Sunday, January 14, 2018

Dangerous yet Seductive NY in the 80s

Call Me (1988) - Mitchell
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Anna (Patricia Charbonneau), a reporter at some New York paper with boring food writer boyfriend living in what's considered as South Williamsburg in still sketchy NY. She starts getting obscene phone calls. It ain't right. She wants to confront the pervert and he suggests a rendez-vous in the Polish Bar, a local dive. A suave, dangerous looking criminal element (young Stephen McHattie) is also there hitting on her. Is he the phone creep? Then she witnesses a murder in the bathroom. Some dirty cop is involved. Anna is convinced that that dangerous but irresistibly charming man is indeed the man on the other line. Also he might be involved in that murder?

With David Sanborn style cheese jazz score and Manhattan skyline over the bridge from the windows and rooftops, Call Me paints that stereotypical New York in the 80s- dangerous yet highly seductive. The plot doesn't make much sense and convoluted. It's twists and turns highly unnecessary. McHattie looks great in bleached blonde hair and dark long overcoat, doing his best Rutger Hauer. Charbonneau, a dark haired Sheena Easton beauty looks great in various 80s outfits. Steve Buscemi and David Strathairn show up as well to round up the cast. It also has one of the hottest phone sex scene ever captured on film. A total nostalgia piece that I always wanted to watch just looking at its VHS cover long long ago. Worth it!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Interview: Ziad Doueiri on The Insult, The world on Fire and the Greatness of Train to Busan

ziad doueiri
Ziad Doueiri, whose Hollywood credentials include being a cameraman for most of Quentin Tarantino's earlier films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown), has made several films in his native Lebanon (West Beirut, The Attack, Lila Says). With his new film The Insult opening stateside, I had a chance to talk with him. We didn't only talk about his terrific new film, but also the chaotic world we live in and his love of Train to Busan.

The Insult opens New York and Los Angeles on 1/12. National roll out would follow. Please visit Cohen Media website for more info.


I had to do a little bit of research on Lebanese history before and after seeing THE INSULT. I find that Lebanon has an incredibly complex history with a very diverse society in religion, ethnicity, the whole make up of the society. Was it then a conscious decision for you to concentrate on the two individuals, despite the whole geopolitical dynamics – the US, Israelis, Iranians and other big political players surrounding Lebanon?

Of course. When you do a film you have to think of your main characters. And you have to build those characters in a way you get attached to them. Now you can build it on a local platform or international platform and you can add whatever conflict you want- it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s the story of those two people.

Now, the Middle East is a very complex place. It is so misunderstood by the world and the Middle Easterns themselves: when you sit down for dinners or parties and you talk with people from Lebanon, for instance, you don’t even have two people agree with each other – there are so many different opinions and everybody gets very passionate about it because it’s such a mix of place. It makes rich? Yeah. It makes profound? Yeah. Also it makes a very volatile place too. The proof? Look what’s going on in the Arab world now. It’s fucked.

Right.

So, whenever you have all these things and you make a movie, you have to make it clear to an audience – I’m not making a film for people who are only in Lebanon. I’m making a film for audiences in general. Whether it’s a Lebanese or American film, you have to make a complex film told in a simple way. The best way to tell the complex subject treated in the simple way. The best way to extract the complexities is by telling your story in a simplest form. That’s what I believe. All my films are very simple. They go in deep contextually but the way it’s told, through dialog, through storyline, I believe it must be simple. Because the simplicity it will make the audience understand the spirit of the film better than when it's layered. When you make everything complex – dialog, plot, you might get lost. You should not lose the thread of the story.

Now, from time to time, you can talk about things that you don’t understand as a western audience. For example, when I talked about Bashir Gemayel, most westerners don’t know who he is. Bashir Gemayel is one of the most prominent figure in Lebanese history. He was the founder of the Christian Militia and he became president and he was assassinated in 1982. OK? He is a cult figure in Lebanon. He is also a very controversial figure because half of the people love him and half of the people hate him. When you make a film and talk about Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese audience can totally understand all the nuances and details, but all the others will probably not.

But they will all understand the characters you create. They will understand a character who belongs to the party of this guy. Now you don’t know who Gemayel is but you know the character is a Christian because he belong to the group and he wears a cross. That’s what you need.

Yes.

Again, you take a complex story and you tell it very simple. That’s what it is. It’s very important. Yes, the Middle East is so difficult to understand. I always try to take a simple way to explain it.

That’s what I wrote down on the margin of my note here. ‘It’s a simple portrayal of a complex society.’

That's right!

Can you tell me what happened with the Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigning in Riyad, Saudi Arabia? It was all over the news.

Yes. You know, it’s very funny I get asked that question and the answer is that nobody knows.

Nobody knows?

Nobody knows, really.

I know it’s been a critical chapter, that month when he was gone for two weeks. And nobody knows exactly what happened. I don’t know.

Is the film based on real life or anything?

Not really. But I’m sure you read an interview or two I gave somewhere. The drainpipe and the water dripping (which started the whole incident) that is based on what happened to me before I wrote the story. That’s what made me think writing the story. That little silly thing got me started. Then I thought, what if we have that story in Beirut, where such a silly, such insignificant incident with absolutely no relevance becomes more complicated? This guy is expecting some kind of apology and the other guy doesn’t give it to him. And then it gets complicated. It goes from the boss, to the judge, to the supreme court to the presidency. Ah, now it’s interesting!

The second question I asked myself with my co-writer (and ex-wife) Joelle Touma, ‘could that happen in the Arab world?’ The answer was yes, it could definitely happen. No one who had seen the film thought, ‘no I don’t buy it.’ It’s like the Rodney King incident in the US – white policemen beating a black motorist created a riot. Remember this?

Yes.

That’s credible. In America, the issues at stake are race issues. In Lebanon, they are religious issues. You can start a mini civil war based on race. It might get contained but the possibility is there. In France, you can start a war on class issues. It’s part of their heritage. Religion is part of our heritage. That’s why I put Christian and a Muslim. In the Middle East it is complex- it could be religion mixed with political affiliation.

You can’t get away from it if you live there though. Right?

It’s all connected. That’s what the movie is all about. It has all of that mixed in but it’s not too difficult to understand.

It is a human story. The best part of the film that I really liked was when—

When Tony fixes Yasser’s car?

Exactly.

Everybody says it! Everybody loves that scene! Joelle wrote that scene and I have to give her credit. Everybody loves it because it is a scene that reveals a lot about those two characters. It’s a turning point.

I know you’ve been working in Hollywood for a long time. What made you to go back to Lebanon to make films?

I grew up from 1 to 19 in Lebanon. These are formative years. When I was 12, the (Civil) war started. And I remember it. We grew up with it. I saw my parents in it. I saw how my life was and how I lived during it. It marks you for life. That’s it. It stays with you. If I grew up in Island those years, I would probably influenced by everything Iceland, if I grew up in America, I would be influenced by… you know what I am saying. At least for me, I’d always go back to those formative years- it doesn’t mean I will always be in Lebanon and do films in there. But it’s so ingrained in me.

And it’s not just growing up in any other country. The war started when I was 12. That’s a big event. It’s not a car accident. A war, day in and day out, you see things over and over, you see blood and injustice, incredible humanism and incredibly violent human behavior also. As a child growing up, I’m not seeing this TV or reading in a book, you live it. You leave home to go to school and there are checkpoints after checkpoints, there are cousins who got killed, family involved in killings, I mean, it’s big! All these things keep building in your head. You say why I keep going back there, because I have rich history there. I have rich background, rich past. I’ll probably do another movie in Lebanon. Or America which is my second home. I don’t know. You never know.

I’m pretty sure that Beirut has changed a lot over the years. But in the film, it seems so vibrant. Can you talk about the city?

It’s very vibrant and very chaotic. When I think of Beirut, I think of it where you are very welcomed. It’s not a cold place. It’s not a solitary, dark, pessimistic, gloomy place. Despite all its past and problems, it’s anything but. Lebanon has been through a lot of blood and a lot of vicious things. And yet when you go out, I was there last week, you go and sit with your people, they are full of life, seriously. They are very optimistic and love to have fun. It doesn’t mean that there is no dark side but there is also a bright side. Knowing that these people have gone through so much turmoil, but has not lost their passion for life really touches you.

Beirut is a very alive town. I think it could’ve been better have we not had the war. The way we have been in the 60s before the war started- very educated and sophisticated. The war chopped our heads off. You should go and visit.

I’d love to go.

You should go and see. There is such dynamism and also very eccentric. It’s a very eclectic town. You have gay and lesbian communities, all kinds of people and remind you that you are not in America, you are in the Middle East! But you still see things and you go “oh wow, we have that here?” It’s very fancy, very traditional, very western, very conservative, very religious, very secular… it just has everything.

It’s so great even though it’s such a small place.

True, in such a small place.

It’s a very timely movie. That words mean something. That insults cut deep, especially with Trump is relying on his Tweeter as his main communication, saying outrageous things on a daily basis. Did you have that in mind?

Absolutely not. I started writing the film in 2015. And we shot in in 2016, way before Trump came to power. When you say it’s timely, it’s because maybe the world is going through a crsis. It just happened that we made a movie that is on point. You do not predict historical events. You know? You are either ahead of the event or behind. Seriously, it’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s a good coincidence. We didn’t provoke it. You don’t choose those things.

It happens that the film was shown in Spain just when Catalunya was seceding. The day the film was shown, was the announcement of the secession.

Oh my god.

And it became a crisis. When I showed that film there, people came out in tears. And they were saying, “oh my god, we see Spain’s problems in your film!” Because the society was divided just like the Lebanese. And then, the film was shown two weeks ago in Kerala in India. And my actress went to present the film. And when she came back she told me. “Ziad, people went crazy there about the film because the Hindu and Muslim conflict there were reflected on it.”

So the world is going through a huge crisis and the film happens to be there.

So funny because I grew up in South Korea and the whole time I was doing a little bit of research and then watching your films, I could understand where the film was coming from. A small country surrounded by powerful countries and getting invaded left and right. I could really understand the conflict of these characters.

That’s why Korea bought the film. Korea bought The Insult to be released. Lebanese film being released in Korea? It never happened before. They bought the film last month. I was invited to Busan but I couldn’t go because I was working. I was shooting my series. I wanted to go so bad because I own about a hundred Korean films. I’m a big fan of Korean films. The Last Train to Busan was one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Have you seen it? It’s fucking great!

The zombie movie? Yes.

Did you like it?

It’s great.

Just great? It’s more than great! It’s a masterpiece! Joelle who knows that I love Korean films, said, “Go see that movie and take a box of Kleenex with you” I swear. I said, "But it’s a zombie movie," "Just trust me and go". I just fucking broke down and cried in the theater. Things change when you have a kid. I have a daughter. I cried so much! I saw that movie four times! Fucking Korean cinema, excellent!

I didn’t know the history of the Damour massacre. I learned it from your film. But that was the direct retaliation of the massacre before in Beirut where Muslims were killed.

What you are saying is very controversial in Lebanon. A lot of people are saying, "Oh it’s not fair that you are talking about Damour but you are not talking about other massacres that happened before and after". I want to tell you something: If I want to talk about massacres, I will end up with ten hour movie.

Right.

Massacres in Middle East are plenty. I can go on all the way back to Jesus Christ. There were nothing but massacres. Yet they are somehow linked- they are all linked! So the story I had to ask myself was ‘what story am I telling?’ The story of Tony Hanna. That’s it. It’s not a story of Safra massacre, Sabra Shatila massacre nor Mountain war massacre. It’s about him. He had to flee from home at age of 6. He saw some things and he has to live with it. That’s the story. So that consequently upset a lot of people. Even couple of days ago, we had a screening in Los Angeles some Palestinian guy went through the roof, screaming, “Why are you talking about this but you didn’t talk about Sabra Shatila?” I said, “Guys, it’s not about Sabra Shatila. The film is about this guy.” But as you see in the Middle East, people are still very attached to their history and we are still at a boiling point. We are still very passionate and everyone wants to tell their stories.

As the character says, “Nobody has monopoly on suffering”

Exactly, that that applies to everyone, not just Palestinians. It applies to Native Americans, it applies to Jews, it applies to Koreans, it applies to…

Very true.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Insult Paints a Well Balanced Picture of a Complex Society

The Insult (1017) - Doueiri
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Situated just above Israel and bordering now war torn Syria, Lebanon's history is just as complicated and tumultuous as any other neighboring countries in the Middle East. With its diverse religious, cultural and political make up of Lebanese society came to a head in the long civil war (1975 - 90) and semi-permanent Palestinian refugee camps within Beirut and other cities have been creating lots of tensions between the majority Maronite Christians and growing Muslim population. Ziad Doueiri's new film Insult, takes the subject head on, in a story of a dispute between two men, one Christian and one Palestinian Muslim and projects it on a national level by way of a unfolding riveting courtroom drama.

Tony (Adel Karam) is a hard working car shop owner with a beautiful wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) who is expecting a baby, living in a rapidly changing, busy Beirut neighborhood. Their apartment and his shop are always inundated with hardline Lebanese right-wing Christian political propaganda - that Palestine Muslims are always inciting violence, draining valuable resources, that they are scourge of the country, etc., on TV and the radio. Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is a foreman of a construction project overseeing a high-rise building being built in the neighborhood. He is a Palestinian who's long been living in a refugee camp with a Lebanese wife.

Their lives intersect when wastewater from drainpipe of Tony's apartment balcony drenches Yasser below. Tony curtly rejects Yasser's polite offer (the construction firm he works for is big on community outreach) to fix the pipe and have it up to the city code. When Yasser's men fix the pipe without Tony's consent, Tony breaks the pipe with the hammer, resulting in Yasser calling him names.

Tony complains to the construction company and wants an apology from Yasser. But when Yasser shows up at his garage with his boss to apologize, Tony enrages Yasser by saying. "(Ariel) Sharon was right, you Palestinians need to be wiped out from the face of the earth!" Instead of apologizing, Yasser ends up punching Tony in the chest, sending him to the hospital with two broken ribs. They go to court, but the judge sides with Yasser and dismisses the case. Tony seeks out a high-profile, hotshot lawyer Wajdi (Camille Salameh) who has history with defending National Christian political figures in the past, to have his case be tried in high courts.

Their trial become a national sensation. In the polarized political climate, their case become a flashpoint for daily violence on the street. In the courtroom, their private lives are scrutinized and outside, their lives are being threatened with violence.

Even though The Insult is one of those politically charged film, it never loses the sight of characters. Tony and Yasser's stories stay personal and never fall into the stereotypes who get easily swayed by their surroundings. Unlike other films of this nature, they are not rewarded by their ideology or identity. They don't get supported by other entities other than themselves. Doueiri never wavers from reminding us that Tony and Yasser are ordinary working people living in a country with a very complex history where one can't separate their politics or identity from their ordinary lives.

Perhaps the best scene in the whole film is right after their meeting with high court judge, who suggests Tony to drop the assault charges to avoid the ensuing the media frenzy circus of a trial. At the court house parking lot, they go their separate ways. But Yasser's old car wouldn't start. Tony, already driving away, looks in on his rearview mirror, comes back to fix Yesser's car. Doueiri hits home with the fact that they are decent, working class people despite their prejudices and bigotry.

Being the smallest country in the region and ethnically diverse, Lebanon has been long mired in geo-political power games by powerful neighboring countries (along with the US), the film also puts a spotlight on lesser known facts like the PLO led massacre in Damour, a seaside town where many Christians were killed. It was a retaliation of a massacre of the Muslims in Beirut that happened just before. 'No one has a monopoly on suffering and pain' is the main take away in the film.

The Insult is a timely film in the world of extreme political polarization and where political correctness is viewed as a bad thing, and that every word that we utter still matters, that there are consequences to what we say.

The Insult opens Friday 1/12 in New York and 1/19 in Los Angeles.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

First Look 2018 at MoMI Ushers in the New Year with Boundary Breaking New Cinematic Work

In its seventh year, MoMI's First Look film series, organized by chief curator David Schwartz and associate curator Eric Hynes, introduces bold, formaly inventive, innovative international films to start the new year. And to all the adventurous cinephiles, this is definitely a good way to start 2018.

This year's selections in First Look go beyond the traditional screen presentsuch as Daniel Cockburn's quasi-film lecture All the Mistakes I've Made (Part 2); a new program of Radio Atlas short works comprised soley of audio recordings and projected subtitles; and even a work being produced during the festival, an update of Wim Wenders's documentary Room 666 in which filmmakers talk about the state of the art form.

First Look to open with U.S. premirere of Blake Williams's 3-D film PROTOTYPE, and will include new boundary-breaking work by James Benning, Ken Jacobsm and an exciting array of emergining artists from around the world January 5-15. Please visit MoMI website for more details.

Here are 7 outstanding films I was able to sample:

The Last Days in Shibati - Hendrick Dusollier
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Disappearing urban slums have been documented before - Fountainhas of Lisbon in Pedro Costa's films, Kowloon: The Walled City by a German TV channel in the 80s, and of course, 24 City by great Jia Zhangke among many others. Frenchman Hendrick Dusollier spends a year in the last old district in Chong Qing one of the mega cities situated in the southern China. He films its inhabitants as the neighborhood slowly but surely disappears.

Unlike many other documentaries or dramatizations of a specific place, Dusollier let himself exposed and known to his surroundings. Everyone he meets and treats him as a foreign man with the camera who doesn't understand the language but films everything. His insistence as mostly silent observer wins over some curious inhabitants, namely a barber and his mother whose open, dimly lit shop continues to serve the community under the threat of imminent eviction, Zhou Hong, a neighborhood kid who shows Dussollier around through the labyrinthine dark alleys and Mrs. Xue Lian, an old woman who makes living by picking up bottles and who turns out to have the biggest collections of weird junk in the corner deep in Shibati.

Dussolier comes back to the place and revisit these people, sometimes with an interpreter, sometimes not. He visits them after they were forced to relocate. They understand that he is in Shibati to film what's going to be lost forever. It's this mutual understanding that makes Shibati different from other anthropological documentaries. Dusollier keeps things personal and human.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts - Mouly Suriya
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Sprawling, picturesque vistas of an Indonesian Island lensed in widescreen format as a back drop, Mouly Suriya's Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, is a rape revenge western from a female perspective. Marlina (Marsha Timothy), a widow farmer is visited by Markus (Egi Fedly), who tells her that his gang is on his way to rape her and take all her livestock and reminds her that there is nothing she can do about it. When the rest of the gang get there, she poisons them and decapitates Markus while being raped. With Markus' head, she takes a journey to the police station- first by bus, where she meets Novi, a very pregnant woman and befriends her, then later on a horse. At the police station, she learns that justice won't be forthcoming and has to go back to her house for Novi who was captured hostage by the rest of the gang.

Marlina is quite significant coming from an extremely patriarchal society. Weird mixture of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Thelma and Louise, the film features some beautiful landscapes and local customs - keeping mummies of the loved ones in the house for example and humiliating sexist traditions - cattles for a dowry etc.

Communion - Anna Zamecka
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Ola, a 14-year old school girl is the focal point of Anna Zameca's intense documentary on fractured family in Poland. We also get the glimpse of a still deeply religious society. Ola has her hands full taking care of her autistic brother, Nicodem, and drunkard father. The film takes place when Nicodem's communion is approaching. Using the communion as an excuse, Ola tries to reunite her family with their estranged mom, who lives apart and has a baby with another man.

Ola is pretty much a mom to Nicodem, she bathes, clothes, feeds and takes care of his school needs. She is also a strict disciplinarian with her alcoholic dad, calls him to make sure he comes back home from pubs, no TV while baby's sleeping, shuts him off from saying incriminating things to welfare officers. She sweeps, washes, cleans and tends to the wood burning oven, yet she likes to put on a dress and have a good time at school dance.

Zameca captures some astonishing moments of intimacy and authenticity in a tiny, cluttered home. It also puts a spotlight on autism and how many societies are not equipped to deal with it. Nicodem is treated like a normal kid both in school and in the church. He definitely severely affected in his speech, attention, and repeated hand gestures. Yet is that kid who is 'a little strange'. It's also kind of scary to hear moments of clarity when he says things out of the blue. At one point in the bathtub, he repeats "The reality becomes fiction."

It's a family where the child parent roles are reversed in all functionality. She acutely observes that Ola growing up way faster because she has to- yet she is still a child who naively hopes that their family will be together again. Komunia is a heart breaking, beautiful film.

Railway Sleepers - Sompot Chidagosornpongse
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Part love letter to the Thai railway system, part documentary, part experimental, this Apichatpong Weerasethakul produced film moves along from Northern Thailand to South, recording two days and two nights of locomotive travel. First inaugurated by King Rama V in 1890s, Thai railways are revered and regarded as the nation's backbone. We see travelers of all ages and social strata, eating, talking, gazing and sleeping in a confined biosphere, a great microcosm of the world as it were- two recent previous films come to mind as a great example of this - Bong Joonho's dystopian Sci-Fi Snowpiercer and J.P. Sniadecki's artful Iron Ministry. Railway Sleepers feels more personal and intimate. Its slightly moving camera as the train moves along, captures day in the life of ordinary Thais. The film has that lulling hypnotic effect: it's as if the gently undulating train cars with that unmistakable, repetitive sound of a train rolling on the tracks invites you to sleep.

Exiled - Marcelo Novais Teles
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Marcelo Novais Teles, a young Brazilian man, moves to Paris to pursue an acting career in the 80s documents his life in grainy Super-8, Hi-8 and DV. L'Exilé is at once a deeply personal film and a time capsule of a certain generation of French filmmakers/actors. Teles, with his soulful face and charming accent, was able to surround himself with like-minded young, struggling artists. The film is filled with their honest conversations on life, art, love...etc. There are some recognizable faces in French cinema popping up now and then in Teles' home video footage - most notably Mathieu Amalric. This is way before he became famous.

There are a lot of footage of Teles playing with his friends' kids (including Amalric and Balibar's later on). Forever bachelor and struggling with his loneliness being an illegal alien in a foreign country, he shows his anxiety about constantly producing something meaningful in his lifetime.

As we watch an honest depiction of someone's life floating by- hope, ambition, love, regret, even considering the specificity of Teles' circumstances, we realize how universal our 20-30s are. Beautifully edited and intimate, L'Exilé is something that every struggling artist can relate to.

Colo - Teresa Villaverde
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"We are not at war and no one's ill!" shouts Marta (Alice Albergaria Borges), a teen girl in a household disintegrating under the weight of economic hardship in Portugal. She is merely responding to her hard working mom, who announces that Marta and her unemployed father needs to move to grandma's house temporarily because they can't afford the rent or electricity. There is a time in one's lives, like a war or illness in the family which force us to rely on other family members is what mom tells her. Marta's response encapsulates what Colo and its sad characters are about.

Dad (João Pedro Vaz) spends days soliciting job interviews which he never gets responses from. Completely beaten by the circumstances, he is a hull of a human who can't do anything other than sulking. Mom, doing double shift to support her family, is exhausted and irritable all the time. Marta, going through teen years, gets heartbroken by a boy and falls in with a pregnant bad girl classmate Julia (Clara Jost). Everyone in Colo wants a way out of the situation they are in and out of the family.

Teresa Villaverde takes her time to build the characters but at times it seems things are too stretched out, as if we are seeing things in real time. There are several great moments though. No electricity affords some painterly scenes and there are a lot of beautiful connections among characters. Carefully written and sensitively treated, Colo shows the effect of economic devastation on a family.

The Lives of Thérèse - Sébastien Lifshits
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Sébastien Lifshits shifts his gears toward an old pioneer of LGBT movement in a solemn, unsentimental fashion in The Lives of Thérèse, from his usual beautiful young gay subjects in glitzy style. Thérèse Clerc was one of Lifshits' subjects in his documentary The Invisible Ones (2012) where he chronicled LGBT pioneers. As Clerc is dying of an old age, they mutually decided to record her final moments.

Here Lifshits doesn't reinvent the wheel of documentary or anything. But he approaches his remarkable subject directly with an utmost respect and love.

Clerc, as an activist for women's rights movement and fought for LGBT rights, was a subservient wife with 4 kids who had an awakening in 1968 revolution, divorced her husband, and became a lesbian at 40. The film consists of Clerc's daily routine of conversing with doctors at the hospital, with her grown up children and other friends. Her children talk frankly about their upbringing, their mother's sexuality and her approaching inevitable death. Clerc admits her body failing even though her mind is still the same. She talks with a young feminist about her sexuality- back then, homosexuality was a political act, the act of defiance. The young woman disagrees with her, that in her generation, homosexuality is out in the open, that she can be a feminist and a heterosexual.

The Lives of Thérèse is not as serene as Haneke's Amour. Often Lifshits captures Clerc in closeups as she falls asleep from exhaustion but the camera movement and color are all love. The film much more than a feminist manifesto. It's a celebration of an extraordinary woman who lived her life fully and loving tribute by those who loved and admired her.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Eye for an Eye

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) - Lanthimos
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The story concerns a heart surgeon (Colin Farrell) being stalked by a boy whose father dies in his operating table. The doctor tries to make it up to the boy by being nice to him and buying him gifts, the boy inches towards him and his family in a very creepy way. Sensing that the boy is crazy, the doc shuts him off. Then the doc's young son suddenly gets paralyzed from waste down and refuses to eat food, literally starving himself to death. And this is what the creepy boy told him when he shut him off: all his family members will be paralyzed, then will refused to eat then will start bleeding from their eyes then die. His daughter is next to be hospitalized with the said symptom. Is the creepy boy and his mom some kind of witches?

Lanthimos is back to his sadistic shtick with Sacred Deer and there is nothing fresh about it at all. If it's his take on American society (taking place in Cincinnati Ohio), its context is completely lost to me. And if he was, this feels like a much lesser pointy version of his idol Haneke's American remake of Funny Games. The wide angle shots are all Kubrick and its sadistic nature is all Haneke and with actors doing their monotonous deliveries, there is absolutely no originality. Lanthimos loses the sight of creating a world that is slightly different and weird that he so successfully created in Lobster. With that shaky foundation, Sacred Deer never strikes the right emotional, tonal core and struggles to maintain its house of cards. Major disappointment.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Top 20 Discoveries 2017

Top 20 in order watched:
*Click on the titles for full reviews

0.5mm
(2014) - Ando
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As far as writer/director goes, Momoko Ando is one of the few filmmakers that I do not mind indulging her long drawn-out, non-three act structured, almost meandering narratives. Her acute representation of current Japanese society is also emotionally affecting.

Ménilmontant (1926) - Kirsanoff
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Lyrical, inventive and also violent silent film. Nadia Sibirskaïa is a sight to behold.

Passion of Anna
(1969) - Bergman
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Perhaps the darkest and most depressing film of all Bergman's filmography. Deep, Dark, Sad.

Suzanne
(2013) - Quillévéré
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We only get the glimpse of Suzanne's life every 5 or so years, not in a calculated, 'the super hit medley of my life' but more fleeting, observing someone's life with a sense of melancholy. This way, Quillévéré eliminates a sense of that false expectation/manipulation that comes with moviemaking. We see excellent actors portraying beautiful characters and we share their regrets, loves and their sadnesses together. Suzanne is a massively affecting film, much more so than any of Dardenne Bros. films.

Montparnasse
(2009) - Hers
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There is something genuinely beautiful about how Mikhaël Hers draws these human interactions: its downplayed characters- imperfect, shy, introverted- finding themselves somehow connecting together in whatever the circumstances. Its massively underlit interiors and exteriors can't undermine the human warmth emanating from the film. Watching Montparnasse gives you that euphoric feeling that you are not alone in this world, not from some misplaced sense of nostalgia but rather from the possibilities of real human connections with someone you already know or someone new. And that someone doesn't have to be striking looking or extremely clever or funny or well-educated. Even though most of the characters are twenty-something, there is no movie-ness about Montparnasse, just guilelessness and honesty, but fleeting enough not to get bogged down and becoming faux-serious docu-drama. The mood is just right, the music's great and the night is short. And after watching it, you can take that beautiful feeling with you to last at least all through the night.

Malina
(1991) - Schroeter
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The film begins with a horrific nightmare of the writer. Her father throws her younger-self out the roof of the building. Her father is a recurring figure, sometimes seen in a Nazi uniform, reinforcing patriarchal post-war male dominant European society. Malina is a complex and crazy movie filled to the brim with symbolic images and close ups of Huppert's tearful face. Mirrors, reflecting our writer's state, is also prominently used. It goes completely bonkers in the last 30 minutes as things turn completely surreal, with part of the writer's apartment constantly on fire while Huppert pacing back and forth in her letter strewn flat as if everything is normal. Malina has a same emotional intensity as any Zulawski films and Huppert gives all to her blistering performance as a woman who desperately needs to validate her existence.

Terrorizers
(1986) - Yang
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On paper it reads like a sordid crime film very much akin to what the author says in an interview after she won the first prize, that she was "inspired by Japanese crime novels". But Terrorizers is nothing but. Everyone is well equipped with back stories and their motivations, except for the wayward youth with no moral compass, suggesting that this girl, the catalyst for everything that happens in the film might be the work of fiction, that her appearance is what people are wishing for in their daily tedious lives.

With Haneke like double take at the end, the film puts an emphasis on the fiction overtaking reality overtaking fiction. Ambitious and seductive, Terrorizers beckons me to watch more of the Taiwanese master's films.

La niña santa
(2004) - Martel
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Martel proves to be the master of close-ups and shallow focuses. The details of the senses and small moments she captures on screen - touch, smell, whispers make up the film's superbly orchestrated, organic feel. All the connective tissues of the film are all spread out- the fact doctors are ear-nose-throat specialists - whispers and misheard information, smell, singing, but her approach is so subtle and fluid, you can't help but admire her skills. The Holy Girl is about Amalia as much as it isn't. The film's sordid details of the lives of middle class bourgeoisie can be seen as Almodovar-esque melodrama. But as in all Martel's films there is always a it's-barely-there-but-there satire. I can't really think of any director working today who works on Martel's level. The Holy Girl is a true cinematic feat!

L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970) - Argento
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The use of architecture and art Bird with colors and framing, the Crystal Plumage is perhaps one of the most accomplished, stylish debut feature of all time. It contains all of the Dario Argento signature of his later classics and can still be counted as one of his very best. Renzi is appropriately freaky. A great giallo.

La Truite
(1982) - Losey
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It's all Huppert though. Her mixed naivete and nonchalance makes a hell of a complex, beguiling character. She can be brutal in kicking old pervert's balls several times but also can be remorseful after throwing the man's stuffed trophies out the window and seeing him cry. Another strong film that demonstrates Huppert's talent and charm.

La Notte
(1961) - Antonioni
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La Notte might not be the most cinematic films in Antonioni's oeuvre. But with older, knowing protagonists, it is a lot more impactful and sadder than L'eclisse. The last scene, as the unhappy couple trying to have sex in the field is perhaps the saddest movie ending ever. I think I am beginning to appreciate Michelangelo Antonioni's artistry more now that I'm older.

Le rayon vert
(1986) - Rohmer
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Dephine needs that rare occurrence in her life. That it is possible that there is somebody who is in the same wavelength as you. However rare meeting that person is, it could happen. Deeply humanistic and beautifully drawn, Le rayon vert is one of my new favorites of all time.

Bella e perduta
(2015) - Marcello
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Shot on gloriously beautiful 16mm, the film is really something else. Marcello presents everything so gracefully, putting equal measure of importance on everything, whether it's the footage of ordinary people taking to the street against Mob violence or intensely blue-eyed Tommaso giving a silent tour inside the decrepit palace or a close up of an old farmer brushing her hair or picturesque pastoral countryside where Pulcinella and Sarchiapone take their long journey on foot.

Is human existence is all a dream of a buffalo calf? Lamenting the loss of the way of life, Lost and Beautiful is an immensely wise, melancholic look at what it means to be human. Beauty.

Malgre la nuit (2015) - Grandrieux
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Seriously, Narrative is for pussies.

Toute une nuit
(1982) - Chantal Akerman
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Night is a powerful equalizer - in the shadows, we can hide all our imperfections. In the shadows, night is also an enabler for those who act on their impulses. This is how I felt watching Toute une nuit. No one does loneliness like Akerman. She stitches together these lonely souls in short, almost silent segments as they sit in empty bars, cafes, rooms, balconies, corridors. They also run around, pack and leave, break up, and embrace each other and dance. There are so many embraces in Tout une nuit. They are not the happy ones. They are desperate, sad ones- holding each other tight, not able to let go and becoming sad dances.

Toute une nuit is a beautiful, melancholic piece that speaks to the lonely hearts everywhere.

L'Immortelle (1961) - Robbe-Grillet
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L'Immortelle is an intricate visual puzzle piece that's beautifully put together: repetition of images, still and panning shots and the accumulation of these give meanings in edits. Just like the palace in Marienbad (Schloss Schleissheim), Istanbul and its waterways serve as a magnificent backdrop. Brion, as the mystery personified. is magnetic. The elliptical narrative and the images give the feeling that time doesn't exist in the film. Your own memories are immortal for long as you live, the film tells us.

Yourself and Yours
(2016) - Hong
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Yourself and Yours turns out to be perhaps the most poignant and romantic film of all the Hong's I've seen so far. Inebriated Minjung (Lee You-young) flirts with a film director she just met, over beer. When they meet, the director is convinced that he knows her from somewhere but she vehemently denies it. Over a short period of time before the encounter, she leaves Yongsoo and breaks up with an older man who also first thought she was Minjung but she tells him that she is her twin sister.

Just to be in the clear, Yourself and Yours is nothing like Buñuel's or Kieslowski's. Hong's interest is not in identity crisis or duality of men. His double takes and alternate scenarios may seem manipulative (also delicious) but the movie is more to do with accepting a person for who that person is, with blemishes and all that.

JLG JLG: autoportrait de décembre
(1994) - Godard
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Godard's seemingly abstract connections through politics, history and art are not without fangs. Like light and darkness, there's two sides always competing, but what if there is only one side but the other is just an reflection of one's self? "JLG by JLG," he says at one point. It's only you who can truly represent yourself and on the same token, truly judge yourself. "I am legend." He declares on the pages of his note book- he is thoroughly aware of his past. The past is never dead. He's the director of Breathless and Pierrot le fou among others. But over the years, his persona (his name) has taken over a center stage rather than his films. How do you reconcile the two? He also has to live up to his name. With everything that was going wrong in the world at the time, speaks of love, as if there is a chance in the rotten world that gives us meaning to all of this. He will be remembered in art history. He is legend. He has been tirelessly exploring and in turn, elevated cinema as an art form.

Paranoid Park
(2007) - Van Sant
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Paranoid Park isn't really about anything. Sure it deals with skater kids in High School setting and an accident where a railroad security guy gets killed. Gus Van Sant and DP Chris Doyle rather ringer on their angelic looking young subject with shallow focus and all. As Alex struggles a little with his guilty conscience, he gets a little help from a goth girl Macy. She suggests to write what's on his mind and take the weight off his chest. So he goes along with it, simply leading his teenage life. And it's a sublime experience.

Une femme est une femme
(1961) - Godard
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Playful and vibrant, Godard's take on musical after massive success of Breathless is a pure joy. It vastly relies on the charm of Anna Karina who ignites the cinemascope technicolor screen. Paris is never more beautiful as Karina, Belmondo and Brialy roam around Raoul Cotard lensed, busy city, mostly unaware of their filmmaking shenanigans. It's good to see Godard celebrating youth and youthful optimism about the cinema before his cynicism and grumpiness took over. It liberating it must've felt. So many great moments. So exuberant! So lovely.

Friday, December 22, 2017

My Top 10 Favorite Films 2017

What can I say? The country has gone to the dogs. Half of the country made clear that they are racists and the government loudly declared that they don't care about the poor people. It's been a miserable year. If anything, it was cinema that got me through the tough and ugly times. It showed me that there is much humanity and beauty in the world still. Even though I watched much less films this year, the quality of the films were nothing short of amazing.

I have to say on record that I am more than happy about cable TV and streaming services chipping away at the dominance of theater going experience and blurring the line among different formats. Cinema should be a democratic experience and accessible. I say this while I can, since Net Neutrality is gone. :sad: But cinema has been alive and well this year. Viva le Cinema!

1. Twin Peaks: The return - David Lynch, Mark Frost
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Soon as the Showtime's 18 part Twin Peaks revival ended at the end of the Summer on Showtime, it was evident to me that I would't see anything that'd come close to being as cinematically audacious as this. The thought of labeling it for either TV series or a film never crossed my mind. Twin Peaks: The Return is without a doubt, the highlight of cinema of this year period (if not of all time), all 18 hours of it.

2. Zama - Lucrecia Martel
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As far as visual aural experiences go, there is no director working today whose greatness comes close to that of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel. Her mastery comes to full fruition in searching for El Dorado story of Don Diego de Zama, a historical epic. Beautifully contextualized and richly textured, Zama is an amazing films to watch on the big screen.

3. Sleep Has Her House - Scott Barley
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Talk about immersive cinema experience, look no further than Scott Barley's Sleep Has Her House. It's his otherworldly beauty of the Scottish Highlands at night and soundscape that pull you in. But however grand and beautiful his images are, there is a familiarity and coziness to them. In Barley's world, an inner-scape and an outer-scape are one in the same. It's his ability to internalize his surroundings that is truly remarkable. Darkness can be a scary and frightening place. Embarking on SHHH might conjure up the image of a Saturn eating his own offspring at first. But once you take a leap and plunge into his shadowy, slowly moving images, the beautiful, mysterious yet familiar darkness envelops you and sucks you in. There is an ebbs and flows to SHHH, like a piece of fine music, like a taste of complex whiskey. It's truly one of a kind experience.

*My interview with Scott Barley

4. By the Time It Gets Dark - Anocha Suwichakornpong
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The film might sound too precious on paper - those too self-aware films in love with themselves. But the result of layers of these slightly connected vignettes and visual metaphors are anything but. Images are democratic- whether it's a trashy, seemingly inconsequential pop culture, the serious historical reenactments, Buddhist temple, disco tech and pixelated visual noise have the same value. It's a very Dostoevskian concept- like a tobacco leaves and fungi, to give them meaning and purpose, these layers Suwichakornpong presents will need to sit and rot. I am just amazed by her wisdom and skills to convey this kind of complicated thoughts through film medium.

5.Personal Shopper - Olivier Assayas
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Assayas operates on his top form with his muse Kristen Stewart in their second collaboration. He uses her nonchalance, youth and this time vulnerability as a grieving young woman unsure of her judgment and emotion. Personal Shopper is a lucid, flowing, deliciously addictive concoction.

*My Interview with Olivier Assayas

6. Visages Villages - Agnes Varda
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You really gotta give it to Agnes Varda: at 89, our pint sized grand dame of French New Wave is still incredibly open, generous and always searching (into both past and present). In doing so she inadvertently raises some interesting questions when it comes to what constitutes public art and what's personal without bombarding us with schoolmaster rhetoric. There are also a lot of reflections in Faces Places on impermanence of human existence, art and mortality. And we need her more than ever.

7. The Florida Project - Sean Baker
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Sean Baker, a director of much praised iphone shot movie Tangerine, digs deeper into the flip side of American Dream with The Florida Project, starring kids and featuring the lives of kids on Route 192, under the shadow of Disney World. As with Tangerine, Baker uses mostly untrained non-actors to portray people on the skid and just have them run with the materials they were given. The result is stunning work of authenticity, brimming with humor, heartache and much humanism. In the end, we know it's a make-believe and that everything is going to be all right. But the final moment of the film, taking place in the real Magic Kingdom, shot on shaky iphone, really got me emotionally. It is, shall we say, pure magic.

8. Dawson City: Frozen Time - Bill Morrison
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Bill Morrison draws fascinating paralleling histories of American prospecting days and early development of film industry and the results are quite explosive. Morrison, known for his disintegrating found footage images, creates hugely entertaining film that is both artful and informative.

9. Wormwood -Errol Morris
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With his journalistic candor, Errol Morris meticulously digs into America's ugly past. A 6-part series on Netflix serves the subject right for the seasoned documentarian to be much more expansive and rigorous. It is one of the most inventive, refreshing cinema events of the year.

*My interview with Actor Christian Camargo

10. Félicité - Alain Gomis
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Félicité is a melding of many conflicting elements. There are documentary like naturalism mixed in with recurring beautiful dream sequence in the woods in near darkness. There is local music (featuring the Kasai Allstars) rubbing shoulders with Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra playing classical pieces by Arvo Pärt. Félicité's strong willed, modern woman meets Tabu's womanizer and drunkard. The accept each other and continue their amicable relationship. Structurally daring, beautifully down to earth but not gritty, Alain Gomis' gentle touch stands out as the biggest discovery of talent in my book.

*My interview with Alain Gomis

And the rest...

11. Un beau soleil intérieur - Claire Denis

12. On the Beach at Night Alone - Hong Sangsoo

13. The Shape of Water - Guillermo Del Toro

14. The Other Side of Hope - Aki Kaurismaki

15. Lady Macbeth - William Oldroyd
*My interview with William Oldroyd

16. Beach Rats - Eliza Hittman

17. Thelma - Joachim Trier

18. The Day After - Hong Sangsoo

19. A Quiet Passion - Terence Davies
*My interview with Terence Davies

20. Frantz - François Ozon
*My interview with Director François Ozon

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Joy and Optimism in Cinema before Cynicism and Grumpiness

Une femme est une femme (1961) - Godard
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Playful and vibrant, Godard's take on musical after massive success of Breathless is a pure joy. It vastly relies on the charm of Anna Karina who ignites the cinemascope technicolor screen. Paris is never more beautiful as Karina, Belmondo and Brialy roam around Raoul Cotard lensed, busy city, mostly unaware of their filmmaking shenanigans. It's good to see Godard celebrating youth and youthful optimism about the cinema before his cynicism and grumpiness took over. It liberating it must've felt. So many great moments. So exuberant! So lovely.