - Bong Joonho's dystopian Sci-Fi Snowpiercer and J.P. Sniadecki's artful Iron Ministry. Railway Sleepers feels more personal and intimate. Its slightly moving camera as the train moves along, captures day in the life of ordinary Thais. The film has that lulling hypnotic effect: it's as if the gently undulating train cars with that unmistakable, repetitive sound of a train rolling on the tracks invites you to sleep.

Exiled - Marcelo Novais Teles
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Marcelo Novais Teles, a young Brazilian man, moves to Paris to pursue an acting career in the 80s documents his life in grainy Super-8, Hi-8 and DV. L'Exilé is at once a deeply personal film and a time capsule of a certain generation of French filmmakers/actors. Teles, with his soulful face and charming accent, was able to surround himself with like-minded young, struggling artists. The film is filled with their honest conversations on life, art, love...etc. There are some recognizable faces in French cinema popping up now and then in Teles' home video footage - most notably Mathieu Amalric. This is way before he became famous.

There are a lot of footage of Teles playing with his friends' kids (including Amalric and Balibar's later on). Forever bachelor and struggling with his loneliness being an illegal alien in a foreign country, he shows his anxiety about constantly producing something meaningful in his lifetime.

As we watch an honest depiction of someone's life floating by- hope, ambition, love, regret, even considering the specificity of Teles' circumstances, we realize how universal our 20-30s are. Beautifully edited and intimate, L'Exilé is something that every struggling artist can relate to.

Colo - Teresa Villaverde
"We are not at war and no one's ill!" shouts Marta (Alice Albergaria Borges), a teen girl in a household disintegrating under the weight of economic hardship in Portugal. She is merely responding to her hard working mom, who announces that Marta and her unemployed father needs to move to grandma's house temporarily because they can't afford the rent or electricity. There is a time in one's lives, like a war or illness in the family which force us to rely on other family members is what mom tells her. Marta's response encapsulates what Colo and its sad characters are about.

Dad (João Pedro Vaz) spends days soliciting job interviews which he never gets responses from. Completely beaten by the circumstances, he is a hull of a human who can't do anything other than sulking. Mom, doing double shift to support her family, is exhausted and irritable all the time. Marta, going through teen years, gets heartbroken by a boy and falls in with a pregnant bad girl classmate Julia (Clara Jost). Everyone in Colo wants a way out of the situation they are in and out of the family.

Teresa Villaverde takes her time to build the characters but at times it seems things are too stretched out, as if we are seeing things in real time. There are several great moments though. No electricity affords some painterly scenes and there are a lot of beautiful connections among characters. Carefully written and sensitively treated, Colo shows the effect of economic devastation on a family.

The Lives of Thérèse - Sébastien Lifshits
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Sébastien Lifshits shifts his gears toward an old pioneer of LGBT movement in a solemn, unsentimental fashion in The Lives of Thérèse, from his usual beautiful young gay subjects in glitzy style. Thérèse Clerc was one of Lifshits' subjects in his documentary The Invisible Ones (2012) where he chronicled LGBT pioneers. As Clerc is dying of an old age, they mutually decided to record her final moments.

Here Lifshits doesn't reinvent the wheel of documentary or anything. But he approaches his remarkable subject directly with an utmost respect and love.

Clerc, as an activist for women's rights movement and fought for LGBT rights, was a subservient wife with 4 kids who had an awakening in 1968 revolution, divorced her husband, and became a lesbian at 40. The film consists of Clerc's daily routine of conversing with doctors at the hospital, with her grown up children and other friends. Her children talk frankly about their upbringing, their mother's sexuality and her approaching inevitable death. Clerc admits her body failing even though her mind is still the same. She talks with a young feminist about her sexuality- back then, homosexuality was a political act, the act of defiance. The young woman disagrees with her, that in her generation, homosexuality is out in the open, that she can be a feminist and a heterosexual.

The Lives of Thérèse is not as serene as Haneke's Amour. Often Lifshits captures Clerc in closeups as she falls asleep from exhaustion but the camera movement and color are all love. The film much more than a feminist manifesto. It's a celebration of an extraordinary woman who lived her life fully and loving tribute by those who loved and admired her.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Eye for an Eye

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) - Lanthimos
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The story concerns a heart surgeon (Colin Farrell) being stalked by a boy whose father dies in his operating table. The doctor tries to make it up to the boy by being nice to him and buying him gifts, the boy inches towards him and his family in a very creepy way. Sensing that the boy is crazy, the doc shuts him off. Then the doc's young son suddenly gets paralyzed from waste down and refuses to eat food, literally starving himself to death. And this is what the creepy boy told him when he shut him off: all his family members will be paralyzed, then will refused to eat then will start bleeding from their eyes then die. His daughter is next to be hospitalized with the said symptom. Is the creepy boy and his mom some kind of witches?

Lanthimos is back to his sadistic shtick with Sacred Deer and there is nothing fresh about it at all. If it's his take on American society (taking place in Cincinnati Ohio), its context is completely lost to me. And if he was, this feels like a much lesser pointy version of his idol Haneke's American remake of Funny Games. The wide angle shots are all Kubrick and its sadistic nature is all Haneke and with actors doing their monotonous deliveries, there is absolutely no originality. Lanthimos loses the sight of creating a world that is slightly different and weird that he so successfully created in Lobster. With that shaky foundation, Sacred Deer never strikes the right emotional, tonal core and struggles to maintain its house of cards. Major disappointment.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Top 20 Discoveries 2017

Top 20 in order watched:
*Click on the titles for full reviews

(2014) - Ando
As far as writer/director goes, Momoko Ando is one of the few filmmakers that I do not mind indulging her long drawn-out, non-three act structured, almost meandering narratives. Her acute representation of current Japanese society is also emotionally affecting.

Ménilmontant (1926) - Kirsanoff
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Lyrical, inventive and also violent silent film. Nadia Sibirskaïa is a sight to behold.

Passion of Anna
(1969) - Bergman
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Perhaps the darkest and most depressing film of all Bergman's filmography. Deep, Dark, Sad.

(2013) - Quillévéré
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We only get the glimpse of Suzanne's life every 5 or so years, not in a calculated, 'the super hit medley of my life' but more fleeting, observing someone's life with a sense of melancholy. This way, Quillévéré eliminates a sense of that false expectation/manipulation that comes with moviemaking. We see excellent actors portraying beautiful characters and we share their regrets, loves and their sadnesses together. Suzanne is a massively affecting film, much more so than any of Dardenne Bros. films.

(2009) - Hers
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There is something genuinely beautiful about how Mikhaël Hers draws these human interactions: its downplayed characters- imperfect, shy, introverted- finding themselves somehow connecting together in whatever the circumstances. Its massively underlit interiors and exteriors can't undermine the human warmth emanating from the film. Watching Montparnasse gives you that euphoric feeling that you are not alone in this world, not from some misplaced sense of nostalgia but rather from the possibilities of real human connections with someone you already know or someone new. And that someone doesn't have to be striking looking or extremely clever or funny or well-educated. Even though most of the characters are twenty-something, there is no movie-ness about Montparnasse, just guilelessness and honesty, but fleeting enough not to get bogged down and becoming faux-serious docu-drama. The mood is just right, the music's great and the night is short. And after watching it, you can take that beautiful feeling with you to last at least all through the night.

(1991) - Schroeter
The film begins with a horrific nightmare of the writer. Her father throws her younger-self out the roof of the building. Her father is a recurring figure, sometimes seen in a Nazi uniform, reinforcing patriarchal post-war male dominant European society. Malina is a complex and crazy movie filled to the brim with symbolic images and close ups of Huppert's tearful face. Mirrors, reflecting our writer's state, is also prominently used. It goes completely bonkers in the last 30 minutes as things turn completely surreal, with part of the writer's apartment constantly on fire while Huppert pacing back and forth in her letter strewn flat as if everything is normal. Malina has a same emotional intensity as any Zulawski films and Huppert gives all to her blistering performance as a woman who desperately needs to validate her existence.

(1986) - Yang
On paper it reads like a sordid crime film very much akin to what the author says in an interview after she won the first prize, that she was "inspired by Japanese crime novels". But Terrorizers is nothing but. Everyone is well equipped with back stories and their motivations, except for the wayward youth with no moral compass, suggesting that this girl, the catalyst for everything that happens in the film might be the work of fiction, that her appearance is what people are wishing for in their daily tedious lives.

With Haneke like double take at the end, the film puts an emphasis on the fiction overtaking reality overtaking fiction. Ambitious and seductive, Terrorizers beckons me to watch more of the Taiwanese master's films.

La niña santa
(2004) - Martel
Martel proves to be the master of close-ups and shallow focuses. The details of the senses and small moments she captures on screen - touch, smell, whispers make up the film's superbly orchestrated, organic feel. All the connective tissues of the film are all spread out- the fact doctors are ear-nose-throat specialists - whispers and misheard information, smell, singing, but her approach is so subtle and fluid, you can't help but admire her skills. The Holy Girl is about Amalia as much as it isn't. The film's sordid details of the lives of middle class bourgeoisie can be seen as Almodovar-esque melodrama. But as in all Martel's films there is always a it's-barely-there-but-there satire. I can't really think of any director working today who works on Martel's level. The Holy Girl is a true cinematic feat!

L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970) - Argento
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The use of architecture and art Bird with colors and framing, the Crystal Plumage is perhaps one of the most accomplished, stylish debut feature of all time. It contains all of the Dario Argento signature of his later classics and can still be counted as one of his very best. Renzi is appropriately freaky. A great giallo.

La Truite
(1982) - Losey
It's all Huppert though. Her mixed naivete and nonchalance makes a hell of a complex, beguiling character. She can be brutal in kicking old pervert's balls several times but also can be remorseful after throwing the man's stuffed trophies out the window and seeing him cry. Another strong film that demonstrates Huppert's talent and charm.

La Notte
(1961) - Antonioni
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La Notte might not be the most cinematic films in Antonioni's oeuvre. But with older, knowing protagonists, it is a lot more impactful and sadder than L'eclisse. The last scene, as the unhappy couple trying to have sex in the field is perhaps the saddest movie ending ever. I think I am beginning to appreciate Michelangelo Antonioni's artistry more now that I'm older.

Le rayon vert
(1986) - Rohmer
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Dephine needs that rare occurrence in her life. That it is possible that there is somebody who is in the same wavelength as you. However rare meeting that person is, it could happen. Deeply humanistic and beautifully drawn, Le rayon vert is one of my new favorites of all time.

Bella e perduta
(2015) - Marcello
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Shot on gloriously beautiful 16mm, the film is really something else. Marcello presents everything so gracefully, putting equal measure of importance on everything, whether it's the footage of ordinary people taking to the street against Mob violence or intensely blue-eyed Tommaso giving a silent tour inside the decrepit palace or a close up of an old farmer brushing her hair or picturesque pastoral countryside where Pulcinella and Sarchiapone take their long journey on foot.

Is human existence is all a dream of a buffalo calf? Lamenting the loss of the way of life, Lost and Beautiful is an immensely wise, melancholic look at what it means to be human. Beauty.

Malgre la nuit (2015) - Grandrieux
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Seriously, Narrative is for pussies.

Toute une nuit
(1982) - Chantal Akerman
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Night is a powerful equalizer - in the shadows, we can hide all our imperfections. In the shadows, night is also an enabler for those who act on their impulses. This is how I felt watching Toute une nuit. No one does loneliness like Akerman. She stitches together these lonely souls in short, almost silent segments as they sit in empty bars, cafes, rooms, balconies, corridors. They also run around, pack and leave, break up, and embrace each other and dance. There are so many embraces in Tout une nuit. They are not the happy ones. They are desperate, sad ones- holding each other tight, not able to let go and becoming sad dances.

Toute une nuit is a beautiful, melancholic piece that speaks to the lonely hearts everywhere.

L'Immortelle (1961) - Robbe-Grillet
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L'Immortelle is an intricate visual puzzle piece that's beautifully put together: repetition of images, still and panning shots and the accumulation of these give meanings in edits. Just like the palace in Marienbad (Schloss Schleissheim), Istanbul and its waterways serve as a magnificent backdrop. Brion, as the mystery personified. is magnetic. The elliptical narrative and the images give the feeling that time doesn't exist in the film. Your own memories are immortal for long as you live, the film tells us.

Yourself and Yours
(2016) - Hong
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Yourself and Yours turns out to be perhaps the most poignant and romantic film of all the Hong's I've seen so far. Inebriated Minjung (Lee You-young) flirts with a film director she just met, over beer. When they meet, the director is convinced that he knows her from somewhere but she vehemently denies it. Over a short period of time before the encounter, she leaves Yongsoo and breaks up with an older man who also first thought she was Minjung but she tells him that she is her twin sister.

Just to be in the clear, Yourself and Yours is nothing like Buñuel's or Kieslowski's. Hong's interest is not in identity crisis or duality of men. His double takes and alternate scenarios may seem manipulative (also delicious) but the movie is more to do with accepting a person for who that person is, with blemishes and all that.

JLG JLG: autoportrait de décembre
(1994) - Godard
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Godard's seemingly abstract connections through politics, history and art are not without fangs. Like light and darkness, there's two sides always competing, but what if there is only one side but the other is just an reflection of one's self? "JLG by JLG," he says at one point. It's only you who can truly represent yourself and on the same token, truly judge yourself. "I am legend." He declares on the pages of his note book- he is thoroughly aware of his past. The past is never dead. He's the director of Breathless and Pierrot le fou among others. But over the years, his persona (his name) has taken over a center stage rather than his films. How do you reconcile the two? He also has to live up to his name. With everything that was going wrong in the world at the time, speaks of love, as if there is a chance in the rotten world that gives us meaning to all of this. He will be remembered in art history. He is legend. He has been tirelessly exploring and in turn, elevated cinema as an art form.

Paranoid Park
(2007) - Van Sant
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Paranoid Park isn't really about anything. Sure it deals with skater kids in High School setting and an accident where a railroad security guy gets killed. Gus Van Sant and DP Chris Doyle rather ringer on their angelic looking young subject with shallow focus and all. As Alex struggles a little with his guilty conscience, he gets a little help from a goth girl Macy. She suggests to write what's on his mind and take the weight off his chest. So he goes along with it, simply leading his teenage life. And it's a sublime experience.

Une femme est une femme
(1961) - Godard
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Playful and vibrant, Godard's take on musical after massive success of Breathless is a pure joy. It vastly relies on the charm of Anna Karina who ignites the cinemascope technicolor screen. Paris is never more beautiful as Karina, Belmondo and Brialy roam around Raoul Cotard lensed, busy city, mostly unaware of their filmmaking shenanigans. It's good to see Godard celebrating youth and youthful optimism about the cinema before his cynicism and grumpiness took over. It liberating it must've felt. So many great moments. So exuberant! So lovely.