Monday, January 16, 2017

Cosmic Energy

Kosmos (2010) - Erdem
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A bug eyed stranger (Sermet Yesil) comes into snowy border town in northeast Turkey. Upon arrival, he saves and miraculously revives a drowned boy from the river. The boy's father, a local butcher, grateful, tells the stranger that he is welcome and can stay in an abandoned city hall building. But it's the stranger's eccentricity that attracts the locals attentions- it's his philosophical talk in a high pitched voice, only eats lumps of sugar at a tea house for sustenance, no concept in labor or money, and is later revealed, has an abilities to cure and heal people and even defy gravity. He impacts some of the locals' lives for the better, at first. After healing an old man's bad lung (he has to pick his patients up from behind and shake them like a rag doll), there's a line of sick and invalid people gathering at his door which he avoids.

The story of two factions in the village, ones who embraces opening the borders and by trading with the others that will bring the wealth, the other who blames the loss of cultural, traditional ways and recent social ills (mostly robbery committed by the stranger) on the foreigners, resonates the world we are living in. As the miracles fade and turn into tragedies, people start to resent the stranger they first saw as a savior.

This allegorical tale packs a lot of themes and stories in to a 2 hour running time. It reminds me of Werkmeister Harmonies and Tarkovsky's work. But unlike those clinically astute aesthetics of Tarkovsky or Tarr, Erdem's Kosmos is an energetically charged film from beginning to end. The stranger who calls himself Kosmos is always moving about, and the camera, through tracking shot and handheld, constantly move through snowy landscape and chaotic interiors: It being a border town in an unending conflict with neighbors, there are constant low booms of cannons heard from near distance. A satellite falls from the sky. There are also noises of cows from the slaughterhouse, birds, dogs and music- the film is cacophony of sounds and motion all of the time.

Neptün (Türkü Türan), daughter of the butcher, connects with Kosmos. There courtship is that of feral animals - they communicate by howling and running around. Perhaps she is the only one who understands when he says there is no difference between human and animals.

Kosmos is an unwieldy, messy, sprawling work. There are many moments of brilliance and striking visuals. But all that chaos is what Erdem is intending to show. But Kosmos is definitely not a moral lesson, there is no ultimatum or strong message. That the world is indeed chaotic, indecipherable, unknowable and mysterious. The director leaves it at that. Perhaps not narratively satisfying, but Kosmos is full of beauty and wonder.

Friday, January 13, 2017


The Passion of Anna (1969) - Bergman
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The Passion of Anna is a difficult work. Bergman had always tussled with the bleak view on humanity, commented on how vile human relationships can be- that people go on living together for the sake of living together. But at the end, we all die alone. With his regular actors who were still contractually obligated to work with him after Shame and the set from it still left over, Bergman made this small but more abstract film that is supposed to be a sequel/companion piece. But where Shame shows how war degrades humanity, The Passion looks more inward to reach the same conclusion and the result is just as devastating. His disgust with humanity is loud and clear, no doubt brought on by the raging Vietnam War.

Andreas (Max Von Sydow) leads a solitary life in a rural island. He spends his time fixing his house and doing daily chores. His wife has left him long ago. Occasionally he screams to the cold Swedish air out of loneliness, but he seems to be content most of the time. One day, he lets in Anna (Liv Ullman), a friend of the neighbor couple Eva and Elis (Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson) to make urgent phone call. He eavesdrops the conversation and looks through her bag and reads the letter from Anna's dead husband. Unlike her professing her love for her dead husband to anyone who listens, that her marriage was 'perfection', the letter tells the very opposite, her husband telling her that if they go on living together, it will end in psychological and physical violence.

Andreas hooks up with Eva, who in turn spills out her innermost thoughts- she has no thoughts of her own, no ambition and always following the lead of her intellectually superior, successful architect husband who seems to be away on business trips often. Elis's sarcasm and contempt for the world don't sit well with the other three. Being an amateur photographer, he laments on not being able to capture the human soul with his photos. But his clinical observation on humanity and how he sees it is obvious.

The passion is like Bergman's hit medley. His usual themes are all there, portrayed by four archetypes: Andreas - a vacillating coward caught between humanly desire and disgust, Anna - a guilt stricken, self-deceiving woman capable of intolerable cruelty, Eva - a naive, empty vessel trotting through doomed life and Elis - an arrogant, distant, soulless observer of humanity. The actors candidly talk about their characters in length on camera within the movie, as if in DVD extras.

Andreas then shacks up with Anna- the monotonous narrator tells us that they are living together without any passion. And we see them eating and talking like a normal couple. The union of necessities I suppose, to keep a warm body next to you. To have someone to talk to to alieviate loneliness.

Bergman, who found his home in remote Faro Island living in relative isolation and solitude while the raging war on the other side of the world is blaring on TV reminded him of the ugly humanity, reflects his sentiments in The Passion. The title is misleading since because Anna's passion of her past relationship is a bold faced lie. It questions if it will ever help Andreas, Anna and Eva go on their almost unbearable existence if they had it in the first place. The Passion ends with horrendous fistfight between Andreas and Anna, as predicted by the letter in the beginning, and Andreas literally walking back and forth, vacillating and collapsing under the weight of his own guilt and shame and desire both to be alone and be with someone.

Emotionally bare and structurally, technically jarring, The Passion of Anna is a deeply pessimistic, open wound of a film. Unlike his other depressing films I've seen, I failed to see the beauty in it.

Monday, January 9, 2017


After the Storm (2016) - Kore-eda
Kore-eda's new film about a dead-beat dad getting over his divorce/letting go is as subtle as any other of his films. Hiroshi Abe (Still Walking, I Wish) plays a washed up writer Ryota, still carrying the torch for his ex Kyoko (Yoko Maki of Bitter Honey, Like Father, Like Son). He spends most of his time blowing money (that he earned at the detective agency - 'researching for a new book' temp/permanent job) at the racetrack and evading alimony payments questions from Kyoko. With the custody arrangement, and sandwiched between his aging mother who's used to babying him (Kirin Kiki) and grilling sister, he has to resort seeing his son who's in elementary school, only on the weekends. Spying on Kyoko's new romance, Ryota wants to give it another go at her, even though it is pretty hopeless prospect. Incoming storm as an excuse, Ryota takes his son to his mother's and maroons himself there with furious Kyoko over one stormy night.

Taking on many Japanese social issues - divorce, unemployment, elderly care, albeit subtly, After the Storm is yet another gentle family tale that is so old-fashioned and soft it hardly registers on emotional level. It's a minor Kore-eda.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Iranian Neo-Realism at its Best

A Separation (2011) - Farhadi
Riveting morality tale from Asghar Farhadi. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Layla Hatami) want a divorce after 14 years of marriage. Nader has an old father who has an alzheimer so he won't leave the country with his wife and 11 year old daughter. Simin's mind was set on immigration, for the future of their child. They go to a judge but he won't grant the divorce since Nader is not a bad man. Things begin to unravel when Nader takes up a caretaker to take care of his dad while he is working. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) with his young button nosed daugther in tow, starts working for Nader but taking care of the old man who doesn't know where he is most of the time and can't clean himself is just too much for her with hot tempered, unemployed husband at home. She is also pregnant.

Things get out of hand when Razieh leave the old man tied to the bed and go to the doctors appointment - Nader comes home with his daughter, finds his dad fallen off bed unconscious, goes mad, throws Razieh out when she comes back. In the scuffle that ensues, Razieh has a miscarriage. The intense court drama (in the office of a judge) begins.

Farhadi's moral dilemmas where no one is really at fault but everyone finds himself in bad circumstances in a deeply religious society is extremely well-balanced and beautifully drawn out. He is especially good at observing all these rigmaroles from children's perspective. Outstanding performances by all involved. A great example of neo-realist Iranian cinema.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Murder My Sweet

Ménilmontant (1926) - Kirsanoff
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With long cross-fades, handheld shots, jumpcuts and expressive close-ups and time jumps, Dimitri Kirsanoff's silent film Ménilmontant is a beauty. It tells the two country sister's journey (after their mum and dada get murdered by crazy axe wielding man) to the Paris neighborhood of the title. It's a typical melodrama of moral corruption and jealousy and redemption and stuff, but the presentation is nothing but. Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff's wife) who plays the younger sister is a sight to behold. She is a cross btwn Anna Karina and Marion Cortillard. Her expressions in close-ups are as expressive as that of Maria Falconetti's in Joan of Arc.

Ménilmontant starts and ends with jarringly, frenetically shot and edited murder scenes. It's probably the most violent silent film I've seen but also the most lyrical. Beautiful stuff.

Heavenly Creatures

Our Little Sister (2015) - Kore-eda
The movie starts. Three Koda sisters gather in a mountain town for their dad's funeral. They hadn't seen him in more than 15 years. He had an affair with other women and their mother ran away long ago. It was the eldest, Sachi (Haruka Ayase)'s job to take charge of their old style home in picturesque seaside Kamakura and raise her siblings. They find out they have a wide eyed, 15 yr old little step-sister, Suzu (Suzu Hirose) who'd been taking care of their father in his deathbed. She doesn't get along with her step-mother (he was married 3 times). Sachi decides to invite Suzu to live with them. Suzu accepts the offer and they say their goodbye at the train station until their next encounter. The little girl runs after the leaving train... waving madly at the strangers she just met... like a puppy dog in a shelter who just got some attention...

I break down. It's only been twenty minutes into the movie and I am sobbing like a little girl. Fucking Kore-eda. He got me real good. Our Little Sister is such an old fashioned movie - a small town where everybody knows each other, sibling rivalry, life's little complications, family traditions.... But it's done in such a gentle, loving way, you can't deny its honest-to-god innate goodness in ordinary people Kore-eda's portraying. It's achingly beautiful movie.


0.5mm (2014) - Ando
Clocking just over 3 hours, 0.5 mm tells a sprawling journey of a young caretaker of elderly people (director Momoko Ando's little sister, Sakura) as she travels through Japan. It's a comical, tender and deadly honest look at aging Japan and its seemingly unbridgeable generation gap.

Sawa (Sakura Ando), is a comely caretaker of an bedridden old man- she changes his diapers, cleans his fluid tubes and feeds him every day. The man obviously hasn't long to live. Sawa expertly handles it all. One day, the man's daughter asks him if she's willing to sleep with the dying man- that it is his dying wish, and assuring her that he is quite flaccid. Breaking the agency protocols for a large sum of money and compassion, Sawa agrees to go through with it. But it only ends in a disaster that costs the old man's life. Something breaks in Sawa and she takes off on the road.

Without any money, she witnesses an eccentric elderly man (Tatsuo Inoue) who's compulsively going around town stealing bicycles and puncturing tires. She blackmails him into pressing herself into his life as his live-in caretaker. There are many funny moments in this prolonged segment as Sawa flirts and disinfects his desires, fights off a sleazy scammer of elderly people, until he decides to go to the fancy retirement home, leaving Sawa his long, worn-out winter coat and his beloved old vintage sport car which has been sitting in his garage.

Sawa moves on to another elderly man, a former professor (Masahiro Tsugawa), who pretends to go to teach every morning, but instead hangs out in the mall all day and spends his time looking at dirty magazines instead. No challenge is small for Sawa, as she pushes herself into the professor's life, guising herself as a former student and admirer of the professor, she forms an uneasy alliance with his older housekeeper and caretaker of his bedridden wife. Sawa insists upon taking care of the wife, who must have been a cultured woman, as she sings arias in the middle of the night. The professor was a navy captain in the war. He reflects contemporary Japan's directionlessness. With the collective will of the people, they could've moved a mountain 0.5mm if they wanted, back then. Just like his wife, he too, slowly loses his mind to aging.

Sawa travels to a small fishing village where she meets a slovenly mute boy whom she's known before and follows him to a shack where his brutish scavenger father lives. The boy turns out to be a girl underneath all the baggy clothing and Sawa and her father has several physical altercations.

With these encounters, Ando takes a current snapshot of Japan, where elderly population problem needs to be dealt with. That they need to be respected and seen with compassion. She also vilifies the post war generation who lacks compassion. They are passing responsibilities of taking care of elderly on to the directionless younger generation. In the center of 0.5mm is brave, ferocious, magnificent Sakura Ando. Not afraid of the physicality and wackiness of her character but also conveys deep compassion and understanding Sawa has for her elderly counterparts. With 30 percent of Japan's population over the age of 65, it's no surprise that Japanese cinema is the first to tackle growing elderly population problems. Biting, uncompromising and deeply poignant, 0.5mm is an impactful film mostly because its untethered, sprawling narrative. There are certain new breed of Japanese indie-filmmakers who totally ignore the typical 3-act narrative structure- Sion Sono, Shinji Aoyama  come to mind. I see Ando is also the cut of the same cloth. There is a sense of freedom, freshness to their storytelling.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Interview: Scott Barley on Sleep Has Her House

However dismal 2016 has been, I had a privilege to start the year discovering the work of a Welsh/Scottish filmmaker/artist Scott Barley. As it turns out that I also had a privilege to end and start another year with the work of Barley and conduct a second interview on his new work Sleep Has Her House. It's a monumental piece of pure cinema that is hard to describe in words. It was a visceral, immersive experience that I will never forget. Many of the questions I put on Barley here are about "how", since I know a bit of his background and his objectives from the last conversation we had, and mostly because the technician in me was wowed by his craft in SHHH. I was so genuinely invested in the experience, some of my questions came across as naive in hindsight. No matter.

Here is without further ado, my second interview with Scott Barley, accompanied by stills from Sleep Has Her House, courtesy of the filmmaker.

The texts in the beginning that starts with “The shadows of screams climb beyond the hills…” Can you tell me the origin of that poem?

Despite not consciously thinking of it at the time that I wrote the opening, I think that Thomas Pynchon’s, Gravity’s Rainbow was a big influence. It’s the opening line. Ever since reading it, it has remained with me like a scar – “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”

I also work in a stream of consciousness way, and don’t overthink what surfaces in my mind. I go with what feels right, always.

In our previous conversation, you talked about being lost in your work and only later you understand the meaning of a particular work that you’ve done. You talked about the importance of polysemy. I am wondering if there was any difference in your approach doing Sleep Has Her House, a feature that has to sustain a greater length and structure than your previous work.

I was conscious of that, and it frightened me for a long time whilst making the film. But it came to a point where I just decided to no longer be guided, or rather, to be anchored by this fear. Ultimately, I made Sleep Has Her House exactly the same way as I have made my previous, shorter works. I feel my way in the dark. I feel what feels right, and never question it, and never deviate from it. I feel, and feel alone. I love not being fully in control when making. I want the film itself to have its own
autonomy as it is being made, and for it to always be a few steps ahead of me. I want it to give birth to itself. For me, making a film is largely the same as watching one. You must not resist. Once you let go, you are no longer a captive. Just let it wash over you like an ocean. Swim with it. Drown in it. 

I think that my approach is more visible in Sleep Has Her House than any of my previous works, partly due to the longer running time, but also because of the stronger presence of the liminal, the mystic, and the unknown, which I feel took root with my short film, Hunter (2015), but is also there much earlier, in works like Nightwalk (2013) for example. All I am doing is going deeper, darker, and narrower.

Guessing from your images, those locations in Scotland you filmed have otherworldly beauty. What is your relationship as an artist with these places?

My heart is, and always has been in the Highlands. I have family there, and it’s where I feel most at home of any where I have been. Working in these landscapes and tenebrousness is a way of articulating and sharing my biophilia and nyctophilia. It’s also about sharing an aloneness with others. As Nathaniel Dorsky said, ”Sharing aloneness with other people is a great answer to loneliness.”

We must remember the difference. And in another sense, it’s about re-establishing a relationship with what we as a species have lost; what we have ignored, taken for granted, or destroyed, and how our attempts to control nature is a folly. We are guests in Her house.

How many days and nights have you spent filming up there? Do you usually travel and film alone?

For Sleep Has Has Her House, it was shot over the course of 4 separate days throughout 2015 and 2016; one day in the Brecon Beacons of Wales, and 3 days of traveling around West Scotland, with around 16 months of post-production in between. It seems ridiculous, seeing that in print, but that's how it goes.

I have traveled with others on occasion, but I always work alone, apart from some university projects, where having a crew was mandatory, i.e. Shadows (2015), Ille Lacrimas (2014). I am not against working with others, but as my work becomes more personal, I have found that my own process which I have developed does not easily permit communication and collaboration with others, as I don’t always know myself why I choose to do something a certain way. As I said before, I always go with my feeling, and trust that. I traveled with a friend and colleague whilst shooting some of Sleep Has Her House, but I worked completely alone. Every part of the process, whether that is concept, shooting, editing, or sound-design is performed by me alone. I think filmmaking, genuine art-making, regardless of whether you're working alone or with a crew is always a solitary endeavour – you are pouring your soul into something. It can be lonesome. And it can hurt.

As Emil Cioran said, ”Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” The same applies to filmmaking. And I would add, you put into your work what you would never even dare to confide to oneself, or even wish to understand. It is not a reveal, or a "pouring" of logic, it is nothing but a deluge of pure, unadulterated feeling; feeling alone. And pure feeling cannot and should not be translated into rational thought.

I am astonished by the fact that it was all shot on iPhone. Can you tell me the process from capturing those images and how it morphs into the final piece?

Firstly, I should probably mention that I always begin a film almost like one would keep a diary. I have no idea, or agenda to make a film. I simply document. I shoot what attracts me, random things, animals, variances in light, the water, the stars; simply what draws me in on different days, different nights, in different places. Once I have built up a body of footage, I start to see connections. These pieces of footage could be taken months or even years apart – and miles apart too. Just like in Hunter (2015) there are sequences in Sleep Has Her House which are comprised of shots filmed in two separate countries that are then invisibly stitched together. But these connections between different pieces of footage all happen organically. I never force these connections. I never force a film when it doesn’t come. The films find me – not the other way round. When they come alive and start to writhe, I simply hold on. All my films have been made this way. Some happen quicker than others. Once these connections are established, a narrative - through images - begins to germinate.

Sleep Has Her House was roughly 90% shot on my iPhone, the rest being made up of some drawings I did about 5 years ago whilst studying fine art, and some more recent DSLR footage. All of that was then superimposed together. Some shots, such as the 12 minute take of the sun setting in real-time, followed by the darkness, and finally the storm corrupting the night is comprised of nearly 60 layers of footage in 2K resolution. It took two months for that shot to render.

One mesmerizing shot after another, Sleep Has Her House is a truly hypnotic experience. But the techie in me was wondering as to how you accomplished the look of those images. For instance, those incredibly long waterfall sequences where we very slowly pull out to reveal the full extent of the landscape in the darkness. Or the scene of mist rolling over the forest and the trees change their colors.

Thank you. I hope you don't mind me saying, but just like the films themselves, I think it is best to be kept in the dark. Once we objectify, once we understand – we kill.

There was one visceral moment when the rainstorm passes through and from complete darkness comes the frightening (yet beautiful) forest fire which made me jump out of my seat! Even though the film is finished and obviously you are alive to tell me that it’s done, at that moment, stupidly on my part, I was very concerned about your safety and well being. Can you tell me about that experience?

As Michael Haneke said, “Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth.”
The fire is complete fakery, something that I composited, but I’m very happy - from your response - that it seemed genuine.

What do you think about in the middle of the night alone in the forest?

I think about the weight of the dark. Rather, I feel it. The heaviness. Sometimes you can feel the heaviness of the night. The dark - on different nights - has different colours. I feel its heaviness most when it is red or green. I do not mean that the colour of the night is red, or green, but I feel a colour around me. It absorbs me. It goes from the air into my core. Sometimes, the night has a hunger. It devours everything. In these moments, everything is unknown to me again. I listen. I hear. I feel the air. I feel the earth. The only thing I know is the earth under my feet. Everything is elsewhere. I am a child. I think about the same things that I try to show in my films. I think about all the things that are beyond me. I sense things dancing within the dark, out of reach. They disarm us. They seduce us.

I remain quiet. I remain still. Sometimes, I close my eyes, and I try to dance with them.

Sleep Has Her House has world premiere on streaming flatform, Tao Films, please visit their website

My 1st interview with Barley in February 2016

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Solace in Darkness: Scott Barley's Sleep Has Her House

Sleep Has Her House (2016) - Barley
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There are images that can't be described even with all the adjectives in the world. Regarding film as a sensory medium first and foremost, experiencing Scott Barley's short films has awakened in me the deeper appreciation for the medium like no other. Now the prolific young artist comes up with his feature length work, Sleep Has Her House. And I was privileged enough to experience it before it premieres on Tao Films, an independent film streaming website on January 2017. In experiencing SHHH, awe becomes loneliness becomes concern becomes fear becomes dream. It was the most magical and visceral film experiences I've had in a longest time.

I'm a big fan of Jean-Luc Godard's use of nature shots in his films. His use of nature - water, sky, sun, trees, reiterates that there exists a greater power. And it balances out what we are presented with, in characters and their earthly musings in scattered non-plots. It puts human existence into perspective. In Barley's work, nature, often shown at night, reflects the inner-scape of the artist. 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. Just like a typical narrative, there is beginning, middle and end. There is even a literal thundering climax too.

"Night is for everyone, therefore more democratic," says one of the characters in JLG's Hellas pour moi. Indeed. Darkness hides our imperfections, our sins, our true self, therefore everyone is equal. But in Barley's hands, darkness is our most comfortable, safe place to be- where you can be most honest and true to yourself. Alone, together. We watch his work in the dark, alone. Yet sharing the experience of being alone, we find solace in darkness, together. Alone, together. Loneliness I feel watching in Barley's work extends to the thought of what it must be like - Barley himself as a filmmaker, alone in the woods at night. Alone, together.

I've said too much already. SHHH needs to be experienced firsthand. Hope you will have a chance to experience the dark melancholia of Barley's world too, in front of a slightly glowing computer, between a headset in darkness - your head space, your inner-sanctum, your coven - so we can cobble up our fraternity of having experienced being alone, together. And it's a beautiful thing.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Blowing off Steam

Nocturama (2016) - Bonello
Breakfast Club meets Dawn of the Dead. Bonello's controversy seeking cinematic stunt is all looks and no substance. First half is unbelievably tense, almost silent film as a group of twenty-something Parisians orchestrate terror attacks and an assassination of political and economical targets (head of HSBC France, a big glass office building, Ministry of Interior and the gold statue of Jean d'Arc). After most of them successfully retreat to their meeting point - a large lux department store, things slow down significantly. As they have to hole up the night. A bit hesitant at first, then they try on brand name clothes and drink wine while dancing to bad rap and electronica while avoiding the news on the big screen TVs. Are they avoiding their inevitable doom or are they that clueless?

Adele Haenel makes a cameo, to deliver the line Nocturama is build upon, in the middle of the film as a girl on a bike in the middle of the night, as David, one of the babyfaced terrorist sneaks out of the department store out of boredom to smoke a cigarette, runs into her and talks to her. "It had to happen. And now it did."

In the wake of the Berlin terror attack and the assassination of Russian Ambassador in Turkey, Haenel's statement surely reflects the mood and tension of not just France but the whole European continent. It's the anger and frustrations being bottled up not only in immigrants but every single Parisians, Bonello tells us, as he fuzzes up these young people's motivations or directions. But then again, Nocturama is just an abashedly entertaining, slick moviemaking. I wish Bonello reflecting the mood and violence on the street in this movie is the extent of bottled up anger and blowing off steam are true and the extent of it. If only. But we all know that the world we are living in now is much darker and much more sinister place, unfortunately.

Friday, December 23, 2016

My Top 10 Favorite Films of 2016

Yes, another year has gone by. By all accounts, 2016 was a shitty year. Many of my idols have passed (too many to count). And the election...I have no comment.

On the contrary, wow, what a year for cinema it has been?! So many good films all around. And what year for women filmmakers! Maren Ade, Andrea Arnold, Mia Hansen-Løve, Kelly Reichardt, Lucile Hadzihalilovic -- all were top of their game this year. Hopefully the real world will catch up to the cinema world and start being awesome, one would hope? So without further a do, I present to you my favorite films of 2016, please click the titles for full reviews:

1. Toni Erdmann
Perhaps the best written, funniest dramedy ever that strikes the right chords on every level. Touching and wise and true without ever being corny. Maren Ade is a great talent and a terrific writer.

*My interview with director Maren Ade & stars Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek

2. American Honey
Energetic and powerful. More than any other film this year, American Honey is a through and through director's film. Borne out of improvisation among non-actors, Andrea Arnold paints small American Dream that still sees the possibilities of hope in a barren, ugly Americana . She even makes Brando out of Shia LaBeouf which is no easy feat.

3. La academia de la musas/Academy of Muses
Guerrin does it again- blurring the line between what's fiction and what's real, making a delicious concoction that reaches far into the possibilities of cinema.

4. L'avenir/Things to Come
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After watching L'avenir, I came to realize that it's a Hou Hsiao-Hsien movie starring Isabelle Huppert. Another marvelous observation of time passing and of course, Huppert in the center. What can anyone ask for more?

5. Elle
It should be noted that Isabelle Huppert is quite possibly the best actress ever to grace the silver screen. Verhoeven's always been an interesting director but no one gave him credits for how deft of a director he was. Elle proves that he is one of the best working directors, in Hollywood or else where.

6. Cemetery of Splendour
Beautiful, low key yet playful. The Thai master does it again.

7. Mountains May Depart
Poignant, aesthetically bold, Jia Zhangke is still the best working Chinese director today.

8. Kaili Blues
A real surprise of the year. Mature, audacious debut of a major talent. Can't wait to see what Bi Gan will do next.

9. O ornitólogo/The Ornithologist
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One of the most audacious, playful film of the year. Love to screen this in a threesome along with Christopher Honoré's Metamorphoses and Alain Guiradie's Staying Vertical as the renaissance of queer cinema of today.

10. Neruda - Larrain
Neruda - Gael García Bernal
Pablo Larrain emerges as one of the best contemporary directors with Neruda. Smart, well versed in cinema history and creative. Neruda exemplifies what Larrain can do with the narrative while not losing sight of the medium's main objective- an entertainment for the masses.

and the rest...

11. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse/My Golden Days

*My interview with director Arnaud Desplechin

12. The Lobster

13. Evolution

*My Interview with director Lucile Hadzihalilovic

14. Certain Women

15. Right Now, Wrong Then

16. Aquarius

17. Death of Louis XIV

18. La Peur/The Fear

19. Bacalaureat/Graduation

20. Neon Demon

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Interview: Maren Ade, Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek on Making Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann, a German dramedy about father-daughter relationship that won rave reviews at Cannes this year is coming out in theaters on Christmas day here in the States. This exceptionally written and acted film is director Maren Ade's third feature. It's a perfect holiday movie, packed with full of surprises and uproariously funny moments. I've never had a this much fun at the movies in a long time. It is definitely my favorite film of the year.

I had a pleasure of talking to three principals from the film- writer/director Maren Ade (Everyone Else), Actress Sandra Hüller (Requiem) and Peter Simonischek (October, November) when they were in town for New York Film Fest this October. They were a raucous team- speaking over one another and finishing each other's sentences. There lively demeanor, comradery and bad jokes filled the cold hotel room in Upper Eastside with laughter and joy.

My first question is for Maren. It’s been quite a while since your last film. Everyone Else/Alle Anderen came out in 2008. How come it took a long time for you to do another film?

Maren Ade: I didn’t spent all of the time doing Toni Erdmann, but let’s say about 5 years or so. It took a while to write it and to research it. It’s also pretty long. And I became a mother and had two children in between. I know it’s actually it’s not a good excuse. (laughs) 

But I really worked a lot for this. It’s just a film that had so many different topics…for me it was a big luxury because I never had to leave a certain phase of happiness doing it. I mean, only thing that would bother me sometimes is that it’s ‘always the same thing’ over and over. It takes time to shoot and edit and do all these different things but at the end, preparing for Cannes, I couldn’t even look at it anymore.

How long was the process for you guys?

Sandra Hüller: About a year.

Peter Simonischek: Yeah about a year, maybe a little longer.

MA: Yeah we started casting in May and we started shooting in June the next year.

It’s funny because from my limited knowledge of both of your work, you’ve done some serious stuff. I’ve seen October, November with you Peter and of course, Requiem with you Sandra. So it was a complete surprise for me to see you in very comedic performances.

PS: I’m more of a theater actor. I don’t have an impressive film career per se. I didn’t do horrible, shitty things--

(Sandra and Maren start to laugh)

But I did things like TV series 20 years ago. The thing is, there are not many opportunities - there are not many good roles or directors…and everything must fit. In a small country like Austria, there are not many opportunities…

MA: But you did comedies in theater, no?

PS: Yes. 

SH: He is much more familiar to comedy than I am.

PS: Yes, I did a lot of comedies too. When I went in to theater fifty years ago, I never thought of doing TV or film, I just wanted to go on stage. Maybe I did 5 or 6 good films but the rest is middle measure. Maybe two or three bad ones.

How was the casting process? How did you end up with these two?

MA: It’s a father-daughter dynamics and I believe in casting very much also. I obviously only invite actors who are good first. But often it’s very important how the constellation is, even when two people are just seating next to each other, a story comes in your mind. So sometimes it's really about suitability. Sandra and Peter were the last combination I tried but I knew right away that I would cast. They had different partners before. I was very excited to bring them together. Actually even before you two met, I thought it would be a good constellation.

SH: That’s not what she told me. It took like 3 or 4 weeks.

MA: No.

SH: Yeah yeah, you took a lot of time to decide.

MA: No it was not that long.

SH: Ah ok.

MA: I swear to you it wasn’t more than 3 to 4 days

SH: Let’s not fight.

MA: Ok. Between the first casting and the next one it took some time but--

SH: But not after we got on board--

MA: yeah.

What did you guys first think about the script when you guys first read it?

PS: After I read it, I said, "my god what’s this?"

(everyone laughs)

I thought jeez, this is wonderful and so crazy and so great. It’s so extravagant and out of the ordinary. I was very curious who the writer was. I am at this big theater and others had read the script and then they called me. Everyone was like, “Did you read this?” “Oh god it’s great, let’s do this!”

Everyone who read the script was elec-- how do you say it? Electrified? So I took the invitation for the casting. It’s not usual for my generation of actors doing auditions like that like everyone else because of our age and so on but it was never a problem for me. I had some bad experience in theater working over agreement without auditioning. Horrible. I’ll never do that again.

SH: We also needed to find out whether we could work together.

MA: Yeah that was very important.

SH: Also because it was such a long shoot (3 month) for a German film.

MA: It’s not always clear that two actors who can get along together and what kind of performance can they get out of each other. I mean--

PS: It was the very very first lucky experience for me. You (Maren) and you (Sandra). It was absolutely fantastic. It would’ve been very very sad after the first casting together and then if you said to me ,”I’m sorry Peter but it won’t work”. I was very disciplined with my emotions and said to myself, “she will tell me, maybe or not.”

How about you sandra?

SH: Well… no I wanted to work with Maren for few years. I did an audition for the last film she did but I didn’t get it. But I really wanted to work with her. When I read Toni, I knew it was a good script and really enjoyed it but thought I couldn’t do it. it was too complicated and the whole business world was so strange to me. But then we had a conversation and we started the casting process and then I learned some things about Ines that was really interesting to me. It was a big challenge to shoot such a long time and I was doing theater and I had a child who was three at the time and I know you said it was an excuse but--

MA: I know!

SH: It was a really difficult situation in my private life. So I wasn’t really sure but we found out that we worked very well together and we’d probably have a good time together for three months.

Ines is a very cold and business like. And the things she talks about in business jargons I didn’t really get. Was there a lot of research involved?

SH: Maren did a lot of research. I knew nothing of that world. I’d find it interesting to meet those people of my generation who’d do these things. In the beginning, I’d create a map like you’d do in school with the CEO on top, like a tree. I was never interested in that world before. Now I think I can read the economy section of the newspaper.

(Peter claps loudly, another laughter from everyone)

It was important for me that the film really spends some time in the work environment because it was so important to Ines which is basically her life. We all spend our lifetime with our work and in films it’s often so reduced. Usually it’s boring and hard to find a story there. So it took us a while to find a project I can take over from a consultant that we met and we transformed it to fit the story better. It was necessary for me to have an example that really existed.

Was it difficult for you to play that part of Ines?

SH: Yes it was because it was really far away from my own experiences. You can attach yourself to a character in an emotional way. But almost in every scene she makes decisions that I wouldn’t have made. I’m much more sentimental than she is. I had to learn how to skip some of the impulses I have in the first place. But I liked that. I learned a lot from her. Sometimes it’s best not to do what you feel like to do and sometimes it’s better.

Yeah, I had to read a lot and had to watch some movies about this kind of business. Really. there are some really nice documentaries, like Work Hard Play Hard and stuff, where you can see the same kind of body language that they all have that doesn’t say anything about their personal lives. It’s really crazy but also interesting to find out.

It was interesting to me. For me, the movie is about people putting on some sort of a mask to function in the society: Ines has a very cold façade because she has to present herself like that in that environment in order to survive and Winfried is confronting her with another façade which is snaggle toothed Toni. Because she has a role that she needs to play and it’s not natural, so the father is putting on the mask himself to kind of offset that.

It is interesting that there is also a generational gap that’s going on, not only the German society but in general, that there is a rift between the hard working, go getter type of Ines’s generation and kind of happy go lucky of Winfried generation. I am wondering if that was intentional take on your part?

MA: For me he is a typical post war generation who was very political and who was fighting a lot for human values and raise their children with that in mind. They had a kind of hostile relationship with the generation before them. They believed in the free world, world without borders and also economy without borders. And now it ended up with globalization where rich is really rich and poor's really poor. But he lost Ines to that world that he preached. She has all those values that her dad taught her but she is using it in a different way in her business world. She is independent, she is determined but still curious about other things if she’s given a chance.

For me it was the feeling that I have that in my generation that things became so complicated, we don't know who to blame, who’s responsible and for what. It’s complicated to tell who’s a friend and who’s an enemy- there are so many angles on everything.

It's like the father stands for the system of values that is almost like an island that is slowly sinking. We are not allowed to see things like that anymore. It was much simpler back then.

I don’t want to give an answer to the question. It’s just something I felt when I was writing and reflecting on my thoughts.

It’s not like the father is teaching her how to live but it’s more like father reminding her what’s already inside her - that the fun part is already inside her. I thought the turning point for Ines to show her funny side is not in the Whitney Houston scene (even though that is a fantastic scene) but even way before that when she is having sex with her lover. That her father brought out something in her with the unfortunate pastry incident.

SH: 'The Pastry Incident'. I’m gonna write that down!

I never saw it as teaching. I’m still too close to Ines, I don’t know. But they are fighting with each other actually. It was a challenge for both of them. When they are sitting in the kitchen in the beginning of the film, she asks him, “What are you gonna do with your life, except playing with whoopie cushions?" or whatever. So it was an invitation for him to think about what he wants to do with the rest of his retired life. And he comes up with this character and he can do anything, like a superhero. I don’t know. So It’s not that she is only learning from him. I think it’s both ways.

MA: I think it’s also got to do with deciding what is happening by accident and what is on purpose. His purpose was to be close to his daughter. He was at a dead end and he didn’t know how to communicate with her. So if you had asked Winfried- this is always a question that I ask myself, if I could really get an answer from the character, He would’ve said, “Yeah I didn't know. I just went in the bar and I thought we maybe could talk again and she comes in the limosine and we’ll have some fun with my Ines and that's how it would end.

PS: "The flight was cheap."

MA: "The flight was cheap. I missed the flight back!!" (laughs)

He is also giving that answer at the end. He doesn’t believe in what he did before. He doesn’t even know what he gave her. He doesn’t even understand what the outcome of that naked party was. I mean he still has the feeling that he owes her an answer to that.

Was it difficult for you to play basically two characters?

PS: It was one gig to play two.

MA: Actually you play a bad actor. And that’s a good thing. That's some thing you said during the production that you are playing one character.

PS: Sure. One person. Winfried. He disguise himself as Toni to be funny and risky. It is a very courageous thing to do for a person who is not an actor. Not bad. But not only in the shop where nobody knows him but he acts in front of colleagues of Ines and also in front of her boss. Not bad. "But this is not your daughter." Pfffw.

MA: It was really interesting to direct that because it’s forcusing on what good acting is - is it not real enough or good enough or bad enough, or good-bad acting, you know?

SH: It must’ve been really tough for Peter because if you look at his personal journey- he is Elvis and…everybody else all at the same time. Winfried wasn’t really allowed to do that.

PH: There were a lot of possibilities for sure.

MA: We did go, some times, the full way, really going overboard. And then we would pull back.

I see.

PS: Shopping center (starts to laugh to himself, shaking his head)

MA/SH: Yeah.

SH: In there Peter played very American version of Toni. The Texas version.

(They all laugh)

PS: You see, really, it was a lot of fun.

Why Romania?

MA: Why Romania?

Yeah, why Romania? And did you guys enjoy shooting there?

MA: Umm, yeah it was very nice place and we had very good team there. It suited to the story because there are a lot of multinational companies in Romania. After the end of communism, there was a big sellout and everyone was trying to get something out of the country. I was interested in this hierarchies of German companies in Romania.

I don’t want to make a comparison but there is a Romanian movie the is out playing at the festival as well. Bacalaureat/Graduation. I haven’t seen it yet but From what I hear movie also deals with father-daughter relationship.

MA: Yeah I want to see it.

If it was a Hollywood film, it would’ve ended when father and daughter embrace each other in the park.

SH: Yeah tell me how would that look like?

MA: who plays who?

Probably like, the late Robin Williams and I don’t know Kate Mara or someone like that. They would hug and that would be the end of the film. But this doesn’t end that way. It goes on. I found that interesting. Did you want to make a point that the life goes on, that it’s not a big life-changing, revelatory experience and everyone becomes happy and whatnot?

MA: I don’t believe so much in big transformations or 'you have to get over yourself' or something. I mean they are possible but not for a film. The time frame of the film is too small. You know what, this is such an obvious moment to put the credits. I did try it, just as a joke. I knew I would never end a movie like that but just to prove that it is really wrong, I did it. It was so stupid. It would been so disappointing because it’s simply not true.

SH: That’s what its about? It’s about hugging in the park in Bucharest?

MA: I also like that he is really struggling in the (Kukeri) coustume and she doesn’t see that. And he is alone. Because that’s not the end of the story. If it doesn’t end like that, in Hollywood films, they would meet 20 years later.

SH: They are all old and say to each other that they can share the secret then.

Toni Erdmann opens Christmas Day in New York and Los Angeles.

**Got a chance to see Christian Mungiu's Bacalaureat after this interview. It's another great film from Mungiu, sharply observing ordinary Romanians dealing with the country's monstrous bureaucratic system. But it's a very different film than Toni Erdmann. Although the film has a father-daughter relationship, their similarities remains on a very superficial level.

Monday, December 19, 2016

My Top 10 Discoveries 2016

This is more like a year end summery of my viewing habits. It pains me that I wasn't more adventurous this year and didn't dig deep enough to see more films, because it is evident that I watched more interesting stuff earlier in the year than later. I'll be more adventurous next year I hope.

Hunter (2015) - Scott Barley
2016 started with a bang for me. In the KG Artist section at the torrent site, I discovered Scott Barley's work. Dark, mysterious and touching, his portrayal of beautiful loneliness deeply affected me. I've devoured everything the young artist has to offer. I contacted him and to my surprise, he responded and our correspondence resulted in an in-depth interview. There were other short experimental stuff I checked out too, notably:

Crystal World
(2013) - Pia Borg
crystal world2_zpsdetj4ha8

Then I watched
La Cienaga (2001) - Lucrecia Martel
and I don't have to tell you how great it is. Lucrecia Martel is, borrowing an esteemed fellow filmmaker Christoph Hochhäusler's own words, "she is one of the world's greatest filmmakers working today".
Just like La Cienaga, there were certain well regarded films I've been neglecting to see for a long time, but finally visited and found their greatness:

Long Day Closes
(1992) - Terence Davies
The World (2004) - Jia Zhangke
Last Year at Marienbad (1961) - Alain Resnais
Screen Shot 2016-11-20 at 6.25.28 PM
Great, all great stuff...

Found Garrel's self-reflexive artistry delicate and delicious:
Jealousy (2013) - Philippe Garrel

Then there was the heady world of Alexander Kluge to plunge into
Die Macht der Gefühle/The Power of Emotion (1983) - Alexander Kluge
Der Angriff der Gegenwart auf die übrige Zeit/The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (1985)
Screen Shot 2016-12-15 at 9.25.44 PM

Also discovered the sensual world of Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro
Ventos de Agosto/August Winds (2014) - Gabriel Mascaro

Then I dug into exciting world of Giallo and experienced first hand the sensual violence and the batting eyelashes of Edwige Fenech
and watched her in many giallos, especially in
All the Colors of the Dark (1972) - Sergio Martino
also discovered that trudging through a dozen notable giallos that a good giallo is hard to come by. Other notable ones (But not as good as All the Colors) are - Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)