Saturday, April 19, 2014

Taiwan, My Love

Almost Home: Taiwan (2014) - Linchong
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Back in March, I had a privilege to attend the sneak preview of Victoria Linchong's lovely documentary Almost Home: Taiwan, at Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, down in East Village. Armed with handicam, Victoria and her family travels to Taiwan, her parents' homeland, to visit their relatives and pay respect to their ancestors. I've joked with Victoria about how our knowledge of Taiwan is limited to watching master Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien's films. But I wasn't really prepared for the natural beauty of Taiwan in her footage. Amazing mountains in the fog, hot springs, temples, beautiful coastline..., Victoria's travelogue has awakened wanderlust in me like no other films have.

The documentary also serves as a great history lesson. Victoria interviews political figures who were involved in Taiwan's independence movement and even employs funny DIY animation sequences to illuminate Taiwan's very complex and little known history. Linchong managed to strike a fine balance between an intimate, personal travel documentary and political essay. Almost Home is not only a beautiful tribute to her homeland, but also extremely educational film that needs to be seen.

My wife, Nicole Schulman, also contributed to the poster project to help finishing the documentary.
Please visit Almost Home: Taiwan website.


Almost Home: Taiwan - Trailer from Victoria Linchong on Vimeo.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Oppression and Resistance in Silence

Libera me (1993) - Cavalier
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How do you convey oppression and resistance without ever uttering words? Alain Cavalier does it beautifully here. Libera me is even more austere than his Therese or any of Bresson films. Grey background doubles as any discernible locations. Non-actors act out in succession of beautifully lit tableaux. No moment is wasted, no thoughts, feelings and gesture go unnoticed. There are two families - a butcher and his three sons and a photographer and his wife who take passport photos which seem to be invaluable commodity in the fascist world, that the film takes place in, where mass killing and torture seem ordinary. They fight against the powers that be. This non-silent-silent film is a wonder to behold. Cavalier seems to be operating on another cinematic level that is guileless and stripped down to its pure elements. I am in awe.

Libera me plays as part of Art of the Real series at FSLC. Please visit their website for tickets.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Preview: Art of the Real Tests Boundaries of Documentary Filmmaking

Film Society of Lincoln Center's inaugural film series Art of the Real - a showcase for nonfiction films that pushes the farthest boundaries of documentary filmmaking, is for me, one of the most exciting film series I have a privilege to be part of, even in New York standards.

It's only been the last couple of years that I've been writing about film seriously, realizing that film medium can go much further than just mere entertainment and that freeing from the dominant narrative structure can be exhilarating.

What started out as a simple question that if there was an adequate name to describe the current crop of shape-shifting postmodern cinema pulled me into the very depth of the cinematic rabbit hole, left me exhausted and confused and exhilarated at the same time. As I was reminded watching Film Socialisme (Godard), Sans Soleil (Marker), Fontainhas Trilogy (Costa), Koker Trilogy (Kiarostami), Tren de Sombras (Guerrin), Tabu (Gomes), A Man Vanishes (Imamura), and Two Years at Sea (Rivers) that I am just scratching the surface of this great artistic medium. At the same time, I feel glad and relieved that there are so much more to explore.

It was Lucien Castraing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's Leviathan screening at New York Film Festival in 2012 where everything clicked for me. Watching the film and noticing French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux, whose visceral art films which happen to be some of my very favorite film watching experiences, in the audience. They turned out to be good friends. And the subsequent discussion I had with Castraing-Taylor and Paravel reaffirmed me that there could be much more to film as an art form than mere storytelling.

Curated by Denis Lim and Racheal Rakes, and presented in collaboration with the 2014 Whitney Biennial, along with the focus on the Sensory Ethnography Lab, I have no doubt Art of the Real's enthralling lineup would delight serious, adventurous film lovers senses and help expand their minds.

The series include last year's festival favorite Manakamana, works by renowned experimental filmmakers/documentarians - Thom Andersen, Harun Farocki, Robert Gardener, Alain Cavalier, Raymond Depardon, James Benning and more.

The series runs April 11 - 26. For tickets and more information, please visit Film Society of Lincoln Center website.

LUKAS THE STRANGE - John Torres
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A girl narrator, friend of a 13-year old Filipino boy named Lukas, whispers to him softly and gives a loose, elliptical narrative to the all together dreamlike, strange film. The narrator tells him that it's the beginning of the film and he doesn't know it yet, but he will fall in love with an actress later in the film. One night, Lukas is told that his father is tikbalang (half-man, half-horse). In turn, his father abandons his family and disappears across the river. There is a film crew in town, casting roles and everyone in town is in a buzz. So goes Lukas the Strange - part documentary, part narrative, part free-association visual essay, part...

Lukas thinks he inherited some super powers and needs to test his abilities. He can run fast, he can jump high. He is bullet proof and has scars to prove it. Meanwhile, his father has settled in neighboring town. He earned a scar when he crossed the river but left his memories behind. The river has magical powers like that. There are videotapes that the narrator girl collected from the river. It contains grainly black and white footage of the actress the narrator talked about in the beginning. Lukas watches and falls in love (at least he tries to masturbate to it).

Shot on 35mm in full frame format, the rural Philippines in rainy season has never been more beautiful. The faces of none actors with out of synch sound (or just made up sound to push along the narrative) gives the film its light, playful tone. Perhaps the dreamest, strangest film about boy entering manhood. Folklore, improvisation, formal rigor...this is good stuff, very much akin to Weerasethakul films.


ACTRESS - Robert Greene
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Brandy Burre was an actress who was in The Wire. She gave up acting to have a family, moved to Beacon, NY with her partner, Tim. They have two young children. They own two restaurants/bars. But now in her late 30s, she realizes that being a housewife/mom of two kids is not what she wanted. She wants to get back to the business. Director Robert Greene chronicles trials and tribulations of an actress as she struggles with her life. Brandy's story is nothing really special. A lot of people go through the same family vs career crises. She has an affair, Tim moves out, she looks for a job, battling ageism and stage fright. It couldn't be any more special than a Lifetime channel movie. But that's just it. Because she is a real person, not an actress, it is quite compelling.

There is a scene where Burre putting away toys in the 'toy room', labeling them carefully with label maker. She says, "This is how I express my creativity." Then she says it again, as if reciting a line from a script. It's meta-ness aside, Actress, thanks to Burre's brevity to reveal her life in such a frank way and Greene's intimate approach, is quite mesmerizing experience. I had to imdb Burre and she has one more film under her name after Wire. Good to know that she is working. Hopefully she will retain her freedom by making a living as actress again.


TIME GOES BY LIKE A ROARING LION - Philipp Hartmann
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An average German male who was born in the 70s, lives up to be 76 1/2 years. Philipp Hartmann started filming in 2010. He, then 38 1/4, was exactly at the half point of his life. Suffering from chronophobia - fear of passing of time, he made this movie, clocking at 76 minutes, one minute counting as one year of his life. At the half point of the movie, he hurriedly catches up to "now" in a very inventive fashion. This philosophical visual quandary isn't as dry as it sounds. It's warm, funny, and thought provoking.

The still photos of Hartmann's childhood in the beginning, all only half part exposed, are the compilation of the beginning of each film rolls, signifying the images just before his father captured that moment. He visits scientists at the site of atomic clock in Braunschweig. Apparently, because the earth is spinning slower at times, the clock needs to be adjusted a second every 18 months. The scientist futzes around with the switches and says, "Uh oh, I don't think it goes back..." Hartmann travels to the world's largest salt desert in Bolivia and contemplates the absence of time. He sets up situations with actors, narrating scenarios dealing with time. He asks one of his subjects/friends, who is a compulsive gambler about how he feels about ruining relations, his future. The friend replies that as the time passes faster, it hurts a little less. We watch Hartmann's shadow, sitting on a ski lift rolling over the green hills for the last 3-4 minutes of the movie. Contemplative and lyrical, Hartmann's inquiry is sincere and heartfelt rather than clever.


THE ANABASIS OF MAY AND FUSAKO SHIGENOBU, MASAO ADACHI AND 27 YEARS WITHOUT IMAGES - Eric Baudlaire
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Paris based visual artist Eric Baudlaire films modern day Lebanon in super 8 at the request of Masao Adachi, a former United Red Army (later Japanese Red Army) member and guerrilla filmmaker. The film juxtaposes the footage of Lebanon and Japan. It is narrated by Adachi and May Shigenobu, a daughter of JRA leader Fusako and a Palestinian guerrilla fighter. Both Adachi and May spent 27 years in hiding in Lebanon, then extradited to Japan in 2001. Their lives are filled with fascinating stories: Adachi, along with Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima, plays a pivotal role in Japanese New Wave. But politically more extreme and hands on, Adachi chose a path that led him to devote in Palestine's cause for statehood, lived with guerrilla fighters in Lebanon refuge camps. May, who was born in Lebanon, never had a national or cultural identity until she was a teen, narrates her fascinating story in uninflected English. Their shared stories glide over the city and nature landscapes, film clips and news reels, accompanying the narrative. It's an interesting experiment: borrowing images, not to explicitly match them with someone's memories but to help us to imagine their experience. It's fascinating trip.

The series also plays The Makes, Baudlaire's adaptation of Michelangelo Antonioni's notes on unmade films and The Ugly One, a sort of a sequel to Anabasis.


A THOUSAND SUNS - Mati Diop
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Mati Diop, the alluring actress in Clare Denis's 35 rhums directs A Thousand Suns, a dreamy documentary fantasy that encompasses Senegal's past, present and perhaps future simultaneously. Taking cues from her famous Senegalese director uncle (Djibril Diop Mambéty)'s seminal African avant-garde film Touki Bouki, she incorporates the real actor Magaye Liang of that film, now an old man, still living in Dakar, herding cattles, into a fiction and vice versa. New and old collide and co-exist, as Liang watches Touki Bouki on the screen in an outdoor screening projected digitally. He says proudly that the dashing young man on the screen is indeed him. The street kids laugh at him. In that seminal film, Mory (Magaye Liang) stays behind while her lover Anta (Mareme Niang) sails to France. It reflects what happened in real life some 40 years ago, sort of. Magaye tracks down Anta, now supposedly living in America. It turns out she lives in Alaska and works as a security guard on an oil rig or she tells him. The following snowy scene is jaw-droppingly sensual. The film is filled with colors, layers upon layers of hidden stories and rapturous images. I can't wait to see Diop's other work.

The series also plays Diop's Atlantiques which tells the story of a young boy’s tragic migratory voyage over the Moroccan border.


SWEETGRASS - no director credited *Part of Focus on The Sensory Ethnography Lab
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My full review here.


FOREIGN PARTS - Verena Paravel, JP Sniadecki *Part of Focus on The Sensory Ethnography Lab
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Shot in 2008-2009 in industrial neighborhood of Willets Point, Queens by Verena Paravel (Leviathan) and JP Sniadecki (People's Park) of the Havard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, Foreign Parts presents a rare glimpse into the lives of its inhabitants. Willets Point, in the shadows of 7 Train Line, Citi Field (Mets Baseball Stadium) and the constant planes flying overhead (La Guadia Airport only a stone's throw away) is where cars go die and being gutted and mutilated for their parts to various auto related shops. Without sewage system and sidewalks and most of work force being immigrant workers, you'd think you are in Mexico or some other less developed countries. Paravel and Sniadecki just follow them around as they go about their daily business. There is Joe Ardizzone, a white haired, vocal resident who's been fighting for the city's redevelopment plan, there is Julia, a sweet natured, tiny old lady, and there are Luis and Sara, a couple who live in an abandoned car. They all talk candidly about their lives. The combination of these people's lives and their otherworldly surroundings - mountains of auto parts, unpaved dirt roads, gigantic water puddles, roaming wild feral animals, sonic plane engine and car noise, make Foreign Parts a fascinating concoction.

Travelers and Magicians

Yeelen (1987) - Cissé
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Talking about an epic of Biblical proportions, Soulemane Cissé tells a Bambara myth steeped in animism and sorcery I couldn't help but compare Yeelen to Scorsese's Last Temptation while watching it. Like many other folk tales from different cultures, Yeelen concerns a great journey, good vs evil and father-son rivalry. Young sorcerer Nianankoro is on the run with his mother from his all-powerful, vengeful father, Soma. Niananko apparently possesses an amulet (a big gemstone) that belongs to Komo. Niananko needs to go to his uncle/Soma's twin Djigui. During the long journey, he gets friendly with a tribal king and helps him to ward off his enemies with his magic powers. The king requests another favor. His youngest wife is barren and he wants Niananko to fix her infertility. After taking some hallucinogenic roots together, then overcome by desire, Niananko and the young wife of the king does a dirty deedly. Seeing how remorseful the young man is, the chief awards him the girl, who is now pregnant and carrying Niananko's child. In the mean time, Soma is trailing along, with his magic post, carried by two servants, on his way to destroy Niananko.

Yeelen features some beautiful imagery of Mali. Even though the acting is heavily theatrical, all the principals involved have genuine presence and are great at conveying their feelings. Cissé uses simple effects to show sorcerers powers: burning bushes, sound effects, playing the action backward, star-filter effects, etc. The film has a very different sense of lyricism and visual poetry I'm not really familiar with, and it's very refreshing. I dig it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Grand Illusion

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) - Anderson
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Anderson's children's picture book diorama with the ever growing cast of cardboard thin characters continues. This didn't annoy me as much as his other movies however. I think mainly it's because of the apt casting. Anderson fits all these known actors into the carefully designed mold and they fit perfectly. Ralph Fiennes has an impeccable comic timing and has never really been better since forever as Gustav H.; first, the concierge then the owner of The Grand Budapest Hotel deep in the Alps in the made-up republic of Zubrowka. Adrian Brody and Willem Defoe also excel as baddies. Anderson skims over WWII, Nazism and racism uncomfortably but shoves pink cream cakes in our faces whenever it gets awkward. The star of the movie is, of course, the production design. Everything is bathed in warm, if not drab colors that give the movie your parents' rec room carpet familiarity. Some seriously gorgeous matte paintings too. It seems like a logical step for Anderson to move his locale to Europe. First it was stop motion animation, now it's old Europe where his not so American sensibilities lie - money, white, nostalgia. It all fits perfectly. I enjoyed it very much.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fraternity of Womenhood

Snow Canons (2011) - Diop
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Mati Diop, a niece of famous Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty and daughter of a musician Wassis Diop, directs this short film. She is also the luminous actress who starred in one of my all time favorites, Clare Denis's 35 Rhums. She says in an interview that she makes films based on what she finds interesting at that moment. All her films, 4 to date, are very different in subject matter and method I'm told. Snow Canon concerns a slight lesbian romance with the stunning French Alps as a backdrop and its very delicious. A lanky teen Valina (Niala Bal) is left to her own devices in a house overlooking the Alps. She incessantly exchanges texts about boys with her bbf who is traveling in South America. Then an American babysitter Mary Jane (Nour Mobarak) shows up. Smokey eyed and heartbroken, she tells Valina never to fall in love. Valina's sexual curiosity gets the better of her though. Mary Jane is hot. They develop certain physical intimacy. Diop's presentation is never obvious. As they take bath together and play dress up, there is a certain fraternity between them rather than something sexual. Shot in 35mm, the film's gorgeous and less experimental but just as rapturous in its mood and sensuality. There is a nod to a quite a bit of Clare Denis there, not only the appearance of bunny rabbit.

You Don’t Have a Home Until You Leave It

Touki Bouki (1973) - Mambéty
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Mory (Magaye Niang) dreams of leaving Dakar and going to Paris with his college student girlfriend, Anta (Mareme Niang). Always on his trusty motorbike with a cow skull attached to the front, Mory is somewhat of a dreamer and doesn't really fit well in a society where young men only talk about revolution. The couple cheats and steals their way through getting tickets for a sea voyage, but Mory has second thoughts at the last minute. He realizes that wherever he goes, he will be like that of a bull in the slaughterhouse with a noose around his neck. That is the legacy of colonialism. It dawns on him that there is no escape, that he might as well stay.

Even though Mory and Anta are from a shantytown, Touki Bouki is not an overtly socio-political condemnation of colonialism or anything. It's definitely there though. There are elements that stress the view of white Europeans on Senegalese but that's beside the point. The film is, first and foremost, fun. It has a very loose structure and fluidity and playfulness throughout. It's very much French New Wave. You can totally see Breathless- Touki Bouki- Leos Carax connection here. The energy combined with colors and sound make quite an arresting experience.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Panorama Europe 2014 at MoMI and Bohemian National Hall

Making films is an all consuming affair: the time and energy and money and talent that put into one film production is staggering. Yet, year after year, tens and thousands films go unnoticed, unseen, not just in this country, but everywhere. Disappearing Act, a New York tradition for the last half a decade, has devoted itself to seek out some of the most daring, noteworthy films from continental Europe, which would've undoubtedly gone undistributed and unseen in the States. I had covered Disappearing Acts in the Past. This year, I got to see 3 films in advance. The series runs April 4 - 13. For a complete list of the films and tickets, go to MoMI website.
Programmed by David Schwartz, Chief Curator, Museum of the Moving Image

Co-presented by Museum of the Moving Image and the European Union National Institutes for Culture, Panorama Europe is a unique showcase of seventeen contemporary European features and a program of short films. Formerly known as Disappearing Act, the newly re-named festival continues the mission of showcasing vital European filmmaking as distribution remains challenging for foreign-language films in the United States. Panorama Europe gives New York audiences what may be their only chance to see these acclaimed films from the festival circuit on the big screen. This year’s festival will take place at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and at Bohemian National Hall in Manhattan.  

SEDUCE ME (dir. Janko Mandic, Slovenia)
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With cheers and a cake, Luka (Janko Mandic) moves out of a youth home where he spent the last 9 years of his life. He finds a lodging and a job at a slaughterhouse with the help of a social worker. His emotionless mother is still alive but he's not in a hurry to see her. At the job, he befriends Ajda (Nina Rakovec), a foreman's daughter who is working there because she has to pay her abusive dad back for the new car she just bought. And the foreman is none too happy about their relationship. Ajda is a thrill seeker and only wants pleasure in life which suits young Luka fine at first, but her willful disinterests in his life and background rubs him the wrong way. While she undresses him, he protests that they don't know anything about each other.

Luka has a good head on his shoulders and a good heart, and is tasting adulthood for the first time. I'm pretty sure Mandic's natural boyish presence will bring out strong paternal/maternal instincts out in the audience. Just like Antoine Doinel and many others before him, Luka makes you root for him as he struggles through life's many incongruities.
The setting of Seduce Me is not a glamorous one. Drab scenery in Ljubljana, Slovenia is seen through the windows of the bus which Luka takes to his even more depressing job. It contrasts with the beautiful forest seen from the train as Luka visits his mother. I interpret the title as Luka crying out for the life ahead of him, the lure of his future. However drab his circumstances are, we know that he is too good and earnest for it and deserves something better. It reminded me strongly of Atmen (Breathing) by Karl Markovics, from a couple of years back. They both are about a good youth trying to survive something called adulthood. Seduce Me is a beautifully written and directed feature film debut by Marko Santic. I'd love to see more from him.


HONEYMOON (dir. Jan Hřebejk, Czech Republic/Slovakia)
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In veteran Czech director Jan Hřebejk's new film, the honeymoon period is astonishingly short.
It's the wedding day of a well-to-do, handsome couple, Tereza (Anna Geislerová) and Radim (Stanislav Majer). It's an ideal setting for the happy couple - friends and family, a big lakeside house, nature, booze, dancing and lots of shrieking children. Everyone is having a great time... except for one: a nebbish optician who calls himself Jan. This uninvited guest shows up at the reception, claiming to be Radim's old schoolmate. As the day winds down, Jan's sour talk on the marriage takes a toll on Tereza's mood. He refuses to leave until she opens his wedding present which turns out to be an urn filled with someone's remains. She has to confront Radim about his past and needs to decide if she wants to marry someone she hardly knows.
Honeymoon is a tense drama in the same vein as Thomas Vinterberg's Celebration. The taboo subject here is severe bullying. Hřebejk skillfully drops hints from the beginning that this idyllic setup has a dirty secret. The film asks us just how much of one's past sins others can forgive and live with. It also puts so-called 'masculinity' under the microscope. Jan and his dead friend's experience is a blood curdlingly horrendous one. The savage bullying sequences involving a effeminate boy being forced to dress up as Nastassja Kinski in the flashbacks are heart wrenching. The heartbreaking third act examines that people might never change who they really are. Hřebejk leaves the film open ended, suggesting that the couple's future is uncertain. And thanks to this film, I can't look at Nastassja Kinski the same way ever again.


FISH N' CHIPS (dir. Elias Demetriou, Cyprus)
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Elias Demetriou, a citizen of Cyprus, Britain and Greece, tries to navigate through a complicated modern European geo-socio-political landscape. The film's protagonist is Andy (Marios Iannou, giving a down-to-earth, affecting performance here), a Fish n' Chips shop manager in a working class London neighborhood. Andy decides to take a trip back to Cyprus with his aging mom and his East-German girlfriend Karin and her grown-up daughter Emma. Once in Cyprus while crashing at his seemingly well-to-do brother's house, Andy decides to set up a chip shop, only to find out that Cypriots, who are comfortable basking in Mediterranean sun and eating kebabs, have no appetite for thick battered fried fish. After the drug fueled beach party to jumpstart the shop goes wrong and his senile mom goes missing, Andy has to make a choice: does he stay in his native country where he is seen as a foreigner or does he go back to London, where most of his adult life has been spent, where locals still harass him and call him Paki?

Fish n' Chips tells an all-too-familiar, down and out story of an immigrant whose loyalty and cultural identity become at odds. Despite strong, earnest performances by everyone involved, with on-the-nose dialog and a tiresome plot, the film ends up soaked in melodrama.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Honesty is Such a Lonely Word

Nymphomaniac: Vol.2 (2013) - von Trier
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It is definitely the worst work by von Trier. All his carrier he has maintained himself as a manic depressive person who is deeply pessimistic about humanity. That's fine, I don't have any problem with that. It only becomes a problem when he repeats himself and has nothing new to say. But he still has a penchant for upsetting people any way he can so he has to go on. Nymphomaniac is as if he made a check list of every offensive and controversial things and checked off one by one: erected penis/close up of vagina- check, fellatio/cunilingus - check, mentioning N* word- check, pedophilia- check, homosexuality - check. The film feels like an obligatory soapbox performance- the cinematic zeal is gone, graphic sex feels flat and not titillating at all. Charlotte Gainsbourg as his mouth piece, he declares the world is full of hypocrites. He is the only honest person in the world. von Trier has become the cinema equivalent of Billy Joel. The ending of this movie is perhaps the worst movie ending I've experienced in my life. It's a total fuck you to the audience. But sadly, it will make money with all the ad campaign and splitting the movie in two parts for no reason, charging separate admissions and whatnot. You lost me von Trier. Perhaps forever.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Train of Life

Snowpiercer (2013) - Bong
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Oh man, Zizek will have a field day with this movie. A complete society/biosphere divided by class and those with power and those without, get this, ON A MOVING TRAIN! It's 2031, and the world has frozen over again. The only survivors are the ones on the train. On the tail end of the train are the smelly ragtag of normal people in cramped quarters. The other end, people with power, food and water, the eternal engine and its creator Wilford. Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellows has a plan to revolt and take over the train. First, they have to patiently wait for the right moment when all four visible doors are opened to the next car. Then they need to bumrush through the heavy security forces with guns to get to Namgung Minsu (Song Gang-ho), a security specialist who designed the security system for the train and knows how to open all the doors up to the front car but for some unknown reason, locked up in the prison section of the train.

Bong adapts the dystopian French graphic novel and makes it pretty exciting and at times, beautiful. There are many set pieces that are just jaw dropping, especially the ax-wielding black hooded baddies against the good guys. Each car shows the excess of the haves, much like Wes Anderson tableaux - an aquarium, pool, steam rooms, goth club, drug den, etc. I love it. It's certainly much less annoying than Matrix and Dark Knight's philosophical posing but any less obvious in its espousing "we have to have the rules otherwise its chaos and anarchy". Snowpiercer is a superb entertainment with lots of international stars including Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Song and Evans.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Greatest Movie Never Made

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013) - Pavich
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Riding the tide of success he had with El Topo and Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky and his French producer Michel Seydoux set out to make mind altering Sci-fi, the-humanity-will-thank-me-later masterpiece, Dune. Director Frank Pavich chronicles the failed process with great details with many main players involved and it's a fascinating one. Jodorowsky managed to amass these 'spiritual warriors' with his manic enthusiasm - the cast includes Dali, Orson Welles, David Caradine and his then 12 year old son as the film's titular character, Paul, and for special effects, Dan O'Bannon (who later did Alien), for storyboarding and concept design, Moebius (comic book artist who Jodo collaborated later), HR Giger to name a few. What Jodo and Seydoux did was making a huge, thick story book with all the concept drawings, character designs and storyboards with full color illustrations and circulated around the major studios for 5 million finishing fund. It was 1975, two years before Star Wars but no one was interested in it. With his heavily accented English, excited Jodorowsky dominates the show, reminding us, trying to help us imagine how great it would've been. With the help of animation sequences all based on Moebius drawings, Pavich makes the case also, how amazing, and to some extent, how impossible, the movie would have been. Nicolas Winding Refn claims he is the only one of the few who actually 'saw' the film with the help of the story book and Jodo's vivid description one night, when he was dining with the crazy Mexican. And he says, "it's awesome!" I believe him.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Glimpse of Beauty is What We Live For

La Grande Bellezza/The Great Beauty (2013) - Sorrentino
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With sweeping camera movements and energetic soundtrack, The Great Beauty grabs you from the get-go. It's Rome's socialite, Jep (Toni Servillo)'s 65th birthday. Jep wrote a famous book once, some 40 years ago. Now he is writing and interviewing people for some celeb gossip magazine. Living in an opulent building with the big terrace overlooking the famous Colosseum, Jep's life is one big party, night after night. His party guests are perpetually engaged in frivolous conversations and take jabs at each other when they are not dancing, drinking or fucking. Jep, always a cigarette and beatific smile fixed on his face, possesses a zen like tranquility. This is one the differences between him and Marcello from La Dolce Vita. Jep's in the middle of it, but he is also self-aware and sees through how silly his and his friend's lives are. A forever bachelor, he just observes everything from the center if that makes any sense. He made up his mind: after living 65 years, he will do anything he feels like doing. He breaks down a young performance artist who rams herself into a wall while being naked. She defends herself by saying that 'the artist doesn't have to explain herself'. He keeps asking the meaning of her art. She doesn't know. He gently tells off a snobby, condescending woman friend who accuses him of not contributing to society enough, that his book was pretentious. He quietly points out all the hypocrisy of her argument that she herself is a well-to-do, spoiled, rich woman. All they can do at their age, he says, is to go on without offending each other.

Even religion doesn't give Jep an answer to the spiritual longing to fill the vacuum. He realizes this when talking to a cardinal who's supposedly in line for the popedom and abandons the effort quickly. Funnily, the cardinal, who was rumored to be the best exorcist in his heydays, blesses him like he would the devil before taking off. A man who's been a husband of Jep's first love visits him and tells him that his wife has died. Upon reading his wife's diary, he found that it was Jep she loved all this time. But she left him back then. With this, Sorrentino opens up to the glimpse of the great beauty without sentimentality but with much grace and wisdom.

The Great Beauty is immaculately done film. It is truly virtuosic filmmaking from beginning to end. Obviously there are odes to Fellini- magician, a knife thrower and a fat woman who comes out of the birthday cake who resembles Saraghina on the beach from 8 1/2. If the film is a reflection of the Bellusconi bunga-bunga era and its hollowness, that's fine too. It still retains that melancholy and sadness and silence and thoughtfulness against that super stylized, slick, camera moves and gyrating, young bodies and loud dance music. One of the best films I've seen this year, so far.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Deadly Funny Business

The Loved One (1965) - Richardson
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A satirical look at Hollywood's funeral industry. While arranging his uncle (John Gielgud)'s funeral at grandiose funeral parlor complex called Whispering Glades, owned and operated by Rev. Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters), our nebbish Brit hero Dennis (Robert Morse) falls for a ridiculously naive and idealistic cosmetician Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comers). Aimee is also pursued by a creepy, mama's boy embalmer Mr. Joyboy (hilarious Rod Steiger). Penniless Dennis coos Aimee with his poetry while working at adjoining pet cemetery (Aimee hates it because she deems it as crass). He also has to fight off Joyboy's sabotage at his courtship along the way. There are so many wacky ideas and characters in The Loved One: whispering Glades' over the top pageantry, Aimee living in the house at the edge of a cliff, only a few stomps away from collapsing, Joyboy's obese mother demanding grand dinner in bed, a mocking newpaper advice columnist giving half-hearted advice to Aimee, a genius kid's idea of rocket funeral being first adapted by pet cemetery then by Glenworthy to solve the plot shortage problems. A cross somewhere between Soylent Green and Dr. Strangelove, Tony Richardson's black comedy is great fun.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Intimacy

She's Lost Control (2014) - Marquardt
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Professional intimacy takes center stage in Anja Marquardt's She's Lost Control. 'She' in this case is Ronah (Brooke Bloom), a thirty something, confident, determined woman pursuing a masters degree who makes living as a sexual surrogate - arranged by her psychiatrist employer, she helps her clients who have physical and emotional intimacy problems by providing a safe mind space where they can explore physical intimacy. She's Lost Control is not some skin deep exploitation film about a sex worker, nor is it some romantic melodrama. Marquardt's brooding exploration has almost a look and feel of a clinical documentary.

Ronah is a complicated woman. She gives everything to help bring out these damaged men from their shells. Yet her private life is less than ideal- she leads a lonely life in a tiny, characterless New York apartment with bad plumbing. She willfully ignores her brother who desperately needs her help in looking after their senile mother in upstate NY. She frequently visits a fertility clinic to freeze her eggs, just in case she wants a child in the future. Then there is a phone stalker (presumably a former client) who is making her life miserable.

Things change when she takes on a new client, Johnny, a brooding, deeply withdrawn doctor. He is a hard nut to crack. One day it's a success and next it's terrible. It's a brutal tug of war - she uses different exercises and charms to bring him out with uneven successes. He can't trust Ronah's earnestness completely and certain small details turn him off to be intimate with
her. She finally makes him sustain eye contact. However tough Johnny is as a client, Ronah slowly begins to finds solace in their relationship while her private life falls apart.

Bloom gives a truly brave performance as Ronah. She is at once strong and vulnerable, wise and naive, plain and seductive. Marc Menchaca is also great as Johnny, a hulking, deeply wounded man. There is an amazing scene with Johnny and Ronah looking directly into the camera and addressing each other. It's one of the most powerful scenes I've experienced in cinema in quite a while.

She's Lost Control reflects on our society where true intimacy is becoming rarer, let alone general human contact.

After debuting at this year's Berlinale, She's Lost Control plays as part of ND/NF 2014, on 3/29, 9pm and again 3/30, 4:30pm. For tickets, please visit ND/NF website.

Mystery Well Worth Investigating

Finding Vivian Maier (2013) - Maloof, Siskel
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I became aware of Vivian Maier's beautiful photographs through my photographer friend about a year ago when he showed me a photo book he just purchased called Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.

Those Rolleiflex medium format shot black and white photographs of people immediately grabbed my attention. He told me a very improbable yet amusing story about how Maier's work was discovered. In 2007, a young man named John Maloof, while doing research on his Chicago neighborhood, happened to come across a box full of 35mm still photo negatives at an auction house. He then discovered that the box contained amazing works of art. They belonged to a reclusive woman who worked as a nanny and housekeeper all her life. Ever since then, Maloof has been doing everything in his power to get her work out into the world.

Curiosity really got to Maloof. Clearly not satisfied with getting out the book and the website dedicated to Maier's work, with a video camera, he, along with co-director Charlie Siskel (nephew of the late critic Gene Siskel), sets out to find just who this woman really was, interviewing an impressive amount of people who, one way or another, knew her. There is so much she left behind -- not only of thousands of undeveloped b&w and color film rolls, but also stacks of newspaper clippings she collected, receipts, letters, clothes -- that had been in storage, and would most likely have been thrown away if Maloof didn't intervene.

So who was she? Finding Vivian Maier works like a good detective story: a lanky woman with a French accent, who took thousands and thousands of photographs in her spare time, who appeared in many of her photographs herself, but never showed her pictures to anyone. Did she want her talent to be discovered or didn't she? The film traces her life as a nanny/caretaker in Chicago and the New York area by interviewing many of the families she worked for. It seems that Maier had a dark side as well, as some of the children (now adults), whom she took care of, testify about her condescension toward 'normal' people and their lives.

Maloof even travels to Maier's ancestral homeland in French Alps, a small town where her mother is from. There he finds a film lab where Maier corresponded with its technicians. Maier knew the importance of developing and editing her work. She wanted her work to be shown at some point.

Although this documentary doesn't go deep into her late years, it was some of the children, whom she took care of as a nanny, who came to her rescue to get her an apartment, and took care of her until the end of her life.

Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating documentary about a person's life. And I give Maloof a huge credit for his dedication. Many interviewees snigger at his unbelievably good luck of stumbling upon Maier's work. One of the interviewees bluntly tells him in the beginning of the movie, "I just wish I discovered them (photographs) first, not you." The filmmaker demonstrates that the film's not about him, but all about his subject, by exiting the frame and letting the story unfold by itself early on. 

It is quite commendable to devote many years of your life cataloging and sorting through not only someone's life's work but also one's life story. It is Maloof's unwavering devotion to let Maier's work be known (with a great curatorial eye) to the world and the sincerity in his investigation into finding who she really was that I find extremely noble and moving.


Finding Vivian Maier opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, March 28, and in other cities in April. Please visit IFC website for more information.

To see more of Maier's photos and information, please visit www.vivianmaier.com