Monday, July 28, 2014

This Dream That One Calls Human Life...

The Dance of Reality (2013) - Jodorowsky
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Jodorowsky gives all with this self-reflexive masterpiece based on his childhood full of magic, dreams and full of melancholy. His father (played by his son, Brontis Jodorowsky, finally getting a hammy lead role he deserves), a Russian communist Jew transplant in Tocopillo, Chile, was a spartan atheist who was determined to make a man out of young, frail Alejandrito (Jeremias Herskovits). His buxom mother (Pamela Flores) who delivers all her lines in soprano was a believer and a saint. Jodorowsky runs wild with realizing his vision with the help of some unobtrusive CGI. You realize where his fantastic imagery and obsessions come from as you watch the film: circus folks, drag queens, sages, priests, vivrant colors, maimed limbs. But this time, they are not there for a mere shock value, but memorialized fondly as he reminisces them with great amplification. The film makes a big turn and we follow the father to Santiago as he tries to assassinate the military dictator Ibanez. He succeeds in earning the general's trust but fails at the opportunity as his hands are suddenly paralyzed. His odyssean journey back home is truly epochal.

If Woody Allen used humor to exorcise his childhood and Jewishness, Jodorowsky does with surrealism and weird freakishness. His sensibility comes from being a forever persecuted stranger commie Jew without a homeland. In this dream we called life, Jodorowsky is dreaming us, us playing part as audience. Who's dreaming Jodorowsky the filmmaker? Cinephiles of course. The Dance of Reality is his much softer, lyrical contemplation of life. One of the year's best.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ageism

Goodbye Again (1961) - Litvak
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Melodrama of highest order! 40 year old Paula (Ingrid Bergman) is an interior designer in Paris. She and playboy Roger (Yves Montand) has a non committal relationship that's been going on for 5 years. Enter one of her clients' 25 year old son, Philip (Tony Perkins). He falls in love with Paula and starts stalking her. While Roger is sleeping around on 'business trips', Paula finally gives in to Philip's persistence. Roger gets jealous and wants her back. Torn between a charming womanizer and a lovesick puppy, Paula can't make up her mind.

Anatole Litvak's melodrama puts the focus squarely on a middle aged woman as she succumbs to ageism and societal pressure. Roger even says himself that what he's doing is 'normal', insinuating what she's doing is not. Paula is left with making bad choices. Bergman is still luminous and Montand, suave but it's Perkins again who steals the show. There is a certain child-like vulnerability in him with a hint of cynicism and cruelty. It's in his dark eyes. Here, he remains sweet and lovelorn and falls victim to the seemingly impossible love. There should be a thesis written about Perkins and older women.

Hilarious trailer narrated by Pepe Le Pew:

Friday, July 18, 2014

Greek Tragedy

Phaedra (1962) - Dassin
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Phaedra is a retelling of a classical Greek tragedy of a woman falling in love with her stepson, set in modern day Greece. Phaedra (Melina Mercoury) is a wife of a ship building magnate Thanos (Raf Vallon). She is put on a task by Thanos to bring back his art student son Alexis (Anthony Perkins) from London to join them in Greece for the Summer. Before she leaves, her long time family nanny warns her of her dream where two men were fighting over her. Phaedra is intrigued by the carefree young man who introduces an Aston Martin in the car shop windo as his 'gal'. While walking on London Bridge, in a stunt act to convince him, Phaedra throws her huge diamond ring over the bridge. They start a fiery affair after reuniting with Thanos in Paris, en route to Greece. Sensing that the affair is not going to end well, Phaedra begs Alexis not to come to Greece. He obliges while heartbroken and angry. But as fate would have it, Thanos, oblivious of what's going on, chastises Phaedra for not bringing back his son- the rightful heir of his empire and recalls him to Greece. Overjoyed yet guilt stricken, Phaedra has to content with shame, guilt, jealousy and burning desire while Alexis struggles to be free from all.

Dassin deftly directs this handsome, high melodrama. His wife and muse Melina Mercoury is marvelous as a tragic heroine with her striking features and Eartha Kitt purrs. Perkins has never been as charming and handsome as here. Loved it. I gotta check out some more Dassin.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Storytelling Experiment

The Ugly One (2013) - Baudelaire
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In this experiment, Baudelaire visualizes a story told, narrated by Masao Adachi, Japanese filmmaker/National Red Army terrorist. The Ugly One tells a Marienbad-esque tale of Michel and Lili, Lebanese guerrilla fighters and their chance meeting where they remember meeting each other but can't recall their memories. Something happened to their daughter. Was it a botched kidnapping and a car bomb plot? Adachi's personal experience and memories bleeds into the filmmaking. Against modern day Lebanon backdrop (and many bombed out locations), actors who play the roles acknowledge that they are improvising with given materials on camera at times. There are heated arguments amongst characters about the region's complicated political landscape. The current politics are reflected in the conversations as well. But like in Grandrieux's Masao Adachi elegy, It Maybe That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, Adachi, after all these years, remains a romantic at heart. Memories, regrets play a big part in The Ugly One. Here, Baudelaire makes an interesting and beautiful film from someone's old memories, but also succeeds in making the film being completely relevant in the world of today.

*I have only a couple of films left from Art of the Real series. As I said before, this series has been a treasure trove for me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Jungle Fever

Green Mansions (1959) - Ferrer
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I was browsing Tony Perkins's filmography on imdb and boy, he was such a dashing ladies' man. Too bad Psycho became such a career defining film for him. Green Mansions is a ridiculous adventure story in Amazon jungle shot in cinemascope. It stars Perkins as a privileged white boy, Abel, in Caracas who became a victim of a revolution there. He flees to the jungle and mingles in with a tribe of natives (chief and his son played by Sessue Hayakawa and always dependable ethnic man, Henry Silva) by proving his bravery (standing in one place and talking until collapsing)? He needs to find gold there, to take revenge on those revolutionaries who wronged his family or something. There is a forest nearby that is forbidden to enter by the tribesmen because there is a forest witch who lives there. She killed the chief's first son when he went in to the forest to hunt. The witch turns out to be animal loving Rima (Audrey Hepburn, playing the perfect, but sexless nymphet). For Abel, it's a love at first sight. He wants to get her out of the jungle. Rima's guardian/grandpa (Lee J Cobb) holds a dark secret and the bloodthirsty tribesmen in pursuit, and the jungle itself as adversary, the two lovebirds must make it or break it!

Sets and locations are pretty impressive. The credits indicate that they shot part of the film in Colombia, Venezuela and Guiana and it was one of the first cinemascope films. It also has wealth of set painting and campy effects. But I have to say it's pretty great.

Tony Perkins sings:

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sex, Lies and Audiotape

Suitcase of Love and Shame (2013) - Gillooly
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Sound can achieve greater things than moving pictures. Oftentimes I feel there is something crass about visual storytelling that leaves just too little to your imagination. In Suitcase of Love and Shame, Boston based filmmaker Jane Gillooly achieves something miraculous with the suitcase full of reel-to-reel audiotapes she found on ebay. With minimalistic accompanying visuals, Gillooly charts an intimate correspondences of two lovers. Tom and Jeanine, who lived in the Midwest in 1965. I guess a portable tape recorder was a brand new technology. I don't really know because I don't watch Mad Men. These lovebirds - Tom a married man (a pet doctor?) and Jeanine a widow, exchanged these audio letters instead of written ones. Their conversations are salacious and downright naughty. Tom, sounding like a cross between Sam Shepherd and Chet Baker with that unmistakable Midwest twang and Jeanine, a sweet natured all American mousy missus, exchange I love yous and delicious morsels of woos and coos. They sometimes record it together in their sinful hotel bedrooms.

What is ultimately a third rate, x-rated extra marital love affair with a predictably sad ending, Gillooly elevates it with slight visuals and some suggestive photos that real couple took during their meetings. Suitcase of Love and Shame enables our deep tendency toward voyeurism that Hitchcock could've only dreamed of achieving.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Japan Cuts 2014 Preview

JAPAN CUTS, a contemporary Japanese film festival provided by the venerable Japan Society, celebrates its 8th year here in NY. I got the first tastes of some of the most exciting new Japanese cinema to tell you about. After reading this, y'all mosey over to my friends at twitchfilm.com for complete coverage of Japan Cuts or visit Japan Society. Japan Cuts 2014 runs 7/10 - 7/20.

Neko Samurai
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A cute cat and a grumpy samurai...I mean, really? Japan, what took you so long?! Neko Samurai stars a mean faced ronin, Kyutaro (Kitamura Kazuki of The Raid 2, Man from Reno, Japan's Tragedy and the recipient of the Cut Above Awards at this year's Japan Cuts), looking for work in Edo. In the mean time, he ekes out a meager living making umbrellas. He is a fine swordsman but its his face that intimidates his enemies most. He is approached by a dog loving clan to assassinate a cat living in the house of a rivaling clan. The arranged marriage of two cats between the cat loving clan and shogun's will surely wipe out the dog loving clan! Kyutaro declines the job at first, but after seeing a large sum of rewards, he can't refuse. But once he sees the white cat, Tamanojoh, his heart melts. So he fakes the assassination and hides the cat in his boarding house with disastrous results - umbrellas ripped to shreds, cat pee on his bedspread...

Based on a TV series of the same name, Neko Samurai relies on its deadpan humor and of course, the adorableness of the white cat. Kitamura does a great job sustaining a straight face throughout the whole thing. Put down your swords and just look at that adorable cat's face. You will feel your murderous rage slipping away from your body. -- Dustin Chang

Japan Cuts 2014 celebrates Kitamura's career with candid introductions and Q&As for Man from Reno, Killers and Neko Samurai followed by the Japan CATS Party!


The Passion
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Frances-ko (Iwasa Mayuko) grew up in a convent. Since she is a virgin, she wants very much to have sexual experiences before she goes back to the convent when she gets old. But she doesn't really know the way of things in the world. Even though she works at a modeling agency, she has no idea how to talk to men. She asks men bluntly, "When our eyes met, did you think about having sex with me?" The answer is always no.

One day while praying, the answer comes down from below. It's a man faced tumor (hilarious Furutachi Kanji) that is attached to her vagina. He taunts her everyday, telling her how worthless she is as a woman. Now jobless, collecting garbage on the street (to be useful in some way, in her words), Frances-ko, just like anything in her life, accepts the trash talking tumor on her vagina with her typical nonchalance. She names the growth Mr. Koga and so begins an unusual symbiotic relationship between a woman and a tumor. Will Frances-ko finally find happiness?

Based on a prize winning novel of the same by Himeno Kaoruki, The Passion is a very funny and surprisingly tender film anchored by Iwasa's great performance as a naive woman who accepts the world as it comes to her.


Greatful Dead
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Touching upon ills of the society, Uchida Eiji's Greatful Dead is a dark comedy (emphasis on dark). Nami (Takiuchi Kumi), an attention starved girl grows up to be a sociopath who spies on people she calls 'solitarians' - unfortunate souls who (nearly) went mad out of loneliness. She finally finds her match in Shiomi (Sasano Takashi), a cranky elderly man and former TV star, living alone after his wife's death. She relishes obsessively on his every move through her binoculars. Things get up close and personal when Shiomi is approached by a comely Korean Christian volunteer Su-yong (Kkot-bi Kim from Breathless) who turns him into a life-affirming, bible quoting Christian. Nami can't stand losing her favorite solitarian and takes a drastic measure to reclaim her prized possession. Things turn violent, very very violent.

Uchida sets up Nami's story nicely and wins over our sympathy early on, thanks to Takiuchi Kumi's physical performance and deadly smile, only to turn it upside down later on. The growing number of shut ins and elderly people is a real problem and Uchida is not afraid of pursuing the touchy subject to extreme. It's a sickly entertaining film.


Hello! Junichi
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Ishii Katsuhito, the man behind Taste Of Tea and Funky Forest, makes an unabashedly children's movie, starring the scrumptious Mitsushima Hikari (Love Exposure, Sawako Decides) as a chain smoking, unorthodox teacher in training at an Elementary School.

The film features trials and tribulations of a shy and awkward 3rd grader, Junichi and his ragtag group of friends. This is the time when borrowing an animal-shaped eraser from a girl you have a crush on is as much a big deal as, I don't know, being a goalie at a World Cup shootout.

The only "Ishii-ness" comes from the dance sequence performed by Ishii regular Gashuin Tatsuya, playing once again, the weird grandfather. Extremely good natured and optimistic, Hello! Junichi is a movie for kids starring kids. If you enjoy listening to high-pitched shrills of 9 year old munchkins for 90 minutes, this movie is for you.



Direct Cinema

Alone (2013) - Wang
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No wonder Wang Bing is regarded as the best documentarian in the world and perhaps the most important Chinese director working today. Alone, a shorter version of his 2 1/2 hr film Three Sisters, hits all the right notes on what I love about observational documentary and Wang's is as real and direct as it gets. Alone shows three sisters, age 10, 6 and 4, living in a remote highland in Yunan Province. They live like orphans. Their mother long gone, father works in another city and seldom visits them. They mooch off of their aunt and work, especially the oldest, Yin- tending various farm herds, vegetable gardens, building fire, cooking and dish washing, laundry. She also takes care of rambunctious younger siblings all by herself.

Father comes in, bringing new shoes and clothes and takes two young ones with him to the city. Yin stays with her grandfather, attends Elementary school. All this time, she never complains. There are shots of her alone, being the oldest, lonely 10 year old in the world. Then there are glimpses of her that shows that she still is a child, like when she plays with a clear plastic sheet as a toy. Their abject poverty is not the main draw here. Rather, it's their innocence and resilience. So much beauty in display in Alone. There is beauty in the girl's faces, in hearth, in the mountains, in Yin's loneliness, in steam rising from the rice bowl, in tattered rain boots, in Yin's cursing, in every frame of Alone.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Ascension

Manakamana (2013) - Spray, Velez
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Havard Sensory Ethnography Lab, responsible for Sweetgrass and Leviathan, strikes again with Pacho Velez and Stephanie Spray's Manakamana, a film that leaves you in a metaphysical haze. The temple of the Goddess Manakamana is a coveted Hindu pilgrimage site that can be reached by 8 1/2 minutes of jarring cable car ride. With the film camera firmly placed in the center seat of the cable car, it records pilgrims' ascension/descension uncut. It's a totally unique experience: some pilgrims talk during the ride and some don't. As they admire the lush green forest below, the cable car moves in breakneck speed. The subjects are mostly stationary, perfectly framed by the car's window but the background keeps moving, giving it an otherworldly quality, contrasting with their chit-chats which are decidedly earthbound. The film's so simple in its concept yet so profound. Thoroughly absorbing, but my favorite ride is two old Indian ladies eating ice cream bars, laughing all the way down.

Ever since I missed it at NYFF last year, and again at Art of the Real series, for me, this film has been the most anticipated and it didn't disappoint!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Sorrows of Young Werther on his bike

Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw (2004) - Wakamatsu
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Since it is by late Koji Wakamatsu, romanticism of a road movie is absent in Cycling Chronicles (but beautiful scenery and poeticism still remain). Instead, the national guilt weighs heavily on him and his protagonist, a reserved 17 year-old kid (Tasuku Emoto) on his bike, running away from an unspeakable crime.

In an effort to bridge the generation gap, Wakamatsu places a couple of old characters on the road to talk about Japanese war crimes and how imperialism, helped by the US policy, created hollow culture and selfish post-war generation. Even though based on a real life crime story where a teenager killed his mother, Wakamatsu shows great sympathy for the younger generation. He understands the burden of living a pre-destined life and the pressure of conforming to the rigid society. Early in the film there is a scene where teenagers talk about headlines after headlines of teens going berserk and how understandable it is to be ticked off and going over the edge.

The silent kid's internal monologue is kept at minimum, only occasionally surfacing in the forms of written letters on screen and voice overs. Fresh faced young Emoto does an amazing job conveying frustration, loneliness but surprising amount of compassion and understanding too. Cycling Chronicles is a heartbreaking rendition of a lost soul in a country riddled with guilt and despair that is rarely seen in contemporary Japanese cinema. You will be missed Wakamatsu-san.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Subterranean Homesick Alien

Under the Skin (2013) - Glazer
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When David Lynch stopped making films, it was a big blow for me. Thank god there is Jonathan Glazer. Even though it's been 9 years since Birth, Under the Skin restored my faith in art films. There is not really an adequate comparison one can give for this film. Stripped down(!) to something more primal, devoid of any symbolism or allusions to anything, Under the Skin is a unique, standalone experience to be had. Yes that it features Scarlett Johansson who possesses, according to Woody Allen, 'overwhelming sexuality', as an alien, and that it beckons to be seen as an allegory of Hollywood stardom. But Under the Skin feels like something more. With arresting images and hypnotic soundtrack, the film is one of the most singularly mesmerizing movie watching experience I've had in a long time.