Tuesday, November 29, 2016

When a Good Man Goes Bad

oldstone_01
Inspired by a news report in 2011, in Guang Dong Province, where a toddler died after being ran over by two cars while bystanders watched on, Old Stone tells a gripping morality tale that takes place in rapidly developing China. The first driver stopped as the front wheel of a car ran over the two year old. After a bit of hesitation, he proceeded to go forward, running her over the second time. It was the total lack of empathy of the incident that shook the entire nation and abroad.

Old Stone starts with a taxi driver, Lao Shi (Chen Gang), who just ran over a delivery man on his motor bike, because his passenger was drunk which caused the accident. Everyone on the street is telling him something different in what to do next, while the victim lies unconscious, bleeding from his head. Lao Shi decides not to wait for the ambulance and takes him directly to the hospital, therefore saving the man's life, as the doctor tells him. But the man is in a coma. And because Lao Shi didn't followed the protocol, his taxi company and the insurance company refuse to pay for the man's hospital bill. Righteous in his stubbornness, he hides the accident from his wife (Nai An), whose worries are limited to paying for their daughter's daycare. Lao Shi tells the victim's wife not to worry about the money and starts paying the bills himself.

With the cell phone left by the drunken passenger who caused the accident, Lao Shi then tracks him down to an opulent wedding reception. He's there not to ask for money, but to get a police statement for the insurance company. But the passenger, who is a rich man, doesn't want to get involved, has Lao Shi thrown out. Talking to the wife of the victim doesn't help either. She confesses to Lao Shi that it would've been better off if her husband was dead, so she could've collected his life insurance.

After several weeks in hospital, the victim wakes up from the coma, and walks out of the hospital. Lao Shi starts spying on the man who is still feigning his wounds to get the money from his benefactor he never met. Was saving the man’s life worth ruining his marriage and emptying out his bank account?

Chen Gang's performance as a good man slowly losing his moral compass is nothing short of riveting. He is an archetype of a good man you only find in a Dostoevskian novel. He is a silent type, struggling to show his emotions or thought process to anyone, not even to his family. Old Stone/Lao Shi in Chinese means 'too honest'. People call someone Lao Shi if he/she is way too naive for the harsh world we live in.

I couldn't help comparing Old Stone to Lou Ye's latest Mystery in terms of its theme. Then I find out that Old Stone's executive producer Nai An is also a long time producer of Lou Ye (Suzhou River, Summer Palace). And here she also stars opposite Chen Gang as his wife. It couldn't have been easy for Johnny Ma, a Chinese Canadian filmmaker making his feature debut, to make a film that paints an unflattering picture of China under heavy censorship, especially with Nai An as a producer-- considering Lou Ye had been banned making films in China and only two of his seven films saw the release in mainland China.

Old Stone develops into a riveting thriller and asks weighty questions about the cost of doing right in an unempathetic society where people rather kill the accident victims off by running over them again rather than saving them. It's a raw and tough first film. And it signals a emergence of a major storyteller.

Old Stone opens on Wednesday, 11/30 in New York at the IFC Center. National roll out will follow. Please visit Zeitgeist Film's website for roll out info.

Interview: Johnny Ma on Old Stone

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I had a privilege to talk to Johnny Ma, a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker, whose gritty, urban thriller Old Stone is seeing a North American release after gathering much accolades at Toronto and Berlin Film Festival this year. Hearing Ma's insight on shooting a low budget film in China was very interesting and valuable in understanding Chinese film industry. But my main takeaway from our conversation is that the gripping morality tale Ma tells in the film -- where no good deed goes unpunished, can take place not just in China but any society. Johnny Ma is a real deal and one to watch out for in the furture.

Old Stone opens 11/30 at New York's IFC Center. National rollout will follow.

Your last short film Grand Canal takes place in China, then you made your feature debut with Old Stone, also set in China. What made you to decide to shoot in China again?

I went to Columbia University for film. When I was making films there- I’ve made one in Australia, Brazil, the US, I think that I was just starting to figure out how I like to make films. I guess in some way, I felt that process I thought worth doing was working with real people and from real stories. If I was gonna do this correctly, I should go back to where I was born and make one there to really understand. If I wanted to go on this path, I thought I can do it as honest as I can there.

I also knew that if my short film Grand Canal was going to be successful, it would be a great opportunity to make a feature film in China as well. I was also looking forward to that challenge to shoot there.

And actually the project that I ended up taking to China was called Ten Thousand Happiness. It was a Sundance Lab project. But we had a lot of trouble getting financing when we got to China. As a script we got all the accolades you can imagine - Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance, etc. But in China, the film industry works very strangely, where the support for arthouse independent films are just the worst. Obviously they can't make money from them so there are no interests. Investors start out by asking if your film is going to be commercial films or arthouse film. If it’s anything other than commercial, they are not interested in speaking to you. For me that’s not a good place to start.

So it was very very difficult. Old Stone was originally written as a US film with Micheal Shannon in mind in Detroit. And it was supposed to be my second feature film. I wanted to take premise of the film away from China that the conversation wouldn’t be just about, ‘it only happens in China’. What drove me most was to show how a good person turns bad. I wanted the conversation to be about that than the actual environment, where the incident inspired the movie actually happened.

So we had to change it to China again because we couldn’t get the other film done. We didn’t choose big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, but a small town which is my producer’s hometown. That’s how we got it made with a small budget.

That’s a really interesting story. The moral dilemma of the main character is very dark. It reminded me of recent Lou Ye’s film Mystery. Then I found out that your producer Nai An is also the producer of Lou Ye’s films. She also plays the wife part in your film.

That’s correct.

Are there any other connections to Lou Ye and Chinese independent filmmaking scene?

Yeah, just by Nai An came on board. When I went to China, because of the industry and the state of business there, they didn’t give me much of a chance. Also I didn’t feel that I trust them because in a way I didn’t trust that they would put story first rather than business side of it. I had a list of names that I trusted and knew they would make great films, Nai An, Lou Ye, Jia Zhang-ke… I went down the list. Nai An, I showed her Grand Canal, I felt distinct connection to her because I used Suzhou River as a reference when I was making Grand Canal. Also I didn’t know about this, but the pop song in Grand Canal, she and Lou Ye did a music video for that particular song. There was almost serendipitous kind of conection there. So when she saw the film, she wanted to meet me right away.

The way she approached working with me was like, ‘ok what kind of filmmaker would you like to be?', 'what kind of film would you like to do?’ It wasn’t like 'what kind of project do you have and which one can make money?' It was more like 'how do you want to build a career you want?' It was an amazing collaboration.

I mean, in a way she helped us much more than what I possibly could ask her for. When we couldn’t find an actress, because we had such a small budget, to be paired with the main actor, and she took time away from here work as she was getting ready for Lou Ye’s production and she came for 4-5 days to shoot the film.

That’s amazing.

I owe her everything. Even the money we got, which was super super small, because of her, we were able to get. Investors didn’t trust us, but they trusted her.

You can correct me if I am wrong but many of Lou Ye’s films were banned in China.

Yes.

I am wondering whether you had any problems going through the censorship with the film since I does portray some unflattering side of Chinese society.

Unfortunately, I can’t talk so much about it because it’s a sensitive issue. But I will try to be as honest with you as I can. Yes, the short answer to that is absolutely. We had a very very difficult time with that. And I think having Nai An as our executive producer, for the fact that Lou Ye was banned making films for 5 years after Summer Palace, she gave us a very good insight to how to deal with them. But essentially she never said, “don’t do the film like this, because it will never get made.” but “do the film you want and we will deal with the rest. We will try to work with it after it is done. But still we had a very very difficult time with the censorship. We were no one, having Nai An onboard, it made us even more of a target. In hindsight it was a disadvantage having her onboard but I would never have done anything differently. But I think just the fact that the film is not made by someone controversial but the first time filmmaker, the fact it’s by a filmmaker is from the west also helped alleviate some of the problems.

Was it difficult shooting in China?

Yes, definitely it was difficult. Shooting an indie film in China is about ten times harder than in any country I’ve ever made a film in, including Brazil, Canada and US. I think the main thing about it is actually you feel so alone when you are doing it because especially in China these days, there are a lot of commercial prospects- you can do anything and you can make a lot more money there. So if you set out to do an small budget indie film with a sensitive subject, the reaction you get is, “don’t do that. why don’t you do something that will take in profit?” From most people’s point of view, it’s very easy to make money in media right now. 'So why don’t you do something like that?'

It takes a very stubborn and foolish mind to risk it all to do a film that nobody cares about and I think I give all the credits to my collaborators who went on this journey with me to believe that there is an important story to tell and it would make a good film. Anytime I get a chance to take my Chinese collaborators overseas, not just for them to experience it but also encourage others to support making bold films that when you make a bold film you will have a support. I think that was the biggest challenge to do something that was against the grain of how things are done up there.

The main actor Chen Gang is incredible in this film. How did you find him? And did you base this Old Stone character on anyone you know?

The biggest problem in Chinese film industry is the actors being treated like kings and queens, much more so than in US. We had a list of names on our plate, the actors we would like to approach. Even with Nai An, we couldn’t get the script over there. I always felt that if you have a strong script, and if they are a true artist, they will give it a chance. They can’t do it then they can’t. But I think industry setup over there is where it’s really tough to get scripts to the people. We had an actor who is not really anybody, he was in a Jia zhang-ke movie and he quoted us the half of our budget. So it’s really difficult.

I saw a couple of small things Chen Gang was in. He was always been a supporting actor. I think he mainly did TV. He was not a really well known actor at all. I always knew he was very good. But we couldn’t find him. We heard rumors that he retired and he was living in a small town somewhere. I had about four different cell phone numbers and none of them worked. A week and a half before we were supposed to start the production, we found him and I talked with him on the phone. He has this thing about flying. So I couldn’t have him to come over and meet me. So I had to tell him that he was going to be my main actor over skype. So we had conversations over Skype. I just had to go with my instinct and say you are the guy.

I would say it was not an easy process working with him. Even though he is an unknown actor but he is part of that system so there were things that he was used to in other productions that we couldn't offer him. But having Nai An and Wang Hongwei (who plays the captain of the taxi company) who was in a lot of Jia Zhangke movies, having them on board and being supportive helped us to work with Chen Gang.

I push my actors really hard. what you see on screen - half of it is acting and half of it is real. It was what really what Old Stone, Lao Shi was going through. He and I don't talk very much because he blames me for other things that went on the set. He hasn’t seen the film with an audience yet. I think he is magnificent.

He definitely has charisma. It’s an amazing performance.

Does the title Old Stone mean something?

Yeah. In Chinese, his name Lao Shi literally means Old Stone. But in Chinese, the double meaning of that, you call someone Lao Shi, it means too honest, too naive. Your last question about who this character was based on—

Right.

Actually when I was writing the character, I wanted to create a character that was a good man, you know from traditional China, like what other Chinese literature says, what a good person should be. And I went far back as Confucius to look at his writing on how a man should be. When people first read the script, they were asking me, ‘Does this person even exist in our society?' This is to Chen Gang’s credit to bring the humanism back in to the film. He really believed it. But I think that it also is the point of the film that he does not exist. At any point of the film, he could just not do it and just protect himself and his family. To me, if you judge Lao Shi, if you judge him for what he’s done, and you are angry at him, and when you look back one of two days later, I mean only thing he is guilty of is that he was trying to do a good thing, and if you judge him of that, then perhaps the way we are looking at the situation is wrong. So yes, creating a character like that was intentional.

Gotcha. So what’s next for you?

The original project I went to China for. I revised that. It’s a Sundance project and something very personal. It’s an elite family in Beijing, it deals with the modern age where collusion of everything that is happening in China. It’s about a family gathering of a Grandfather’s 80s birthday where he announces that he is getting a divorce. And that sort of shakes up the whole family. And we look at the new generations of families and they look at their situations - the whole relationships, marriage and love. So it’s about the culture of Beijing and modern society but also, it’s a story about how people look for happiness in the 21st century in China.

I see.

It’s a good subject for me to do. Because I am 34 now, not married and pretty cynical about the idea of marriage because of what I’ve seen in my parents and my grandparents. So for me, the film is about finding out if the marriage is right for myself.

So it’s called Ten Thousand Happiness.

Yes.

And it will be shot in Beijing?

Yes, Beijing or Tenjing. I think we are still looking at it right now. But it’ll be a very different type of film than Old Stone. Old Stone we did very quickly. In many was Old Stone was a rough, raw film. I think Ten Thousand Happiness would be in between Wedding Banquet and Edward Yang’s Yiyi. It would be a much slower paced and more selective kind of film.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Life's Curveballs

L'avenir/Things to Come (2016) - Hansen-Løve
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Natalie (the indomitable Isabelle Huppert), is a philosophy professor. She's married to a fellow academic, has two grown up kids and an aging, needy mother. They have a house in Brittany where their kids grew up, shelves full of books, in short a comfortable bourgeois life style. Natalie's life is thrown out of whack when her husband of 25 years tells her that there is another woman and he's moving in with her. Then her frail mother needs to be put in a nursing home. And she need to take care of her mother's cat named Pandora.

Mia Hansen-Løve, quite possibly the most astute observer of life and the passage of time in all contemporary writer/filmmaker, pulls off perhaps the most mature, nuanced and subtle work to date. In the Sarkozy era France background in political and social instability with student demonstrations dominating in and out of classroom (whatever the circumstances is, she makes a point that it's not unlike May 68'), the director contemplates the life that we thought we built for ourselves and the fragility of it.

And Huppert is, as always, marvelous. Her Natalie is literally losing everything- her marriage, parent, income from her text books that didn't get renewed. Surely there are some tearful nights alone in bed, but she is taking it all in strides. One of the members of her former student's collective in the mountain farm asks her political opinion on something (I don't remember what), she says she's been there and done that, that she's outgrown that ideal of her former self. Perhaps it's Natalie's experiences in life that makes her cope better with new, unexpected changes in life. That there are some values to getting old. There is a death and there is a birth in L'avenir but Hansen-Løve doesn't treat any of the life's 'big event' so dramatic.

L'avenir is also Hansen-Løve's most technically accomplished work to date. Sun drenched, warm cinematography and always moving camera make a point that whatever life throws at you, it's not as earth shattering as it seems. One of the very best this year.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Interview: Lucile Hadzihalilovic on Evolution

Lucille Hadzhalilovic
It was a tiny arthouse theater in New York city, with only a handful of audiences, I first watched Lucile Hadzihalilovic's breathtaking film, Innocence, more than a decade ago. The allegorical, dreamy, hypnotic film made an indelible mark in my head. Her dark, gorgeous images imbued with hidden meanings recall the world of David Lynch, but not thetered to the usual macho noir trappings. I thought Hadzihalilovic was a major new talent and was very much looking forward to her next project, any project.

12 years have gone by without a peep (although she made a 12 minute short in 2012), and after finding out that she is a real life partner of one of cinema's major provocateur Gaspar Noé, I was very eager to see her new offering Evolution at this year's New Directors/New Films series. And it didn't disappoint. And I jumped at the opportunity to interview Hadzihalilovic when she was in town.

Evolution Opens in Theaters Friday, Nov. 25th in NY & LA and on VOD

It’s a big honor to meet you. I’m a big fan of Innocence. I think it’s an amazing film. Now some ten years later, you come up with something that is equally, if not more stunning. First of all, what took you so long to make another feature?


It has been very difficult to finance it. I didn’t expect such a difficulty. Because it’s a kind of genre film, I thought that it would be easier at first. In a way it’s less abstract than Innocence and so on. But in fact, it was the opposite. in France, the genre films are not well considered. And it’s not really a commercial one or a mainstream movie, and more like an arthouse film. To be financed as an arthouse film you have to go through the system- the commissions and such which would consider and greenlight such projects. But they couldn’t get a consensus - some understood the project but others didn’t. People in general were not too keen on children being in a horror movie. I thought in France or Spain, they would be quite used to putting children in horror movies. (laughs)

So, it was much more complicated than I thought. Also I began to work with the first producer and thought we could get money by rewriting the script to make it more explicit or more digestible… So we tried in many ways - adding more elements with my co-writer but we realized that it was a very dangerous way to go because…I think the film should stay with your original vision and should not be compromised.

So I realized that it wouldn't be made with this producer so I tried to find someone else. It was (producer) Sylvie Pialat who said, "We can’t get any more money than this much. So we need to cut a lot from your script". So I did. So it was a project that was a lot bigger in concept but it shrank to what it is now but also back to the essential. I had to cut a lot out. It came back to maybe essence of what was the project in my mind in the first place. It’s more about the subconscious and that’s the original idea of the film anyway. I don’t regret what I cut. And that’s why it took a long time.

That’s crazy. I would think after such an amazing film you wouldn’t have any problems finding funding.

Innocence didn’t seem to help, like when people say, “Innocence is ok but I don’t understand this new project.” I thought Innocence could show them what it was going to be. But they didn’t seem to make that connection. I think people who are working in financing films or commissions are usually not the type of audiences for my films. I probably made many mistakes dealing with them, I don’t know. (laughs)

Speaking of connections between Innocence and Evolution. For me it’s pretty obvious. Evolution is an amazing companion piece to Innocence about fear and mystery of growing up. Was it conceived as a companion piece to begin with?

It was not like, 'ok, now I’m going to do the boys version'. Not at all. It was more of a small intimate story in the beginning between a boy and his mother in the hospital. It was only after that I developed an environment around them and I had this idea that it had to be on the seaside with the water, etc. And then it was a village and then an island and other women and children. So it grew like that. In the very beginning of the project I had an idea for it but then I got to do Innocence. I liked the organization of the village (where the girls lived). So only after that, I somewhat created that micro cosmos in Evolution. But it didn’t come from this idea of creating a cosmos, it really came from the boy and his mother and the boy’s fears and expectations and all that.

Your co-screenwriter, Alante-

Alante cavaite, she is a director too. you know her films?

I saw the trailer for The Summer of Sangaile. It looks beautiful.

Yeah. It does. It’s a beautiful film.

Did you have Alante in mind to collaborate with?

I’ve known her for a long time. In the beginning she was a reader for different drafts of the film I went through, then I found out that she was a very good writer. And little by little she became more involved in the writing. Even though we do very different films, we have the same tendency and yearning for surreal, fantastical elements, not realistic portrait as much. Her cinema is also very physical and visual experience. So that’s what we had in common. She helped me a lot to build up the structure out of this materials I accumulated over the years and to help me to find the story and to make the world in Evolution as current as possible.

How was shooting in Lanzarote, Canary Island? And how did you find the place? It’s an amazing looking place.

When I was working on the script, I didn’t know about Canary Island. But one of the producers knew a lot about Spain and knew the island. So thanks to him we found the place. We chose it for artistic reasons but also we could do it there for the money we had. It was a perfect combination. We did some scouting in different parts of the island. And I found this village in Lanzarote. There was another village in another island so I had to choose between the two of them, but Lanzarote was more simple and minimalistic. There is something very strong about the island. It’s volcanic with its black sand and
rocks so its very dramatic. But at the same time the white village is very familiar.

That’s a real village then?

Yeah. but it's not abandoned, really. People are not actively living there but they come for the weekend to relax. We didn’t do almost nothing to decorate the village. We just added a bit of dirt sometimes on the doors and the windows. There were a lot of green and blue color but it was too pleasant, so we did change that a bit. We didn’t have any time or money to do anything, so the village is pretty much like what you see on screen.

Wow. that’s crazy.

It was even better than what I imagined it to be.

Watching the film, the whole time I was thinking about the little wormy green gruel stuff the mother is feeding the boy. It looked very disturbing.

Very healthy. (laughs)

What was it made out of?

Maybe you should ask the guy who was in charge of the props. But it was just pasta and seafood but we added some green food coloring. But he wanted to make it taste good for the boy. But I thought it would be better if it didn’t have such good taste because it’s very hard for children to pretend. So I thought, 'ok, it should not be too delicious'.

Innocence was shot on Super 16mm film. And this was shot on digital?

Yes we shot it on digital camera. I wanted to shoot it on super 16 like Innocence but it was difficult. It wasn’t really about money but it was time constraints. We had to do it very fast and we were on this island, so in order to develop the film and see the dailies, it would’ve taken a lot longer. We had a very little margin of error window because of time we could afford. So we decided to shoot digitally. I was afraid that it would be too flat and not dreamy enough, not only physically but mentally. But we tried to work on it to have more texture and added fog. We did a lot in post production to add more texture and grain. That was what we were always looking for, texture all the time - texture with the sun, texture with the set, on the actual image and material. We tried to get that 'ethereal but also concrete at the same time' feeling somehow.

The whole film seemed it was intentionally underexposed. The film is physically dark.

There was a lot of night scenes and inside the hospital scenes are very dark.

So you did a lot of colorgrading and post work.

We did a normal colorgrading. We did make color a little more intense but it was not like totally changing the image. The image was captured like that by Manuel Dacosse.

How did you find Manuel to be your DP?

Few years ago I watched the film he did called Amer which I loved. I loved the work he did on it. There were both exterior and interior scenes in that film with lots of different colors and so on. Then I saw Strange Colors of Your Body’s Tears, also the colors in it were amazing. And we did a short film (Nectar) together before this. With Evolution, we were really heading into the same direction. He’s very quick. It was quite difficult shooting in Lanzarote because it was very hot and shooting with water was quite challenging physically. But we understood each other very well.

It’s so gorgeously shot.

I was very lucky to have him. And my set director, Laia Coll, who is great. She can do a lot of things with nothing. She was always happy and had a lot of great ideas. She and Manuel worked a lot together, especially in the hospital scenes. There were a lot of logistics to figure out because of the location with the set and the lights, but they worked together very well.

You’ve worked on many of Gaspar Noe’s films.

It was long time ago. When we first started making films. We founded a film production company (Les Cinema de la Zone) together because we wanted to produce our own films. But it was more for short films. But after that we didn’t produce our own films. Gaspar produced his last film (Love) himself but for mine, I didn’t produced it with the company. I did a medium length film called Mimi: La Bouche de Jean-Pierre, long time ago and he worked on it and I worked on Carne. But then we stopped working together because it became a normal production company.

Did he see the film? What does he think about it?

Yeah yeah yeah. He thought it was very strange. (laughs)

Well some thought it was strange and some people thought it was very familiar. I like that. I hope it’s not only strange but I’d like to be touching as well.

It's touching, it is very touching especially at the end.

It’s interesting about your take on the palpable male fears - fear of penetration and of pregnancy. I do fear those elements.

That’s interesting.

You said it was a bigger film. Was there more element to that of male fear?

No it was more to do with elements that gives context to the situations, like more things about the women- who they are, that maybe they are all part of the experiments. And the people who are doing experiments… Those elements wouldn’t have changed the nature of the film, they would’ve simply make audience understand more as to what’s going on. It was a funnel to create all this but then when the time came for me to cut, it seemed to me that those are not the heart of it. By cutting it I was going back to the emotional, the fear aspect of it.

When I was first experiencing Evolution, I felt that I needed more explanations but now I talk to you about it, keeping all its mystery, I think it’s perfect.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Persistence of Memory

Last Year at Marienbad/L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) - Resnais
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Camera tracks endless corridors, columns, doors, rooms in an opulent chateau. Lines are repeated, scenes replicated in different variations. Labyrinthine nature of one's memories- recalling, yearning, regretting and desiring. Time is relative and often standing still in Marienbad. Every gesture, gaze, word means something. The whole film is like a long piece of music, its rhythm flows up and down, pushes and pulls in and out. As does many of Resnais films, Marienbad deals with the persistence of memory. But more than anything else he has done, it deals with the subject with formalist rigor (even more so here than Hiroshima mon amour). The stilted placement of the actors and precise tracking shots can feel more machine than human. But he accomplishes uneasy feeling of someone pulling the rug out of your feet.

Marienbad makes a very strong case for film as an art form, that it can be as great as painting or sculpture or music.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Creative Process

Keep Your Right Up/Soigne ta droite (1987) - Godard
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Godard presents himself as Prince Mishkin in Keep Your Right Up. He is a director who needs to deliver a finished film in a breakneck pace to some philosopher quoting industrialist who will pay top dollars for it. The director is seen as a bumbling idiot who doesn't know which way is up or down or east or west. But as always, he deals with grander themes - mortality, nature vs technology and of course, cinema.
The film has three distinctive narratives running concurrently, cutting back and forth. One is with the Buster Keaton-ish idiot's journey on the road, the other one is about musicians, the 80s French pop band Les Rita Mitsouko (Fred Chichin and Catherine Ringer) as they compose and rehearse their musical numbers and lastly people going somewhere by car, plane and train, immobile and mobile at the same time.

Music is great. Les Rita Mitsouko's synth, rhythm box heavy pop is very catchy and Ringer's deep, sexy voice is infectious. Godard manipulates the sound like he does with images, using Mitsouko's recording sessions- playing with layers of studio recording. It's the creative process he is equating with music, as he had done since the beginning of his career, albeit crudely arranging two tracks of optical audio (as you remember dialog cutting off abruptly and replaced by music and vice versa). The later more sophisticated examples are Forever Mozart, Nouvelle Vague. This film would be a more polished/improved version of that experimentation. Bright primary colors are there, so as madcap slapstick, clusterfuck comedies of yesteryears. Keep Your Right Up feels freer and even more energetic than Godard's other films in the 80s- playing a fool and not taking himself seriously probably helped. It might be minor Godard, but no less fun.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Music, Hair, Drama & Death

We Are X (2016) - Kijak
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This documentary about X Japan, a Japanese mega heavy metal band headed by Yoshiki, the bandleader/drummer/songwriter was a complete antidote for the gloomy mood I have been feeling and also lackluster film viewing of late. There are plenty of glitz, suicide, tears and drama in this doc and very loud music, mostly sung in Japanese. It also involves brainwashing by cult and copious make up and crazy hair. Good times.

Pettiness of Being Old

45 Years (2015) - Haigh
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Can memories of an old flame break up the 45 years of marriage? A brit director Andrew Haigh supposes with two of the acting greats - Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as the Mercers, on the eve of their 45 year anniversary celebration.

As far as any art when the old age is concerned, it almost always becomes pettily inward. There is no wondering about the grander meaning of life anymore. We hold on to individual memories because there is nothing else left when your life is almost at an end. And that is 45 Years comes across as, despite terrific characterizations by Courtenay and especially Rampling, who is as usual, fantastic.

The beginning of the week of their anniversary, Geoff (Courtenay), a retired upper-middle class man gets a letter written in German, informing they found the frozen body of his girlfriend in the Swiss Alps, who fell to her death in the crevice of a glacier some 50 years ago. The memories rush back and he is gripped by them for days on end. Kate (Rampling) is also gripped, but by jealousy and doubt that their collective years were built on unstable ground littered with secrets.

Shot on ugly digital, 45 Years looks the epitome of British realist drama. But it's criminally unflattering, considering Haigh is not going for Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf honesty or Mike Leigh revelations here. Haigh prefers series of long takes, obviously for the benefit of the esteemed actors. The ending dance sequence is quite devastating. But one can't shake off its pettiness (on Kate's part). Adult themed cinema should be much better than this.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Supreme Male Gaze posing as a Sweet Love Story

The Handmaiden (2016) - Park
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Park Chan-wook made name for himself creating one elaborate psycho-sexual set piece after another. He never shied away from over-the-top garishness or so called social taboos. But in the age of highly scrutinized sexual politics of the 21st century, he is walking a tightrope with The Handmaiden, an abashedly male gazed lesbian wet dream guised as a sweet lovestory. But we will see if it gets a pass on political correctness just because it's a subtitled foreign arthouse flick.

My takeaway is that it's a way over the top comedy bordering on (albeit lavishly done) lesbian porn-- how do I take the lovelorn/lusty expression of young Kim Tae-ri, as she protrude her tongue to lick her lover's vagina (the scene was repeated twice for viewing pleasure) from an angle that can only be described as pussy POV?

Park transports a Victorian era set novel Fingersmith, about a young but not so innocent heiress bred to recite pornographic writings in front of rich aristocrats, arranged by her perverted uncle who is set to marry her and a couple of low-life swindlers trying to trick them out of her fortune, into Korea under Japanese rule. But he consciously skips all the geopolitical implications and nationalism of that era in favor of cultural superiority which is completely hypocritical (remember incest in Old Boy?): as we advance with the story of seduction, fake marriage and triple cross into tentacle porn in the third chapter, we are already thoroughly exhausted by graphic scissoring and 69ing and an almost rape, the outrage over reciting pornographic novels doesn't really land its intended punch in the gut. Park's mechanism here is as usual, so elaborate and opulent, it's almost too rigid to embrace it fully. It's a fun movie. But its veneer is too shellacky, just like Wes Anderson's pastel colored papier maché doesn't do it for me.

Boy in Red

Don't Call Me Son/Mãe Só Há Uma (2016) - Muylaert
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What's concerns more to a teenager -- a family or personal identity? Anna Muylaert (Second Mother)'s new Brazilian drama, Don't Call Me Son, examines this conundrum and finds a good balance in an astonishingly swift 82 minute film.

Pierre (Naomi Nero), an eyeliner wearing 17year-old High Schooler is first seen flirting and making out with both sexes in a night club. His trousers are on the floor, revealing he is wearing a g-string and garter belts. He paints his nails and plays guitar in a rock band. He tries on lipsticks and dresses secretly in his tiny room.

Pierre lives with his busy single mom, Aracy (Daniela Nefussi) and his younger sister, Jaqeline (Lais Dias). But one day, their normal lives get turned upside down when Aracy gets arrested for child abduction. It turns out Pierre was stolen from his crib 17 years ago and his biological parents were searching for him ever since. Through well-meaninged, but ineffectual social workers, his well-to-do real parents are anxious to reacquaint with him and make up for lost times. It turns out Pierre, now Felipe, has a brother Joca (Daniel Bothelho), a well-adjusted, normal kid who seems a little lonely.

At first, the interactions between the real parents, Gloria (again played by Nefussi) and hot-tempered Matheus (Matheus Nachtergaele) and Pierre/Felipe are polite and awkward. But after the teen moves in to their opulent house, they realize that their long lost son is not what they imagined him to be. Gloria's constant mommying and pampering and Matheus' frustrations with the effeminate nature of Pierre/Felipe soon boil over.

There is a hilarious scene at the mall concerning Pierre/Felipe trying out clothes while Gloria, Matheus and Joca look on. The parents pick out clothes for him to try on - polo shirts and slacks, the usual stuff teens would wear. He comes out of the dressing room in a black and white, skin-tight frilly dress. They think it's a joke or perhaps a rebellious teen angst statement-- haha funny, now change back to your polo shirt. But Pierre insists the dress is what he wants and they will buy it for him.

The film's original Portuguese title is Mãe Só Há Uma- There Is Only One Mother. But even though Daniela Nefussi plays both mothers, the film’s focus is exclusively on Pierre. Nero, with his good looks and natural performance, is magnetic as a teenager who is finding himself as an individual.

Don't Call Me Son doesn't dwell on nature vs nurture or rely on cheap sentimentality. The film doesn't even try to make any big statement on gender equality or social justice. It focuses on a young man who is very comfortable with his identity even though his life has become chaotic. But he's not a helpless victim who's unsure about his place in the world. And he also has a great, caring heart.

Beautifully acted and superbly written, Don't Call Me Son is a little gem of a film that needs to be seen widely.

Don't Call Me Son, has a two week exclusive engagement at Film Forum in NYC, starting 11/1.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Herzog Vs. The Volcano

Into the Inferno (2016) - Herzog, Oppenheimer
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It's not the first time Werner Herzog has delved into an explosive subject.

In 1977, he rushed down to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, because he was told that La Soufrière, the island's looming volcano (and also the title of his resultant film), was about to erupt. All its inhabitants fled. But that eruption never happened. Instead, he found three people who stayed behind and ended up talking philosophically about their attitude toward death and their belief system.

During another volcano trip in 2006, this time in Mt. Erebus while filming Encounters at the End of the World, a film about Antarctica and its quirky inhabitants, he met enthusiastic young volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer. Even though Mt. Erebus and Oppenheimer never made it into the film, the two men struck up a friendship. After the volcanologist's book Eruptions that Shook the World was published in 2011, they decided to make a film together.

This collaboration here is special. Unless the person is his subject, never in Herzog films have I ever seen this kind of rapport before, but Oppenheimer, a Cambridge academic who prefers field work, does the great job being the filmmaker's surrogate. The questions he asks the various subjects here are most definitely Herzogian. It also helps that he is a big fan who is familiar with the filmmaker's filmography.

In Into the Inferno, this dynamic duo, in true Herzogian fashion, takes us to various volcanoes around the globe -- from North Korea to Ethiopia to Iceland to the Vanuatu Archipelago -- and touches upon the impermanence of human existence on literally 'thin crust' and the awesome power of nature and our belief system. Because he is armed with tons of awe-inspiring archival footage of molten lava flowing inches from the screen and exclusive access to the remote, isolated places, we are once again at the hands of a prolific master storyteller who keeps on churning out his contemplations on the vagaries of human existence every chance he gets. (The funding came from Netflix and the film will be premiering globally on October 28.)

We start in Vanuatu, where the team is looking down at the center of the active volcano. The bright orange of bubbling magma has a hypnotic effect. Herzog's long time cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger too seems having a hard time looking away from it, following its glowing, spewing trajectories over and over. Then we travel to Indonesia's Mt. Sinabung where they narrowly escape a deadly eruption, and then visit Mt. Merapi on Java, one of the most sacred volcanoes to its people. The chief and his son of the tribe, discusses the spiritual implications of living on the slopes of the volcano.

The film talks about the pivotal role volcanoes have played in everything from farming, migration and religion. So we find ourselves in an archeological dig in Ethiopia, serendipitously come across a renowned paleoanthropologist Tim White and his team, working on digging up bones of 20,000 year old human, remarkably preserved because of volcanic activity nearby. Oppenheimer helps out, brushing off dirt in Danakil desert, the lowest and the hottest place on earth.

We are hoisted over to volcanic island nation of Iceland where national identity is closely co-mingled with volcanoes: Codex Regius, Iceland's most precious posession, an ancient text that tells of a tenth-century volcanic eruption. As we all remember the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull volcano that caused massive air travel disruptions. All these surroundings spawned religion and myth making.

Then we are in North Korea, on Mt. Paektu; a dormant volcanic mountain with a giant caldera lake. The mountain is the sacred setting for the Korean creation myth and also the communist revolution led by Kim Il-sung, the nation's eternal leader. Herzog places emphasis on how Kim co-opted the symbol of national identity to his own myth making.

Mt. Paektu garners little interest outside Korean peninsula but Herzog explains that through Oppenheimer's connections, he jumped on the opportunity to film in North Korea, the most secretive, isolated country in the world. Even though Herzog can't get personal opinions out of North Korean guides and its scientists, he and Oppenheimer gets unprecedented access (I'm sure it took Herzogian persuasion and mind-controlling of his own) into the seldom seen, majestic view of the mountain.

We move on to the religion in Vanuatu that centers around American G.I. named John Frum, who will return and bring 'cargos' of prosperity and wealth. Its literal combination of Waiting for Godot/My American Uncle is fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

Herzog, once again, demonstrates his unparalleled ability in storytelling, weaving vastly different elements from world over -- music, belief systems, natural phenomena, and contemplates the entire human existence build upon the not-so-permanent ground. It's also not short on Herzogian quotes: "The volcanoes could care less about scurrying roaches or retarded reptiles or what we are doing up here." The Ethiopian desert and North Korea scenes runs a little too long without contributing much, but they showcase Oppenheimer as our very likable guide and a scientist who can explain things in very easy terms.

Many of his films have been about man's desire to conquer nature, and failing miserably, Herzog makes a point that however benevolent the volcanic activities are to us, such as creating breathable atmosphere and nutrient rich soil for farming, it might cause the end of the world as we know it. Into the Inferno is yet another entertaining philosophical musing -- the second offering this year, after his Lo, and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World -- from the master storyteller. And I couldn't be happier.

Into the Inferno opens in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 28. It will also be available to stream on Netflix worldwide on the same day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Top Ten Great Underseen Horror Movies Suggestions for Halloween 2016

I've been thinking of compiling list of some great, underrated, underseen horror movies for Halloween for the longest time. But I never got around to it. This year, before October is over, I decided on accomplishing this task, even if it takes my precious weekend or two. So without further a do:

Pontypool (2008) - McDonald
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Pontypool gets played more than any other film in my household. A virus in the language is making people get stuck in the loop and turning them violent. It has great, always watchable Stephen McHattie (poor man's Peter Weller or vice versa) as Grant Mazzy, a redneck shockjock in Pontypool, some snowy north nowhere up in Ontario, holed up in his radio station with his producer Sidney (McHattie's real life partner Lisa Houle) and their young assistant. They have to figure out how to stop the outbreak before hordes of infected break in to the station. Snappy dialog, claustrophobic setting and plenty of great humor, Pontypool is a great example of what can be achieved with very little. It's so much fun!


Wolfen (1981) - Wadleigh
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A surprisingly elegant urban legend film. Drawing a parallel btwn gentrification and territorial war, Wolfen is a very well done atmospheric supernatural horror. A lot of great 80s actors- Al Finney (cop), Tom Noonan (zoologist), Gregory Hines (coroner), young Diane Venora(looking like a brunette nastassja kinski and not annoying for a change), and Edward James Olmos (sexy Native American construction worker) all take parts in the plot with a strong environmental message. It also has a lot of great visual details and gritty NY settings. The Bronx looked like a war zone back then, victim of years of neglect, drugs and landlords intentionally burning down tenement buildings for insurance money. And there are spectacular shots of Manhattan skyline from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. With lots of dusk and morning shots, New York looks all very empty and lonely. And how they managed to wrangle all these real wolves in Battery Park is anyone's guess. Pretty awesome movie.


Mulberry St (2006) - Mickle
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Nowadays I find surprises and originality in low budget horror movies more often than not. I hate movies which I can guess where it's going within 5 minutes. Just like this year's some of my favorites, Mulberry Street surprised me. It is shot in such a way even snobs would find pleasing: natural lights, minimal showyness and meandering tracking shots. Unknown actors look like they came off the set of a new Carlos Reygadas movie with a dash of New York ugly realism. And they are all very good.
Mulberry St concerns a group of working class families in a tenement house about to get evicted because of a big time developer. Rats are gone crazy and start attacking people and turning them into a ravenous rat zombies! Sounds ludicrous I know and the sappy ending was disappointing but it has a lot in it that you don't see in movies much these days. I recommend this.


As Above, So Below (2014) - Dowdle
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The concept of As Above, So Below poses a metaphorical quandary- dig deep and you will find a personal hell, deeper still then, you will find your way out. All the genre trappings and stupidities aside (a token black dude, attractive 20 something professionals with multiple Ph.Ds, the Philosopher's Stone, etc.), the film is an effective and creepy horror thanks largely to its narrow, snug, claustrophobia inducing underground tunnel setting.


Phase IV (1974) - Bass
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The planets' unusual alignment in the solar system causes ants in New Mexico desert to gather collective intelligence and advance their territories, killing off all the other animals around them. From a shiny, teched-out bio-dome, Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, sort of workingman's James Mason) and his reluctant, number inclined assistant James (Michael Murphy) are trying to gather information on these super ants. Hubbs is a determined man and he will stop at nothing, even if it means sacrificing other humans around him. And soon they find that they are no match for these pesky creatures.

After being (accidentally) orphaned, a young, horse-riding, luminous country girl (Lynne Frederick) from the nearby ranch, also becomes marooned inside the dome and under attack.

Phase IV is a fascinating film. It's like Jaws but instead of one shark, you got thousands of ants trying to outsmart you. With effective extreme closeups and unexpectedly gorgeous visuals and the 70s pseudo science wtf-ness, it is a thoroughly enjoyable film.


Parasomnia (2008) - Malone
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A creepy 90s throwback of a movie in terms of tone and look, Parasomnia is an all together a different, fresh horror film compared with the current, too-clever-for-its own-good horror trend. While visiting his friend at the hospital, art student Danny falls for Laura (Cherilyn Wilson), a virginal sleeping beauty who suffers from a medical condition which makes her sleep away most of her life, only waking up for short period. Determined to 'save' her, Danny sneaks her out of the hospital into his pad, only to find out that she is under the spell of mass murderer and mesmerist Volpe, who is chained and gagged in the same hospital she's been staying at. Bloody murders are happening around Danny and Laura even attacks him in her sleep state. And cops are looking for Laura and the murderer. Danny has only one way to save Laura, kill Volpe!

Part Nightmare on Elm St., part deranged Tim Burton movie charting almost Clive Barker territory, Parasomnia is a totally above average horror/fantasy flick. Willam Malone's imagination is up there with early Bernard Rose (Paper House, Candy Man) in my book. Oh, horror great Jeffrey Combs shows up as a cop.


Starry Eyes (2014) - Kolsch, Widmyer
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Perhaps the best satire on Hollywood since Mulholland Dr. Alex Essoe kills it as Sarah, an aspiring actress dreaming a big break while working at Tatertots (fictional equivalent of Hooters) and sharing a bungalow apartment with other twenty something dreamers who spend their time talking about making it near the pool. It's a life of daily humiliations and heartbreaks. Lanky and awkward, Sarah suffers from anxiety attacks where she distorts her long body and pulls her hair out. She auditions for a mysterious horror project, Silver Scream. The audition doesn't go well, but a scary lady who was at the audition witnessing Sarah's fit in the bathroom gives her a second chance. She has a meeting with a sleazy, old producer of the project. He wants her to bare it all, body and soul. He wants her to go all the way and she gets scared and runs away.

Starry Eyes is part body horror, part devil worshiping cult and part boulevard of broken dreams movie. Essoe's pretty amazing in a demanding role with unusual vulnerability and ferocity. She is our new Barbara Steele. A superb horror.


Eddie, The Sleepwalking Cannibal (2012) - Rodriguez
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A once famous Danish painter Lars (Thure Lindhardt) gets a job in some snowy art college in a small town Canada. His intention is pure - he wants to teach and maybe start working on a new project ten years after his initial success in a tranquil, solitary environment. The town's suspicious inhabitants are hostile and the college folks are eager to use him as a savior as the school is in need of cash. In order to make good with the folks at college, he agrees to take care of Eddie, a big mute manchild whose aunt had been a sole funder for the school. There is one problem though. Eddie has a tendency to sleepwalk in his underwear and eat small animals in the woods.

Lars finds his new friend's appalling habit but also compelled by the carnage the sleepwalker leaves behind. He finds an inspiration for blood and gore for his new painting, just like he broke out in the art scene ten years ago after experiencing a catastrophic accident. In order to pump out new paintings, he needs to encourage Eddie to sleepwalk and ...kill. The great Stephen McHatty and his Pontypool co-star Georgina Reilly make an appearance. Another fun,wry horror comedy from Canada.


Triangle(2009) - Smith
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Jess (Melissa George) is having a bad day. She is invited to take a day trip with a group of people on a yacht by Greg who frequents the restaurant she works at. But by the time she gets to the harbor, she is exhausted by taking care of her autistic son at home. Not long after they set sail, a freaky electrical storm capsizes the boat, the crew gets on board of a giant, empty ocean liner that appears out of nowhere. For Jess, everything seems so familiar. She is experiencing nightmarish deja vu.

A talented Brit Chris Smith (Creep, Black Death) directs this tightly done mindfuck of a movie, reminiscent of Time Crimes and Memento. The logic and moral of the movie are highly questionable if you think about it too hard, but while watching it, it's great shameless fun. Aussie George is fast becoming my favorite scream queen, ever since her appearance in Mulholland Dr. as the freaky 'it' girl.


Goodnight Mommy (2014) - Franz, Fiala
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As far as creepy twins movies go, Goodnight Mommy tops it all. Impeccably executed and acted, this Austrian chiller rubs shoulders with Funny Games on cringy inducing level. It is no surprise then that the film is directed by the wife and the nephew of Ulrich Seidl. It's quite an achievement what they pulled out from the young real twin brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz.

We are introduced to preteen twins, Lukas and Elias, playing in the corn field, then near the lake. Colors are lush and vibrant you can almost smell the warm Summer surroundings. Something dark and sinister is hiding just around the corner. You can feel it. Then there is mom (brave Susan Wuest), whose face is bandaged like a mummy. She is cold and distant and barks orders at Elias and doesn't seem to acknowledge Lukas's presence. It becomes pretty clear that Lukas doesn't really exist and that something terrible has happened before. But there is scarcely any dialog for the first half of the film. They are in the hiding in the ultra modern house in the country, away from Vienna. Lukas is feeding his brother some unspeakable thoughts: our mother isn't really our mother. We need to find out where our mother is from that woman who is not her. From then on, Goodnight Mommy slowly slips into very dark, dark territory.

Franz and Fiala really know how to build tension without the help of music or dialog. Goodnight Mommy is quite a feat for visual storytelling. Images, shots and editing matters. Not quite formalist approach of Seidl but the images have power in this film.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Lost City of Z, for an adventure movie, lacks bravado

The Lost City of Z (2016) - Gray
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The Lost City of Z, an unabashedly old fashioned, bows-and-arrows school boy fantasy based on David Grann's non-fiction bestseller of the same name, stars Charles Hunnam as a British army officer turned explorer, Col. Percival Fawcett, who had a perilous obsession with the Amazon jungle.

Despite years of being stationed overseas and proving his leadership abilities, according to his sneering superiors Fawcett "had a bad choice of his ancestry" -- his father was a drunkard and a gambler, and therefore forfeited his advancement in the army. With the help of the uppity Royal Geographical Society, together with Britain's interests in rubber industry in the Amazon, Fawcett is granted an expedition into Eastern Bolivia to map the fuzzy Bolivian and Brazilian border deep in the jungle.

The two-year expedition means being away from his spirited wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his young son, Jack. But man must do what he's got to do -- to restore his family name in good standing in a rigid society and be a hero and whatnot.

Fawcett's small team, including Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Manley (Edward Ashley) with an Indian guide, goes up the river only to be attacked by various Indian tribes and suffer diseases and hardship. But the explorers not only find the source of the river, they also find evidence of an ancient civilization: broken potteries and sculptures of human figures.

After returning home, Fawcett becomes an advocate against the general notion of the natives of America as arrow chucking, cannibalistic savages who are forever stuck in the early Iron Age. Finding the lost civilization in the Amazons becomes an obsession for him.

With the backing of rich patron/fellow explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyan), Fawcett and his team set out a second expedition, despite angry objections from Nina. When disease and the unforgiving climate of the jungle becomes too much for out-of-shape Murray, they have to abandon the mission. At home, the accusations fly and Fawcett strains his ties with the Royal Geographical Society.

The first World War interferes with Fawcett's obsession as he is sent to the frontline, where he sees many of his friends die and himself getting injured in the horrific battle of Somme. Now nearing 50, and his son Jack a young man, father and son try once again to find the lost city.

You can't escape the shadow of Werner Herzog when it comes to making a film set in the Amazon. Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, about a man's obsession and his futile attempt to wield the course of nature both spiritually and physically, are towering examples to measure up to. All the hardships and suffering in the making of these films are justified by the breathtaking end results.

It might not be fair to compare, since Gray is a very different kind of filmmaker, who prides himself in emotionally fine-tuned dramas. Despite all the glorious pretty picture show, well-rounded characters and fine acting don't really suit the adventure genre. But that's just it. His attempt at showing 'it's the journey not the destination' lacks a proper bravado and zeal, constantly interrupted by Fawcett struggling with domestic life and in finding his stature in the rigid society.

Shot on 35mm by Darius Khondji (who also shot Gray's period piece The Immigrant), The Lost City of Z is a very handsome movie. Gray does his best to be faithful to the source material and instill every character with humanism. But I find Nina Fawcett's proto-feminist character too propped up to be believable in otherwise this male-oriented adventure film.

There is nothing particularly wrong with The Lost City of Z. I buy that one man's obsession -- 'a man's reach should exceed his grasp' -- is a worthy subject for a movie. Obviously, it's much less offensive than that last Indiana Jones film or Apocalypto when the depiction of natives are concerned. But do we need another film about a white man's journey to validate another culture's worth in this day and age?

The Lost City of Z (and as well as The Immigrant), as a sumptuous and elegant epic it might be, doesn't quite justify all the effort put in by everyone involved.

The film had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. It is being distributed by Amazon Studios in theaters in early 2017.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Elle: Paul Verhoeven Doubles Down on Making a Rape Comedy

Elle (2016) - Verhoeven
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In the age where a presidential candidate says he's grabbed women by the pussy and still has a chance to win, Verhoeven doubles down on the impossible task of making a rape comedy. The king of bad taste, known for such classics as Starship Troopers and Showgirls, Verhoeven has always been walking the fine line between vulgar entertainment and satire while enjoying pushing buttons a little too much. It's a rare gift for a filmmaker to be having a cake and eat it too -- there are no wink-wink moments or obvious strings of the puppet master seen in his films and actors all seem to play straight without irony. But whenever you watch his films, you can feel 'all the world's a stage' vibe. And Elle is a terrific entertainment.

Elle is made possible because of Isabelle Huppert. The most fearless actress of our time, she dives right into the role of Michele, a callous woman who gets raped by a masked intruder and has to deal with the aftermath. The film starts with the said rape in black screen with the sound of glass breaking and beating and moaning. After the incident, Michele carries on as if nothing has happened. She changes all the locks in her luxurious apartment, chides her cat for not gauzing the rapist's eyes out while it was happening, goes to work and dinner parties. As the head of the company which makes sexually violent video games, she complains to her much younger male programmers that the prototype graphics for the next project is not shocking enough. When she announces her experience matter of factly at the dinner party to her friends and her ex, they were flabbergasted by her not calling the police and how calm she is. She gets dirty texts from the assailant and gets somewhat aroused by them. But who is he?

Elle is not a revenge thriller per se. Not quite whodoneit either. Like many of Verhoeven's other films, it is a hard to pin down film. Not as over the top and sentimental as Almodovar nor as clinical and visceral as Cronenberg, but it's so deftly and slyly done, you can't not enjoy it even though rape is not a light subject to joke about. Destined to be controversial and definitely a conversation starter, Elle highlights two artists at the top of their game.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Kelly Reichardt's Back in Form with Certain Women

Certain Women (2016) - Reichardt
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Certain Women signals that American indie auteur Kelly Reichardt is back in form.

In my opinion, Night Moves, her attempt at an eco-thriller starring Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, was a small misstep in her otherwise spotless filmography. Her strength lies in her minimalist approach to depicting the inner lives of lonely people inhabiting her beloved Pacific Northwest, not in complicated plots or building up tension or presentation of violence.

If her newly restored/rediscovered debut film Rivers of Grass gave a nod to Bonnie and Clyde and old noir films, with Certain Women, Reichardt does Altman -- an ensemble cast and loosely connected stories, based on short stories (by a Montana Native, Maile Meloy). But it's still very much Reichardt's film: with muted tones, a sense of melancholy and loneliness, Certain Women excels at dramatizing small, minimalistic character studies that are distinctly small town Americana. Also, many of her films placed women in precarious situations to observe, but I think this is the first time that she is exclusively telling women's stories.

Three slightly interconnected stories, taking place in Montana -- still very much Reichardt's territory -- feature Laura (Laura Dern), a small time lawyer; Gina (Michelle Williams), an overachieving professional and wife/mom; Beth (Kristen Stewart), a newly minted adjunct teacher of a nighttime adult education class; and Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a ranch hand who has a crush on her.

Laura's story has to do with a client of hers, a disgruntled mechanic (Jared Harris) who was injured at the job, but took an early settlement. So he can't sue his former employer. He keeps coming to her office, asking her to check his file again and again. Until she takes him to another lawyer for the second opinion on the case, fully knowing that the other lawyer is going to tell him what she's been telling him for months: he doesn't have any recourse; he lost.

Harris gives an extremely sympathetic performance as a man who has lost everything because of his injury and is trying to hold on to some kind of human connection. Because Dern is attractive, attentive and warm, and because he's lonely and desperate, he just wants to prolong their futile if sexist relationship. The hostage situation ensues. It is beautifully drawn by Dern, who deftly handles sexism without losing her humanity and compassion.

Gina, a high-strung woman married to a mild-mannered, less assertive husband (James Le Gros) and an unresponsive teen daughter, is trying to build a new house for her family. She wants to have a good foundation and is attempting to ask a local kook, if he could sell her a pile of historical sand stone bricks on his otherwise barren lot. The old man doesn't like her sassy attitude and her husband isn't helping much to persuade the man.

Her attempt at building a harmonious family is failing and as we the audience know something she doesn't, it involves her husband. It's delicate, fine-tuned, unhurried storytelling and all the actors involved are fantastic. Michelle Williams might play the least sympathetic character of the three, but she does a very convincing job as a tough businesswoman who has to act a certain way to survive, never letting her guard down.

The most poignant story follows Jamie, a lonely horse ranch hand in the remote town of Belfry. She leads an uneventful, repetitive life, looking after horses day after day. One night she follows some folks into a classroom and meets Beth, a brand spanking new teacher on her first day, reading off an index card full of information on school laws.

She is instantly attracted to Beth and they go to a local diner before Beth drives off to Livingston, a two-hour commute she has to make every Tuesday and Thursday. The only reason Beth, a law school student who also works at a shoe store, took the job is because she thought she got the job at Belgrade, about thirty minutes from Livingston, not Belfry.

Now Jamie has something to anticipate. Their brief late night diner encounters become some kind of ritual, at least for Jamie. They have a moment when Jamie takes Beth to the diner on a horseback. But Beth doesn't show up for the next class and Jamie is told that due to a long commute time, Beth is no longer coming back. On impulse, Jamie drives up to Livingston the same night, in the hopes of seeing Beth again.

Stewart, who's been shedding her teen-idol image by choosing various interesting roles, continues to impress here, playing a straight-laced, awkward young woman whose presence is still magnetic. But she takes a step back, allowing clear-eyed Lily Gladstone to shine in her role. Gladstone's depiction of an ordinary woman with a crush and heartbreak is beautifully realized. Her silent gaze alone speaks volumes.

With the exception of the presence of cell phones, Certain Women has that distinctive, melancholic, 70's American movie vibe. Reichardt masterfully draws these sad and poignant human encounters with the help of director of photography Christopher Blauvelt, who has collaborated with her since Meek's Cutoff, lensing underpopulated, Ed Hopper-ish small towns and the beautiful scenic vistas of Montana. Perfectly tuned for its quietude imbued in loneliness and longing, Certain Women is certainly one of her finest films to date.

Certain Women premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will open in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, October 14.