Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Duel of the Sun and the Moon

Duelle (1976) - Rivette
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Duelle tells the fate of earthlings trapped in the battle between Leni (Juliette Berto), the Moon Goddess and Viva (Bulle Ogier), the Sun Goddess. It just gives an excuse for Berto and Ogier, the mother-daughter team, strut around in various pretty costumes and seducing anyone whom they lay their eyes on. Their objective is finding a diamond the size of a peach pit so they can stay on earth or something. Embroiled in this cat and mouse chase are a cat-like hunk Pierrot (Jean Babilée), his snooping, late night hotel clerk sister Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz), love-lorn Jeanne/Elsa (Nicole Garcia) and others.

Just like Celine and Julie, guided and framed by the great William Lubtchansky, Duelle has a fluidity of an improvisational music (not jam but more like jazz). With never obtrusive handheld camera work and black and white sequence thrown in, the film is not short on cinematic playfulness. The ensemble cast seems to be having a blast too. Good times.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Heads Will Roll

Hereditary (2018) - Aster
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Grief has been a common theme in horror movies for a long time. Lately, it's been the loss of a child as 'the worst thing that could happen to a family'. It's become so goddamn pervasive, I've grown to avoid films that deal with it whenever I read synopses while browsing. Hereditary, like many of recent horrors, stabs at this theme and twists until it bleeds for the sake of a scare or two, leaving very bad taste in my mouth. One should ask actors involved in the project - why did you sign up for this when there is no empathy written for your characters whatsoever, that they are tools to be dispensed to support the flimsy ending? Cold and sadistic, Hereditary recalls the brutality of Ben Wheatley's Kill List. Well let me correct that: Kill List's characters are driven, have a confidence in themselves but get thwarted unexpectedly. The characters here are blubbering mess the whole time, like crying babes in the woods ready to be preyed on.

There are elements of Hereditary that would make a dozen features. Ari Aster, however technically apt he is at filmmaking, sacrifices these narrative and emotional potentials for the end that doesn't deserve them. There are so many questions one could ask - why the miniature artist? Why does she look funny? Why is he so timid? Why the sudden point of view change and what does that signify? In fact, is this a family? Where is a shred of indication of that? Its scares are built upon sadism and hollow, grotesque images. Then again, it's a horror movie. So who needs an emotional depth? Very disappointing.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Builders and Destroyers

Taste of Cement (2017) - Kalthoum
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It starts with a voice over. In it, a man remembers his construction worker father coming home from Lebanon. Holding his rough worker's hands, he as a boy could smell the concrete off of it. Dad also brought a poster of a white sandy beach and framed by a couple of swaying palm trees against the blue sky. the boy had never seen the ocean before.

Beirut has seen many wars. Because of that, the city is in perpetual construction boom. As the Syrian war turns its 7th year and the end nowhere in sight, Ziad Kalthoum's Taste of Cement rightfully juxtaposes the urban destruction of Aleppo with the neighboring country's relatively well to do city-by-the-sea. These are Syrian workers. As their fathers as migrant workers, worked to rebuild Beirut in the 80s, they are repeating their father's footsteps, but mostly as refugees. If the recent film The Insult was any indication - as unsubtle as that film was in portraying deep seeded prejudices and rift between the two countries, these workers are living under constant fear of prejudices and retaliation.

Kalthoum's lens serenely captures these workers in their work place - as they wake up from the concrete floor and emerge from the hole, taking a lift to a dizzying height, working in a highly dangerous environment. At night, everyone's glued to their phones, flipping through the photos of destruction of their homeland - of the mangled concrete and metal. TV blares terrible news from home, reflecting in their eyes. The unending lift ride, measured panning and camera placement all the way up in the crane that features the bird's eye view of the affluent city with many high skyscrapers on the lush slopes, hugging the beautiful coastline. The camera even dives in to the emerald water, reminding us the war past.

With close ups and silent moments, Kalthoum's visuals have lyricism and sensuality of Claire Denis' work. But once it gets to the matching POV footage of construction cranes slowly panning over the Beirut skyline and tank gunner pointing at its next target, and the real footage of rescue effort to dig out the civilians trapped in collapsed concrete buildings, you realize that Taste of Cement is much more than, say, Terry Malrick's pretty, contemplative picture show.

Concrete smell is the smell of travel and also the smell of death. It's also the smell of rebuilding and smell of destruction. Kalthoum achieves something miraculous here. Something tangible and important. Something that is arty enough for the public already jaded and numbed by the sheer stupidity of the world and don't care anymore, to care.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

British Cousin of Suspiria

Legacy (1978) - Marquand
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British director Richard Marquand's Legacy resembles Argento's Suspiria in more ways than one. But it's terribly British, meaning, instead of popping colors and macabre violence, it's overstuffed and subdued. But it's still a fun ride. Legacy concerns an American couple Maggie and Pete (Katharine Ross and Sam Elliot) on business in London. They are architects (please pronounce it in Sam Elliot's drawl- ai-chi-te-ackts) from LA.

A near accident while on the country road trip on their Triumph motorcycle send the couple into a country mansion as (un)invited guests by a rapidly dying millionaire, Mountlive (John Standing). The other 5 guests and non emotive servants exchange knowing glances but not too fast on divulging any helpful information.

Weird things are happening in the mansion and some unseen force wouldn't let the couple leave. The guests die off one by one in mysterious circumstances. Then Maggie finds news clippings of deaths that the other guests are involved in, that their deaths in the mansion are some kind of karmic reprisals. It is clear that Maggie is meant to be there and wear that skull ring that all the other guests are wearing. Is this some kind of Satanic cult? Is rapidly disintegrating Mountlive (resembling David Lynch's monstrous grandma and the witch in Suspiria), trying to pass the satanic power on to the unsuspecting American?

The deaths are pretty spectacular - many very similar to ones in Suspiria although not as over the top. I wonder if it was at all influenced by the Italian maestro's, which came out a year before. Marquand went on to direct memorable Donald Sutherland classic thriller Eye of the Needle, then Return of the Jedi. Not bad.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Love Letter to American Cinema

The American Friend (1977) - Wenders
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Unlike a lil sociopath playing elaborate games in Patricia Highsmith's novels, in Wenders's hands, Ripley is a quiet enabler, trying to stir shit up from a distance because someone stiffed him. But he is no less psychologically complex here. With all his American director heroes making a cameo - Nicolas Ray and Sam Fuller, admired for their hard hitting noirs and under-appreciation stateside, I'm sure, The American Friend is Wenders's thinly veiled love letter to American cinema.

Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is a soft spoken, picture framer/art restorer leading quiet life in Hamburg with his wife and son. He has a rare blood disease that he regularly visits his doctor for. He invites the ire of Ripley (Dennis Hopper), a cowboy hat wearing American con-man, when he disses him (wouldn't shake his hand) at an art auction where Ripley is selling one of the counterfeit paintings (painted by Nick Ray in Manhattan studio). In revenge, Ripley and a French gangster Minot (Gérard Blain) starts a rumor that Zimmermann's health is serious and don't have long to live.

Freaked out by his health concerns, he reluctantly accepts Minot's proposal - killing a couple of no good gangsters from New York for large sum of money for his soon to be widowed wife and fatherless son. The following Paris underground subway assassination sequence is thrilling to watch.

The killing takes a toll on mild mannered Zimmermann, physically and emotionally and when he's forced to do it again, this time in a moving train in Munich, Ripley, who's been mumbling, questioning himself who he really is, decides to help Zimmermann to be his friends.

The plot line makes little sense but it's Robbie Müller's cinematography that really shines here. It's all about mood and atmosphere - Zimmermann's childlike red and white stripe scarf pops, red Voxwagon Beatle glows, dingy green flourecent lights adds character indoors, and soft crushed blacks and oranges are all gorgeous. With Fuller and Ray playing dangerous seedy characters, you can easily guess the romantic notion of gangsterism and its thrill equal American movies in the mind of impressionable German director. Ripley in a cowboy hat is the instigator who plants the seeds in an unsuspecting German man, but he himself can't avoid jumping in the action because it's so fun in the end.

I do not have a reference point here since I have not seen Wenders's 70s movies before they were restored. But along with Wrong Move, The American Friend is one of the most beautiful color film I've seen. It's like William Eggleston photographs reversal, saturatated Kodachrome photos. Bright, warm and gentle. I don't know if those were enhanced since it was shown in theaters in film print. But it's up there with A Woman is a Woman in terms of beauty.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Unapologetic Visual Feast

Let the Corpses Tan/Laissez bronzer les cadavres (2017) - Cattet, Forzani
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As usual, Belgian visual stylists duo, Hélèn Cattet and Bruno Forzani, creates unapologetic visual feast. Good to see Elina Löwensohn becoming a European arthouse queen in recent years as she plays an aging matron of a group of criminals hiding in some sunny Island here. It seems she has been wielding some cult like sexual power over these men and a writer (Marc Barbé), as she struts around with very little clothing. Things get a little crazy after the gang's gold heist and unexpected visit from the writer's wife, kid and a pretty nanny.

But really, story has little importance here. It's all to do with ultra stylized assault on the senses. Sex and violence mingles. Rapid editing, colors, shadows, sound design... Cattet and Forzani know what they are doing. Their craft pushes its giallo trappings on to another level, elevating it to an art form.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Memories and War

Mayak (2006) - Saakyan
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Lena (Anna Kapalena) comes back to her hometown, a small mountain town in war torn Armenia. The electricity is scarce, gunfires and military helicopters are heard day and night. Lena can't convince her grand parents to leave with her and go to Moscow. And the train station is swamped with people trying to leave but no trains are coming.

Mayak is a simple story: a young woman comes home, sees the devastation of war and leaves. But in this semi-biographical film taking place in 1990s Caucasus conflict, director Maria Saakyan lets stunning cinematography do the talking. In its dreamlike opening as Lena wakes up on the train and walking into the fog, her hometown in the mountains is like a time trapped mirage. Lena gets to enjoy her past life- gets drunk on the dinner table and shoots off a dresser by mistake. But the reality of war is near by- neighbors die, a helicopter swoops in, trains never stop.

Saakyan prefers non-chronological approach and includes documentary footage of the conflict and flight of the refugees. It's deeply moving, poetic contemplation of memories and war.

Saturday, May 26, 2018


You Were Never Really Here (2017) - Ramsay
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There is nothing that is new or revolutionary in Lynne Ramsay's latest, You Were Never Really Here. It's a rehash of noir and gritty New York movies of yesteryear, albeit extremely well done. What she does here is slightly subverting that tired angry white male hero genre - rescuing an underage girl against the sleazy high echelons of society, into an white male identity crisis. If Travis Bickle is an angry vigilante who only goes by his own moral code whether society accepts him or not, Joe (played by Joachim Phoenix) is a lost man who never shows his emotions or thought process. With his abusive childhood or Afgan vet trauma shown in bursts of flashbacks, he is just a simple hired hammer (his preferred weapon), completely rudderless who has no capacity in thinking what lies beyond the job when confronted with the prospect of future.

Stunted in his thick body and cotton mouth speech patterns, Joe is only a flesh and beard. Only company he keeps are his own old mother, his old PI boss and a cat. Things become a little more complicated when he rescues Nina, a state senator's daughter from a underground brothel operating out of a glitzy midtown townhouse. There is a bigger conspiracy as Nina is napped by NYPD goons in front of Joe and all of his associates are killed.

The film is a technical marvel on all levels - from the memorable opening title sequence to minimalist action sequences taking place in dark alleys and corridors, to weird Ramsay moments - as an assassin lay dying in Joe's kitchen, they sing along a sentimental old tunes together. Prevailing sunny 50s tunes against heart thumping ultra modern soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood clash and show Ramsay's point about dated white male heroism and the melancholy it represents. Naturalistic setting (Queens) and Phoenix's understated performance balances out her poetic, dreamy visual flourishes later on in the film. Completely unsentimental and rapturously understated and subtle, Ramsay operates in her top level with You Were Never Really Here.

Phoenix is great as the embodiment of emasculated, bruised male ego and does his hammer do the talking. The diner scene at the end is every bit as memorable as the ones Good Fellas or Five Easy Pieces from a complete opposite spectrum.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Tale of Childhood, Tragedy and Love in the 90s

Summer 1993 (2018) - Carla Simón
Catalan director Carla Simón's first feature, Summer 1993, is a touching autobiographical film about the AIDS crisis in the 90s seen through a child's eye.

Subtly drawn and quietly devastating, Simón creates a delicate children's film that is not really a children's film, but a memoir of that specific decade in a country that was and is still very religious. It also benefits from stunning lead performance by young Laia Artigas, who plays a 6-year old city girl, Frida, who lost her mother to the epidemic but too young to understand the social stigma it carries.

It starts with Frida leaving her Barcelona home where she lived with her extended family. She is to live with her uncle Esteve and his wife Marga and their 3-year old daughter, Anna, in an idyllic country home. The apartment in the city will be rented out. The sun-drenched countryside is a big change for Frida. But her new family - new mom and dad are loving and understanding, plus she now has a new playmate, Anna.

But she doesn't understand why she is being subject to series of tests in the hospital and other parents freaking out and grabbing their kids around her in the playground when she scrapes her knee and bleeds, and why Marga wears rubber gloves tending her wounds.

Spoiled rotten in her life in the city, sullen Frida is very hard to please. She acts out in ways she doesn't quite understand herself. Good-natured Esteve and Marga do their best, but it seems pretty obvious that the spoiled city girl is a bad influence on Anna. Tired of having a problem child in their household, they argue.

Taught by her grandma, Frida say prayers daily for her mom and leaves things (that she stole from Marga's closet) at an altar of Virgin Mary near the house. Constant visit from her unconditionally loving grandparents and other relatives doesn't help Esteve and Marga's situation, as they spoil the girl to no end and she throws tantrum every time they visit. To make things worse, Frida leaves Anna in the forest and lies to Marga her whereabouts. It is a harmless child’s play, but Anna ends up with a cast on her arms.

After clean bill of health declared by the doctor, Marga lets her guard down a bit, and young Frida soon eases into the country living calling Esteve and Marga mom and dad. But sometimes she falls into fits of melancholy.

The word AIDS or HIV is never uttered in the film. Grown ups in the film obviously have some understanding of what's going on and they speak in hushed tones in front of oblivious Frida. She is a child indelibly marked by tragedy, a product of a specific decade that was marred forever by devastating disease that swept the world.

Handheld, sun-drenched photography provides intimacy and warmth and contrasts our moody heroine and subject matter. It's an incredibly difficult role to play for a child and bright eyed, wild haired Artigas is a revelation. Carefully put together and wonderfully acted, Summer 1993 is a beautiful film not only to reflect on the fearful period of 90s and the generation it affected but also highlights unconditional love of the tight-knit family overcoming tragedy.

SUMMER 1993 opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, May 25, with a national rollout to follow. Please visit Oscilloscope Laboratory for mor information.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on all things cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com

Sunday, May 20, 2018

End of an Era

Night Moves (1975) - Penn
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We've seen this before, or at least, reiteration of the same scenario time and time again: a washed up P.I. taking the job of missing daughter case from a seemingly wealthy woman in LA, and along the way, he gets embroiled in a bigger conspiracy with lots of ins and outs. It's your typical LA noir. But it's the 70s and cynicism and rudderlessness is rampant. And it's that palpable melancholy that presides over Night Moves that makes it memorable.

Harry Moresby(Gene Hackman), a two bit P.I. and a former football star, takes on the case from Arlene, a past-her-prime actress looking for her 'free spirited' teenage daughter Delly (short for Delilah "my husband was fond of biblical epics back in the day" Melanie Griffith). With a little clues given about Delly's crowd - movie stuntmen and mechanics, the case takes Harry to film sets in New Mexico then to the Florida Keys where he finds her, living under Arlene's second husband Tom and his alluring companion Paula (Jennifer Warren). The couple operates small charter plane/boat business, living in relative obscurity. Harry also has to deal with his marriage falling apart. He is trying to solve other people's lives but can't deal with his own.

There are some great scenes with Hackman and Susan Clark (Ellen Moresby) and also Warren. It's the 70s. Harry can't beat his way out of his troubles like Sam Spade used to. Dialog is terrific in that muddied up 70s way (Kennedy assassination was mentioned after seeing a dead body) instead of snappy one-liners. Sex and drugs of the counterculture is summed up in Melanie Griffith's 16 year old nude body. With all the macho posturing of rugged stuntmen and sport heros, Night Moves perfectly signals the end of an era, the way Inherent Vice or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was supposed to capture, all back in 1975 only to be revived by Reagan era action movies without any scruples. Night Moves would make a terrific double feature with The Conversation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

New York African Film Festival Celebrates Its Magnificent 25th Year! 5/16 - 6/10

With plenty of evidence of the decline of Western Civilization presenting itself on TV news these days, NYAFF (not to be confused with New York Asian Film Fest) , in it's 25th year, with more than 30 films on its slate, criss-crossing 3 of New York's venerable film institutions (FSLC, BAM and Maysle's Cinema), gives filmgoers a chance to experience fresh perspectives on the world.
This year's festival includes new films from emerging filmmakers, shorts programs, revivals, panel discussions and an art exhibition.

Opening Night will spotlight Apolline Traoré’s award-winning film, Borders, which speaks to migration as well as to African women’s struggles, in a timely echo of the #MeToo movement. French director Berni Goldblat’s Wallay will have its New York premiere as the festival’s Centerpiece film.

The festival tips a hat to key figures in the history of African film with the U.S. premieres of Abderrahmane Sissako: Beyond Territories, Valérie Osouf’s intimate portrait of the acclaimed director of Bamako and the Oscar-nominated Timbuktu; a 2017 version of the 1983 classic Selbe: One Among Many, by Safi Faye, the first sub-Saharan woman to direct a theatrically released film, now restored to its original Wolof language; and Mohamed Challouf’s Tahar Cheriaa: Under the Shadow of the Baobab, which documents the career of the founder of the Carthage Film Festival, Africa’s first film festival. The festival will include the 1989 documentary short Parlons Grand-mère by the late Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty.

These are the dates for this year's New York African Film Festival:

FSLC: 5/16 - 5/22, Brooklyn Academy of Music: 5/24 - 5/28 & Maysle's Cinema: 6/7 - 6/10

Make no mistakes, below outstanding, touching, funny, powerful and hopeful films are definitely not made in shithole countries:

Borders - Apolline Traoré *Opening Night Film
Adjara, a Senegalise woman with her savings in her waste bag, travels to Lagos, Nigeria in the hopes of becoming a trader. Along the way, she meets 3 other female travelers in various situations.

This six day journey from Senegal through Mali, Burkina Fasso, Benin to Nigeria is an arduous one as they face rampant border corruptions among the sub-Saharan countries, violence, rape and fighting with other passengers, shady transportation and breakdowns.

Borders highlights pan-West African sisterhood and imagines the better future for its female citizens.

Wallay - Berni Goldblat *Centerpiece
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I've seen quite a few films over the years about a troubled youth going through right of passage visiting and connecting with his/her ancestral homeland, but none as funny and touching and joyous as Wallay.

Wallay takes place in small village in Burkina Fasso, where Ady, a troubled 13 year old city kid from Paris is sent to by his father, after stealing money from his home to buy a shiny pair of red sneakers. Decked out in street gear, an iphone and fancy headphones, the spoiled brat faces reality of no electricity and two buckets of water per shower in the African village. Add to this unimaginable hardship, his uncle Amadou, a respected village elder, is a hardass and wants him to work on a fishing boat for 2 euros per day to pay off his debt. Not only that, after finding out Ady is not circumcised, the uncle wants the local doctor to perform circumcision on the boy to make him a real man.

At Amadou's urging, Jean, Ady's grown up distant cousin and a guide, takes the boy to meet his grandma who lives in a remote mountain town. Ady becomes grandma's instant favorite who calls him 'Little Hubby'. With the help of 'chilled out' grandma, Ady slowly learns the importance of family, discipline and respect. He gets to experience a bit of romance too with Yeli, grandma's little helper.

Shot beautifully on film, Wallay benefits from amazing performance by Makan Nathan Diarra as Ady, an insolent city kid with an attitude, slowly turning himself into a man. Goldblat doesn't rely on its spectacular locale or its customs, he doesn't have to. The story of Ady is universal enough. Everything plays out naturally. Hugely captivating and entertaining, Wallay is one of the best films I've seen this year.

Abderrahmane Sissako: Beyond Territories - Valérie Osouf
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Valérie Osouf's documentary on one of Africa's most revered filmmakers, Abderrahmane Sissako, is not only an intimate portrayal but an essential viewing in understanding the man behind the camera. Widely regarded as a modern day master filmmaker with his simplicity, directness, colors and movement in films like The Life on Earth, Bamako and Timbuktu, highlighting the lives of fellow Malians in the age of global capitalism and ISIS, Sissako elevated modern African cinema to the world stage. Thankfully, with the help of Western admirers - Martin Scorsese and Danny Glover (both are interviewed for the film), he keeps on making gems reflecting the world with Africa at its center.

In an informal open house setting, Sissako invites and talk with everyone - a film enthusiast cop, a philosopher, scholars, actors, dancers while the life is happening all around them - roosters walk across the court yard, children play around, a woman gets water from the well. His background gets revealed - from his Moscow film school days - his mentor Marlen Khutsiev reminisces that he knew Sissako would be a great filmmaker because he noticed his thoughtful gaze when they first met. He gets his intellectual side from his father's family and warrior side from his mother's who are from very different parts of Mali, therefore his deeper understanding of different cultures.

The last segment of the film takes place in China, where he's researching for his new film, a love story about a Chinese man and an African woman, tentatively going to be taking place in China, Ethiopia and possibly Nigeria. He chats with his good friend Danny Glover over skype about his project. The film ends in an optimistic note. The influence of China is already felt globally. But Africa can't be recolonized. Connecting these elements, it's more like Silk Roads connecting different worlds with mutual respect than one side dominating the other.

As we witness the obvious decline of Western civilization every day, I can see Sissako's vision and it's pretty bright.

*My interview with Abderrahmane Sissako last year

Five Fingers for Marseilles - Michael Matthews
Five Fingers of Marseilles
Marseilles is a railroad town in South Africa which still bears the name of its colonial days. Michael Matthews' sumptuously shot Western Five Fingers for Marseilles starts with 5 young friends making an oath to protect their town as freedom fighters, even if it means from each other. Tau, nicknamed Lion of Marseilles, one of the five, flees town after killing corrupt and abusive white police officers, leaving his friends and lovely Lerato behind to fend for themselves.

Now a grown man and a small time outlaw, Tau (Vuyo Dabula) comes back to town. The 'New Marseilles' is a booming town with Pockets, one of the five friends, as a mayor who is keeping uneasy peace by making pact with Lepoko - a ruthless, one eyed super-villain who wants to bring chaos at any cost with his marauding gang known as Nightrunners. No one notices Tau, and start calling him 'Nobody' except for 'Pastor', a storyteller of the five. As the Lepoko's grip on the town becomes tighter, and everyone needs a savoir, Tau, the cowardly, disgraced freedom fighter rise to the occasion?

Just like a typical Western genre film, there will be bloodshed, sacrifices will be made, reckoning, redemption.... With the stunning backdrop of Lesotho Valley, Matthews morphs post-apartheid South Africa into a gripping Western.