Friday, August 21, 2015

Nina Simone, The Original Gangsta

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) - Garbus
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I don’t like the accusatory tone of the title which comes from a quote from Maya Angelou- the full quote from her essay written in 1970 is this:

“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?”

It starts with Lisa Simone Kelly, the singer’s only child saying that she was being Nina Simone 24/7 and that was her downfall. I do not like the framing of the film at all. It might be an informative documentary about one of the most iconic American singers, but it concentrates too much on her decision to leave America without ever asking why.

Then the film traces her rollercoaster life with interviews, stock footage and voice recordings and her personal writings.

Simone wanted to be a first black woman classical pianist, playing Bach at Carnegie Hall. She trained at an early age in her hometown in North Carolina. After not getting into her desired school for obvious racism in Philadelphia, she moved to New York. To make ends meet and continue her classical training, she started play in bars in Atlantic City. Singing came accidentally for her (and thank god for that) but it was obvious to everyone that she was musically gifted.

She married a NY vice cop who became her manager. Later he went Ike Turner on her. She did’t have time for anything else and became depressed about her workhorse entertainer career.

Living next to Betty Shabazz in Mt. Vernon, NY, she became deeply involved with Civil Rights Movement and became close friends with who’s who in black activists and intellectuals. She finally found the purpose in her life. She was angry at what was happening to black folks and wrote fiery songs and preached violence to people on stage.

It all ended with Dr. King’s murder. She lost all hope in America and left the country, her abusive husband and her career and fame. First to Barbados, then Liberia, Switzerland and she finally ending up in France, penniless.

The film reveals that she suffered from bipolar disorder and had to be medicated to be functional while living in Europe. Her daughter remembers her mood swings and violent behaviors. I understand that they want to portray her frankly. But facts alone don’t make a great documentary. What Happened misses the subject’s significance by gazing too much into her personal life It misses the big picture of placing Nina Simone as an artist and activist in American history.

I remember distinctly reading one of the interviews in her later years that she still thought there was no hope for black folks in this country, and that she has no intention of coming back. It was1990s. By all accounts, with the police killings of last few years, things haven’t really changed much here since the civil rights of the 60s.

One great quote from the film is from Ambassador Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X and a family friend, who has the best observation of Simone’s career out of all people featured, "She was not at odds with the times—the times was at odds with her.”

Move over N.W.A. Nina Simone was the original gangsta.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Moving Biosphere

First published on 12/13/14. After finishing rounds at film festival circuit, The Iron Ministry gets a week run in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego starting 8/21. More cities will follow. Please visit the film's website for more info.

The Iron Ministry (2014) - Sniadecki
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Just like Leviathan and Manakamana before it, J.P. Sniadecki's The Iron Ministry is another striking sensory cinema experience. Closely associated with Havard Sensory Ethnography Lab and its esteemed Colleagues - Julien Castraing-Taylor, Verena Paravel, Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez and others, Sniadecki continues exploring the cinematic medium to its new height with the film which takes place entirely on the moving trains in China.

Sniadecki, fluent in Mandarin, has been making films in China since 2010. Chaiquian, his first film explored the changing landscape of China and its 'floating people' - mass workers' migration from rural areas to the cities, followed by People's Park - a breathtaking single take film strolling through the Chengdu park, then Yumen, a docu-hybrid taking place in the ghost city of the title in China's northwest Gansu province.

Sniadecki's cinematic ethnographic survey of China continues with The Iron Ministry. He gets on one of the insanely crowded and aggressively filthy Chinese trains, and records nooks and crannies of a train, talks and listens to variety of passengers. It's another fascinating, seductive whatsit.

There are already two outstanding documentaries on the Chinese railway system - a master documentarian Wang Bing's 9-hour magnum opus, West of the Tracks and Last Train Home, about the mass migration of workers going home for the new year. What differentiate The Iron Ministry is in its framing, figuratively and literally: again, like Leviathan (a commercial fishing boat) and Manakamana (a cable car), Sniadecki's camera finds itself in a locomotive moving and not moving at the same time, finding a biosphere that exists in a confined space and within the frame. It has much in common with Bong Joon-ho's international blockbuster Sci-fi film, Snowpiercer without the in-your-face socio-political implications.

The film starts in darkness. The dull but unmistakable sound of train on the rail fades up with it. First we can't make out what we are seeing. Gradually we are introduced to the visual - it's an accordion tube part of the train where two cars connect. Its dirty interior slowly reveals itself- duct tapes here and there, holding together its plastic parts. It's jarring and alienating at first. Then we see cigarette butts floating in dirty water in the water basin gently swaying in the commotion of the locomotive. We hear men clearing their nasal passages and spitting. It's disgusting yet comforting. We know that we are in the human world territory, not that of the machine's.

There are animal organs hanging on every doorknob and meat seller's folding meat with her bare hands on the floor of the train, minding her own business. The train stops and it's a flood of humanity coming on board with their personal belongings and merchandises - fruit, vegetables, meat, in insane quantities on each. People negotiate their way through the incredibly crowded cars. They sleep wherever they can, cramming every corner of the car including over the sink in extremely contorted positions and holding, leaning on each other like the doomed lovers in Pompei. People eat, sleep, smoke, listen to music and talk to pass the time of their long journey to their destinations.

Today, it is hard to think of riding on trains as the usual mode of transportation, but the railway system is the only way for many of China's rural communities. Most of his fellow travelers Sniadecki interviews are struggling low-class people trying to find a better life somewhere else.

The filmmaker shows the train as a microcosm of fast changing China still tied to diehard traditions in a subtlest, most natural way possible. The Iron Ministry is an intoxicating combination of outside looking in, like peering into one of those precious self-sustaining eco-sphere balls and also being lost in that ball for an hour and a half. It is one of the best films of the year. Don't miss seeing this film in theaters!

J.P. Sniadecki will be on hand for a Q & A session on 8/21, 7pm screening at MoMA. Please checkout MoMA website for more info.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Innocence Triumphs Over Thug Life

Prince (2014) - de Jong
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A young Dutch filmmaker Sam de Jong's debut film Prince has all of the stereotypical elements that make up a so-called gangsta movie - guns, drugs, babes, bling-blings and expensive sports mobiles. But underneath all its macho posturing, inner-city working class cliché and flashy aesthetics, you find an unexpected sweetness as the film unfolds.

Our teenage half-breed protagonist Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri) hangs out with his buddies and spending time blowing up mail boxes with firecrackers in their Amsterdam housing projects neighborhood. Ayoub dreams of hitting big and hooking up with Laura (Sigrid ten Napel), a blonde neighborhood girl who is currently seeing Ronnie, a head of the gang of older, lowly criminal boys who taunt and bully around Ayoub and his friends. "Our day will come," Ayoub ominously tells his buddies after one such bullying session.

At home, Ayoub has to contend with his lonely Dutch mother and his cute, half sister Demi (Olivia Lonsdale). His asserting the 'man of the family' role only meets disdain from them. He meets his homeless drug addict Moroccan father and slip in whatever money he can give him. His father is one of those fragile, effeminate 'little bird' - not meant for this world.

Ayoub finally gets attention from a creepy, sniveling local kingpin Kalpa and start running errands for him. Kalpa even lets him drive his iridescent Ferrari and gives him a crown as a souvenir, calling him Prince.

Hitting big time means distancing himself from his buddies. Ayoub's over-protectiveness of his sister comes between him and his best friend Franky (Jorik Scholten) who falls in love with her. Franky also happens to be Ronnie's little brother and after Ayoub explodes on him, Ronnie calls for blood. Kalpa sees Ayoub's beat up face and things get ugly. Kalpa wants him to get revenge on Ronnie at gunpoint.

Beneath all this macho posturing, there is a strong undercurrent of innocence and sweetness carried out by young actors. Their interactions are authentic and have an obvious air of kids playing adults.

It would be easy to group de Jong in Nicolas Winding Refn camp with his slick style and 80s style pumping electronic soundtrack (by Dutch musician Palmbomen). But Prince has more common with Truffaut's 400 Blows in spirit. The film easily could have gone more conventional - the eruption of violence and overflow of emotions. But it's filled with many quiet, sweet tender moments - like Ayoub brushing off his junkie dad's disheveled hair in the empty pool, or him awkwardly wooing Laura.

A tragedy brings resolution and brings the group together in unexpected ways. de Jong is smart enough not to get caught up in his aesthetics and doesn't forget the meat of the story and characters. Prince is a great feature debut and a showcase for a promising young director who has style and more importantly, a sensitive soul which is a rare commodity in today's cinema landscape.

Prince will be released in theaters & on VOD platforms August 14th.


Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Interview: Hubert Sauper on We Come as Friends and the Perils of Documentary Filmmaking

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Talking to filmmaker Hubert Sauper is a dangerous proposition. Friendly, humble yet extremely charismatic, you feel like you can talk to him all day. You don't feel the passage of time listening to his riveting stories. His ease and nonchalance with himself let your guard down the first time you see him.

Even with the heavy subject, the newly founded South Sudan and his new film We Come as Friends about the country, our conversation was full of laughs and giddiness. Only later you realize how gifted a communicator Sauper really is both with film and in person.

We Come as Friends opens Friday in New York. Please visit IFC Center website for tickets. *Sauper will be on hand for Q & As for Friday and Saturday screenings.


You've done films about Rwanda (KISANGANI DIARY), Tanzania (DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE) and now South Sudan. Your interests in Africa goes way back about 20 years. Can you tell me how it all started?

I went to Africa in 1997. Before then, I knew about Africa as much as most Europeans, which is almost nothing, except what everyone knew already - that those poor people needed help, that we should send them clothes and food. And I understood pretty quickly that...what it means to be European and how everything was intertwined, that our continents are extremely connected over thousands of years and that this dialectic about north and south- as in Asia and Americas, is kind of pathological and unbalanced.

And I got interested in Africa not because it's 'Africa'. But because it's kind of collision line, as I say in my films- between forces, cultures, regions in terms of the world's economic interests. So I'm basically interested in human condition, not necessarily Africa as some kind of an object. But of course I feel somehow connected to it for some reason. I feel, so to speak, at home. It sounds very colonial I know. (laughs embarrassingly)

So yeah, all my films are not about Africa. What I can see is not always obvious but some times I can see things because my odd life (as a filmmaker) that other people can not, because they have other things to do. They have a job within the UN and work on the seize-fire and I don't know it's a different kind of...life.

But also I'm more and more interested in the discrepancy between 'what is' and 'what is told' as history is not 'what happened' but 'what is told what happened'. This all notion of North/South, globalism, slavery, colonialism narrative is, in my point of view, so off track from what I can see and feel as I discover in my, so to speak, adventures you know which in itself is an appendix of colonial-

Do you really feel that way?

Oh yeah. When the early pioneers, explorers and settlers were part of the equation then I am too as an European. As a kid I was fascinated by Star Trek, going to new planets every Saturday night and experience the perils of the other world.

That's in this film, right? You start it with...

The narrative of advancing space and time then actually of course taking over and possessing and getting rid of bad guys.

So all of these ideas were what I was playing with, gravitated toward and confused about. Maybe I wanted to bring in that confusion into something that seems to be too clear. Maybe it was also about adolescent feelings about the establishment...it's always refreshing and great thing to be able to be doing this at almost fifty and screwing the lives of warlords and... (I laugh)

Three films in almost twenty years span. Does it take a long time for you to make one project?

Yeah. Well, the gap between Darwin's Nightmare and this film is extreme because, first of all it's a way of life and it's a long haul - the thinking process and money and financing and you have to establish all these access in an inaccessible world.

But this was extreme because I had to get rid of so much very threatening forces against me after Darwin's Nightmare. I couldn't really believe what was happening to my life. The film became very successful after it won bunch of awards and got nominated for an Oscar and all that. It was two years after the film was made. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Because I needed that Oscar (nom) to get financing for my films and I got suddenly this exposure so all these wrong people saw my film. These are powerful people- gun runners in Africa and so on. They decide to go after not only me but also people in the film. They were persecuted and imprisoned and had death threats and lawsuits from very dubious groups of people who had a lot of money.

So my life was literally upside down - I had to get people out of the county, my friends had a direct threat against them and their house was destroyed and they were imprisoned.

Oh god.

So I had to do undercover operations for years to understand what happened and counterattack the core group of people who were running this hate campaign.

They were claiming many things in the film were not true. I don't know if you are interested in this but they claimed those fish bones in the film are not for humans but for dogs.

But it's there in the film that kids are eating them!

The second claim was purely mentioned by filmmaker but you don't see the guns. So there was no gun running - you don't see them so nothing happened.

Crazy.

The third claim was that those street kids were actors. They were actually from good homes but they were dressed up miserably for the camera and acting for me to...

Exploit them?

It was just insane. Any intelligent person can see that what they are claiming is bullshit but when the film is running for the Oscar and when it was in the press, so shit hit the fan. This triggered then, the (Tanzanian) government going down to the people to...

Wow.

So I had to take care of this and it took so much time and energy that We Come as Friends was delayed for years.

But...I don't now regret it. I went after these people in France. The head of the defamation campaign was found guilty of defamation which is a very heavy crime in France and they shut down the campaign finally. But I had to go all the way to protect all the people who were involved in it.

That's a crazy story Hubert. But the thing is you went right back to South Sudan to do this film!

Yeah but I mean, when you go through something like that, you get stronger. After that I was clearer about my convictions and my ideas, not that I'm sure I know the truth but I have certain convictions that are stronger than before.

But also after that, suddenly I understood certain dissidents better- when it's your own skin, own life that's threatened, it's very different.

True.

It gave me a realization that I need to make a movie that stands itself against all the scrutiny.

The thing about WE COME AS FRIENDS is its scope: you are charting the whole Sudan conflict in one film. Not that your other films are any less expansive, but with this one, you are really painting the big picture.

There are couple of elements that stood out for me. I found the Christian missionaries part very interesting. It's obvious that they are doing a lot of damage to the fabric of the Sudanese society. But was there any debate in your mind to weigh pros and cons of what these missionaries are doing there?

Well, if you are living in a village in Sudan and over head there is a bomber plane from Khartoum, from Islamic regime. And bomb your village and kill your daddy or your mommy and a week afterwords, somebody from Texas and they feed you and give you socks, you would be happy too, no?

Right.

The fact that a lot of these missionaries are so sure about their belief in their world, I find that quite fascinating and of course scary too. They are basically antiquating (the native culture). They are just a tip of the iceberg. They are from our industrial, Judeo-Christian world. They are just doing their job you know. They are sent by our military industrial complex which needs to go out and dress the naked people. How could they be around guarding our oil field if they are naked? They need socks and they need uniforms you know? This is the mad wheel of... this is what exactly the film is trying to describe.

When I got to South Sudan I have to admit that someone said that this is a country with almost no roads. And I can see that people are naked. We are uncomfortable because they don't fit in our picture that they are not controllable.

That was an absurd scene to see them putting socks on a baby even though they live on the dirt floor.

I remember growing up getting taught by everyone that we need to send clothes to Africa. It was the most normal thing to do, "of course everyone needs clothes." There is no second thought. It's fascinating to think that we don't give a second thought. The settlers live there and go to fancy parties and stay at the poolside and sip cocktails. They are part of the system.

Speaking of no roads, the film starts with that rickety plane that you are traveling on.  How dangerous was that? It seemed very unsafe given the history of air travel in that region. I know many politicians died in a plane or helicopter crash, presumably shot down by their enemies.

The problem with the politicians is that they tend to die after they sign a peace agreement.

Yeah exactly.

So they don't want to sign any peace agreements. (I laugh)
You laugh but this is no joke. When they say, "OK, let's put down our gun." There are others who want to keep fighting. They say, "You are dead. We don't need you anymore."

That's how John Garang died.

Yeah. Supposedly it was an accident but many signs point to the fact that some didn't want him alive. But nobody knows. I don't want to know. I don't want to put my nose into their affairs.

Understood.

I know Rwandan president died that way, the head of the UN (Dag Hammarskjöld) died in congo and there are many other cases.

But I didn't sign any peace agreement so... (I laugh)

To give you an answer to your question, that plane seems more dangerous in the film than it actually was. But in many cases we were in very uncomfortable situations with the soldiers and restrictions, really frightening moments and actually the plane got us out of those situations. We said that we were going to do repair on the plane, go back to the plane, and just take off.

In the air, we were flying high enough not to be shot down by any missiles or RPGs. It was like we are in our spaceship, joking and laughing and land somewhere and get arrested and imprisoned for days.

So of course there was a risk of engine failure and fall into a crocodile infested swamps. But I get scared in retrospect only. One thing is for sure: if you are in a civil war, jumping one place to another, there is a bigger chance to get shot in the face with Kalashnikoff than die in a plane crash. You have many checkpoints  and there are young guys with guns on drugs...

Do you think it helps you in those situations for a fact you are white european?

You know in the colonial heritage by the way there was this belief system that they can't kill white people because if you do, then the ghosts or spirits of the white men will haunts you. Until the point in history when French rounded up thousands of Senegalese to fight in WWI against Germans. They had to shoot at Germans who were white. And they got back after the emancipation process and told their people, "OK, we can shoot the white guys."

That's absurd.

No, it's not. That's how they got independence after the World War I. They shot the governor and found out there were no white ghosts following them.

But in Sudan, to answer your question...when you feed it into the protocols, when you have a uniform on - then you are potentially part of a bigger group. Then the question they ask is, "who are you with?" I usually answer them that I am with them.

There was another thing that struck me in the film. Whenever you land, people were asking the question if you were Muslim or Christian. The intensity in their eyes scared me.

But I'm neither. I am nothing.

I think they want me to wrap up, even though we just started. I have a friend from Congo. He kept saying that the time has come for the Africans- Everyone had their spotlights: the Europeans,  Americans and the Asians had their day. He believes it's time for Africans to experience the power and wealth in the world. I told him jokingly that it is possible only if we don't destroy the world before then. Are you hopeful for the Africans or do you see their problems too big to overcome because of the shadows of colonialism still hanging over them?

Very much so. But to be honest, I'm not a pessimistic person. If Africa had its moments- I wouldn't say it's impossible. But it is more likely that the world is on fire and they have lands and cows and they could live off the land, then they will be OK. Then that would be their time.

There is a song at the end, "Tomorrow is My Turn" I gave the song script to the singer, Malia, and told her to look at the kids in the film in photos. She put the photos in front of her near the microphone. The song is her singing for the kids.

But even if, lets say Africa becomes superpower, it's just the group of people who'd get very rich within Africa.

True.

New/Old Colonialism

We Come as Friends (2015) - Sauper
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Hubert Sauper, a Paris based filmmaker known for his searing eco-disaster exposé in Tanzania, Darwin's Nightmare (2005), continues to document the African continent in his new documentary, We Come As Friends. This time, he sheds light on the post-referendum era Sudan. And it is a damning indictment of new-old colonialism that casts shadows on every corners of the youngest country in the world - South Sudan.

Sudan's decades long civil war claimed estimated 2.5 million lives and created the biggest humanitarian crisis since WWII. In the West, Sudan became synonymous with child soldiers, Lost Boys of Sudan and various Human Rights violations.

After decades of the bloody conflict, South Sudan's Christian majority finally broke free from Khartoum's merciless Islamic government and voted resounding yes to the cessation in 2011.

Still, as Sauper examines, that the newly founded country is riddled with many serious problems. He makes a broader claims that the chaos stems from the colonial past. He draws parallels with then and now, with British and French drawing the line in the sand throughout the continent and Chinese and American companies competing for dominance securing the country's natural resources - the oil fields that precariously borders the north and south.

Sauper, seen on the fields documenting and asking questions, shows that the control for oil fields are still raging among different factions. The oil revenues buy more weapons to fuel the conflict. Chinese oil and mine companies buy up the lands from locals who don't have the concept of land ownership exploit the land and don't take responsibilities for environmental damages. It's jarring to see garbage strewn road to the oil company compounds and seeing so many Chinese workers living in workers camp in the middle of nowhere. There are no contacts between them and its native inhabitants nearby.

With animosity between Muslims and Christians are scarier than ever and the threat of violence is regarded a necessity between them. Whenever Sauper and his crew lands their rickety plane, the first question people ask is whether they are Muslim or Christian, the intensity of their question and stares barely contains the possibilities of violence.

Stock footage of group of white settlers and dignitaries chilling near poolside is juxtaposed with modern day missionaries and foreign dignitaries. Farmers and other inhabitants are losing their land to 99 year leases for Christian missionaries and their western style schools. Children in their traditional garb are banned from attending schools. And well meaning white settlers are seen giving out T-shirts and putting sox on a Sudanese toddler on the dirt floor.

Just like Darwin's Nightmare some years ago, We Come as Friends points out overwhelmingly dire circumstances the post-colonial Africans find themselves in. We see the human cost of up close and personal and its devastating. The film's a little unwieldy and expansive, but one should give Sauper a credit for trying to encompass everything that's been going on for decades in a country still riddled with open wounds of the colonial past in 1 hour 40 minutes. It's another strong case against the long lasting effect of colonialism.

We Come as Friends opens August 14 at IFC Center. Please check IFC Center website for tickets & more info.

Ice Queen

Amnesiac (2015) - Polish
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Twin filmmakers Michael and Mark Polish occupies a special spot in American indie landscape. Since their strong debut Twin Falls Idaho, a weird little movie about conjoined twins, the brothers have been chugging along surviving in Hollywood, acting and directing series of independent films since the late 90s. They have a very distinctive visual style with a narrative steeped in magic realism while invoking the American West of yesteryears - men in dark suits and fedoras, expansive vistas, etc - my favorite film of theirs being Northfork.

Amnesiac, a small film not written by and not starring either Polish, is another unusual solo outing, after Big Sur, a Jack Keruac adaptation in 2013, by Michael Polish as a director. This stylish, slow burn psychological thriller stars Kate Bosworth as a deranged veterinarian who wants a perfect American family. Wes Bentley is her victim, a captive in her grand mansion, who has lost his memory after the car accident.

As our unwitting captive slowly gains consciousness, he explores the big house while limping. He doesn't get too far though. Always caught in the midst of confusion as to where and who he is, he is led back to the bed again and again, being assured by his supposedly loving wife that his memories will come flooding back in time.

He vaguely remembers the accident and a flash of a young girl in the back seat of the car. His captor insists that they are a married couple. But slowly he finds out that she is a murderess and holding him bedridden for a reason.

There are the usual Polish touches everywhere, from anamorphic cinematography with the full use of light and space to 1950's style artifacts - Bosworth's old Hollywood ice queen, mouthing idiosyncratic trivial pursuit-style facts, big old convertibles, home movies on film, old phonographs, etc. Amnesiac dutifully follows the tried and true captive plot, a.k.a. Misery, but it is a lot less concerned about the plot details. Bentley's character endures much of his screen time tied to a bed, drugged and old-timey electro-shocked for misbehaving. And there are some thrilling moments as the outside force, a mailman and a cop, snooping around after the disturbances caused by the captives. As the cat-and-mouse game plays out, physical space becomes tighter and tighter, finally gets confined to a basement for the climax.

Obviously the film is Bosworth vehicle. After giving wonderfully nuanced performance as Billie, a longtime mistress of Neal Cassidy who comes between him and Jack Keruac in Polish's Keruac adaptation of Big Sur, she changes gears here completely. Even though her character is short on exposition, she commands the screen with her icy demeanor. There is a slight backstory to her character but she doesn't really need our sympathy, because she is completely in charge of the situation - even when she gets stabbed with a pair of shearing scissors. It's a quite dark, demanding role and Bosworth wears it well, as she calmly takes care of business with an electronic hedge trimmer.

Amnesiac is a refreshing take on the psychological thriller. It's relatively a small project, but Polish and Bosworth make the most of it and make it shine.

XLrator Media will be releasing AMNESIAC in Theaters on VOD and iTunes on August 14th.

Polish Filmmaking: Michael Polish Interview

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Amnesiac is the second solo outing by Michael Polish (one of the identical twin filmmakers, the Polish brothers) after his Jack Keruac adaptation Big Sur (which is great and everyone should see it). The thriller stars his wife Kate Bosworth as a femme fatale, playing against type and features his signature visual style. As a moviegoer who's been following the brothers career closely, I was eager to talk to Michael about his interesting career as a filmmaker so far.

You and your brother have a very interesting career trajectory in American cinema landscape since your debut TWIN FALLS IDAHO.

You know me when I was a conjoined twin. (laughs)

I've been following your careers closely. One of my favorite films of all time being NORTHFORK. It's a great film.

Oh thank you. Yeah. You only get to make one of those in your career, that's for sure.

You have written, directed many different kinds of films. I'd like to know your process in choosing a project. AMNESIAC is not written by you and I am wondering how it came about?

I was intrigued in how visually I could bring something to this. So I wanted to think of it as a two-hander, meaning it was two people in a contained area and I knew that landscape pretty well, knew that environment because I've done that before - I've done a film called For Lovers Only where there's only two people running and we were chasing them around.

In the screenplay, Amnesiac didn't have the period aspect. It was basically a modern day piece with a sort of femme fatale. I thought it would be psychologically thrilling to have a main woman character believe that she lived in the 1950s. She is doing everything to make 1950's nuclear family. That she is stuck in a sort of a time capsule. I thought that would elevate what we didn't see in the screenplay. Everyone was on board with making this a period piece. We then knew we might have something special.

It's very you though. I've seen those period details in your films before. I thought that Michael Polish touch was everywhere.

Also it's a second film without your brother's involvement. Are you going separate ways in filmmaking now with you doing your thing and Mark doing HEADLOCK?


We did three films we co-wrote and produced and directed: we had sort of classic sense of producer-director relationship and Mark acting in them. After Northfork, we got to do Astronaut Farmer. But we could feel that at that point we wanted to do different things. We ended up getting a lot of things financed that are previously written and we decided to produce everything that we can do together, knowing that we will get a lot of different work separately later. I don't think we ever set our goal to be like the Coen brothers. As long as we were happy doing it together, we just thought that it was a nice way to launch our careers.

I always thought that you guys always had a very distinctive visual style- your use of space and lighting. In AMNESIAC it's also no exception. It's a small movie with everything taking place in almost one location. What kind of challenges did you have?

Challenge was in how to make one house interesting- if we were able to move around the house, if the house was a maze - you are not sure where you are at, kind of thing. The biggest room (the main bedroom), as the things got worse, got smaller and smaller and they end up in the basement. I thought, let's start big and then see how much we can cram things in to a basement.

Visually we ended up making it darker and darker. I still wanted the movie to be soft lit. I didn't want to bring a lot of lights and make it overly dramatic horror film. I wanted to be sort of classical, painterly murder.

Going in from a huge Cinemascope type of world but it gets smaller and smaller makes people feel very confined by the end. I wanted to the film to be like a rubics cube, so we go back to a same scene over and over again.

It's very effective.

It's a very different role for your wife Kate Bosworth since BIG SUR in which I thought she was great in. Here she plays a kidnapper and a murderer.

She initially brought the screenplay to me. Then she asked me what I thought of it. And I said that the character's very strong but it might be better if we made her look like somebody else. So we made her look at certain types- a Hitchcock blonde and even Ed Hopper paintings. I told her, "You like this character. So Let's make her look like she seriously believe her own world." She had a lot of fun with the character. Yes it's very classically themed. She is this classic blonde. From that, we had a place to jump off from. You didn't really need to make her go there because the character was so stylish.

Kind of 50s movie star, the ice queen...

Yeah, exactly.

You see the movie and it's pretty dark and serious. But it was a lot of fun. You know there was a lot of laughter on the set. But when you see Wes Bently really go at it - talk about being at the dinner table scene and him remembering things. After calling 'cut,' everybody started laughing because it was pretty psycho. (laughs)

Tell me about 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN.

Ah right. This is a film that's coming out in September. That's another whole different direction I took. I say if Amnesiac is about hell, this movie is about heaven. It couldn't be farther apart. You wouldn't expect a filmmaker going from one extreme to another.

It was based on a fascinating story about a minister who was killed on a bridge. I found it really interesting in exploring something where you had a near death experience. Again, visually of course, I wanted to see what I can do. It had a lot of religious aspect to it which I found fascinating. Obviously some of the most beautiful art in the world is based and probably inspired by religion. It's a modern day piece but I was able to work with my cinematographer (M. David Mullen) to make it feel and look classically beautiful in a way that nobody has seen in movies before.

I always thought that your style is a good fit for a western. I want to see a Michael Polish Western some day.

That is in my pocket somewhere. I'm gonna pull that out pretty soon.

I'm very much looking forward to it.

Amnesiac opens in theaters and VOD on August 14.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Silent Grief

Violet (2014) - Devos
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Stunningly photographed in full frame, Violet expresses the physical & emotional detachment from grief and shock after a senseless murder. The film is extremely understated and somber yet 10 times more cinematic than anything Gus Van Sant has done. Use of shallow depth of field, sparse dialog and disorienting yet highly effective sound design conveying the silent grief, first time Belgian director Bas Devos achieves something remarkable here.

Devos knows just about how long to hold a mute static shot or hover over youth inhabiting suburbia to have resonance and depth. The 7 minute one shot ending is worthy of Antonioni comparison.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

On the Road to Big Sur

Big Sur (2013) - Polish
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Interesting. Based on Jack Keruac's later book with the same name, Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho, Northfork) presents Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) as himself, not his alter ego in the book, Jack Duluoz, same as all his circle of friends, making appearance (by actors) as themselves. Jack is having a mid-life crisis of sort. He's tired of his fame and being the poster boy for the beat generation. He is a jaded alcoholic, afraid to commit to any relationship but also afraid to be left alone. His friend and a fellow poet Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards) has a log cabin in the woods and suggests he go there and play Emerson for a while. The beauty of nature impresses him but only few days in, he finds he's no Thoreau. He misses civilization and city life. He relapses to drinking and fooling around with his old and new friends in the city.

Keruac's friend Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) has settled down with Carolyn (Rahda Michell) and kids, working at a tire garage. But he's as wild and impulsive as ever. He introduces Jack to his single mother mistress Billie (Kate Bosworth). It's a love at first sight for both. Jack invites her and bunch of friends to the cabin but his fear takes over and becomes uncertain of everything.

Jean-Marc Barr with a toupee does a convincing fast talking, slightly tortured American writer. Bosworth is great as Carolyn, having a hard time convincing Keruac to take the plunge. Polish whose sensibilities are always keenly tuned in to that of American West spirit, is a good fit for directing the late era Keruac stuff in the beautiful Northern California setting. I recommend this.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Wistful, Loving Tribute to Chris Farley

I Am Chris Farley (2015) - Hodge, Murray
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"The fatty falls down and everyone goes home happy!" jokes Chris Farley with a hint of sincere embarrassment, on The Late Show with David Letterman. This was true. No other Saturday Night Live alum of that era - Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Rob Schneider, made me rolling on the floor with laughter like Chris Farley. It was his childlike innocence, manic energy and great physical abandon that made him so magical.

His drug overdose in 1997 came as no surprise to many, as the rumors of his drug & sex fueled escapades were widely publicized. I Am Chris Farley, directed by Brent Hodge (A Brony Tale) and Derik Murray (I Am Bruce Lee, I Am Evel Knievel) and co-produced by Kevin Farley, Chris's brother who is also a comedian, is the Farley family approved loving tribute rather than yet another seedy Hollywood tale about a brilliant young talent cut short by fame and fortune. But watching the film, you can't shake off the sadness expressed by everyone who knew him and loved him.

Growing up a middle child of five in a working class family in Madison, WI, headed by a very funny and gregarious salesman dad, Chris was always seeking attention and in need of audience. His outrageous franks, like pulling his pants down and trying to draw without hands in a classroom, got him into trouble at school. But he found his calling in camp talent shows and making people laugh. With his burly physique, he played rugby in college and developed strong tendency to be dependent on group dynamics and its camaraderie. As many of his SNL friends attests, his childlike enthusiasm and desire to please everyone around him made him very popular.

Just like many of the SNL alums, Farley started his career at the Second City, the legendary improv theater in Chicago. There he developed one of his most well known character Matt Foley, the Motivational Speaker based off of his college friend who is a Catholic priest now. And Matt the priest confirms the fact - yes, he once lived in a van down by the river. The film provides a lot of previously unseen footage of his Second City acts.

I Am Chris Farley plays out like a Best of... special: his uproarious Chip & Dale audition skit alongside Patrick Swayze, Gap Girls, Matt Foley the motivational speaker and includes many scenes from his three feature films - Tommy Boy, Black Sheep and Beverly Hills Ninja. But my all time favorite has to be the awesome Chris Farley Show where he interviews Paul McCartney. In it, Farley is super awkward and earnest asking dumb questions to the super famous, ultra cool music icon. His fellow comedians say that that was true Chris Farley they knew, a self-deprecating, shy guy, who couldn't quite believe his own rising fame.

As Lorne Michaels says, Farley was infuriatingly talented. Perfectly paired with snarky David Spade, he got his first leading role in a big Hollywood movie, Tommy Boy. But the fame came too swiftly to Farley and brought with it so much pressure. His nervous giddiness was perfectly captured in his Late Show appearance on the eve of the release of the film.

Tommy Boy is regarded as a comedy gold now with a cult status, but it was a critical failure when it came out in 1995. Its failure sent him to a rehab. Movie after movie, even though they made money, with Farley being always hard on himself, relapsed every time. Many of his friends including Spade, Sandler, Bob Saget, Bob Odenkirk and others saw his struggle with substance abuse and wild night binge and warned him. Saget puts it this way, "He was a very sweet guy before midnight. He was as open, like a 6-year old, as he was dark. And the darkness was compelling, but not something you'd want to be around."

I Am Chris Farley offers a more in-depth understanding of Farley's life and times, with input from those who knew him best. I still find his skits hilarious and find him one of the all time greats of all the SNL alums. But watching the film is a bittersweet experience.

I Am Chris Farley opens in NY on July 31 at AMC Empire and on VOD on August 11.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Guilty Conscience

An Artist of the Floating World - Ishiguro
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From Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, comes a subtle condemnation of the Japan's War generation. The narrator is a once famous artist Masuji Ono who helped the war propaganda machine with his mastery skills. Now (1948-49) the war is over and his home country defeated and demoralized, Ono sees the new generation wants to erase the shameful past and move on. Triggered by his daughter's in-depth marriage negotiation, Ono slowly examines if leaving the floating world of pleasure and trivial matters of the art world in order to pursue something more important- the country's war effort with patriotic zeal, was indeed the right path to take as an artist.

I thought it was about time that I take a swipe at the Floating World for the namesake of my blog and gmail account. Nothing much really happens in The Floating World. Ishiguro is a great writer with immense talent. His writing is as subtle as ever - both Japan and England are seen as extremely polite society where hardly anyone says what's in his/her mind directly. Ono, with his deep seeded guilty conscience, everything he hears from his two daughters and their husbands, his colleagues and acquaintances has some sort of accusatory insinuations in his mind. Being an artist is a complex subject in time of war for Ishiguro: Ono is easily forgiven by society just because he is a mere artist, but not forgiven by himself who thought he was doing something right at the time which caused the nation irreparable damage. An Artist of the Floating World is a quiet but spikey examination of the aftermath of WWII Japan.

Masterful, Lean Film Noir

*Originally published on 3/2/15 for this year's Film Comment Selects Series. Phoenix is currently in theaters in NYC. For tickets and showtimes, please visit IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Impressionistic Ghost Story

*Originally Posted on 10/6/14 from New York Film Festival coverage

Horse Money (2014) - Costa
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Horse Money is astonishingly beautiful in its visual poetry!

Pedro Costa, who wanted to capture the life in Lisbon's ghetto area called Fontainhas in the late 90s, made a beautiful film called Bones (Ossos). During the shoot, he saw much beauty in the place and got to know its poor, working class, immigrant inhabitants. He decided to immerse himself in their lives, abandoning his huge 35mm film equipment, elaborate lighting setups and a big crew and started documenting their lives with small video camera. The experience bore him 2 more extraordinary films-- In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, starring the inhabitants of the slum, which are remarkably immersive fictional films bordering on documentary territory. The three films became later known as The Fontainhas Trilogy.

Fontainhas is since demolished and gone. But in Horse Money, Costa continues with that tradition. But it is much more impressionistic and dreamier than The Trilogy. It centers around Ventura, the star of his last fiction film, Colossal Youth, as he wanders around the corridors of underpopulated, haunted places. His hands shake uncontrollably because of nerve disease, he has aged more and is much more frail now. He is committed in a labyrinthine, underground mental hospital but keeps walking off and is brought back in again and again. Costa, like in Colossal Youth, lets Ventura's tales unfold in episodic storytelling.

He visits his former work place, now abandoned and forgotten-- the tall factory building is kept in its decrepitude. He talks to ghosts from his past-- a factory foreman, secretary, even the boss on the phone which stopped working long ago.

We get the glimpse of Ventura's past. A fellow Cape Verdean, Viralina, who finally made to Portugal only to attend her husband's funeral, visits Ventura in the hospital. They talk about the life they left behind. He keeps insisting that her husband is alive. He thinks he is 19 and the present year is 1975. The year holds special meaning for Portuguese people. It was a revolution against the dictatorship (known as the Carnation Revolution). It also meant Portugal giving up its colonies in various parts of the world. As a Cape Verdean working class immigrant, Ventura wasn't too keen on the presence of the soldiers with guns.

Poetic, deliberately slow pace of the first half gives in to a long, surreal, mesmerizing elevator ride with Ventura and a faceless, scary soldier with a rifle. The soldier taunts the old man relentlessly. The nightmarish scene can be interpreted as Costa's therapy session for Ventura, exorcising his past demons that he wants to do without.

The look of Horse Money, with long takes and painterly composition, is simply put, out of this world-- from old photos of workers in mines and shanty towns that starts the film to Ventura wandering in and out of an abandoned factory/office building to labyrinthine tunnels of the hospital to a series of singing sequences. They are even more beautiful and striking than in Colossal Youth if that's at all possible. Haven't seen anything as mesmerizing in a long time. It really needs to be seen on a big screen. I really hope it to have a theatrical distribution soon.

Costa was awarded Best Director at Locarno Film Festival 2014 for Horse Money. It is getting a week engagement at FSLC as part of LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN: THE FILMS OF PEDRO COSTA. Please visit their website for tickets and more info.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Gothic Urban Fantasy

Lost River (2014) - Gosling
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It must be a good thing that I don't follow Hollywood gossip. I know next to nothing about Ryan Gosling other than he was in some movies I've seen over the years. So for me it was a surprise to hear that he directed a film. A first film that is not another Blue Valentine but much more ambitious and grand scale. And it was a double surprise to hear that it was universally panned by critics last year at Cannes. I have to tell you that by no standard Lost River is a bad film. It's better than good. It's a damn near masterpiece. Surely, Lost River reeks of Nicolas Winding Refn's influence in tone and aesthetics. Then again no one can deny Kubrick's influence on Refn. I think it's unfair to dismiss the film because it was directed by a famous actor with more money than an average indie filmmaker. One unforgettable image after another, this dreamlike gothic urban fantasy has more staying power than any other recent films I've seen.

Lost River is a thinly disguised Detroit, equipped with a nearby village flooded by a dam. Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her two young sons, Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and little Franky are some of the last inhabitants living in a dilapidated neighborhood. There are daily demolitions of condemned houses all around. Billy is told by a predatory bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) that unless she pays up, she needs to vacate the house that she and two boys grew up in. He suggests her to get a job at an exclusive horror burlesque club that he manages.

Bones contributes household earning by stealing copper wire from abandoned, decaying buildings. But merciless Bully (memorable Matt Smith with cropped hair and in a sequin jacket) owns the town and Bones now is on his shit list. He falls for beautiful neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan) who lives with her mute grandmother (Barbara Steele) who spends her day in full makeup and garb and in front of TV continually playing her wedding day video. Bones decides to break the spell that is set on his family and Rat's. He needs to resurface what's under the water.

At every turn, the settings of Lost River afford amazing visuals: a decaying grand theater, empty dance hall, underwater monster village, grand guignol theater acts, etc. Gosling keeps his childhood memories close and amps up the fantasy/nightmare aspects with the help of veteran cinematographer Benoît Debie (Gaspar Noé films, The Runaways, Innocence). Gosling also wisely peppers in non-actors from the neighborhood interacting with his actors to give the film's rather simple storyline resonance and subtext of a grand scale urban decay - the evidence of lost American Dream. It's pretty amazing. It's one of those beautiful films I'd love to own.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Delicious Pulp

Cold in July (2014) - Mickle
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The writer/director - writer/actor team Jim Mickle and Nick Damici adapts Joe R. Lansdale's pulp of the same name, and the result is marvelous. Cold in July is a slow burner which starts out like a run of the mill revenge flick then morphs into something much more delicious. It concerns a small town nebbish family man, Dane (Michael C. Hall) in East Texas. After shooting and killing a bugler in the middle of the night, his family is getting hounded by the dead bugler's recently paroled, supposedly dad, Russel (grizzled, pot bellied Sam Shepard). But Dane slowly gets the feeling that the local sheriff (Damici) is hiding something from him. It becomes clear that there is a deeper conspiracy when he witnesses Russel drugged and left to die on the railroad tracks by the cops. Dane decides to save Russel to get the bottom of the matter. And after digging up the dead man from the cemetery, they find out that it's not Russel's son Dane killed.

Russel enlists his Korean War buddy, now a colorful PI Jim Bob (Don Johnson) to find whereabouts of his son. The plot turns again and we find out Russel's son turns out to be not who anyone expected. The three men, armed to the teeth go into the lion's den for the last gun fight!

Despite its pulpy premise, there is a lot to love in Cold in July. The cast is marvelous, especially Don Johnson as a stylish PI who still commands female attention everywhere he goes. Sam Shepard fits like a glove in the menacing, hammy conflicted daddy role. Hall in his mullet and spotty mustache, is probably the weakest main character in any movie, but does a great job playing ordinary man trying to prove himself that he's indeed a man. Love the 1989 setting so Mickle can amp up the Carpenter style soundtrack and play some White Lion in the soundtrack. SO COOL!