Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Fascinating, Rashomon-Style Meta Investigation

Kate Plays Christine (2016) - Greene
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Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter in Sarasota, Florida, killed herself in an apparent suicide on live television in 1974.

Because it took It place way before the internet age, and the only existing original videotape of the actual incident is thought to be lost, Christine and her provocative action had largely been forgotten. Robert Greene, whose film Actress made a splash at Art of the Real 201 -- a film series that showcases boundary pushing non-fiction films -- takes an interesting approach to the subject. Kate Plays Christine plays out like an investigation, intimately documenting an indie ingenue, Kate Lyn Sheil, as she prepares for playing the role of Christine in Greene's fictional production about her.

Even though Christine's act can be interpreted as a protest against the sensationalism on TV, as her station was all about "Blood, guts and in living color," without the fateful videotape in circulation, there isn't really much information available on her to make sense of why she committed suicide for Sheil to really bite into the role.

Christine She was good looking and good at her job, but socially awkward and didn't have any friends. She was apparently a lonely, depressed person who might have been a virgin when she died at 29. But these bits of information are completely dependent on whom you are speaking with, as they are vastly different. So Sheil is left with a Rashomon-style tale of a complicated woman no one really knew.

Even in casting Sheil to play Chubbuck, Greene took an interesting approach. The two women are physically very different: Christine was a dark haired, dark eyed Joan Baez-like beauty, whereas Kate is a soft featured, pixie girl type. It wouldn't surprise me if Sheil gets to play photographer Cindy Sherman in her biopic. We get an all access pass to Kate physically transforming herself for the role, getting a tan on a tanning bed, trying on a raven haired wig and putting on brown-eye contact lenses to get into character. Kate still doesn't resemble Christine, though. Kate's left with a fake tan and badly fitting raven hair.

Greene documents Kate doing her research for the role down in Sarasota. She talks to a local historian, former TV station workers, a local gunshop owner and actors who are portraying parts in the fictional movie. But she is having trouble relating to her subject and what her motives were. With information that Christine was a good swimmer, Kate tries to swim with the wig on to get closer to her subject. But the wig keeps falling off in the water, ominously floating in the green ocean water off the coast of Florida.

Things doesn't get better for Kate even after finally seeing Christine in one of her interview clips. The pressure of representing the mysterious dead woman accurately becomes too much for Kate. Full of doubts and frustration, Kate starts to resent Greene and the whole project. As the crew prepares for the final moments of Christine's life, with the blood squib and blood pump on the side of Kate's head, andd sitting at the news desk, Kate muses if this sick curiosity, the voyeuristic sadism, is what audiences are after.

Much as Greene did in Actress with Brandy Burre as he documented the trials and tribulations of her real life acted out by the actress, in Kate Plays Christine, Greene also takes an ambitious, meta approach to the subject. Sheil is faced with a difficult task here, to play the role of herself as an actress investigating a role. With the apparently shabby, low-budget fictional movie Greene is making, Sheil intentionally pulls an affected acting job as Chubbuck in a movie-within-a-movie, I'm-frustrated-as-hell context. And it's a fascinating watch.

For me, as far as American indies go, Greene stands out as the most daring, formalistically invigorating director working today. It's not really recreation of the event that Greene and Sheil are after. It's not even a character study. They are after the process of an actress trying to connect with her subject. It's also about the nature of performances and giving another layer of complexities in portraying real life characters.

This would make a fascinating companion piece to Antonio Campos' upcoming Christine, a more straight forward, narrative take on Chubbuck's life, starring Rebecca Hall in the title role, which coincidentally premiered with Kate Plays Christine at Sundance this year.

Kate Plays Christine opens theatrically on Wednesday, August 24 in select U.S. cities.

Interview: Uncertainty Principle- Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine

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I first encountered Robert Greene's inventive and daring filmmaking at the Art of the Real film series in 2013.

Actress, his film starring Brandy Burre playing herself in a documentary-style portrayal of an aging actress in upstate New York, was decidedly refreshing in a documentary world inundated with straight up character studies that are as predictable and boring as reading someone's short bios on wiki. With his new film Kate Plays Christine coming out in theaters, Greene's adventure into meta filmmaking continues, digging deeper into the very nature of performance and also of the filmmaking process. It is a densely layered, thought provoking, endlessly fascinating piece of work that is very rare in the American Indie cinema landscape.

I got a chance to talk with Greene on the phone recently. Fiercely intelligent and always searching, Green talked at length about his approach in his unique filmmaking process.

So you are in Missouri now?

I am in Missouri, yeah. I’ve been living here, going on two years now.

Do you teach at the University of Missouri?

I do. The university got a big grant from Jon Murray, the guy who started The Real World and is a graduate of the the journalism school here, and we started the Documentary Journalism program. They hired me as a Filmmaker in Chief, so I get to do my own classes and they encourage me to make films. It’s not like I have to do my films on the side. It’s part of my job, so it’s great.

How’s it been going for you there?

I like it. I like teaching. I like being here and having a family. We are happy being in this small town and my wife was ready to get the hell out of New York. So we were happy to go. And I quite like teaching, actually.

The first time I saw ACTRESS was at the Art of the Real Film Series here in New York. I thought it was really interesting that you were one of the few American filmmakers presenting in the series. I really got a lot out of that film series. By far the best film series even in New York standards. It just blew me away.

Yeah, it’s a cool series.

I was wondering how you ended up choosing the Christine Chubbuck’s story after doing ACTRESS?

I had heard of her story about 10-12 years ago for the first time. This was before I made my first feature, even. At the time, I was probably in the mindset of listening and looking for possible stories. But the immediate feeling I had was that ‘this is not a story that I can tell’ because of what happened and details around that story bring a lot of questions about representation and about depression and why we try to tell stories about people who did things like what she did. I guess the feeling that I had for the last 10 years or so was that I shouldn’t do that film -- which is a weird feeling to hold on to.

But after Actress, I saw the possibilities in filming a documentary about an actor. With that I saw an opening to not only investigating THE Christine Chubbuck story but also expressing that feeling of anxiety about telling the story. So it opened up a pathway for me to see how I’d do it.

I thought the way you went about the film was really interesting. You are working closely with another actress here again. This time, it’s Kate Lyn Sheil. How was the collaboration? I am curious about your method in working closely with actresses.

Well, we are old friends. We needed to all be friends -- me, Kate, our cinematographer Sean Price Williams, our producers. We are all an extended family in a way. It’s kind of the only way we could make this movie, with a deep sense of trust, because, you know, when I went to Kate and said, 'OK I have this concept: I’m gonna document you while you are trying to make a film that shouldn’t be made.' In doing so, we know it’s going to fail on purpose. And it’s gonna be bad on purpose.

That’s something you can easily say, “oh, that sounds interesting” and yes to. But in practice, it’s quite exhausting for Kate to go through that. It’s very difficult for an actor to act badly. It just goes against all your instincts. So that whole thing, ended up very difficult to navigate. Kate was becoming so attached and so connected to Christine’s story and just the feeling of responsibility to portray Christine was overwhelming for her.

Ultimately she trusted me and I trusted her. But the contention really was, we would roll these reenactments and she’d say, “ That was terrible,” and I’d say, “That was great.” (Laughs.)

That's a weird place to be. Beyond that, Kate isn’t exactly comfortable with being documented in general. And it's a part of the reason why we did it. The original idea was for Actress was it was going to be a triptych with Kate, Brandy and an older actor but Brandy’s story just took over as it should.

Oh, I see.

I thought I was breaking Kate’s heart by saying we aren’t making a documentary about her but she said thank god.

I knew that there would be some tension on the screen just with filming her. And also, going in purposefully inadequate reenactments and then also even with the documentary process I knew that she would eventually turn on me, you know. For me that was part of it.

But a lot of times I had so much trust in her. By virtue that she knew where the film needed to go, which even created sort of an extra layer to her performance. She was basically playing up emotions she already had, all of which is in the film.

You are meant to be questioning all these things as you are watching and hopefully put your mind together to read her motivations, the way we tried to read Christine’s motivations. It’s all meant to put you in a psychological space of trying to read through what you are watching.

There certainly are a lot going on in the film. Going back to your creative process, how much of it was scripted and how much was improvised?

The feeling that I wanted, I wanted to make a movie within movie scenes to feel like they are a documentary of a fake movie and I wanted the documentary scenes to feel fictional. We shot them to feel that way.

The way I like to look at it is that I built sort of a conceptual box and within that conceptual box, we filmed a documentary. So that means, we were there for three weeks; we came in with certain things I wanted to get. I wanted her to be writing down the differences between her and Christine and reading them out loud. I wanted her to potentially tackle things like running into the water.

These things are what I wanted to happen. So these things are ones that could be scripted. But I would say they are not any more scripted than, you know, a standard documentary that does things like, hey we are gonna go here now and film this kind of thing.


So I would set it up and we watch what happens. So I was basically instigating situations and observing what was happening. There's also a level of performance that Kate brings to the table naturally when there is a camera on her, just like when there is a camera on anybody -- she's going to be performing. The difference is that she’s an actor so she is aware of that performance on a higher level. So even when we were filming her walking down the strip mall, going to a store, or when we were filming her interacting with a real person, there is an element of acting.

For me, the question of what’s real and what's non-fiction is only interesting as a starting point, It’s only interesting when we present that as a central question of the movie. Rather than revealing that at some point as 'oh it’s this or that', or 'we were tricking you', it’s really trying to drive you into the narrative, sort of the psychology of not only Kate but in some ways Christine, because when you’re looking at it going I don’t know what’s real and what’s being motivated and don’t know why — if it works properly, it could work as a psychological thriller and drives you into the story. You are left with trying to figure out what you are watching.

That also has a metaphorical parallel with Christine’s life and the sort of performances she was giving and there is this relationship between the performance and depression that she was constantly trying to balance, I think. Hopefully, the form that we created -- sort of questioning fiction or non-fiction things -- drives you deeper into something real.

I guess Werner Herzog put it as the Ecstatic Truth, or something like that in documentary.

Yeah, I just come at it from the angle of… that the documentaries are a staging ground. The myth of the documentary, whenever you say documentaries aren’t reality or documentaries aren’t objective, everyone says 'of course, of course' but when they start watching, they set it to be that way.

And I prefer to think of it as sort of a launching pad for something else. What that means is that you are dealing with the real thing -- you are dealing with things you can’t predict. We went into the process with something that we wanted but almost everything you see was totally unpredictable and risky to even try and capture it.

To me what makes a documentary is that everything was discovered, found with a great deal of uncertainty. You need to have pillars of stories that you can grab onto, but the driving energy of the film is in its deep sense of uncertainty.

The performance aspect of your filmmaking, from FAKE IT SO HARD to ACTRESS to now KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE, is that everything you see in your films is about performance somehow that is imbued in real life. Is that a fair assessment?

Yeah. I very much believe that the cliché or the maxim, however you want to call it, that the world is a stage. I am very interested in social performances as a social phenomenon, as things that define our daily interaction that we are performing roles -- we dress a certain way, we talk a certain way that we are performing our identities every day and we know that right?

But when you put a camera in there, we can intercept that performance and it becomes something else. When you can kind of make it so viewers can sense it and can see it then you start to read into things in a way that is productive and layered. Then you have a capacity of creating on-screen tension and real revelations about human behavior by capturing these performances and presenting them in a certain way.

That's what I love about Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman would not say he was getting performances but when you watch his movies you know they are carefully crafted. They are depictions of real life people, usually at their work. With a movie like Welfare, you have to perform the duty of an welfare officer but you have to perform the duty of someone receiving the welfare and you see the battle of these performances.

If we detect them as performances, we can do a better job of understanding what they mean in the bigger context of society and how to make the world work better, you know. You have to act a certain way or behave a certain way to get things done. Acting and behaving are really linked and I think it’s very interesting to put them in the movie, at least as a springboard for other questions.

Fake it so Real was about switching up the idea of what you thought of as a documentary performance and Actress was really about the role that we get trapped in. In Kate, performance is a springboard for a deeper investigation in some ways.

Do you think you and Kate are in any way close to finding out who Christine was after this experience?

I don’t know. So much of the process was just bewildering, which I think you see in the film. All I can say comfortably is that she was an incredibly complex person. Some people saw her as hard and distant, some thought she was funny and graceful, some thought she was deeply empathetic and a good friend and some thought she was very weird and off-putting. That’s honestly what we all are being described as.


If we take three or four facts of her life that made her commit suicide the way she did, I think it would be an inadequate portrait of who she was. So I feel very very comfortable saying that I don't know who she was. I feel touched by her story because I spent a long time thinking about it but that’s got nothing to do with her. It would be irresponsible for me to say I know her better now.

As you know there is another film, a fictional account of Chubbuck called CHRISTINE by Antonio Campos coming out. Not that I am dismissing his film but you think there is any way to portray a human being as complex as she was in a narrative format or is it that you are just going from a different angle?

It’s just gotta be a different angle. First of all, these sort of critiques of the movies they are presenting, they are all pointed inwards. They are all pointed to me and Sean and Kate and our producers. We are wrestling with ourselves. Me, I am much more in dialog with the documentary world as anything.

But they are not meant to be critiques of someone else’s vision at all. Having said that, the only way to make a fictional narrative is to conflate things to an extent you as an artist are comfortable doing. I don’t know if I am comfortable doing those things.

But I’ve seen the film and Rebecca Hall’s performance is incredible. I think what she did was, she created a new character out of the very limited information she got. And that new character is what Rebecca Hall and Tony Campos and their team created -- what they think is Christine Chubbuck. I think that’s just limited as anything but that doesn’t mean there is no value in it.

So you are OK with their representation of who she was.

I think there should be a long discussion to be had about anyone’s representation of the story. What I like about the fact that there’s two movies coming out about Chubbuck, people will have that discussion. I think the nature of our film and the nature of their film is going to create the conversations about representing the story in a way that I think will be very interesting.

Has Campos seen your film?

Yeah. I think we both feel the same way which is, 'not how I’d do it but more power to you' kind of way. It’s so personal for both teams, so it’s hard not to see it that way but I’m all for the conversation that it's going to create.

So what’s next for you?

I have this film I want to make about this event of a labor history that happened a hundred years ago. I want to sort of reenact it. It will be a reenacted ghost story that takes place in the present in a documentary setting. Kind of staging a performance in a real space in the southwest. So we are going to be making sort of gonzo, Western, documentary ghost story.

It was called the Bisbee Deportation where twelve hundred striking miners were forcibly removed from their homes and beaten and shipped to the New Mexico desert to die, pretty much.

That's great. I am pretty familiar with the labor history of the United States around that period. I can't wait to see that!

We have to raise the money, but hopefully we will get to reenact that in the centennial year of 2017.

Kate Plays Christine opens at the IFC Center in New York on Wednesday, August 24. A special preview screening will be held tonight (Tuesday, August 23) at 7:30pm at IFC Center followed by a discussion with the filmmaker.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Herzog's Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is the Best Film about the Internet

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) - Herzog
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A weak internet signal at my job caused massive delays in our daily operation the last couple of days, making us bang our heads against the table in sheer panic mode. This is where the internet got us: We are completely dependent on it, to the point that many of us can't even imagine life without it.

The integration of the internet into our lives was so swift and so complete, we didn't have time to reflect on it properly. There have been films about social networks, gaming, interactive technology, addiction, piracy, technology pioneers and privacy issues regarding the internet. But it's hard to believe there hasn't been a comprehensive, contemplative take on it until now with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, directed by none other than Werner Herzog!

It makes sense that only Herzog, 73, a self-confessed neophyte to everything internet -- his internet use is limited to email and occasional Skype, he started using a smart phone not too long ago and very recently discovered the joy of cat videos on Youtube -- can lend a fresh take on such a vast subject with his unencumbered eyes. Only Herzog can turn a hired-gun informercial project (supposed to be six short webisodes on Youtube, produced by NetScout) into a deeply meditative, Herzogian masterpiece.

Honestly, who could be better suited to make a film about the internet than Herzog, the master storyteller of our time, who's been continuously documenting vagaries of human life in such a meaningful way?

From its humble origins in the shabby UCLA computer laboratory to robotics engineers to famous hackers to victims of trolling to addicts to astronomers to radiation sufferers to explorers, the famed director leaves no stones unturned. This fascinating inquiry needs no slick graphics nor derring-do camera movement. He relies soly on his usual dry sense of humor, simple but direct questions and amusing observations. And it's as usual per a Herzog film, a hugely entertaining and deeply meditative revelry into quite possibly the most significant invention in modern history.

With the familiar sound of Wagner's Das Reingold in the background, we start with UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock, explaining the first communication between the two closet-sized computers from UCLA to Stanford, a few hundred miles away, in 1969. The failed signal that ended up LO instead of LOAD explains the film's majestic title.

Herzog hops through different segments talking to many eccentric subjects who are genuinely amused by the filmmaker's almost naive yet inquisitive questions and observations. Some of the famed interviewees here are early internet innovators like Bob Kahn, Tim Berners Lee, Ted Nelson, Danny Hillis, entrepreneur/inventor Elon Musk, roboticist Sebastian Thrun, astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, and physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss.

The massive solar storm, natural disasters and cyber attacks cause widespread blackouts all over the world. Many of the interviewees warn us that future blackouts are inevitable, that the question should be not if but when. With the food delivery system, power stations, and sewage treatment plants all relying on the internet, any prolonged blackout will cause a complete meltdown of society as we know it.

These informal 'conversations' Herzog holds with his subjects, how he puts them together side by side for meaningful and sometimes humorous effects, are perhaps the best moments in the film. As Internet pioneer Ted Nelson explains how he got the idea of the web from the flow of water and questions his sanity in his way of thinking, Herzog exclaims, "You are the sanest person I've ever met!" They laugh and Nelson proceeds to take a snapshot of Herzog and his crew.

Many of his subjects are dumbfounded when he asks, "Does the internet dream of itself?" We see astronomer mega-babe Lucianne Walkowicz, revealing her Chauvet cave animal painting tattoo (Cave of Forgotten Dreams connection anyone?) on her arm, explaining why we should concentrate on conservation of our planet rather than on space exploration. Then Herzog cuts to Elon Musk, CEO of Space X -- a space exploration company, poised to have a human colony on Mars in the near future -- thinking, his eyes furiously searching for thoughts for a good half a minute before he answers about the director's 'the internet dreams itself' riddle.

Herzog finds himself in Las Vegas for Hacker's Convention. There he meets forever elusive hacker legend Greg Mitnik. The buildup to reveal Mitnik is very dramatic, so when the famous hacker is finally revealed -- a middle-aged, schlubby Jewish guy with bad teeth -- you can't help but be amused by it. It's Herzog's unfazed attitude that makes this moment so hilarious. Him being a total neophyte on the subject works to his advantage.

The dark side of the internet -- trolling -- is gracefully summed up in one segment, focusing on one family who suffered the loss of a daughter in a fatal car accident. Within days, someone sent the family the pictures of the crash anonymously, making them available everywhere on the internet. In the guise of anonymity, people can hurt others with impunity.

Thoroughly comprehensive and often humorous meditation on our connected world, Lo and Behold is yet another masterwork by a master chronicler of human experience. It stands alongside Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog's string of great documentaries. And it will go down as one of my favorites of the year. Kudos to NetScout for letting the master filmmaker do what he wanted to do with the project.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World opens in theaters and on demand on August 19.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Metaphysical Thriller Set in Afghanistan

Ni ciel, ni la terre/Neither Heaven, Nor Earth (2015) - Cogitore
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Neither Heaven Nor Earth is an effective, minimalistic metaphysical thriller set in a battlefield of Afghanistan from a French visual artist/filmmaker, Clément Cogitore, in his feature film debut.

It tells about French soldiers stationed in the Wakhan valley, an arid, remote mountain somewhere in Afghanistan, headed by Capt. Antares (The Dardennes Bros. regular Jérémie Renier). Through an army interpreter, they are keeping an uneasy relationship with nearby village folks, mostly sheep herders whom they are supposedly protecting from Taliban elements.

First it's Antares's trusty German Shepherd, then two soldiers who were keeping the watch on the top of the south hill, who disappear without a trace one day. The platoon goes on a full alert; it could be the untrustworthy villagers who ominously keep leaving sacrificial lamb tied to a stake nearby or it could be enemy combatants' doing. The paranoia overtakes the post. Antares, a man of reason, tries to keep everything together until another soldier gets taken right in front of an already paranoid soldier who's expecting a baby back home any day.

Then there is another unexpected development. A Taliban leader in the region, known as Sultan, wants to negotiate with Antares, assuming the French troops have their men, who also disappeared. After initial confusion, Antares OK's Sultan and his men's safe passage, despite objections from the soldiers, to the village where they ransack the place in vain, looking for their men. So after that, it is pretty clear that it wasn't Taliban nor the villagers who took the soldiers. There are some other forces that is in the works. The relationship between the village and French soldiers gets even more strained.

The villagers who are caught on crossfire, finally speak up about the place soldiers are disappearing. It is a sacred ground, known as Allah's Valley. People and animals have been disappearing if they fall asleep on the ground. It's been happening long before the soldiers came. Soldiers report strange dreams where all the missing people are sleeping in a cave. After sending an unhelpful military chaplain home, equipped with night vision goggles and thermal detection cameras and with an unlikely aliance with the Sultan, Antares tries to get to the bottom of the phenomena.

It's hard to believe the war in Afghanistan is still going on after 15 years. The Middle-East is a clusterfuck and the world is in total chaos, thanks to the destablizing effects of the whole region unequivocally caused by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. With Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Cogitore creates an intriguing allegory of an unwinnable war.

The film is a beautifully drawn, almost religious allegory that suggests there is a higher power looking down on us. Thankfully, Cogitore doesn't take the preachy route to do so. The film works well as a thriller, while its feet are firmly planted in real situations, with some striking symbolism thrown in.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth is an unusual, elegant Afghan war thriller that gets its message across and even gives a salute to the hardworking military servicemen without any heavy political rhetoric.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth opens on Friday, August 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with other cities to follow.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Devil's in the Details

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil (2015) - van Huystee
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To mark the 500th year of his death, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil follows a team of Dutch Bosch scholars and experts, headed by art historian Matthijs Ilsink, as they try to shore up existing paintings by the Dutch master, known for his elaborate, detailed depiction of literal, biblical heaven and hell, in an exhibition at Noorsbrabants Museum in his hometown of Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.

There are only 25 paintings and 20 or so drawings known to be painted by Bosch or at least by his workshop, scattered throughout Europe. The film works as an enthralling art detective story and a fascinating history lesson. There is not one boring moment in its 89 minute running time.

With his surrealistic, imaginative paintings, Bosch is now considered by many as the father of the renaissance, with the reasoning that his paintings, filled with grotesque creatures and unspeakable torture and human suffering, mark the beginning of expressionism and the humanist movement. You find his The Garden of Earthly Delights appropriated in pop culture, from The Simpsons to a pair of Doc Martin boots. There might not have been Dali or Geiger if it weren't for Bosch.

Since I've seen his paintings only in art books, it's a real delight to see his work up-close and personal, blown up on the big screen. As Matthijs' team compares and investigates the authenticity of each piece -- Bosch never dated his works -- with cutting edge technology, be it The Haywain Triptych or Death and the Miser, we get to have a closely-examined guided tour of a wondrous, hidden world we never will get to see, not even by looking at a real Bosch painting (since his actual paintings are on rather small wooden panels0, in a crowded museum behind the ropes.

We get to see the underdrawings of the master, as well as his intentions and last minute changes of each piece, by scanning each one through the computer and x-rayed images. It is an artist's brush strokes and techniques embedded in these underdrawings that determines their authenticity.

We get to see the intense politics behind the scenes of the high echelons of museum and academia worlds, as Mattijs and his team beg and plead to borrow Bosch paintings from some of Europe's biggest museums. It's the Museo del Prado of Madrid, a powerhouse among great European museums, that owns most of the most famous Bosch paintings since the reign of Philip II. The paintings have not left Spain for the past 400 years.

A frenzy of political maneuvering here plays out like an espionage thriller, complete with villains and colorful characters. Their detective work takes the team to Madrid, Venice, New York, Berlin, Rotterdam, Antwerp and even Kansas. At the climax of the film, we are presented with the discovery of a “new” Bosch in a small Kansas City museum, which prompts Julian Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, to exclaim, "You love all your children. But it’s like one of your children just won the Nobel Prize”.

Long-time producer of the great Dutch documentarian Johan van the Keuken, Pieter van Huystee makes his great directing debut here. Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is one of the most engrossing documentaries about art and an artist in recent years, along with Das große Museum (2014), about The Kunsterhistorisches Museum in Vienna. While never losing sight of the human element, the film is filled to the brim with great works of art full of intrigue and mystery. A great watch.

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil has an exclusive two-week engagement at Film Forum in New York from July 27 through August 9.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Making of a Monster in Brady Corbet's Accomplished Directorial Debut

The Childhood of a Leader (2016) - Corbet
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An allegorical tale set in the shadow of WWI Europe, The Childhood of a Leader is a very accomplished first feature from 27 year-old American actor Brady Corbet. Considering his face has been showing up in the films of who's who in European arthouse cinema over the years -- Haneke, von Trier, Bonello, Assayas, Hansen-Løve, just to name a few -- this exclusively European production (UK/Hungary/France) seems far less surprising.

The film sees an American diplomat (played by Liam Cunningham) working for President Woodrow Wilson to end the horrific war that the world has ever experienced after the industrial revolution. His newly transplanted family consists of an educated, worldly wife (Berenice Bejo, The Artist, The Past) and an effeminate young boy (amazing Tom Sweet) with a bobcut blond hair, holed up in an old chateau in rural France.

With his parents always busy, the boy is neglected and being brought up by servants and tutors. In the first segment of the film "A Sign of Things to come," the boy is seen throwing rocks at the fellow church goers after the Christmas mass. Their stern, but emotionally distant parents don't know what to make of his violent behavior but still too preoccupied to do anything solid about it.

The film is divided into the boy's 'tantrums' and builds up to its violent climax. These could be seen as minor outbursts of a normal boy his age, maybe a little more violent and erratic. He paws at the breasts of his French tutor (Stacey Martin, Nymphomaniac) and manipulates a sympathetic old servant (Yolanda Moreau), getting them both fired by his mother. The boy, whose name is revealed toward the end as Prescott, is a bratty, spoiled kid who can be seen as a result of bad parenting or Devil Incarnate, like Damien in the Omen movies.

Despite its allusions to the political dictators of the past, Corbet and cowriter Mona Fastvold set the film and the boy's age somewhat removed from the rise of Fascism and Bolshevism in order to not to make it an overtly obvious biography of someone in particular.

You can tell that young Corbet takes a lot from Michael Haneke in terms of theme and stoic presentation. Cinematically speaking, the film is an impressive feat: Lol Crawley (45 Years, Here), director of photography, is responsible for the seriously underexposed cinematography (practically lit interiors) and Scott Walker's stirring string score dominate the film's dark, jarring mood, comparable in its greatness to Jonny Greenwood's blood-pumping There Will Be Blood soundtrack.

There are many fine small moments that wink at immoral adults who surround Prescott. It seems that there are some amorous relationships occurring in the father and the tutor and mother and the family friend in the form of an expat (Robert Pattinson). He also hints that neither parent wanted Prescott in the first place: mother never wanted to be a housewife, father wanted a daughter.

Tonally restrained yet vigorously formalist, Corbet's directing debut definitely doesn't feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker. Corbet also gets uniformly subdued performances from the veteran actors involved. Bearded Robert Pattinson does a fine job playing a double role in two of the film's most enigmatic roles.

But The Childhood of a Leader owes big to its young star Tom Sweet. As a wide eyed, bratty kid, his brave performance alone will cause a string of nature vs nurture debates in the minds of many audience members long after leaving the theater.

After winning the Best Director and Best Debut Prizes at the Venice International Film Festival - Horizons, The Childhood of a Leader had its New York debut at BAMcinemaFest and will open theatrically in New York on Friday, July 22, as well as on VoD, before rolling out nationally.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Time Lost, Time Regained

El abrazo de la serpiente/Embrace of the Serpent (2015) - Guerra
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Gorgeously filmed in black and white, Ciro Guerra's film from the perspective of a native Indian deep in Amazonian jungle of Colombia is a rare beauty. The film centers around Karamakate (played wonderfully by Nilbio Torres in his younger years and by Antonio Boliva in later), the last of his tribe which is wiped out by encroaching white colonial rubber plantation in the early 20th century. First it was Theodore Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), a sickly German scientist who came to find a rare medicinal plant that might cure him. His diary, published in Germany after his death inspires another botanical enthusiast Evan (Brionne Davis), retracing the steps of the journey with now older Karamakate who claims he doesn't remember anything anymore.

Embrace covers a lot of territories, not only geographically, but also the effects of colonialism thoroughly - religion, culture, language, spirituality, materialism, violence, etc. It's also very poetic and timeless in its presentation as the past and present, dream and reality overlaps each other. It strikes a good middle ground to be not too preachy nor too new-agey. The color part of the film is what Malick aspired to achieve in Tree of Life and Guerra does it with 1/1000th of a budget, I'm sure.

This made me to revisit Herzog's Ten Thousand Years Older, a ten minute documentary he made about Uru Erus of Brazil for Ten Minutes Older project which is Sublime. They go well together.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Japan Cuts 2016 Preview

Along with New York Asian Film Festival, Japan Cuts has become the cultural institution, a must see event in New York Summer tradition. Celebrating its amazing 10th year, the contemporary spread of the choicest Japanese cinema again opens its doors to the salivating public for two weeks at Japan Society. This year's lineup includes a new film from the always controversial Masao Adachi (Artist of Fasting), a couple from ever prolific Sion Sono (Love & Peace, The Whispering Star), a couple from Gakuryu Ishii (Burst City, Bitter Honey) and many more. More so than NYAFF, I find many gems that will eventually end up in my top films list at Japan Cuts every year. And this year is no exception. Japan Cuts 2016 runs July 14 - 24 at Japan Society. Without further a do, here are my take on some of the films presented this year.

Mother, I've Pretty Much Forgotten Your Face
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Michiro Endo, once the frontman of Japanese punk group Stalin, turned 60 in 2011. He decided to travel all around Japan and make a movie. Turning 60 in Japan which is called called kanreki, has a special meaning. They consider the birthday as a the day of your rebirth. That you are a newborn into the world again. While touring and performing solo and with a group, Fukushima happens. Being a Fukushima native and hasn't visited his mother regularly, Endo journeys back to his hometown with a Geiger counter. With other musicians, Endo creates Project Fukushima! and launches the festival on August 15, 2011. 'Japan suffered 2 atomic bombs (in August 15), and one nuclear meltdown- the latter one was our own fault' Endo explains, 'that maybe the way we led our country after the war wasn't really right.' The festival was not to make Fukushima another place with forever negative connotation.

Mother is a documentary of not only a poignant personal journey but a hopeful reflection of Japan after such national disaster. Endo cites small radio stations popping up amidst disasters, connecting people, young and old, people getting together and influencing each other. He's still kicking ass on stage though, with his guttural, expletive filled screams against imperialists, parents and capitalism still resonate. The documentary also showcases the beauty of Japan in different seasons as Endo travels around.

Artist of Fasting
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Masao Adachi, one of the key figures of the Japanese New Wave and definitely the most radical of the bunch, had to live most of his adult life in hiding because of his associations with the Japanese Red Army, a radical communist student group which took up armed struggle in Lebanon. Even after extradited to Japan in 2000 on some trumped up passport violation charges, the controversial writer/director still kept on making films. His turbulent past has been a subject of many adoring western filmmakers over the years (It Maybe that Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, dir. Philippe Grandrieux and Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, dir. Eric Baudelair). At age 77, marooned forever in Japan (Japanese gov refuses to issue him a passport), he turns his attention to contemporary Japan, the country in the midst of prolonged economic stagnation and reeling from Fukushima, where the militarism he was so opposed to is once again rising.

With that background, Artist of Fasting is a full blown, not so subtle protest against Japan's rising militarism than a movie, equipped with the footage of the Fukushima disaster, dying third world children, war atrocities, etc. His 'pinku eiga' background also comes to the fore with schoolgirl nudity and rape which will surely raise some eyebrows of modern movie going audiences. Appropriating Kafka's The Hunger Artist, Adachi tells a parable of a misunderstood man: our silent hero (Hiroshi Yamamoto) decides to sit down in the middle of the shopping district and fast. He is a non-emotive man, an empty vessel that everyone can reflect their desires upon. He soon becomes a media sensation and thoroughly exploited by 'entertainment' industry which puts him in a cage adorned with the infamous 'rising-sun' flags for arousing nationalistic fervor. The film ultimately raises a big middle finger to powers that be- current Abe government, religion, media, military, yakuza and just about everyone.

Burst City
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Without Gakuryu Ishii's seminal Burst City, there wouldn't have been no Tetsuo: The Iron Man, no Wild Zero and no Japanese cyberpunk culture for years to come. With his new film Bitter Honey playing at this year's Japan Cuts, this cult classic is making a North American theatrical debut and is a not to be missed! Never mind its almost incomprehensible narrative. But there are enough metal attire and rusty weapons to give you tetanus just by watching it. Starring who's who in punk rockers of the day (The Rockers, The Roosters, The Stalin, etc), this frenetic, handheld filmmaking is a dizzying mixture and excess of energy, attitude and absurdity, recalling anywhere from Mad Max to Rebel Without a Cause. It's mad fun!

Bitter Honey
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A fantasy love story set in post-war Japan, Gakyuru Ishii's Bitter Honey is a beautiful accomplishment in filmmaking. Loosely based on Saisei Muro's book of the same name, the film tells an old dying writer Saisei (Ren Osugi) and his very unusual muse, Akako (Fumi Nikaido), a goldfish named after her bright red color. Living with his bedridden wife for 19 years, Sai finds an inspiration in the company of child-like Akako, a ¥300 goldfish he bought from a sage-like fishmonger (Masatoshi Nagase), who says the fish has an ass like "Brigitte Bardot". Their love is consummated by her being swallowed whole by Sai, then swimming back up to his mouth. There are many double entendres to be had in her torn tail and him fixing it with his saliva and what not. But Ishii keeps everything classy with immaculate period set design, slick camera movement and fully committed acting from both Osugi and Nikaido. This balance is the key success of Bitter Honey.

Nikaido, always in her red dress with long billowy tail, prancing around making funny faces, somehow makes this muse of a writer who-is-a-goldfish work. She is naive, coquettish, emotional, defiant and more. Her Akako turns out to be a writer's creation he can't control. She turns out to be a thoroughly three dimensional character.

It was his psychological thriller Angel Dust that introduced me to Gakuryu Ishii (then Sogo Ishii). His masterful formalism and haunting images made an indelible mark in my brain. Bitter Honey is filled with equally stunning imagery. Coming from an underground punk filmmaking, Ishii came a long way to direct such a mature and masterful film without ever losing a sense of wonder.

The Actor
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Ken Yasuda plays the title role, a bit actor named Kameoka. He is one of those actors who you might recognize from countless movies but don't know the name. But Kameoka is a hard working fellow, whatever the role he takes - in yakuza or samurai films, he gives it all. His craft always gets recognized by his peers and filmmakers alike. When it comes to his work, he is a real professional. But he is a lonely, quiet, single man in life. After meeting an attractive single mother (alluring Kumiko Aso) at her small restaurant while on on the road for a film shoot, Kameoka has to reconsider what it means to be an actor in his own life.

It's good to see Satoko Yokohama's work again. Her goofy, good natured and highly original Bare Essence of Life was one of my favorites from Japan Cuts 2010. Here again, her unhurried, low-key film about an actor going about his life is completely unpretentious, agenda-less experience. There is nothing meta about The Actor despite its movie(s) within a movie premise, or actor playing an actor playing an actor. Veteran TV actor Yasuda with his sad, well-worn clown face gives a fine tuned, melancholic performance. It's his likability that makes the film. And we can't stop rooting for Kameoka's awkward attempt at romance. Even with the use of stage and goofy rare projections, nothing juts out in The Actor. Everything is well-rounded and tranquil. It's also very hard to categorize Yokohama's film one way or the other. It could be seen as many things or could be very simple. There are many humorous moments in this film. Albeit hushed, never laugh out loud funny but the gentle film puts a big smile on your face. I guess can be called a dramedy that puts a big smile on your face the whole time you are watching it. Yokohama is a rare, distinctive voice in a current Japanese cinema.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Three Kings

El cant dels ocells/Birdsong (2008) - Serra
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Albert Serra's minimalistic approach to a semi-literary figures doesn't really concern itself with its subjects much. The star of his films are its surroundings - the changing weather, drifting clouds that casts shadows upon what's below, the light and darkness. Shot on beautiful black and white, Birdsong tells a story about three kings crossing the desert and sea to pay tribute to the birth of the son of god. On their way, they complain about the rocky terrain and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. Since everything is shot outside, Serra completely depends on the daylight. When the sun goes down, we can hardly make out the three figures. It's like Three Studges road trip on foot, only the presence of a short haired angel in cassock reminds everyone that this is the story of biblical Three Kings. Once they get to their destination, at the foot of Mary and the humble stone house in nowhere, the music swells, giving some sort of energy. But it dies down. Joseph says something about fleeing to Egypt before the Romans come, and it's time to go home for the trio. They talk about their absurd dreams in the woods while angels watch down from a tree. Beautiful, delightfully minimalistic, Albert Serra is one of a kind filmmaker.

Monday, July 11, 2016

LA Paranoia

The Invitation (2015) - Kusama
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As far as the paranoia thriller goes, The Invitation makes the grade. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) with his girlfriend (Emayatsy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party thrown by his ex, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her husband David. It's a reunion of sort with close friends who lost touch with one another over the years. The dinner party is all polite and cordial and stuff. There are two strangers who are present at the party too - a wild girl Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Caroll Lynch, doing his usual creepy serial killer type), the recent acquisition by Eden and David. They met in Mexico and are following some sort of religious group. The dinner party is hampered by David showing everyone about a video of a dying woman surrounded by other members of the group, saying death is a natural thing and whatnot. Will, already on-edge about the whole dinner party with his ex whose child they shared died in some freak accident, questions David and Eden's weird motives - locking the doors, metal grate on windows and such. Then Pruitt tells a horrible story of him killing his wife and spending time in jail. At this point, party is really awkward and uncomfortable. But time and time again, Will is proven to be wrong (the door's locked and windows shuttered windows because of recent home invasion of the neighbors) and his doubts and outbursts were seen as him being completely out of the line.

Kusama does a great job building tension throughout the film. It seems that loss of a child is the basis of vast majority of horror movies or clutch for some melodrama these days (let's see...what could be the most traumatic thing that can happen to a grown up? Death of an offspring!!). So Will and Eden suffer from the pain and guilt of losing their son and whatnot but they are trying to get over that in their own way or whathaveyou. But the film's yet another sinister take on the city of Angels, a cautionary tale that can be grouped with Mulholland Dr, Starry Eyes and the recent Refn flick, Neon Demon. The Invitation is a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Master Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, 1940 - 2016

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Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian master filmmaker, passed away from gastrointestinal cancer in Paris today. As an avid fan of his humanistic, genre transcending films, I can say with a certain conviction that we've lost one of the greatest artists in the world of cinema.

It was his film, Taste of Cherry, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Fest in 1997 that introduced poetic, meta-fiction laiden Iraninan cinema to the world and put many Kiarostami contemporaries (Jafar Panahi, Asghar Farhadi, Moshen makhmalbaf) on the world cinema map.

But it was seeing one of his Koker trilogy, Wind Will Carry Us, that was a watershed moment for me in my cinematic education. I've never seen such a humanistic and poetic cinema before and the film made me scramble for anything Iranian afterwards.

Over the years, even though his films were never overtly political (although they could easily be seen as Iranian sociopolitical fable), he found filmmaking increasingly difficult within Iran under the government censorship. I reckon it was exactly that transcending subtle artistry that fooled the censorship for a long time. Thankfully for us, it resulted in two international productions - Italy set Certified Copy in 2011 and Japan set Like Someone in Love in 2013.

I had an honor and pleasure to interview Abbas Kiarostami in 2013 when his film Like Someone in Love played at NYFF. As expected, he was the warmest, wisest, humbliest, most thoughtful artist I've ever encountered in my short career as a film critic.

Kiarostami was not only a film director, but a renowned poet as well. Succinct and deceptively simple, his poetry was very much akin to his cinema or vice versa. Ill leave you with one of his short poems from his book of poetry walking with the Wind, published in 2002:
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My interview with Kiarostami

Rest in Peace, master.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Los Angeles Eats Itself

The Neon Demon (2016) - Refn
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Once again, in David Lynch's absence, NWR carries the torch, delving more and more into flashy, neon-colored abstraction. If Lynch is a true artist creating certain mood with set design and texture (I'm grossly simplifying his artistry, forgive me), Refn is all about the use of lights. Still abiding by a thin narrative, he creates gothic fantasy/nightmare filled with the notion of beauty, fragile innocence and narcissism. The Neon Demon can easily be dubbed as Los Angeles Eats Itself, literally.

The paper thin story revolves around Jesse (Elle Fanning), a beautiful High School dropout from bumfuck nowhere in LA. Living out of a skeeziest motel, run by a menacing, predatory man (Keanu Reeves at his sleaziest- Refn's genius in casting), our wide-eyed ingenue is at first a bunny in a wolf's den. She befriends a pretty makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to LA modeling scene. Jesse knows she can make money off of her looks. Her natural beauty soon finds her fame and causes her meteoric rise and in doing so accumulates number of enemies. Soon her success gets to her head.

Refn has grown as a visual artist. His use of shapes, namely triangles in this film, is pastiche of 70s psychedelia or 80s rudimentary video games than actual symbols with meaning. They trigger a certain uneasy mood. Some of the images here are really striking and unforgettable yet again, devoid of any meaning. One might argue that all these are empty symbols and skin deep but so does the subject Refn portrays. Just like Lynch's Mulholland Dr., the parodying LA is not the main draw here. It is certainly imbued in its view, but artistically it's much more. The Neon Demon is very much like a Dario Argento film in his haydays. You have to enjoy it for its aesthetics and mood. Let it wash over you and you will be richly rewarded.

Friday, June 24, 2016

When Desire Trumps Over Fear

Stranger by the Lake (2015) - Guiraudie
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A beautiful lake in the woods is the background for this simple yet effective thriller. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a good looking gay man comes to the lake, cruising, like many other men looking for a casual sexual encounter in the bushes. One man catches his eye. It's rugged, tanned, sexy mustachioed Michel (Christoph Maou). But it seems he is taken, as Franck has a run in with him in the woods while Michel is busy 69ing with somebody. Days go by, same routine and they share meaningful glances. Then even before they hook up, Franck witnesses Michel drowning the man he hooked up with previously. Perhaps the attraction is bigger now. He is falling in love.

The film's done with such a subtle minimalist grace, it has a neutralizing effect in its graphic depiction of gay sex. Franck got the bad case of desire over fear even though the result might be deadly. It's a great filmmaking.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Krays Story as Comedy

Legend (2015) - Hegeland
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The Krays, the notorious twin gangsters in swinging 1960s London are played by Tom Hardy. Ronny is the crazy homosexual one and Reggie is the smooth operator type. I don't know how truthful the Hegeland's script is to the true event, but unlike its gritty, more abstract the 90s predecessor by Peter Medak, simply called The Krays, Legend charts the more conventional narrative and plays out more as a comedy, not as a psychological drama. Even with its sporadic violence, the brothers never come across as scary. With his naturally nasally voice, Reggie resembles a torn down, romantic version of his Bronson performance while his Ronnie, always speaking his indecipherable, I-have-pebbles-in-my-mouth mumble is close to his Bane. Considering that they were identical twins, Hardy/Hegeland's decision to portray them completely separate is an odd choice. But it's always fun to watch Hardy. Legend comes down to Reggie being a faithful brother's keeper, even if that causes their eventual doom.

It gets more and more tiresome to watch films by so called Hollywood screenwriters. Hegeland has nothing much to offer other than relying heavily on Hardy's charm, so he insists upon meaningless/completely unnecessary voice over device by Reggie's young wife (Emily Browning). But all in all, it's a well crafted Hollywood movie with a lot of good British actors.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

NYAFF 2016 Preview

Alone - Park
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A hilly, labyrinthine shanty town in Seoul is perhaps the biggest star in Alone, a thoroughly intriguing Hitchicockian mystery by Park Hong-min. It starts out with a POV shot of our photographer protagonist Su-min (Lee Ju-won) on all fours scrubbing the blood splatter on the linoleum floor of his photo studio. Then we cut to him witnessing a woman bludgeoned by masked men from a faraway rooftop through his camera. The men notice him taking pictures, give him a chase and catch him. Then right before they kill him with a hammer, we cut to the next scene, where now naked Su-min wakes up at night in the same neighborhood. So begins his descent into a purgatory filled with suppressed childhood memories and guilt and shame of a ne'er do well artist. 

Comprised with mostly a handful of long handheld sequences, Alone is an amazing feat from a technical standpoint. But its thin narrative stretches out a little too long. But its Escher like intricate narrow staircases and alleyways are a site to behold as they reflect the mind-scape of our protagonist perfectly. It's a great intriguing puzzle piece by the first time director Park. 

Hamog (Haze)
- Jover
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Filipino writer/director Ralston Jover's Hamog (Haze) starts with 4 street urchins of Manila slowly waking up in a discarded giant concrete pipe near the filthy river. The little one keeps insisting that they go swimming. And you instinctively go, oh god, not another third world poverty porn. But what's great about Jover's gritty film besides stellar acting by its little protagonists, is its unpredictability. 
The kids subsist their living on stealing from drivers who are stuck in monstrous city traffic by distracting them as a team. After one such job, Jinky (Teri Malvar), the only girl in the group, gets taken by the angry taxi driver. Then another job cost them the life of Mo, the youngest. It's Rashid (Zaijian Jaranilla) who takes on the responsibilities of giving a proper burial to his friend. In the mean time, Jinky is pushed into a domestic servitude for the taxi driver and his always squabbling wife. But he has other ideas for Jinky to do. Jover concentrates on the strength and the resilience of these kids instead of depravity and ugliness of the streets. Shifting point of view affords Malvar and Jaranilla to shine in their respective roles. It’s a film with a huge heart that takes viewer to unexpected places. A great little film.

The Tenants Downstairs - Tsuei
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This sleek, black comedy, based on a book by Taiwanese celeb writer Giddens Ko (You are the Apple of My Eye, Cafe. Waiting. Love) about a passive peeping tom, quickly devolves into a mayhem- murder, incest, sodomy, cannibalism, etc. Hong Kong superstar Simon Yam, speaking Mandarin here, plays a landlord of an apartment complex occupied by- a divorcé with a young daughter, a haughty office worker, a P.E. teacher who loves her, a gay couple and an online gamer.

At first, it is business as usual, through hidden cameras in each apartment, the landlord monitors comings and goings of the each occupant with occasional sexual gratifications, but always from a distance. Everything changes when a comely mysterious new tenant, Yingru (Shao Yu-wei) moves in. With big bulky suit cases adorning the living room seemingly unpacked, Yingru's calm demeanor lures our landlord in to her apartment to snoop, only to discover her American Psycho style habits (complete with a clear plastic raincoat).

They develop an unspoken understanding after she suggests him to set himself and others free from daily routine of ordinary life. So the landlord starts actively messing with the tenants' lives. Pitting them against each other in the most sinister, vile ways, he relishes in his god-like power.

The Tenants Downstairs is depraved, dark comedy that questions the true human nature. Tsai Ming-Liang's regular Lee Kang-sheng also stars as an older gay tenant whose love life becomes a little more complicated by Yam's character's shenanigans.

What’s in the Darkness - Wang
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The film is an interesting melding of a serial killer genre and a coming-of-age story set in the early 90s rural China. Su Xiaotong shines as Jingjing, a curious Middle Schooler on the cusp of puberty. While her college-educated, but ineffectual police officer father grapples with unsolved murders of women (possibly by a serial killer, marking his victims with a cross sign on their upper thighs) in their small town, Jingjing slowly learns about opposite sex and how to behave in a society that is still steeped in old ways. It's the 90s China which is still a very conservative, authoritarian society where the country's one-child policy is bearing a new generation of bratty, insolent children.

With this complex backdrop, What's in the Darkness gives up being a police procedural in the middle since the police has no clue on what's going on. Instead the film concentrates on Jingjing's life, as she juggles the school, working at an old folks home, attentions from boys and her clueless parents. Bong Joonho’s Memories of Murder comparison is unavoidable and it’s a hard film to measure up to. But except for some technical issues and pacing, the film is a commendable fine first feature by first time director Wang Yichun.

Ten Years - Au, Ng, Chow, Kwok, Wong
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It's hard to believe the handover of Hong Kong from 150 years of British rule back to communist China took place almost 20 years ago, in 1997. As one of Asia's biggest economic powerhouses, the peaceful handover of HK signaled the beginning of China's rise to the global economic superpower status. So what happened to 7 million Cantonese speaking Hong Kongers? After the initial jitters, the things have been relatively quiet. So the West largely ignored and have forgotten the fact that it was as much a cultural annexation as a political, economic one.

Reflecting the uneasy mood of many inhabitants of HK after massive sit-in demonstrations against Beijing's restrictive electoral reform in 2014, known as Umbrella Revolution- a non-violent, pro-democracy protests, 5 filmmakers envision what if scenarios in varying degrees of plausibility in 2025 Hong Kong, where ethnic minorities are used as a pawn for the political gain, housing shortage pushing people into self-sacrificing artifacts, speaking Cantonese is discouraged or worse, self-immolation is contemplated and acted upon as a political statement and children starting to spying on adults.

Ten Years is a contemplative, sobering reflection of what Hong Kongers are feeling now. No wonder it beat out Star Wars: Force Awakens at the HK box office last year and is banned in China.