Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Petite-Bourgeoisie

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) - Buñuel
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A pretty Parisienne Celestine (Jeanne Moreau), comes to the county to be a chambermaid for the rich Monteil family, specifically to take care of M. Rabour, old frail father of Mme. Monteil, who is a snobby coldfish. Celestine finds herself the center of attention of sexually frustrated boorish man-child M. Monteil (Michel Piccoli), Rabour, Joseph the man servant, and a nosy retired army captain neighbor.

It being Buñuel film, it's an all out satire where no one is spared - the rich, the army, the religion, our heroine, and above all, the jingoistic whole France.

The old man dies suddenly and a little girl from the neighborhood is found raped and butchered. Celestine, suspecting the killer is Joseph, decides not to go back to Paris and stay with the family until she gets a confession out of him.

Even though Celestine is the only one who mourns the death of the little girl, it is suggested that she might have killed the old man during their foot fetish sessions- he was found dead clutching at the patented leather shoes he made her to wear.

With the use of wide angle lenses, dolly movements and zoom-ins, the film is technically impressive. But the two of the most striking images are static shots - of the dead girl's body obscured by a tree trunk and snails crawling over her lifeless legs and of the face of an old house servant, who's just told by Monteil to be sexually subjugated. Her tearful face says a thousand words.

In a world of Chambermaid, it's always the little ones, the powerless ones suffer and their sufferings go unnoticed and everyone is morally bankrupt swindlers. Celestine would go so far as bedding and marrying Joseph to admit his guilt and even ending up planting a discriminating evidence for the police against him. But being a petite-bourgeoisie, she ends up marrying the petty neighbor and becoming the Mme. of the house, ordering him around in the midst of the rise of national jingoistic fervor everywhere.

It's a great satire and impressively made one. But it's a hard film to like.

Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2015

Rendez-vous with French Cinema, a co-presentation of Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films, has become a de facto film festival for francophiles over the years. A showcase of contemporary French cinema, this year's lineup includes 22 features and four short films making their New York, U.S., or North American premieres.

Celebrating its 20th year, Rendez-vous opens with Benoit Jacquot (Farewell My Queen)'s 3 Hearts, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve and closes with Quentin Dupieux (Rubber)'s new film Reality. The returning notable directors include - Jacquot, André Téchiné, Cedric Kahn, Jean-Paul Civeyrac and Christophe Honoré. The ever-diverse lineup includes gritty policiers (The Connection, Next Time I'll Aim for the Heart, SK1), comedies (Gaby Baby Doll, Reality) and several films starring Catherine Deneuve (well, duh!).  Shedding a spotlight on women filmmakers, the festival showcases 4 shorts by emerging women directors as well.

Rendez-vous with French Cinema runs March 6 - 15, in three different venues throughout New York- FSLC, BAM Cinematek and IFC Center. Please click on each venue for details.

Being a francophile myself, the festival is always a treasure trove every year. I always find a couple of gems that end up on my year end top 20 films list from Rendez-vous without fail. These are the films I was able to see this year:

METAMORPHOSES
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What fun! Honoré's interpretation of Roman poet Ovid's Greek mythic tale of gods and demigods starts out with a modern day hunter running into a flame haired nude transgender person who graces him with pixie dust and turns him into a deer. The hunter becomes the hunted. Filled with young nude bodies (usually full frontal), Metamorphoses tells a high school girl Europa being kidnapped by Jupiter in the form of a hunky, bearded truck driver. It's a sexual, spritual awakening for Europa, as she mingles with Jupiter, Bacchus and Orpheus. Story within a story within a story plays out, some funny, some dark but all enjoyable, with emphasis on sexual ambiguity and transformation in human beings. The film is like a dream of a horny teenager who has fallen asleep in literature class.

A couple of years back, I remember Honoré telling me when I interviewed him for his film Beloved, that he is not a type of director who'd want to make nice things to be remembered by his offspring. He'd rather make things his son would be ashamed of. Without any big name actors, he charges on bravely, with lots of raunchy images, tackling on today's rigid, conservative society with an ancient literature and reminds us that things were much more transgressive and transforming in 1 century B.C..

Metamorphoses is also a visual feast, not only because of all the young nudes, but also the under-water scene where Orpheus attempts to retrieve Eurydice from the underworld which is breathtakingly gorgeous. There are many idyllic nature settings, most of them near the water which is the running theme of the film.

Death of skateboarding Narcissus scene is an epitome/origin of many Honoré's love sick characters' demises, you find out. Playful, dirty, edgy and wondrous in its micro-economic way, Metamorphoses works as it is intended to- a beautiful, dreamy poetry in accordance with the spirit of French New Wave. One of my favorites from the festival.

3 HEARTS **Opening Night Film
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Marc (Benoit Poelvoorde), a shlumpy tax investigator, just missed the train back to Paris. He meets and chats up lovely Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who seems a little troubled. They walk all night talking. In the morning, they promise each other, without exchanging the numbers, to meet in Paris in one week on Friday, near a famous fountain near the park. The encounter was so special, Sylvie decides not to move to the US with her current boyfriend as she's been planning. But the Friday comes and goes. Marc misses the rendez-vous because he gets delayed by clients and has a mini stroke from his stressful job. Heartbroken Sylvie leaves for the US with her boyfriend.

Marc is in town again, looking for Sylvie. He ends up helping out distraught Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), Sylvie's sister, with her business tax problems. The romance blooms. Eventually Marc finds out that they are very close siblings and whatever reason, he decides to avoid contacting Sylvie. Marc and Sophie marry. Marc and Sylvie avoid each other at the wedding. 3 years passes. The couple has an adorable son now. For the 60th birthday of the mother (Catherine Deneuve) of the sisters, Sylvie comes home. She and her boyfriend is not doing well and Marc and Sylvie's passion rekindles.

Not quite 'what if" story but 3 Hearts is full of regret and melancholy. It's a fluff in the vein of old Hollywood but with the help of todays gadgets - skype and cell phones, it works as a tension filled love triangle. You don't really believe two of the most alluring actresses of our time would fall for Poelvoorde's Marc, but whatever. It's a fun movie.

Director Benoit Jacquot has been busy. His new film Diary of a Chambermaid, a remake (of Renoir's classic in 1946, then again 1964 by Buñuel), starring Lea Seydoux just debuted at this year's Berlinale.

MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE
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In light of Charlie Hebdo massacre, Congolese born French rap artist Abd Al Malik adapts his own autobiographical book Qu'Allah bénisse la France and shows yet another side of Muslims in France. Charismatic, clear eyed Marc Zinga portrays the rapper who was raised in a housing project of Neuhof, a surburb of Strasbourg. In the film, Al Malik (Zinga), whose given name was Régis before he converted to Sufi Islam, is a gifted student in Literature and destined to become a philosopher/poet. But his real passion is rap music and wants to overcome his underprivileged background and become a big star. With some of his friends, he practices and writes songs 2-3 hours at a time at a local community center where they have limited access to the gear and space. They pickpocket tourists to raise the dough but avoids dealing hard drugs unlike many of his friends and neighbors who are now incarcerated or dead.

It's neighbor's daughter Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani) who introduces him to Sufism, the spiritual side of Islam, and teaches him not to be a foreigner in their own country. Love blooms between them.

In May Allah Bless France, being Muslim is considered as an added responsibility that young people put on themselves. This means no drinking, no drugs, no disrespect towards women. The film's quite different from what you expect from the usual gansta movies. Al Malik restrains himself (to a fault) from going bombastic in style. It's shot in monochrome but the similarity with Mathieu Kasovitz's breakthrough 1995 urban drama La Haine ends there. The film almost too sanitized. The act of drive by shooting is never shown, Nawel and Régis never even kiss or show their affection out in the open until their eventual marriage. Sure some bad things happen to his friends and family members but everything is way too clean to be even a little bit affecting. Music is good though, especially Nina Simone sampled Gibraltar and Soldat de Plomb. Mireille Perrier (Chocolat, Boy Meets Girl) shows up as his school mentor, reminding him the past choice doesn't matter, it's the future ones that counts.

GABY BABY DOLL
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Gaby (Lolita Chammah) is told by her doctor that she needs to learn how to be independent/self-sufficient. That she needs to let her neurosis go and get some much needed rest. So she arrives in a picaresque rural village with a group of friends. It's supposed to be a rustic vacation at a big house that belongs to her doctor. The trouble begins after her friends leave and her boyfriend detects that she doesn't really love him. So he leaves too, declaring that he will come back after the leaves on the tree in the front yard falls. Now left all alone by herself, she needs to find somebody to keep her company. She resort to a group of men in a local tavern every night to walk her home and stay the night, one by one. It's not like she wants to sleep with them, but she can't bear the thought of being alone. The words go around and she is banned from entering the pub ever again.

Then there is Nicolas (Benjamin Biolay), a bearded hermit who lives in an impossibly tiny shack with a friendly dog, outside of an abandoned castle. He is supposed to be the caretaker of the place. He has his set routine - long walks every morning and evening, collecting his thoughts, reflecting on life. He is a total opposite of Gaby. And she clings to him like a leech for company. Soon they are off to walk together and slowly, he teaches her to enjoy the solitude, just a little bit.

Sophie Letourneur's idiosyncratic romantic comedy rides heavily on the charm of baby-faced Chammah and she totally delivers. I get the Greta Gerwig comparisons but Gaby Baby Doll's success also has got to do with Letourneur's writing- nonchalant characters, unusual sense of humor.

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
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Director Bertrand Bonello (House of Tolerance, Saint Laurent) plays Bertrand, a film director who's trying to find one inspirational piece of art for his upcoming film about monstrosity. His supportive producer (Valerie Dreville) introduces him an art historian friend Célia (played alternately by Jeanne Balivar and Geraldine Pailhas) to help out finding an inspiration in various art museum trips. They see the paintings of Bacon, Caravaggio, Baltus, etc. Without any written dialog and clear direction, Bertrand is having a hard time explaining the project to his actors (Pascale Greggory, Sigrid Bouaziz). He also has a lot on his mind - his retrospective is coming up, a young, inarticulate interviewer keeps bothering him to meet up, Bertrand's stage actress/singer wife Barbe (Joanna Preiss of Siberie) is always on the road, mysterious Célia keeps changing her appearances while flirting with him. Then there is large red welts on his back that keeps getting bigger. Is it a sign of psychosomatic symptom or is it some kind of metaphor?

Director Antoine Barraud is not in a hurry to rush us out of the museums. He takes time for us to look at each of the painting Bertrand and Célia are looking at. And we observe them while they observe art in a quiet setting.

Portrait of the Artist is filled with beautifully photographed images and attractive actors (including Bonello, who wears sad, intelligent face very comfortably and has a strong screen presence). The film is not too concerned about one's artistic process or the end game. There is a pervading comfortable nonchalance: not silly but sophisticated and arresting. Even though it's not a puzzle piece, there are hints throughout the film that all the people surrounding Bertrand are reflections of himself - silly, shy, seductive, strange... that these are the overactive imagination of an artist. If a good cinema is nothing but the art of seduction, Portrait of the Artist would be it.

MY FRIEND VICTORIA
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Jean-Paul Civeyrac's adapts Doris Lessing's novella, Victoria and the Staveneys. Narrated by her lifelong friend Fanny, the film chronicles passive life of a black girl.

Victoria, a girl growing up in the project, gets to experience how the wealthy white family (the Savinets) lives for one night when she was 8. The night and the handsome and gentle older son Edouard of the family make a lasting impression on her life. Later, she has a fling with the younger Savinet, Thomas, gets pregnant and decides to keep the child without telling him. She takes various low paying jobs because of lack of education, falls in love, raises two children by herself. Now her mixed daughter Marie is 7. Because Victoria doesn't want her daughter to end up like herself, she decides to contact the Savinets to reveal the truth. The whole Savinets are ecstatic except for Edouard, who asks for paternity test but then immediately regrets his decision. Being ultra liberal, the Savinets are crazy about this 'caramel colored girl' and pours all their affection to her. They even debate about if affection need to be shared by Victoria's other child, Charlie, by another father.

I loved Civeyrac's Through the Forest, part love story, part super-natual thriller, part musical. His light touch and technical daring do (Forest is consisted of 9 uncut, long shots). Here, he skillfully drives the film without making it all a case study for social observation. His filmmaking is fluid and light. Victoria is a beautiful character, trying to do right by her family and herself. Guslagie Malanga is terrific as the older Victoria, so as the narrator Fanny, played by Nadia Moussa and so as the Savinets, especially the warm, artistic dad and mom (Pascal Greggory and Catherine Mouchet).

It's interesting to see a film that shows as much about how well-to-do white liberals deal with minorities as about minorities themselves. It's an interesting window to see the race relations in post-Sarkosy, pre-Charlie Hebdo era France.

IN THE NAME OF MY DAUGHTER
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André Téchiné, the French master of subtle psychological dramas, tackles real life intrigue that took place in the French Riviera in the 70s. It is the esteemed director and Catherine Deneuve's 7th collaboration to date.

Deneuve plays Renée, a widow and owner of the last remaining casino that is not taken over by mafia. She is aided by her loyal lawyer Maurice (Guillaume Canet, respresenting two films at this year's Rendez-vous) to tread the troubling times. It's Maurice's cunning political maneuvering that makes Renée to take total control over the casino. But her daughter Agnes (Adèle Haenel, Water Lilies and this year's Cesar Award winner for Best Actress for Love at First Fight) arrives, expecting to cash in on her inheritance and set up a little business for herself. Athletic, sultry Agnes slowly but surely falls for studious Maurice who is married and also has a string of mistresses.

After getting rejected by Renée for advancement, Maurice, along with Agnes arranges for ousting of Renée from the leadership of the casino. Lovesick Agnes becomes completely dependent on him. But he tells her that he can never reciprocate the love she has for him. She becomes suicidal and one day disappears without a trace. Soon after, Maurice transfers all of Agnes's money to his account. Twenty years later, Maurice is flown back to France from South America where he lives now, to stand for the trial, accused of the murder and disappearance of Agnes, brought on by diligent work of Renée.

Building suspense or clear resolution is not what Téchiné's after. Despite its terrible American title (its original title is L'homme qu'on aimait trop which means 'The Man Who Loved Too Much' which makes much more sense in the film's context), the film is yet another great example of Téchiné's astute examination of unpredictability/duplicity in human nature that he is known for. All three principal actors are terrific against beautiful French Riviera setting, shot energetically by a veteran cinematographer Julien Hirsch (3 Hearts, Bird People, Godard's In Praise of Love and Notre Musique as well as Téchiné's Unforgivable and The Girl on the Train), the film is another strong outing from Téchiné.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Masterful, Lean Film Noir

Phoenix (2014) - Petzold
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Christian Petzold, (Gespenster, Barbara) perhaps one of the most gifted storyteller working in cinema today, strikes gold again with a Hitchcockian postwar noir revenge flick, Phoenix. Clocking at very lean 98 minutes, the film tells about a concentration camp survivor Nelly (beautifully played by Petzold's muse Nina Hoss in her 6th collaboration with the director), coming back to now American GIs occupied Berlin with the aid of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a case worker for the newly established Jewish State, who keeps urging Nelly to leave Germany and go to Palestine and start a new, as soon as her bandages come off. Badly disfigured by a gunshot wound in the camp, Nelly is told by doctors to choose any face for reconstruction or 'recreation' - perhaps a face of a movie siren or to be a different person altogether. Despite the urging of others, Nelly insists to have her old face back if at all possible. Even though she was told that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Barbara) gave her up in order to save his own skin, Nelly can't stop searching for him, for she still loves him. They were a famous musical duo before the war (Nelly a chanteuse, Johnny a piano player).

Her search for him leads to Phoenix, a cabaret where Johnny now works as a busboy. She is shattered when he doesn't recognize her. But there is enough of a passing resemblance that triggers Johnny to his scheme: he wants Nelly, now Esther, to pretend to be his wife who miraculously survived the camp and back, to get money from her estate (he secretly divorced her right before her arrest). Still deeply in love with Johnny, she goes along, keeping her emotions in check, pretending to learn old Nelly's behaviors, speech and writing (or just being herself), in order to see if he recognizes her in time. This might need a total suspension of disbelief from the audience. But we do it with Vertigo anyway in order to go along for the ride. In Petzold's assured hands, melodrama is kept to a minimum in this rather hokey premise.

Hoss is superb as a conflicted woman, hiding a terrible secret in front of unusually unsuspecting husband. You can detect her bottled up emotions in her expressions without losing her composure. It's just a marvelous acting. Unlike his kindly doctor in Barbara, Zehrfeld's Johnny is a cold-hearted man whose priority is surviving. Kunzerdorf has a real presence, as a woman deeply scarred by the atrocity. Her Lene is the real tragic figure in the film. Stefan Will's jazzy bass score adds to the era it's portraying and helps setting the mood of the film. Cole Porter and Kurt Weill's music dominate its soundtrack and Hoss's rendition of Speak Low at the end is at its most haunting.

Petzold plays around with the idea of forced forgetfulness. After the atrocious war, many Germans wanted to erase its shameful history from their minds. It's Nelly and Lene who can't let go. She asks Johnny how to answer when the others ask how the camp was, once she reemerges. Johnny simply tells her, "They won't." But it's as if Johnny doesn't want to recognize her even though she is right in front of him - buried and gone. At first, it's very hard to buy that a woman as striking as Hoss, with her penetrating blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, would be unrecognizable to anyone despite the disfigurement. Petzold's regular theme of identity also plays a big role here. Nelly never had to be conscious of being Jewish before, but the Nazi Germany made her to, in a drastic way. She literally loses her face, but she longs for her old self even though she learns along the way that nothing is the same anymore. With these heady ideas in the background, the film moves along in its stunningly economical pace, without sacrificing beautiful period details or complexities of characters. In preparation for Nelly's comeback from the dead (to legitimize the inheritance), Johnny divulges about how his neighbors and friends turned away from them once Nelly was being hunted by the Nazis.

The film perfectly builds up to its emotionally cathartic ending. And what an ending! Phoenix is a deeply moving, deeply satisfying film by an incredibly talented director at the top of his game.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Joyless Rebellion

Buzzard (2014) - Potrykus
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BAMcinématek at the BAM Rose Cinemas will present a special advance screening of Joel Potrykus' Buzzard on March 4th, followed by a Q&A with the director and screenings of his previous two films, Coyote and Ape. Please visit BAM website for tickets.
Joel Potrykus reconfirms his reputation as a 'real deal' in American indie scene with searingly funny and original Buzzard, the conclusion of his animal trilogy after Coyote and Ape, again, starring his muse, the incomparable Joshua Burge, as an angry social miscreant.

Enter the world of Marty Jackitansky (Burge) - a $9.50/hr indefinite temp at a mortgage company in Grand Rapids, MI. When he's not procrastinating at being an office drone, his life at home consists of TV dinners, corn chips, mountain dew, heavy metal music, video games and horror movies. He subsists his living by precariously screwing the system in small ways - ordering unnecessary office supplies at the job and returning them for cash, calling complaint hotline off of the frozen pizza boxes for more free food or coupons and cashing in undeliverable checks.

Welcome to the unglamorous life of the 99 percent in America. Comparing Buzzard to Office Space would be too easy, but from this angle, Buzzard is more like no budget, fantasy/political subtext free Fight Club. There is no joy or rebellious spirit in Marty's actions. No internal grandiose rhetoric. Deeply contemptuous of all people, he is just a class-A asshole and possesses no redeeming quality whatsoever. And there is danger in his unusually large bug eyes- he is building a Freddy Kruger style slasher out of his nintendo glove with real blades sticking out.

After cashing in the company's undeliverable checks, Marty's paranoia sets in. He abandons his messy apartment for fear of swat team kicking in the door any minute. So he crashes at his total tool-of-the-system co-worker Derek (played adroitly by director Potrykus)'s coveted 'party-zone' A.K.A. the basement of his disabled dad's house. Derek is as much of a man-child as Marty: they argue, goof around (Jedi Knight vs Freddy), play video games and eat hot pockets and corn chips together. But things get sour after Marty finds out that Derek unwittingly might have ratted him out. After physically hurting Derek, Marty runs away to Detroit with $200 from the checks he cashed in his pocket.

Joshua Burge's unfiltered portrayal of a ne'er-do-well is funny and chilling at the same time. With his unusual mug, Burge stands out no matter where he goes, against the film's 'normal people' who possess no distinctive characteristics. It's pretty brilliant that Marty's choice of place to escape his ugly reality is none other than Detroit, not quite the promised land where one would want to escape to. The uncut, 20 dollar plate of spaghetti sequence in a luxurious hotel room is a legend in the making. In one minute Marty feels happy running down the underpopulated streets of Detroit thinking that he got off scot-free from his petty crimes, then the next he finds himself still trapped in the miserable thing called reality.

Raw and ugly, yet mesmerizing, Buzzard is a one of a kind film that you can't shake off easily. As the country's economical climate recycles the past, Buzzard shares the dispirited spirit of the slackers of the Generation X of the 90s.

Buzzard
opens nationwide on March 6th.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

I'm Not a Real Person Yet

Frances Ha (2014) - Baumbach
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I am more than mildly surprised by Noah Baumbach's acute observations of 20 somethings giromance movie Frances Ha. No less impressive is Greta Gerwig's performance as Frances, a young woman with a case of post-college blues. At 27, while painfully aware of time passing and her aimlessness, Frances hops around overpriced New York apartments filled with equally underachieving, too-clever-for-their-own-good 20-somethings with their parents' money. There is no visible obligatory character arc Frances has to reach. Her goofy, girl-next-dormroom persona stays put throughout. "I'm not a real person yet," she replies in one of the conversations. It's an easy justification/defense mechanism of the man-child, but also the truth. Things get a bit real: her roommate/best friend Sophie moves in with her boyfriend. She doesn't get the dance company job where she dances as an apprentice. And she doesn't have money to pay for a Chinatown apartment she shares with two hipster boys.

After a blissful, yet way too cozy Christmas break back home in Sacramento, things hit a sour note. After insisting to crash at one of her friend's apartment, it becomes apparent, whether she realizes it or not, that her goofy antics are not that fetching to anyone anymore. But instead of getting her shit together, out on a whim, she takes up on the opportunity of staying in an apartment of acquaintances in Paris for a weekend, just before an interview for a job at the dance company that she may or may not get, blowing money on plane tickets.

The thing is, I've known plenty of girls like Frances and I can't help myself rooting for her to succeed, whatever that might mean. Gerwig's adorable with her catoonishly big smile and manly works and her 'undate-ableness' and all her small quirks. Frances Ha is a chatty movie but never expository, focused yet universal and a visual marvel featuring unassuming streets of New York in black and white. Baumbach gets extra points for aping Modern Love sequence from Leo Carax' Mauvais Sang.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Self Motivated

Nightcrawler (2014) - Gilroy
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Jake Gyllenhaal shines in his sleaziest role ever, as an ambulance chasing videographer, Louis Bloom who won't stop at anything to get the most vile, violent footage of car wrecks, home invasion, multiple homicides, etc and selling it to the highest bidder. He has no social skills but always doles out scripted, online course-learned speeches when dealing with other people. The thing is, in real life, we all know these kind of individuals. They are not quite right as they have no moral scruples in their actions. There is something missing in their eyes. What's disturbing about Nightcrawler is that Bloom becomes very successful in what he sets out to do. He tampers with crime scenes to get a better angle, gets rid of competitions, blackmails a like minded shock tv station manager, and withhold information from the law to get the next exclusives. He's a total posterboy of 'pulling up your bootstraps' crowd.

It's Hollywood scriptwriter Dan Gilroy(and brother of Tony Gilroy)'s first film. He pulls all the stops with Nightcrawler - shot beautifully by PT Anderson regular Robert Elswit, stars his wife Rene Russo along with Gyllenhaal who also produced and music by seasoned composer, James Newton Howard. The worst of all is the score which doesn't match the film at all and sticks out like a sore thumb. I'm just angry that Nightcrawler won the Best First Film at Indie Spirit Awards over She's Lost Control. Really? This well polished film by Hollywood insider is considered indie? It's pretty disgusting.

Eri Yamamoto Trio at Arthur's Tavern

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Out on a whim, we decided to brave the snow and go to the West Village, and look for a live jazz club. It's been a very long time that we went to see a live jazz since Augie's on 108th Steet closed. We found a small hole in the wall place, Arthur's Tavern, where we saw Eri Yamamoto's trio. The setting couldn't have been more perfect: that acrid smell of old pub- of creaky, dusty wood, liquor and urine all mixed in. Christmas, Easter decorations and balloons from yesteryears still adorned the walls, including big brass "NO DANCING" sign and the sight of falling snow through the front window. Old husky bartendress from Macedonia poured me Knob Creek, instead of Hennessy, realized her mistake and didn't charge me for the drink. The waitress is late because of the snow. She's coming from Jersey, she explained. We got there early, settled in up front, not expecting much. The trio started arriving, also late because of the snowstorm. But they were pleased that there are so many of us showed up.

Eri Yamamoto Trio last night was Eri on the piano, Arthur (didn't get the gentleman's last name) on bass and Ikuo Takeuchi on drums, playing all original composition by Yamamoto. It was exactly what we were looking for in a night like that. And we were glad we finally found a place for live jazz after all those years of yearning.


Yamamoto and company are fine musicians. And her compositions are beautiful. For more of Yamamoto's music and info, please visit eriyamamoto.com

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Film Comment Selects 2015 Preview

Film Comment Selects, Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual film series that showcases the best films from all corners of the world selected by folks at Film Comment magazine, marks the arrival of spring for New York cinephiles in otherwise dreadful February/March movie season.

This year's selections are as diverse as ever; the series blasts off with Mark Hartely's hilarious doc Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films with some of Cannon's greatest hits as the sidebar selections, includes Larry Clark's Kids part deux- The Smell of Us (skater kids in Paris, this time), the late Mike Nichols tribute to his underrated, underseen The Fortune, Philippe Garrel's rarely screened elegy Un ange passe, a special screening of the original preview cut of Joe Dante's Gremlins (featuring five additional minutes!), as well as many festival favorites- Shinya Tsukamoto's remake of Fires on the Plain, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead's Spring, Tetsuya Nakashima's The World of Kanako and Christian Petzold's new film Phoenix. The series also shed a six-film spotlight on autobiographical Danish auteur Nils Malmros.

I was able to sample films below from the series lineup. The Film Comment Selects runs 2/20 - 3/5. For more information and tickets, please visit FSLC website

THE SMELL OF US - Larry Clark
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It's been 20 years since Larry Clark made Kids. Now in his 70s, Clark hasn't changed his tune one bit. The setting now is in Paris and young skaters and hustlers are now armed with iphones to memorialize their sexual escapades. But everything else is pretty much the same. Even though there are a lot of skins and explicit shots, the impact is far less shocking to anyone in this internet age.

The thin story centers around Mat/pacman (Lukas Ionesco), a San Sebastian-esque beauty who is 'only gay for cash'. Everyone is in love with him, including his best buddy JP/Babyface and only visible girl in the group, Marie. There are a lot of flabby, monstrous old men/women lusting for young flesh in this film, including cameo from Clark himself as a drunk homeless man they call Rockstar (yeah right).

The Smell of Us makes the word 'disaffected' even more tiresome. The kids in the film are not only rebels without a cause but brain, emotions and everything that makes interesting characters. It is too obvious that only thing left to sell is their youthful body. In this day and age, I don't think that cuts it anymore.

SHOCK VALUE: How Dan O'Bannon And Some USC Outsiders Helped Invent Modern Horror
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USC, the school responsible for incubating such Hollywood filmmakers as George Lucas, Ron Howard and Rian Johnson, was also the place to be for successful genre filmmakers in the late 60s early 70s.

USC archivist Dino Everett lovingly strings together the works of USC Film School collaborators - Dan O'Bannon, John Carpenter, Charles Adair, Terence Winkless and Alec Lorimore in this no frills anthology. Obviously these are raw, amateurish student films but there are clear evidence of seeds of what's to come in genre filmmaking being planted, especially in Adair's riveting The Demon, predating Texas Chainsaw Massacre and sharing the same spirit of Night of the Living Dead and Winkless & Lorimore's Judson's Release being a precursor to Carpenter's Halloween. I would loved to have seen Carpenter's thesis film Lady Madonna- the anthology includes some of the sound recordings of the film without the picture since the negatives of the film are said to be lost.

BYPASS - Duane Hopskins
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Duane Hopkins' Bypass is yet another great example of social realism set in British working class neighborhood. It fits somewhere between the works of Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Shane Meadows, owing everything to, of course, Alan Clarke, Bill Douglas and early Mike Leigh. Gracefully lensed by David Proctor and beautifully acted by the principles, the film rises above other depressing, small time thugs dramas set in England.
Bypass tells a story of the Locketts. Fatherless with bedridden mom, the eldest Greg (Benjamine Dilloway), a former soccer player whose dreams are crushed by the leg injury, deals in petty theft to support the family. But when he is caught and locked up, it's a sickly younger brother, Tim (George MacKay, in a star making turn)'s turn to provide for the family, dealing with pretty much the same set of local lowlifes. Things get complicated when bill collectors and child welfare services are hounding him and his younger sister and his angelic girlfriend, Lily (Charlotte Spencer) gets pregnant.

Hopkins shows his talent for effortless pacing, change of POV and smart, economical storytelling without losing sight on the characters innate goodness and warm heart. Brooding and tense, Bypass showcases another major talent in the making in British cinema.

VOICE OVER - Cristian Jimenez
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Chilean director Cristian Jimenez's Bonsai has been on my radar for a while. His new family dramedy Voice Over is a well written, well rounded film. It tells the story of Ana (Ingrid Isensee), a pretty, thirty something, unemployed, divorced mother of two young children, dealing with life's all messiness- while taking care of her two kids who are growing up fast, she finds out that her seemingly happy parents are separating, then her bossy older sister comes back home after getting Ph.D on anthropology with her hunky French husband and a new baby in tow. A failed actress, now Ana is trying to be a voice over artist for commercials. Even though Ana is the supposed protagonist of the film, Jimenez gives equal attention to each character and makes them all shine.

I really hate familial archetypes, 'quirky' characters in American comedies. Jimenez wouldn't have any of that. They are well developed, yet far from perfect people who are trying to cope with the curve balls life throws at them. There's birth. There's death, First sign of womanhood, sibling rivalry, rusty nail in the yard, veganism, heartbreaks and forgiveness, but nothing seems far fetched or outrageous for quirk-sake. There isn't a moment in life where a smooth voiced narrator explains everything that everything will be okay, like in movies. Jimenez has a real eye and ear for life's little incongruities. The result is a rich and rewarding viewing experience.

HIGH SOCIETY - Julie Lopes-Curval
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Alice (Ana Girardot) is at a stage where she is trying to find her artistic voice. The thing is, she's from a single mother household, works at a cake shop and lives in a small town in Normandy. Knitting is her thing. After many weeks of hesitation, she asks for a recommendation letter for entering a prestigious art school in Paris from a wealthy woman in fashion industry who frequents the cake shop and has a villa in Normandy. Once she is accepted by the school, she gets involved with the woman's son Antoine (Bastien Bouillon) who quits a business school to become a photographer. He is a proto-hipster, rebelling against rich parents and living that bohemian lifestyle in Paris.

For the rest of the film, we witness the education of Alice- on finding her artistic voice, on life. Even though she loves Antoine, he involuntarily keeps reminding her the deep divide in their class differences- it's in the things he says and does nonchalantly, even innocently that hurts her.
High Society is beautifully written by Sophie Hiet and director Julie Lopes-Curval. I can't think of another movie that deals with class differences so subtly (explored in Blue is the Warmest Color but better here). Rich and poor aren't grotesquely exaggerated caricatures here. Girardot is adorable as a young woman finding out that there is a bigger world out there and that there is so much to learn and explore without compromising the sense of who she is and not forgetting where she's from. A beautiful film.

TREE OF KNOWLEDGE - Nils Malmros *In Focus
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Nils Malmros chronicles bittersweet days of his adolescence in the 50s Danish intermediary school. Tree of Knowledge concerns a dozen kids in the same class, as they start noticing opposite sex- love at first sight, jealousy and heartbreak ensue. It is quite apparent that Malmros was doing way back then what the social realist like the Dardenne Bros are doing now. Almost documentary like, he gets full access to the lives of these youngsters and gets amazingly naturalistic performances. These episodic days of 13 year old boys and girls are mad affecting. Particularly, in the case of Elin, a tall sullen brunette from an ultra conservative household who gets ostracized because she is a prude, both by heartbroken, monstrous boys and cliquey, jealous girls. Then there is Niels-Ole (Jan Johansen), a leader and general rabble-rouser of the pack, falls hard for beautiful Maj-Brit (Lone Elliot), only to find out that our little Maj-Brit 'has been around with many boys'.

Malmros masterfully orchestrates 2 years of the lives of the group (here's looking at you Linklater!) and ends the film just as swiftly, leaving us wanting more and appreciating the fleeting nature of those precious days in equal measure.

*The series include following Malmros films: Arhus by Night, Boys, Facing the Truth, Pain of Love, Sorrow and Joy and Tree of Knowledge

NINJA III: The Domination - Firstenberg *Cannon Films Tribute
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Christie (Lucinda Dickey) is just ordinary working gal: she works for a phone company, climbing up the telephone polls in a cute jumpsuit, then changes to a neon colored leotard to teach an aerobics class. She encounters a dying ninja who just killed about a hundred LA cops along with his intended victim. His soul gets transferred to Christie and she becomes an unstoppable cop killer.

Ninja III, steeped in 80s typical cheesy settings- Patric Nagel poster, squiggly neon tubes on the wall and public phone booth in the living room, is an epitome of a Cannon b-picture ridiculousness. You just have to surrender yourself to it and it will reward you handsomely.

*Cannon Films Tribute includes the following masterpieces: 10 to Midnight, The Last American Virgin and Ninja III: The Domination





Sunday, February 15, 2015

Nature Will Take Its Course

Still the Water (2014) - Kawase
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Death and love dominate Still the Water, Kawase's tropical island set coming-of-age story. There's a lot to like- for instance, two leads are incredibly attractive. You can really take your eyes off of Jun Yoshinaga's dark, flawless face. The setting is gorgeous. Add stunning underwater sequences. I'm sold. Yoshinaga plays Kyoko, a High Schooler who's in love with a Tokyo transplant, sullen Kaito (Nijiro Murakami). Her shaman mom is dying of some illness and she has to grapple with the concept of death. Kaito is a deeply scarred by his parents splitting up and can't understand his mom's lascivious nature. He resists Kyoko's advances.

Unfortunately Kawase paints Still the Water with such broad strokes that it isn't quite affecting as it should. Yes adult life is complicated and death comes to everyone. Yes the nature will take its course whether you like it or not and old tradition will continue long after you are gone, and so on. But the long arduous sequences aren't going to make the point more poignant. The film should've been 30 minutes shorter.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

My Life in One Page Comic

Something Nicole doodled at her job (High School Art Class Teacher) at a Professional Development meeting. This is a 100 percent truthful representation of our lives. Gotta love that woman!
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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Hurting Game

La Belle Personne/The Beautiful Person (2008) - Honoré
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Juni (Léa Seydoux) is a new girl in school. She's Mathias's cousin who lost her mom not long ago. Mathias and his gang of friends are poised to set her up with saintly Otto (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet of Love Songs). She also attracts the attention of her handsome, playboy Italian class teacher Nemours (Louis Garrel). Thrown in this Shakespearean melodrama, sullen Juni needs to figure out what she wants without hurting anyone and getting hurt herself. Otto doesn't understand why for Juni, it's not love at first sight like for him. Nemours breaks off all his female relationships in pursuit of Juni. He intellectually understands that she will never fall for him, but can't stop pursuing her. After reading a love letter that was mistakenly identified as written by Nemours, Juni makes up her mind.

Seydoux's loveliness dominates most of La Belle Personne. Her downcasted eyes, her melancholic expression suggest deep mystery. No she's not a naif, unlike the observation of a cafe owner, that teenage girls are as delicate as a glass (in warning Nemours). No matter what the circumstance, she is stronger than you and she can destroy you if she wants to. She is infinitely wiser than you. She understands that love doesn't last long and if she falls for it, it might hurt her. So she resists. Honoré too understands, about fleeting nature of love and its unfairness. His love stories are always sad, but also beautiful.

My interview with Christophe Honoré
Les bien-aimes/Beloved review
Les chansons d'amour/Love Songs review

Friday, January 30, 2015

Finding Diamond in the Rough: Girlhood Director Céline Sciamma Interview

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With two very lovely coming of age films (Water Lilies and Tomboy) under her belt, Céline Sciamma charts a new, yet still familiar, territory with her most accomplished film to date, Girlhood. Unlike her previous films, Girlhood stars all black girls in 'da hood' suburban Paris and reflects their lives in astonishing detail and authenticity. As a big fan of both of her previous films, I was very eager to meet her, despite her plane being delayed (she was attending Sundance) because of a big snowstorm that never was here in New York, and talk about her new film which happens to be the first great film I've seen this new year.

How was Sundance?


Céline Sciamma: It was great! I got stuck there because of fake snowstorm. (laughs) But we didn't know at that time it was fake, I mean there were no planes and stuff. The good part is that I really got to see what the festival was about- going to see movies and meeting people. Have you been there?

I haven't been. I have a friend who was just there and saw your film. He's been telling me how great it was!

Oh Cool.

Was it your first time?

Yeah.

How was GIRLHOOD received there?

Well the rooms were full, so it got some interest there and the Q & As were really cool. People were asking really interesting questions and there were good interactions. It wasn't that different from France actually. And the screens and projections are beautiful there which I am very peculiar about. (laughs)

That's awesome.

So after two previous films about white teen/preteen girls (WATER LILIES and TOMBOY), you made GIRLHOOD, about black teen girls. It seems kind of a departure for you. How did it come about?

Well, there still is a continuity because it's my third coming of age story, also set in the suburbs. But this time it's more contemporary. It's like the official suburbs cinema which in France is 'the hood'. It has a different social backdrop and I guess I wanted that. The project for me was to have another coming of age story but with a stronger narrative and a classical plot"-  a young girl who wants to live her life and has to put up with the time and place she lives in and the family which is a typical novelistic tale. But the idea was having very contemporary characters and to connect this notion of a romantic heroine with a black girl in that fiction.

GIRLHOOD feels more like an epic- the way it was shot, more characters, everything seems bigger and more ambitious than your other films. Can you talk about how the casting process was?

Yeah. The casting was a long process and a very passionate one. It was 4 months of meeting girls and talking to them. We met about 300 girls, mostly randomly on the street. We had different agendas because we had to build a group - it's friendship and it's alchemy, but we also wanted to find strong individuality in them. The characters were specifically outlined and we had to find girls who were able to really put up with the lines because the script was very much 'written'. But they also had to be able to improvise because there were four to five comedic scenes which mostly were relied upon improvs, so they had to be prepped for that too. So that was something.

And we had to find the leading part, a girl who would be solid enough be in every frame and go through this transformation. It's a difficult part and also a fun one because you have to be so many different people. And when I met Karidja Touré, I knew it had to be her, I had no other choice in mind after seeing her. She was the one.

There are all these great moments in your films and GIRLHOOD is no exception. That Rihanna scene was so great. It just felt so authentic. I was wondering how much of that was improvised and how much was written.

The Rihanna scene, we had to prepare a lot because it was intense and technically complicated. It was choreographed to fit the miss-en-scene: each girl had to be in the frame at certain point of the song, and so on. It was written as a narrative piece- It tells the birth of a friendship. It reflects that how friendship is like choreography- Vic (Karidja Touré) being an observer looking at the group and they are so synchronized and she suddenly steps in and being in the center and finally them getting their voice together, so that was pretty accurate depiction of their friendship. But obviously chemistry between them and the way they move, that was totally in the moment- I mean those kind of moments you don't get to shoot too many in your lifetime. I was obsessed with that scene. I always wanted to shoot that scene and it was very precise in my head. And it has to be this magical moment that you can't really prepare. Then there they were- they are so graceful together in showing their collective joy. You can't ask anything more than that.

It felt very instantaneous and very real. Was Diamond the song you chose?

Yeah, I was thinking about the song when I wrote it. It was released around the same time I was writing it. And I thought that I was never gonna get (the rights to) it. I mean who are we, we are nobody. And they would certainly ask a lot of money. Actually, my producer was very brave, saying 'we should go for it' and the record company gave us a deal and we were like, hey we can afford this!

So we shot the scene and during the editing process, we realized that we didn't have the rights actually, because we had to get Rihanna's consent. So we sent the scene to her with a passionate letter I wrote but it didn't work out. But then we sent a scene to the management and they called us and they said, "you know what, we've never done this but the scene is beautiful and we will make an exception." But it's not like they gave it for free. It was quite symbolic money for them, for us yes it was still a lot of money but something we could afford. It's also the first time I put a song in my films.

In its entirety too.

It's a big hit and it's very powerful.

That's a really good story.

Thinking about the look of the film, it's more energetic and stronger than your other films. I noticed the steadicam shots. Is it also shot by Crystel Fournier (Water Lilies, Tomboy)?

Yeah, but for the first time I did use the steadicam...and I loved it. (laughs) It's a great tool. I think differently with it. There are three different steadicam shots in the movie - when they go home, when they are in the shopping mall- you have to use it because you can't lay down anything on the floor, so it wasn't an artistic choice there and when Marieme/Vic finds that red dress and goes to the white people's party in chapter five which is very Scorsese-like. Really cool to do. (laughs)

It was awesome. I was thinking, "wow she's doing something different here."

The beginning was very striking with an American football practice. And I didn't know if it was a thing in France. Is it a thing?

It's not. I mean it exists and it's in the beginning stage in France. So I didn't make it up. But it's not a big thing. The team in the field is a real team and everything. But I picked it because, the first reason was that i wanted them to have helmets on so people will think they are boys at first. Also it kind of symbolizes the theme of the film- they are girls in a team, playing violence for fun, being loud and energetic and hitting touchdowns together and feeling empowered. And also the aesthetic reason, because you don't think you'd expect the American football in some French art house film. I like the fact that it blurs the line and you feel you are watching the cinema.

I think that what defines this film in this trilogy it that it believes and relies the most in cinema- the fact that I used all the tools to tell what I want to tell and show what I want to show. It could be a hit song, it could be a great score, it could be the use of the steadicam, it could be... Everything that is at reach I wanted to use, believing that I can make it more epic. It's the feeling that grows in each film. It was there since the beginning but I was trying to refuse that supposed frontier of art house films with reasonable economy with the socially conscious subject that should call for certain kind of aesthetic, you know,  which means, naturalistic way of looking at things. That   versus a movie that is entertaining, an epic, uses the mythology of cinema with a colorful...

It's ambitious and you pulled it off beautifully.

Thank you.

Girlhood still retains your aesthetics and feelings of your previous films though. But I am at a loss how you manage to make things so authentic with the inner lives of three different girls from different backgrounds, social standings, age groups. Is it from your personal experience? The universality of girlhood? JUST HOW DO YOU DO IT!?

I rely a lot on the fact that there is something universal in it and that we can make it universal in fiction too. It's because all three characters are really observers, observing the life around them. That's the common point there. It's creating the intimacy between camera and the actor and actors and the audience. They are three different characters but all three films rely on one single character, so we are mentally stuck in one head and one body. There are no grownups, there are no boys. The boys are just archetypes, so you can't relate to anyone else but her. You have to.  It's a sensual proposition. My movies are not very talkative, so they rely on the rhythm and how actors are being accurate about the body language and choreography of the girls are moving in the world.

I know that you don't have any control over this but who would be the intended audience for this film? My wife is a inner city High School teacher and I want her students to see this film. As any so called art house foreign films, it will play in some art house cinema in Upper East Side and won't get distributed widely. How do you feel about that?

Well here in the US it's true that I don't know how it's going to be distributed in what kind of cinema. In France, my goal, my dream was it would get widely distributed not only art house cinemas but also multiplexes, my dream was that the youth would go and see it. And it actually happened! The room was filled with the people that usually never meet- the cinephiles, the usually old people (laughs) and the youth. The mental picture I have of that room is... priceless. It was amazing.

We have strong education cinema programs in France and I hope the film will get into that. Tomboy was seen by 200,000 kids because of the program last year.

Wow. that's awesome.

I hope that Girlhood will get the same treatment.

Since you are finished with the coming of age trilogy now. what's next for you?

Well, I'm gonna go elsewhere. I want to work with actors. I know that now. I want to work with a strong female character in the center. My obsession with transformation and gender will still be there but I am thinking of 70s horror movies.

Now that's exciting!


My review of Waterliles

My review of Tomboy

Shine Like a Diamond

Girlhood (2014) - Sciamma
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Girlhood is Céline Sciamma's third and best film to date. It's an epic size film about Marieme (Karidja Touré), a 16 year old black girl from the suburban projects near Paris. Maybe it was our collective consumption of life in the ghettos through various media that I made certain presumptions of what the film is going to be like. But one of the many things I really like about Girlhood is how Sciamma's script manages to avoid all the 'urban genre trappings' while managing to see the affecting, clear-eyed coming-of-age narrative through.

Unlike Sciamma's last two white protagonists, Marieme is first seen at an American football practice. She is failing school and is told to look into vocational schools because she won't get into regular High School. But she doesn't want to be like her mom who is a cleaning lady at a hotel or a sales clerk at a clothing store. But she also needs to look after her two younger sisters and contend with her strict and often violent older brother's orders. Marieme starts hang with a group of bad girls who like to have fun and get into physical fights. They are slightly obnoxious teens who are into shoplifting, taking selfies and singing Rihanna songs out loud. Things get complicated when she starts seeing her brother's friend and gets involved with a local drug dealer.

Marieme is not an angel by any means, nor is she a neighborhood slut. With her physique, she can be imposing and mean to others. But deep down, she is just a struggling young woman who is trying to find her place in the world as best she can. Even though the film is not a Dardennesque docudrama populated with decent folks, as we see Marieme hesitating in making every difficult decision in life, we feel for her all the same. Girlhood is the first great film I've seen in 2015.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Predestined

The Music of Chance (1993) - Haas
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Jim (Mandy Patinkin), a straight-laced drifter picks up Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a ratty, beaten up gambler on the side of the road. On the way to New York, Jack tells Jim a wild story about a poker game with a couple of rich old kooks, Bill and Willy (Charles Dunning and Joel Grey) in their mansion that he needs $10,000 to get back into the game. Jack is really good at the game and thinks he can wipe the floor with these old brothers. Jim decides to take his chances with this shady total stranger and back him up with his money after testing Jack's poker skills.

So they go to the mansion, pass the creepy caretaker (M. Emmet Walsh) at the gate, and meet the brothers. Bill and Willy show them around the place, including Willy's rendition of the miniature model 'world'. Once the card game begins, Jack is destroying the brothers. But the luck turns the other way, after Jim steals the trinket from 'the world' during the break. Jack loses everything (including Jim's car) and they owe the brothers $10,000. The brothers have a proposition: they can build the wall in their property to pay back the debt while living in the trailer park. Jack is outraged by it but Jim doesn't see any way out of this predicament, they agree to build the wall and earn their wages to pay back the debt. It's going to take a month or so, probably.

Based on Paul Auster's story, The Music of Chance is an intriguing film. The questions arise: Are the two brothers god and Jack and Jim paying the penance for whatever sin they have committed? Is the stone wall that serves no purpose a metaphor of some kind, that we are all trapped in this rat race of a life whether you want to escape it or not? Jim keeps listening to classical music. There is no music of chance. Music is orchestrated to a T by a composer. Jim, a man of strong moral, who doesn't believe in luck, always taking things in stride, gets tested in this story.

The Music of Chance is an intriguing puzzle piece full of seductive power. A perfect movie to ride out the snowstorm with.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Je suis Timbuktu: Abderramane Sissako Interview

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A lot has happened since I talked with Abderramane Sissako last October at the New York Film Festival. Islamic terrorists' attack on the headquarter of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in Paris this January shook all of Europe. And Sissako's film Timbuktu got nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar this year.

The anti-Islam sentiment and jingoism are on the rise in Europe. With that, unfortunately, Timbuktu is embroiled in controversy on the eve of its theatrical release in France. (Read the full article from Washington Post here) It's a pity because Timbuktu is such a beautiful film and a strong condemnation of religious extremism.

The film struck me very strongly. For the little time I was given for the interview, I was fully committed to have Sissako speak about the film the whole duration. But however passionate and knowledgeable he was on the subject, he wasn't interested in schooling me about what happened in Timbuktu, he was more interested in engaging in conversation. For that I am very honored and grateful.

The film opens in New York on January 28 and January 30 in Los Angeles. And in my humble opinion, it should win an Oscar.
 

TIMBUKTU is such a powerful, tragic film. I know I don't get much time with you so I won't bother with bunch of silly questions. I just want you to talk about the film.

Abderramane Sissako: (laughs) No no no. Of course you can ask questions.

TIMBUKTU is based on/inspired by a true story. I'd like to know how you went about building a film around this true story.

Sometimes you feel that a film is useful and also necessary. I don't know if this is true but it's possible that that is true. It's not that I felt obligated to do so but I felt it was important for me to tell the story and to tell it quickly. Because I think what's happening in this part of the world is not usually told well. Because in the West, we only report about it when it's something that specifically touches us - namely, a hostage. Of course, a hostage is a dramatic situation. But we forget that on a daily bases there are people who are being held hostage and humiliated. When Timbuktu was under siege by Islamic militants, people were having their hands cut off - a guy sees that an air conditioner doesn't work so he goes there to fix it, they think he's stealing it and cut off his hand! It's just horrible. And it's as awful as hostage, but we don't talk about these arms and legs being cut off. So I think what filmmaker needs to do is that he needs to focus on ordinary people and their everyday lives.

People whose daily lives don't appear in the news. To really directly answer your question, this film really took sustenance from the city itself and the beat and the life in it.

One thing that struck me about the film was how diverse the city of Timbuktu is. There are several different languages spoken and different culture presented within the Muslim community. It is a reminiscent of other occupations who bring in their own laws and completely oblivious about the culture and customs of the people who are living there.

Timbuktu is an old city and it's historic. It's always been a meeting place, situated at a crossroads. People from different cultures have always lived there. And that was one of the reasons why they had decided to take Timbuktu, as a symbol. The parallel I can make is in New York after 9/11. What happened in New York, not only people who lived here but everyone felt like a New Yorker because what was happening. Because here every English speaker speaks another language. If you ask anyone on the street they will tell you. And it's this diversity and culture that the city was attacked because it was a symbol and that's why so many people reacted.

You made a film about Poverty of Africa with your last film BAMAKO. It's about the influence of the World Bank and the West and they are literally on trial. This one, even though extreme Islamic fundamentalism stems out of that western influence but you don't talk about the West in this film at all.

I think that's a very good question. With Bamako, I wanted to talk about the fault of other people and I didn't want this film to be like that. In this film, I wanted people to look inward, to look inside themselves and to understand that this is something that that's happening and we could say it's brought on by foreigners but those foreigners are not so distant from who we are. And Timbuktu was liberated by the French army. But I didn't want to show that. What I wanted to show was that the first revolt was by the citizens themselves - people who play soccer without a ball, that's what the resistance is.

Yes.

A woman who sings and they beat her and she sings anyway.

I read about the retreating occupiers burning down the famous Ahmed Baba Institute. I'd like to know if the sense of normalcy came back to Timbuktu after what happened in 2012.


I think the destruction of the library really had a huge impact on many people. The same thing with the mausoleums: the ground burial sites. But what's important to know is that before that happened, a lot of the people in Timbuktu have saved these artifacts. (read about it here) And today the situation is better.

How was your collaboration with your DP, Sofian El Fani (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR), because there are a lot of handheld sequences and a lot of running around?

I knew his work. When I chose him, he also wanted to work with me on the project. So things were very simple between us. He works a lot with (Abdellatif) Kechiche and Kechiche is always about handheld camera and they are very tight shots. What makes El Fani a really great cinematographer is his adaptability. He knew right away what I was looking for in framing.

There were discussions of course. I don't really like closeup shots in cinema. I always want to create space because, for me, that space is an invitation, to enter into it. When I make a film I don say, "look!" I say, "come in".

I know that BAMAKO was funded in part by actor Danny Glover because no one was funding movies of African origin. Was it the case with TIMBUKTU? Was getting funding just as difficult?

No. With Bamako, what Danny Glover did was extraordinary. He was the first person who really believed in the kind of film I wanted to make. And I knew Timbuktu was supposed to be made very quickly, so the funds came very quickly too. So it wasn't really necessary to involve many people.

Oh good.

It was important to move quickly.

How long was the entire shoot?

All together, about six weeks.

Six weeks!? Wow, that's fast.

And these are distances where you are on the road full day. It was very difficult. And of course there were no trails or anything. It's also difficult to deal with people who aren't professional actors for 6 weeks. But you know, sometimes, things are difficult.

But you pulled it off beautifully.

Thank you.

What's next for you?

Without talking too much about it, it's going to be about China and Africa. But a love story.

I will very much look forward to that.


Read my Timbuktu Review Here