Thursday, July 13, 2017

Japan Cuts 2017 Preview

Once again, always dependable Japan Cuts, a festival of excellent, current crop of Japanese cinema takes place at Japan Society 7/13 - 7/23.

Festivities start off with a bang on Thursday, July 13th, ushered in by special guest director and JAPAN CUTS veteran Yoshihiro Nakamura (Fish Story), who introduces the Opening Night Film MUMON: The Land of the Stealth, making its U.S. Premiere. Known for his masterful genre blenders, MUMON is Nakamura’s modern take on the traditional jidaigeki (period drama), full of fantastical ninja moves that uphold genre standards, yet imbued with a unique sense of eccentricity and playfulness. Director Nakamura appears in a post-screening Q&A, followed by a rollicking Opening Night Party held in Japan Society’s historic theater and waterfall atrium.

As previously announced, JAPAN CUTS is proud to present this year’s recipient of the CUT ABOVE Award for Outstanding Performance in Film to Joe Odagiri, the remarkably talented box office golden boy and matinee idol of Japan. Odagiri receives the award before the Centerpiece Presentation screening: the East Coast Premiere of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s critically acclaimed drama Over the Fence. A baseball themed Home Run Party follows the screening in celebration of the film and the performance that anchors it. Demonstrating the breadth of his talent and penchant for taking on difficult roles, Odagiri also participates in a Q&A following the U.S. Premiere screening of Kohei Oguri’s FOUJITA, about the life of the complex titular painter.

The festival's Closing Film offers a poignant and indelible deviation from traditional Japanese war dramas: Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World, winner of the Japan Academy prize for Animation of the Year. A deeply moving coming-of-age story about a persevering young woman, In This Corner of the World captures civilian life under the catastrophic tide of World War II with a tone that is at once mournful, optimistic, and enchantingly heart-swelling. The film’s prolific producer (having previously worked on Patlabor, Satoshi Kon’s masterpieces, and many other titles) Taro Maki attends for the post-screening Q&A.

Here are some of the films I got to watch from the lineup. Please visit Japan Society website for tickets and more info.

ANTI-PORNO
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Can Sono Sion, known for his crazy movies with ultra violence and upskirt photography, have a cake and eat it too, in tackling a subject like misogyny in Japanese society? In his Nikkatsu studio commissioned Roman Porno Revival, Anti-Porno, Sono goes for it with mixed results.

Tomite Ami is Kyoko, who wakes up in her primary colored loft, prances around naked. She is supposed to be a famous author, painter and all around creator. She has a somewhat of an emotionally/physically abusive sadomasochistic relationship with her middle aged, mousy assistant Noriko (Tsutsui Mariko). Kyoko's adoring entourage arrives for a photo shoot and she makes Noriko naked on all fours barking like a dog in chain. Suddenly, director calls cut and reveals that the loft is a movie set and the roles are reversed - Noriko is the dominant one and Kyoko is the submissive, self-doubting, all around much abused young ingénue playing (terribly, she is told) the dominant role in a movie. During the course of the movie, their roles change many times.

In multiple flashbacks, Kyoko grows up with her parents’ hypocrisy on sex - their puritanical education on morality didn't match their voracious sexual appetite. So she very much longed to be a whore in high school. But yet, she seems deeply confused about what it means to be a whore. She seems incapable of escaping from being 'a woman' in a male dominant Japanese society. It's a vicious cycle- being a whore equals free equals being a men's plaything.

In this meta movie-within-a-movie thing, Sono even tries to assert artistic superiority of roman porno over straight up porno: when high school student Kyoko auditions for a roman porno project, claiming she wants to be a whore, ripping her sailor school uniform off, the director scoffs at her, "This is roman porno. Do you even know what it means to be a whore?"

Satire is one thing, but Sono doesn't seem to get the spirit of the roman porno. To be honest, this Nikkatsu revival of the genre is as dated and tiresome as James Bond franchise. The revivals are supposed to be a harmless titillation with certain restrictions - no depiction of underage sex, etc. It is sad that in depicting sex act, Sono can only resort to sailor uniforms. The movie is hardly sexy or titillating. Sono falters when he tries to be serious. At the end, he just needs to cover up his muddy messages with bucket of colorful paints thrown all over his female protagonist. I like his comedies more.


ONCE UPON A DREAM
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Just static images of quiet empty rooms, subway rides, cityscape at dusk consist Once Upon a Dream, a cult film that has been gathering followers over the years, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa who compared it to Jean-Luc Godard's. Indeed, the film's carefully composed exterior shots remind me of many of 80's Godard.

It tells a barely seen protagonist, a soft-spoken school teacher whose somnambulist existence and her weird demeanor are affecting her day to day life. We hear her thoughts in her voice over and her conversations with others, without us seeing anybody on screen. We hear the rustles of bed sheets, footsteps, breathing, moving of locomotives, idle, unintelligible conversations of others in the shops and cafes. Perhaps Once Upon a Dream is the most intimate eavesdropping film as opposed to the most voyeuristic.

Director Shichiri Kei, on the film's 10 years anniversary, added crisp new footage and redid sound design, giving this avant-garde classic a new life. The result is hushed contemplation of urban loneliness that is beautifully, uniquely realized visually and aurally. Quiet yet deeply affecting, Once Upon a Dream is a truly one of a kind experience.


HARUNEKO
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It seems that people who want to die end up in a cafe in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest. It is run by a young man known only as 'manager' with the help of an old woman who sits in a rocking chair, knitting, and a boy name Haru.

The glimpse of the lives of would be dead are projected on a make shift screen, followed by sing-along, accompanied by an indie rock group with a white papier-mâché of a cat on their heads. After that, they are driven through a tunnel of no return deep into the forest where they disappear slowly and become the part of soundscape in the air.

Misty forest settings are highly evocative. It recalls Tarkovsky and the idea of a station between two realms reminds me of Koreeda's affecting Afterlife. Strange and beautiful, Haruneko is a somber, haunting and highly ambitious whatsit that falters a little in its own preciousness.


YAMATO (CALIFORNIA)
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Yamato, a city 35km south of Tokyo, hosts the largest US military base in Asia. A Yamato native director, Miyazaki Daisuke, tackles the influence US still has on its inhabitants in his indie feature, Yamato (California), and he has some pointy things to say about it. Sakura (Kan Kanae), plays a wayward high school dropout, first seen rapping in the city's garbage dump. She lives in a tiny house with her busy single mom and her nerdy brother. She works part-time at a traditional Japanese restaurant that serves grilled eels, but she spends most of her time alone practicing rap inside an abandoned van or tit-tatting with her brother over sharing a computer or their tiny living space (divided only by a curtain).

She hasn't quite found herself yet and her rebellion and thuggish attitude are not winning hearts and minds of her surroundings. In order to pursue her music career, she needs to get a computer and a smart phone. She finds out that there is a singing contest at a local cultural center with $2,000 US dollar prize.

Things get a little more interesting when Rei (Endo Nina), an American-Japanese daughter of mom's unseen American boyfriend comes to stay with them. At first, Sakura is downright hostile, but Rei's sunny disposition wins her over and they start hanging out. Sakura takes her to her drab local attractions - mostly shopping malls, cheap stores, the van and a rap music venue, which they get kicked out of, for being underage. They share beers and bad pizza. But Rei's insistence of hearing her rap pushes Sakura to re-evaluate her directions.

Yamato (California) treads the same path as Irie Yu's indie hit 8000 Miles trilogy in terms of disaffected youth with their shot at success theme. The interesting subtexts of US cultural dominance and the rise of jingoism are also there. It's also in the casting of Kan, a Japanese-Korean actress, playing downbeat young woman with cultural identity crisis.

There are so much potential in Yamato, especially with two beautiful, striking actresses- Kan who is very charismatic and has a good screen presence and Endo, a short haired gamine. I just wish Miyazaki concentrated more on the characters and details of their lives instead of awkward, obligatory actions that only serve to move the story forward and take up too much screen time.

No Washing Blood Off Hands Necessary

Lady Macbeth (2016) - Oldroyd
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Exquisitely acted, framed and paced, William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most accomplished debut feature I've seen in years.

Based on Nicolai Lestov's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, a 19th century Russian novel which was adapted and scripted by a well regarded feminist playwright Alice Birch, Oldroyd sets out to tell a Victorian era tale of adultery and murder with a twist. The result is a riveting movie watching experience. Lady Macbeth totally does justice to its title.

Katherine (radiant Florence Pugh), a young, bright-eyed, newlywed bride, quickly learns that a marriage in Victorian era England and at large is a life of submission, humiliation and being a captive.

The Father-in-law and husband team, Boris (Christopher Fairbank) and Alexander (Paul Hilton), represents a patriarchal world so rigid, hostile and loveless, it resembles a prison run by abusive guards - Katherine is not permitted to go outside the castle. She is told that she's not in need to ask the nature of her husband's businesses nor to know his whereabouts when he's supposedly away on business for days.

When Alexander returns, the bedroom business is anything but tender -- he orders her to strip and stand against the wall, looking away from him, while he jerks off. There is no touching, no tenderness, no passion. It's just a humiliating power game. But Katherine is no damsel in distress by any means. Far from it.

When the two brutes are out on business, Katherine is finally, temporarily, free to go outside and walk around the misty moors at the expense of horrified female servants.

One of the half-breed male servants, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), working in the stable and horsing around with other stable hands, catches her eye and soon they become lovers. It starts out sensual and passionate. But soon the sexual power dynamic is reversed and Katherine dominates Sebastian both intellectually and physically.

Soon Boris discovers her secret, divulged by Anna (Naomi Ackie), a terrified black servant. Boris and Katherine's confrontation becomes violent, ending in death by a premeditated poisoning. With no witnesses around (except for Anna), Boris's death is ruled as a massive coronary. When her husband comes home while she is in bed with Sebastian, Katherine daringly manipulates the men to fight, plunging Sebastian deeper into the guilty party and deeper into her grasp.

Katherine's acts are so shocking to Anna, who witnesses her lady's immoral deeds, that she soon stops talking altogether.

Oldroyd orchestrates his theater trained, extremely measured, fitting visual style reminiscent of Haneke: static long takes, visual symmetry and only a few closeups. Ari Wegner's cinematography captures the beautiful, picturesque expanse of the moors and contrasts that with the cold, confounding interiors of the castle.

Even though Katherine is a murderess and not a likeable person, it's her youthful defiance that makes us root for her. She is radiating ball of energy that can't be contained by societal restrictions or codes or morality. She does whatever she can to survive, even using her perceived femininity and her status as a lady-of-the-house, to the fullest extent.

The real victims of Lady Macbeth are the servants. Oldroyd reminds you that in England, injustices are done and seen less as a racial issue and more of a class issue.

Pugh's central performance is nothing short of phenomenal. She wears her arrogant beauty and uses it so well in both being an offender and a victim. Her turn as a wide-eyed, untamable young woman becoming a calculating femme fatale is a sight to see. We are seeing an emergence of another important British actress and a heiress apparent to Kate Winslet.

With a crackling, loaded script by Birch, Lady Macbeth is an exhilarating, radical and timely examination of being a woman in a man's world.

Lady Macbeth opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 14.

Bluebeard

Kékszakállú (2016) - Solnicki
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Gáston Solnicki's take on Béla Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára) is a concise observation of lives of a group of loosely interconnected young, upper-class women in various ages in Argentina. We track girls swimming in a pool in summer months then through fall and winter, as they struggle through growing out of childhood - working at industrial factories to avoid living under their parents and afford their own place, deciding what to major in school, struggling with self image, dealing with young motherhood and men. Instead of the straight up narrative storytelling, Solnicki's chooses to show episodic, small moments of these young women's lives - eating ice cream in bed and being chastised by dad, cooking octopus and being grossed out by it, being casually sexually harassed in a sausage factory (get it?), getting a car wrecked while parking, struggling to fit in the kid's play tent, getting locked out while on the roof, having a moment with a younger man, etc. He moves from one moment to another with such nonchalance and abandon, but there is undeniable cohesiveness to Kékszakállú. His formalist approach- static, picturesque framing, impressive sound design and minimal dialog, conveys much more than what the film doesn't actually tell or show. Great film.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Interview: William Oldroyd on Lady Macbeth and Working with Largely Women Crew and Cast

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I had a privilege to watch Lady Macbeth at this year's New Directors/New Films Series this spring and got a chance to talk to its director William Oldroyd about his very accomplished first feature. The riveting, radical film was definitely the highlight of the series and is no doubt an early entry for one of the best films of the year.

Friendly and humble, Oldroyd talked about his transition from theater to film, his influences, his directing method and so on. But what struck me the most about him was his insistence to pay utmost respect to where it is due- his cast and crew, for the success of the film. Lady Macbeth signals the arrival of a major British directing talent since Andrea Arnold.

Lady Macbeth hits theaters July 14 in New York and Los Angeles.

When I watched the film I couldn’t believe that this is your first film! It’s so strong and accomplished. I know you were in theater and I want to know about your transition a from theater director to a film director.

Before I was working in theaters, I was in Art College and part of that program was to doing some multi-media. So I used an old VHS camera. But the things I was filming was something more abstract, non-narrative stuff. I’d project things on to difference surfaces and film it and so on.

But it did give me access to some simple editing facility. So I was able to learn how things come together. But then that got sort of lost for a decade when I got into theater and worked with actors and writers. That part of education I received was put aside and laid dormant. It was something I wanted to come back to eventually.

So when I found a script that I had quite an interest in, I wanted to see if I can film it. And so I got a little bit of money together and camera and some actors who I knew from theater, we just went for it. I wanted to see why that is different than theater. This is sort of how I began my education in cinema. I was relying too much on spoken words and had focused more or less on one direction. Then I started to watch films and broken them down, read some books and talked to filmmakers. Then I made a second short film, Best. It’s three minutes long.

I’ve seen it. It’s great.

I was more satisfied with it that I achieved something more cinematic. And then, when I was at Sundance, people told me; “You’ve made a short, so now you have to make a feature.” I thought to myself, “how do I go about it?” As you know for some people, the (Sundance) Lab helps you to do that. Similarly, in the UK, there’s I Features that supports independent filmmakers making features.

I see.

But you know, they still need, even the risk is pretty small - they produce 3 features for a million pounds each a year, you still need to prove to them, convince them that you will make a good film. So for me it was a further study. It was more like preparing a dissertation. Even if I was going to make a film alone, this is how I’d do it- providing all the supportive materials, test shooting, getting some actors together to show them. Actually, I’ve made a film before I shot it. (laughs)

But it was good. It was very useful. So when I got to do a real pre-production, I was already on the right path.

Lady Macbeth was based on a novel by Nicolai Leskov, a Russian writer. How is your film different than the source material?

The book for me was very plot heavy. It’s a novella so it’s pure plot really. What we had to do apart from Katherine is to flesh out the characters, because they are quite stereotypical. What Alice (Birch) did so brilliantly in writing a screenplay for Lady Macbeth was to make them live and breathe: Katherine is the same but Alexander and Boris are amalgamation of two other characters, Sebastian doesn’t exist in the book.

The ending we changed because it would be more satisfying from Katherine’s point of view that she’d get away with what she did rather than like all those women of that period…suffer. (laughs)

Like Mme. Bovary or…

Yes, exactly. I really supported that. It was great to allow her to get away with it even if that victory felt a little bit hollow.

Obviously we move it from Russia to England, so we had to be very careful about how to adapt it to reflect the class society and its penal system coming across the pond. We felt like we did just enough to get it right.

You mentioned Alice Birch who is also a playwright. Have you worked together before?

No. It was the first time.

How was the collaboration with her?

Great. We were very honest with each other. We both did theater. We both wanted to work on film. So we would go, “Is what I’m writing too theatrical?”, “Is what I’m filming too theatrical?” We would be constantly…we were just so super aware. I think what Alice wrote was very cinematic on the page.

There are two scenes I’m particularly pleased with, that they feel like as they were written which is when Katherine comes in drunk and there’s a confrontation with Boris making her spin on her hands and knees and the scene where Alexander comes in and says, ”You have to remain indoors.” and she humiliates him before the assault. And that’s literally what she wrote. We just presented it and filmed it as it was written. I knew when I read it that these are going to be remarkable. She uses these words like weapons. She is so precise. Her language is just amazing.

I can’t stress enough how visually striking the film is. It’s so accomplished with how it’s framed and so forth. There is a visual symmetry in the film I found very interesting. How did you come about this visual language?

Well, I watched film and I saw what I like. I like Haneke very much but I didn’t want to just rip off Haneke. I wanted to see what I liked about his films - the composition and the stillness and simplicity of the camera positions and how he presents a character in the framing. Then Ari (Wegner, cinematographer) pointed me to Last Days, which she liked very much. Night Moves, also. Kelly Reichardt and Gus Van Sant then became the directors we watched a lot of.

That’s interesting.

Because if you like Haneke, you like simplicity and that moved us into American minimalists or whatever you call them. Obviously when we mentioned Last Days, our editor didn’t jump for joy- when we suggested sort of slow single takes. He said, well you are going to be in trouble because when you go into edit, you are stuck. Then he encouraged us to get coverage because we were pushing for times, but shoot it, not to use it as he used to say. When you don’t have time and no money it doesn’t make sense to get coverage but I completely got it when we were there in the edit. Because had one of our longer takes wouldn’t have worked, we’d be in trouble.

Anyway, we had a system set up - trying to get the whole scene in one shot and think about two or three maximum set ups to get what we need to tell the story. We did 3 or 4 setups each scene, which makes sense if we had three hours for each scene.

Oomph, that's pretty short.

And that sort of defined out aesthetics. (We both laugh)

…which is experience i suppose. We then, for example, we didn’t shoot coverage. We didn’t get reverse, we didn’t get close ups and we didn’t get pickups. And that was the decision Ari and I made everyday. We were not going to set up for close up because we know what to use in one take. If we get coverage, there will be always a temptation to-

To use it.

I realized that I’d never have this opportunity again. We will never be allowed to do such things. People will say. “You need to insure that you get the scene.”

The coverage in that crawl scene wouldn't have been necessary. It's perfect as is.

I think I took my lead from Ari who were more experience than I am. She shot couple of films before. She would say, “We don’t do things like film our rehearsals because it always ends up in the film." Everyone will get upset because it will look like what it will look like, and performance won’t be right and that’s waste of time. I learned a lot from her that we make sure we have everything, as we want to be.

Gotcha.

Film is quite different. You have to break it down and it’s quite precise. And I’m used to running a scene 10-15 minutes just for the actors getting into it. Well you never do that in film, which is quite odd. It’s a little too mathematical, you know?

Is being a filmmaker just an extension of your artistic endeavor? Are you going back to theater after this?

Right now I’d like to do film. I can’t see doing both at the same time. It just takes so much time doing film. But there is something I love about being in a room with actors working out a scene. It’s really satisfying. I like that.

Speaking of actors. Florence Pugh is amazing in this.

She’s incredible.

How did she get involved?

Shaheen Baig, the casting director for The Falling, Carol Morley’s film, did the casting for our film and she knew Florence from that film. Brought her in because she thought Florence would be tremendous. So yes. We worked with her and she did few scenes and she came back. She’s just great.

Amazing, amazing performance. She is going somewhere because of this film.

Can you talk about those beautiful locations?

I was really lucky. There is a real love and support in UK for independent filmmakers. We were lucky because they are backed by government money. Each region has its own film agency. So it was Northern Film and Media in New Castle- they look after Northeast near the Scottish border. You go in and say, “we need a local crew and we need a location.” And they say, “well here is our location book, we know all of these people and here are the crew who are available.” And they introduced us to a person who runs the estate of all of Durham and they have this castle, which is empty. Probably because it’s too expensive to run. So when we walk around this empty castle, which is perfect, then you can have it for six weeks. So we moved in. We didn’t live there but we had our production office there, all of it- the equipment, wardrobe, everything was in there. It was kind of mini-studio.

And the outdoor scenes?

A lot of them are around the castle and we could afford two days in the moors. We were lucky because our location was 15-20 minutes from New Castle. The locals who were involved in it could commute in the morning. Had we found a house out of nowhere, people would’ve had to travel two hours each way to get there. So we shot the moor scenes on separate days.

It works. They match seamlessly.

As you said before and you changed the ending from the source material. Even though Katherine is a murderess, I can’t stop rooting for her. Does it make me a bad person?

No, because you understand what her predicament is. The stakes are pretty high. I don’t think we necessarily need to comprehend the consequences of her actions. But we understand how desperate her situation is. No I mean, Alice loves this character. We got few notes in early days of the production, “well she’s not likable.” Well, yeah. And? (laughs). It isn’t about making a film that young woman should be likable.

That’s the thing about this film though. She gets away with it precisely because she is a woman.

A woman of position.

That’s right.

That’s something that possibly in the States, there is a slight distinction that the class is very important in England. And it is very useful that your words are worth more if you are a woman of position than your servants. And it’s not to do with race. This is the thing that works in the UK and probably Russia because of those class distinctions.

That’s why the scene at the end makes the character Anna, much more tragic as you can see it in her face. What a great scene!

Naomi Ackie. She’s amazing.

Yes.

It’s not a criticism at all, but how do you feel about carrying the torch on behalf of women who are involved in the project - you have Alice Birch who wrote the script, you have Ari Wegman who was your DP, you have your producer, actresses making a film about a defiant young woman in a very patriarchal world?

I’m delighted. I think it’s fantastic. I was very lucky to have Alice as a writer and Ari who shot the film as well. Shaheen who casted all the great talent, Jacqueline (Abrahams), who was a production designer, Holly (Waddington) who did costumes, Sarah Golding who was our script editor… there are so many I want to name them all. Over 50 percent of cast and crew were women. And that’s the way it should be.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Mondo Bava: A Near Complete Retro of Italian Horror Maestro Mario Bava and Kill, Baby...Kill! in 2K! at Quad

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To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mario Bava's horror classic Kill, Baby...Kill! New York's newly renovated Quad Cinema has organized a near-complete retrospective of the highly influential Italian horror maestro's filmography.

But the main draw here is the world premiere and full theatrical run of the 2K restored (courtesy of Kino Lorber) Kill, Baby...Kill!, a gothic masterwork that influenced Fellini, Lynch, Argento, del Toro, J-horror and countless others.

A young woman in a medieval-looking Transylvanian village runs up to the ruins in fear. She, as if in a trance, throws herself onto the iron fence and impales herself to death. So begins this hallucinatory ghost story.

Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stewart), a young, impossibly coiffed doctor is called in to perform the autopsy with the help of a fetching blonde, Monica (Erika Blanc). He discovers a coin shoved in the victim's heart. The superstitious townsfolk, it turns out, in order to ease the evil spirit, placed the coins themselves in all the dead who met their untimely demise.

killbabykill1.jpgEswai soon finds that most of the townspeople are not only unwilling to cooperate, but afraid of a spirit of a dead child named Melissa, who was accidentally trampled to death by a horse carriage.

Preceded by an iconic red ball bouncing down the stairs and rolling down the corridors, Melissa, the blonde child ghost, marks you for death. Then you are gripped by an uncontrollable urge to kill yourself, usually with sharp, piercing objects.

As the dead bodies pile up, in order to fight the supernatural, Eswai, the man of science, must resort to the help of a beautiful sorceress named Ruth (Fabienne Dali).

Spiral staircases, cobwebs, a labyrinthine, Escherian mansion, and outdoor swing POV shots all mix in with a hint of Bava's psychosexual thrillers to come. Kill, Baby...Kill! is a true masterpiece from the father of both gialli and slasher films.

More than anything, the film is first and foremost an audacious technical marvel. Bava's ingenious, agressive camera work is fully on display, as well as his amazing mise-en-scene, both interior and exterior. His background as a special effects technician and cinematographer serves him well here with deep focus, crazy zoom-in crane shots and claustrophobic sets.

I remember seeing the film in a murky VHS version. The restored version is just beautiful to look at: colors pop, film grains are visible in the shadows and blemishes on the negatives are all but cleaned up. The restoration makes the film truly the most gorgeous and elegant among all of Bava's films.

Mondo Bava, Mario Bava's retrospective at Quad Cinema, will showcase 21 of his films, including Black Sunday, Bay of Blood, Lisa and the Devil, Planet of Vampires, Danger: Diabolik, Blood and Black Lace, along with his foray into Westerns, sword and sandal epics and sex comedies, many of them on 35mm prints imported from Italy for the occasion.

The 2K restored version of Kill, Baby...Kill has a world premiere on Friday, July 7 at Quad Cinema and Mondo Bava, a near complete retrospective, continues through July 23.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

New York Asian Film Festival 2017 Preview

It’s that time of the year again! The fabulous New York Asian Film Festival is back in its 16th year with 57 feature films over 17 days at FSLC and SVA Theater, presented by FSLC and Subway Cinema.

The festival opens on June 30 with the international premiere of Thai high-school thriller Bad Genius and closes on July 16 with the U.S. premiere of the South Korean revenge thriller The Villainess. The festival’s centerpiece gala is Mikhail Red’s ecological thriller Birdshot from the Philippines.

The special guests will be on hand, including the Star Hong Kong Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Eric Tsang (actor, director, producer of numerous HK films), two Star Asia Awards winners Chutimon “Aokbab”Chuengcharoensukying (Bad Genius) and Jung Byung-gil (The Villainess).
The festival this year launches its competition for first- and second-time directors whose films are receiving their North American premiere at the festival. The seven films competing are Bad Genius (Thailand), Birdshot (Philippines), A Double Life (Japan), Jane (South Korea), Kfc (Vietnam), and With Prisoners (Hong Kong).

The festival runs June 30 through July 16.



WET WOMAN IN THE WIND
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Kosuke (Nagaoka Tasuku), a recluse playwright who swore off women and the city life, leads a solitary life in a tiny shack in the woods. He witnesses Shiori (Mamiya Yuki) impulsively plunging into the sea with her bike. Is she nuts? She then takes off her wet top, dries it and puts it back on again in front of him. "I'm on to you," she says. So starts Wet Woman in the Wind, the first of five films from Nikatsu Studio's planned Roman Porno revival.

Kosuke violently rejects the advances of energetic, unrelenting Shiori who throws herself into his life every chance she gets. She makes his rare interactions with others all the more tense and difficult. Their physical cat and mouse rough and tumbles are interrupted, then exacerbated by Kosuke's admiring city theater troupe dropping in, causing more chaotic sexual escapades.

Shiota Akihiko's 'pinku' movie is a dutifully low budget, short sex-comedy, obeying its original Roman Porno rule- sex every ten minutes. So the sex scenes are aplenty including threesome and lesbian sex. Mamiya, topless most of the time, is a firebrand. Shiota makes most of the two leads' energy with his long takes. Sunny and light, Wet Woman is good times.


A QUIET DREAM
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Korean-Chinese director Zhang Lu's A Quiet Dream falls somewhere between Jarmusch and Hong Sang-soo. Sumptuously shot in black and white, the film revolves around Yeri (Han Yeri), a Korean-Chinese girl, running a small makeshift bar/stall out of her house, supporting her wheelchair bound father, and a trio of good for nothings (Yang Ik-joon of Breathless, Park Jung-bum, Yun Jong-bin) who practically live at the bar. Even though they are very different from each other (Yang- a small time gangster, Park- a quiet North Korean defector, Yun- an idiot with an epileptic fit who happens to be a landlord of Yeri), they all have one thing in common - they are all infatuated with beautiful, kind Yeri.

Yeri playfully responds to their small-time desires, yet delicately maintains this four-way relationship. Boys get jealous of each other but at the end of the day, they are all together, helping each other up. Her unassuming beauty and charm even attract a local tomboy whose affection she later softly deflects. As the film unhurriedly unfolds, we get to know the background of each character little by little. They constantly talk, drink, smoke and do drunken karaoke.

Zhang has been portraying the lives of down-and-out foreigners in the margins of Korean society and A Quiet Dream is no exception. He portrays their small-time predicaments in life with much empathy and care. Their rootless, lonely existence is presented as an ideal, comfortable place to be. Unlike Jarmusch's interlopers who are constantly on the move, Yeri and the trio are stuck in their tiny haven that they created, living and loving the eternal present. As the title suggests, each of their small scenario from their day-to-day lives can be seen as a dream. Comfortably chatty, beautifully drawn characters with their blemishes and all, A Quiet Dream is as comfortable and gentle as your favorite old pair of shoes.


JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE
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With its intentionally jumbled chronology, Japanese Girls Never Die goes on to tell the story of Haruko (Aoi Yu), an aimless 27 year old who works at an office and still lives at home. Then there is an accidental graffiti artists and an anarchic High School girl gang on a crime spree, beating up unsuspecting men subplots. In series of flash forward, we learn Haruko hooking up with a grocery store clerk/childhood playmate, Soga (Ishizaki Huey). She has to deal with daily sexism at work place - hearing male superiors shit talking 35-year old, unmarried female co-worker and constantly being asked whether she has a boyfriend, then told she won't have problems getting married because how she looks. They even say to her point blank that they'd rather hire a 18 yr old girl with no experience rather than a male applicant with experience because they have to dole out more money for a male workers.

Then she goes missing. Yukio and Manabu, two 20 yr olds working dead end jobs and Aina (Takahata Mitsuki), a slightly pumped up version of cutesy Japanese girl - blinged out cell phone and a gaggle of flush toys on her car dashboard, start stenciling Haruko's face from the police missing sign all over the neighborhood walls. The image goes viral and gets tied into the violent crimes perpetrated by the girl gang. In her absence, Haruko becomes a unwitting heroine of a movement.

Japanese Girls Never Die is a strong indictment of the society where girls are subjugated and sexualized at an early age. It's a structurally daring, thought provoking work. Aoi Yu, the baby faced star of millennial classics like All About Lily Chou-Chou and Hana and Alice does a great job, carrying the burden of being twenty something female in society where self-worth is hard to come by. It's crazy to think that Aoi is old and therefore can easily be discarded. What kind of world is this? Even though it's more than a decade apart from each other, it would make a great double feature with Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Bright Future.


BAMSEOM PIRATES SEOUL INFERNO
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Just to give you a little bit of background here: South Korean president Park Geun-hye was impeached, then indicted on corruption charges in March 2017, ending a decade of right wing regimes that started with Lee Meung-bak, a former CEO of Hyundai Construction in 2008, had maintained a hardline on North Korea while didn't do much for stagnant economy. The nation's youth, directionless and hopeless about their future, armed with social networking tools, riled up against the rigid, highly hierarchical, money hungry society.

Bamseom Pirates, a grindcore duo Kwon Yong-man (drums, vocal) and Jang Sung-gun (bass, vocal) made a splash in underground music scene with their unintelligible shouting of songs accompanied by pure noise that lasts barely one minute each. In a pure punk spirit, in order to criticize highly capitalistic, anti-commie regime, they used images (dated North Korean propaganda they found on the internet, in a crude Power Point presentation) and lyrics praising North Korea and its cult leaders in an ironic fashion in their songs. Director Jung Yun-suk follows the band around and records their gigs in abandoned university buildings, at anti-establishment demonstrations on the streets and small venues.

Seoul Inferno refers to the North Korea's fiery rhetoric where they were describing that if there is a war, there will be an inferno in Seoul in a matter of minutes, since the city is less than a 30 miles away from the border. It was the title of their first album in 2010, with titles like "All Hail, Kim Jung-il" and so on.

They get in trouble when their producer Park Jung-gun gets arrested for breaking the National Security Law, for tweeting some ironic pro-North Korean slogans. During the trial, Kwon, who has to take the witness stand, has to confront many of the political implications of the music Bamseom is making. They are questioned about the band's identity. In their minds, the South and the North are not that different. They are like piss and shit. Same difference. Now try to imagine explaining this to your suit wearing defense lawyer.

Bamseom lasted about 5 years, they announced that they were disbanding on their facebook in 2016. Just like every underground punk band, it's the youthful rebellion that matters the most. No matter their political beliefs or their stance, it’s their energy that is infectious. Long Live Kim Jung-il!

Okja is Bong Joon-ho's Worst Film

Okja (2017) - Bong
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Come on. This is garbage. By far Bong's worst. The script is sloppy, mired in some pseudo animal rights bit that doesn't even pay off. This is what he said in indiewire about researching for the film:

For the next two months, he remained vegan. “Then I flew back to South Korea, and you know, Korea is a BBQ paradise,” he said with a laugh. “Every street on every corner is burning meat. I slowly, slowly came back to being a meat eater.”


Wow, talk about conviction! That's the lamest excuse for being Korean I've ever heard.

Bong's fast becoming the later Spielberg where he continuously churning out well crafted, well executed thrillers that contains a bit of excrement that fouls the whole experience. Extremely distasteful bit in Okja is not even the slaughterhouse scene. It is too grim to be a Miyazaki children's film, yet too cartoonish to be taken seriously.

Did Netflix execs go lets give this thing millions of dollars after reading that script? Is this the movie which was the focal point of controversy at Cannes, seriously? Just about everyone involved are wasted here, especially Tilda Swinton who plays meaningless double role, Giancarlo Esposito and cringeworthy Jake Gyllenhaal. Paul Dano's kindhearted animal activist can turn on a dime to be super violent, kicking that Korean guy from Walking Dead to a pulp?

Okja plays out like two different movies and neither of them are all that interesting. I understand a Korean director's balancing act but the movie's like oil and water, unsure of it tone and direction. Translation is sacred. Yes. But there are things that needs no translation to be understood. And that's the pitfall of Okja. Can you imagine the horror of Every Netflix watching American family, expecting it to be a wholesome entertainment?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The White House Reality Show

The Reagan Show (2016) - Velez, Pettengill
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If John F. Kennedy was the first TV president, Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor turned the 40th American President, was the one who mastered the medium.

Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and Sierra Pettengill have made a documentary entirely out of the TV coverage of Reagan in his eight-year tenure. Thirty years have passed since Reagan left the Oval Office. Time has been kind to Reagan, as a majority of Americans regard his presidency as one of the best, even though others, like me, still see him as the emblem of 1980s corporate greed, ill-fated trickle-down economics, countless contras in Latin America, and cultural decadence.

The Reagan Show starts with a 1988 exit interview that Reagan did with David Brinkley of ABC News. Brinkley asks if being an actor helped with him being president; he answers: "There had been times, in this office, when I've wondered, you couldn't do the job if you hadn't been an actor." The film only shows the side of Reagan's highly prepped public, TV persona, with a hint of the 'man behind the mask' through a series of extended takes after they called 'cut.'

The doc shows the symbiotic love/hate relationship forged between the press and Reagan, in contrast with the deeply partisan, ugly political climate we find ourselves in now. I thought I'd never say this, but I miss the 80s.

Reagan, a b-movie actor who always maintained a good guy persona -- smiling face, iconic pompadour -- eased into the presidency like it was his second nature. Although the press rarely doubted his leadership ability and communication skills, they were asking exactly where he was leading the country to, if there was any substance behind the shining persona. Many also argued that he was a shell of a president and that the actual power of the White House laid with his associates and Nancy, his wife.

You wouldn't have known that his presidency had been anything but smooth sailing from all the press briefings in the film. The press was asking tough questions, not because it was partisan, but because it was doing its job. Many faces from the three major network are still familiar to us, such as Tom Brokow, Dan Rather and Chris Wallace (then an NBC reporter), just to name a few. This is the time before the Fox News Network and other cable news networks. It's interesting to note that the film is co-produced by CNN Films.

The film kicks into a gear with at the height of the Cold War under Reagan. He had called the Soviet Union 'the evil empire' and poured gasoline on the fire on the nuclear arms race when he announced the controversial SDI program (Strategic Defence Initiative), aka Star Wars. The symbolic Doomsday Clock inched forward to 12 o'clock. Ailing in his second term due to the Iran Contra controversy, he needed to boost his public image and secure his legacy.

But the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, then a new General Secretary of the Soviet Union -- relatively young, open minded and just as media savvy as his counterpart -- challenged Reagan's stature on the world stage. It was Gorbachev who first announced a complete disarmament of the nuclear arsenal by year 2000. He even hired an American image consulting firm to heighten his status. In order to outdo his newfound rival, Reagan announced a summit of the two countries to discuss and reach an agreement on the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) and upstaged him with the famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech in Berlin.

The Reagan Show highlights how the president used the relatively new technology to his advantage. But this documentary isn't merely a walk down memory lane. It serves as a stark contrast to the current administration, which thrives upon being anti-media, the same media Reagan once embraced. There were gives and takes. But the media was there to balance the powers that be. Reagan knew it well, and so did the media. Their uneasy but cordial dance continued all throughout his presidency.

We live in an increasingly hostile media environment. Everything is extremely black and white. Infotainment overshadows journalism and the public perception of the media is at all-time low. It is very difficult to be seen as neutral by association or affiliation. But it is very important to remember that even Reagan, a highly divisive figure, was regularly grilled by the people who are now regarded as partisan hacks. It didn't use to be that way. There was mutual respect. The film is a good reminder of that.

A presidency is an every four-year event. It's a blip in history. We do not need to resort to a sketch artist in the White House press briefing. Hopefully we will restore some of that mutual trust and respect soon.

The Reagan Show opens on Friday, June 30 at Metrograph in New York and Laemmie Monica Film Center in Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow and VOD on July 4.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

French Cinema Through the Eyes of Bertrand Tavernier

My Personal Journey Through French Cinema (2016) - Tavernier
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In A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), the famed director announces in the beginning of the film that he can't be objective about what films he would mention in the historical documentary. Justifying his personal take on the endeavor, he said. "It's an imaginary museum and I can't open all the doors. We don't have time for all of it."

In My Journey Through French Cinema, veteran French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier takes the same route; the doc is not a French cinema history, from Lumiere to Luc Besson, but rather a deeply personal take on the impact French cinema has had on his upbringing and later as a filmmaker. So it starts with Jacques Becker (Dernier atout, Casque d'or) and ends with Claude Sautet (Les choses la vie, Un coeur en hiver).

Clocking in at 3 hours and 20 minutes, My Journey is definitely not a clean cut doc that has a definite ending. In order to make sense of the chronology and to give context to Tavernier's narration, it is necessary to go through the director's own background a little: Tavernier (The Clockmaker, Coup de torchon, Life is Nothing But), born in 1941 to working class parents in Lyon, is a member of the liberation generation. He associates the liberation after the end of WWII, celebrated in the sky above Lyon, with the magic of the theater-going experience.

Having suffered malnutrition during WWII, he was a sickly kid who spent most of his childhood watching films. His isolation made him a cinephile well versed in American films as well as French. His first movie job was working for Jean-Pierre Melville as an assistant. Then he landed a job as a publicist for a studio (which produced Breathless), then as a film critic. He worked for Claude Sautet before making his debut as a filmmaker with The Clockmaker in 1974.

A bit younger than Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the French New Wave directors who rejected old ways of filmmaking (for the sake of the explanation, I'm grossly generalizing here), Tavernier is an ideal candidate to chronicle French cinema somewhat objectively. He is a filmmaker with an old-school sensibility but also had intimate working relationships with the French New Wave directors.

All throughout, he points out the differences among French films and that of Hollywood films. He grew up seeing the films (made in 1940s-50s) of Jacques Becker, Jean Renoir (La bête humane, Grand Illusions), Marcel Carné (Children of Paradise, Remorques), Julien Duvivier (Pépe le Moko, Panic) and Jean Vigo (L'atalanté, Zero conduit) among others.

These directors, although influenced by Hollywood directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch, had an innate distrust in plots and put more emphasis on empathy and emotions. Thanks largely to gifted writers like Jacques Prévert, unlike plot driven American movies, we unhurriedly follow characters and invest in them, as they discover their destination as we the audience do at the same time, like in Carné's beautiful, lyrical Port of Shadows.

Since it's a personal film, Tavernier keeps talking head interviews to a minimum, unless it's old interview footage or a recording from years ago. He puts emphasis in the differences of French cinema from its American counterpart. He also concentrates on three categories: directors he admired growing up, music composers, and directors he worked for in one capacity or another.

Using the legendary actor Jean Gabin, who starred in many classic French films, as a springboard and transition device, Tavernier jumps through many directors who worked with him and shares many anecdotes. According to Prévert, Marcel Carné was not an actor's director. He notes that Carné was the only director who wasn't capable of writing a scene. But he was master of shot/reverse shot and preferred using a wide lens instead of different combination of lenses.

Film scoring is a big interest for Tavernier. Unlike prevailing scores from beginning to end in a Hollywood production in the studio days where directors had no say on music, French directors carefully chose their scores and music composers. They were discreet about when to use music. You can’t help noticing the memorable melodies after watching Vigo's L'atalanté by Maurice Jaubert, who also scored music for Carné for Port of Shadows and Le jour se leve, and Duvivier's Un carnet de bal, among others.

Tavernier is an unabashedly old-fashioned filmmaker. He firmly believes that filmmakers have to possess both arrogance and humbleness -- you make films thinking that you can change the world, but you must be humble enough to realize that if you can touch two people with your films, your job is done.

Tavernier talks fondly of Truffaut. His direct comparison of Truffaut with Jean-Pierre Melville is very revealing. Truffaut was gentle and calm and his nature was reflected in his films. Melville, however, was a brute to work for. But he had a sense of humor. The only reason Tavernier got hired as an assistant was Melville read a scathing review of Bob le flambeur by Tavernier. He thought Melville's craft amateurish. To young Tavernier, his films are either utter crap or masterpiece. He saw the director of Le samurai and Léon Morin, prêtre up close and personal and decided that he wasn't a good original writer but a fabulous adaptor. His usual cinematic elements -- bars, dancers and mirrors -- were from his real life.

Shooting everything in his studio, using the same stairs and entryway multiple times throughout different films, Melville was a crafty, economical director. With no music, out of frame action and long sequences, even though he was influenced by Hollywood gangster films, Tavernier concludes that he was closer to Bresson than Wyler.

It was in response to Melville's suggestion that Tavernier became a film publicist. "You are a terrible assistant, but you'd be good at defending films. Why don't you become a press agent?" He got a job at Rome-Paris Films, a small company that was basking in the surprising success of Godard's Breathless. There he met and interacted with Godard, Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy and Claude Rosier.

Although he was not a part of it, he understood what the New Wavers like Godard and Truffaut were trying to do. He remembers Henri Langlois and his influence on a generation of filmmakers. For a young cinephile, Langlois's eccentric programming was an eye opener. Tavernier was there, along with his classmate Volker Schlendorff in 1968, outside Cinémathèque Française when the police clubbed the young crowds demonstrating the closing of Cinemathèque.

He introduces Godard's Alphaville by way of Eddie Constantine, an actor who starred in many b-movie spy thrillers (by Hollywood blacklist director John Berry), playing the role of Lemmy Caution, which Godard borrowed. He goes on to speak about Godard's propensity for cinemascope, colors in films like Contempt and Pierre le fou, with much admiration.

He remembers fondly about Claude Sautet, who became Tavernier's mentor. He says Sautet was on the fringe of the French cinema industry and the mean boys at the Cahiers du Cinema didn't give him the time of day, probably because he often depicted bourgeois lifestyle. Not only Sautet directed films but he was a script doctor for many of France's most popular films.

I've seen some of Tavernier's films from his long and illustrious filmography. I was struck by his subtle, humanistic approach when I saw Captain Conan, his WWI film in theaters in 1996. Encountering films like The Clockmaker and Coup de torchon recently for the first time was a pure joy for me. I definitely see the lineage all the way up to Jacques Becker, who presented his working class characters as real as possible -- we see a carpenter really working those carpentry machines, a print setter actually dirtying up his hands, etc. In his films, we see the silly slapstick elements and unrehearsed playfulness of the New Wave. In his films, we see great subtlety in the writing and performances of the late Sautet.

Obviously, My Journey Through French Cinema is a lot to take in one sitting. It's also a goldmine for any cinephiles as an invaluable resource guide. Tavernier is doing us a great service here through his experience as a cinephile and a filmmaker. I am eager to check out more films that are featured in this documentary for years to come.

My Journey Through French Cinema is scheduled to open in New York on Friday, June 23 at the Quad Cinema, followed by a national roll out.



Monday, June 19, 2017

Choices

Les choses de la vie/Things of Life (1970) - Sautet
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Pierre (Michel Piccoli) seems to have everything- he's a successful architect with a great apartment, a house in an island full of memories, a well-behaved, loving son, a beautiful ex-wife (Lea Massari) who doesn't hate him, a luminous mistress (Romy Schneider) who adores him. He's been vacillating lately about leaving Helene (Schneider) and go back to Catherine (Massari) because he has so many beautiful memories with his family even though he loves Helene very much. He fears that they will grow apart and fall out of love, just like any other relationship. Les Choses de la vie examines his life as he experiences fatal car crash which repeats many times in slow motion throughout the film.

It's a fluffy adult melodrama about however little choices we make in real life largely figure into the outcome, whatever it maybe, that life is always full of regrets. Acting from Piccoli, Schneider and Massari are superb. The best part, aside from Schneider typing naked with only with horn-rimmed glasses on, is the love triangle depicted carefully with great subtlety: as Pierre laying on the ground dying after the crash, thinking about the break-up letter he wrote to Helene and desperately wishing it wouldn't reach her. Catherine is handed the letter after Pierre is pronounced dead at the hospital, she reads it and sees Helene rushing into the hospital through the window and tears the letter to shreds. Delicious stuff.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reconnecting

L'horloger de Saint-Paul/The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974) - Tavernier
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A burning car seen from a moving train is a starting point of L'horloger de Saint-Paul, the feature debut by critic-turned filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier. The film tells a story of father and son reconnecting after the son is accused of murder. It serves as a reflection of the director's view of French society after the violent upheaval of 68' and it deep rift between generations. A widowed watchmaker Descombes (Philippe Noiret) leads a comfortable petit bourgeois life in the southern city of Lyon. He goes out with friends in their favorite restaurants, drinks some wine and discuss politics. His life is suddenly shaken by the news of his son, Bernard, committing murder and on the run with his girlfriend that Descombes never met. A friendly police chief Guilbord (Jean Rochefort) strikes up a friendship with Descombes as they run into each other often, in the market or restaurants and talk about life's incongruities.

Understanding Bernard is a challenge for Descombes. Even though they lived under the same roof, he never paid much attention to what his son was up to or thinking. As distraught father looks up at some communist slogans in his son's room, it's like a trying to put back the pieces together in figuring out what kind of a young man Bernard grew up to be. The young man gets caught along with his girlfriend in an island where Descombes took him as a child once. They are put on trial. Everyone - the lawyer, Guilbord want to help the kid to get a lighter sentence, trying to depict the murder as crime of passion. Bernard wouldn't budge from his convictions - the dead man was a paratrooper in Algerian War and a major asshole to women in the factory where they worked. For Bernard, he was a swine: a personification of everything thought wrong about the current state of France. So he killed him. Simple as that.

There are some genuinely funny moments like Desombes and his communist friends beating up ultra right-wing thugs (friends of the deceased) who came in by bus to wreck havoc on Descombes' s shop. But the film goes far beyond highlighting differences in politics.

Tavernier's interests lie on human interactions. He doesn't see characters as archetypes, as Guilbord puts it, "like people in movies". It's a somber and sad film- "Shootouts? That happens only in the movies." He also beautifully lenses his home city of Lyon- every street corner, every mom and pop shops and restaurants are rendered with care. Noiret gives a tremendously soulful performance- a father who understands his son's actions and doesn't want to sugarcoat his motives to reduce his sentence nor compromise the young man's principles. Only after Bernard is sentenced for twenty years in prison, the father and son can talk to each other. The barrier's finally gone. The Clock Maker is a great great film.

A subtle Revenge Thriller on the Shores of Lake Geneva

Moka (2016) - Mermoud
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A new French/Swiss revenge thriller, Moka, directed by Frédéric Mermoud starts with a 5-minute breezy, silent sequence of Diane (Emmanuelle Devos) sneaking out of what seems to be a hospital/wellness sanitarium near Lake Geneva. It's dark and moody and sets the tone of this slow burn, Chabrol-esque revenge thriller.

It turns out, Diane is a grieving mother whose son was killed in a hit-and-run in Lausanne, the Swiss side of the lake. Through a hired investigator, Diane narrows down the facts that the driver and the passenger, a blonde woman and her male companion, were driving a coffee colored (hence the title) vintage Mercedes. She settles on a beautician named Marlene (Natalie Baye) and her younger, womanizing boyfriend Michel (David Clavel) with the matching car living on the French side of the lake, in Evian. Diane's obsession makes her plunge head first into the lives Marlene and her family.

Diane approaches Marlene unassumingly, guising herself as a writer in seeking seclusion by the lake side. Marlene takes her as a nosy writer-type in search of inspiration and keeps her barrage of personal inquiries at arm's length at first. But she finally lets her guard down at Diane’s genuine demeanor.

She also approaches Michel as potential customer as he tries to sell the car. Diane’s aggressiveness in her interests in the car turns on Michel in all the wrong ways. After chance meeting with a good looking young drug dealer on the ferry ride, she charms him to get a hold of a handgun. And the two get romantically involved.

Diane then befriends Marlene’s rebellious young daughter Elodie (Diane Rouxel) who might have been carrying on a sexual relationship with her stepfather.

Based on a book of the same name by best selling author Tatiana de Rosnay, and relocating its setting to Lake Geneva, Moka, like its neutral colored vehicle and with its picturesque and quiet Swiss setting, is all a very subtle affair. Somberly lensed by Irina Lubtchansky (who shot two recent Anaud Desplechin films- My Golden Days, Ismael's Ghosts) against stunning Lake Geneva backdrop, the film is a handsome, brooding noir.

It is a deftly directed, low-pitched noir that heavily relies on the charm of Devos. As always, she walks the fine line between confidence and vulnerability and makes Diane's unrelenting pursuit of revenge totally believable. With quiet determination and stubbornness in her eyes, she is one of the few actresses who can turn their dowdiness into sexy.

Baye, a veteran actress, gives a fine performance as an ordinary woman dealing with her career, motherhood and relationship. Her Marlene's guarded friendliness hides her dormant venom which we get to see in a glimpse of.

It's great to see two women in their mid-career finding juicy roles that show their subtle artistry. The film hints on the fraternity of womenhood by the end. Moka is a well acted, low-key but impactful revenge thriller for the fans of neo-noir.
Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Digging for Cinema Gold

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) - Morrison
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Bill Morrison, known for his beautiful, textural found footage films (Decasia, Miner's Hymns) accompanied by talented contemporary musicians (Philip Glass, Jóhann Jóhannsson, John Adams, Richard Einhorn, just to name a few), out-does himself with a mesmerizing, hugely entertaining new film Dawson City: Frozen Time.

It tells a truly fascinating bit of cinema history involving the Gold Rush at the turn of the 20th century in Dawson City, deep in the Yukon Territory. The two-hour film, filled to the brim with rich historical details, is almost too much to digest in one sitting. But with clever, carefully constructed paralleling history of prospecting and cinema melding with archival and found footage achieves something far greater than a historical documentary or an experimental art-house cinema ever can by themselves alone.

Dawson City starts with a prologue Morrison's appearance in some sport jock TV spot being asked about 1919 World Series footage. This is the year of the infamous "Black Sox" scandal where 8 of Chicago White Sox players took money from the East Coast gambling establishments to throw the game.

We move back to 1979, while digging for foundation behind Diamond Tooth Gerthie's Gambling Hole in Dawson City, townsfolk discovered hundreds of film reels buried under the permafrost. Local conservators and museum curators got a hold of these treasures which turn out to be rare silent films, 372 of them, thought to be lost forever.

Then it moves on to Film was born an explosive segment, explaining the early silent films were shot on cotton based nitrate film stock which was highly combustible until the industry switched over in 1949 to a safer, acetate based stock.

And the credit starts to roll.

So how does these figure into the film? Beautifully. They all fit into the narrative of digging for gold leading to uncovering cinema gold.

California gold rush fever pushed prospectors further up the uncharted northern territories. After some found gold up in Yukon in 1895, many prospectors made a perilous journey to the land where the Klondike River meets the Yukon River. A lot of them perished or turned back along the way. The place was called Tr’ocheck and belongs to native Hän speaking people. Things changed quickly and the natives were forced down the river into a settlement. The newly arrived (re)named it Dawson City.

It grew and grew and by 1916, the peak of gold mining, the population of the city reached 30,000. The city built a large recreation center, called D.A.A.A., equipped with a swimming pool and doubled as a hockey link in winter, a library and a movie theater, hosting traveling moving picture show tropes.

As it was common in those early days where everything was built on woods, Dawson City burned down to the ground every year for first 9 years and had to be rebuilt. And nitrate films no doubt contributed to numerous fires.

As the gold mining lost its luster and the city grew smaller, so did the need for the reel entertainment. And because Dawson City was the last stop on the Hollywood film distribution route, for economical reasons, movie studios didn't want the film back by carrier. The duty of keeping them fell on a bank clerk who in turn kept them in the basement of a library first. But after they ignited and caused the fire, one of the bank managers decided to bury them in the now discarded D.A.A.A. swimming pool few blocks away.

Many more film reels were discarded indiscriminately, into the Yukon River and burned in a bonfire, according to the bank clerk's journal. But 372 survived, frozen under the permafrost all those years, preserving the nitrate negatives while all other known copies disintegrated over time.

Combining beautiful still pictures of prospectors from glass negatives by Eric Hegg, also recovered in the 70s and those found silent films heavily damaged by elements over the years and archival footage and hypnotic music by Alex Somers, a musician known for producing Sigur Rós albums, Morrison concocts an engaging, entertaining art film that doubles as an intriguing slice of history of Americana.

For instance, we get to know that American old money came from the Gold Rush related businesses: Frederick Trump (Donald Trump's grandfather) made his family fortune by setting up brothels along the prospecting trails and the Guggenheim family bought the mining lands and created Yukon Consolidated Gold Company.

Many of the 'Dawson City Find' films and newsreels are featured throughout, often matching the historical events of the time - 1919 World Series, the rise of American Socialist Movement, Industrial Workers of the World, WW1, and so on.

Morrison also has fun with thematically and physically matching scenes from these damaged but remarkably preserved beautiful looking films. Some of the notable titles are: The Stolen Paradise, The Half Breed, The Social Buccaneers, The Salamander, The Unpardonable Sin and The Recoil.

Looking through all these buried treasures for the first time, Morrison must've been a happy camper. He does a fine job assembling these, weaving them into a hugely entertaining, concise historical narrative. Dawson City: Frozen Time is one of the best films of the year.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Fuji-san Mon Amour

Ascent (2016) - Tan
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*Nope. That's not me and my brother.
Mount Fuji is perhaps the most photographed volcanic mountain in the world. Its iconic, perfectly shaped appearance (perfectly symmetrical 45 degree slopes on both side reaching to its slender necked caldera, often snow capped in winter) is instantly recognizable and fittingly figures into exquisitely coiffed Japanese culture landscape. You can see the prevalence of its presence in Japanese art- from Hokusai block prints, literature, manga to films. Visual artist Fiona Tan makes a poignant film completely comprised only of still pictures involving Mt. Fuji.

Ascent is a correspondence of two lovers in voice-overs. This fictional narrative starts with a woman (the director herself) informing us that she received a large package from her Japanese lover, Hiroshi, who has passed on. It's full of pictures of Mt. Fuji, both old and new, and she has a task of deciphering in what her dead lover was trying to convey in these pictures.

Hiroshi (Hasegawa Hiroki of Shin Godzilla and Why Don’t You Play in Hell? lends his voice here) narrates his part, as he climbs Mt. Fuji with hundreds other pilgrims (as many Japanese has been doing every season for centuries), relaying to her each step of the hike, accompanied by ordinary photos taken by hikers, often posing in front of the ever omnipresent mountain. With its elevation reaching 12,388 feet, even with hiking trails and rest stations, climbing Mt. Fuji is not an easy feat. He narrates a short poem:

Behold the sacred, magic mountain
The spiritual connection between heaven and earth
Symmetrical, solitary, snow-capped
And thus beyond reach of time

Through their narration, we find out the cultural and political significance of the mountain. As the Japanese folklore goes, Mt. Fuji is a home to Kono-Hana, the goddess of volcanoes. The presence of the mountain in popular culture was banned after the war, because westerners feared it would stir up the Japanese nationalism once again. Its perfect symmetry was broken when the volcano erupted in 1707, causing south slope of the mountain to collapse. But it's a reminder that Mt. Fuji is an active volcano. Tohoku earthquake in 2011 moved the Japanese main island of Honshu (where Tokyo and Mt. Fuji are situated) 2.4 meters eastward. Many seismologist predict the near future eruption is all but certain.

Tan explores several interesting ideas in Ascent. Using only still photographs in making the film, borrowing her dead lover's notion, she likens the photograph to ice, frozen in time, and film to fire, always moving and crackling. She co-relates grief and photographs as a means of stopping time. The active volcanic mountain, always present in Japanese psyche, is both permanent fixture and a symbol of impermanence and fragility of human life.

It's this duality that fascinates her. Mt. Fuji picture is often accompanied by cherry blossoms in the foreground. Kono-Hana is the goddess of both volcanoes and cherry blossoms. And the falling is the essence of flower. Hiroki demystifies the sacred mountain from beyond the grave that although it might look perfect from the distance, up-close, Mt. Fuji is nothing but shapeless volcanic rocks.

Contemplation of memories figure into Ascent greatly. And you can easily see the traces of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais in Tan's approach, both technically and thematically, considering both filmmakers had always grappled with the idea of memories and time- especially in La Jetée, Sans Soleil and Hiroshima Mon Amour. Ascent is a daring, visually arresting film that is also deeply poignant and beautiful.

ASCENT will have a one-week engagement, Wednesday, June 7 – 13, at Film Forum, NYC

*Film forum is showing the film with free admission, courtesy of support from the Ostrovsky Family Fund.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Nocturnal Creatures

J'ai pas sommeil (1994) - Denis
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So fluid and graceful. Denis's penchant for sketching out knitty-gritty lives of Parisians, both long time residents and newcomers are present in J'ai pas sommeil. It involves two storylines, slightly brushing each other. One introduces a young Lithuanian girl, Daiga (Katerina Golubeva) in her Soviet made car driving up to Paris all the way from Vilnius. Penniless and with very limited French, Daiga bums around her distant relatives and ends up living in a crummy hotel run by good-hearted Ninon. The other story is of Camille (Richard Courcet), a gay performer, and his partner are involved in series of robbery and murder of old ladies throughout the city. Theo (Alex Descas), Camille's brother, having decided that Paris is not a place for him and his little son, is planning to go back to Martinique and that doesn't bode well with Mona (Béatrice Dalle), the son's mother.

Unlike Wenders and Jarmusch (both of whom Denis worked as an Assistant Director for) fish-out-of-water stories, I find Denis's sensibilities more modern and cosmopolitan. Her portrayal of human desire and yearning lensed by great Agnes Godard has no real parallel. The cinematography in this is so effortlessly cool without ever being flashy. And this is why I always have a hard time taking a screengrab from her films.

J'ai pas sommeil also features alluring Katherina Golubeva. Obviously the camera loves her. Her beauty is overwhelming in every frame she's in.

I have to reassess my Denis priorities here. I do love her later, more visceral, post Beau travail stuff. But nothing really beats her earlier films. J'ai pas sommeil reaffirms that she is one of the greatest filmmakers working today.